You're the Swedish thing

First it was Volvos, then it was Abba. Now the psychedelic rock of the Soundtrack of Our Lives is set to invade the UK. Gavin Martin comes face to face with Sweden's latest export
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The Independent Culture

Ebbot Lundberg, a big, bearded, bear-like figure clad in a billowing black smock, resembles a cross between Captain Beefheart and a mediaeval Nordic shaman. Ebbot is the frontman and co-founder of Sweden's premier psychedelic rockers the Soundtrack of Our Lives. His name means Thunder Bear, and for the past 15 years he's been a catalytic figure in the land that rock'n'roll forgot.

His first band, Union Carbide Productions – art-punk terrorists named after the company responsible for the Bhopal chemical disaster, who numbered Nirvana among their international cult following – fell apart in a mess of drug abuse and mental illness. Ebbot holds himself responsible for the Carbide casualties, and, despite playing over 200 gigs with TSOOL last year, he still managed to find time to relocate from his native Gothenburg to Stockholm. The reason he moved is to help some of his former band-members set up a 21st-century Swedish version of Warhol's Factory, located in – you guessed it – a disused carbide factory.

"We had the opening night just before Christmas – with 3,000 people going crazy. It was just noise, movies reflected on the walls, a happening, maybe the start of something completely new," he says with a glint in his eyes.

Within TSOOL and the evolving collaborations in the Swedish music scene, a work rate that would make the average Britpopper queasy is commonplace. As Ebbot holds court backstage after a charismatic performance in Malmo, Mattias Hellberg – who plays in a jazz duo with TSOOL's keyboardist, Martin Hederos – and TSOOL's bass-player Kalle Gustafsson are chatting to local star Nina Persson, the Cardigans' singer who is also the front person in their extracurricular band A Camp. For their part, Hederos and Hellberg are discussing a forthcoming European tour with Ryan Adams, on which they will promote their third album. Drummer Fredrik Sandsten, who has recently played on a chart-topping record with a Swedish Schlager (cheesy Nordic Europop) performer, is talking to Freddie Wadling. The latter is one of several semi-legendary lost figures from the Swedish underground; his career has been hampered by autism, but his transfixing guest slot tonight complemented Lundberg's mix of madcap spectacle and incantatory rage.

"Sweden is a country almost twice the size of England, with a population the size of London," explains Sandsten. "It's only natural that musicians get to know each other and help each other."

In Britain, the Hives' 100,000-selling debut, Your New Favourite Band, a compilation culled from their previous Swedish releases, has rescued Alan McGee's Poptones label from extinction. The Hives' breakneck garage-punk is in plentiful supply in the area around Fagersta, where they live. The inevitable result is that major British labels are now looking to the land of Abba, the Cardigans and Schlager-pop for ready-made phenomenon.

The all-girl group Sahara Hotnights have signed to RCA, and hope to make inroads where homemade models such as 21st Century Girls and Hepburn failed. Silver Bullet, produced by TSOOL and Union Carbide co-founder and guitarist Ian Person, are now being touted as the Swedish Joy Division.

Lundberg thinks that the diverse range of music is a reaction to the creeping Americanisation of Swedish society. He raves about the underground rap scene in Malmo, where the uncompromising output from MCs such as Latin King and RGK is a direct rebuke to the old idea of cozy Swedish-consensus politics. The Ultra Wide Band Collective in Lund is home to a proliferating experimental pop scene that includes Jivaro and the Sleeping Flies. Koop, whose name pays tribute to the Swedish tradition of cooperation, have put the tradition into practise and reignited the country's venerable jazz tradition with their excellent second album, Waltz with Koop.

Ask other local figures in the country's music scene why Swedish bands seem to be in the ascendant and you get a variety of reactions. "It's been like this for a while – the Brits are always a bit late to catch on," says Oscar Simonsson from Koop. "The bands here know that because they are Swedish they have to work so much harder," says Tobias, the booking agent for the Hives. "The Hives play 200 gigs a year and then they go back home and rehearse, because they want to be the greatest band in the world."

When Lundberg arrived for the soundcheck earlier, he looked more like a flamboyant university professor than a psychedelic rocker, peering over his half-lens glasses. A former philosophy student, he's the 35-year-old son of wealthy parents, who encouraged him to follow his artistic urges. But unlike the Hives' Pelle Almqvist, who began singing in his native tongue, Lundberg never considered singing in Swedish.

"I listen to some Twenties and Thirties Swedish music for humorous reasons, " he says, "but I never like to hear pop, rock or even punk sung in Swedish. It just sounds ridiculous. In the Eighties, I couldn't understand why everything was so bad musically, it was like the vibe had disappeared and everyone was laughing at it in the Live Aid period. So Union Carbide were a reaction against that.

"When this band started, in 1993, there was a real retro vibe with Oasis and everything. I hated that too. I felt like, 'This is our world, don't fuck it up'. I didn't want to rub shoulders with anyone or have any references. It was Swedish, but it was something else as well. When you go through so much music as we had after a while, you become numb; we want to create what we have missed. We're missing something all the time, as long as we do we have to keep doing this."

Among his many production credits, Lundberg especially prizes his work with his former football partner, current neighbour and drinking buddy Nicolai Dunger. He describes him as "an amazing one-take artist", and, indeed, Dunger's ability to give Anglo-American jazz and soul influences new lustre is comparable to TSOOL's own reworking of the rock legacy.

Though in Sweden the Soundtracks are more popular than the Hives, in Britain they have some catching up to do. The situation could well change with the release of their third album, Behind the Music. Ebbot has already joked that "In the past, the Vikings came in long boats, now they're coming back in tour buses". But, he recoils from any attempts to instigate a phoney Blur versus Oasis style battle of the bands. "We're very different it's a bit like comparing the Grateful Dead to the Undertones. Actually that's not a good comparison because I prefer the Undertones to the Grateful Dead, " he laughs.

"I like the Hives, but we've been around longer; they remind me of what Union Carbide were like.When we played together there was a big difference between us, particularly the audience we attract. We attract a lot of freaks, fanatics, well-dressed psychopaths – maybe we're asking for it with the lyrics. There's a bunch of Mark Chapmans out there, sending us crazy letters."

With their more adventurous musical brief coupled to the warped humour and mordant vitriol evident in songs such as "21st Century Rip Off" and "Infra Riot", TSOOL use a much broader canvas than the Hives. But what they do have in common is showmanship – Lundberg revels in the performance as ritual and initiation ceremony.

"I like the idea of the whole mushroom culture," he enthuses, "The Vikings brought psychedelia to Britain, and now it's blooming again and it's our fault."

He reminds me that Sweden is a country that spends half the year in darkness, where death-metal suicide cults and baleful traditional folk music provide an ominous backdrop.

"That's interesting to me," he says. "Our music isn't all serious but it definitely has some of that quality about it – dark and sentimental. I don't know that rock'n'roll bands can really set out to conquer the world anymore; it feels that, with new technology, everything is spinning out of control. When I'm onstage singing the songs I feel like I'm hovering over a black hole, chucking out a few jokes before I get sucked into another dimension. Well, that's what we hope for anyway."

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