Sunday 28 May 2017

Hearts and minds

I Break Horses singer Maria Lindén talks to Ed Power about Swedish peoples’ internal angst, being a hypochondriac and taming her creativity

Ed Power

Ed Power

Maria Lindén has a theory as to why Sweden turns out so many world-class pop stars. It's because Scandinavians are a tribe of grim introverts who all hate one another. Okay, maybe we're over-egging her argument, but only slightly.

"In most countries, a park bench is where you sit with your sweetie," giggles Lindén, one half of the buzzy -- and, yes, Swedish -- 'dream-core' duo I Break Horses (we'll get to the sticky business of defining the band's sound presently). "In Stockholm, they've recently put in park benches with space for only one person. So that nobody will bother you. In Stockholm, if you sit on a bench and start talking with the person next to you, they'll think you're a crazy."

It's a fascinating anthropological insight from a small-town girl who grew up in the rustic south, close to where Henning Mankell's Wallander novels are set. But what has it to do with Sweden's national genius for a stonking pop tune, as evinced by everyone from Abba to The Cardigans to The Knife?

"If you have a shell that you present to the world, I think maybe you are forced to look inwards. That is where you put your creativity," she suggests. "You present a mask to the world and then you have a very rich fantasy life as a result. I've always felt there was a haunting quality to a lot of Swedish pop music, which maybe comes from the fact that everyone is so cut off from each other."

For I Break Horses (an alliance between Lindén and multi-instrumentalist Frederik Balk) that internalised angst manifests itself via swooping My Bloody Valentine reverb, echoing Jesus and Mary Chain drums and Lindén's gorgeous little-girl-lost vocals. On paper, to be sure, the prospect of yet another 'nu-gaze' outfit is difficult to get excited about. The ongoing fad for groups mimicking the droning, self-conscious sound of early 90s 'shoe-gaze' acts shows little indication of sputtering out, with every second month seeming to churn up a fresh batch of MBV copyists. Could someone (quite literally) change the record already?

In the case of I Break Horses, however, the shrieking, swooning guitars coil like smoke around Lindén's ethereal lilt, so that the results genuinely sound unlike anything you've previously encountered. Factor in delicate dance beats and what you've got is nothing less than a chillwave Sigur Ros -- and a blogosphere groundswell that looks set to carry the duo all the way to the mainstream and a place in the end of year 'best album' lists.

Behind the powerful music is an equally compelling back-story, rooted in Lindén's life-long struggle with hypochondria. From childhood the wispy vocalist has been paranoid about her health, believing every twinge and ache a harbinger of imminent death. As you would expect, this has lead her to contemplate the world in a rather bleak light. "Eighty per cent of the time I thought I had cancer," she says. "I would have a pain in my leg -- oh, it must be cancer. I also thought I had nervous conditions, that I was suffering brain damage."

With visits to the doctor essentially free in Sweden, Lindén was a regular at her local GP from her teenage years onwards.

"Eventually I think they wrote in their journals -- this person is a hypochondriac," she says. "When I showed up for the 10th or 11th time, I think maybe they stopped taking me seriously."

Addicted to online health chatrooms she struck up an internet friendship with bandmate Balk, though she is keen to scotch the rumour that this is how they came to start I Break Horses. "We didn't really meet there. Stockholm is a small city and musicians tend to all know one another. We became acquainted via mutual friends. Later on, we discovered that we'd spoken on the forum. That was a really weird thing to find out, I must say. Thank God that's not how we started the group. Can you imagine two people deciding to form a band after getting to know each other on a website for hypochondriacs?"

In addition to her health paranoia, Lindén suffers a rare condition that makes it difficult for her to endure the sound of her own heartbeat. If that sounds crazy to you, imagine how she feels. While the problem is now under control, flaring up only when she is under extreme pressure, for many years it was impossible for her to live a normal life. In what reads like a scene from Brian De Palma's Carrie, she vividly describes the childhood trauma that sparked the phobia.

"When I was 10 years old the teacher told everyone to run around in a circle. Afterwards he checked all our pulses. And I fainted on the spot. That was the start of it. I've never heard of anyone else having this phobia, where you can't stand the beat of one's own pulse. However, it is much better now. I used to have to have pillows all over me in order to get to sleep. The fact I can laugh about it now says a lot."

For a self-confessed neurotic, Lindén comes across as remarkably laid-back, her conversation peppered with giggles and self-deprecating asides. Without wishing to generalise, Nordic pop stars tend to be a chilly bunch, poorly disposed towards prying journalists. She, in contrast, is endlessly warm and personable -- not at all the sort of angsty soul you imagine crafting such aching dirges as Hearts and Winter Beats.

"To be honest, I think of what I do as pop music," she says. "People use the 'shoe-gaze' word. And I can, of course, understand why they would wish to refer to the music in that way. It has a lot of reverb. There is a sound wall. To my mind, it should just be good to listen to."

In her precious moments, Lindén likes to tell people she named her band I Break Horses as a way of explaining how her muse works. To her mind, writing songs is like straddling a wild bronco, becoming the master of your creative impulses. But she will also admit to a more banal explanation. "We must have gone through about 10 names. They were all taken. And I like the image of my creativity being a wild horse that I must tame. On the other hand... yes, it is also named after a Smog song. What can I say? I really like that tune. My answer as to where the band's name comes from really depends on how pretentious I'm feeling at the time."

The album Hearts by I Break Horses is released next Friday

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