When the sun goes down in Stock­holm, the mu­sic winds up

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY CHRIS RICHARDS

On­stage, Robyn whips her plat­inum coif around as though she’s try­ing to es­cape a head­lock. She punches the air. She kicks at phan­toms. And when her bit­ter­sweet pop hit “ Danc­ing on My Own” reaches its con­clu­sion, she throws her arms out as if shov­ing the song off a cliff.

A few tunes later, she wolfs down a ba­nana and chucks the peel into the au­di­ence. Of all her wild ges­tures, this one feels the most il­licit.

That’s be­cause we’re in the con­cert hall of Berns Sa­longer, an op­u­lent 19th-cen­tury ball­room adorned with three hulk­ing chan­de­liers and a whole lot of his­tory. Swedish writer Au­gust Strind­berg im­mor­tal­ized this place in his 1879 novel, “ The Red Room,” and 130-odd years later, its breath­tak­ing ar­chi­tec­ture is filled with danc­ing Swedes, blink­ing strobes and a pop star at the height of her fame.

In the United States, you might be ar­rested for throw­ing garbage around in a room this mag­nif­i­cent.

But this is Stock­holm, a global bee­hive of 21st-cen­tury pop, where Swedes treat their mu­sic with the rev­er­ence it de­serves. In re­cent years, Scan­di­navia’s largest coun­try has churned out some of the most finely crafted, de­tail-ori­ented pop on the planet, pro­duced by artists such as Stock­holm sen­sa­tions Lykke Li and the Knife and Gothen­burg out­siders the Tough Al­liance and jj. When I visit the land re­spon­si­ble for all these fan­tas­tic sounds, it makes per­fect sense. In Stock­holm, the night­clubs are clean and in­ti­mate, the sound sys­tems are loud and lush, the DJs are en­cy­clo­pe­dic, and the bands can be bril­liant.

This Robyn show is prac­ti­cally a na­tional event. her sec­ond home­com­ing gig in an in­ti­mate twonight stand. The only con­cert­go­ers at Berns who aren’t clap­ping along to the 31-year-old singer’s candy-coated disco are older women sip­ping white

wine and too-cool teenagers who look as if they’d stum­bled out of A Per­fect Guide, the Swedish fashion mag­a­zine I leaf through the next morn­ing.

A few ti­tles down the news­stand rack, Robyn’s smirk adorns the cover of Fokus, the Swedish equiv­a­lent of Time. She has been de­clared “Swede of the Year.”

“It makes me proud to be Swedish,” the clerk says, ring­ing up my pur­chase. “She’s more fa­mous than Abba.”

Mem­bers of the Ra­dio Dept., an in­diepop trio liv­ing here in Stock­holm, think that Robyn is “just okay.”

We’re sit­ting at the front ta­ble ofNada, one of nu­mer­ous in­cred­i­bly cozy bars that dot the is­land of So­der­malm — or Soder — the trendy, arts-friendly district that houses most of the city’s mu­si­cal night life. We or­der a round of Fal­con lager, Swe­den’s cheap, drink­able an­swer to PBR, and talk about the na­tional pop­scape while a DJ in a Me­tal­lica T-shirt spins Joni Mitchell and Marvin Gaye.

The band is prep­ping for a big U.S. tour, which in­cludes a stop at Washington’s Rock & Roll Ho­tel on Feb. 1. Like its new al­bum, their English is su­perb — and the same goes for just about ev­ery­one I meet dur­ingmy four nights ex­plor­ing Stock­holm’s bars and night­clubs.

And while the weather out­side is fright­ful, front­man Johan Dun­can­son as­sures me that I’ve cho­sen a fine sea­son to visit. Sure, the Scan­di­na­vian sum­mers prom­ise 20-plus hours of sun­shiny good times, but most Swedish artists spend them on the road, fes­ti­val-hop­ping in lower Europe. If you want to see Swedish bands in their nat­u­ral habi­tat, now is the time.

But what about that sun­shine? In­die bands from Amer­ica’s Pa­cific North­west are thought to be hyper-pro­lific be­cause the rain keeps them in­doors, writ­ing songs. Do the dark win­ters have any­thing to do with the mu­sic that comes pour­ing out of Swe­den? Key­boardist Daniel Tjaeder laughs and says the band hardly re­hearses. But it did take three years to record its new al­bum. So maybe.

We pay our tab and shuf­fle over to Indigo, an­other So­der­malm bar where neon lights glow and garage rock blares. The crunch of gui­tars is mo­men­tar­ily in­ter­rupted by a sac­cha­rine ’ 80s Christ­mas carol called “ Tand Ett Ljus” (“Light a Can­dle”) by the Swedish pop group Triad.

“I think they are play­ing this iron­i­cally,” says Jo­hann.

I hope not. Like al­most ev­ery new­song I hear in Stock­holm, this one sounds amaz­ing.

On the Ra­dio Dept.’s ad­vice, I take the T-Bana sub­way out to the western edge of So­der­malm to visit Strand, a newer night­club nes­tled on the water­front. Out­side, the si­lence is lu­nar, but be­hind the club’s glass frontage is a warm, clean, spa­cious bar filled with im­pos­si­bly gor­geous young peo­ple and the great­est mu­sic you’ve never heard.

Young women— pre­sum­ably all sham­poo com­mer­cial mod­els — play air drums to the se­lec­tions by Joel Lind­berg, tonight’s DJ. He dishes up tunes by the Beach Boys, Dolly Par­ton and the Doors that I never even knew ex­isted. Is this some kind of par­al­lel pop uni­verse? Or maybe heaven?

Turns out, the Swedes are very dili­gent stu­dents when it comes to mu­sic from the U.S. and the U.K. To hear them DJ is to have ev­ery­thing you know about pop thrown back at you in high-def — not un­like star­ing into one of those con­cave makeup mir­rors where ev­ery pore on your face be­comes dim­ple-size.

“We’re very sen­si­tive to trends,” says Emelie Thoren, a mu­sic critic and DJ spin­ning clas­sic soul records at Riche 24 hours later. “As Swedes, we don’t want to be in the back­ground.”

Lo­cated across the wa­ter in the bustling Sture­plan neigh­bor­hood, Riche is one of many mu­sic-cen­tric down­town bars cater­ing to a more up­scale clien­tele. I’m here to chat with Karin Strom, a jour­nal­ist and singer who says that Swe­den’s post­mil­len­nial pop ex­plo­sion felt tan­gi­ble. “In the ’90s it was all Bri­tish and Amer­i­can mu­sic,” she says. “ Then sud­denly, we had our own.”

She’s re­fer­ring to the in­ter­na­tional rise of augh­ties rock out­fits the Hives, the Sa­hara Hot­nights and — whoa! Two mem­bers of the Sa­hara Hot­nights just walked by, search­ing for a seat. Then Karin’s boyfriend bumps into a pal he re­cently worked with on the set of a

Peter, Bjorn and John video. Ev­ery­one seems con­nected to mu­sic, and no­body’s sur­prised to see each other. “In New York or Paris, you don’t run into peo­ple at bars,” Karin says. “It’s not like that here.”

The next day, Lykke Li’s eyes fol­low me around Soder. The en­chant­ing young singer lives in this neigh­bor­hood, but I’m talk­ing about her con­cert posters, which hang at al­most ev­ery bus stop.

I’mup early to meet Lars Jamtelid, the guy be­hind the blog Look Notes, a great re­source for any­one cu­ri­ous about Swe­den’s pop van­guard.

“It all started right here,” Lars says, but quickly catches him­self. “It sounds like we’re film­ing a doc­u­men­tary!” We’re tromp­ing through the slush on Skanegatan, a street that once served as the lo­cus of the Stock­holm in­die scene, thanks to the decades-old record store Pet Sounds. Since then, Pet Sounds has sol­diered on — de­spite the in­cred­i­ble pop­u­lar­ity of the Swedish mu­sic-stream­ing Web site Spo­tify — and has opened a sis­ter bar and res­tau­rant across the street.

The record store car­ries heaps of Swedish pop, in­die, psych-rock and jazz on vinyl and CD, but over lunch Lars is quick to rat­tle off a litany of great new bands that aren’t on the shelves: Sail a Whale, Ko­rall­reven, Mu­seum of Bel­las Artes, Bandjo, the Em­bassy . . . .

That night, I hit the streets to try to ap­prox­i­mate the bounty of the Swedish pop bl­o­go­sphere, bounc­ing from venue to venue, gig to gig.

My first stop is the So­dra Teatern, an­other spec­tac­u­lar 19th-cen­tury theater that hosts read­ings, plays, co­me­di­ans and, sur­pris­ingly, a ton of rock con­certs. Built in 1859, the main theater boasts fres­coed ceil­ings and 414 weath­ered red vel­vet seats. The cur­tain goes up and out strides Britta Pers­son, a Stock­holm singer whose mu­sic lives at the in­ter­sec­tion of the Pre­tenders and the Cure.

Her set is de­light­ful, but I have to split early if I want to catch Cal­i­for­nia band Best Coast at De­baser Slussen, the city’s most sto­ried rock club. Near the en­try, a gag­gle of monks in blue robes has gath­ered, smok­ing cig­a­rettes in the freez­ing chill. As I get closer, I re­al­ize they’re just show­go­ers swad­dled in com­pli­men­tary Snug­gieish blan­kets pro­vided by the club.

Smok­ing isn’t al­lowed in­doors, but De­baser Slussen still smells a lit­tle dank, mak­ing it stand out among the mostly pris­tine night­clubs here. But the young crowd is still ex­ceed­ingly po­lite, watch­ing Best Coast’s blus­tery set as if tak­ing in a col­lege lec­ture.

De­baser Slussen’s sis­ter club, De­baser Medis, has a show tonight, too. If I hus­tle, I’ll catch the tail end of Swedish rock main­stays the Sound­track of Our Lives. Sit­u­ated in a large com­mu­nity cen­ter that also houses a gym and a pub­lic pool, De­baser Medis is one of the larger live mu­sic venues in the city. As the band’s psy­che­delic rock wafts through the air, so does the faint smell of chlo­rine.

And like so many great rock-and-roll evenings, it ends at a ke­bab stand, nosh­ing on cheap falafel, sur­rounded by sloshy strangers. A very drunk man in a very sharp suit — his English com­pletely in­tel­li­gi­ble de­spite a mouth­ful of gyro — asks why I chose to visit Stock­holm at this frigid time of year.

I tell him that I came to hear Swedish pop mu­sic.

“Ah!” he lights up. “So you came to see Robyn!”

Yep. Does he think she’s big­ger than Abba?

“Oh, def­i­nitely.”


Top, Robyn delivers her candy-coated disco sound at a con­cert in Stock­holm last month. Above, a DJ keeps the mu­sic rock­ing at the night­club Strand, where you might hear ob­scure tunes by the Beach Boys, Dolly Par­ton and the Doors.


Stock­holm’s Strand night­club draws crowds of young peo­ple by of­fer­ing mu­sic by DJs, left, and by bands such as the Killers (no, not those Killers), be­low left.


Above left, De­baser Slussen, fore­ground, is Stock­holm’s most sto­ried rock club; on cold win­ter nights, fans some­times re­ceive free blan­kets while wait­ing for the doors to open. Above right, Berns Sa­longer, an op­u­lent 19th-cen­tury ball­room adorned with three hulk­ing chan­de­liers, mixes breath­tak­ing ar­chi­tec­ture with per­for­mances by such pop­u­lar Swedish mu­si­cians as Robyn.


The decades-old Pet Sounds car­ries Swedish pop, in­die, psych-rock and jazz on vinyl and CD. The record store has a sis­ter bar and res­tau­rant across the street.

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