Most Americans' notions of Sweden involve blond bombshells in bikinis or peace-loving liberals with a rigid stance on neutrality. So, what kind of visions do the Swedes have of us?
"We usually call Sweden 'Little America,'" jokes Jesper Anderberg, synthesizer whiz for the Sounds. "We have great architecture, we have great food, and we have our own history that we should definitely take care of and be aware that we have. But instead, we use a lot of American traditions nowadays. For instance, Halloween has never been big in Sweden, but now it's starting to get pretty big there. It's fun to do it here in the States, but they try to do the same thing in Sweden, and it's a bit ridiculous."
Anderberg's accent is thickly Scandinavian, with exaggerated syllables and a particular diction that makes him sound much more intellectual than the average rock dude. A native Swede, he comes from a country that has strict caps on health-care costs, approves of same-sex unions and has one of the world's highest life expectancies. As good of a good life as he and his countrymen enjoy, though, our fertilizer-pumped grass apparently still looks greener.
"A lot of people in the suburbs, they walk around and dress like American people and talk like American people, you know, the whole cool ghetto language," Anderberg muses, his voice lacking in any sarcastic undertones. "I like hip-hop -- a lot of hip-hop -- but you don't have to go around and dress up like it and pretend that you're some weird dude from Bronx or whatever."
The New York reference stings with delightful irony. Lead vocalist Maja Ivarsson, with her platinum locks and impossibly good looks, is a dead ringer for a certain famous Blondie from NYC, while the rest of the band -- Anderberg, guitarist Felix Rodriguez, bassist Johan Bengtsson and drummer Fredrik Nilsson -- crank out disco-savvy punk that channels the hugely influential mid-'80s CBGB scene. But these Swedish rockers aren't overtly trying to renew an old wave; rather, they're making the dirty modern pop that their musical grandparents in ABBA never did.
Formed in the small city of Helsingborg, Sweden, the five-piece came together in 1999 from varied backgrounds. Anderberg bided his time between various electronic acts and a "black metal rock band." Rodriguez, meanwhile, drummed in a death-metal outfit before eventually founding the Sounds with childhood friend Bengtsson, rounding out the lineup with the classically trained Ivarsson and Nilsson -- who later paired up in their own way and began dating.
Living in America, which was recorded in Stockholm, debuted in late 2002 and catapulted the band to instant fame. The record's upbeat danceable hits garnered the group a Swedish Grammy and a few other best-newcomer awards, peaking at number four on the album charts. After winning over the locals, the Sounds headed across the Atlantic to record their sophomore effort, Dying to Say This to You, with producer Jeff Saltzman, known for his work with the Killers, Two Gallants and the Black Keys. Despite taking place within the sunny environs of northern California, the sessions were tinged with boy-girl drama, as Ivarsson and Nilsson had recently broken up. But in the archetypal Swedish manner, the two called an armistice and managed to keep most of their personal issues outside of the studio.
Dying, released earlier this year, hasn't received quite the same acclaim as its predecessor, but it generated enough of a buzz to land the band dates on the Vans Warped Tour, several late-night television appearances and singles on hyped-up movie soundtracks like Snakes on a Plane. The album also helped expand the band's notoriety in Tinseltown, reportedly making fans out of the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Pharrell Williams, Britney Spears and even famed Jackass Bam Margera.
The Sounds now seem poised to lead the next wave of art-house indie dance music. Slimming down the electronica just enough to rock out, the group is careful to avoid overkill on its processed guitar work. And the ballad-esque quality of tracks like "Night After Night" have that sort of Cyndi Lauper cheesiness that's uniquely lacking in the brooding egos of similar acts such as the Faint or Interpol. Add to that a vicious and raucous live show that floors most spectators and includes silly on-stage antics like walking out to Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" or the "Mexican Hat Dance," and the Sounds just might be one of the most interesting exports to ever come out of Sweden.
Before they could be heard outside of their native environs, however, the Sounds had to make some concessions -- like writing and singing all their songs in English, a decision that Anderberg insists wasn't calculated. "We didn't discuss it," he asserts. "It was a very natural thing. We were brought up with English. English is such a universal language. You can see that when you go to Europe. People in France, they suck at English. They don't even want to speak it. Germans are more open to try it, but they are pretty bad as well. I don't know why, but we sound pretty good."
Nonetheless, the group was well aware of the limitations that singing in their native tongue imposed.
"We didn't want to be stuck in Sweden," Anderberg acknowledges. "A lot of Swedish bands that sing in Swedish can, like, tour Sweden for a couple of weeks, and then they're done. We want to be an international band. You connect people with language. That's probably the most positive thing about it."
Besides, he points out, as Swedish southerners, the quintet is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to pronunciation.
"I don't think that we are a band that would be good singing in Swedish," he adds, enunciating all his vowels, "because we are from the southern part of Sweden, and it sounds weird when we sing. It's very hard to make it work with that accent. Rock music with that accent is going to be bullshit."
In spite of their efforts to appeal to English-speaking audiences, the members of the Sounds are still firmly invested in the affairs of their homeland. While on tour in Finland during Sweden's last election, for example, they went to the Swedish embassy in Helsinki and exercised their right to vote. And although America's title track has been misinterpreted as an ode to the American mainstream, the song was actually written as a starkly downbeat commentary on the ever-increasing influence of Western culture on the local populace of Sweden.
"It's very Americanized," Anderberg concludes. "We have all your TV shows, like the Simpsons and Seinfeld, you know; we started watching that when we were pretty young. We are very oppressed by the States living in Sweden, which I think we should tone down a bit. People in Sweden dream about going to the States, like, 'Yeah, we're going to go to Starbucks!'"
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