Swedish electro duo Niki and the Dove shoots for a natural feeling
There are many locales that the Stockholm-spawned Malin Dahlström and Gustaf Karlöf are thrilled about the prospect of seeing on their upcoming North American tour, with San Francisco and the coast of British Columbia at the top of their list. And then there are places they’d completely die to visit, even though they don’t know it. Take, for example, the town of Wilmington, North Carolina.
In a conference call from Sweden, both acknowledge that Wilmington isn’t a scheduled stop; the closest the band will get is Chapel Hill. Furthermore, the coastal town of 106,000 draws a complete blank for the duo officially known as Niki and the Dove, the breakout Swedish electro-pop act behind this year’s Top 10–worthy debut Instinct. Casually mention, however, that Wilmington served as the backdrop to David Lynch’s brilliant cult film Blue Velvet, and it’s a tossup as to which one of them gets more excited.
“Really?” Dahlström almost squeals. “Wait, I have to write this place down! That’s one of our favourite movies of all time. Oh, my God, it’s a piece of art—every single scene, you could just take a still and the composition is absolutely incredible. I love it!”
Karlöf is quick to add his own fanboy accolades. “When we watched it one time we did an experiment where we paused the picture, just randomly. And every paused picture you could hang on your wall because it was so beautiful.”
And what is it that the two members of Niki and the Dove love so much about Blue Velvet, besides the sight of Dennis Hopper strapping on the gas mask in between psychotic endorsements of Pabst Blue Ribbon? Well, that would be the way the movie works on numerous levels at once.
“The beauty of David Lynch,” says Karlöf, “is that he’s making very dark movies, but there’s also an enormous amount of comedy in what he’s doing.”
Art that operates on different levels is also a good description of Niki and the Dove. Heavily influenced by time spent in rural Sweden, but perfect for a night out clubbing in big urban centres, Instinct is somehow as modern as it is retro. Nature pops up repeatedly in the lyrics, reflecting their love of getting away from the city and out into the middle of nowhere. “The Fox”, which is all spy-flick guitars and glitchy trip-hop percussion, comes replete with reference to wooded glades, dark trails, and tall trees. The lush and tribal “Mother Protect” has Dahlström singing “Oh my heart is like an eagle/I love to fall from the sky,” while “Last Night” contains the lines: “I didn’t want you to wake the lion/That we hushed to sleep.”
On the sonic side of things, the analogue-sounding tracks initially seem heavily indebted to the neon-lit ’80s. Take the time to immerse yourself in the album, however, and it becomes clear that Karlöf and Dahlström are soaking up influences from all over the musical map, with their songs nodding to classic college rock, club-kid techno, deep house, opiate-addled jazz, fevered soul, coke-party disco, and even baroque classical.
No wonder, then, that over the conversation Karlöf name-checks everyone from Ornette Coleman to Igor Stravinsky. The latter is responsible for one of his all-time favourite quotes, which, funnily enough, is just as relevant to today’s iPod Shuffle generation as it was to the high-society dandies of the early 1900s.
“I read something that Stravinsky said, where he said that it was very important to have one foot in tradition and one foot into the future,” Karlöf relates. “You almost have to be a messenger for past history, but bringing something for tomorrow. That’s a really good way of seeing it.”
As beautiful as Instinct is, recording it wasn’t all sunshine and fully loaded Volvos for Niki and the Dove. Karlöf and Dahlström are anything but new to each other, the two having met doing sound for theatre productions and then having hooked up in a folk-oriented project called the Dora Steins. The groundwork for Niki and the Dove was laid when they decided to monkey around in the studio together; the sessions went seamlessly and produced the sugar-sparkled, break-of-dawn anthem “DJ Ease My Mind”. Working on a full album, however, would prove more taxing.
“Making the record was both wonderful and painstaking,” Dahlström suggests. “When you put a lot of effort into something, it’s very common, I think, to go through a whole wide range of emotions. At first it’s all fun, but after a while you realize that you might not always have the same ideas or same tastes all the time. At first you quarrel, but then you find a method to work through your differences. Our big thing was to make sure that we didn’t draw boundaries for ourselves.”
And a big part of that was to accept that it’s sometimes best not to overthink things.
“Often, we’ll sit down and lose complete control over what we are doing,” Karlöf notes. “You have to let a song go where it wants to go. We often get the question ‘What kind of music do you listen to?’ And we answer that we’ve got a backpack of all the music that we’ve been listening to since we were 10 years old. Me and Malin have grown up with so many different styles of music—heavy metal, jazz, classical, and pop. You can’t get away from your backpack when you write songs.”
No doubt, those backpacks will not only come along on Niki and the Dove’s upcoming North American tour, but also end up a little more stuffed with everything they soak up. Other than that, Karlöf and Dahlström will be travelling light. At home, they often hit the stage with a live drummer and dancers, creating a multimedia experience. For this swing, audiences will get just the two of them, the prospect of which Niki and the Dove finds exciting.
“It’s going to be the first time we’ve really done it like this—small and intimate as a two-piece,” Dahlström notes. “We had a rehearsal the other day, and I liked it very much because it was challenging in that you had to find new ways of performing the songs. I like it because it’s forcing us to not be comfortable. It’s like we’re going to find out what happens now to our dynamic.”
Not only that, but it’s one hell of a lot easier to make a detour to Wilmington when it’s just the two of you.
Niki and the Dove plays Electric Owl on Saturday (September 1).