A visit to rock's coldest hotbed
It's a crisp friday night in Stockholm, the affluent capital of Sweden. Outside the newly opened Debaser club, a gang of youths indulges in the local ritual of consuming ridiculously priced liquor and becoming uncontrollably drunk. Inside, you could be in New York, Chicago, London or Berlin: The clientele is clad in T-shirts and trendy jackets and ties; the DJs speak the global language of punk and indie rock. But when the Hives' "Main Offender" bursts from the speakers, the crowd snaps out of its awkward shuffle and suddenly breaks a sweat -- a handful of people go into two and a half minutes of semiviolent convulsions.
The next week, Hives vocalist Howlin' Pelle Almqvist arrives back at his Stockholm apartment to hang up his black-and-white stage uniform and begin a three-month vacation. "I live in the really posh, rich area," says Sweden's foremost purveyor of theatrical garage punk, with a smirk. "There are a lot of senior citizens. It's quiet."
The Hives have been on the road for almost two years, successfully making commercial inroads in the U.S. and fielding questions about their homeland with an increasing weariness. "The most common conception is that living here is like living in the Bronze Age," says Almqvist. " 'How could you find rock & roll records? How could you have heard all these bands?' It's like, come on. Planes do actually travel to Sweden; we have record stores. But I guess Sweden sounds exotic to some people. They think it's like coming from Tibet."
Some instructive facts, then. Sweden is Scandinavia's largest nation, with a population of 9 million. Swedes are in the habit of referring to it as a socialist country: Tax rates hover at around fifty percent, the passenger railroad is a dependable delight, and the government owns all the liquor stores. Sweden is known as a nation ridden by suicide and alcoholism, but those problems are no more prevalent here than in most European countries. That's not to suggest that life is a breeze. By Christmas, northern Sweden is lucky to get two hours of sunlight a day.
Sweden is also currently a fertile source of cutting-edge rock & roll. The Hives' success has shone light on an array of ascendant Swedish bands: Sahara Hotnights, Division of Laura Lee, the Hellacopters, Citizen Bird, the (International) Noise Conspiracy, the Soundtrack of Our Lives. The U.K., long Europe's major musical source, should watch out -- whereas British music still suffers from millennial introspection, most of Sweden's bands believe in rock's primal virtues: volume, speed and the idea that bouncing around a stage is one of life's more thrilling pleasures.
A two-hour train ride from Stockholm lies the industrial town of ...rebro (pronounced Er-e-brew). It's here, amid factories and warehouses, that you find the offices of Burning Heart, the punk label that launched the Hives and is considered the nerve center of Swedish music. Unlike the archetypal indie-label hovel, its headquarters are characterized by the low hum of order and efficiency.
"I think Swedes are good at picking up influences at an early stage," says Burning Heart's avuncular founder, thirty-six-year-old Peter Alhqvist. "Sweden is effectively an English-speaking country, so things don't have to be translated. We also tend to have a lot of spare time, and you have to spend it indoors because the winters are very long. If you're not into sports, you have to do something else."
As Alhqvist explains, in Sweden, being in a band is not a matter of opting out of society, living in a squalid crash pad and surviving on a diet of Chee-tos. Welfare checks are easy to come by, and membership in a trade union guarantees that even if you quit your job, you get paid a portion of your salary. Until recently, local organizations known as study circles provided musicians with government cash. The practice has been canceled due to cutbacks, but for many musicians, it did its work.
"You just had to write down how many times you practiced every week," says Per Stalberg, guitarist and singer with Division of Laura Lee. "You could join ten [study circles]: You just made up the names of the bands. That's what I did, and I bought guitars, strings, amps. . . . Over the last ten years, I've got at least $15,000. Probably more. I haven't been counting."
"Sweden is a rich country," adds bassist and co-vocalist Jonas Gustavsson. "People should have the right to be creative."
Among the current crop of Swedish bands, only the Hives believe that tax-funded rock & roll is a contradiction in terms. "We thought that was like working for The Man," says Almqvist. "Plus, we were crap at filling in all the paperwork."
The Hives were founded in fagersta (population 12,500), a town two hours east of Stockholm with a huge steel plant, around twelve pizza joints and not much else. As a result, they have long thought of themselves as Sweden's most successful outsiders.
In the port city of Gothenburg (pronounced Yur-te-boy), by contrast, there has long been a vibrant community of rock bands. Strolling through the city's college district with the two-man leadership of Division of Laura Lee, you get a sense not so much of their local celebrity but of the fact that they're part of a giant subculture. Young bohemians wish them well on their upcoming U.S. tour, and on at least two occasions, they bump into other musicians. "They're in a band, too," Stalberg mumbles, with noticeable embarrassment.
Taking a table outside a basement coffeehouse, Stalberg and Gustavsson talk about the emotional backdrop of their band's furious art punk. In a country where even the housing projects look like Quality Inns, what's there to get angry about? "It's not easy being a teenager in Sweden," says Stalberg. "You have a lot of pressure to be something, from your parents, from school. You have to go to school, and then you have to work in an office, then drink a lot of booze and beat the shit out of your wife. There are a lot of personal problems here. I don't know many people who haven't been to a shrink."
Stalberg is not just another middle-class malcontent. He is portly, twitchily alert and self-confident to the point of belligerence, but his most striking feature is his mangled dentistry, the result of an adolescent fondness for wandering the streets of his native Vanersborg in search of violence. One night, after antagonizing a gang of older toughs, he had his face smashed in with a hockey stick.
This is the background to D.O.L.L. songs including "The Truth Is Fucked," whose spirit of subversion is shared by Burning Heart label mates such as the politically driven (International) Noise Conspiracy and Bombshell Rocks. All three bands expose the flip side of Sweden's state-subsidized utopia: For all their comforts, many Swedes are victims of a stifling conformism.
Down by Gothenburg's dockside is the grandly named Svenska Grammofon Studion, the shabby base camp of the Soundtrack of Our Lives -- in the view of Division of Laura Lee, "the Obi-Wan Kenobis of Gothenburg rock." Based around the creative core of guitarist Ian Person and bearlike singer Ebbot Lundberg, the band has a sixteen-year history that begins with Union Carbide Productions, who made two crucial contributions to Sweden's music scene: singing in English and creating a cranked-up racket with clear debts to such punk titans as the Stooges and the MC5. "They were fantastic," says Simon Ohlsson, singer-guitarist with the highly touted Gothenburg band Citizen Bird. "Just pure aggression. But they also managed to find their own voice. To me, they were like the Sex Pistols." Union Carbide Productions -- who numbered Kurt Cobain among their fans -- secured assistance from a local church by feigning religion. "We pretended to be heavy Christians," says Lundberg with a laugh. " 'We haven't got any instruments! The devil might take us!' When we got the money, it was like Christmas shopping."
The Soundtrack of Our Lives are not as abrasive as their predecessors: On their third album, Behind the Music, they opt for a classic rock sound that can touch on both Stones-esque raunch and Pink Floyd's serene psychedelia. Lundberg says that his band sees itself as inheritors of the Sixties British Invasion bands. "When you really love something," he says, "you don't want to see it decline. We just want to keep the feeling going." Having fallen in love with a fundamentally American art form, both Soundtrack and the Hives now feel confident enough to start selling it back. "It feels like the U.S. didn't want this music anymore, and we picked it up," says Howlin' Pelle Almqvist. "There have always been American rock bands doing it the way we do, but nobody was paying attention. Because we came from Sweden, people got interested."
As if to prove that Sweden's homegrown scene has all the necessary aspects of an era-defining upsurge, the more gossip-crazed regulars at Debaser will happily give you the lowdown on Swedish rock's ruling couple. Almqvist is dating Maria Andersson, singer-guitarist with the all-female Swedish punk quartet Sahara Hotnights -- and he knows how the coupling is sure to be reported. "Oh, that just feels too ridiculous to talk about," he protests. "You'll just write something like 'the Kurt and Courtney of Sweden.' I mean, God help me."
Who's Who in Swedish Rock