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Interview: Magnus Sveningsson, The Cardigans
A chat with the Cardigans bassist on their reunion, playing new parts of the world, and hitting new generations with their tunes.
By Nov 27, 2013 Nightlife

The Cardigans are next up in a substantial string of legacy band reunion tours to hit Beijing this year. Ironically they're playing on the same day that Peter Murphy KTV's his own band's jams at Yugong Yishan, so on the nostalgia tip maybe you'll need to flip a coin or decide whether you want to revisit warm and fuzzy memories vs going full Greek with it and re-opening perverse psychological scars that sorta healed up in the '80s. Me, I'd go with Option A: The Cardigans, because it's mostly the original members and they seem to be having a great time playing these days. I know because I talked about it with their original bassist, Magnus Sveningsson, at length, right before he jumped into the practice room to prepare for the current tour:

SmartBeijing: You were the original bass player of the Cardigans, right?

Magnus Sveningsson: Yes, I started the band with Peter [Svensson] the guitar player in '92, when we met [vocalist] Nina [Persson] and Bengt [Lagerberg], our drummer. So that was in our old hometown of Jönköping in November '92, 21 years ago.

SmBj: I want to start with the more recent period and then go back. You guys took a long break between 2007 and 2011. I've read you were starting families, members had other projects, etc… What were you doing during that break?

Magnus: Well, I was here back home in Sweden. I was playing in several bands... I actually played in eight bands at the same time, once. But [me and] Bengt from the Cardigans, we had a country band together called Up the Mountain. I was playing in a... well, I still play in a psychedelic rock band called Dum Dum, and I played with other friends at some clubs, lot of different styles of music. Which I think improved my bass playing a lot, because I'm playing everything from psychedelia to country to old '60s soul and, you know, whatever. The different styles have made me a better player.

And also I got a girlfriend and became a dad so, you know, it's a lot of family back home here in Malmö. That part of life took a lot of time for us, the family-creating, so to speak. And then last year, we're offered by a Swedish festival to perform the Gran Turismo record in its entirety. And we said, "Oh, that would be interesting to do," because we never really thought about performing or playing again. Then we got this offer and we called our agent to see if more people would be interested to see us, so we got to play from Sweden in Scandinavia all the way down to Indonesia and Japan and then Taiwan. So that was much bigger than we expected, and that gave us courage to do this tour of Japan and China and Russia, mainly because it's so much fun. We don't really have to promote, we don't have to sell a lot of new records. Just for fun and to meet new audiences. This is the first time we've played in Beijing and Shanghai, so that's a big inspiration for us, to come to new places.

SmBj: Let me backtrack for a second... Where did the initial offer to play Gran Turismo in full come from?

Magnus: That was last year. It's called Hultsfred, it was the biggest festival in Sweden. It actually went down the same year we played, but it's been going on for like 25 years, the biggest one in Sweden. So they asked us, because we played there many times before as one of the popular Swedish bands. They asked us to do it and we're like, "Oh, shit, well…" And they offered us, I don't know, like 70,000 Euros, it was a really, really big amount of money to play a concert. So we said, "Ok, yeah, sure, we'll do it." And then we added more shows, more festivals that summer. This tour will be more like a Greatest Hits thing, because we'll play more old songs this time than last year. Which is fun.

SmBj: When you first got back together for this festival last year, how had the dynamic of the band changed? Was it still all the original members playing together?

Magnus: Well, except Peter, the guitar player and songwriter, which was kind of odd. Of course Nina writes the lyrics, and I do write the lyrics as well, but Peter was doing all the music. And now we're gonna play his music, his songs. He didn't feel like doing it, but he had no problems with us doing it. So we hired a guitar player, a friend called Oskar [Humblebo], and he can play Peter's parts really, really well. And they sort of look alike as well. It was really relaxed, and really, really fun. Because we had no pressure… we had the pressure of playing well of course, but we didn't have anything new to sell. It was very relaxed.

SmBj: How about audiences now? I have to admit, I was 10 years old when "Lovefool" came out, and now not only are you playing to a new generation, but you're also playing to completely different audiences geographically. You've played in Tokyo and Osaka, Moscow, Tel Aviv, Indonesia, Taipei… What are your impressions playing to different generational and geographical audiences?

Magnus: Hmm… well, for Scandinavia, and maybe the rest of Europe, we've had a long career, and the people who go to see us might be our age of course, people who have followed us since the mid-'90s. Then, you know, it was difficult to tell really, when we played in Jakarta and Taipei, how old these people were. I think a lot of the audiences are around 30, and they sort of grew up with our early MTV hits and stuff like that. I don't know if there were a lot of young people in the audience, maybe… But generally I think our core audience is about our age, or about 7, 8 years younger. So about 30. And of course playing in Japan is always different to the rest of the world, because they're very silent. In between the songs they're dead silent, waiting for us to do anything. It's gonna be interesting to play in China, to see how the audience there is, we don't know… We had the experience of playing in Taiwan, I don't know if it's gonna be the same thing, but that was a wonderful night in Taipei last year.

SmBj: Of the shows you've played over the last year and a half, which ones stand out in your memory?

Magnus: In Moscow last summer there were like 3,000 crazy Russians screaming and dancing throughout the entire show, and singing along to the lyrics... Sometimes it might be a good thing to live normal lives back home here in Sweden, you know. We have families, we go to our work, lead quite normal lives. But then we go around the world and people scream at us, and that's like, "Ok, well, this is strange." But of course it's joyful as well. Same thing in Jakarta. Indonesia is the biggest Muslim country in the world, and then we played our first single "Rise and Shine," which they knew all the words to. We traveled around the world, we've never been here, and you know all the lyrics… it's like we're the Beatles or something like that. It's totally crazy, but so much fun. I will always remember that moment, just playing "Rise and Shine" there in Jakarta. It's freaky to be on stage with that many people in front of you. But I feel honored and glad.

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SmBj: That touches on another thing I wanted to ask you. I assume you're not familiar with any Chinese indie music or bands?

Magnus: Sorry, no.

SmBj: Well, you mentioned earlier that the lyrics were written between yourself and Nina. There are very few Chinese rock bands that have had any international success or recognition, and the ones that have mostly sing in English. Coming from Sweden and breaking out internationally with English-language songs, can you talk about this topic? What do you gain by using a a lingua franca as opposed to your native language?

Magnus: When we cut a record deal in '93 in Sweden, I remember we were actually refused by EMI, because they demanded us to sing in Swedish instead. And we just said, "Fucking no, we're never gonna sing in Swedish." Because the bands we liked back then, like Stone Roses, Smiths, The Sundays were all British and that's where our inspiration came from. We wanted to be a part of that world. Now, I think [singing in Swedish] is, again, a quite big part of the Swedish music scene, and it's more credible. It's like a Swedish wave of music. Of course that's for domestic, or maybe Scandinavian audiences, because there's no way you're gonna break through singing in Swedish. So it was never really a question of going either way, it was very natural to try to become a part of the UK indie scene, which we actually became part of later on. We played a minor part along with Oasis and Blur and The Verve, Supergrass, bands like that, around the mid-'90s.

I think Swedes are generally quite good at English. We start learning English when we're 8, and films or movies are never dubbed in Swedish, so we always get to hear the original language wherever the movie or TV comes from. So you get a pretty good sense of how the melody should sound, in English or French or Italian or Spanish or whatever. I think that helps. So I guess that's that.

SmBj: Now you've come back and you're playing these large stadium shows. When you first started out, what was the scene like? What kind of venues would you play?

Magnus: We came from a town which is in between Stockholm and Mälmo, in the southern part of Sweden, but more rural. We moved to Mälmo, which is on the very southern tip of Sweden, close to Denmark/Copenhagen. We moved here in '94. And then Peter moved to Stockholm later on, but we were never really based in Stockholm. But the scene back then when we started... We played at a lot of universities in Sweden, small clubs, 300-400 people. Traveling around in a tour bus like all the bands did. You get all the gear in the back, and then you travel to Stockholm, Gothenburg, places like this. And then we started to tour in Europe, I remember we were supporting Blur in '95, and that was the start for us to get into the German market, that's very important for Europe. Then we started to tour the UK, then we came to Japan, and then the US. Since then it's been a lot of tour buses. Just recently, this last tour, we were doing flights because we had to fly, more convenient. But a lot of tour buses.

The Cardigans: early days

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SmBj: This will be your first time in mainland China, right?

Magnus: Nina has been to Shanghai, maybe Beijing as well, with her mom as a tourist, maybe three years ago. She might even have visited the Wall. But none of us have played in mainland China before. We've been to Hong Kong, but only doing interviews. So it will be the debut.

SmBj: Do you have any expectations or anticipations, or any questions about China?

Magnus: [laughs] It's so big! We would love to be able to stay for a week and play more shows. It feels like a shame, you know... We've been to Japan I think 15 times, and of course Tokyo and Osaka are amazing cities, but we know them, sort of. We've been there before. But to only spend one day or two days in Shanghai and two days in Beijing feels like a waste, because we probably won't have the time to see very much. So that's a shame. But that's how it is, we had to fly on the way to Moscow and then St. Petersburg, so it's just very quick. And I guess in order to make the economics work on the tour we can't have so many days off, because we have to pay the crew. So that's why it's always very short. But I would love to see some of the classic places in Beijing. And I guess Shanghai is really amazing as well, but in Shanghai it's more modern in a way isn't it?

SmBj: Yeah, I would say Shanghai is a more cosmopolitan city whereas Beijing is more gritty and historical.

Magnus: Yeah, yeah. But it's gonna be amazing.

SmBj: How did this actually work out? How did you decide or get approached to fit China into this leg of your tour?

Magnus: I'm not really sure. Nina's right now about to release a solo record, so we had to squeeze this tour in to work with her schedule. I think first we got several offers from around the world, and our concert promoter and our manager discussed it before they talked to us. We tell our concert promoter that we are willing to play the shows, and let him ask his contacts around the world. And I think we got bids from China and Russia at the same time, so we made a six-leg tour that would work. We were actually supposed to play in South America as well, but the economy was so bad, we would lose like 40,000 US Dollars if we did it. So we just skipped it. It's too much money to lose, even though we've never played in South America before, and that would be so great. But you can't travel around the world and miss your kids for 10 days and lose 40,000 dollars. That's bad business. [laughs]

SmBj: Besides shows with The Cardigans, what else are you involved in? Musical projects, or other projects?

Magnus: I play with a friend of mine who's also in this psychedelic band, her name is Christine Owman. She's almost like a female Tom Waits in a way. Maybe not as rough as Tom Waits, but in that kind of field. So that's really cool. And then I work as a teacher for young kids, and I take care of my family, so it's not too much time actually. I don't have time to play in eight bands any more like I used to when I was a single man. And Nina is releasing a solo record, the first single is out now, called "Animal Heart". Peter, the guitar player, he's working in LA, writing music for Teenage Idol artists, which is really strange, but that's what he does for some reason. So we're kind of spread out at the moment.

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SmBj: I'm a bit younger than the first wave of Cardigans fans, but a lot of these kinds of bands of all different genres that I was into when I was a kid, even listening to them after they had long broken up, are coming back and doing these reunion shows. It's interesting, and it must be partially related to internet culture and people being able to re-discover and regain interest in your music.

Magnus: Yeah, sure, sure. We talked about it yesterday. We are so happy that we haven't really worn ourselves out as people or friends, and we haven't worn the music out either. We play songs like, "Carnival" from '95, which we considered a joke for such a long time. And then like, yeah, it's pretty nice, we can do this, it's fun, we don't have to be ashamed, we can do it just for the song and we know people in Japan or in China will love it. So we don't have to be so uptight about things. Of course we only play songs that we ourselves could stand up for. It's a pretty nice job to actually be able to play our own music that we still enjoy, and we enjoy ourselves as friends, and we get to travel around the world and play for people who hopefully will be very happy. It's a pretty good life. And I think that's the reason why a lot of bands reform and tour, because there's a financial possibility for new fans and stuff like that. And there's always a demand for nostalgic shows in a way. You still have to be good, but we have six albums of work that we can perform, and that's worth something.

SmBj: And you've been playing frequently enough recently that I imagine you're pretty tight…

Magnus: Well yeah, we just rehearsed for two days. It's getting there. We played a lot of the songs last year, so I'm not too worried. It's gonna be good. Sometimes, some of the songs we haven't played since '97, we're like, "Ok, let's bring this fucker up and see what happens." [laughs] It's funny, the fingers actually find their way on the keys or the guitar neck. We literally haven't played it for 17 years, and we're like, "Hmm, yeah, there it is!" And Nina finds the words just by looking into her internal library in her head, and there the song is. And it's a very joyful way of just playing, not being too uptight.

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SmBj: As a bassist, when you're playing a song you haven't jammed for 17 years, how much of it is muscle memory, and to what extent are you bringing a new perspective to it?

Magnus: I think it's just muscle memory I'm afraid. [laughs] But it's ok. Before, on previous tours, Peter and Nina were quite uptight with just playing the same songs and not shifting songs in and out of the set. But we have 23 songs right now that we're rehearsing, and we might not play all of them, but we will give some songs the chance to get into the set, and some songs might differ from show to show. That easiness is something new, which I find very nice. But it's not about life and death, it's like, "Yeah, we'll play that old song, that's nice. But this is also nice, we'll shift for tonight and see what happens." So it's the laidback-ness that I like a lot.

SmBj: Ok, I'm going to put you on the spot for a second. What is your favorite Cardigans song, not necessarily personal favorite but actually your favorite to play?

Magnus: I like "I Need Some Fine Wine and You, You Need to Be Nicer" from our last record, Super Extra Gravity. I don't know if you're familiar with the song "0345 No Sleep"? We played it yesterday. It wasn't really supposed to be in the set, but because Oskar, our guitar player, he hadn't played it, but he's an extremely quick learner. So we played it very late last night, and we almost started to cry, like, "This is fucking beautiful." So it made it into the set. I think that's one of our most beautiful songs. Nina's voice is so perfect with that kind of song, which is very tranquil and smokey. So I will pick these two, "0345" for the musical quality, and "I Need Some Fine Wine" for the bass playing.

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SmBj: Will those be on your setlist in Beijing and Shanghai?

Magnus: Yeah, they will. No worries. They're gonna be in there. We're gonna rock the house out. And we're gonna play at least six or seven really old songs, and we're gonna play a lot of songs from Gran Turismo. I think half of the set will be from the '90s and half from the 2000s. Like a real Greatest Hits tour. Back in the days, we were offered to do Greatest Hits tours in Japan, but they only wanted material from our first three records. And that felt like a sellout, because at that time it wouldn't represent what we wanted to do. But now, hopefully some people have heard all of our records and will appreciate all of it. I think it's always the artist's freedom to pick whatever songs the artist would like to play. And now we've decided to do a broad spectrum of all the stuff. So expect like ten songs from the '90s and ten from the 2000s, or something like that.

SmBj: I guess in the end there's no better judge of the greatest hits than you, who wrote the music...

Magnus: Hopefully. In a way, it's important for an artist to always be up to date and do what he or she would like to do. At the same time, I think it's stupid to be too uptight and only play the new record, or only the old records. We will do a broad spectrum of all kinds of stuff, and hopefully that will bring joy to the people. Hopefully more joy than only playing old, old, old, old stuff, because that wouldn't be really us.

SmBj: That's all I have... anything else you want to add?

Magnus: Thank you, I think the band is waiting for me in there now...

Catch The Cardigans this Sunday, December 1 at ThinkPad Space. Grip your tickets here.

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