They've toured with Blur, conquered America and topped the UK charts. Tobias Jones meets The Cardigans, Sweden's most popular pop export since ABBA
AS BIG THINGS to come out of Sweden go, The Cardigans can probably only be bettered by Abba, Borg and the Volvo. So the idea had been to go to the Bayswater Hotel where The Cardigans were holed up, having just finished recording their fourth album, and interview their beautiful blond and sky-blue-eyed singer, Nina Persson.

But the band insist they're a band, and so all five are up early for an ensemble interview; slumped, half-asleep under the unflattering glare of hotel lighting. There's much cigarette sucking and coffee slurping.

As their fogeyish name suggests, The Cardigans are a long way from the riotous stereotypes of rock 'n' roll. There are no egos, the band members are all friends (they used to share a flat back in Sweden), and they are polite. Unwaveringly polite.

"We're very reasonable," admits Nina. "We have very disciplined arguments, but never any heart-breaking quarrels. The five of us are very good at paying respect to one another." They are desperate, apparently, to shrug off their reputation for saccharine pop but, as they are known worldwide for Lovefool, their contribution to the Romeo and Juliet soundtrack ("Love me, love me, say that you love me" and so on), it may be an uphill task.

"It's weird, confusing," says Peter Svensson, the guitarist and song- writer, talking about that single and the resultant fame. He's chewing tobacco, so it looks like he's either very moody or has a split lip. "To me, that song is still that moment when I wrote it in a small room, sitting on my bed in our home town. It was supposed to be some kind of a bosanova: a totally different song, slow and mellow and sad. The production on it, though, and the disco drums made it all shinier." Selling more than 2.5 million copies worldwide, going gold in the UK and platinum in the States, it became, for many, the definitive sound of The Cardigans.

All five in the band (the other three being Bengt Lagerberg, the long- haired, goateed drummer; the diminutive, blond Lasse Johansson on keyboards ; and bassist Magnus Sveningsson) come from Jonkoping, a small Swedish town that boasts a cool 52 churches, though they eventually moved to Malmo and into a house together. Under the guiding hand of producer Tore Johansson, they have made three albums with a variety of instruments and sounds: Hammond and Wurlitzer organs, flutes, choirs, trumpets, always with Nina's ethereal voice over the top.

The result is three-minute verse-chorus-verse pop that is catchy but always surprising: a sort of Scandanavian saga that sounds all very innocent but has a sinister and melancholic undertow. They have even done covers of Black Sabbath. "It's just that me and Magnus," explains Peter, "as teenagers we liked bands like Motorhead, Led Zeppelin or Kiss, and we still enjoy them, and try and follow what's happening in that scene. So I guess it's an influence. The weird thing is that we've done so much soft music as well.

"Bengt and Magnus and I had been making music for a few years before the band started; for you guys," he nods at the others, "it was a bit different. If I came up with a song it was just a cool thing, because, well, because, um..." He trails off.

"He falls asleep in the middle of a sentence", laughs Nina. She is the lyricist (along with Magnus), mixing into the candyfloss pop some shafts of broken glass. ("I've been your sister, I've been your mistress/Baby I was your whore..."). "When our first album came out, the critics kept saying 'how can they know what misery's about?They're 18 and they're from a religious town!'"

Taking that criticism to heart ("when you're 18, you read everything they write about your album and take it in and think about it" says Peter), their next two albums, Life and First Band On The Moon, were shamelessly upbeat and glam. The new album, Gran Turismo, is a return to some serious, subtle song-writing, sounding like a Swedish version of trip-hop. "For the people who only got to know us through Lovefool, this might not be what they expected," says Nina.

"I'm often writing lyrics at the last minute," she says, "and usually when I get home drunk, because I take myself very seriously when I get drunk. I keep on finding in my diary the things I wrote when I got home, and I find they're now in my songs. But 96 per cent of what I write when I'm drunk I have to throw away when I wake up in the morning, because I'm so very, really, really [here she begins to sound like Bjork, with that playful, quirky accent], so really pretentious, and it's all very black."

The lyrics, of course, are in English, part of the Anglophilia which encouraged them to christen themselves The Cardigans, and name their first album after our noble soap, Emmerdale. "English just suits us," says Nina by way of explanation, "and, of course, otherwise we wouldn't sell as much, except in Sweden. To sing in Swedish used to be uncool, but now it's OK. Before it was more like the Swedish Mariah Careys and Rod Stewarts singing in Swedish, but now there are quite a few alternative, young bands using it, and it does sound fabulous."

Their success led to tours supporting Blur and then Beck. "I think we pissed them off," says Nina of Blur, with a high-pitched chuckle. "I know what went wrong: someone tried to make a joke, like saying, 'we sell more records than you in Japan, maybe we can be the main act in Japan'. And then somebody said in an interview that they ought to be grateful to have us on tour. Their manager called our manager and said, 'what the f*** are they up to?' Actually, it was an absolutely great thing for us to do, tour with them. We were very grateful," she says, pretending to bow. "Sorry Blur!"

And Beck? "He was cool," continues Nina, "very down to earth and very, very cool. We had a lot of fun with him. We were supporting him in the States, and then went on to do the Lilith Fair tour. That was weird. They asked us along to this feminist festival but The Cardigans are made up of one woman and four men."

Pop promotion also has its embarrassments, like the band performing on Pebble Mill a few years ago. "We didn't know what that was. Our publicist from that time," (Nina furrows her eyebrows), "this person is not with us anymore. In the beginning we used to do a lot of that sort of stuff, because the record companies weren't that sure of what we were. We did Pebble Mill with a Dutch boy band, and they were putting on deodorant two hours before they went on."

Peter agrees. "It can be hard when you go to a foreign country and you don't know what you're being put up to do," he says. "I was thinking during Pebble Mill that here are all these people between 60 and 70, and there are 14 million viewers. But all our fans are between 15 and 30-years-old."

At which point, their publicist brings in some Swedish newspapers. All English conversation stops, and is replaced by bizarrely rounded Swedish vowels as they compare stories. "These papers are 50 per cent gossip, and 50 per cent actual news," says Nina. "They'll call us up, knowing everything about us, and they'll write everything about our private lives. They're usually being pretty respectful, but they have done some bad things as well." "You know, in Sweden they didn't even know anything about us until recently. They only wrote about us after we had conquered America", says Peter proudly.

"Sweden is a small country," Nina explains, "you have to get out of there. It's like, here in England there are so many people, so many things going on in showbusiness and music. But Sweden's different, it's a lovely country, where everything is very calm and quiet."

"But you need to go abroad to appreciate that", chips in Lasse, speaking for the first time. There are agreeing nods around the table. "And it's true that we have a lot of alcohol over there," Nina continues her sketch of her homeland, "because we don't smoke dope too much, it's not socially accepted. Dope hasn't really invaded the country; it's more of a naughty giggle at a party. A guy was arrested for it recently," she starts laughing. "He's a really funny artist. If you knew who he was, it would be very funny." (She tells the others his name, and they start laughing.) "You know, he realised the earth was better in the public park, so he planted a pot plant there, and was arrested."

"But now", says big Magnus, "you read about 13-year-olds smoking heroin, and because there is not a tradition of it, people have killed themselves the first time they use it. It's better to stick to alcohol because we're good drinkers and we know how to deal with a hangover."

With the room now fogged up with smoke and coffee steam, we go for a walk in Hyde Park. Magnus is sporting a new jacket he's just bought, and telling me about his opinions on Clinton's women. "You see," he smiles, leaning over me, "Clinton's from the south. We've seen women from the south: there's just a different sense of style: lots of perms and cheap, strange clothes. That's Bill's taste." Then Lasse starts joking about Sweden's dyslexic king, who apparently had to put his hands in cement recently, and sign his name next to it, but couldn't manage it.

The photographer is snapping away, but no-one stops and stares, or asks for autographs. The Cardigans are entirely lacking in pretension, which also means they have no mystique; there's no attitude or arrogance, so they come across, very pleasantly, as very homespun. They look like five very normal friends out for a walk in the park. Which is, afterall, what they are.

'Gran Turismo' by The Cardigans is released by Polydor on 19 October


On Bill Clinton's taste in women:

'Clinton's from the south. We've seen women from the south: lots of perms and cheap, strange clothes. That's Bill's taste'

On touring with Blur:

'I think we pissed them off. Actually, it was a great thing for us to do, tour with them. We were very grateful. Sorry Blur!'

On cannabis use in Sweden:

'It's not socially accepted. A guy was arrested for it recently. He realised the earth was better in the public park so he planted a pot plant there'

On their influences:

'As teenagers we liked bands like Motorhead, Led Zeppelin or Kiss, and we still enjoy them, and try and follow what's happening in that scene'

On their early appearance on

Pebble Mill:

'I was thinking, here are all these people between 60 and 70 and there are 14 million viewers. But all our fans are between 15 and 30'

On writing lyrics:

'96 per cent of what I write when I'm drunk I have to throw away, because I'm so very, really, really pretentious'