All told, 2002 was a vintage year for the Hives. Nearly a decade after their inception in Fagersta, a pinprick-size Swedish town (population: 12,000), the quintet found themselves hailed as part of rock's young new ruling class.
"Oh, it was more than that," says singer Pelle Almqvist, a man not generally comfortable with understatement. "We were the hottest band in the world. Everyone went mad for us. Entirely justified, of course. We were fantastic."
The quality of their music may have had something to do with this, but timing also played its part. The Hives emerged on the scene during the so-called New Rock Revolution at the very same time as the Strokes, the White Stripes, Jet, and the Vines. By then, they had released just two albums on the small Swedish label Burning Heart, 1997's Barely Legal and 2000's Veni Vidi Vicious, in which they played blunt, joyful '60s-style rock while dressed monochromatically, like the world's most badass maître d's. And unlike, say, the Strokes, they appeared to be having an inordinate amount of fun as suddenly famous men. Much of their amusement was self-generated: All five members, for example, had appropriately "rock" names -- Almqvist preceded his own with the prefix Howlin'; one guitarist was called Nicholaus Arson (real name: Niklas Almqvist, Pelle's brother); another, Vigilante Carlstroem (Mikael Karlsson); the bassist, Dr. Matt Destruction (Mattias Bernvall); the drummer, Chris Dangerous (Christian Grahn) -- and they liked to claim they were Svengali'd by (the entirely fictional) Randy Fitzsimmons. Julian Casablancas, it's fair to suggest, never laughed quite like this.
"We'd always had a big and healthy ego," Dangerous says now, "convinced we were better than everyone else. And so when we became as popular as we did, it made complete sense to us."
A furious bidding war broke out after Epitaph put out Veni Vidi Vicious in the U.S., and the Hives eventually signed to Interscope for a reported $10 million.
"I couldn't possibly comment on that figure," Almqvist says, with a slight smile, "though it was certainly a life-changing amount. But then, the hottest band on earth should get everything they want, no?"
Veni Vidi Vicious and the 2002 release of Your New Favourite Band, a British compilation of their best songs to date, kept momentum sky-high. Then, in 2004, they delivered Tyrannosaurus Hives, the album designed to repay Interscope for its up-front belief by selling millions of copies and, in the words of Dangerous, "putting us up there with the U2s and the Elvis Presleys." Some 600 days of tireless touring followed, accompanied by mostly unfettered critical acclaim. Those who loved the Hives loved them. But by the beginning of 2006, the album had still failed to cross over, having sold just 500,000 copies worldwide. Not bad for a lowly punk act, but a veritable disaster for the U2s and Elvis Presleys of this world.
Suddenly, there was frowning. Panic, even.
Three years after that album's release, the band's frontman strides through the lobby of Le Royal Monceau, a fivestar Parisian hotel that, tonight at least, comprises wall-to-wall businessmen and their jewelry-dripping wives. Chauffeurs wait discreetly in the lobby, while strategically placed candles glitter in the chandeliers above and jazz drifts out from the corner bar. Not a hipster-leaning boutique by any stretch of the imagination, but the always snazzy Hives blend in surprisingly well.
If Almqvist looks somewhat fragile right now, it is because he was out in Stockholm last night, getting drunk with friends before the requirements of promotion would keep him away from home for at least the next year. The Hives are about to release their fourth studio effort, The Black and White Album (rumored original title: The World's First Perfect Album) -- their most expensive to date, and also their most crucial. Simply put, if they want to have any hope of maintaining their still lofty reputation, this record will need to shift some serious units.
Almqvist is tall and thin, and has the rather studious air of Peter Parker about him. The 29-year-old looks preppy with his neat side part, while his clothes -- strictly in band colors, naturally -- make him resemble an extra from Happy Days: checked, button-down shirt; trim cardigan (with an embossed H on the breast); and a pair of skinny black trousers that finish far above his lonely ankles. His shoes are long and white and tightly laced.
"Before we speak," he says in an unexpectedly deep voice that runs contrary to his lupine yelp on record, "I must eat." He makes it clear that I am not invited to join him by promptly walking away and toward the hotel restaurant alone, head down, hands in pockets. He won't return again for two and a half hours, and when he finally does show up in the cigar-choked bar, arranging himself on a plump armchair while an aloof waiter brings beer nuts, his enduring hangover seems all the more evident, his words lugubrious and punctuated by heavy sighs.
"Until this record, Hives always existed in a sort of bubble," he begins. "We've been entirely self-sufficient, producing our albums at home in Sweden and never inviting anyone else into our comfort zone. We liked it this way. Back when we were 17, we all took a blood oath to record three albums of 30-minute punk rock, and nobody would get to leave until we'd done just that. Well, we've done it now, and so we don't owe anything else to our 17-year-old selves. It was time to do something different."
Much of The Black and White Album, consequently, was recorded in the U.S. Dennis Herring, the Mississippi-based producer behind Modest Mouse's recent success, handled 12 of the tracks, while Pharrell Williams presided over the remaining two. The band had actually worked on eight others with Williams, but as with subsequent sessions with Timbaland (with whom they had previously collaborated on the producer's Timbaland Presents Shock Value album), these weren't finished in time. Tardiness, Almqvist says, was a recurring theme of the album's studio genesis. And it drove him to distraction.
"Professional producers have a different way of working than we do," he says. "We didn't have creative arguments with any of them, but all of them had timekeeping issues. Dennis, for example, didn't ever show up on time. I think perhaps Mississippi time may be like Jamaica time: Nothing happens when it's supposed to. We found it very frustrating."
Initially, Herring himself had to be persuaded to work with the band, previously having considered them a spent force. "I'd loved Veni Vidi Vicious," he says from his home in Oxford, "though I never really got into Tyrannosaurus Hives. But when the record company sent over their new demos, I have to say, I thought they were terrific. They had me jumping around the room with enthusiasm."
But recording the band, he admits, was not easy. "They've definitely got some Viking blood in there somewhere. You know, they were very masculine, not real communicative, and pretty standoffish. They'd talk in Swedish a lot. I don't think I ever managed to fully break them down, but that's not to say we didn't get on well, because we did. In fact, they made it easy for me, because they are unusually efficient for a rock band -- very functional, very good at making decisions, and entirely focused."
Pharrell Williams was a different story. Almqvist describes him as Herring's polar opposite -- occasionally late too, yes, but a kinetic studio presence. "He works very quickly and needs to be kept excited all the time, which was easy because he is still new to rock music," Almqvist says. "We've been doing this for 15 years now, and after a while, hitting a chord on an electric guitar over and over again does get boring. But Pharrell's excitement was infectious."
The star producer came on board after meeting with Interscope honcho Jimmy Iovine, the man who had signed the band with such initial hope, but who was later very disappointed with Tyrannosaurus Hives. "They just didn't come up with the songs," Iovine told the L.A. Times last year. "They thought people were just responding to the attitude in their shows, and it was never just that. But I'm not giving up. I've already spoken to them, and they know what they need to do."
Williams needed little convincing. Like Timbaland -- and, for that matter, like OutKast's André 3000, who has suggested that "Hey Ya!" was largely inspired by the Hives' whole attitude -- he was a big fan.
"I like [Pelle's] style," Williams says. "He is all heart, all passion. I wanted to work with the band on something that was good and timeless. I think we achieved it."
One of Williams' tracks, "T.H.E.H.I.V.E.S.," boasts a low-slung rhythm that requires Almqvist to deliver his vocal in a Prince-like helium squeak; like much of the rest of the album, it's hyperactively catchy. While you could argue that the Hives still remain redolent of every garage act in history, they also sound quite unlike anyone else. The Black and White Album is vivid, frenetic, and determinedly larger-thanlife, and at least two of the songs -- "You Dress Up for Armageddon" and "It Won't Be Long" -- are effectively 21st-century equivalents of "Rock Lobster," which should assure the group its place as a good-time party band without peer. Whether this will all translate into mainstream success, however, remains to be seen.
"Do we feel pressure?" Almqvist repeats wearily. "I don't know. Maybe some, yes. We are aware that there are certain expectations of our band now but..." He trails off, sighs again, then reengages. "I'm not even sure we should be talking about this, but, okay, I'll entertain it for a bit and will say this: [Interscope] signed this band, and this band is what they got. What comes first is us doing the kind of records we want to do and following our inner voice. Anything else that happens -- success, profile, whatever -- is extracurricular, it has little to do with us. But, sure, if you ask me directly whether I want us to be more successful, then yes, of course. Why not?"
To this end, the Hives are now making aggressive inroads into becoming as marketable a commodity as possible. Interscope has made them a fall priority, they've got new high-profile management, their recent single "Tick Tick Boom" graces NFL games and sneaker commercials, and they are currently in the middle of a 28-date tour with some very unlikely bedfellows: Maroon 5.
"We have a saying in Sweden," Almqvist says, yawning. It is now close to midnight, and he is ready for bed. "Don't knock the Finns until you've been to Finland." Which means? "Give everything a go because, frankly, what's to lose?"
At the beginning of 2006, when it became clear that sales of Tyrannosaurus Hives were never going to clear the million mark, the band finally decided to stop touring and return to Sweden.
"We were playing shows something like 365 days a year," says Dr. Matt Destruction the morning after, over a breakfast of bacon and eggs. Destruction is the most softly spoken Hive, a balding man who suits his moustache and likes to suck on tobacco, with a fat lump tucked between gum and lip, giving him the appearance of someone recently punched. "We were exhausted and just wanted to pick up on our real lives again."
Almqvist darkens at the very mention of those days: "I don't really want to go into it too much, but by the end of that tour, we were in trouble. It was a bad situation." How so? "Well, let's just say if we didn't stop touring then, we probably wouldn't be a band today."
He goes on, haltingly, to suggest that the main problems were the "personal situations" of certain members, perhaps referring to the fact that he had split up with his girlfriend. While three of the Hives are married with children, Almqvist is single.
"Within the band itself, everything was just fine," he insists. "We've always loved to tour and have a very healthy approach to it. We are Swedish, you see, so we are far more likely [on the road] to drink beer and whiskey than to rely on hard drugs. I've noticed more and more that such reliances tend to be in bands that play wussy music." He chuckles. "Let me elaborate: You meet very few metal bands that need to have sex with tons of girls and take loads of drugs. They are usually just really nice, polite guys. But pop bands, on the other hand, are far more likely to feel the need for drink and drugs, perhaps to overcompensate. We've never really needed it ourselves, but then, maybe because our shows are so intense, we are simply too tired afterward to do anything but sleep."
After a few months at home, they commenced working on the new record and, at the prompting of Interscope, secured the services of a new manager. This presumably came at the cost of Randy Fitzsimmons?
"No, no," Almqvist corrects, smiling enigmatically. " Randy is still around, but just more in the background."
Which is something no one could ever say of the decidedly non-imaginary Danny Goldberg, an industry veteran who has worked with everyone from Led Zeppelin to Nirvana. Recently the head of Air America Radio, he now runs his own management company. It was under his and Iovine's steerage that the band agreed to collaborate with name producers, and it was Goldberg, too, who underlined the importance of reaching as many people as possible, whatever the means.
"The record industry is going through a devastating downturn at the moment," Goldberg says, "and rock radio has become far less powerful in breaking new acts than it once was. So we've had to look into other avenues. Hey, you've got to reach an audience somehow, right? You can't just do it by osmosis."
Which is why "Tick Tick Boom" now graces a TV commercial for Nike.
"I'm not saying it was the most comfortable decision we've ever made," Almqvist admits. "It did hurt a little." Before they conceded to it, Chris Dangerous adds, they did what they saw as a little necessary research: "We looked into Nike's current sweatshop status, and it seemed to be okay." Nevertheless, they chose to donate their fee to an anti-sweatshop organization. "It seemed appropriate," Dangerous concludes.
Goldberg's next plan was to expose them to a younger audience. When he learned that Maroon 5 were looking for a support act for their imminent nationwide arena tour, he didn't hesitate.
"For a lot of established bands, opening for someone else can be a daunting experience," he says, "but that was never something that kept me up at night with these guys. The Hives could literally play to anyone and entertain them, because they have such a visceral understanding of how to connect with a crowd."
"We always did like a challenge," Almqvist says. "It will be easy for us, you'll see."
After breakfast, the band members are driven an hour across Paris to a TV studio on the outskirts of the city to record a live set for France's most respected music show, L'Album de la Semaine (The Album of the Week). In the greenroom, the set lists of previous guests (the White Stripes, Placebo, and Jarvis Cocker, among others) are pasted on the wall. Following a light lunch of cold pizza, the Hives are ushered into the studio for rehearsal. The moment they plug in their instruments is the moment at which these five late-twentysomething men transform from their often dour, eternally deadpan selves into a purely streamlined rock colossus, running through "Tick Tick Boom" and "It Won't Be Long" with snake-hipped venom while never quite losing that collective ironic smile. Almqvist jumps off an amp, Nicholaus Arson does repeated scissors kicks, and Dangerous throws his drumsticks into the air and fails to catch them -- something he will remedy for the performance proper, at which an impeccably well-turned-out audience will go mad for them.
"France likes us a whole lot, you know," Arson notes.
And so they should. Ultimately, the Hives may never ape Maroon 5's sales -- too angular, too arch by half -- but then, who knows?
"Rock music isn't as popular as it once was," Almqvist muses at one point, "and this may well be the last rock record a major label will put a lot of money into. There are existing rock acts still out there, but they are all boring, frankly. It's my feeling that the world deserves a really good one: us. I truly believe that we owe it to ourselves and to every one of you to at least try to be as big as we can." He dips his head now in feigned bashfulness and holds up a silencing hand.
"No need to thank us. It's a pleasure."