Q&A With A Camp


“We’re going to party like it’s 1699,” sings Nina Persson on Colonia, the second album the Cardigans frontwoman has released under the A Camp name with husband Nathan Larson (Shudder To Think) and Niclas Frisk. As the lyric and album title imply, Colonia is loosely based on the theme of love in the time of colonialism, and the record is as ornate, complicated and unusual as its subject matter. Inspired by German cabaret and musicals from the ’40s, Colonia veers from show-stopping duets (“Golden Teeth And Silver Medals”) to Aimee Mann-ish pop (“Stronger Than Jesus”) to the cinematic balladry of Swedish forebears ABBA (“Love Has Left The Room”), all while maintaining grandiloquent airs. If you still think of Persson as the pixie-ish pop princess behind the Cardigans’ 1996 superhit “Lovefool,” A Camp puts her in an altogether more daring, artistic spotlight. Suffused with the talents of film-score composer Larson as well as guests James Iha, Joan Wasser and Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous, Colonia stands dignified and alone in its ambitious scope and sound. Larson and Persson—king and queen of Colonia—will be guest editing all this week. The couple spoke to MAGNET from their home in Harlem.

“Love Has Left The Room” (download):

MAGNET: Have rehearsals begun for the tour? I half expect you to really play up the colonial theme onstage—maybe wear petticoats and ruffled shirts and powdered wigs.
Nina: Well, we’ve already done some shows in Europe.
Nathan: We’re keeping it under wraps a little bit.

I want to believe it will be like a Falco video.
Nathan: Falco? Like “Rock Me, Amadeus,” sure. Or who was Taco?

Taco—he did “Puttin’ On The Ritz.”
Nathan: Our stage show has an opium-den kind of atmosphere, wouldn’t you say, Nina?
Nina: Yeah, it’s like opium den/grandma’s living room.

Which hopefully isn’t the same thing.
Nina: You never know. The combination works for us.
Nathan: It’s like if your grandmother slammed opium and yet had all these frilly little things. You’d go to her house and she’d be smoking up a storm and have a bunch of Chinese folks lying around. But she’s also your grandma, so she’s got all the bric-a-brac. That’s our vibe.

Colonia doesn’t sound like anything either of you have done before. Was that kind of the point of it?
Nina: I think that’s always the idea, that you want to do something different to keep your own interest alive. It doesn’t always wind up being so very different, but this time it actually did. Or at least it’s very different from the first record we did under the name A Camp. We sort of had to wash our hands clean of the first A Camp record in order to proceed with this one.
Nathan: The first record was quite a thing in Scandinavia; it was really critically, and to some degree commercially, [successful]. It leaned heavily on Americana, woodsy, neckbeard rock. It was all beautiful, but we made a conscious choice to steer away from that aspect.

Some of the songs have the feel of a stage musical, especially the duet with Nicolai Dunger, “Golden Teeth And Silver Medals.” Did you consider making Colonia a concept album or being specific about its narrative?
Nina: Well, we definitely wanted to be more outgoing. The first record was sort of indie and folky and introverted. We wanted this one to be really grand, so we went berserk with a lot of strings and choirs. We do really like stage musicals from the ‘30s and ‘40s, so we did have that as an idea. We wanted to do music that reached out instead of talking about your diary. For about two years, I’ve been part of this cabaret in New York City called the Citizens’ Band that, for my part, my contribution has been inspired by that.
Nathan: The cabaret group was a big influence on us. It was a very Weimar, Kurt Weill-ian thing where it’s really fucked up, very costumed and very political. As far as concepts, we had so many concepts rolling around in our brains. Niclas, Nina and myself came together more on a visual level, talking about movies and literature and history more so than we did about music. We would have loved to have made it a concept record, but we couldn’t tie everything together because there was so much stuff floating around.

Some of this record’s theme was inspired by a trip Nina took to South Africa, is that correct?
Nina: I went with a girlfriend to visit a friend who is Namibian but lives now in Capetown. It was all about a camping trip we made, driving up through South Africa to Namibia. It was crazy, because I’ve never been an outdoorsy or adventurous person. I’ve never traveled in that way before. We went in a convoy of jeeps through the desert and camped at night. Me being a Western, Swedish girl coming into this environment and nature made me just dumbfounded. It was humbling for a girl like myself, and I loved it. A friend of mine had drawn a map of the one road through Namibia, and she’d highlighted that road in pink and drawn an arrow from that road into the middle of nowhere and she wrote, “Here are many wild animals.” That was so intriguing and funny to me. So “Here Are Many Wild Animals” became a song title for the record.
Nathan: That was actually the first thing we wrote for the record, and it wound up being the odd one out in terms of sound. Also, what’s interesting about Nina’s trip is her friend is of German descent, a white girl who is Namibian by her colonial ancestors. It’s a strange juxtaposition; she’s African, but she couldn’t be more of a white, European girl.

I spent some time in Kenya, and it’s interesting how the British and French imported their customs to those African colonies. There’s tea time on the railroad cars, for instance.
Nina: We came to one town—actually, it’s the place where Angelina Jolie gave birth to her baby—and from the desert you roll into this town and it looks like fucking Nürnberg. Which was disturbing and really unpleasant. It was Germany in the middle of the desert.
Nathan: The juxtaposition of images is so wrong. The history behind them is so brutal and unbelievable. The human impulse to go to a culture you don’t understand and an environment you don’t know how to cope with and go, “This is our property, fuck off,” it’s unbelievable. What’s going on in Afghanistan and Iraq are modern examples of this same impulse. The human desire to conquer is timeless.

Being a married couple that makes music, do you have any fears or concerns about working together? Like, “How do I tell him that guitar part sucks?”
Nina: We met making music, so we’ve done it for longer than we’ve been together. Nathan has recorded vocals for me before, and that totally involves telling me when I suck, so we established early on a way to make things work without being hurt.

How did you two meet?
Nathan: We met because Shudder To Think was working on a movie soundtrack (for 1997’s First Love, Last Rites) and we needed a vocalist for a particular track. We contacted Nina because we thought she had an awesome voice. So we met in that context. So we’ve always had a working relationship that’s run parallel to our romantic relationship.

Each of you were in a major-label band in the ‘90s …
[Both laugh]

What, does that seem quaint to talk about now?
Nina: This is the first big thing we’re doing together in the new millennium. Every day we’re laughing at and being amazed at how different things are now than they were at the peak, or beginning of the peak, of our careers. It’s black and white. It’s exciting, but we also secretly mourn some things from the ‘90s. You had money back then. You had budgets and catering.

It seems like you two had very different experiences within that ‘90s rock thing. Nina, you’ve talked about being personally unhappy with the fame and all that happened with the Cardigans. And Nathan, Shudder To Think was worshipped by the indie-rock audience but had no business being marketed to the mainstream.
Nathan: Oh, god no. Nina had the experience … it’s an incredibly brutal, massive machine that you enter. It’s one thing to be on a major label, running around with some money, and it’s another thing to have a huge hit and be thrown into this maelstrom. I have a lot of respect for my wife for surviving that.

So in some ways, Nathan, you had it better.
Nathan: In retrospect, I promise you that I feel that way.
Nina: Nathan is also a guy and he was the guitar player.
Nathan: You’re absolutely right, it’s completely different. If you’re a female vocalist and you’re an attractive person and the face of a hit song, that’s an identity that’s assigned to you by a whole other level of marketing forces that I never got to see.

Nina, do you feel things are different now in terms of the control you have, career-wise?
Nina: I have a lot more, for sure. But I’m still a girl in the business, and that doesn’t change. Many things are different just because I’m older and I know more now. I was very young, and the Cardigans was the first thing I did, basically. Back then, I thought obedience was a virtue so that’s what I did.

Nathan, you moved pretty quickly into film scores after Shudder To Think ended. What are you working on now?
Nathan: Before we went on this tour, I completed four movie [scores] in succession to get some money to sustain myself for the year. I just did (the music for) this great movie called The Messenger, with Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton, who’s an amazing actress who doesn’t get enough play. It’s by the guy who wrote I’m Not There, the Dylan movie. I’m veering more toward documentaries, which is a really bad career move but is a good spiritual move for me, at least.

Is it a bad career move because there’s no money in documentaries?
Nathan: There’s no money. It’s literally like saying, “No, I won’t take the job that pays me money. I’ll take the job where I actually have to pay to do it.” But I’m really fortunate to have been able to slide into that line of work. I also absolutely adore playing with my wife in A Camp. I’ve been able to travel and play, and that’s basically what I’ve done since I was 16. It’s a luxurious thing to be able to do.

—Matthew Fritch