Sunday Times Culture interview live now

"Super Extra Gravity proves the Cardigans have lost none of their pulling power" says Dan Cairns
Read the full interview online here: or below.

At the start of their current single, I Need Some Fine Wine and You, You Need to Be Nicer, the Cardigans’ lead singer, Nina Persson, commands an unseen suitor: “Sit. Good dog. Stay. Bad dog.” In the accompanying video, she appears in a succession of outfits — whip-wielding dominatrix, French maid, silk lingerie — guaranteed to raise blood pressure in male viewers.

There was a time when music fans would have taken this at face value. In 1997, when the Swedish five-piece hit global pay dirt with the dance-rock single Lovefool, Persson’s then pop-princess image obscured not only that song’s pretty despairing lyrics, but also the fact that the singer herself was never going to play the role of perma-grinning popsy for long. “The force has always been there that wants to drag me into those places,” she says darkly. “And it’s made me sick that I always have to be the one to say no.”

Hair-wise — a trivial but sometimes unintentionally revealing marker of someone’s state of mind — today Persson is midway between the bottle-blonde of Lovefool and the severe brown shade she adopted for her solo project, 2001’s A Camp. Ask her how she’d describe the images she adopts in the video and she deadpans: “In drag.” Which suggests she’s reached some sort of accommodation with that force she refers to — and on her terms.

“I’m there in S&M clothes, and I think it’s fun. But somebody without breasts can’t wear latex. I look like a Baltic 13-year-old you should pity.”

Accommodating demands and perceptions (and misconceptions) has been something the whole band have had to deal with. When Lovefool was included on the soundtrack of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, the Cardigans’ subsequent album, Gran Turismo, became a multiplatinum, worldwide success. Peter Svensson, the band’s guitarist and, with Persson, chief songwriter, says it was never meant to be that way.

“We were just a bunch of teenagers making a record. In Britain, maybe it’s different, but coming from a small town in Sweden, you’re not dreaming of becoming a recording artist. We were so naive. Then, suddenly, we’d sold a million records in Japan.”

Svensson formed the band in 1992 with the bassist Magnus Sveningsson after they bonded over a shared love of Black Sabbath. Thirteen years on, the original line-up is still intact. But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. In 1999, after the gruelling Gran Turismo tour, Sveningsson had a breakdown, and for several years, it seemed the group had split up. It was during this long hiatus that Persson teamed up with her American husband, the film composer Nathan Larson, and Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous to record her own album.

“I felt that I had to run away and go to the woods and make a CV almost,” she says. “I didn’t even tell them (the band), I didn’t even play them anything till the record was out — which was rude of me, and they were very offended.”

During the same period, both Svensson and Sveningsson also worked on their own projects. Looking back, Svensson says now that “musically, all the stuff that happened outside the Cardigans had more in common than we realised”. The negative energy that swamped the band in 1999 was replaced by a desire, simply, to see each other again. So, in 2003, the band reconvened to record the superb Long Gone Before Daylight, an album of songs consider-ably longer and, stylistically, more sprawling and laid-back than their usual 3min 30sec in-and-out spiky pop. By Gran Turismo’s squillion-selling standards, it was a flop, but this relative failure bought the band creative space.

“The more they hype you,” reflects Persson, “the harder you’ll get kicked afterwards. Now we have peace to just do our thing.” Svensson agrees. “It’s a fantastic position to be in: from the beginning, we were signed as an act that was meant to sell 5,000 copies. And we’ve always moved away from what made us popular.”

Or, inadvertently perhaps, back towards it. For Super Extra Gravity, the band’s new album, is a lean machine where Long Gone was appealingly all over the place. The track timings alone — only two songs bust through the four-minute mark — attest to a tighter focus. Svensson’s way with a brutally simply guitar hook is highlighted on Fine Wine; Persson’s bafflingly underrated voice does that silk-turns-to-sandpaper thing, one minute confiding, the next excoriating; and her lyrics are as self-knowing or weather-eyed as you’d expect from a writer who once observed “I caught you smiling with pointed teeth”.

Reunited with their long-time producer, Tore Johansson, the Cardigans sound was revitalised. It remains to be seen if their sales figures enjoy a similar spurt. One British music paper recently called the Cardigans “the new Fleetwood Mac”. (“If only,” their record label is probably thinking.) But if you ignore the peak on the sales graph of 1996-99 — and, in many ways, the band would rather you did — you’re left with a group blessed with a knack for pop genius, but with a cussedness and waywardness that is enduringly indie.

“I guess we think we’re on a quest to change radio,” laughs Persson. Then she adds, with characteristic candour and resignation: “I mean, we know we can’t, of course.” She doesn’t seem remotely bothered by this; nor does Svensson. You can’t win, he says. “Someone wrote that our first album was boring, so we thought, ‘Let’s make one that’s lighter.’ Then someone else said we were an easy-listening band.”

“Part of me is happy with providing people with pop music,” says Persson. “But I think our music can be listened to on different levels. I love it that they dance to our music. But you feel like you’re a commercial on TV. And, to be frank, we absolutely are.” Persson’s last words in the intro of Fine Wine are unmistakable: “Roll over.” Will her wish be our command?
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