The story of Lilou & John is not only the story of an indie band but also a story of growing up in Sweden. It’s the story of coming from destructive family patterns and trying to fit into an extremely formal society where people pretend to be progressive.
Another integral part of the story is the mix of Lilou’s dark alto voice, unique for female singers, with John’s eclectic and heterodox poems that constantly evade all genres. Finally, it’s the story of revolt against the entire system and culture that one day pushed the duo too far.
They would hate to do the same music over and over. They are easily bored to death if they don’t move on from project to project. “Constant development makes life more exciting”, Lilou says.
Revolt and change are indeed two significant traits of Lilou & John. From the first album the band has been through much turmoil. Their first EP 100 Faces (altrock, 2016) was dark and introspective, followed up by four socially poignant albums Dissidentica (neofolk, 2017), Patriot Child (punk, 2018), Airing from Kolyma (neofolk, 2018) and Iconoclastic (EDM, 2019).
Those albums and EPs were followed by three years when they hardly released any material but two singles, Gospel X (EDM, 2019) and Stray Wolf (shadowband, 2020), and an album Malaise (shadowband, 2021), that pointed in a much darker and deeper direction.
It took them another two years to release Midnight Oracle (shadowband, 2023) that continued down the abyss opened up by Malaise. “We had no name for the experimental combination of electropop, esoterica, revolt, forbidden poetry and doom”, John says, “so we simply called it shadowband”.
100 Faces – The first year
100 Faces was a project of trial and error. It started off with Lilou considering a multitude of producers and finally deciding that Riverside Productions was the one.
The band decided that the producer would play all instruments for the album as it would make the process faster and cheaper. The duo had no experience from being in a studio”, Lilou says, “so when he suggested that he would do all the instruments we agreed. It seemed better at the time”.
“I felt a bit left behind”, John admits, “in that I only contributed with the lyrics for that EP, but when I look back I am really proud of what we achieved together. Some of these songs are still my absolute favorites”.
“We wanted a radio friendly sound”, Lilou says, “but when we contacted people afterwards we realized that the sound was too odd for many and only people who were on the lookout for new music were interested. My deep voice scared off some because it sounded like nothing they had ever heard before. It’s sad that music business is so conformist and everything must sound the same way. But in the end it makes us more unique so it’s good too”.
“We filmed our first music videos around Borås”, Lilou says. “Our youngest son had a pair of headphones and I told him to dance through town to the sound of ‘100 Faces’. He did it so well. We drove around for half a day before we had the entire movie. Late at night we filmed the last scenes with me walking with hawkish make-up”.
“For ‘He Broke My Neck, Joséphine’ I had found an abandoned haunted house where the upper floor was the perfect place for a video. Our oldest son played a ghost child and I tried to focus in on the darkness of that house. I wanted it to feel like a place where no living human ever enters but only the ghosts remain in loneliness”.
Dissidentica – The punk years begin
100 Faces had been a great debut EP in terms of recognition. The album had been played by radio stations and podcasts in 10+ countries. But things were about to change during the winter of 2016-2017.
The band have always been fierce supporters of free speech and as such they had contacted numerous media outlets of all religious, ethnic and political leanings. Their belief that all people should be treated with the same respect if they show the same respect back is perhaps best reflected in Lilou’s famous quote: “we are nice to everyone who is nice to us”.
Their support of free speech did not go unnoticed and the band quickly began to feel the pressure of discrimination.
Lilou had gotten into contact with a Swedish Radio employee who invited them to play live. Five minutes before the broadcast the producer cancelled the show unless the duo agreed to answer a number of questions regarding their opinions live before the show. Lilou asked the producer if all artists had to answer the same questions and when a sufficient answer wasn’t given Lilou & John left the building. They both recall that was the very moment the album Dissidentica and the dissident duo was born.
“All contact with that employee ended at once”, Lilou says, “and a contact I had who wanted us to participate at some festivals never wrote again. We tried to fix a base guitar player and a drummer for the next album and I think we lost three or four of them, one after another”.
The album was finally recorded in a studio owned by an old-school Marxist. Dissidentica quickly became legendary as a unique collection of songs, where the band set off on a journey to explore society from “underneath”.
“The Girl from Antarctica” is a story about a woman from a background of incest and abuse, “Via Dolorosa” is about the frailty of love and how painful a divorce can be, “Solferino” is about the battlefield that saw the birth of the Red Cross, “Next Year in Jerusalem” is about the Jewish diaspora, “9/11” is about genocide and mass murder, “Bataclan” is about Islamistic terror, “Spirit of America” is about American Conservatism and “Payback Day” is about the infamous “Nazi” slur during the Donald Trump presidential campaign.
“I had bought some masquerade masks earlier that I thought we could use for a video and now they fit perfectly for ‘Via Dolorosa'”, Lilou says. “We borrowed a nerf gun from our youngest son for ‘Payback Day’. I directed John for an entire day at Bockaby former military training grounds outside Borås.”
“In a way our image as rebels was created that day at Swedish Radio.” John says. “It is hard to overestimate the impact of their decision and we both decided to make at least one song about free speech on each album until we had raised enough awareness for other artists to follow us.”
Eldbarn – The darkest of novels
Lilou & John continued to grow during the summer of 2017 when Vávra Suk, head of book and news publisher Alterna Media decided to publish their novel Eldbarn.
The duo had been writing the book for two years when Perra Winberg, journalist at the newspaper Nya Tider, introduced the novel to Mr Suk. Lilou & John participated at the Gothenburg Book Fair in 2017 together with Alterna Media where the book was released.
However, Alterna Media’s strong stance for free speech was not seen with friendly eyes and much turmoil surrounded the book fair. Lilou & John were questioned for their decision to publish their book through Alterna Media.
“We were asked all kinds of wicked questions from a journalist who thought we were planning to spark an armed ‘Nazi’ revolution in Sweden”, John says, “and we had another round of trying to convince people that we had no intention whatsoever to conquer Abyssinia or declare war on Poland. It was just a totally awkward situation”.
“The book isn’t even about politics”, Lilou says, “it is a story about a girl who is abused by her father and her struggles to survive. But some people desperately want everything to be about politics when it actually is about artistic freedom”.
“The journalist asked us how our colleagues at work would react when they heard about the book fair and we answered that they put safety pins in their noses and sang ‘Sheena is a punk rocker'”, Lilou & John recalls. “We thought there was no reason giving serious answers to stupid questions and the journalist actually published the answer so a colleague later said that friends of hers had asked her if she really HAD put safety pins in her nose?”
“They had to smuggle us out from the Gothenburg Book Fair”, Lilou recalls. “A large violent crowd had gathered to stop us from participating. An old man fell ill and was lying on the floor. He needed to get to hospital but nobody could get out. People from Nya Tider told us to be careful because we were easily recognizable and therefore targets for blind hate.”
The book was no commercial success but it was praised by critics. Åke Blomdahl wrote that “Lilou and John are also musicians and their narrative style is a densely poetic prose. With nature metaphors and adjectives, the authors create a compelling mood with a few sentences, as in a song.” Joakim Andersen wrote that “the language is extremely poetic, something that is not necessarily noticeable during the reading because it has been made subtly.”
The dark aspects of the novel also caused some different interpretations as the newspaper Nya Tider argued that young people should NOT read the book due to the risk for suicide. On the think-tank Motpol is was however suggested that it was “an excellent book for the younger reader who already appreciates urban fantasy, but also the adult reader has a lot to look forward to”.
The couple also revealed in a 2017 interview in Nya Tider that they both came from dysfunctional families and the effect it has had on their lyrics, music and general approach to life.
Patriot Child – The punk EP
Dissidentica had proven to be a huge success and Eldbarn gave the duo a name as dark poetic authors. It seemed as if there was a market for music that dealt with forbidden topics such as suicide, incest and pain. But during the summer of 2017 things were about to change.
Lilou had wanted to sing punk rock for a long time and some old recordings the duo had were still lingering to her mind. “I thought it was so fun to scream” she recalls, “just give it all into the microphone and hold nothing back. It felt so good.”
“I woke up the entire family every weekend morning in December 2017 to shoot the music videos”, she says. “We drove to a local cemetery, stood on a bridge overlooking the highway, got up onto a hill above the train station and drove all the way to Jönköping to film from the car window when we passed Lake Vättern. I told John to drive slowly so I could hold the cell phone steady. It was wonderful to be out before everybody else and make these videos. Especially ‘Enemy of the Matrix’ that is still one of my favorites.”
“I bought a Czech army raincoat and a gas mask on the Internet, and I borrowed a gun replica from a colleague”, Lilou continues, “and I had seen that in the village of Rydboholm there was an old derelict industry building with a haunted feel to it. It was a great place to film the ‘Petrodollar Wars’ video. John dressed up in the gas mask and the rain coat, I told the boys to stay behind the camera – we always bring our sons whatever we do – and I tried to capture the light pouring from a lamp on the brick wall. It all became very atmospheric.”
The album Patriot Child was released on January 1, 2018, and added aggressive punk rock guitars to Lilou’s voice. The producer was initially sceptic when the duo wanted a dirty loud bass guitar but agreed when they said “make it sound like Lemmy”.
The EP was welcomed with the words “only one thing is certain – this is war and the music is armed”, by journalist Tom Andersson. Lilou’s voice was described as “iconoclastic” and “expressive” and an American writer even wrote “Lilou sings to defy both multinational corporations and conventional musical keys. It’s fascinating in a harrowing manner.”
The album also put more emphasis on the uniqueness of the band’s artwork. As always the album cover was made from scratch by Lilou using her own photos. Her approach to new looks and new concepts became more apparent when the band shifted between genres, from catchy folk to angry punk, which attracted some fans and scared away others who preferred the more streamlined products that are normally expected by other pop or rock band.
Airing from Kolyma – Joy, sadness and hope
Patriot Child proved to be a highly appreciated EP, but now that the album had been released, the duo found it quite boring to continue down the same track. “The album was great” they recall, “and the reception was wonderful, it was fun doing these aggressive songs with punk vocals and Lemmy style base guitar, but we wanted something different for our next one.”.
The album Airing from Kolyma was released on June 20, 2018. The song “Free Woman” became a minor hit in Hungary and the political content of the music was discussed by Jay Lorentz from Europa Report in a 2020 interview in which the band claimed to be counter-cultural rather than political.
“We tried to convey a message of joy, sadness and hope, and I think we managed to bring that to our fans on that album. A sense that there is more to this than what meets the eye”, John says.
Lilou was at the time busy finding new music video makers. She had recently discovered Fiverr and contacted a number of visual artists to create videos for “Alpha Dog” and “Revolutionary Road”.
“We went to Dollarstore and bought funny gadgets for the entire family”, Lilou recalls, “including an American flag tie and matching braces for John, and a bison hat for Nelson. On the way home we stopped to film for ‘Free Woman’ and I told John to wear the hat. The shadows cast by the sun made him look like a devil. It was the hottest day of the year so we almost died in the heat, especially John who had to wear that thing on his head and dance around. We let the boys act as usual, nowadays they rarely let us make a film without asking to be in it.”
“For Dead Girl Walking I had been thinking about a rock video and we included the British flag in it because Tommy Robinson had just been sent to jail. It fit our free speech message very well at the time.”
Iconoclastic – Total control
After Airing from Kolyma Lilou desperately wanted a new sound. She was bored with guitar based rock, both acoustic and electric. The duo therefore decided to contact the American industry-metal artist Brandon Duncan who had previously made a remix of “Petrodollar Wars”.
The collaboration didn’t kick off at once because Lilou & John had too much work going on at the time, but in January 2019 they were supposed to be working on the new album.
The collaboration ran into problems when Brandon and the duo found they had totally different ideas regarding the album and instead of giving up on any of their ideas they decided to cancel the collab.
“Brandon is an amazing artist with great music”, John says, “but we just didn’t have the same thoughts and I know what happens when friends try to work on projects where they don’t agree, it always ends up with animosity. I didn’t want to go there. Instead I asked him for advice on how to start working on our own project”.
The album Iconoclastic was released on May 16, 2019. The album title was taken from a review by Brett Stevens and the band decided to make “one last album before we changed to a less aggressive style”, Lilou says. “We will perhaps return to that some time in the future, or rather do it in a completely new way”.
The decision to record an EDM album was not an intentional one. They downloaded the Apple DAW Garageband and John quickly realized that EDM was “the most fun and at the same time easiest kind of music to produce, it was great for a starting album”.
“We started all over again”, Lilou says. “It felt like a new beginning. It was wonderful that for the first time we had complete control from start to end, and we could do anything at our own pace. One thing I have never liked about studios is that we only had a short amount of time when everything must be perfect. Now we could record everything at home and do it as many times as we wanted”.
John continues: “I wanted to make the album into a party album full of powerful songs that made people dance. We added songs like ‘Salvini Pop’, ‘USS Donald Trump’ and ‘Bolsomito’ that drew inspiration from these iconic leaders. We made the world’s first song about Pasokification, re-recorded our own version of ‘Avanti Ragazzi di Buda’ and made a song about Solidarnosc. It was the album that really was pushing us into the new mainstream of dissident music for we quickly saw the number of fans rise in a wide range of countries.”
Misandry – First award
An interview with DJ White Pill in 2019 paved way for contact with Jeff Winston and White Art Collective. It meant more listeners and connecting with a network of international artists. When Jeff announced the WAC Spooky Short Film Contest in the fall of 2019, Lilou & John decided to record an entry they called Misandry.
Lilou & John won the prestigious contest which meant new international publicity. “It felt as if for the first time we actually could reap the rewards of years of hard work”, Lilou says in a comment to the 1,000 USD prize.
In the aftermath it was discussed if Misandry should develop into a feature film, as suggested by Jeff Winston but according to Lilou & John this is nothing the band is planning for. “If something”, they say, “the award made us even more eager to make more music, more art and more movies”.
Gospel X – A new direction
During the winter of 2019 the band got more international attention as the White Art Collective played their music. The duo had thought about releasing a Christmas single for a few years and they had a leftover piece from Iconoclastic that could fit. The duo had decided to move slightly away from aggressive EDM to a softer sound and from a focus on free speech to the more psychological stance they had on 100 Faces. “We love the music on all our albums, but we needed to calm down”, Lilou says. “It was as if we were sometimes 100% dissidents and 0% artists.”
The rise of the new music streaming service Liberplay and the music collective White Art Collective suggested to the duo that their hardy work for artistic freedom in music business had perhaps paid off.
“We were pioneers”, they say, “when we started there was no music like ours, and we had reached our goal of creating a new music scene that was open for everyone”.
On Christmas Eve 2020 Gospel X was released and it was an immediate hit among fans of the band. “We wanted to make a new kind of Christmas classic”, Lilou says, “and this song was perfect. It’s rough, it’s hard, it’s energetic, and it’s beautiful.”
Corona – The end of the punk years
In 2020 the Corona pandemic hit Sweden and the duo decided to release a song related to the disease. They had a number of songs partly recorded on Garageband and went for a two song single called Stray Wolf.
The title track was originally a blues ballad but turned into a punk rock anthem about leaving old patterns behind and starting anew. “Corona” was featured on poetry-cast “Conversations with the Wind” hosted by Gaius Nullus, and Fnordspotting wrote that it reminded of “neo-folk meets Depeche Mode meets Leonard Cohen”.
The single also marks the official end of the activism that partly influenced the band between 2016-2019. “We have never been a political band”, they say, “and we will never be. We just want artistic freedom, something we will always keep working for, but with the rise of alternative music communities others will hopefully join us in that work which means we can focus more on the music and less on the culture war”.
Healing the Malaise
After Gospel X and Stray Wolf the duo had run out of energy. It was a steep slope upwards for them to find a desire to keep on making music with a completely new approach. They declared that any culture war would have to be fought without them and thanked their fans for staying with them. It was time for a new beginning.
Still, the band had lots of songs recorded and arranged on Garageband and decided to release whatever material they had to wipe the slate clean and start anew. “We talked a lot about where we were heading”, John says, “and Lilou always being the creative explorer while I being the obnoxious culture critic we had to come to some sort of agreement”.
The result was the eight track album Malaise in 2021 featuring a cover image of a doll with make up running down her cheeks. “I wanted her to symbolize the white woman who always make the wrong choices and end up ruining her life”, Lilou says. “It was good to leave the political songs aside, but it was still not entirely what I was looking for. We just wanted to get rid of the old tracks we had.” The end result was more than pleasing, however, with tracks such as “Serpent Boulevard”, “Gothenburg” and “Tequila Metamorphosis”, which made the American singer-songwriter Hiraeth call the album the band’s magnum opus.
The album was played by the late Jeff Winston on his music show White Art Collective, where the duo found a growing audience in the US. As always the new fans did not always appreciate the outspokenness of John however and it became clear that the clash between him and quite a few followers became bigger by the day.
“I am not a man who keeps quiet and not always in a good way”, he says. “Lilou sometimes says I remind her of a cape buffalo and I have a tendency to not think business first but instead scare people away. I got into a number of online brawls with activists from different camps who pushed for hubris, hypocrisy, cowardice, dementia, envy and everything else but creativity. We live in an age of millenarism and apocalypticism and I took our call for sanity and emotional awareness a bit too far. It is hard for people to realize that in order to rebuild something that has been destroyed you first have to dig into your emotions to find what went wrong, which is what the album was all about. In that sense, Malaise was an important album for me personally.”
The Midnight Oracle
Malaise had launched the band in a new direction, away from their punky image, toward something far deeper and more introspective. They still had a few old tracks that they wanted to use for an album but it would take two years for it to be released.
“We had so much going on in our lives”, Lilou recalls. “We were in the middle of a move to a new flat and experimented with indoor farming. The economic recession also called for new ways of life and I looked into ecological food to take us further down the vegetarian path we had embarked upon many years ago. There was simply put too much to do.”
Malaise had been praised by fans but the band had not stayed in touch with music sites for reviews or podcasts for plays so the entire project of Lilou & John was at an all time low. With all focus on their private life they had little energy left for recording music. It was not until the summer of 2023 that the duo felt ready for another release.
Lilou took a photo of a frog medallion looking out from a handbag to match the feeling of the album that they initially wanted to call Royal Garden, but decided to skip because Lilou did not think the track “Las Vegas” that contains the words “royal garden” was good enough, but John desperately wanted the track on the album so they decided to reach a compromise. The album name Midnight Oracle was chosen as a hint of a new direction.
“I am not only a cape buffalo”, John says, “but also deeply involved in all things mystic and esoteric. The track ‘The Black Mass’ had stayed with me for many years with an old arrangement we made when we first started experimenting with Garageband. The lyrics was inspired by Benito Mussolini’s speech when he declared war on Britain and France, proclaiming the war against ‘the plutocratic and reactionary democracies of the west’. It was a powerful example of mass psychology and the famous book by Gustave Le Bon had to be turned into a song.”
The album delved deeper into a mental abyss, dealing with trauma, death and spiritual war on a bigger scale than the band had ever done before. “I wanted us to make a new 100 Faces EP and still release something new and Midnight Oracle was a great way of getting rid of all tracks while still maintaining high quality. Lilou has convinced me we should do something completely new next time however so nobody should expect us to continue releasing electronica for a while. It’s a fun journey traveling with her because I never know where we will end up, and I guess I am taking us to unknown places once in a while as well. The only thing I can say is that it will be esoteric rather than political.”