Trondheim, Norway, fancies itself the sister city to Detroit — just substitute a technical college for fading auto plants, and promising young grads for Ted Nugent. It’s also host to the region’s largest rock festival, By: Larm — sort of a South by Southwest for well-bred Scandinavians. 2007 marked the festival’s 10th anniversary, and I was invited as an international delegate, an authority from the American music scene. (Yes, the whys and hows elude me.) What follows are some highlights.
It’s impossible not to notice how different these people are from the typical American music crowd. In the States, most ladies of rock think smoking equals sit-ups, and by the age of 30, most rock dudes look as grizzled as longshoremen, and have equally bad career prospects. By contrast, in Trondheim I feel that at any moment some well-built lad might challenge me to wrestle wild stag in a local fjord, or that a golden-haired lass might offer succor with a dollop of honey hanging from a spoon, then sing the theme song to a Ricola cough-drop commercial in a voice as bold as a Valkyrie’s.
Welcome to Trondheim Rock City. It’s no Motown.
Early in the morning at the breakfast buffet, while puzzling over the brown cheese (gjetost!) and a gelatinous, gumbolike substance (still unidentified), I run into two journalists, from The Village Voice and Pitchfork. Somehow, we are enlisted by a reporter of local provenance for an impromptu roundtable on American perceptions of the Norwegian music scene.
When my turn comes, I express admiration for singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche (which is apparently the Norwegian equivalent of saying you like John Mayer) and El Perro del Mar (who, it turns out, is from Gothenburg, Sweden). I recover slightly by saying I also enjoy the faux gay-power hard-rock band Turbonegro (of Ass Cobra fame). Next, I pontificate on two of the more obscure musical subcultures indigenous to the region — the jazz/noise/improv/composition documented by the Rune Grammofon label, and the church-burning, black-metal scene of the early ’90s.
The reporter shoots me a disbelieving look. It seems even the locals barely talk about this stuff.
“Of course, we’re familiar with this music!” I boast. I feel like John Lennon preaching to Americans about R&B. Of course, I don’t mention that my familiarity amounts to an hour or two poking around the Internet, listening to free MP3s.
I sense the reporter is on to me: He isn’t using a tape recorder, nor is he actually writing anything down. Later, I ask if there is a local equivalent to the American notion of “hype.” He mulls it over for a second before writing on a piece of paper the word “snakkis.”
“Interesting,” I say. “What does that mean?”
“A thing you just talk about,” he replies, smirking in that knowing yet ambiguous way all Scandinavians have mastered.
Postscript: I am cited a few days later in Dagbladet, Norway’s third-largest daily newspaper. The article reads: “Ooh, jeg liker denne akkvevittaen, smatter Alec Bemis fra LA Weekly. Han strekker ut armen, skjenker seg et nytt glass, men passer på å ikke klirre for mye.”
Apologies that I can’t help with the translation, but I assure you, it’s a dollop of wisdom cased in an amusing bon mot.
This is why we Americans are so well respected abroad.
I’m marching in the dark toward a former Nazi submarine bunker, DORA 1, and I’m shaking. Bold red banners emblazoned with screeching eagles hang from the bunker’s 100-foot edifice. Harsh spotlights illuminate the falling snow. I shudder again, and though I’d like to say it’s because I’m sympathizing with my Jewish ancestors, more likely it’s because I’m freezing my ass off.
Try as I might, I just can’t get myself to enjoy concerts at DORA 1, where most of the shows take place. Built by slave labor in 1941, it is a complex of daunting structural integrity — concrete walls 9 to 12 feet thick, an armored roof tough enough to repel bomber attacks. It’s said that attempts to dynamite it after the war threatened to bring down surrounding buildings. More to the point, it is still unheated, and it sucks to hang out there.
In America, we would have transformed such a place into a memorial, complete with interactive kiosks and throngs of confused schoolchildren. The Norwegian sense of humility and efficiency, however, set them on a far bolder course: Today, DORA houses a bowling alley.
As we exit the venue, my friend — goggle-eyed and emphatic — whips his head around, spying an adorable hipster girl with thick blond hair, nice bangs, good fashion sense and impressive cheekbones.
“Whoa,” he says, pointing her out. “She’s totally cute, right?”
I signal my agreement with a growling sound, trailing her with my eyes until I wipe out on a patch of ice and fall into a snowbank. Damn that Aryan menace.
Eventually, my crew befriends Per Borten, the charismatic lead singer of a buzzed-about local band called the New Violators, and grandson and namesake of the country’s colorful 1960s prime minister. Tall, blond and bespectacled, Per looks like Morrissey via David Bowie via Vanilla Ice, and his manner is similar to that of the journalist I met from Dagbladet — observant but inscrutable. Add to that a quiet confidence that belies his 29 years, and he embodies everything that differentiates Norway’s best and brightest from our own.
Unlike America’s leaders, who tend to be repressed, moralizing crazies, Norway’s leaders are remarkably human and humane characters with a madcap yet philosophical outlook. Did you know, for example, that Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik took a three-week holiday for depression? Or that after leaving office in 2005, he published a memoir called A Life of Excitement/Uneasiness? (Whoever said Wikipedia isn’t a vital source of information has never tried to research this man’s ?life.) In any case, Bondevik was clearly not the kind of guy the George Bushes would drink beers with — nor was Per’s granddad.
When Per Sr. was prime minister, his greatest moment in the international spotlight occurred on the eve of Queen Elizabeth II’s state visit, in 1969. Proving that not all Norwegian prime ministers are depressives who go on to write vague, philosophical memoirs, Per Sr. conducted his own interview with Dagbladet on the front lawn of his family farm. At the time, he was wearing only a hat, a pair of shoes and underwear. Suggestive British headlines read: “Now the Norwegian Prime Minister Is Ready to Receive the Queen.”
This rare sense of grace was transferred through the generations, a fact that becomes clear the following night, when ?Per Jr. hits the stage in ridiculously tight pants.
The final night of the festival begins with a New Violators gig in a large red building (the “Studentersamfundet”) serving as a labyrinthine but very well-run student union. I’m surrounded by budding young blonds of both genders — ready to dance yet entirely more wholesome than our porn-fed, Britnified/Justified American adolescents.
Within minutes, Per bounds onstage in the aforementioned pants that’d do his grandpa proud, and a flamboyant white shirt featuring an abbreviated cape (or webbing, or vestigial wings, depending on your imagination). Here, tonight, he reveals himself as Morrissey’s fair-haired stepchild, a genuine cultural find — even if said culture originated in Britain. The music is glam rock by way of the Smiths and Duran Duran: glitter, disco and pop; sex, ennui and pride. Per overcomes that tough Norwegian accent — most folks pronounce the band’s name as New Wiolators — with lyrics sharp enough to slice, documenting a casual love: “Lost all my moral standards/Lost all my credit to God/I know my Commandments/Still I fall, I still crawl/She’s my favorite sinner/Calls me from time to time . . .”
Still suffering from vicious jet lag, a recent breakup and a series of depressing rebounds, I recognize all my hopes and dreams crystallized in this, a love-and-lust song made of cascading synthesizers, suggestive guitars, pointillist bleeps and rousing anthemic percussion. “She calls to open up those bloodshot eyes,” Per sings. The flash and synths and smoke machines swagger their way into my heart the way I thought only Norway’s female population could.
Later that evening, the scene moves to a biker bar on the other side of town, where Per plays his second set of the night — this time as guitarist of the Moving Ooos, his boogie-rock side project. Fronted by a tattooed truck driver, flanked by two robust ladies, and featuring songs like “Romancer” and “Minister of Love” and lots of cowbell, they claim Humble Pie as their central influence. They remind me of the Black Crowes led by Meatloaf.
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It’s a confusing scene. By all appearances, the audience is filled with hipsters. Yet weathered Hell’s Angels types in black leather serve the drinks, and manhandle their weathered biker ladies. Yet on either side of me, I see same-sex couples of both genders making out on the dance floor. More proof that Norway is a bastion of tolerance? Certainly, proof that Turbonegro did not spring from a vacuum.
I walk outside as dawn breaks, a thousand icicles glimmering dangerously in the light. I am stone sober, and shivering again, this time from fatigue. Less than two hours to get to my hotel, pack, and catch a shuttle to the airport.
Life is good. Or, to put it another way: Fuck the Nazis. Chalk up another victory for the Norwegians.
The New Violators will perform at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, on Wed., March 14, at the Fader Fort and Thurs., March 15, at Emo’s Jr.