Niki & The Dove
Niki & The Dove / press bio 2012
You wouldn’t have thought Niki & The Dove came fifth in the BBC Sound Of 2012 poll because they visit exhibitions of 19th century Russian art, but it’s actually a very important reason. The Swedish duo check out painting, among other art forms, for ideas and inspiration, which helps engineer some of the most singular, stirring and visionary music of modern times.
Kaleidoscopic in the studio and a force majeure on stage, it’s no surprise that Malin Dahlström (voice, songs) and Gustaf Karlöf (keyboards, songs) met while writing a wide range of music for the theatre. But they’re definitely, and boldly pro-pop: simultaneously simple and complex but ultimately devastating pop music. “The simple pop song is such a powerful thing. Really it's a quest and a riddle to work out the power of it,” Gustaf told The Guardian. “The songs that take you and the first time you hear it you get dizzy and you have to hear it over and over again."
At the same time, N&D’s electronics and beats forge a pro-dance sound, but with a span from tribal to synth-pop to R&B, it’s as much a quest and a riddle to work out exactly what the pair are – which is how it should be. “In our heart, we are a soul band, not even an electronic band,” says Malin after our dynamic duo has returned from Stockholm’s National Museum to see that Russian exhibition (“brilliant!” they claim. “And then we saw paintings by Monet, Turner and Twombly”). Gustaf won’t even go that far. “The only way to describe ourselves,” he ventures, “is lots of acoustic elements and harmonies in an electronic soup.”
Both descriptions stand from the very first moments of their debut album, as the opening track “Tomorrow” unfolds a subtle pulse with pan-Pacific textures underneath Malin’s aching vocal that collectively rise to a series of euphoric peaks as vocal overdubs ramp up the feeling of a tribal ceremony. This was also the case with DJ, Ease My Mind, the duo’s debut single released in February 2010 (revamped here as the album finale). Malin’s vocal had the urgency and vulnerability of epic ‘60s girl-group pop (The Shangri La’s, say) fused to their unique version of the joyful release of the dancefloor. Time and again, the album follows the same blueprint of intent – a blend of tenderness, explosion, hypnosis and exhilaration - but never the same routine.
In the same way as Malin and Gustaf won’t use comparisons to describe their sound, they don’t feel it necessary to discuss what music has shaped their sound. In any case, Malin says, it’s not even other music that fires their imagination. “We are children of our time and of everything we have listened to all our lives. But if anything comes through our music, it’s only sub-consciously. Our influences are other art forms; a book, a painting or a poem. Or it could be the environment.”
Gustaf: “A painting can unlock a door to a new song, beat or harmony, but a song to us is more of a prison.”
Looking back to their origins, the pair had been “close friends in music for years,” according to Malin, who hails from Gothenburg while her partner was born in Stockholm. But while they sometimes collaborated in theatrical soundtracks, Gustaf was also busy with music improv while Malin had her solo alias Disdishdance: “a heart and fun project,” she calls it. But when she wrote a song inspired by a summer night’s clubbing - “with two of my dearest friends, during a turbulent time in my life, out till dawn, when we caught the first tram home” - she asked Gustaf and fellow songwriter/producer Elof Loelv to work with her. “DJ, Ease My Mind” worked out so well that Malin and Gustaf immediately wrote and recorded a second song, the nine-minute “Under The Bridges”, a nine-minute opus that became the first B-side.
“Only then did we realise we had a band,” says Malin.
“We had only talked briefly about the end result,” Gustaf continues, “but when we finished the songs, we realised we had the same vision, and that was very inspiring for us, and for Elof too.”
Malin: “My memory is that we never spoke of the end result; we just went with intuition and feeling, which was the key to our continuing to work together. It was so free.”
So they became Niki & The Dove (no surprise that they don’t offer insight into the names origin), releasing their single on UK indie Moshi Moshi in autumn 2010. Between more recording (again with Elof, who Gustaf calls their, “critical third eye; he helps us look with a different view”), they began to play shows.
Live, Niki & The Dove have a permanent live drummer, Magnus Böqvist, with Kalle Perlskog sometimes doubling up, though when they get the chance, there are three drummers, a bassist and two dancers flanking Malin’s exuberant presence, which brings the tracks’ instinctive rhythms even more to life. “I had dancers with Disdishdance,” says Malin. “They add a magical energy and power to the live performance.”
Their second single “The Fox” was released in May 2011 on the legendary US label Sub-Pop, backed by “Gentle Roar” and a live version of “Somebody,” one of their most delirious pop creations. The duo then signed to Mercury for the UK and Europe, which in October 2011 released a seven-track EP The Drummer, led by its title track and also including “Last Night”, “Mother Protect” and “Manon”. All album versions of previously released tracks are remixed and revamped, while “Under The Bridges” appears here in an abridged version, shorn of its thunderous instrumental coda.
With 11 songs lined up together, Niki & The Dove is an exhilarating experience, and once you’ve assimilated the lyrics (all written by Malin), like stepping into a piece of art. Take “The Drummer”. While the EP was a deliciously ambitious suite about the desert, the title track is more a story, “about a wrestle at night, in a no man’s land, where everything is uncertain,” says Malin. “It's about the inevitable question of if you're choosing the right direction in your life or not.”
Malin typically hesitates to explain her words, but will concede some guidelines. The album’s gentlest, and arguably more hallucinatory, moment, “Manon” taps what she calls the, “raging energy,” of the Arab Spring, “but to personalise it by turning revolution into a young girl.” “Under The Bridges” (“It takes me back/to the night we danced/under the bridges”) taps nostalgic memories of teenage-hood, while “The Fox” goes even further back, alluding to a children’s story used as therapy for curing insomnia but in this context, it’s a gateway to, “climb and to get a new perspective, to break free, as an adult.”
Fear also coats “Gentle Roar”, addressing Malin’s former phobia of the subway that she solved by sampling the kind of sound that had once scared her - “then suddenly the sound was beautiful and otherworldly. And then I sat down and started to write the lyric.”
Mysterious, magical, primal…some words that sum up Niki & The Dove. But claiming, as some have, that Malin writes mystical or fairy tales, she says, “is not true.” Gustaf says it’s one interpretation, “but our view is that we are inspired by both real life and tales of nature and animals.”
Malin: “This has been going on for hundreds, even thousands, of years, through all art forms. Rousseau, for example, used animals in his painting and that’s how I want to use them in lyrics, to highlight the contrast between our world and theirs, and the similarities. And how nature is right now very much calling upon us.”
In light of the BBC Sound Of 2012 poll, is expectation very much calling on Niki & The Dove? Not in their minds. “It’s wonderful, an extremely big honour, and also unreal,” Gustaf concludes. “But we just make the music that we want to, and never compromise, so no pressure. It’s not like we can change anything anyway. Not yet anyway!”