Sweden has always had a strong DIY culture. Look no further than the brand name most famously exported from the Scandinavians, IKEA, for an indication of the trait. Easy, self-assembled and stylish furniture, much like the music that the nations independent scene has made its name with. Where the status quo of mainstream pop music in most other countries is that of record executives with dollar signs for pupils and the incendiary scorn of independent/niche fans, Sweden owes a huge part of its musical history to the genre; ask anyone to name a Swedish artist and seminal pop act ABBA will undoubtedly fall from their lips, and for good reason. ABBA may in fact have been the most important group ever to emerge out of the country. As well as lighting the world up with hustle inducing hits like “Waterloo” and “Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)”, they encouraged a nation to let loose their inhibitions and muster up the confidence to write music in English; simple, excellent pop songs, kooky accent and all. Bands like Roxette (of “Listen to your Heart” fame) and The Cardigans followed suit, creating intelligent, accessible pop that lit up the charts throughout the 90’s, with the former registering four #1 singles in the US and dozens more UK Top 40 hits.
Looking specifically at the contemporary state of the independent scene, you wouldn’t have to go further than the most popular acts signed to figurehead independent label Labrador Records for an indication of the pop mission statement passed down from the original mainstream stalwarts. Where the country may be renowned for cold, dark winter days, a purveyor belt of artists have recently emerged eternally suspended in mid-summer sunshine, striking a much stronger note than those trapped in the cold gloom of todays recession-depressed society. Bands like Air France and jj (and so many more) dive down into the salty depths of the Mediterranean and emerge with their own spin on balearic and tropical synthtastic nothingness, doing away with the thoughts of a 6-month winter and instead reveling in the warm breeze of the beaches of Alicante, while others like Love Is All revel in reintroducing their own brand of happy-go-lucky new wave to everybody who missed it the first time it was reintroduced.
Even when not relentlessly optimistic, the reach of bands like The Radio Dept. and The Mary Onettes into the darker side of their conscious stops somewhere between distant and shrugged-off melancholy, never really delving into anything more than being slightly sad but still pretty ok. In fact, The Knife’s Silent Shout may be one of the few records in recent memory to really channel the cold climate into music just as icy; everyone else seems too keen to forget about it. And all this before you get to the alpha-male of Scandinavian pop inclinations (diabetics look away): twee. Second only to the UK in the twee-pop standings, Sweden’s take on it is less Belle and Sebastian’s brand of melancholy (perfect, glorious melancholy) and more unapologetically sprightly, glowing with things to say and people to see, busybody sugar sweet twee as exemplified by acts like Acid House Kings (complete with ironic band name). More recent artists like Sambassadeur and the ever-pleasant Jens Lekman continue the trend with as much appreciation as newly-turned fans, the formers recent album European emerging as a retro-styled tribute to their love for the genre.
It seems like Gothenburg, undoubtedly the musical hub of the country along with Stockholm, is being torn between two extremes: on one side it’s traditionally the home of its own brand of death metal and continues to be a hotspot for kids in black military boots and spiked armbands to find themselves through blastbeats and illegal Russian vodka, and on the other there’s this burgeoning onslaught of artists doing exactly the opposite. There’s something decidedly happier about the newest batch of Swedish indie stars and it’s a trait that highlights a stark contrast with the already renowned metal scene and the large but much less internationally exported punk/hardcore scene (Refused, Millencolin…Rebuke?). Sincerely Yours, arguably the second biggest Swedish indie label (second to Labrador), is based in Gothenburg and along with them and their acts, more than half of Labrador’s artists call the city home. What’s worrisome is that if Sputnik’s taught us anything, it’s that by pairing stubborn, overtly-aggressive metalheads with outspoken, whimsical hipsters, you’re asking for trouble. Should the metalheads start burning down record labels and indie venues like churches, the indie kids will almost certainly have their sarcastic blog posts waiting.
However, until that implosion of skinny jeans and Satanism, the Swedish indie scene looks set to continue its steady swell, exporting acts like The Tallest Man on Earth to foreign labels, while welcoming artists like Memory Tapes and Harlem into their line ups. Though it’s sad to see talented and innovative acts like Kent resign to purely national success due to their Swedish-language songwriting, those who embrace English (and frankly, the majority of young Swedes have quite good grasps of it) are being duly rewarded both nationally and internationally; a positive indication of the talent hiding in a deceptively creative nation. I didn’t think I would ever say this (especially not after seeing Mamma Mia) but here it is: thank you ABBA.