The Cardigans: Songs from beyond the comfort zone

The band's growing pains have helped them to produce a record that takes risks. They tell almost all to James Mcnair
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The Independent Culture

Wan but handsome, friendly yet wary, the guitarist says that his girlfriend (ex-MTV presenter Ulrika Eriksson) will be delighted that their caffeine-supplying gizmo has been repaired. A casual enquiry as to the name of his and Eriksson's new baby son is soon rebuffed, however, Svensson setting the ground rules early: "I don't talk about that. It's just a decision I made. You can call him Bob, though. Bob is good."

Bassist Magnus Sveningsson - 6ft 6in, tangible air of "been there, done that" wisdom - is also present this afternoon, as is The Cardigans' glamorous singer, Nina Persson, her thick, black eyeliner giving her the look of a curiously svelte panda. Persson has come straight from filming a guest slot on the national arts show TV-huset, and still seems put out by the programme's angle. "It was freaky," she says. "They went to my home town to interview my old driving instructor. Now everybody in Sweden knows it took me three attempts to pass my test."

Persson's home town - and that of her four band mates - is Jonkoping, a small settlement east of Gothenburg. The town's most remarkable feature is its 52 churches, and it has been said that Jonkoping is to Sweden's Christians what Salt Lake City is to the USA's Mormons.

In 1992, when Svensson, Sveningsson and Persson formed The Cardigans with drummer Bengt Lagerberg and keyboardist Lasse Johansson, the quintet bonded around the fact that their parents had all left the local church. Though 1998's breakthrough album, Gran Turismo, would later showcase the band's potent if innocuous pop sensibility, their early influences were the cause of some concern for Jonkoping's more pious. Persson has often said that Black Sabbath (whose song "Changes" The Cardigans have covered live) was one of the first groups she fell in love with; Svensson and Sveningsson loved Metallica; and Svensson still has the Kiss tattoo he acquired as a young man.

"There were plenty of rock bands in Jonkoping, but they were all singing about Jesus, which we found hugely unattractive," says Persson.

"If you weren't into religion there was nothing else to do," adds Svensson. "That gave us a real incentive to form a band and play our own music on a Friday night, while everybody else was at church."

The Cardigans' early exposure to evangelical Christianity is partly explored on "Godspell", a raucous power-pop track from their new album, Super Extra Gravity. Persson says she had the Emmylou Harris song "Jerusalem Tomorrow" in mind ("It's quite heavy, because she compares Jesus to a clown, more or less"), but that "Godspell" is about her own disrespect for organised religion and "those in power in America who disguise politics as Christianity".

You sense that The Cardigans are currently undergoing growing pains. Six albums to the good and now mostly in their early thirties, they are juggling parenthood and pop stardom, band loyalty and individual interests. Svensson, Lagerburg and Johansson have all become new fathers recently, while Persson says she will try for children in a year or so.

What's rarely reported regarding the group's internal politics is that a version of Persson's solo album (her lauded collaboration with songwriter Niclas Frisk was recorded under the band name/album title A Camp) was ready by 1998, yet had its release postponed until 2001 because Stockholm Records' Ola Hakansson feared it would clash with The Cardigans' Gran Turismo. Miffed at the time, Persson had considered leaving the group. However, a communal stint partying, fighting and making up at a rented house in Santa Monica, California, later convinced the band that their long-standing ties had to be preserved.

Resolving, in the process, to make the masterpiece they believed themselves capable of, The Cardigans then did just that. Released in 2003, Long Gone Before Daylight sold about 500,000 copies to Gran Turismo's 2.5 million, but critics were smitten by the newer record's raft of masterfully crafted songs, these variously betraying The Cardigans' love of Neil Young, The Pretenders, Fleetwood Mac and, yes, Abba. Long Gone... was an album to be immensely proud of, then, but having bagged their magnum opus, what could they do next?

"At first we thought Super Extra Gravity was going to sound pretty similar," says Svensson, "but that all changed when we brought Tore Johannson back in. His idea was to take us out of our comfort zone. We wanted to make a riskier record where every song had something a bit twisted or spectacular."

Johansson, previously the band's long-term producer, had begun work on Long Gone Before Daylight. "But he didn't have the patience or the interest to make that kind of record," says Sveningsson, "so he quit after two months." "We'd kept an eye on what he was doing, though," chips in Svensson, "and when we saw him working with Franz Ferdinand, we thought: 'Oh, that's interesting - Tore must have the patience to capture a band performance again.' "

Sveningsson: "Then one day we were rehearsing in this space two blocks from Tore's studio that didn't have any toilets. We rang on his bell and said: 'Hi! It's The Cardigans here. Do you mind if all five of us come up and pee?' " Svensson: "While we were there we asked what he thought about producing us again."

Super Extra Gravity has polarised critics. Svensson's abrasive, almost Sonic Youth-like guitar solo on "Godspell" is typical of an album that constantly cuts to the chase, but for all its vibrancy, Super Extra Gravity can't match the slow-release, melodic weight of Long Gone..., an album that was built to last.

While Persson's lyrics on Long Gone... sometimes had a winning, person-writing-in her-second-language idiosyncrasy, the new album's "Good Morning Joan" sounds like an unfruitful run-in with her rhyming dictionary - despite help from her American-born husband, the film music composer Nathan Larson.

More interesting is Persson's lyric for "I Need A Fine Wine, And You, You Need To Be Nicer", the singer barking: "Lapdog / bad dog! / sit!" But whom is the song's admonishing title directed at?

"Oh... Nathan says people must think we hate each other when they hear that song, but maybe that's why we're doing so well - we get it all out in bitter Cardigans lyrics."

Persson freely admits that she finds it hard to write about anything other than human relationships. Still, the new album's standout track, "Don't Blame Your Daughter (Diamonds)", seemingly directed at mum, Anna, is heart-on-sleeve even by her standards. The singer also concedes that she will find it hard to keep her emotions in check when she performs the song live.

"It's extremely personal, but I wasn't particularly aware of that when I was writing it. Afterwards it was like holy fuck! What am I saying here? I suppose it's about taking responsibility for your own life. Most people are familiar with the search to find something that you can finally blame everything on, or the need to turn to someone else to do things for you. I've had friends who've been in therapy. I tried it but I quit. People spend thousands, and after seven years they haven't changed at all. I went for depression, simply. But when I came out of my depression, I quit. Certain things you just have to deal with on your own."

Can they imagine a time when The Cardigans will shut up shop? "It's a scary question," Sveningsson says. "I've thought about and even sometimes wished for The Cardigans to end, but what would I do? Open a restaurant?"

"For me, it would be a happy day," says Persson, more ominously. "If it was no longer right for us to work together, there would be nothing scary about it. It would be sad, of course. But when I imagine that day, I also imagine that we would remain friends."

'Super Extra Gravity' is out now on Stockholm Records/Universal