Sweden’s Niki & the Dove Take Aim at American Success


Sweden’s Niki & the Dove spent a good deal of 2012 becoming one of Europe’s favorite bands. They were nominated for British awards you’ve probably never heard of (BBC Sound), toured the continent with pop acts you’ve also probably never heard of (Hurts), and played major festivals you might, maybe, be familiar with, depending on how much Doctor Who you watch (Reading). The trick now, as it has been for countless acts before them, is: Can they turn European buzz into some good old-fashioned American enthusiasm?

The band’s brand of bouncy, mildly mysterious danceable pop has had numerous tortured genre labels applied to it—”indietronica” being one of the more odious—and been compared to everyone from the Knife to Lykke Li to Robyn. In other words, other Swedish artists. But the basic laziness inherent in those comparisons makes a bit of sense—it’s hard not to see a certain through line of national character in their work. Many of Niki & the Dove’s songs feature an impish, lightly accented female voice crying, yelping, and sighing with a mixture of wonder and ecstasy over complex, engrossing, and energizing electronics. They couldn’t be more Swedish if they came with a tin of fermented herring.

The band started casually in the laid-back music scene of Gothenburg, its two principal members, Malin Dahlström (vocals) and Gustaf Karlöf (keyboards), performing with rotating groups of friends. “There is a playful feel, an experimental attitude to writing music [in Gothenburg],” says Karlöf via Skype about the town that has also nurtured acts such as Jens Lekman, the Knife, Air France, and Little Dragon. “I can sense that in my musician friends. They are not cowards when it comes to making new stuff—they really like to experiment. In Stockholm, people are afraid to do something that sticks out.”

Whimsically, and without much thought for the future, Dahlström and Karlöf decided to write a song together. The resulting track, “DJ, Ease My Mind” (which can be found on their debut, Instinct), features Dahlström’s voice echoing over increasingly insistent beats and thundering drums that hypnotize the listener even as they drive forward. It sticks out. “We were quite happy with the result,” Karlöf says. They decided to write another. “Four or five songs later, we thought, ‘Maybe we have a band?'”

They retain some of that initial experimentation in their live shows, improvising around the beginning and endings of songs, which Karlöf says they often don’t have planned in advance. No set list. Live, the band expands or contracts as economics allow. Dahlström, whose day job is composing music for massive Swedish theater productions, often likes to incorporate a choir and dancers into live shows on their home turf. But they often travel as a two-piece, and whether their show features two or 10 onstage, there’s a spirit of experimentation in the music, which holds true to Dahlström’s stated band mission: “It’s fun to do things with your friends.”

“The sound of Niki & the Dove, I wish for it to be dynamic,” Dahlström says. “The thing we’re working on now is hopefully something different from what you heard on Instinct. One should always try to be in a sort of dynamic state, that we don’t get stuck in something. So I hope Gustaf [and I] can explore and transform the group.”

Niki & the Dove perform at the Bowery Ballroom on January 12.