Amusing the Conductor
Swedish music video director mashes tunes with haunting found clips
Story by Angela Cravens / Photography by Jörgen Ringstrand
You could call him a Renaissance man, but “schizophrenic” is the word that comes to his mind. Swedish artist Andreas Nilsson is best known for directing irreverent, arresting music videos for some of the brightest of the Baltic — including The Knife, Peter Bjorn and John, and José González — but he also has his hands in illustration, costuming, installation, and now, theater.
Nilsson’s predominant work in music videos began as something of a happy accident. He had just graduated art school, was focusing on painting and installation work, and began experimenting with animation. A friend from the Gothenburg music scene, Karin Dreijer, asked him to make a video for her new band, The Knife. “This was before the YouTube era,” Nilsson says. “I thought it would be shown one or two times on MTV at most. But it turned out to be one of the most aired videos in Scandinavia that year.”
The music video to “Heartbeats” is a visual collage of found imagery: 1970s footage of kids cascading down a California hilltop on skateboards meshed with original animation of birds in flight. The found footage uncannily melded with the soaring synth beat of the song; a kind of synthesis of seemingly out-of-place elements that has become a motif of Nilsson’s work. The song, of course, became an international hit, and everyone involved was surprised when they took home Best Video honors at the 2003 Swedish Hit Music Awards. “If someone else asked me to do a video instead of Karin, who was my friend, I most certainly would have said ‘no.’ So in that sense, it’s kind of a coincidence,” Nilsson says.
As iPod playlists incur a Swedish invasion, Nilsson’s work has become an inseparable element of the identities of the bands for many fans. His costumes and animated visuals for The Knife’s tour (a little bit pagan, a little bit gothic, a lot iconic) deepen Dreijer’s hauntingly whiny vocals. Peter, Bjorn, and John opted out of appearing in the videos Nilsson has directed for them, instead letting his visual voice speak for the band. Oddly, his clips of a teen dancing wildly like Michael Jackson while mouthing the group’s “It Don’t Move Me,” and footage of a real-life Tokyo gang in full rockabilly regalia meshed with “Nothing to Worry About,” make perfect sense, and yet no sense at all. Is Nilsson toying with us?
“In a way most of the video is already done when the music is created,” Nilsson says. “You have the tonality, the script and the structure. So there’s freedom in the sense that you are actually picking up a ball that is already rolling and is moving in a certain direction. You can either go with the ball or contradict it. But there is always a motif: the music.” One of his most recent videos for Dreijer’s new solo project, Fever Ray, shows that the ball is rolling and evolving into an incredibly lush and layered practice of filmmaking. Inspired by Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man,” the Jonestown massacre, and the native dress of Papua New Guinea, the clip for “If I Had a Heart” is eerie and yet gorgeous to look at. It’s also not easily forgotten.
Of late, Nilsson has been directing commercials, like a Nike spot starring NBA players in homage to 1990s hip-hop. “We had fun with playing around with rap clichés and adding a level of dreamstate to it,” he says. He acknowledges that creating something out of a defined framework could be limiting, “but if the music swings together with your own universe, it’s a very smooth workflow.”
Eyes firmly fixed on the horizon, his recent work reveals an artist who continues to push himself even as he is pushing boundaries. He’ll soon be traveling to Nepal to film a documentary with Individuell Människohjälp, a Swedish aid organization. Modestly, Nilsson explains that they are “visiting a couple of factories and companies that are working with fair trade, and as a little highlight, we have an audience with Dalai Lama.” After that, he’s working closer to home on a video-theater piece for the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm, where he’s creating video pieces to be shown as part of a live performance directed by Malin Stenberg.
Nilsson lives in Malmö, on the southernmost tip of Sweden — a city that is removed from the film worlds of L.A., N.Y.C., or even Stockholm, but he finds it liberating to be outside of the typical artistic circles. “In Sweden’s art world, it’s considered unorthodox and not serious to blend your art practice with stuff like directing music videos or, even more scary, commercials,” he says. “There is a snobbism here that I find very amusing to ignore.”