Interview: Niki & The Dove
The Swedish pop duo on folklore, and the importance of maintaining a bushy garden
Words Jazz Monroe
Spiritual descendants of eighties electro icons, Scandinavian ambience and shonky Eurovision tunesmiths, ebullient Stockholm pair Malin Dahlström and Gustaf Karlöf make a startling breed of epic fairytale-pop as Niki and The Dove. Debut single ‘DJ, Ease My Mind’ harnessed the tetchy throb of dirty-dancefloor introspection and beamed it onto a flamboyant stage, propped up by a magniloquent disco beat and low tribal backing vocals. But it’s the intense narrative and violin strut of folkloric, forthcoming EP The Fox — out on Sub Pop, no less — that best embodies their versatile and intriguingly abstract songwriting chops.
In person, they bounce off one another and finish each other’s sentences when the language barrier falls on conversational flow. Dusting off burgers and chips on the benches of an open-air Camden restaurant, we learn that Gustaf — incessantly placing and replacing a lolling fringe atop his head — is a man who lumbers around his intelligence like a naughty dog, to be kept in check lest it embarrasses him, as a cross-legged Malin rocks gently back and forth, sporting a wise and crooked smile and huge, deep purple sunglasses. There was a lot of laughing.
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This is the second time you’ve toured over here. Do you think you would be writing different songs if you lived outside of Sweden?
Malin: I think we would be writing different music.
Gustaf: Do you?!
M: Yes, because I think that subconsciously where you live is always a part of who you are.
G: [nods] That’s right, that’s right.
M: You can never say that you are not part of where you live.
G: It’s hard to separate. If you deal with expression and you want to express something, in every case, whoever you are, you are a child of your surroundings. But also there’s something unique for everyone; a unique core that can be coloured depending on where you live in the world. It’s a blend.
I read the story about your latest single ‘The Fox’. Can you retell that for people who might not be aware?
M: Well, it was actually Gustaf. One day he came in and said, ‘Malin, I’ve heard this wonderful story, a children’s author told it on the radio,’ you said to me. And then you said, ‘It’s about this woman, she has a hard time going to sleep so she visualises this fox, she goes to see this fox. She was really describing this scene. She was walking through the meadow [begins to act out the scene] finding the fox, telling the fox her problems. And she whispered them into the fox ear. And then the fox started to dig a hole! [Speeding up] To put her problems in the hole! And then the fox lays above the hole! Sort of [slowing down] protected the problems, took care of them. So she was free. And then she could go to sleep.’
And when you told me this story, Gustaf, oh, it was such an amazing story! We had to do something, we had to write a song about it. And so we did, but we developed the story. So now it’s not about this woman who can’t sleep, it’s about a person who is about to start this really struggling journey. And she goes to visit the fox for one last time to talk about her problems, and to rest before climbing the mountain to get a new perspective. So now it has become a story about someone who is transforming and trying to do something with her life.
I understand the album’s finished now. You’ve spoken about the duality of light and darkness in your music —
G: It sounds so pretentious…
That’s not such a bad thing! So have you maintained that throughout the album? It seems to manifest itself in each song I’ve heard so far.
G: The songs that have come out so far have been quite bombastic and big, and the people we’ve talked with and people who have listened to it think that they’re quite dark. But the songs that aren’t out yet are lighter and more romantic in a way. They are not as big-sounding. [The record] has two sides: one is quite dark and big and the other is more romantic, smaller stories and smaller sounds.
To me, the songs so far have contained the light and dark and the big and the small simultaneously.
G: Kind of, yeah…
M: I like that thought, because we’re very much into details: the small details and the big picture, and the big soundscaping.
G: When you sit in the studio you just make the music without any agenda. Because all that stuff sorts itself out — we are the people that we are and we make the music that we do. We didn’t have a vision for this — the only thing we said is we were gonna do it exactly the way we want. Maybe that sounds egoistic. It’s a cliché but it’s so important to be honest.
M: To find the core of the song. That is the aim, isn’t it?
Who writes the lyrics?
G: I’m not allowed to write the lyrics! It’s very important for Malin to sing something she can connect to from the bottom of its core. She made that clear earlier!
M: Yes I, oh, I did that, and I’m very happy that you have an understanding for that! Because I can really understand that you might want to [starts cracking up] contribute to the lyrics maybe, but…
G: I can give advice and stuff but I’m not allowed. And… [adopts mock ‘pompous artiste’ tone] It’s a pity because I write such good lyrics! [They laugh between themselves for a few seconds...] I was kidding. But the music, we make together. People always think that I write all the music and she writes the lyrics.
The Fox uses a lot more imagery and metaphor than your run-of-the-mill pop song. How do you strike a balance between being direct, and creating something unique, layered and interesting?
G: It was a compliment!
M: [laughs awkwardly] … You have this clear vision of the lyrics and what you want to describe. I don’t think in those terms.
G: I think to reach something that’s important to other people, and to express something that can help and enrich other people — once again, it maybe a cliché — but it’s the honesty. You have to be honest. And brave, in a sense, because maybe people won’t like it. When you create something it’s very important to let go, let go of all your prejudices and, actually, try to let go of everything that you’ve learned, also. But it’s hard to describe. The creation is hard to put into words because it’s so mystical.
‘DJ, Ease My Mind’
Does that make you worry about how the songs will be received?
G: No, quite the opposite for me. We did the thing we did. And maybe it sounds pretentious and silly but it’s quite easy for me, and I think for Malin also. We’re not nervous because you do the thing you do. It’s so nice that people like it, of course, but it’s not like, ‘Argh! We have to get people liking this.’ In the studio you don’t sit and think about what people would think of it [Malin nods]. Because then you are on dangerous ground.
Gustaf, you’ve mentioned Kate Bush and Prince as influences. Is there something that runs through all the pop music you love?
G: I think the thing you ask about, it’s not only in pop music. It can be in every kind of expression: if you see a picture, or a movie, or you read a book or you listen to classical music or jazz.
M: For me, it’s the passion
G: The spark is everywhere.
M: I think what Kate Bush and Prince have, they are so passionate. They are so full of life and so vital, and so inventive and so playful. It’s like a garden that’s so thick, because everything can be in it. [Malin laughs, Gustaf pulls face, as if to say, ‘What the hell is she on about?’] Things happening, everywhere. It contains so much, and it’s just… pure energy. They are so good. [Giggles] And I think that can be found anywhere. But not everywhere!
Okay, so in what way would you like your music to connect with people?
G: I get most happy if the music gives some kind of comfort. When I listen to a song, I can feel so much life that I want to live my life, you know? In a simple way, just walking the street and listening to the music. That’s all I want. And everyone probably experiences that a lot. Sometimes you get so much energy and life from music — it would be wonderful if someone could feel that.
M: I would love if between the music and the listener there was a connection. But the connection should be free…
Tour drummer Magnus: [laughs] What do you mean by that?
M: [joins in laughing] Because you said do you want your music to influence, or to give comfort, or give joy. If there’s a connection I’m happy. But the music and the listener, they have a connection, so to speak. You can’t say what the connection should be. It should be free. [Laughs]
G: I think you’re trying to say that… the communication, you mean. That’s not something that you….
M: [Laughing] No, but now you’re trying to explain my…
Magnus: Don’t lay anything on the audience. Let them feel whatever.
G and M: Exactly. Exactly.
G: I didn’t understand that.
M: No, you didn’t. [Long, throaty laugh]
G: But now I understand that.
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The Fox EP is out June 13 via Sub Pop