Swede Symphony: Listening for The Sounds

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Published March 14, 2011

THE SOUNDS. PHOTO COURTESY OF KIRSTI ANNA URPA

Over the last few years, America has officially been invaded by Sweden—culturally, at least. H&M, Robyn, Fever Ray, Sally Shapiro, José González, and Cheap Monday—all Swedish. And you can’t forget The Sounds, the new-wave/indie/electro outfit known as much for their high-energy live shows as for their sense of fashion. The band’s lead singer, Maja Ivarsson, has become a major icon of badass rocker chick chic, with platinum blonde hair, hot pants, and studded leather jackets. She’ll kick your ass with song, and will look great doing it.

The Sounds make shut-up-and-dance music, and the band recently released two singles from their upcoming record Something to Die For, in stores March 29.  The first single,  “Better Off Dead,” will give your bass a serious workout. The title track, “Something to Die For,” sounds like a futuristic throwback to the ’80s. Keyboardist Jesper Anderberg fills it up with synths, and if these two songs are any indication of the sound on the upcoming release, “it’s electronic and you’re gonna love it.”

We caught up with Maja via Skype just before she flew off to SXSW for a blitz of live shows there and elsewhere, including a performance in New York at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on March 21. We chatted about what to look forward to on the new record, the band’s huge gay following, a YouTube video of girl with a birdcage on her head… and we finally got the story behind the tattoo on Maja’s right arm.

MADISON MOORE: When you perform live on a TV show like Jimmy Kimmel, is it different than doing a show someplace like SXSW, where you’ll be this week?

MAJA IVARSSON: For sure! I usually never, ever get nervous before a regular show. But a TV show? I’m always nervous because you know you gotta nail that song. But it’s actually our third time to do Jimmy Kimmel, so we’re almost regulars. [laughs]MOORE: Do you like performing in the U.S.?

IVARSSON: I love it. We came the first time in 2003, and it seems like we haven’t left since. James Iha from The Smashing Pumpkins came to Stockholm to see one of our shows, and he really fell in love with the band. He said, “I’m going to take you to America, I’m going to release you on my label.” When you’re in your early twenties and you get that kind of opportunity, you just gotta roll with it.

MOORE: The Sounds have a huge gay following. Why is that?

IVARSSON: I think we’ve had that since day one. I think first it started out with our keyboard player [Jesper Anderberg]. When he joined the band we were still in high school, and he was two years younger than us. He has a really boyish look, so all the gay guys fell in love with him straight away. We have a couple of cute guys in the band, and we play that kind of music that will go in a club. And I was dating a girl for a while—that might have something to do with it. But even Madonna, Lady Gaga, all those artists have a big following in the gay community.

MOORE: It’s interesting, because Madonna and Lady Gaga are these pop divas. But for a new-wave, indie band like you, having a gay following seems different.

IVARSSON: Maybe because we’re European? No, you’re right. Because Lady Gaga and Madonna, that’s pure pop, you know?

MOORE: Yeah, definitely. So I love how for the single “Better Off Dead,” from your new album, you encouraged your fans to do cover versions. How did you come up with that?

IVARSSON: We had this competition. The song wasn’t released yet—we released the [sheet] music, but you couldn’t hear the song. For us, it’s really important to have a close relationship with our fan base. The winner gets to be on the B-side of our single.

MOORE: Oh wow, that’s so great!

IVARSSON: Yeah! You want to incorporate your fan base into your own work. And, oh man, we got so many different funny versions of that song. There’s a Finnish girl band, and it’s funny because they’re singing in the worst English ever, and the girl singer has a birdcage on her head.

MOORE: Oh yeah, I saw that one!

IVARSSON: You see? It’s already got a big following. And then we got some hardcore band from the US; they did a version of it that was pretty cool. It’s just a good way to connect with your fan base.

MOORE: It’s a really great idea, and it’s totally in tune with the age of Twitter and social media.

IVARSSON: Yeah, exactly. And if I was a fan of a band and I won that competition, I would be so stoked.

MOORE: The Sounds are such a visually packaged band—you’re all so stylish.

IVARSSON: Funny thing is, we’ve never really had a stylist. We had this style, and the label that we’re signed to loved it. And I actually thought they were gonna hook me up with all kinds of cool clothes. But they were like, “No, no, no! Your leather jacket and your skinny jeans is exactly what you want.” Aww, dude. I thought you were gonna hook me up!

MOORE: No free clothes!

IVARSSON: [laughs] When you’re on stage, half of it is the visual. Definitely the music you’re gonna listen to, but also you’re gonna check out the band. I don’t like bands [who] don’t give a fuck about how they look.

MOORE: Your new album is coming out on March 29th. What was the band’s approach to this fourth record?

IVARSSON: We [tried] out a guy in Los Angeles to produce two songs, but we figured after thirteen years together, we had the experience to do everything ourselves. Sometimes producers want to put their “stamp” on it, and they are so worried about, “Oh, the chorus needs to hit 30 seconds into the song, or else it’s not going to be played on radio” and shit like that. And we were like, dude, let’s not even think about that. Let’s just write songs we like, and if it gets played on radio, that’s a bonus.

MOORE: Can you describe the record in four words?

IVARSSON: Oh, shit. It’s much more electronic. You’re gonna love it. The last one was more piano- and guitar-based. And I think this new one is a reaction to the last. We don’t want to make the same record twice. The first song we wrote for this album, “Something to Die For,” had a lot more electronic elements in it, and we even have orchestral hits, hip-hop beats, and stuff like that.

MOORE: I love that song. And if the single is any indication, the album really is something I’m dying for.

IVARSSON: [laughs]. It’s a great song. It sounds like The Sounds, even though it has a fresh sound to it. I think people are going to raise an eyebrow, but in a positive way. They’re going to be like, “Aww, shit.”

MOORE: You’ve got to push your audience.

IVARSSON: Exactly. We’re making the music we love, and hopefully the fans are gonna love it, too.

MOORE: The tattoo on your right arm is so cool. I’ve never seen anything like that.

IVARSSON:  Oh, you mean the girl?

MOORE: Yeah. What is that?

IVARSSON: Her name is Modesty Blaise. It’s a [British] comic book figure from the 1960s. She was a kickass agent. It was on my birthday when I was turning 24, I was in Los Angeles on Sunset Boulevard, right across the street from the Roxy at a tattoo shop called Shamrock Social Club. I loved Superman as a kid, and to me, this was my superhero. She’s definitely kicking ass, and she’s a fierce woman, so I felt like that would suit me. [laughs]

THE SOUNDS’ SOMETHING TO DIE FOR IS OUT MARCH 29, AND THE BAND WILL PLAY MUSIC HALL OF WILLIAMSBURG A WEEK FROM TODAY. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT THEIR WEBSITE.