[Division of Laura Lee] May. 17, 2004
"Getting creative." It may be one of the most abused, dreaded and ultimately meaningless euphemisms since "collateral damage" found its way into the vernacular. That soccer team whose airplane crashed in the Alps, making its survivors resort to cannibalism to survive? They were getting creative. That genius who figured hydrogen would be a perfect solution to the Hindenburg's buoyancy problems? Getting creative. Getting creative brought us the Dick York/Dick Sergeant switch on Bewitched, Roseanne's two Beckys, Abu Ghraib interrogation techniques and your decision to end your love-live draught by hooking up with fatty.
Has the music world been a sucker for creativity? And how! Everyone from Prince, with his four-CD Emancipation, and Nine Inch Nails with the utterly scattered The Fragile, to Radiohead (you know all about its increasing self-absorbed songwriting, art-rock aims and pomposity) somehow let creativity, artistic expression and a dilettante's grasp of subtlety. So when The Division of Laura Lee's latest, Das Not Compute, is touted as the Swedish rock act's most eclectic, experimental and visionary work to date, fans have cause to be afraid. Be very, very afraid indeed.
Take a deep breath. Don't freak out. Put a dollar in the swear jar for that explicative and relax. While Das Not Compute leaves the band's Swedish hard rock in the dust faster than the world could forget about The Hives, the quartet hasn't entered a tailspin of eccentricity. Sure, the raging guitars take a back seat to textures filled with ambient-noise recording techniques and keyboards swoop in just as often as you'll hear the roar of a vintage amp. Heck, an effects rack -- or its modern-day software counterpart -- provides the band as many songwriting tools as its Iggy, Cult and Nuggets records did for its last one. "Endless Factories" takes the band's revved-up guitars, adds weird pick slides, washes of discordant noise and the ebb end fade of ambient electronic noise for a song that's one part garage rock and one part indie futurism. DOLL shows its somber side on "There's a Last Time For Everything," a druggy, slow-burning number that has more to do with the Jesus and Mary Chain and Spacemen 3 than anything to come from Detroit, though it still harbors DOLL's trademark intensity. Effects prop up "Sneaking Up on Mr. Prez" with a powerful, unconventional mix of no-foolin' rock, while "Breathe Breathe Breathe" slips into an alcohol coma full of fuzzy guitars, out-of-focus bass work and a hauntingly simple piano riff. Just to prove it hasn't lost its edge, the band kicks out "Dirty Love," a jam that's one part MC5 and one part Swedish riffery.
"The important thing to us is still to write good songs and put on a good show," explains guitarist David Fransson. "To experiment with sound, effects and keyboards on the record, that's more to spice it up or catch the spirit of the lyrics or whatever.
"I don't want to talk shit about anybody, but Radiohead used to be a good band," he continues with a chuckle. "That's not going to happen with us! I can't predict the future and what's going to happen, but right now, it feels like we have our thing that we want to keep doing a long time."
DOLL shouldn't have to worry about either getting too artsy for its own good or falling into the rut that plagues so many suburbanized garage acts. Fransson, singer/guitarist Per Stålberg, bassist Jonas Gustavsson, and drummer Håkan Johansson, prove that they're more than adept at balancing its raw rock roots with its newfound love of the studio. On tour with rock purists The Catheters and shoegazer muscle-men Run Run Run, the Division's new material tests out. Fans, who haven't had a chance to sit down and tear into the textures and mood swings of the studio-enhanced Division don't even know Das Not Compute's studio freakouts are on the horizon. Mark that as a testament to the band's ability to grow and explore the power of the studio without losing sight of its "write good songs" goal.
"Live, it still goes together. It's more similar to the old songs," Fransson says. "The live versions of songs on Black City and Das Not Compute go together well. On the record, we used tons of overdubs and keyboards and everything. Live, it's pretty raw."
Really, fans shouldn't worry that DOLL will lose its edge. It's still there -- only with enough extras to make Das Not Compute an album that'll grab the ears of college-rock smarty-pantses and psychedelic freaks as well. After all, the Swedes have more than enough history under their belt to stay on track. Formed in the wake of the dissolution of Outstand and The Smoke, the Division began its hustle in 1997 in Gothenburg, Sweden, where it quickly began to pursue its pure-rock aims. In a year, it released a split EP with American art-punks Milemarker and its own EP; a few more EPs followed, as well as a self-released full-length, At the Royal Club. Soon, Burning Heart took noticed, got the band to sign on the dotted line, and began pimping the band's 2001 Black City to European ears. Epitaph took over in the States, where Black City soon caught the attention of the Yankee rock underground, and made waves with fans of everyone from garage-rock types to boozed-up, noise-loving dropouts.
No matter how many new wrinkles DOLL puts into Das Not Compute -- and there are tons of them -- it won't lose track of those raw and loud days. In fact, Fransson says, the notion of the band growing out of its love for the rock is simply ludicrous. For its members, playing the kind of music that makes ears ring, speakers threaten to fall apart and neighbors call the cops isn't a adolescent phase, but something that's ingrained into their very soul through years and years of rocking out. Keyboards, effects and slowed-down tempos won't change that.
"The main influences are still the same," Fransson says. "I think when you're in your early teenage years, you kind of set the path of your influences. Your most important influences are from those years. Now, I'm 25 and you get into all kinds of stuff. You get into the radio or whatever. You hear a lot of new stuff. Of course, I like a lot of the stuff that I hear, but it's nothing like the impact the music had on me when I was 13 years old and I heard Nirvana for the first time. You can't beat that!"
Das Not Compute doesn't just hammer out some intricate, grainy rockers, but it challenges the world's notion of Division of Laura Lee. Black City, with its smoking-amp volumes and crazed arrangements came off as a garage rock album that, after ingesting a Jesus and Mary Chain album or two, had the hiccups. The electronics and ambient sounds of Das Not Compute flit so far away from the rigidly preservationist blueprints of the garage revival, that it's impossible, even with the most broad sense of the style to stash DOLL back in the garage.
As far as career moves go, abandoning its ties to the garage world could be seen as, if not a disaster, than a poorly timed moment to test new artistic waters: The White Stripes still hold court as one of rock's most watched bands; The Von Bondies exchanged a Jack White beating for mainstream radio attention. The British press waits with baited breath for word on the new Hives record. And, as rock'n'roll foot soldiers, DOLL helped to create the buzz with Black City. Why not stick around and reap some benefits? Mostly because its ties to the garage revival were totally coincidental and, somewhat unwelcome. Das Not Compute, if nothing else, will change that.
"They'll be deaf or something if they call it garage rock!" Fransson gushes. "We've never, ever said that we wanted to be a garage rock band. We don't have anything to do with that. I can definitely see how some songs, with good imagination could go under that tag. On this record, you've got to have hearing problems because this is far away from that.
"The reason (DOLL was called garage) was probably not because we were judged not by how the music or our album sounded, but we were judged by the fact that we come from the same country as The Hives and The Noise Conspiracy. I think that's why that happened. It's cool. There's nothing to be mad about it."
Das Not Compute extracts DOLL from the garage-rock hoopla, but amputating another set of unintentional baggage -- its place amid the Swedish Invasion -- won't be so easy. Heralded alongside The Hives, Sahara Hotnights and Soundtrack of Our Lives as either Sweden's apology for Ace of Base or its greatest pop-cultural legacy since bikini teams, DOLL can't argue its place among the Swedish Invasion any more than it could try to pass itself off as a Cantonese pop outfit. It's a matter of homeland.
The Division can't change its birthplace, but, Fransson says, that's about all it has in common with the influx of its countrymen into the States' musical world. His argument makes a lot of sense, too -- really, what does the lush pop of Soundtrack of Our Lives have to do with The (International) Noise Conspiracy's mod revivalism, the Joan Jett-styled rock of Sahara Hotnights or DOLL's quirky studio explorations? Nothing. So the politics of the Swedish Invasion -- a nice little music-rag buzzword -- are about as silly as lumping The Eagles and Bad Religion into the same "scene" simply because they both hail from Los Angeles.
"We have so little to do with that whole Swedish Invasion thing," Fransson moans. "The only connection is Kalle (Gustavson), our producer, plays bass in Soundtrack of Our Lives. We always choose, like now, to tour with The Catheters and Run Run Run who are our best friends in the world. They're from L.A. and Seattle. It's like every scene, since rock started, the D.C. scene or the Seattle scene or the English Invasion or whatever they might call it, they're never actual scenes. They're something that NME makes up. Scenes barely exist. We don't have anything in common with them."
In fact, the 2004 vintage of DOLL has little in common with anything usually associated with the band. The roots -- loud guitars and sneering attitude -- are there, but Das Not Compute stands boldly on its own. Sometimes creativity has its moments, huh?
By Matt Schild