Monday, November 30, 2009

I want to write a song

As some readers may know, I am currently on tour with my band, the Metroschifter. The tour is taking us through many countries of continental Europe, far south of Sweden. Today we are in Forlí, Italy.

Of course, I'm missing Sweden and the recent episodes of "Idol" but since we have different bands opening for us each night, I'm getting more real life music.

My band has been together for fifteen years and it's no secret that the type of music we play is neither wildly popular nor easily accessible to casual listeners. There is some math involved in some of our songs. It's not for everybody.

I don't write verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus songs, at least not for Metroschifter. The songs i've written for my other band Best Actress are more straightforward in structure and more appealing to ordinary people. Best Actress is certainly more accessible because I'm not the singer and someone who can actually sing is doing that. My singing voice in Metroschifter isn't nearly as appealing as Maya Weissbach's is in Best Actress.

Regardless, I am always amazed by the people I meet who have listened to our band for many years - more than a decade in some cases. Last week I met someone in Dortmund, Germany, who was telling me about his friend's Metroschifter tattoo. There are no words to describe hearing about someone who has a tattoo of your band's name. Unbelievable.

Back in the days when I was really inspired to write songs and I did it more often, (and probably as a result more people used to care about songs I wrote) I was often told that people liked my music because it was honest. I tried to keep it that way. The books I read and the movies I like the most are also true stories.

Aside from the lyrics, pretty much the same policy goes for the music I write. I try to make it something different. If you're not going to try do something new, why bother?

Honestly, there are a million bands out there and most of them are just going with the first thing they come up with that they think sounds good.

Over the weekend, a music journalist in Verona framed a question to me by saying that my band is "one of those bands that people use as a reference or influence when describing their music." He wanted to know why I thought that was the case.

I told him I didn't really think that was true, but if it was, I think it is because I try to write songs that haven't been written before.

In 1994, I took some time off work at the ear x-tacy record store in Louisville and retreated to a 200-year-old adobe in the New Mexico desert with the intention of writing songs.

What happened there became the first songs Metroschifter would record later that year. I was truly inspired at the time and it shows. It seems that those songs are the best ones I've written and they are the favorites of people who like the band. The songs came from real feelings and I had something to say.

Nine days alone in the desert are a great setting for focusing on songwriting. Our other albums haven't had the advantage of that kind of dedicated preparation.

I wish I could say that all the other Metroschifter records and my solo discs were as genuinely inspired as that one. The other records definitely have feelings but for some reason, they seem to have become progressively less heartfelt. I wish that wasn't the case.

In 1999, I remember telling a confused music reporter in Louisville who was writing a story about Metroschifter that we had half-assed our way through everything. Every band does it. Nobody tries hard enough. I am as guilty of that as just about anybody.

When I look through the songs, it's like a timeline of crushes, unrequited love, money problems, adventures in Louisville and around the world. When things in life were going well, songs ended up with lines in them like "After years of singing of desperation, I find myself now somewhat content at the price of feeling somewhat uninspired."

Most reviews of our new album have been very favorable and flattering. Alternative Press said it was "inconceivable that a new Metroschifter album would appear in 2009." The band "explores a maddening array of musical genres on their sixth full-length. No song in the band's back catalog approximates the sheer audacity of it."

A German guy who got the new Metroschifter CD sent us a message that said he liked it but he said, "Lots of the stuff sounds a bit constrained or forced to me. I miss the fun and freedom that Metroshifter albums meant to me back in the Capsule or Fort Saint Metroschifter days." Yeah, well, before I could even get a thought ready to respond to that, his next line covered it, "Damn, that was so long ago."

The review of our new album in LEO Weekly even included the line, "While craftsmen musically, Scott Ritcher’s lyrics leave much to be desired." Fucking tell me about it. This isn't the first time I've received confirmation of my own living hell in the newspaper.

If you limit yourself to only writing about true feelings, and then you reach a listless period of years when you feel nothing, what is there to write about?

I suppose over the past few years I haven't written much in the way of music because I thought the types of things I've been feeling were things I couldn't really write about. Maybe I was wrong.

Writing this tonight from Italy, in the midst of our sixth tour of Europe, I've found that despite the terrible slump of the music industry, there are still passionate people out in the world who love music.

Even in pop music, the days of multi-million-selling albums seem to be coming to a close. It has been ten years since any album sold more than 14 million copies and five years since any album has sold more than 10 million. Legal, licensed music downloads like Amazon and iTunes are included in these sales totals

As a whole, music sales dropped 14% in 2008.

That is an incredible decline from the peak in the 1980's. Michael Jackson's Thriller, released in 1982, had sold 28 million copies before his death. It is now on track to become the only album to be certified at 30 million by the end of the year.

The best-selling album last year sold just over 4 million copies.

Is the demise of the music industry a sad story? Yes and no. It's a tall order to find sympathy for the record companies after their decades of screwing both the artists and customers. The story is not unlike what happened with the banks. Nobody feels sorry for banking corporations, but the difference is that the financial industry has everybody's money.

I want to write great songs and I want to feel the strong emotions that make such work possible, but who has the time anymore? People have to work for a living. It's not like any record company is going to be around to ensure that people will actually be able to hear these songs, or that people will even have the money to buy them.

Maybe that's the saddest part of the story. Without the money to do so, artists will be unable to take the time necessary to develop their craft. It seems my best songs came from the times when I could afford to write them, not just financially, but emotionally. It's a real challenge to find the space, silence, time, focus and, most importantly, the inspiration to create something of value.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Grocery Store Items

I've received a few requests from readers in America to show some images of simple, regular, everyday stuff in Sweden that looks different. So here's the first of a few installments: Grocery store items!

If you're interested in groceries, you can see more in a couple previous stories Inside the Secret Society of Swedish Grocery Store Owners and Grocery Carts, Food and Pants Sizes.

Adzuki beans and white beans. Adzukis are popular in Japanese foods.

Granola, obviously.

Potato chips shelved like books.

Natural potato chips.

Coffee cream in the jar on the left and organic milk in the cartons on the right. Ekologisk means "organic" and it's everywhere in Sweden.

Regular heavy cream and whipped cream.

Low-fat milk.

Green tea sweetened with honey on the left. To the right is filmjölk, a strange, thick, sour, Swedish fermented milk product. This variety is flavored with bananas and lime. I can almost taste the barf as I'm typing this. Well, just wait...

It's exactly what you think it is. Blood pudding. This product is made from boiling blood together with pureed meat, barley, oatmeal, or some other stuff until it coagulates into a solid.

Blood pudding slices, served warm. Bulgh!

Super-salty licorice candies shaped like skulls.

Wash down all that blood pudding and salty licorice with some organic potatoes.

Have some alphabet cookies for dessert. They're spelling out, "I love you."

A couple scenes of the open market at Hötorget. Most of the bright yellow, brown and orange you see are wild, funnel-shaped kantarell mushrooms.

Anyone walking through this marketplace is berated with countless shouts from merchants, "Half price! Special offers! Half price!" I'm not sure if the hard-sell actually works with fruits and vegetables, or if these guys just like hearing themselves shout.

Monday, November 09, 2009


Karlaplan is a picturesque area of Stockholm on the island of Östermalm where five major streets meet to form a star.

Inspired by similar street plans in Paris, construction on the neighborhood began in the late 1800's.

The five tree-lined thoroughfares that go out in every direction have a dense, green lushness in the summer. Autumn and winter reveal more of the palatial, early-century apartment houses that populate the area.

Karlaplan's name comes from an era of Swedish history known as Karlarna ("The Karls"). That was the time of a succession of three kings all named Karl that spanned from 1654 to 1718.

Famed Swedish author, playwright and absurd mustache enthusiast August Strindberg lived in a luxurious house on Karlaplan at the beginning of the 1900's. After struggling for decades of hardship to make a success of himself, he finally rewarded himself by purchasing an extraordinary living space adjacent to the expansive plaza.

"I bought this for my thirty years of dramatic hardships," he wrote. (Stackars Strindberg.)

View larger map

Strindberg had spent a good deal of time in Paris in the 1890's where he partied with Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun. (It's true. Knut Hamsun is really a person's name.) They probably talked about writing and stuff like that. It was only appropriate that Strindberg would be attracted to the fake Parisian neighborhood at Karlaplan.

Though Strindberg's opulent residence was adorned with spectacular high ceilings and brilliant floors - he could practically hear the echoes of his rants about women and Jews - his fantastic surroundings couldn't save him from despair. The eight years he and his wife lived at Karlaplan were reportedly among the darkest of his life, or so he wrote on his blog in 1911.

Aside from writing, crying and getting really bad haircuts while living at Karlaplan, Strindberg also dabbled in painting, photography and the telegraph. He was a real cutting-edge, high-tech kind of character, what, with the cameras and telegraphs laying around. In those days you couldn't just pop down to Clas Ohlson and buy a telegraph.

As you can see in this photo, August Strindberg was definitely not a vampire.

Long after Strindberg was gone and automobiles were increasingly dominating street traffic, a massive roundabout was put into place at the site. In the 1930's, traffic was redirected around a central fountain and a circle of trees that enclosed a public park which still stands today. Before the fountain, a small grassy island stood in the center of the intersection with just a single tree.

You can see in the 1880's image on the magazine cover above that the tracks of a small street train used to bisect the intersection prior to construction of the larger traffic circle and fountain.

Many residents of the area pass through this circle on their daily commutes in cars and buses or on bicycles or their own feet. The fountain at Karlaplan is a popular meeting place for friends and a spot for picnics and relaxation. As an amateur Swedish picnic planner, I am well aware of the park's charms.

180° view of Karlaplan fountain: Click to view full size

I recently paid a visit to Karlaplan, not to check out the impressive streetscape of Parisian-inspired boulevards, but rather to see what lies beneath all of this splendor.

Carved into the bedrock below the all of the coziness at the street level is another stop in Stockholm's underground subway system. Like most Tunnelbana stations, the one at Karlaplan is also a small art museum - an art museum 23 meters (75 feet) under the ground.

360° view from Karlaplan Tunnelbana entrance: Click to view full size

The Karlaplan station opened in the fall of 1967 and was part of an expansion that stretched the Red Line from Östermalmstorg to the northeast terminus at Ropsten. This added another 4 kilometers (2.4 miles) of track to Stockholm's subway system and connected tens of thousands of residents to the system.

Some of the artwork in the station was built into the original design by architect Olof Blomkvist. Mosaic patterns of glazed stoneware blocks and colored bricks by artist Tor Hörlin are permanently set into the walls at more than a dozen locations throughout the station.

Located behind the benches where passengers wait for the trains, each structure is a different variation on the theme of "highly-stylized nature motifs." The blocks differ in texture, size and relief. Some are sandy and flush with the wall, while others are glossy and protrude out a few centimeters.

Perhaps what makes the Karlaplan station most noteworthy is that since 1983 it has been home to the world's longest photomontage.

Artist Larseric Vänerlöf is responsible for the monstrous, black and white piece which stretches nearly the entire length of the platform, in stark contrast to the colorful brick walls it opposes.

Den Dagen och Den Sorgen ("The Day and the Sorrow") is 96 meters long (315 feet), or as they say in America, "longer than a football field." Little-known trivia fact: big things in America are measured in football fields.

Comprised of hundreds of black and white photos blended together, this massive photo installation was assembled the old-fashioned way in a darkroom, long before Photoshop would have streamlined the undertaking.

According to the artist, the photomontage depicts events in Sweden during the 20th Century. You might think that "during the 20th Century" would mean "during the 20th Century up through 1983" since that's when the piece was put together. Not at all.

Vänerlöf went ahead and included the seventeen years of the 20th Century which had not yet happened. The entire montage is whimsical and funny, but the futuristic scenes depicted are downright apocalyptic and even more comical. These scenes depict familiar sites in Stockholm dwarfed by crumbling super highways and massive, post-industrial monoliths.

The gigantic photomontage was removed in 2005 for renovation. Vänerlöf explained in an interview with Filipstads Tidning newspaper that the art had faced a lot of elements in its 20-plus years hanging in the station.

The work had been badly damaged by everything from graffiti to snus, a totally disgusting, tiny, pouch-based tobacco that even the smartest people in Sweden are inexplicably hooked on.

Finally, in 2008, a reinforced version of Vänerlöf's montage was installed in the station.

The new version contains the same images but to help it withstand the elements, perhaps for another 20 years or more, the original photographs were transferred to durable aluminum sheets that have a rich, deep gloss.

Yeah, so if you're ever at Karlaplan, check it out. Good story.

Previous stories about art in the Stockholm transit system can be found here:

Solna Centrum






T-Centralen Blue Line

Bagarmossen and Transit Museum


Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Secret Code: Are Swedes trying to keep Swedish to themselves?

As I've mentioned many times, most Swedish people speak perfect English and they love doing it.

It's the opposite of French people. The French can speak English with you but they don't want to. The Swedes only want to speak English with you.

As soon as you say "hej" (hello) or "jag heter..." (my name is...) with the slightest bit of an accent, they get this surprised look on their faces and switch to English. "Oh, hello! Nice to meet you. Where are you from?"

It's as if they're saying to you, "Please don't bother butchering our beloved Swedish any further. I can handle this."

On the off chance that one could actually use any of the Swedish they know, the Swedes are exceptionally particular about pronunciation and intonation. I know this not only from my own experiences, but also from other international people here who I have heard discussing the same experiences.

"It's not what you're saying, it's how you're saying it." That's as true as it gets here.

Every language has its own accented attributes that one must learn along with syllable stressing and sentence structures. Even when someone's pronunciation is perfect, these subtleties are the things that reveal a non-native speaker.

Swedish is not as easy as German where every letter makes a sound and you can be understood even if your emphasis or pronunciation is a little off. With Swedish, there's an overriding, flowing rhythm of accentuation to the language. It's like there's a song that everything you say should be sung to.

In Swedish, everyday conversation is a gorgeous, dynamic production.

I'm not the first person to equate the Swedish language with singing. Even the stereotypical Swedes known by Americans in popular culture sing when they talk. The Swedish Chef character on The Muppet Show never stops singing and even has music playing when he's talking.

In the movie Trading Places, Jamie Lee Curtis hilariously disguises herself as a "Swede" and sings her lines, including the unforgettable "I am Inga from Sweden."

Until you know the song of the language and can really sing it, it's almost pointless to embarrass yourself by trying.

It's like doing karaoke to a song you don't really know with Simon Cowell sitting right in front of you.

There might be some connection here that would explain why Swedes deliver the goods during actual karaoke and why the country can claim a disproportionately high number of musicians with gold records hanging in their studios. Singing might be in their blood as well as in their language.

A British bloke I know here named Simon (not Simon Cowell) put it this way, "This is what I hate about Swedish people: They're so bloody good at everything!" ...and they're modest and insecure about all of it.

They speak perfect English but apologize for it not being good. They are beautiful but afraid to look at you. They're educated and funny but apprehensive about talking out of turn. They sing drunk karaoke in a bar and it sounds exactly like the CD. How embarrassing.

The complications arise when someone who wasn't born speaking Swedish tries to join in with the language. Swedish people act like they have no idea what you're talking about if you're just barely off on the intonation.

It would be like if someone said "LOO-see-ana" or "Loo-WEE-zee-anna" instead of Loo-WEE-see-ana" - of course an English-speaking person would still know they're talking about Louisiana. Or if, instead of the hard, short way of saying "can't" someone said it long and soft, as a British person might, "I caahn't."

English-speaking people understand when a Canadian pronounces "out" more like "oat" or when someone from India says "very" in a way that excuses the R sound. Some people say "Nevada" so it rhymes with "sad", but for others it rhymes with "sod." Nobody misses a beat because of it. We just go with the flow.

Swedes aren't so permissive with Swedish. For some reason, Swedes are truly lost when a non-native speaker's speech includes variations like these. I know they know what us feeble foreigners are trying to say, but I think they have some sort of secret national game going on. They're laughing at us as soon as they're alone.

Of course, I can't really show you in print, but suffice it to say that what follows is not a situation isolated only to me or a handful of instances. The foreign person is in italics.

I finally tried some knäckebröd yesterday.
- You tried what?
- I'm sorry...?
Knäckebröd... That really thin, hard, Swedish bread.
- Hmmm... I don't think I know what that is.
Knäckebröd? Of course you know what knäckebröd is.
- Maybe I'm not understanding what you're saying.
Knäckebröd? Knäääckebröd? KNÄCK-e-BRÖD. Kuh-näck-e-BRÖD? Thin, crispy bread. Knäckebröd!
- Oh! You mean Knäckebröd! Oh yeah. I've worked in the Wasa Knäckebröd factory for six years.

Notice in this conversation how the Swedish person makes knäckebröd for a living, but the non-native speaker had to repeat the name of it one million times before it was recognized, even resorting to all variations of stress and intonation.

After conversations like this happened to me a few dozen times, with all manner of words, I began to believe I was losing my mind. "Are these people serious? I can't hear the difference."

I cannot express the level of relief I felt upon hearing it happen to other people. I don't wish anyone else to feel insane, but I also don't want to be alone. What I also cannot express is how fascinating it is to see it happening to someone else. It goes like this:

The British person (or Canadian or German or Italian) is talking to the Swede about something. During the conversation, the name of a Swedish place or thing comes up. Everyone around who is not Swedish knows exactly what the person is talking about, but the Swede has absolutely no clue, and needs to have the word repeated. This goes on for a minute before every other foreigner standing around joins in, repeating the word. The Swede finally gets it and says "Oh, you mean Kungsholmen!" saying it exactly the same way as everyone else did.

While this phenomenon could easily be explained by saying that Swedes are more intimately familiar with their language and they can hear tiny nuances that non-native speakers are unaware of, personally, I'm totally convinced that's not the case. I'm convinced that it is all a game the Swedes are playing to weed out the people who aren't going to put in the serious time to learn Swedish.

I truly believe Swedes understand us the first time - or maybe the second - but they're just trying to wear us down.

Well, it's not gonna work on me, Sweden. I'm in this for the long haul.

Regardless of whether that theory is true, I'm starting to believe that one or two other things might be true.

1. The Swedish language is not as beloved by the younger generations as it is by the elders. The incidents of Swenglish - a hybrid of Swedish and English - are inescapable, as are the occurrences of English words in otherwise Swedish conversations. These moments are especially common among young people.

I'm fascinated by the English terms I always overhear in Swedish conversations - "whatever," "Oh my God," "fuck it," "who cares?" Do these ideas of exasperation and dismissiveness not exist in Swedish?

I think it's very possible that within a handful of generations, Swedish could become a minority language in Sweden. I wouldn't be shocked to see this happen in Stockholm during many of our lifetimes. Of course, I'm exaggerating, but just barely.

Periodically, I go to an international meet-up group for ex-patriates living in Stockholm. I understand much more Swedish than some of the characters I've met who have been in the country two years or more.

I guess the more amazing part of this phenomenon is not that some people have lived in Sweden for years and barely understand any Swedish, it's that people can live in Sweden for years and barely understand any Swedish.

In order to do business, make friends, purchase goods and services, or order food in restaurants, especially in Stockholm, knowing how to speak Swedish largely isn't necessary. Nonetheless, I am determined to continue doing it.

There are many notable efforts afoot to celebrate, explore and preserve the Swedish language. I've heard a funny and entertaing radio series called Språket ("The Language") that answers listeners' questions about Swedish, and there is a very cool and beautifully laid-out magazine called Språk ("Language") that addresses similar topics in equally entertaining depth.

I recently caught a television show with my roommate Erik where the well-known Swedish comedian/writer/actor Fredrik Lindström travels the country, learning about dialects and regional colloquialisms. His program Svenska Dialektmysterier ("Swedish Dialect Mysteries") is an 8-episode series from 2006. It followed on the heels of his previous series about the Swedish language called Värsta Språket ("The Worst Language") which ran for two full seasons in 2002 and 2003.

This enthusiasm about preserving the language and the efforts to do so in such expensive ways (magazines, radio broadcasts and television documentaries) lead me to believe that there is a need to do such a thing. However, it's also interesting to me that all of these explorations and celebrations of the Swedish language are done in a way that is either sarcastic, comical or tongue-in-cheek.

Unlike most elephants in the room, the Swedish language is one that everyone is talking about.

That idea and my everyday experiences, however, bring me to a second possible conclusion:

2. The Swedes might be language protectionists. They want to learn perfect English so they can communicate with the world and export their musicians, actors, culture, cars, furniture, clothes, et al, but they also want to keep Swedish alive. The Swedish language is like a secret club and they want to keep the ability to speak Swedish all to themselves.

At some point in the mid-20th Century it must have become very clear that a nation of fewer people than New York City would ultimately be isolated if those people spoke a language only they understood. The opprtunities these people would have would be limited and therefore so would the economic potential of the country as a whole.

English was introduced as the primary foreign language in Sweden's national school system in 1941.

In 1974, G.M. Anderman wrote in Oxford's English Language Teaching Journal "in recent years, Sweden has embarked on an ambitious programme of educational reform, the ultimate aim of which is to create a nation bilingual in English and Swedish."

For many decades, Swedish kids have started learning English in their first year of school, and even earlier than that if they watch television or listen to music at home.

Anderman would be delighted to know, 35 years after he wrote about the program, that the results are in and it worked brilliantly.

The earliest years of human life are when languages are best learned. Even though I went to private schools in America, my first experience with learning a foreign language didn't come until I was 14. That's just too late to start if you want a new language to be absorbed without a fight.

Back in the 80's, we were only given three options: Spanish, German and French. I remember that all the girls took French, all the jocks took Spanish, and all the outcasts and alternative kids took German. I was in the latter group. German proved to be a good foundation for eventually learning Swedish, but not much help in communicating with America's growing Spanish-speaking population.

The language offerings have been greatly expanded since then, especially in private schools. Just a few years after I graduated from high school, kids at the same school I attended were beginning to learn Chinese, Russian and Japanese.

Similar to my undertaking of learning Swedish as an adult (yes, I finally admit it, I'm an adult now) my Swedish friend Jenny (who I mentioned before speaks perfect "American") has recently begun learning French. She is facing some of the same challenges.

Steve Martin said on one of his classic comedy albums, "In French, oeuf means egg. Cheese is fromage. It's like these French have a different word for everything." It's true. They really do. Swenglish is probably a lot bigger than Frenglish.

Jenny grew up in a household where English was always around. She told me she felt like she never had to make an effort to learn English. It just developed in her mind with essentially the same ease as Swedish.

That's the way to learn. When your brain is learning for the first time what things are called and how sentences are formed. After all those neurons have naturally been connected in your head, it's an uphill battle to assemble an alternative set up there.

I can't say for sure if the Swedes wish to keep the Swedish language all to themselves or if they are the only ones genetically disposed to use it properly, but I can say that I'm pretty sure French is not a real language. I mean, it doesn't even sound like talking to me.

It's perfectly fine with me if the Swedes want to protect the Secret Code. It's their right as its owners. I just wish they'd let me know. Otherwise, I'll just be disappointed in myself if I'm still speaking English with them after a couple years.
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