Erik Markus Welén’s first summer job was as a groundskeeper at a huge cemetery, “Keeping graves nice and tidy, cutting grass and filling holes.” He quickly learned that when you’re in the hole there are only certain parts of the casket you can stand on. “One guy stepped through one once.” That made an impression on him. “It’s a brutal sight and made me realize that death is not beautiful in any way, ever.” Cemetery work was never destined to become Erik’s career.
Instead, Erik has been dedicated to music for as long as he can remember. Playing in bands, traveling theworld and years of working at Stockholm’s performance venues have made music a part of his everyday life.
When I first moved to Sweden from America in 2009, my friend Iida invited me to live with her andher then-boyfriend Erik until I found a place to live. Without Erik and Iida, it would have been nearly impossible for me to get my feet on the ground and to start building a life in Stockholm.
I had a lot of fun living with them and using their walk-in closet as a windowless bedroom. They are both musicians so the music never stopped during my time there. When they would invite friends over, the festivities would inevitably devolve into raucous music and singing along with the SingStar karaoke video game.
I have learned a lot from Erik about the way Sweden works and about the everyday oddities that come up for a new person in the country. I can always go to him for the backstory on why a certain person is famous, how the entire country became fluently bilingual, or why they still pay an annual tax for owning a television.
Erik is one of the kindest people I have ever met. I’ve never known anyone as opinionated who doesn’t offend people with his views. He is an animated conversationalist, especially when it comes to the topics of politics and television series. He knows more about American politics than most Americans, so I decided to start his interview with the topic of America itself.
PHOTOS BY IIDA HELLSTRÖM
When were Americans the coolest and when were they the least cool?
[laughs] I would say they were coolest pre-Columbus… [laughter] and the un-coolest, somewhere between post-Columbus and pre-Star Trek. Pre-USS Enterprise. Somewhere in the middle.
Wait. Are you saying USS Enterprise is in the future?
Yeah, I haven’t seen it for real yet.
So you can’t be more specific? Second question, though, did you know that the space shuttle Enterprise, is actually named after the Star Trek Enterprise?
Yeah, true story. True story. Will you ever eat meat again?
No. Not as it is at this point.
Would you eat cloned meat?
Even if it’s not an animal? Like if they take animal cells and just make meat?
Yeah, of course I’ve thought about this. But it just seems gross. [laughter]
It does. It seems worse than real meat. [laughter]
Yeah, but still, they have to clone it from somewhere. They have to take some cells from an animal and clone it. And I don’t like cloning. Why should we clone something? I don’t know. This will probably end up as a YouTube clip later, with the crazy guy who says he would clone anything. Why would you clone meat? [laughter] Why would you do that? That’s weird.
You would not eat meat even if you were really drunk at a Kentucky Derby party and somebody came in with the Crave Case of White Castles?
[laughter] No. The biggest reason is that I have never tried White Castles, so I don’t have “the craving” for White Castles that you do.
But, theoretically? [laughter]
No. I can say I wouldn’t. I mean, I’ve been drunk thousands of times [laughter] since I became a vegetarian and I still haven’t eaten meat. Because it’s… Well, I’m not really “a drunk” either, so…
Was it ever weird that your girlfriend’s American friend who is a guy was living in your apartment?
[much laughter] No. No, It wasn’t. [laughs] Which might be weirder.
When I lived in your apartment, did you ever feel like you wish I didn’t? [three seconds] Be honest.
Yeah. Of course!
You liked to be alone with Iida, right?
Yeah. But I think that we had time alone as well. And I liked that you…
Sometimes I would come home at six in the morning [laughter] so that gave you all a lot of time alone! [laughter]
Yeah. I also liked… I like to be alone but it was never a problem, because we could be alone in different places without disturbing each other.
Yeah, it’s a big apartment.
Yeah. No, I never felt it. I liked the fact that I could always say, “Hey! You wanna watch this? You wanna watch this?”
I usually would.
It’s hard to do that with the cats, because they only wanna see the YouTube video of the girl who can’t sing “I Will Always Love You.” [laughter]
That reminds me, did you ever finish The Pacific?
No. Three episodes left.
Did you ever watch season two of Deadwood?
No. It’s sitting by the DVD player.
I’ve unwrapped it but I never started watching it.
Okay good. So you miss me? [laughter]
Did you remember the first magazine you ever bought?
No, not really. I mean, I bought a lot of comics at first. The first real magazine I went into town to buy was probably – what’s it called? – it’s like where they list all the great hockey cards…
Yeah. It was like this big magazine that would grade all different types of trading cards from all different kinds of sports and everything.
Like how much they were worth?
Yeah. People would look into it and say, “Well, it’s worth this much in…” I don’t remember the name of the magazine.
A Swedish magazine?
No, no, an American magazine. Yes, dude! They didn’t rate the cards by the Swedish prices. [laughs] But was hard collecting because (we were into) hockey, you know? And no one here ever bought baseball cards! [laughter]
Every time you looked in that magazine it was always the baseball cards that were the most valuable. Swedish kids were like, “So what’s this?” [laughter]
“What’s this, like cricket or something?” [laughter]
Yeah, it was. Or like tennis! [laughter]
Can you explain what Fredagsmys is?
Well, basically it’s like… Should I explain the term Fredagsmys or the industry behind Fredagsmys? [laughter] It’s all a conspiracy for kids.
Is it basically like how Hallmark Cards is behind Valentine’s Day?
But for somebody who knows nothing about Swedish culture, like most of our readers…
Well, Fredagsmys is something that came up like two years ago, three years ago.
Oh, it’s new?
I’ve only been here two years so I thought it was already here.
Yeah, it’s like Hallmark coming up with Valentine’s Day. It’s kind of the same thing. It was like a TV commercial that they started to show.
We’ve always had this thing in Sweden called Lördagsgodis (“Saturday’s candy”). It’s like you don’t buy candy until Saturday and then on Saturday you eat candy.
It’s like a special day for the kids.
Yeah. So I guess they had to expand their market with one more day a week. [laughter] So they came up with Fredagsmys and wrote a really catchy song for the commercial.
What was the company?
It was OLW, I think. One of the big potato chip companies.
Okay, so it’s a snack thing? I thought it was an alcohol thing.
No, it’s a snack thing. Totally snack thing. Nothing to do with alcohol at all.
Alcohol we drink seven days a week anyway so… [laughter] No, sorry, not on Sundays. [laughter] Then only if we have spares. But yeah, it’s a totally new thing.
Before this, actually, they had this commercial for Guldfågeln, which is like the main company that raises chickens in Sweden. They had this song that was about how you eat chicken on Fridays. But that was several years back. It was like “måndag, da da da da da…” Really catchy song! I’ll play it for you later. [laughter]
And the best thing about the Fredagsmys song is that the guy who wrote the Fredagsmys song also wrote the song for the amazing commercial where they thank people for paying their public television license.
Oh yeah, the TV license?
It’s the same guy who wrote both songs.
So he’s a hit maker? [laughter]
Yeah, he’s a hit maker.
Who are some of your heroes?
[four seconds] They kind of, you know, faded out on me. When I was young they were the usual ones. Che Guevara. Pick your left-wing heroes! [laughs] But then it’s kind of like, I don’t know… I kind of started thinking about this: that no one’s perfect, especially in the case with left-wing guerrilla leaders. [laughs] Maybe he’s got a good beard. [much laughter] So, you know, he’s my beard hero! [laughs]
But I don’t know. For a while I was really kind of into Tim Kasher in (the band) Cursive, but then they released a really crappy Cursive record. Then it was like, “No, not him either.” So I don’t really know. It’s like you having like some of the Kennedys as heroes… they all died young so they didn’t have time to make any mistakes.
They did a pretty good job of making some mistakes. [laughter]
Yeah, they did.
But yeah, they didn’t stick around long enough to get prosecuted. [laughter] Or long enough until having an affair with Marilyn Monroe would be a bad thing. [laughter]
No! But yeah I think it’s hard. I think you shouldn’t have heroes either. Maybe I’m not that kind of person. I just pick from different people. I don’t have any one, single person that I idolize.
Have you ever had any celebrity crushes?
[six seconds] Yeah. I used to have… A long way back, I had Josephine Forsman who played drums in Sahara Hotnights. And then I had… [five seconds, then reconsidering his answer] It’s the same thing with that. It’s like people you have a crush on and they turn out to be a disappointment. [laughter]
With her also?
No, I have no idea. That kind of faded out as well because it came too close. When I know someone who knows the person, then it’s just like…
Then it becomes a weird thing.
Yeah, it was before I started to play music professionally and that kind of stuff. Because you always expand your boundaries as well. Sweden is too small to have a celebrity crush [laughter] because all of a sudden you’re gonna end up working with the person. [laughter]
Or you sit next to them in a cafe and you’re like, “Oh shit.”
Yeah. So not any Swedish ones. And then it was Justin Timberlake, but nothing happened there either. [much laughter]
So when you met Justin Timberlake… Well, I should explain to the readers that your band worked on an Audi commercial which he produced the music for. So you went to Hollywood and worked with Justin Timberlake.
Is he kind of an asshole?
[much laughter] No! He was actually really nice!
No! I would have totally given it to you if he was an asshole. But, no, he was really nice. He’s not a douche, but I mean, he’s a “dude.”
He’s a guy.
He’s a total guy. He’s such a frat boy. I mean if he would have gone to college, he would have “gone to college!” You know, he would have been “all in.”
Did you sometimes hate his symmetrical face [laughter] and how successful he is?
[laughs] No, but I know we hated his boots. Because he had like these really weird boots that looked like… I don’t know if you’ve been snowboarding, but know like the boots you have that lock into the snowboard. Some kind of Doctor Martens-kind of snowboarding boots, with like… what do you call it? It’s “niter” in Swedish. Like punk rockers have on their jackets?
Oh yeah. Something like that. So we hated the boots. [laughter]
So why would you wear snow boots in southern California?
I don’t know. No, I mean, he was actually really nice.
The best part was that Andreas had the chance to just talk to him and made a joke about something he thought was a Punk’d episode, but was from real life. So he was joking about Justin’s burnt down house [laughter] which Andreas thought was from Punk’d [laughter] but it wasn’t from Punk’d… it was actually real! His house actually did burn down! [much laughter] That was amazing!
So did Mr. Timberlake think that was pretty funny?
No, but I thought it was pretty funny. [laughter]
So it turns out that Justin Timberlake is a really cool guy and your friend, Andreas, is an asshole! [laughter]
Yeah, he’s a bad man. You should actually interview him.
Well, I don’t know if you know this, Erik, but you have a reputation as being like the nicest guy ever.
When I’ve talked about you with various friends or people who have met you, everybody thinks that you’re just like the nicest guy in the world.
So I wonder about this…
You wanna see the closet where I hide all the dead babies? [laughter]
No, I’ve seen that. [laughs] I was just surprised they didn’t have arms, I wondered what you were doing with the arms.
And the baby blankets!
But when you see people running late – like running to catch the train or to catch the bus – do you kind of secretly wish it will drive away without them?
Yes! I knew it! [laughs]
Yeah, and you know why? Be on time: first rule. Second rule: [pointing his finger repeatedly on the table…] If you stand on the train, holding the door open and it breaks, that’s the worst thing ever. The one thing I hate the most is people not being on time. Be on time! [continuing to tap the table…] Be on time, be on time, be on time!
I like that a lot. Okay. Thanks, man.