The first time JUICE heard ‘I Love It’ by Swedish dance pop duo Icona Pop was through Pitchfork Media, which is bizarre in hindsight now that the track has become an oft-repeated tune at obnoxious EDM festivals. The Charli XCX-penned ‘I Love It’ was a breezy mix of indie pop and dancefloor-ready electro that came complete with corny synths not out of place in the ‘80s, naturally we grouped the duo among the likes of other electropop luminaries from Europe (think Robyn). But as it turned out, their ambitions were on a macrocosmic level. Debut international album This is… Icona Pop isn’t very irreverent beyond the opening track – which is expectedly ‘I Love It’ (“You’re from the ‘70s, but I’m a ‘90s bitch!”) – it was made to appeal exactly to what we mentioned earlier; the EDM crowd. In that respect, Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo have crafted a pop album perfect for the current decade, and as much as we hate to admit, we love it – quality pop aesthetics are difficult to pinpoint, you either make good pop or bad pop. Recently in Kuala Lumpur for a showcase, JUICE managed to catch up with the statuesque ladies of Icona Pop and discussed our shared interest in good pop.
The first time we heard ‘I Love It’ was on Pitchfork Media more than a year ago. It was an obscurer European dance pop number at the time, and now it’s massive! Has it always been in the plans for Icona Pop to be internationally renowned?
Aino [Pitchfork] has been so nice to us! It has always been a dream for us. We’ve always been dreamers and we want to rule the world – the cool thing about our music is that it reaches out to both the indie crowd and the mainstream crowd. It’s really a hard way to go, but we just do the music we like and hope people would like it. We don’t try to be cooler than we are, maybe that’s why both crowds like us.
Caroline The first couple of days we were hanging out and we decided we were a band, it was like, “Yeah, we’re gonna go out there, travel, and take over the world of music.” It was never “Yeah… we are going to play at some clubs.” That has never been our goal. Big dreams, we’re dreamers.
There’s something about pop music from the European scene – Sweden in particular – that attracts those two disparate audiences (Robyn comes to mind). What is it about your brand of pop that made it so?
A I think there’s a certain deepness in Swedish pop music. It’s the way we write lyrics, it’s simple but it’s the simplicity that explains the heartbreak so well, or whatever we write about. I also think it’s the mentality and the melodies that are little bit more indie than pop melodies from America.
There’s sort of rock’n’roll aesthetics in your image as well…
A Yeah! And if you go to Sweden, the biggest music scene is indie, so I think you automatically get that [vibe] from Sweden acts.
Not to mention the cross-pollination between the electronic and pop scenes…
C I’m happy that I grew up in Sweden when it comes to the music scene and that it is so free. But I’m also happy now that we’re travelling so much, because then we saw how big [the overall music scene] is.
A It made the music industry in Sweden look very small. Right now when we’re travelling, like for us to come here in Asia and be part of the MAMA Awards, we explored music we’ve never heard of before.
C And that’s so exciting – to hear something for the very first time. I love that. That’s music!
Anything in particular?
A We saw Crayon Pop. A lot of girls, they all wear helmets. They performed at the MAMA Awards afterparty and it was really good.
C It was something we’ve never seen before.
Speaking of which, have you heard of this j-pop star, Kyaary Pamyu Pamyu? Imagine Bjork as a Japanese teeny bopper pop star.
A Yes, yes! She is signed to Warner as well. I haven’t heard her music yet but I heard she’s always crazy. We got the CD but we haven’t listened to it… she’s been to Paris and all. I have to listen to her!
She’s probably one of the most refreshing pop acts of recent years… next to you guys of course.
A (Laughs) Nice save there.
Both of you studied music. Stereotypically, people don’t associate pop stars as being well-versed with music on an academic level.
C We’ve been musicians for a long time, and that’s something people always get a little bit surprised by, I think. When we play live, we use instruments – synthesisers, drum machines, guitars – we like to play around. That makes us kinda confident in the way that we’re using different genres – we can do whatever we want to and call it our music. We don’t have to prove anything.
A I remember when I studied, people thought it was so easy to do pop music. Pop is a big genre, The Beatles was pop music, it’s everything. But the pop we are doing, people think it’s so easy, but when they try to play it, they’d realise it’s not only about the groove, everything needs to go hand in hand. It’s as hard as playing jazz, just that pop hasn’t gotten the same respect, or it didn’t. I remember when we started Icona Pop, it wasn’t so cool to sing pop music.
C Especially not in Sweden. The biggest acts were more cool, more indie. We heard a lot of people telling us that we were taking the easy way – they had no idea about the music out in the world or what we’re doing.
A When they hear the word pop, it automatically turns into something negative very easily. To a pop duo, it’s even worse (laughs).
C For us it’s positive. Pop is positive.
Now that you guys have gained respect as artistes, would you say Icona Pop has legitimised pop in Sweden, or the rest of the world even?
A I think we’ve come to a point when we realised we can’t care about what people say. As long as you’re proud of what you’re doing and listen to your gut, that should be the only thing you care about. The thing is we haven’t gotten bothered by the things people said. We’ve always been doing pop music – we’ve always said in interviews we love pop music and we’re so proud of being from the ‘90s while other people are like “Oh my god, the ‘90s!” And now it’s very popular to like the ‘90s (laughs).
… which is coming back again.
A Yeah, everything is going in a circle. We were embarrassed by the ‘80s, before that the ‘70s. We just keep on not caring about what people think and make good pop music.
C If you try to please people, you’d end up lost and not please yourself. It doesn’t matter what you do, if you do a certain song, you’d get a certain crowd, but then the next song you do, you might disappoint some people. They’d say you’re a sell-out, or that you’re too indie. People are always trying to define you and put you in a certain direction. As long as you know that you’re proud of what you’re doing, then it’s fine. I’m so happy that we’re a duo, we can agree on something and we’d do it. I think if I were alone in a band, all these weird questions would be life and death to me. [Icona Pop] is our baby, this is everything we know, this is everything we have.
Prove you two were children of the ‘90s, what were some of your favourite bits and pieces of pop culture from the ’90s?
A Grunge music… amazing. There were so much – the synth sounds that were terrible, almost trance, Euro techno thing, all the one hit wonders, the off tune singers that were like “Yeah, yeah, yeahhhh” (laughs). Those were the top things. There were so much more… Twin Peaks, X-Files. But music-wise it was definitely grunge music, one hit wonders, and boy and girl bands.
C The first big concert we ever went to was actually Spice Girls when they played in Sweden in the ‘90s.
Icona Pop played at Club Neverland on Friday 29 November ’13.