To anyone who heard it upon its stateside release in late 1998, Apocalypse Dudes by Oslo, Norway's Turbonegro was clearly nothing if not the greatest rock album of the '90s -- a searing combination of glam-catchy choruses, punktastic full-throttle motion, Frehley-esque lead guitar work and an overall shimmery studio sheen that did its best to hide the incredibly sleazy, dark, and quizzically homoerotic lyrical subject matter in a package that the band labeled "deathpunk." It was strange, it was new, it was bold, and when the album was done you needed to hear it again. And again. And again... Too bad, then, that the band was already broken up, and would never tour or record again. Lead singer and chief mojo rising Hank Von Helvete went MIA, amidst reports of insane asylums, drug addiction, and paranoia. A dark period set in for the rock world as Turbonegro's majestic work was soon forgotten as it became covered by the sands of time... Except that the rock world would not let ...Dudes die. As word of mouth spread, the band's popularity, even posthumously, soared. And now, over four years later, in what can only be seen as a wave of the wand of the grand architect herself, Hank has re-emerged, Turbonegro has reconvened, and with their new album out now (Scandinavian Leather on Epitaph) and their last two masterworks re-issued, finally the world can witness the resurrection of this incredible rock force. I caught up with Hank by phone at his lair in Norway...
SoundCheck Magazine: It's been a long time since "Apocalypse Dudes" and in the meantime, especially in Americ, it's amazing the kind of cult following you guys have amassed. What are your thoughts on that?
Hank Von Helvete: Well, I'm amazed, actually. I never expected that. And of course it's cool to have a following and it's quite unique. This hasn't happened in at least 20 years, a band getting a following like that. And I just hope it will last for a while so we can come back and play more shows. I just hope we can outgrow the cult stage, to have a cult following is not necessarily a good thing, it would be cool if we could be a bit bigger than that.
SCM: Yeah, I saw you guys at the show in Hartford, CT, and one thing I was struck by was how you, on the one hand gave the audience what they wanted in a rock sense, but also were very confrontational.
HVH: Yeah, well, it's kind of confrontational, but in a friendly way. The audience has this masochistic attitude towards us - they want to be intimidated but in a safe, secure way. They trust us a lot. I think it's like making love to a virgin that really loves you a lot. She's giving up all control because it's rough to do it. It hurts a bit, but it's a good hurt. It's kind of vulgar, the stuff we're doing. And it's this huge sleazefest, but it turns out to be very pure and clean, so I guess the way we're presenting the sleaze is kind of non-oppressive.
SCM: Yeah, it was a real trip for me to see a large crowd of really normal, straight American guys with their fists in the air chanting "I got erection."
HVH: Yeah, well, it's cool to see that people can let loose and go with the flow, even for a second, and no one has to feel intimidated. I think it's the security, the safeness, the trustworthiness that we present together with the sleaze. We manage to guide them through their own dirty sexual landscape very safely, with us it's all safe, everyone will come.
SCM: What's "deathpunk" all about?
HVH: We grew up with metal, heavy metal, and punk. We were consumers of the '70s and '80s rock culture that was filled with lots of glam and also the punk scene and the heavy metal scene so we were digging bands like Kiss and Sex Pistols when we were children and when we became older it was bands like Black Flag and Dead Kennedys on the one hand, and Motley Crue and W.A.S.P. on the other. When we started to play in bands ourselves, it was punk bands and hardcore bands. After a while, we realized that we had forgotten the metal thing from our childhood, so we tried to play punk with heavy metal-sounding guitars, so in the beginning we called it "metal-punk," but that became like a really stupid label for it. So we have that Slayer aspect in it, too, lots of industrial and black and death metal sounds we mix that together in our music, and we called it "deathpunk," because it became quite unique, there's nothing like it, it's not punk, it's not metal, it's not glam, but at the same time it's all of them, it's a very including kind of rock. We have lots of references to our idols, and we actually manage to play a bit better than our idols too. But now we have been thinking of renaming "deathpunk" to try to call it "rainbow rock," because that will be like a more positive name. You know, "punk" has a lot of aggression in it, and "death" is very dark sounding. If we rename it "rainbow rock," it will be more positive.
SCM: You guys broke up in '98, and were essentially not a band for four years; what brought about the res-erection?
HVH: I think that to look at Turbonegro's history, and to let it all end with Apocalypse Dudes and the band breaking up is not a very interesting story to tell. If I would live to become 50 and see that that was the end of Turbonegro, I would feel an unfulfillment. I think we're just fulfilling our destinies here, and it was always lying in the cards that if I survived my drug addiction, we would make another album. And I think everybody in the band was just waiting for that to happen.
SCM: O.K., the album is called "Scandinavian Leather," what does it mean to you guys to be Scandinavian? What about Turbonegro could only happen in Norway? What's different with what you do than what an American band would, because you guys are definitely a Norwegian band, a Scandinavian band...
HVH: Well, I guess some parts of the American consumer culture have been ignored in America the last 20 years, but kept alive in countries like Norway, a society that is very Americanized in a way, and some things that have been embarrassing for Americans have been kept alive here, and looked upon with respect, and when we come back to America with a band that is so glamorous, and actually very Americanized, we're hitting a nerve with the Americans, and we're bringing back something to the Americans that they have forgotten, or tried to forget. I think when Americans listen to us they become a bit proud of belonging to a rock nation, because America is in fact a rock nation, and the best rock has come from America, I think. I prefer American rock and American punk to British rock and British punk, and we play our rock in the Scandinavian/American style. I see Americans, people in the American rock scene, becoming proud of their own icons.
SCM: You guys wear your musical influences on your sleeve, which is pretty bold; a lot of bands seem to try to see what they can get away with. What's the line between homage and rip-off for you guys?
HVH: You know, a writer for The Independent, this British daily, told us he thought we were unique because we're a band with lots of references without being a retro band, and we were always, in our references, paying tribute to our heroes, and we ended up being better, playing better than our heroes, and that was a compliment that I cherish. Coming from him, that was really cool. I think that we're not looking back with our references, we're actually aiming forward. We're kind of distilling the good stuff, we're not bringing anything back to the past, we're taking stuff from the past and conserving it for the future.
SCM: Yeah, I can see that; the music on "Scandinavian Leather" is almost a rock history lesson, cramming the best hard rock moments of the last 30 years into one album. I'm also impressed with some of the musical territory you guys go into on this record -- on a lot of songs a real punk or metal-sounding song will veer into more sensitive territory, and for me this shows off that you guys have a real breadth of musical knowledge, that you're all real music fans.
HVH: I think what you're saying now is right on. I have no other comment than "Yes, you're right." That's exactly... you said it so good I don't want to say it in any other way. Right on! That's what we're trying to do. It's not only a tribute to our heroes and a tribute to the past, it's a tribute to rock as a culture - a refined culture, a beautiful part of our culture. We should be proud to belong to the western world.
SCM: Is that what you think that rock is really all about, when you boil it all down? What's this whole rock thing getting at?
HVH: Yeah, I think that's what rock is all about, because especially here in Scandinavia, in the rock scene, a lot of artists are not actually paying enough respect to what they're doing! They say stuff in interviews like "Uhh, well, yeah, I play in a rock band but what I really want to do is write a novel." They use rock as a springboard to making a career in other cultures, like other parts of fine culture. And they're using rock as a kind of intellectual and social slumming. They say like "Yeah, I'm really into kitsch and irony and rock, and I'm like rebelling against my fine cultural parents by rocking in the weekends, but really I'm a social anthropologist." And I think that's so disrespectful to a very cool culture, you know? Rock is cool in and of itself! And not only is it cool, it's a fine culture, it's refined and it's good, and it is culture!
We like music, we like that stuff, we dig everything in that culture! That's a culture we belong to! If we were living in the 18th century, we would probably be Mozart freaks or Baroque freaks, and that would be our culture there. But rock is not some trashy kitschy irony trip for upper class kids to do between their ballet and opera careers. Rock is something you need to do full-time...
SCM: What do you think rock culture represents, then? What's its purpose?
HVH: Well, it's a contemporary interpretation of our society, you know? It's a result of the commonwealth countries freeing themselves, of the slaves freeing themselves, and working class kids educating themselves.
SCM: You were talking earlier about "rainbow rock" and how you guys are trying to get away from the whole "deathpunk" label, which to me makes sense when you compare the somewhat nihilistic "Apocalypse Dudes" to "Scandinavian Leather," which in tone is much more of a rock celebration...
HVH: It is a celebration -- and it's a celebration of the genre we're playing that allows a band to disappear for four years and come back even more welcome. Not many genres of show business allow you to do that, you know? It's a celebration that I survived drug addiction, it's a celebration that we could come back together again, you know, it's a celebration of our fans, that they were so loyal and that they really believed in us, and it's a kick in the ass to the ones who were dissing us all the time, who were laughing when we broke up, who were celebrating in '98 that we broke up. We're celebrating now...M