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Escape Velocity

Free From The Cage: Niki & The Dove Interviewed
John Freeman , April 12th, 2011 10:38

John Freeman talks to Swedish Niki & The Dove about perfect pop songs, push ups and how fluctuating Scandinavian weather affects their music

What is there not to love about the sound of laughter? It fills the air during my interview with Stockholm's Niki & The Dove - a band who have a lot to be happy about. The duo, comprising of singer Malin Dahlström and multi-instrumentalist Gustaf Karlöf, formed just over a year ago, but have already released two elegant pop-noir singles (the fractured Euro-house of 'DJ, Ease My Mind' and their website download 'Mother Protect') and recorded their debut album for release on the Sub Pop label. I'm hoping this prodigious progress is the reason why Malin giggles her way through our chat. Either I'm the funniest journalist she’s ever spoken to (which is highly unlikely) or the mere presence of her bandmate sparks a flurry of laughter before she can even start a sentence.

With an imminent new single ('The Fox') and a short tour of the UK in May, both Malin and Gustaf exude a palpable exhilaration. They are warm and friendly, but are slightly mysterious about their past, evading any discussion of their formative bands and only reveal the music that fired their childhood after a gentle push. Before we begin our interview, I chit-chat with Malin for a couple of minutes ahead of being joined by Gustaf, who seems to have been off doing something important. When I ask if it is convenient to begin, I'm met with more staccato laughter.

It sounds like you are having a lot of fun, or is it just the excitement of having to do yet another interview?

Malin Dahlström: Gustaf is excited because we have just been making a song.

Gustaf Karlöf: We are actually composing a song on the piano - just vocals and piano. I am sitting here having the song in my head hoping not to forget it. Da, da, da - I got the rhythm, see?

Shit - I hope I haven't ruined a moment of pop perfection. Is this how you normally write songs, sat together working it out on a piano?

GK: Not usually, I may have an initial idea and then I pass it onto Malin and she makes a harmony and a melody, and then I get it back and I make a chord, or vice versa. The composing process in very interactive; we are sometimes sitting in different rooms and we are passing these sketches between us, back and forth.

So, how did you two become a band?

GK: We met a couple of years ago and became friends. We were both into music and then a year ago we decided to record a song that I had written and it became a project from there. That was last February.

What was your vision for Niki & The Dove?

GK: Maybe this will sound pretentious, but we wanted to make - and maybe this is so true, it became ridiculous - the kind of pop music that gave us a kick. We are never satisfied until we are standing in the studio screaming with joy and happiness over something, actually. It's true.

Has there been a lot of screaming since last February?

GK: We have nearly finished with our full-length album and at the end of production of every song, we have been very happy in the studio. We've been 'hooraying' and clapping our hands because we like it. There are one or two songs where we haven't been standing up and cheering, and those are the songs we are not satisfied with.

MD: It is important to us that you have to feel the emotion. If we don't feel the music when we are making it, then we work and work and work to get that feeling.

Your initial songs have a wonderful duality - they are dark and mysterious, yet seem to embed themselves in a pop sensibility. To what extent is Niki And The Dove about making the 'perfect' pop song?

GK: I hope that every producer of pop music has the aim of creating the perfect pop song. We try to do it, as there is so much power in the perfect pop song. It is a power than can go to your heart not via your brain. It goes to your heart without any logic at all. That is a power for which I have a very huge respect.

MD: The perfect pop song is like the golden ratio in mathematics, where everything is corresponding with each other. I think it is about mathematics and physics and all these perfect combinations and equations is what you are striving for. That's the struggle.

GD: Do you mean it should be like the Bach of pop music?

MK: That's not what I mean. But the question is 'Do you strive for the perfect pop song?' and as human beings we are struggling towards that.

Maybe it is a fruitless search. There are only so many combinations of chords you can try. Maybe The Beach Boys nailed it back in the 60s.

GK: Well, I am surprised when you hear those bloody three chords for the millionth time and you get so much emotion from it. And, in another case, you can hear those same fucking chords and you hate them. The mystical nature of it can be so trivial, but it can be so powerful and beautiful.

MD: This is so interesting, I think. It is so interesting as to why things can be heard differently.

Having been to Sweden many times myself, and having interviewed a number of musicians from Scandinavia, I have a half-baked theory I'd like to put to you. You endure winter days without almost any light, while summertime is virtually constant daylight. Do these wild fluctuations have any effect on the music you create? Are songs written in the winter more introspective and sombre, while summer songs are joyous and upbeat?

GK: It's an interesting question - but we turn it around. I think we make happy songs in the winter and sad songs in the summer. It is dark in Sweden right now, and the song we made when you phoned is quite happy. We have talked a lot about the melancholy of the Scandinavians. Maybe it is a myth, or maybe there is some truth in it.

MD: It's a myth.

GK: I disagree. Maybe we are under the influence of it, somewhere.

I think that leaves my ropey theory in tatters. Thank you for that. So, were either of you in bands before Niki & The Dove?

GK: In Sweden, we have a tradition that if you talk to people who make music today, nearly every one of them has been doing music since they were ten years old. It is very common in Sweden that you made music as a teenager, so we have been in bands before.

And what sort of music did you obsess about as teenagers?

GK: I realise now that I have great respect for the music I listened to when I was a teenager. If you say names, it is so easy for people to put you in some kind of cage, but if I had to be honest, I listened a lot to the album Hounds Of Love by Kate Bush, Sign O' The Times by Prince and some Depeche Mode albums also. I loved music so much and would spend hours and hours on my parent's sofa listening to vinyl.

MD: I loved the repeat button. One of my favourite things would be to have a song on repeat for many days. The song was the soundtrack of my life for a week or so. When I heard a song I loved, I would have this fire in my heart.

I believe, Malin, you were also involved in writing music for theatre and dance productions. Has that set of experiences influenced how Niki & The Dove sound?

MD: We have both been writing for theatre and it is a wonderful thing to do, but I don't think our music is inspired by that. Before Niki And The Dove, I have been working with dancers - I made music and they did the choreography to some drama performances. With Niki, I have asked some dancer friends of ours to join us on stage.

In previous interviews, you have been pretty evasive as to the origins of the band's name? I'm quite tenacious - so why are you called Niki & The Dove? Why not Malin & The Dove? Who's the dove?

MD: [Laughs] It is two symbols for something and we know the symbols and we have used them for our own purposes. We use them to help us fulfill what we want and what we are aiming for. We want to keep it a little bit secret and not dissipate the meaning of the symbols, I guess.

You have a new single, 'The Fox', released on Sub Pop in April. I haven't heard it yet, so what is it like?

MD: [After another hearty burst of laughter] We don't have a copy either. No-one has a copy. It is being mastered. We are waiting for it.

GK: We found out that it was a modern fable - like a fairy tale - about animals. When it was finished, I was like 'Look Malin, it is a fable! We made a fable!'

MD: But, it doesn't have a moral in it.

And your debut album is already in the can - what can we expect from that?

GK: When we made this album, we thought a lot about minimalism and small arrangements and it has turned out that every song is grandioso - we got stuck in grandioso mode. The songs that are out, so far, are quite dark and bleak in a sense. The new songs are quite light. The album has a duality; it is either quite dark or quite light.

So, there appear to be few constraints as to what can constitute a Niki & The Dove song. Is that how it feels to you?

MD: It's a good question. The beautiful thing with Niki is, I think, that we feel very free. Any song can be a Niki song. We are going through a very dynamic process in the band right now. I think I can speak for both of us, when I say there is a real beauty in feeling free in this band. We can go so many ways; it is not like we are caged.

For a band that only formed less than 15 months ago, you have come an incredibly long way in a short space of time. Is the speed of your progress frightening in anyway, or is it merely exciting?

MD: You know what? It is just exciting. It is very exciting and we are very happy.

GK: The thought of it makes me very happy. I want to jump out of bed and do some push-ups. I am kidding.

And your hopes for the rest of 2011?

GK: Well, I hope we remember that song we were making.