Mando Diao: Combat Rock

On New Year’s Eve in New York City, Gustaf Norén blew off the biggest party in the world. “I went down to Times Square at around seven,” moans the lead singer and principal songwriter of Swedish guitar-pop outfit Mando Diao. “And it was so fucking crowded. I went back to the hotel to take a nap. I woke up at five minutes to midnight, turned on the TV, saw the ball come down and went right back to sleep.”

It’s hard to blame him for being nonplussed. Mando Diao hails from the town of Borlänge, an industrial burg riddled with street crime and casual violence. Several million Americans cramming into five city blocks to watch a mirrored ball slide down a flagpole must seem as dangerous as Double Scoop Day at Dairy Queen.

Says Norén, “The problem with our town is that the real sickos—the ones who pull out a gun in high school and threaten a teacher, the ones who rape girls—are, for some reason, seen as the coolest guys on earth.”

In the U.S. to promote the group’s sophomore album, Hurricane Bar (Mute), Norén and Mando guitarist Björn Dixgård are splayed out in a leather booth at a bar in Chelsea, while the rest of the band—bassist CJ Fogelklou and drummer Sam Giers—remains in Borlänge to celebrate the New Year among the very rabble that Norén is bemoaning.

“These sickos live like fucking kings,” he says. “They check into five-star hotels, they’re with girls that wouldn’t even look at us—and we’re rock stars! I mean, we try to live that life. I mean, minus the murdering, the raping and the shooting.”

Mando Diao is doing fine without the felonies. Its 2003 debut, the self-recorded Bring ’Em In, sold more than 200,000 copies in Europe. Unfortunately, it arrived at the same time the Hives were high-kicking and chicken-walking across MTV2, and Mando Diao found itself branded a garage band. “We’ve got more in common with ABBA than the Hives,” says Norén. “We’re doing pop music. The Hives couldn’t write a melody. They’re a typical skate-punk band from Fagersta. They’re 90 percent style, 10 percent soul. For us, it’s exactly the opposite.”

With its tricky mix of brash guitars and cockeyed melodies that recall the Libertines and Oasis, Mando Diao has little desire to mimic its Swedish peers. The group is even less interested in making nice with them. Says Norén, “The first few interviews we did, when we were asked what we thought of [Swedish bands like the Hellacopters and Kent], we said that they were old and boring and fat and that we didn’t like them at all—because we didn’t. So naturally, that became the biggest story in all of Sweden. The manager for one of the bands came up to me and told me I didn’t know anything about punk music, and I said, ‘Hey, I’m 20 years old and you’re 35. I am punk music.’”

—J. Edward Keyes