By Marissa R. Moss; Photos by Marc Lemoine on November 13, 2012
An interesting thing happens once a year in Borlänge, a nondescript town in central Sweden known mainly for slaughterhouses and factories: for three days, it’s inundated with a slew of top-notch bands and thousands of fans who twist and swirl to the music with the aid of glitter, face paint and a happy load of happier drugs. It’s called the Peace & Love festival, and it’s not unlike Bonnaroo—except there’s no Waffle House nearby. This is where Niki and The Dove’s singer Malin Dahlström and instrumentalist Gustaf Karlöf are today, covered in fluorescent streaks and ribbons, minutes before they take the stage. And they’re pumped, but not just for their own set, or even to be back in their home country. “We are most excited to see Rihanna!” Dahlström says in soft-spoken, Scandinavian-tinged English.
Before landing in Sweden they’d been traipsing the globe, playing everywhere from Alabama to Finland to New York City. In the last of these shows, where they performed to a sold-out crowd while wearing floral headdresses and creepy masks, they gorged themselves on local cuisine and sought refuge at Smalls, the legendary underground jazz club.
“We played twice a day,” Dahlström says of the tour, “so it was a very good thing to run down those stairs at Smalls and sort of wash out the brain.”
“It was some heavy neo-pop jazz music,” Karlöf adds. He’s a big fan of the genre, counting Keith Jarrett, Duke Ellington and Bill Evans as favorites. But talking about jazz is the only time you can get either member of Niki and The Dove to mention any specific musical tastes or touch points willingly. They hate classification and would rather point to other artistic elements to define the inspiration for their music, which is powerful, electro-fueled proto-pop as cheerfully unpredictable as it is infinitely catchy—not to mention danceable. While Björk, Robyn and Zola Jesus have been thrown around as contemporaries, the duo don’t like to name names.
“We don’t do it to be difficult,” Dahlström explains. “But the intent for music comes subconsciously, and the influence can be from a painting, an exhibition, a book you read—any of those can be the spark.”
“And you can get inspiration from a feeling in everyday life, or a spot on the wall,” Karlöf says, continuing the thought. “There is so much going on around us, you just have to open your mind and be receptive.” He pauses for a minute. “Receptive. Is that the right word?”
“Perceptive?” Dahlström suggests, after muttering something in Swedish.
It could easily be both—their music hits on all senses and many at once: rapid-fire, militia dancefloor, heartbeat drumbeat. But it’s not so esoteric that it can’t find a home on pop radio. In fact, if Lady Gaga claims to be the quirky disco queen for the iPod generation, Niki and The Dove live that label: their debut LP, Instinct, came out digitally in June, and the first single, “DJ Ease My Mind,” is a crunchy spinner that blends a rainforest thump, German synths and a chorus that could have both club kids and Spring Breakers jumping.
So just who is Niki? Well, no one really, at least as far as they’ll ever say—even their label, Sub Pop, has barely been clued in. But Niki and The Dove, the band and the idea, began in Gothenburg, Sweden, in 2010, where Karlöf and Dahlström met through friends.
“We thought maybe we should write together,” Karlöf recalls, “but it is a serious thing…it’s not as easy as sitting down with anyone. We felt a kinship and had the same goals and vision about the music that we wanted to make.” Though Dahlström didn’t know it, she’d been scouted years before: Karlöf had seen her on stage with a previous band and been entranced. “I remember thinking, I want to be that piano player. I wanted to be with her right away.”
Niki and The Dove describe their process as wordless, almost otherworldly. They try not to talk about music—Karlöf gives one example of when the duo attempted to discuss a song idea. Walking around the city, a fight erupted. But when they started playing, it clicked. They understood instantly. “That’s why we make music, so we don’t have to use words,” he says. Except, of course, when singing: Dahlström’s lyrics are ambient, mysterious and in off-kilter English, often about nature.
So it makes sense that she would notice the distinct landscape in Seattle, while visiting Sub Pop. “The trees there are huge!” she says with an uncharacteristic burst of excitement. “When they have a mountain, it is really a mountain!”
But there’s one thing about Seattle that’s really got them fired up: “Is it true that Twin Peaks was recorded there?” Karlöf asks semi-rhetorically. “We are big fans of David Lynch!” And why wouldn’t they be? Both artists make dark and harmonious blasts of pop culture in Technicolor brights, dancing on a stage in the middle of Borlänge, Seattle or your weirdest dreams. F
This article is from FILTER Issue 49