|Photo by Eric Josjo|
Some journalists are able to affect a healthy skepticism toward the Swedish rock band the Hives. Not me, though. Every time I see them play, I fall in love with rock & roll all over again.
I just can’t help it. Nor can most people I’ve met: At this year’s South by Southwest indie music fest in Austin, where the quintet of sharply dressed youths premiered songs from their then-yet-unreleased album Tyrannosaurus Hives, I spied a crowd of elitist hipsters melting into a puddle. First they all began shaking; before long they were uncontrollably bopping — and smiling. Fact is, the Hives make music infected with a primordial sense of fun that seems to marshal musical snobs and idiots alike to its side.
When their second album, Veni Vidi Vicious, was released in April 2000 on the indie imprint Epitaph, the Hives were just obscure darlings of retro-rock fetishists. By the time it was reissued by Sire/Warner 18 months later, they had miraculously crossed over into pop mainstream. Their audience was doubling every week. Their videos, which skipped plot in favor of basic, visually arresting images of the band rocking out in standard-issue black & white regalia, went into heavy rotation on MTV. Crisscrossing the world with maximum-energy live shows, the group joined the now-clichéd “rock is back” royalty of the Strokes, the White Stripes and the Vines, and got props in the media for popularizing cool music in the new millennium.
All of this prompts two questions: What did the Hives do then that was so special? And now that they’ve returned with a fresh record, can they do it again?
To answer the first one, allow me to take you back to a packed show the Hives played at the Roxy in May 2002. Center stage right there’s the smirking spectacle of guitarist Nicholaus Arson, who plays his instrument (dubbed “the Arsonette”) at such manic speed that in between songs he has to blow on his fingers to cool them. Off to the left side there’s the dynamic duo of massive rhythm guitarist Vigilante Carlstroem and mustachioed bassist Dr. Matt Destruction, who work up a sweat and puff it off like walruses. Drummer Chris Dangerous and his menacing facial tics seem to hover all over the drum riser.
Finally, there’s front man Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist, a skinny showman with enormous baby-doll eyes, a magnificent repertoire of rock & roll routines — the Mick Jagger chicken strut, the Pete Townshend midair kick, the Iggy Pop backward bend — and a relentless arsenal of one-liners and self-congratulatory shtick. He charmingly sweeps the bangs out of his eyes and proclaims, “Yes, America, you love us! We’ve come to take over your country and change everything. History starts today!” By the time the band bids farewell — with deep bows and a crisp “thank you and fuck you!” — the entire room fairly leaps to sign onto their manifesto.
The Hives are a band with a mission. Combating idiocy with irony and fine taste is part of it. But more than that, they want to replace the standardization of contemporary musical product with better standards of their own: the voodoo of ’50s-era rock & roll, the brutal energy of garage, the wit and studied simplicity of proto-punk. Their hybrid sound — which they’ve dubbed punkrock music avec kaboom! — packs a punch, has a point, and a plan.
“We’re extremely serious about our rock & roll,” says Almqvist, reached by phone at his Stockholm home. “But rock & roll should be something that’s easily ridiculed, because that’s when it’s at its best. We like it when it’s so over the top, so silly, that it almost is a joke: ‘Wop-bop-a-loo-lop a-lop-bam-boom.’ It doesn’t make any sense. It’s just ridiculous. But it’s good!”
And if these young contrarians believe in one thing above all, it is their own worth. They brashly billed a 2002 compilation of their first two records Your New Favorite Band. That same year, Interscope extended the group a contract reportedly worth
$10 mil. In the next 12 months, the Hives retreated to their
homeland to work on a VVV follow-up and emerged only to
plant rumors in the media that they were chasing a radically
different approach: rock & roll made by “humans trying to sound like machines.”
A felicitous impulse, given that it might be difficult,
dangerous even, to attempt to improve on something that was already perfect.
“At first we thought so, too,” Almqvist says. “That’s why we had to do something a bit different. We wrote the first half of the new record in a very stiff and robotic and conceptualized manner, and it came out pretty good. But then we started missing ourselves too much, ’cause no one else was doing what we were doing on our last record. We realized that nobody had picked up the torch.”
Thus Tyrannosaurus Hives, which arrives in stores this week, is pitched halfway between the old punkrock we all know & love and neo–new wave aplomb.
“Walk Idiot Walk,” the band’s current single, illustrates the compromise. Propelled by Spartan riffs, handclaps and tinkling sleigh bells, it features a newfound sense of mechanized glee but climaxes in one of those Ramones-catchy choruses: “See the idiot walk! See the idiot talk! See the idiot chalk up his name on the blackboard!”
Tyrannosaurus distills the Hivesian principles of binary logic, brevity, symmetry and methodical ass kicking to a deeper degree of purity. It’s new economy but with lots of soul: The guitars buzz, hum and crackle as if channeled through amps on the verge of explosion. Human noisemaking — whoo-hooing, stuttering, hiccups ’n’ handclaps — intertwines with bouncy, Devo-inspired prattle. Indeed, there’s a ballad, complete with a toy string section and a hitherto-unattempted guitar solo.
This time around, Almqvist’s bratty snarl even wraps around a lyrical theme — that of “being the wrong person in the wrong place,” he explains. “There’s a lot of finger-pointing at people who are not very fit for their positions. Our last record was basically ‘I am right!’ This one is ‘You are wrong!’ That’s how far we’ve gotten in four years.”
There’s a scientific process of selection and editing behind the Hives’ less-is-more approach. It’s most obviously at work in the band’s matching stage costumes — sharply creased black basics accessorized on their current U.S. tour with white smoking jackets, spats and “Southern gentlemen of leisure” ties.
But their attention to detail extends to an almost subatomic level. This is a band with a solid work ethic, who value old-fashioned showmanship and the discipline it requires. Their out-of-control performance aesthetic is clearly matched by tight control of offstage variables. “We try to be involved in everything,” says Almqvist, “from making the videos to picking the guitar strings to writing the bio.”
That bio is an infamous document in which the Hives playfully introduced themselves as protégés of one Randy Fitzsimmons, a supposed Swedish Svengali who in 1993 rounded them up boy-band style and gave them their mission. A charming ruse, but in fact the Hives all came of age in Fagersta (population: 12,381), a central-Sweden backwater the band have previously likened to “a small Pittsburgh in the middle of Canada.” They bonded in their midteens, because they all loved things hopelessly out of fashion at the time — film noir, vintage Little Richard and Sex Pistols albums, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World — and wanted to make music.
“We assumed that we would do three records and nobody would like them, but 10 or 15 years later we’d have some sort of a cult following,” says Almqvist. “We always thought of ourselves as a band that wouldn’t be huge but would be remembered. So now that we’re pretty big, maybe we won’t be remembered!”
Just in case they are, though, they’d prefer to go down in the books as “a band that was more than a band. One of those Devo, Ramones, Kraftwerk, AC/DC-type things, about whom there is so much to remember and debate even when they don’t exist anymore.
“Is that asking for too much?” Almqvist wonders with mock candor. “I don’t know that it will happen, but it’d be fun.”
The Hives play at Henry Fonda Music Box Theater Monday and Tuesday, August 2 and 3.