Swedish people are cool. It’s no secret that the Swedes have a certain “je ne sais quoi”, a magic that’s spawned everything from furniture empire Ikea to cult clothing label ACNE, and even Drumcode founder, Adam Beyer, topped off by a famously blessed gene pool and some of Europe’s most breathtaking scenery.
It’s this special brand of Scandinavian cool that’s been stamped on Spain’s historic Sonar festival, transporting a mini version of the annual music event from Barcelona to Stockholm, for the second consecutive year in 2015.
Unlike the rowdy streets of Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, the Stockholm Waterfront Conference Center doesn’t look like a traditional festival venue. All wide concrete staircases and down-lit chrome design, it’s more alien mother-ship than clubbing mecca, as cues of fair-haired locals begin to amass out the front.
It is, thankfully, completely enclosed, a relief as DJ Mag approaches the enormous venue rosy-cheeked on a frigid Friday night, ready to kick off Sonar’s jam-packed two-day programme. The non-traditional format continues right from the start — Sonar Stockholm begins at a bizarrely early 7pm — a far cry from the late night debauchery of its hard partying Spanish cousin.
Despite Sonar Stockholm’s slick and modernist appeal, the brand itself is nothing new. Established 22 years ago by Ricard Robles, Enric Palau, and Sergi Caballero in Barcelona, Sonar has been exporting its name outside Spain since 2002, throwing in a team of experts from the original event to help local promoters get their own “micro Sonars” off the ground. Successfully back for a second year, Sonar, it would appear, has translated to Stockholm well, proving a new dog can indeed be taught old tricks.
Ironically, the first act DJ Mag spots isn’t Swedish, rather Icelandic. Unsurprising, considering Sonar Reykjavik wrapped up only a day earlier. Icelandic three-piece, Samaris, play a set of what’s best described as “glacial electronica”, their lyrics lifted from 19thcentury Icelandic poems with a few clarinet solos thrown in for good measure. Rather than pretentious, it’s perfectly charming, a fitting introduction to Sonar’s electronic-based, yet often chilled-out bill — a substance-soaked underground dance-off this is not.
Sonar Stockholm’s main room is impressive. Rings of hanging spotlights bathe the stage in a frosty glow, surrounded by storey high LEDs that swirl with inky landscape visuals. The video is courtesy of talented AV two-piece, Roll the Dice, who warp and gurgle their way through what feels like an endlessly building 60-minute track; it’s agonisingly taut and macabre, making their performance one of Sonar’s most memorable.
Next, it’s Swedish golden boy and teen heartthrob, Lorentz, a pop sensation akin to that of Timberlake or Usher in his Scandinavian homeland.
An adept frontman thanks to his years in family duo, Lorentz & Sakarias, he skips alone onstage kept company only by a roster of R&B-influenced backing tracks, his Swedish vocals thick with vocoder and shuddering reverb.
It’s a massive turn out for the trendy twenty-something, as the crowd — dotted with man buns, high-top trainers and oversized knitwear — frequently bursts into unified song, as a man next to DJ Mag chomps away on a muesli bar that he’s obviously brought from home.
After a quick interlude, British act Kindness regally takes the stage. All warm, sloppy grooves and nonchalant vocals, his live act lives up to all the hype that continues to swirl around him, thanks to his still much-talked-about debut, ‘World, You Need A Change of Mind’ back in 2012, and November's excellent follow-up 'Otherness'.
Jamie xx is next to select, playing a set that feels like he could have spun it in his sleep. A fusion of predictable club hits plus a few “wild cards” (that extends to him opening his set with a gravelly soul record), it’s palatable and pleasurable though hardly persuasive, giving off the air that Jamie xx no longer feels it necessary to try to win anyone over.
And he’s right. The xx frontman’s hour-long closing set is met with enthusiastic fanfare from the Swedes, as a lazy spin of Caribou’s ‘Can’t Do Without You’ rings out across the room.
Indeed, it’s the Scandinavian acts as a whole that come up trumps when compared to Sonar Stockholm’s brimming international roster, a predicament that’s no bad thing in Sonar’s books.
“Sweden has had, like every other Sonar outside Spain, a very important component of local artists that are very well-known in the area or are actively participating in energizing the scene.
I think that’s one thing that is very important to Sonar, adding talent to the formula and creating momentum for an artist,” Sonar’s PR director, Georgia Taglietti tells us when we sit down to chat in a cavernous press room, one of the many perks of hosting a festival in a conference centre.
“As the main promoter, it’s important for (Barcelona) to get to know that artist, to see them perform live, see them interact with their own public and see if they can jump outside that local scene.”
It’s this Swedish local scene that has long been a hub of house, techno and — more recently — pop-based electronica. Forget all those clichéd Scandi stereotypes, Stockholm has been influential in not only the creation of modern pop music but also dance.
Max Martin is perhaps the most famous un-famous musician of the noughties, penning the best-known pop hits for everyone from The Backstreet Boys to Britney, plus most of Taylor Swift’s latest record, ‘1989’ and pretty much everything Katie Perry’s ever made, while Eric Prydz continues to be one of the most influential forces behind the US progressive house movement.
Sweden’s modern techno scene — think Adam Beyer, his beau Ida Engberg or Cocoon legends, Minilogue — continues to thrive, though Beyer’s Drumcode imprint appears to have translated better offshore than it ever has at home.
Then there’s Swedish House Mafia, Avicii, the list goes on, though Sonar Stockholm is more focused on championing intelligent electronica, rather than EDM’s current chart fodder.
High intensity synths collide with ratcheting, analogue rhythms as we enter Red Bull’s dome stage on day two, delighted to see Denmark-based DJ Courtesy live up to her fierce reputation. A welcome amp up from Friday night’s more laid-back proceedings, wonky stabs and infinite oscillator loops punch their way through the only half full room, as the Copenhagen native provides the kind of visceral techno we’ve been waiting for.
Next, Cómeme co-owner Matias Aguayo proves why he’s one of the best things to come out of South America (supermodels and football players aside), pumping out thunderous tribal house vibes with palpable enthusiasm.
Each mix is lightly kissed with housey codas and the occasional drum solo, one of which is sneakily sampled from T Connection’s classic disco jam, ‘At Midnight’. “I’m here from Colombia!” he shouts excitedly down the mic between fun, almost-disco cuts, though there’s little doubt anyone would confuse Matias for a Swede.
No discussion of Swedish electro-pop can go without mention of Robyn, a woman who successfully reinvented herself from cookie-cutter '90s pop star to modern music icon. Though not officially on the Sonar bill, she continually pops up, playing both nights on different stages.
DJ Mag is forced to leg it from Towlie’s jack hammering industrial techno set at the mere whisper of her name, catching her protégé Zhala on the Sonar Club stage instead.
Zhala seems the culmination of all of Scandinavia’s overlapping influences; she’s eclectic yet accessible, with a Björk-esque timbre, as she cycles through an artillery of easily digestible pop bangers, soon to drop as an LP on Robyn’s Konichiwa Records in the summer.
Paul Kalkbrenner and Nina Kraviz are tasked to close Sonar Stockholm’s second night, both playing the same timeslot in adjacent rooms. Nina — gorgeous and aloof as ever — bangs out her usual brand of lo-fi and monotonous contemporary techno, understated in a black t-shirt on Sonar’s Red Bull stage.
Kalkbrenner, on the other hand, is all enthusiastic fist pumps and epic, mounting builds, as the veteran Berlin-based producer offers up the kind of compartmentalized, textured techno for which his homeland is renowned. Proceedings wrap up at a prompt 2am, with everyone off home to bed well before the sun breaks over Stockholm’s picturesque cityscape.
“You know, it’s a very classic word but we 'showcase' talent and that’s what we’ve always wanted to do,” Georgia tells DJ Mag when the two-day party is done. And a “showcase” is exactly what Sonar Stockholm does so well.
A mix of electronic acts, spanning from machine-made pop to industrial techno, it’s the wealth of Swedes onstage at Sonar that really resonates; mind-bending considering the country’s tiny nine million person population. Be it sugar-coated pop or hands-in-the-air house, there’s little doubt Sweden is a simmering hotbed of something very special; so if you’re not already, watch this space.