The Swedes Are Coming
When members of the punk band Division of Laura Lee, based in Goteborg, Sweden, began to play live shows, they were convinced they could be the best band in the world. Music in other countries, they decided, had become too refined. U2 or Radiohead simply didn’t need rock ‘n’ roll the way they did.
For Division of Laura Lee, or D.O.L.L., as the band is known, rock was about transforming pain into a party--or at least into the gut-wrenching Jesus and Mary Chain-type howl captured on its debut album, “Black City,” just released by Burning Heart/Epitaph Records.
“We’re working-class kids,” says Jonas Gustafsson, 23, the lanky, laconic bassist for D.O.L.L., on the phone from his home in Vanersborg, just north of Goteborg. “It’s a town where you either do drugs or work at the Saab factory, and we were outsiders. You have to believe in something.”
Not coincidentally, this is the same story told by the Hives, a more glam-tinted Swedish garage-rock outfit from industrial Fagersta that has taken the U.S. pop media by storm with its fun juggernaut of a second album, “Veni Vidi Vicious.” The Hives’ self-declared status as “Your New Favorite Band"--a Hives album title--seems to be gaining validity as “Vicious” has sold more than 225,000 in the U.S. The band recently signed a $10-million, three-album deal with Universal Records after a fierce battle between Universal and Warner Bros., and has a new album due in the fall.
This is big news for the U.S., where garage rock styles have gained new notoriety with the Strokes and White Stripes, but not back in ultra-pragmatic Sweden, where ‘60s-style garage rock has been exploding for the past decade. With the Hives’ success, many in the country of only 8 million are queuing up to join the many Swedish bands that have been touring the U.S. and challenge the Hives’ title. There are also several other bands making U.S. album deals. It’s looking like a Swedish Invasion.
“I think a few Swedish bands might get snapped up, as there’s a lot of good stuff out here,” says Peter Ahlqvist, president of Burning Heart Records, a label in Orebro, 100 miles west of Stockholm, that first put out the Hives and other Scandinavian bands.
“There’s some buzz. D.O.L.L. is getting some attention, The (International) Noise Conspiracy too. There’s talk about the Soundtrack of Our Lives, and there’ll indeed be lots of talk about the fabulous denim-demons Turbonegro, who are back. They are Norwegian, but that’s damn close.”
That all these bands sound quite different is an indication of a very healthy Scandinavian scene.
The (International) Noise Conspiracy is a strident, five-person punk thrash band with hip outfits and anti-capitalist messages, rendered more European by just a splish of cabaret and a splash of KMFDM-style techno-goth. It’s taking the material from its 2001 album, “New Morning, Changing Weather,” to the U.S. in September on the Plea for Peace Tour with Jimmy Eat World and the Promise Ring, then again in October with D.O.L.L.
The Soundtrack of Our Lives, currently touring the U.S. with Oasis, is made up of former members of Stooges sound-alike Union Carbide Productions, reformulated with a slightly more melodic Stones or Who sound. The band’s 2001 album, “Behind the Music,” was released to critical acclaim and has been out in the U.S. on Hidden Agenda Records for almost a year. After the band emerged as the hit of the 2002 South by Southwest music conference in Austin in March, Universal Records licensed the album for the U.S. and will be re-releasing it Sept. 24.
Norwegian hard-core act Turbonegro, whose 1998 album, “Apocalypse Dudes,” is recognized as one of the most influential Scandinavian punk records, was known for glammed-up denim outfits. The band broke up in 1998 but has reformed after replacing Alice Cooper-like singer Hank Von Helvete. Queens of the Stone Age covered the song “Back to Dungaree High” on a 2001 Turbonegro tribute compilation on Get Hip Records’ “Alpha.”
Major labels are hearing more than buzz. They sense commercial pay dirt. Vivendi Universal was so keen on getting the Hives that the company indemnified the band against delivering the one album it allegedly still owes to Burning Heart, and Ahlqvist says he’s not surprised the label went that far to sign the band.
“It’s simple: They are a great band that looks good, write fantastic songs and make brilliant videos, and arrived at the right time,” Ahlqvist says. “If they are gonna become big entertainers is up to them. They are at least bringing back some joy to music and influencing a lot of people.”
For some American rock ‘n’ roll traditionalists, it makes no difference that the “joy” is coming from Sweden, especially because virtually all of the bands sing in English. “I was the first guy to declare that the Hives were the greatest band in the world,” enthuses Mike LaVella, 37, publisher of the San Francisco-based hot rod ‘zine Gearhead.
Tapping the car culture’s interest in garage and punk bands, Gearhead Records, the magazine’s label, released Hives music in the U.S., as well as Swedish garage originators the Nomads and more recent bands such as the Demons and the Hellacopters. “I heard ‘Barely Legal’ in ’97, and I flipped out,” says LaVella, referring to the Hives’ first album. “Along with it, of course, were all these other Swedish bands. I knew how great this scene was.”
Gearhead has become the sponsor of the biggest garage-rock festival in Scandinavia, the biannual Gearfest, which was put together in 1998 by the Nomads. The third Gearfest, in June 2002, played Stockholm, Helsinki and Oslo, and featured the Hives, the Nomads, Thee Ultra Bimboos, the Demons, the Flaming Sideburns and Mensen, a Runaways-style female punk group from Norway.
LaVella says the Swedish invasion has been brewing for years. In recent decades, Sweden has been the third-biggest global exporter of music, after the U.S. and Britain, and now it has the musical antidote to same-sounding mainstream R&B;, pop punk and nu-metal. The Swedes are hip to the ‘50s and ‘60s roots of garage-rock culture, he says, and have the right mix of erudition and angst to produce urgent, irrepressible punk rock.
“The long winters have a lot to do with it,” LaVella says. “In winter, the sun comes out for one hour a day. People get depressed. The suicide rate is high. A lot of people turn to alcohol. If you’re a person that’s basically on the ball, you turn to rock ‘n’ roll.”
“Me and the other guys in our band grew up with the punk wave of ’77, and we were huge fans of the Ramones and the Clash,” says Nomads guitarist and singer Niklas Vahlberg, 39, from his home in Stockholm. “Then hard-core came in, and we just turned to older music--the Stooges, the MC5 and ‘60s garage bands.”
Sweden has seen two waves of garage rock. In the mid-'80s, the Nomads, who are credited with founding the current scene, the Creeps and Union Carbide Productions got some attention in the U.S. Then the Hellacopters, Backyard Babies and the Soundtrack of Our Lives emerged in the late ‘90s and marked the new wave that has propelled the Hives.
“The Hives are a great band,” Vahlberg says. “The last real breakthrough like this was 10 years ago, with Nirvana.”
Great garage-rock, of course, like the punk of Nirvana, is born out of gritty desperation. The secret of the Swedes’ success seems to be that they share the same drive for fun and validation that inspired garage bands from the Bobby Fuller Four and the Kingsmen to the form’s all-time American apex with the Stooges, MC5 and the Sonic Rendezvous Band.
With one caveat: The Stooges were infamous for failing to entertain, for being too raw, for making music that was a soul-scraping bid for power instead of pop. It was a sound that said everything was not right with America or the entertainment culture standing in for the promised cultural revolution.
The Hives are more like the Ramones and Dead Boys, who picked up this self-destruction act and turned it into punk fun. The band’s garage sound and faux-snooty shtick isn’t garage or snooty at all, but a meticulously rehearsed and packaged stylization meant to conjure up the MC5 or Iggy without being so dangerous.
Songs like “Main Offender” and “Supply and Demand” give more of a nod to pop than the Detroit originators could ever muster. Still, this festering--and spreading--garage outbreak can’t signify that life is peachy in Sweden.
The Soundtrack of Our Lives and D.O.L.L., in particular, are clearly fighting their way out from beneath the crushing pragmatism of Swedish life. One obscenity-spiked D.O.L.L. song is lead vocalist and guitarist Per Stalberg’s reaction to the false normalcy and egalitarianism of Sweden’s Socialist utopia. The same universal care that gives people equal rights to health services and education also systematically discourages the feeling of transcendence, or even cockiness, that makes great rock music. Government grants cover everything from the cost of instruments to practice spaces to a manager, but Swedish society also holds that rock stardom is vulgar and that making a spectacle of oneself is shameful.
“Per had a really tough childhood,” says bassist Gustafsson. “On stage, he always says, ‘This is the real life right here at the show, not the world you all live in.’ He was kind of the ugly duckling. But he got out of it. He’s really handsome nowadays.”
This is rock’s promise of transformation laid bare, and, for Swedes, it’s a more common one every day. Who’s next for validation? Rolling Stone recently featured all-female Swedish punk band Sahara Hotnights as one of “10 artists to watch.”
The Soundtrack of Our Lives and D.O.L.L. have become critics’ darlings. LaVella says he’s laying odds on the Demons. Their punk act is young, handsome, hungry and outrageous. Or the Hellacopters, whose run is far from over.
“All those ... bands are good,” LaVella says. “Of course, now the wave of Hives imitators are coming, just like with the Hellacopters before them. But the good bands always rise to the top. Especially in a small place like Sweden.”
Dean Kuipers is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.