Being Swedish is, to quote disgraced fashion designer Mugatu, so hot right now. Loreen has just won the Eurovision Song Contest, every week there’s a new quirky Swedish pop act breaking out, and if you’ve got a middling crime series, translate it into Swedish and watch it achieve instant cult status. But you don’t need to tell Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist that being Swedish is cool – he’s been defining it for 15 years and five albums with that guided missile of rock ‘n’ roll chaos, The Hives.
We caught up with Pelle as he and his comrades descended on London to promote the latest incendiary blast from the band, Lex Hives. Rock ‘n’ roll as stone tablets, Pelle as Moses in much better threads. So on with the show, we’re not going to die (alright!) but we are going to be entertained.
The droll voice of Pelle Almqvist comes on the line and in an odd way it crackles and fizzes with the same energy you’ll see when he takes to the stage. He claims he’s tired (“I flew in overnight from New York so Im a little messy”). But you’re a rock star! You can take it. “I can take anything,” says Pelle, pulling out his best Clint Eastwood impression.
But it seems that The Hives couldn’t just take anything on their endless world tour. In the five-year hiatus between The Neptunes-produced The Black And White Album and the new record, the band has had to struggle with what Pelle euphemistically terms rock ‘n’ roll problems. Hence the album’s subtitle, law of The Hives, laid down to bring the band back to what they do best.
“The law of The Hives is a set of rules and regulations we had to impose on ourselves in order to finish this album in the Hivesest possible way. And they were a sort of process for deciding what the best things about The Hives are, Pelle explains. On The Black And White Album we stretched The Hives in different directions – basically into outer space. But outer space is cold and lonely so we decided to dig to the centre of the Earth’s core this time. It’s hotter!”
“I feel like Im a person in the right place, doing the right thing. This is exactly what Im meant to be doing.” – The Hives’ Howlin’ Pelle Almquvist
The Hives produced the album tracks for Lex Hives themselves and Pelle says thats just a continuation of a trend for the group: “The Black And White Album did really well but in order for us to keep going we have to surprise ourselves with each record. In a lot of ways, our records have always been a reaction to the last one. Veni Vidi Vicious was very garage and messy, so Tyrannosaurus Hives was very dry and robotic sounding.”
When pushed to talk a little more about those rock ‘n’ roll problems, Pelle doesn’t detail a list of drink and drugs horrors but he’s frank: “It’s a pretty rough life being a touring rock band, you get knocked around a little bit. We’ve found the most strength in the fact that were the first band we formed. We got here by not listening to anyone else too much. This is not hype! We play to thousands of people around the world even though there have been numerous occasions when we could have seemed over the hill.”
Listen to Lex Hives or watch Pelle peacock strut his way across the stage and the question of The Hives being over the hill immediately seems ridiculous. That onstage Pelle is an animal that seems a little removed from the calm, cool guy slouched in the Key West Hotel: “There is a calmer version of me but it only shows up when we’re touring. It’s the other 23 hours of the day when I’m not on stage. When I’m at home, I’m super-restless and anxious to do stuff. On tour, the rock show takes it out of you so much you spend the rest of the day like a zombie.”
Playing live still has the power to transform him. “I feel like something takes over when I’m on stage. Sometimes I’m as surprised as the rest of the audience. It’s kind of what keeps me going. It’s an awesome feeling. It’s the closest I get to a religious experience. People say: why are The Rolling Stones still at it? Because its way more fun than most 70-year-olds have.”
Talking about The Rolling Stones leads us on to ask Pelle about recent reports that he’d slammed The Stone Roses for reforming. Guess what? He didn’t. “Nah! Jesus Christ!” he explodes laughing, “I was talking about reforming bands and it’s just because you guys are the UK that they thought I was talking about The Stone Roses. I don’t walk around thinking about The Stone Roses. I said reforming bands. I wasn’t giving them shit. I understand it. If you’re ever in that band that is a great band, it’s so hard to replace that feeling. It doesn’t have to be financially motivated.”
The idea of stopping is anathema to Pelle: “I wouldn’t want to live the rest of my life without that feeling. The Rolling Stones never broke up. Go on a break! Just don’t tell people you quit. Quitting then reforming is making a splash of something that doesn’t need to be. I’m sure The Clash wish they’d taken a break rather saying they’d split up. Everyone is always going to compare you to the first successful thing you did. When you break through is what you’ll be judged against. Even if you’re in Wings and selling out stadiums across the world.”
What of the spectre of side-projects from The Hives? Pelle audibly shrugs: “You’re allowed to do other things if you’re in The Hives but most of the time The Hives takes up all our time and energy. Believe me, you feel fulfilled enough to be in The Hives.”
Pelle has also said he feels that The Hives, after five years away, are different people but the same band. He expands on that: “We’ve been through a lot. We’ve been at it a long time. Really good things have happened but also bad things. It does change you as a person. People say ‘The success has really changed him’ like thats always a bad thing! Everything that happens to you is going to change you in some way. We have changed as people, but the feeling of being in The Hives is that same euphoric feeling.”
“Go on a break! Just don’t tell people you quit. Quitting then reforming is making a splash of something that doesn’t need to be. Im sure The Clash wish they’d taken a break rather saying they’d split up.” – The Hives’ Howlin’ Pelle Almquvist
What about those hits? Does Pelle still get a jolt from doing them? “Hell yes! There are songs that felt like breakthroughs and that feeling never goes away, I get that with Die, Alright! or Hate To Say I Told You So for definite.” And he has no time for bands who moan about playing their hits: “No! No! No! I feel like that’s a spoiled child’s way of looking at it. People come to the show because they like you. Why be ashamed of that and rather play something they don’t like. It’s not artistically challenging, thats a boring way of looking down at your fans. That’s not cool with me. That’s not how we do it.”
One thing that did differ from the way The Hives do it this time around was hopping in to the studio to record some bonus tracks and b-sides with Josh Homme. While mixing their record in California they went across to his Pink Duck studio in Burbank to mix it up a little. Pelle relates the story. “It was really fun. He’s a great friend of ours. We met him at festivals mainly and we’d been fans of each other’s music. We share a sense of humour and way of looking at the world. He’s the greatest guy! He’s really funny but also wise. He’s like a big brother to us. We wanted to record with him because sonically we’re on different sides of the spectrum. He makes bare bones, dry music. He has his own way of doing rock ‘n’ roll music and so do we, we’re more splashy and thinner. He was really generous about revealing his secrets.”
The Hives themselves are pretty generous with their secrets and recently did a competition where fans could meet the band or get phone calls from them. Who’s the most surprising fan he’s ever had? “The most surprising? Morrissey! He came to a show in LA. We really like Morrissey. It was a neat little surprise, but then I guess he was New York Dolls‘ fan club president!”
Perhaps The Hives’ past love for a slight rockabilly look might have got Moz’s blood going, though it’s anyone’s guess what hell make of the current look: top hats and tails. Pelle says it’s a natural evolution: “It was bound to happen at some point. You get a bit of Dracula, you get a bit of Fred Astaire. We always like to dress up for shows and it doesn’t get more 1A than top hats and tails!”
But if the outfits are glam, The Hives show remains rooted in simplicity: “We will do things people haven’t seen before but we are always the show, we physically are the show. That’s something we got from hardcore punk. You just need to be energetic and move around a bit.” Pelle’s heroes in hardcore make sense: “The Bad Brains were my hardcore band. They were always really serious. They had all this Rasta philosophy. It’s so energetic and fun that it makes you smile even if they’re singing about bad shit.” What about the big, muscular, angry dudes like Minor Threat and Black Flag? Pelle laughs: “I liked all those bands but they were kind of too macho for me. Hardcore. I liked the Circle Jerks but there was something about it that was way too ‘guy’. Sometimes that could turn me off a little bit.”
“I’ve come to the conclusion that the show gets worse if I drink a lot. Its not that good being in front of thousands of people and feeling like shit.” – The Hives’ Howlin’ Pelle Almquvist
Come on though, it’s not like The Hives aren’t aggressive. “Oh yeah! We’ve always been in aggressive punk rock music. It’ll always be our first love. The bands we played with in the beginning were always hardcore punk bands. We played with whoever was playing guitars! Hardcore was big when we stared playing shows.”
From the philosophy of hardcore punk, we stray into a peculiarly Swedish concept. The idea of lagom. Wikipedia (that font of all knowledge) says: “The Lexin Swedish-English dictionary defines lagom as ‘enough, sufficient, adequate, just right’. Lagom is also widely translated as ‘in moderation’, ‘in balance’, ‘optimal’ and ‘suitable’ (in a matter of amounts). Whereas words like ‘sufficient’ and ‘average’ suggest some degree of abstinence, scarcity, or failure, lagom carries the connotation of appropriateness, although not necessarily perfection.”
The Howlin’ Pelle dictionary defines it as: “A funny word but one that it would be interesting to export to the rest of the world. It’s somewhere between just right and lukewarm. It’s good but we don’t need more of less. Are The Hives lagom with their stripped back aesthetic and commitment to rock ‘n’ roll fire? We’re not interested in lagom! We fight it! It’s a good rule for life though.”
And what about the trend for Swedish bands, TV shows and books at the moment? Why is being Swedish so damn hot today? “Maybe it’s the economy being shit! The Swedes have always been good at the blue tones.” And he’s not talking about those dudes who sang about a slight return.
On the subject of returns, who would Pelle would bring back to the stage if he had Lazarus-like powers? Theres no hesitation: “Jimi Hendrix! It may sound a little lame but it has to be him. However, I’ve seen so many live clips that were actually kind of terrible, so it’d have to be on a good night.”
What’s the law of The Hives on drink and drugs? How do they keep it tight with temptation on every rider? “You’ve got to take the right amount at the right time! Everyone has to take the same drugs or no drugs at all. I’ve seen bad examples of that, a guitarist on speed and a drummer on heroin! I do feel like some early punk bands were better because of speed. We would see shows and didn’t know they were taking speed. Wow! They’re so energetic. Ahahahah.”
And what about Pelle, has he ever taken it too far? “I’ve come to the conclusion that the show gets worse if I drink a lot. It’s not that good being in front of thousands of people and feeling like shit.” Take a camera backstage and you’d see Pelle preparing for the show like this: “Screaming and jumping up and down. Slapping myself in the face a little bit!”
Is it true to say he could only ever have been a front man? “It started because I couldn’t play anything else well! I feel like Im a person in the right place, doing the right thing. This is exactly what I’m meant to be doing. I have the right amount of Ego? desire for revenge!” And THAT is the law of The Hives.
The Hives’s album Lex Hives is out on 4 June 2012 through Columbia. More at thehivesbroadcastingservice.com.