Seeing Mando Diao live is like going to church. Our fans get the same feeling from us that some people get from religion.”
So says Gustaf Norén, guitarist, scalp-tingling singer, moody songwriter, and one-fifth of Mando Diao. Like his colleagues — guitarist/singer Björn Dixgård, bassist Carl-Johan “CJ” Fogelklou and drummer Samuel Giers — he grabbed onto rock & roll to save his soul, once he was old enough to know what life would be like in dear old Borlänge.
“Our town is dangerous and cold,” he explains. “It has the highest drug and murder rate of anyplace in Sweden. You had to be bad if you didn’t want to get hit by some gang of fools in school. And if you could survive all that, then life became boring as well as dangerous.”
The future bandmates avoided homicide through a combination of street smarts and seclusion within the shelter of music. “I was on the outside,” Gustaf remembers. “Metallica and Guns N’ Roses were all you heard in my school, but I was really into soul music and The Beatles, and then when I heard Nirvana for the first time, I felt that rock & roll would be the one thing in my life that would never let me down. It was something I could count on, just like a Christian could count on God.
“Of course,” he adds, a little ominously, “when someone feels he’s been betrayed by God, he gets really angry.”
That’s what happened to our heroes as rock dribbled away into a puddle of gooey pop and poseur punk. Aghast, they came to realize that the only way to keep the magic alive, and to keep their faith intact, would be to do it themselves.
But that took a while. The roots of the band trace back to 1995, with Björn present at the creation of Butler, the first incarnation of Mando Diao. People came and went until, four years later, the rest of the current lineup found itself standing amidst the wreckage of half-assed losers who couldn’t keep up with the group’s mission. “We got real serious,” Gustaf says. “We gave up thinking about school. We gave up thinking about girlfriends. Björn and I locked ourselves away in this summer house and spent six months writing songs. We gave up our lives for the band, because we knew that without Mando Diao we would be nothing.”
They were, at that moment of commitment, about sixteen years old.
Like wild-eyed prophets in the wilderness, Mando Diao slammed into the listless Borlänge club scene. A local writer gaped at their performance, a perfect balance of control and anarchy through months of messianic rehearsal, then rushed back to his computer to anoint them as the best unsigned band he had ever seen. “He felt we were going to be as big as Oasis,” Gustaf says. “Those were big words.”
News spread quickly to Stockholm, as distant a vision as Oz might seem from Kansas. They sifted through the clamor of major label offers and settled on a deal with EMI in Sweden because, as Gustaf puts it, “they understood our music best.”
In fact, they where so understanding that, after bringing the band into the studio to re-record the songs on their demo, they agreed with their decision to stick with the original, home-brew versions. “We liked that naïve feeling we had on our demos,” Gustaf says. “We recorded, engineered, produced, and mixed them for ourselves with no idea that we were recording an album that people would talk about and write about and hear on the radio. So those demos are kind of special to us.”
Just prior to the album’s Swedish release in September 2002, Mando Diao signed onto a national tour with the Hellacopters, Kent, and Thåström — three acts with strong followings throughout the country. Though sunk at the bottom of the bill, Mando Diao saw this as their chance to seize the spotlight from their toughest competition. Which is exactly what happened.
“It was like women’s pro-golfer Anikka Sorenstam taking on the guys,” Gustaf says. “We wanted to measure ourselves against the biggest bands in Sweden. We’d done lots of live shows, but we’d never been on a real, professional tour. So here are these other bands that had been playing for ten years and were thirty or forty years old, and here come these twenty-year-old guys, playing real rock & roll and doing it better.”
Momentum from the album and the triumphant tour carried Mando Diao all the way to Japan, where Bring ’em In had just been released. Their romp beneath the Rising Sun precipitated scenes unlike any they had encountered before. “It was so frantic,” Gustaf says. “And after we conquered Japan and came back home, we started getting these letters from Japanese fans who had translated our lyrics from English to Swedish! We didn’t even know our songs in Swedish. They’re so crazy over there, which is why we love them.”
“The whole experience of Mando Diao is about not caring what the outside world thinks as we head toward our goal,” Gustaf continues. “This train is moving too fast for us to see the outside landscape. Our songs are our Gods: We have to obey them. Nothing can stop us. We honestly believe our record is better than anything by the Who, or the Kinks, or the Small Faces. It may even be better than many of the Stones’ or Beatles’ records. We’re competing with the biggest bands in this world.
In the last two years, Mando Diao has toured Scandinavia, Europe, USA and Japan and managed to collect an impressive file of exuberant international press clippings. The only thing that maybe niggles a bit is the recurrent reference to the group as a part of a ‘60s inspired wave of retro bands. This might be true if one thinks of pop music as a dated phenomenon. Mando has a somewhat wider view on this.
Bring ‘em In put Mando Diao high on the list of “Swedish bands with international potential”, the band has been preaching the Mando gospel on a global crusade, where their eccentric combination of manic energy and persistent melodies has helped build a growing cult of faithful disciples in Europe, USA and especially Japan. With one foot in the tradition of efficient ‘60s pop song writing and the other just as comfortably placed in the sounds of today, Mando Diao is ready to surf in on a second wave. Gustaf: “It would have been so geeky if we’d tried to do Bring ‘Em In one more time. We’ve got more money now, we’re older and more professional. Mando Diao will always make honest music, reflecting where we are right now.”
Instead the band went to Bath, England, to record Huricane Bar with Richard Rainey, best known for his work with U2. Rainey got in touch with the band after hearing a demo, finding himself intrigued by the originality of songs. After a Mando gig in Berlin, they got the chance to meet and discuss some of life’s more important issues: The Beatles, Britpop and the TV series The Office.
The band came to England, armed with close to 60 new demos, all of them penned by the increasingly hot songwriting team of Dixgård/ Norén.
The first single to be released from Hurricane Bar in Japan and Scandinavia, Clean Town, has been lying around maturing for about two years. Which, according to Mando’s philosophy, is a proof of its strength. “If you still like a song then, you know that it’s got mileage”. Clean Town also summarises the Borlänge theme that runs more or less throughout their new album Hurricane Bar. This might have something to do with the fact that nowadays the band is based in Stockholm. “It’s a tribute to Borlänge. It’s absolutely not about putting it down,”fucking shit town, let’s get out of here”… It’s more about the fact that you can leave the town, but it will always stay inside you”.
Hurricane Bar is Mando Diao with their guard down. Pop songs of the kind that sounds so deceivingly obvious that you’re tempted to call them simple. But as everyone knows, there’s nothing simple about a good pop tune. On the contrary, it couldn’t be more difficult.
“So, bring ’em in. We’ll take ’em down.”