I’ve met a lot of intense people in my life, many were dangerous, others just very smart and focused. The Swedish “Electro Rock” band “The Sounds” are fronted by a bisexual vocalist Maja Ivarsson and she is one of those intense individuals. She is a deep thinker, and though she claims she does not live on the edge, I could still feel it in her voice. You never give up certain things in life, especially if they were the things that made you who you are today. Maja and I talked about the 20-year history of the band, America, Sweden, Prague, riots, drugs, underground sex clubs, musical influences, and how somehow something they did, that she never thought much about is suddenly very relevant in America right now. “The Sounds” videos have sexuality, nudity, violence, torture, executions, school girls rushing in wearing gas masks, and smoke grenades, ALL IN ONE VIDEO. I have to say, I was glad I did this one over the phone, as wonderful as she is, being an aggressive Type-A Male, even I would have been intimidated. On this call, the roles were reversed. Covering the new album “The Things We Do For Love”, she is one incredibly strong woman, with stronger ideas and opinions.
Jeremy Hinks: Well Maja, thank you for the call, even from Sweden. I was planning to interview you and photograph you at the gig in Salt Lake, but that was all pre-pandemic planning. So I have been at least lucky enough to watch your live stream show, concert with your sound crew.
Maja: Thank you, it was a bit strange, like doing a long soundcheck with your makeup on. You want to put on a good show to your fans and it’s difficult for a band like us who have been together for this many years and we have this great live reputation, and I’m the lead singer who involves interacting with the audience into the night. I want us to have a great time together, and we feed off each other and it’s really difficult not having a crowd. But it felt good coming home that night and seeing all the comments from the fans, all the hearts, and applause, and them all trying to sing along in capital letters, it’s crazy but we had 200,000 views so that was wonderful.
JH: Well if you can get 200,000 people coming to your shows on the tour, that will make up for it.
Maja: You’re in Salt Lake right?
JH: Yeah, and the concert hall you were going to play at has shit lighting, but wow, the sound there is fantastic. I have shot so many shows there, everyone sounds great, but way too dark.
Maja: Well for us, it’s dark, we like that, it’s the mood, are people drunk?
JH: At the shows there? Oh yeah, all the time. But for now, it’s like the Dropkick Murphys, when I lived in Boston, and it was always their home shows, they got used to every one stage diving, in their kilts and just living it up. They played a streamed show on St Patrick’s day, and they said how boring it was without all that in their live experience.
Maja: Yes, it is boring. We will tear it up in the future, but I have seen that change in the live scene anyway. It has been my experience that kids do not get in the mosh pit anymore, they do not stage dive anymore. There is a lot of anxiety, you can’t stage dive, you can’t sit on someone’s shoulders, can’t smoke, you can’t be drunk. There are a lot of “no-no’s”, and it’s sad for a rock band like The Dropkick Murphys or like us, who are used to seeing the “Wall of Death” or the mosh pit, that is done respectfully, that is done in love, but kids don’t know how to enjoy the live show like they used to. So, doing the live stream, well, it’s not much different than it has been the last few years.
JH: It’s kinda going that way sure. I’ll let you know, I’m 46 I and would still do stage dives.
Maja: (Laughing) Yeah that’s good but the 17-year-olds won’t.
JH: I did when I was 17, there are just certain things I never grew out of.
Maja: Sure but if you had a son that age today, would you ask him if he would do that, he would tell you no.
JH: Yeah, I have daughters, I will have to get them into it. One is a gymnast, so, stage diving would be great fun for her. At least when we get to be able to go to their shows. So, you know “The Levellers”? (The Levellers are a folk-punk band that play speed metal on acoustic guitar and fiddle, sometimes they have a didgeridoo for kids, you gotta get into them).
Maja: Oh HELL YES!!! You know that band too? I LOVE THEM. I have a story from Prague.
JH: Well, I was in the mosh pit at their Paris gig in ’97, in my kilt, I was doing backflips off the barricade. And that was one of the crazier gigs I have ever done.
Maja: Ok, can I tell you something funny, my teenage friends and I went to Prague in ’97, and we ended up in a bar, and you are 16, in a bar in Prague, drinking absinthe and thinking we were so cool, and we met these guys, and they said “We are in a band” and I said, “What band” and they said, “We are The Levellers”, so that must have been the same tour.
JH: So have you seen them live?
Maja: No, I just drank with them.
JH: Well, you have John, the fiddle player, he is like 2 meters tall (6’7″) and he is going light speed on that thing, they were opening for Peter Murphy at a festival, and you just love them live. So, once you get into them, you know you can do ANYTHING at a Levellers gig, in the love, of course, I mean, passionate fun moshpit love violence for your fellow.
Maja: It was excellent to be 17 years in a bar in Prague with a band like that, being that young with them telling people off. It’s fun to have that memory after such a long time. I mean I turned 18 a year later and started “The sounds” and we all remember, “Yeah, we met these cool guys in Prague”.
JH: So, ok, Malmo, nice place I have been there. Sweden is fantastic, my wife’s father is half Swedish, and used to live there, we went all over the southern half of the country, and it was hard for me, cause I would hear them talk, and trying to speak Swedish, came out Danish, so, everyone laughed a yank who speaks Danish in their country. “We are in Sweden”.
Maja: Well, yes, in Malmo we do have a very specific dialect and accent.
JH: So, I know you are taking notes on this, I got in a bar fight in Copenhagen, some guy hated Americans, and sucker-punched me.
Maja: Oh, I’m sorry you had that experience.
JH: Nah it’s just me being the dumb straight American white guy, cause everyone different than me, is interesting, so if there is something different about you, that makes you the cool person that you are, I want to know that, and understand it.
Maja: Then that makes you anything BUT the dumb straight white American guy.
JH: So, out of the Swedish acts I have worked with, I have covered Tove Styrke, and have followed Robyn for ages.
Maja: Oh ROBYN, we all love her, she made such an impact on the world, and she is one of those artists that is very respected in the business, with all the other songwriters and singers in Sweden. She is very professional and shy.
JH: Well, everyone in the community loves her. If you are a gay man younger than 40, you better love Robyn, if you don’t … I’m not sure if you’re gay.
Maja: I love your quotes, that is probably true. For us in Sweden she is very mainstream and very credible, she has been making music here since she was 16 years old, she was one of those child popstars. She released music, and did some dark and became cool, and mystique, then became an introvert.
JH: What do you think of young Tove Styrke then?
Maja: Oh, yes, I remember being on tour in the US, and hearing that she did a cover of our song “Living in America” someone called me and said this girl did our song on “Idol”, she developed into something. She deserves a lot of respect I think, a lot of young musicians or singers who have their first breakthrough in such a commercial show as “idol” it is difficult to get depth and credibility, but she is one of the few who did develop into something beyond just the TV show.
JH: She is very outgoing sociable, talks to everyone. I took my daughter to her concert, she was running around hugging everyone, getting in their face, nothing shy about her. She was so nice to everyone. In the video for her song “Sway” it was about two dumb stoner skater kids, you know those guys, just riding around on their skateboards crashing into things. And there was one part, she just stops the music, it all froze, and these guys kissed. It was a pretty cool moment.
Maja: Ahhhhh, that’s sweet.
JH: Yeah it was, and she said that they weren’t gay, but they were best friends, and they had only one take to do it, and they got it, in the one take as real as it could be. And she said on the tour, so many young gay men came up and told her “That was such an inspiration for me, thank you”. I am glad it reached so many people. I love everything she has done.
Maja: Yeah we are two different generations, different backgrounds, now don’t get me wrong, but when I hear your story, it makes me feel a little sad that it’s still such a thing to have two men kissing, it should be more normal today. It should just be more than “Meh” happens every day, and not care, that’s how the rest of Europe sees it, they have moved on.
JH: Well, your video “Tony the Beat”…
Maja: Haha, yes.
JH: You guys didn’t leave anything out of that one.
Maja: Absolutely… It was a lot of fun.
JH: Well, as a photographer, the fact that you guys did it backward was cool, but it reminded me of… Did you see that movie “Atomic Blonde”?
Maja: No, I’ve only seen a review of it.
JH: So it was this dark spy film, and it was all happening in the dark underside of the club scene in cold war Berlin, and the wall coming down. Your video came out before the movie, and I think maybe they saw it and that’s what influenced the visual production of the film. Where you guys trying to share the point of your fluid sexuality in that video? It was a very intense, sexually charged video.
Maja: The point of that was, I think for all of us in the band, we’ve always grown up with the night clubs in Europe, and there was a lot of shady business going on. The idea from the video, it started out wanting it to go one way, and not being able to shoot it all in one take, so we had to do it backward and forwards several times just to get that feel we wanted from the editing, to get it to the way that you enjoyed. But something else we liked in the explicit version of the video is that the girls dancing naked were not supermodels, they were just real normal girls. None of them were extremely sexy playboy models, they were just real, and that was what made it so sexy it being real. Though it is like the point of the Tove Styrke video, it’s sad that we have not gotten any further than that. I think its the same way of looking at the female body to look a certain way, cause real women don’t, I don’t want… your daughters to feel like they need to look like some woman who has had tons of surgery or silicone boobs. Most girls look your mom did, and we should be celebrating that. That video early on was the statement of celebrating who you are, and whatever you want to do, and if you want to do that in a shady night club, fine. The song was about going with the flow and having casual sex, and no regrets.
JH: Well, the line “This song is not for you lovers”, I guess the point was if you connect and the sparks fly, respect each other and have fun.
Maja: Yes, if you both are ready to do what you want to do, it should be fine, even today the song feels so dated, and is still very current. The label didn’t want us to say it that way – “This is not about lovers, it’s about sex partners”. We did it that way, even though we didn’t understand English as our mother language.
JH: “Safe and sound”, was very different than your other work, it had some of this sound of The Cure, and The Chameleons, and some Eurythmics, and some New Order in there. What was the drive for that song, what is the motives for your writing? I mean, it’s crazy, and you are FUCKING INTENSE as a person.
Maja: Definitely New Order, my bandmate created our an Electronic Duo, and we did a lot of early dirty dark 90s euro techno. And the song as we wrote it became more of a “Sounds” song, and it’s really drug-related, all of my songs are drug-related in some way, but it also means to be able to take a step into something “I don’t know what is going to happen, but as long as you’re there I’ll be fine.” We can take a step forward and be fine.
JH: So it is your trip sitter then?
Maja: Well, if you are in that certain gear, and you don’t want to gear down, you always want to gear up, and no bridge or road will take you down, and this road is going to take you further and faster. And the New Order sounds in there just began to make sense after a while.
JH: Well, you need to get into the Chameleons then. Next, “Dim the Lights” my fave song on the new album, and not just because of the Joy Division riffs, but it had some of the 70s stuff. But the lines “Dim the lights and hit me as you’ve never hit me before”. That is one hell of a line, tell me about that.
Maja: Thank you, … Em, lyrically I was writing the second verse, and I am very cinematic, and I speak in pictures, and it was this “Give me a hit”…
JH: Ah, so it was a drug hit then, and not about any BDSM action.
Maja: I’m never doing drugs again. I did a lot of them when I was younger, and I do write songs that take me to those far-out places. Doing lots of drugs as an artist is not very good for you, but it does give you lots of experiences to expand your inspiration. You are playing with fire, and to be on the edge of something that is not good for you, but it’s still “Good”. If you are creative, it’s a nice world to be in.
JH: Well, I know a couple of Swedish mercenaries, and, well, they said exactly that, live half your life in a world where you could get killed, but still be able to eat ice cream and enjoy a good meal at the same time. So, it must be a Swedish thing to enjoy the danger “Just enough.”
Maja: Well, I sing Swedish Lullabys to my son, and they are all in a minor key, and all about very poor sad people, and the stories are dark, and that’s what we sing to our kids to get them to go to sleep. I reflected on that, so it must do something to you when you write songs, and you say “Well, I feel comfortable with everything being SHIT”. So, I have my up-tempo beats with the depressing kid’s songs.
JH: Ok, so, my shock I had was when I went to Malmo, I was on the beach, and I was the only dude in clothes, I felt weird. Sweden has managed to make sexuality and nudity being very different.
Maja: Yeah, that is the “Swedish Sin” but nudity and owning your own body, and the right to your own body is very important, and that is how we are about it here. If I want to show my body naked and not have it be seen as an invitation for sex, that is the other person’s problem. I hope the rest of the world will understand the difference between nudity and sexuality.
JH: So, at your shows, is there a large LGBTQ presence?
Maja: I see it all the time, the gay community, being bisexual, I remember Jesper the keyboard player, there were a lot of gay men attracted to him, he liked it. And I came out early in my career and saying “I’m living with a woman”, and so many fans have said that they were able to come out to their parents because of seeing me. We have a large gay following in Los Angeles. I very carefree in the sense that I don’t give a fuck, and for someone to say that they had the strength to do something they couldn’t do, but were able to because I was a role model, that is very beautiful to me, but I never had that as an agenda.
JH: So this song fits today, this very moment. “Dance With The Devil”, the video was so intense, and you used your nudity as a weapon, but it was to say, “I’m vulnerable”, and this is what we are going through in America, and sensuality came to rescue in the violence, the schoolgirls, in gas masks, I was watching it, and it was so heavy, and so many different things in that video. I felt the anxiety in that video.
Maja: That is not one of my favorite videos, not that I am not trying to forget, but it’s interesting to talk to you, cause you re-live your history by someone who has discovered it. I don’t analyze what we do or have done. But, your comments bring everything to life. I am vulnerable but very strong. We empowered that, with the guns, the gas masks, the nudity. But we see what’s going on in your country, and I hope you wake up. America is a young country, Europe is a mature continent, we have been through childbirth, puberty, adolescence, and adulthood, and now we are retired and old, but America is young and acting like that bratty teenager, politically, and everything, so aggressive and reactive. So it’s tiring to watch, just chill.
JH: Ok, last question. What would your message be to the young gay kid who is afraid to come out, suicidal and vulnerable?
Maja: Without sanding like a cliché, no regrets, go where love is. I followed my heart when I fell in love with a woman, and I said to myself I might only fall in love “x” amount of times in my life, I will never deny myself or my heart love. So if you find love in whatever gender that comes in, allow yourself to feel love.
JH: Wow, I am glad that there are people like you out there. Thank you.