Thou Art Slain
Photo by Søren Solkaer Starbird
Their name, like much about the hottest Danish band of the moment (or ever), is misleading. The Raveonettes are not a gaggle of beach bunnies running 'round in go-go boots, ponytails a-swinging. They are a dark and handsome pair — she stares from photographs with charcoal-rimmed eyes flecked with insanity, he wears a poisonous smile and a tattoo of the young Jack Kerouac on his wrist; both dress in clingy black and exude the kind of freaky magnetism that drives mortals to unspeakable acts of perversion.
Then there's the Raveonettes' music. Remarkably simple and anchored only by guitar, bass and a drum machine, theirs is the sound of urban decadence, the soundtrack to a life misspent between chemical ecstasy and idle reverie. Think Velvet Underground, think Jesus and Mary Chain — or don't think at all, just succumb to the sleazy, sensual vibes and let the Raveonettes do the thinking for you.
Similar to '70s synth-punk minimalists Suicide, the Raveonettes make it their mission to build entire songs by humping the same note for two minutes; last year they issued an EP's worth of guitar grinders using only three chords and confining themselves to the key of B-flat minor. Denying themselves the use of typical rock & roll flourishes like high-hat or crash cymbals, the guitarist-bassist duo accented their alluring, closely matched vocals with samples of police sirens, hissing steam and atomic explosions. Yet for a band that takes this conceptual an approach to music making, the Raveonettes have a wildly visceral effect. Steeped in Link Wray proto-rock & roll mania, their racket is bigger and more dangerous than you'd expect from a mere two people, which may partly explain the attention they've been getting. Their Whip It On EP, originally whipped out by Danish indie label Crunchy Frog (to, it should be noted, abysmal reviews in the Danish press), was U.S.-released in March by Columbia.
Currently on a manic North American touring schedule (four appearances in the L.A. area alone) and hitting the late-night talk-show circuit, the Raveonettes appear primed for some close inspection. To that end I head to the Columbia Hotel in London on a crisp February morning for my appointment with Sharin Foo, 27, bassist, co-vocalist and female half of the band. She walks in wrapped in trademark noir — jeans, boots, sheer camisole peeking from under her fitted jacket — a 6-foot blond with rosy cheeks and baby-fine hair, unexpectedly earthy and sweet for someone who's the face of the demon Raveonettes. (The brain, who goes by the wonderfully Nordic name of Sune Rose Wagner, is bed-bound nursing a sore throat.) We settle in chintzy armchairs with cups of English tea, and I ask Foo about their explosive performance at an NME Music Awards showcase the night before. Bookending their set with twin covers of Buddy Holly's "Everyday," they breezed through Whip It On with brutal intensity, a brooding, introverted performance that momentarily brought all the Grolsch swilling and chatter to a halt.
"What we are experiencing at our shows is that people are quite stunned," Foo says. "The music is like a wall of noise, and you have to really listen for the vocals, which are subtle and mellow. People just stand there with their mouths open, and just kind of digest — I think that's a great way to experience things."
Ripe with obsessively Beat imagery (insane strippers, drinking & driving, heated cruel nights), the Raveonettes' songs unfold as cinematic vignettes. Tracks like "Attack of the Ghost Riders," "Cops on Our Tail" and "Bowels of the Beast" ("Come fuck with the Vegas lights tonight!") transport you like a feverish Benzedrine high — if, that is, you're ready to pay the requisite attention.
"If you hear it for the first time, it might all sound quite like the same thing," Foo says about their repertoire. "It's a challenge to be our audience. You have to make an effort to understand through all the drone — because it becomes a drone, but it's also really mesmerizing in another sense."
The introverted twosome, who are joined live by drummer Jakob Hoyer and guitarist Manoj Ramdas, are still fighting over who's in charge of the crowd. "We're both really shy people," says Foo, "so it's like, 'You talk to them!' 'No, you talk to them!' We only started playing live seven, eight months ago, so we're still working on the performance aspect, exploring whatever boundaries there are."
To put to bed all the facile comparisons with the White Stripes, Foo would like to clarify that she and Wagner are not related or romantically entwined — she calls Wagner her "workmate" — nor do they swear by the virtues of analog equipment. "We like to work fast," says Foo. "Also, when you work electronically, it makes it really strict and machinelike, which is great." During their shows, each song is triggered by a key on an Apple G4 PowerBook, a futuristic detail that somehow fits right in with the '50s-inspired renegade fantasies they project. "We don't want our music to be solely retro stylistically," says Foo. "We like the fact that it's both backwards- and forwards-looking, modern and old-fashioned at the same time."
Much of the Raveonettes' inspiration comes from traveling. The one-quarter-Chinese Foo spent six months apiece in the Caribbean and India, and has traveled extensively through China. The 26-year-old Wagner, who writes all the songs, crisscrossed the U.S. in 1998-99 on borrowed money, which he is still paying back. That's when he first began writing songs in a simple and intense style inspired by Denmark's back-to-basics filmmaking collective Dogme 95. He also wrote down a wish list for the sound he had in mind, which Foo recites for me from memory in her lovely singsongy murmur: "I want the simple beat of the Cramps. I want the drone of Suicide. I want the noise of the Jesus and Mary Chain, the party vibe of the B-52's, the vocals of the Everly Brothers, the songwriting of Buddy Holly . . ."
I am hypnotized. But before I drift into oblivion, I manage one last question: Why, I ask Foo, are Danish bands so hard to come by?
"I guess we have a feeling of inferiority in Denmark towards the international music scene," she says. "It is a really rare thing for Danish musicians to have an international music career. We are extremely spoiled — it's a total welfare state, and we have a great social-security system, which is very good, but sometimes it can make people a little lazy. You get paid really well when you play gigs. You can make a living out of that, and it's a nice, kind of quiet life — why have big ambitions about an international career?"
But too much comfort is something one can rebel against too, which Foo and Wagner did by being fiercely ambitious from the beginning. Having relocated to London, they spent the last months of 2002 in the studio recording their full-length debut — this time "in booming B-flat major" — due out later this year. And it is my duty to report that, like the Dogme 95 filmmakers who admitted to breaking their self-imposed vows of purity and simplicity, the Raveonettes are cheating: The new record features five chords instead of three, and even keyboards in one song — "which is groundbreaking for the Raveonettes," says Foo with an enigmatic smile, before she disappears into a bluish haze and I drop out to sleep, perchance to dream.
Good night, Raveonettes, and sweet nightmares.
The Raveonettes play at the Student Union at California State University, Long Beach, Friday, April 4; at the Troubadour on Tuesday, April 8; and at the Glass House in Pomona on Wednesday, April 9.
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