The early 2000s were the golden age of Swedish pop, thanks in large part to the Concretes. Their self-titled debut, released in 2002, and a string of albums and EPs by contemporaries like Club 8, Jens Lekman, and Peter, Bjorn and John that year and in the few years after made a sort of dreamy bed of vaguely tropical, vaguely dancey, vaguely depressed music that seems to radiate from the universe when you’re young and constantly in and out of love (and drunk in between).
But, of course, you can’t be young forever. Bands put out terrible records, they break up, they move on to other projects. It seemed like this had happened to The Concretes. Lead singer Victoria Bergsmann left in 2006 to make music inspired by Pakistani qawwali music (and disco). The band quickly released a new record with drummer Lisa Milberg stepping in on vocals, but it was never released in the U.S., and the other members got increasingly preoccupied with other things. That seemed to be that.
Except. Except that The Concretes have a new record, WYHY, out this month. And it’s every bit as good as anything they’ve ever put out, sounding like a report from a mostly-happy ghost at a an all-night party. Here, via an e-mail interview, new vocalist (and original member) Lisa Milberg, piano and horn player Ludvig Rylander, and organist Per Nyström talk about Rubix Cubes, loneliness, and recording their first album in three years.
Aside from the fact that it's easier to talk than to write, it’s really hard to have an interesting and authentic conversation over e-mail, even with people you love. What are your thoughts on intimacy? Can you be intimate with someone, even from far away?
Ludvig Rylander: Of course. Sometimes intimacy comes easier when you are far away.
Lisa Milberg: I need a voice. I wouldn't wanna try to maintain an intimacy over e-mails. After a while you start reading the words back in a different voice, and it distorts the message too much. A voice changes everything.
Describe the room you’re in.
LR: Typical American kitchen. On a stool, MacBook on the marble-top bar.
LM: I am in my mother's bedroom. I'm staying in her flat in Stockholm for a while, and she gave me the master bedroom. My mom is ace. I'm sat on her king-size bed next to a window overlooking a quiet street. It's late at night, and all I can hear is the clock on the wall and my typing.
Tell me one thing you can see out your window, if there is a window.
LR: Blue sky and the beautiful rolling hills of southern Oregon.
LM: Parked cars, and on the other side of the street, sleeping houses. I count 10 lit windows in the whole block. I love nights.
Per Nyström: I can see a house filled with blind people. They are my neighbors. Luckily, they can't see me.
Your new album sounds a little lonely. Are The Concretes lonely?
PN: Isn't everyone?
LR: Everyone is lonely, all the time.
LM: I'll second that. Or third that?
It’s obviously been a while since The Concretes put out an album. Why did you feel the need to go back after so long?
LR: It's not so much about going back than it is about moving forward. Everything has its own time.
LM: Surely the question is what took us so long. We were fed up with each other to be honest. And busy doing other things. And generally out of sync.
Did it feel natural to be back together again, recording, or was it a bit odd?
LR: The process was a bit different this time, because we worked in smaller groups and on different locations. Some of us took less part in the sessions, and some of us were there all the time. A lot of creative work happened in the mixing. A bit different, yes, but I wouldn't describe it as odd.
LM: I find it's always a bit weird when we meet up after a long time apart, but it's usually a matter of minutes before we're back on track. At least musically. I might play the rest of the band a song I've been working on, and they listen. The moment I'm done they play it back to me the way it's always sounded in my head. And each time that happens I realize there are no people quite like the other Concretes. Musically we're always very close and very intuitive. It's simple once we decide to go there.
Is your creative process different without Victoria Bergsmann?
PN: I think the creative process has been different for all of our albums, with or without Victoria. This time it's different since we have worked so much in smaller groups. But there is no right or wrong way to make an album, I think.
LM: My part is, of course, more dramatically different. Even if we all write music and work on arrangements, the vocal melodies and the words are down to me. It means the music is in my head all the time, and I can't turn it on and off like I used to. Everything gets more precious, but I also find it a nicer place to be. I feel more in control, and I recognize the end result much more than I used to.
I absolutely love the video of you guys performing in that boat (off the coast of Finland, I believe). Would you perform all of your concerts in boats, if it were feasible? I would like that.
LR: I love boats. I want to spend as much time as possible onboard.
LM: And I love the ocean, so I think we might be on to something here. We've played on boats maybe six times -- this boat you saw was the best one thus far, I think. Actually it was one of the best days I'd had in a long time. We should keep looking for better boats.
PN: Well, I would do it if I don't have to do it on a ferry filled with drunk students on a 24-hour cruise to buy cheap alcohol and party like pigs. Which we did once.
For a while around the turn of the century, The Concretes were really at the forefront of this modern-Swede-indie-music movement. Was that something you were conscious of? Did it affect you in any way?
LR: It didn't affect us directly but certainly indirectly. It was a good time to set out to counquer the world if you happened to be a pop band from Sweden, but we would have done what we did anyway. Somehow.
LM: I didn't think about it much. It was pretty much all we knew, too, because it happened to us with our debut album. So we formed a band and put out a record and then we were on the cover of The Guardian. So I think we assumed that was what being in a band was like. I'm glad we didn't pay too much attention to it, but of course it also means I remember very little from that time. I just walked around looking at my own feet. Except from when we got to L.A., when I just looked at the sky.
That whole movement has kind of gone away, with bands either becoming more mainstream or far more esoteric. Why do you think that is?
LR: I disagree. If there ever was a specific movement, I guess it moved on (which should be the point of all movements). "Mainstream" and "esoteric" don't necessarily have to be opposites, but rather exist side by side and make music and art more exciting.
PN: Well, it's natural that some bands become mainstream or dissolve, but lots of them don't, which I think we are a good example of. And I think the scene in Sweden is quite vital at the moment. There are bands everywhere. But the so called "Swindie wave" is probably over, which is nothing I mourn, to be honest.
LM: I don't think Sweden has ever sounded better than it does right now. But I suppose there is less of a movement and more different bands doing their own and often really quite unique thing. It makes me very proud to be Swedish. Considering what a small country we are, it's almost like there is something in the water. Or maybe it's the fact that there is really nothing in the water apart from water, which is rare, right?
I got obsessed with this show New Scandinavian Cooking over the summer. They cook modern Scan cuisine outside in different places in Sweden, Norway, etc. It looks really beautiful there, but your food all looks terrible. Are you a fan of herring? Is that kind of food home-y to you, or like weird things that your parents like?
LM: I love pickled herring. It's excellent. It's the best cure for a hangover and it tastes of childhood, of Christmas, of summer and salt. They say hunger is the best spice. Obviously salt is even better.
PN: I love herring more than anything in the world. Except perhaps salmon.
I love what I’m guessing is WYWH's cover art (a barren tree at the seaside). Could you tell me a bit about it? Who made it? How did you pick it?
LM: I'm glad you like it! I'm crazy about it! It's a century-old painting that belongs to my mother's boyfriend. I had been looking everywhere for the perfect image. I knew I wanted Stockholm, and I had a feeling I wanted a painting rather that a photo, but I had people send me anything they had or could think of on a Swedish theme. The moment I saw this, I knew it was perfect. The colors felt just right, and the site where it's painted is right by our studio. It really shows our Stockholm. And the lonely tree, the ocean and city in the background, just seemed to if not scream then at least whisper WYWH. It really felt like finding the missing piece.
While we’re at it, what does WYWY mean?
PN: The official meaning is Wish You Were Here, but feel free to interpret that letter combination any way you want.
LM: We kept it to the initials for it to mean exactly what you want it to mean. I really do like the phrase "wish you were here," though. To me it says so much about humankind. About love and longing but also about how hard it is to exist in the now. I think that is my saddest thing, that it's so hard to just -- to quote Oasis -- be here now. I keep romanticizing things that have been or longing for things, people, feelings yet to come. I find it very frustrating and sad.
And that the phrase is so commonly used on postcards is weird I think. It's really saying, "Things are beautiful here, but I still think of you all the time," isn't it? Which sums up our album quite neatly, I think.
What’s one thing you used to have that you’ve lost that you wish you could find again?
LM: All the money I've spent on cigarettes.
PN: I miss my Rubik's Cube I used to have in the '80s.
LM: I also miss my friend William. He's around, I just don't see him anymore.