When Sweden’s Shout Out Louds landed on American shores in 2005 with their Capitol-released debut album, Howl Howl Gaff Gaff, they may have seemed to have appeared out of nowhere as part of the first wave of an ever-increasing swell of Scandinavian pop. Truth is that record was a compendium of songs taken from the Swedish release of the album two years prior and several EPs the band had made in the interim. There was no mistaking the record’s appeal, though, a thorough crisscrossing of points of reference of indie rock and garage pop from the past couple of decades.
Capitol restructured following the debut’s release, but the band ended up on Merge no worse for wear for its second album, Our Ill Wills. A majestic melding of frenetic rhythms, orchestrated melodies, and melancholic growing pains, it was the wonderful fruition of its predecessor’s promise.
Following Our Ill Wills would be no mean feat, but the band took the necessary time off to regroup, reassess and reconvene after some time apart from one another to create its successor. The fruits of their labor is Work, released this week on Merge once again. It is the five-piece band—singer and guitarist Adam Olenius, bassist Ted Malmros, guitarist Carl von Arbin, keyboardist Bebban Stenborg and drummer Eric Edman—scaled back to its core, and as such the album is just the essentials: more catchy hooks than you can shake a stick at, numerous examples of the band’s intrinsic knack for a melody, and surefire lyrics that both evoke and explain.
I spoke on the phone to primary songwriter Olenius who was at home in Stockholm trying to figure out how to work a new digital sampler.
Why the title Work? Is that meant to be as in labor or like a work of art?
Adam Olenius: It’s actually both. We see work as a positive thing. After three records, this is what we want to do full-time and will hopefully do for a very long time. Also, to work hard on a project and be shut away from the rest of the world to focus on a piece of art is kind of romantic. So the different meanings came together and we liked the title and wanted to bring some respect to the idea of labor.
Is it at all indicative of this album being more difficult to do or taking more of an effort?
AO: Not really. We worked harder as a band. With the second record, Bjorn (producer Bjorn Yttling of Peter, Bjorn and John fame) was with us and came down once a week to listen to the songs and discuss them. This time we had Phil (Ek), who lives in Seatlle, and we could only communicate through email. So we had to be more prepared before flying over. It was a big deal for us to fly so far away and record rather than go around the corner to the studio here in Stockholm, so we had to be more on it.
Phil made us work to get the perfect take. I’m not sure if that’s an American way of working, but he really was honest with us.
How was working with Phil different from working with Bjorn? Was working with an American producer and coming here to record part of a desire to sound more “American?”
AO: Bjorn was more involved with the process over a longer period of time. Phil was working with Band of Horses, and due to the distance, we couldn’t meet. Why we contacted Phil was we had heard really good things about him. Obviously the records he’s produced are great (by the Shins and Fleet Foxes, among others), but we heard that he’s a “band” producer and works in an old-school way where you record in the same room. We wanted this album to sound more live and be collaborative with the whole band. Bjorn does more editing and experimenting in the studio. He and I glued everything together after the takes. Phil was very keen to find the perfect take and listened to everyone in the band. We really wanted that because we wanted to be more of a band again. We had taken a break for eight months and we wanted to do an old-school record, so he was the perfect choice.
It wasn’t that we wanted an American sound. We had a few British and even French producers on our list for awhile—it didn’t really matter. It was also a nice place to be and we really liked the city.
I read somewhere that you wanted this record to be less dramatic than the last one?
AO: The second one, I like it a lot, but it was more cinematic and dramatic in the arrangements, with violins and different layers of instruments. This time, we wanted to focus on our own instruments, just guitar, bass, drums and piano.
Does each record tend to be a reaction to the last one or do you approach each one separately?
AO: Even when we were done with Work, I had new ideas of how I want the next one, and maybe that’s not sounding like this one at all. So of course, with everything we do, when you’ve created something you want something else. You get a little bored of staying with one idea. We still have the core of what we like—working with really good harmonies and melodies—but with a different production and direction. Still, I remember when we finished the record and got the master tapes back from New York. I listened to the record and really liked it, but started thinking about what we should do the next time.
Our Ill Wills had a bittersweet, nostalgic feel to it. Was there a particular reason for that, and if so, what’s changed?
AO: The second record was written when I had a really long relationship break up. And being on the road for us was pretty new and between Howl Howl Gaff Gaff and Our Ill Wills we didn't have much of a break at all. We had a few months in Stockholm and then we went back on tour again. We also changed labels, so there were a lot of things happening that made me write nostalgic lyrics, trying to find a place of solid ground to stand for awhile because my life was a mess. With this record, we’re happy with our situation. Everybody grew up a little bit and had more time to think and stay home and live a normal life. The lyrics and the way we perform the songs come from a comfortable situation.
Is having titles like “1999” and “Meat Is Murder” meant to evoke those other songs or albums?
AO: “Meat Is Murder” on the second record refers to the Smiths album because it was playing in the background...
It’s a much better album than song.
AO: Yeah, it is, even though it’s my least favorite Smiths album. But it was on then and it was a working title for a long time and we ended up keeping it. “1999” has nothing to do with Prince, even though I’m a really big Prince fan and like his work. It was just a title that came up. Those two sentences really belonged to that year, and I like singing about numbers. It’s nice and sounds good.
On “Show Me Something New,” you sing “radio daylight, radio darkness.” What’s the idea behind that? Is it a comment on pop music on the radio?
AO: It’s about repeating yourself and all the work that you do, doing the same thing over and over again. The original words were “radio soundcheck, radio gig.” They were dumb words to sing, but I fell in love with those words. It was written in London where we felt like animals being pushed around, coming to an airport, doing radio, doing a show and all that. So I translated that to more of a love story that my friends could relate to.
I’ve noticed with a lot of your songs that you sing in the second-person. When you’re singing “you,” do you always have someone specific in mind or are you addressing the listener at all?
AO: There are many different persons in my lyrics. There can be a lot of different small stories in one song.
I’m sure you get asked a lot about all the music coming from Sweden. It seems like, aside from Dungen, it could all be broadly labeled as pop music. Why do you think that is? Does it all go back to ABBA?
AO: Not everything, but they played a major role. Their music has got hooky melodies and is very poppy, but it has sad lyrics and a bittersweetness to it. You can hear that in many Swedish bands, strong melodies with melancholy.
Is it something everybody is brought up on since birth? Is it inescapable?
AO: Yeah. Well, during the late ’70s and ’80s it was everywhere. Now, it’s far more popular in the UK. They’re played in every club and clothing store still. In the ’50s, a lot of rock & roll bands from the U.S. and UK toured in Sweden so we had a big ’60s pop scene, so singing in English and pop culture were really strong.