At the end of January, I tentatively headed back out into the cultural world and went to a live gig, with real life musicians from three different countries. No huge fanfare or vast concert hall, no Sara kulturhus, just a small gig in an intimate setting with musicians eager to play live.
The gig was cosy and seated due to Covid-19 but the extraordinary energy created when young musicians are brought together cannot be mistaken. Sparks fly. It’s exciting to see such passion on stage in a European cultural mash-up here on our Norrland doorstep, especially after that pandemic thingy.
Here Today, above (from the Netherlands), Öly, below (France) and Hök, below (Sweden) had unique styles ranging through rock, indie and electronica and didn’t disappoint in making our brains fizz with the excitement of live music.
And no, in case you’re wondering, the French band Öly were not named in tribute to the Swedish word öl (beer). It’s just a nice coincidence.
These were young bands from Skellefteå, Castres in France and Dordrecht in the Netherlands, committed to playing in each other’s cities, to exchanging ideas and experiencing life as touring musicians, all as part of the new Skellhell Exchange, a EU-funded initiative designed to kick start live music in these cities. It’s undeniably a smart idea.
But to those of us who remember Skellefteå’s 1990s and early 2000s heyday as Sweden’s coolest music city, it comes as a surprise to find the local music scene is now in need of kick starting at all.
Especially when you realise that it’s exactly 20 years ago that Skellefteå was named PopStad 2002 (Pop City of 2002), an award bestowed on the city by Sweden’s P3 radio (still the Swedish radio station to listen to for new music).
Bands such as The Wannadies, The Drowners (right) This Perfect Day and Sahara Hotnights, were not only huge in Sweden but had international success, too. Skellefteå was even called ‘the Manchester of Sweden’, a respectful nod to the northern English city that produced a constant stream of great bands in the 1980s and 1990s (New Order, Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, Oasis).
So what happened to Skellefteå? Why has its pop stock fallen so far? And can it ever reclaim its crown as the coolest pop city in Sweden?
Magnus Ericcson, of the Arbetarnas Bildningsförbund (Workers’ Educational Association in Sweden) is one of the people charged with reviving the slumbering body of Skellefteå pop.
He’s quite candid about just how Skellefteå’s pop scene stagnated.
”You have to understand in the 1990s, Skellefteå was an economic disaster zone. There were no real jobs for us just out of high school. The core members of the old music scene became successful and, in order to progress, had to move away to places such as Stockholm and London. A small town is always dependent on key individuals who inspire others to form bands and without these people the scene slowly faded away.”
Now, says Magnus, there are a lot of bands who don’t even want to play live. ”We in the older generation used to get inspiration, experience and confidence by playing as support to larger acts that played Skellefteå. This is something we at ABF and Kulturföreningen Mullberget (the other body behind Skellhell Exchange), are trying to recreate. The main thing is to play your own concerts, even if it’s just in front of a handful of friends, or one man and his dog. We’re also working on creating strong incentives to help bands actually record and release their music. If you don’t put yourself out there, how are people supposed to notice you, right?”
Skellhell Exchange was initiated by Hugo Goldstyn (left), project leader at the Mullberget cultural association, and has been a few years in the making.
Despite setbacks, including the pandemic, the effort is finally paying off. Through the journey that the bands (as well as video makers and lighting and sound engineers, who are also part of the project) have been on, horizons have been expanded and skills exchanged. Last but not least, three European cities will benefit from an energised music scene.
The bands recently headed over to Dordrecht for the second leg of the tour and Skellhell returns to Skellefteå in late April in addition to other dates in France and the Netherlands. Hugo (below) is very positive about the project so far. “The project has had a very beneficial impact, most of all for the musicians! Travelling and meeting people and playing in front of new audiences has been an amazing experience on the first two exchanges. The gigs in Skellefteå and Dordrecht were very good with some very positive feedback. But, more importantly, the bands felt valued and taken seriously. The grassroots music world is often devalued or misunderstood. The goal of this project is to promote the alternative and grassroots world which has an essential place in every community’s cultural development.”
After the show at Mulberget on April 30, all three Skellhell bands will play at the Trästock festival in July, Skellefteå’s alternative music festival with a local focus. Trästock, organised by members of Mullberget association, gives young members the chance to practice their craft on a public stage. Staging, lighting and sound are all looked after by members who gain skills through workshops and on-site training with Mullberget.
The Skellhell journey is not yet halfway through but the feeling of energy and enthusiasm that it’s already generated is palpable.
Jonathan from Skellefteå band, Hök, is testament to that optimism. “Skellefteå is a small town with a rich history of music: a lot of bands were thriving in the 1990s and early 2000s, but not so many of late. I hope we can make the wheel turn once more so we have amazing music being created here.”
Magnus of ABF is sure what is needed. “If there is ever going to be a new band from our city on the larger stages at Sara kulturhuset we’ll have to DIY this shit and put some fire back in the bellies of the local bands and artists. But we can only create opportunities to do stuff. The actual fire the bands will have to provide themselves.”
Next show, April 30, mullberget.se