I. A Receipt of Universal Appeal
“We’re not very incognito.” Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist feels two-dozen eyes on him as he chews his muffin. His hair is a deep chestnut hue usually reserved for horses or wigs. The way it frames his high cheekbones and 90-degree jawline gives him an air of regal arrogance, like Mick Jagger in the 1970 film Performance. That is to say, the 25-year-old lead singer of the Hives looks like the perfect rock star. It’s hard not to stare at him, especially as he and his older brother, guitarist Nicholaus Arson (also dreamy in a close-cropped, haunted Ian Curtis way) are clad head to toe in matching ensembles: black trousers, black button-down shirts, black socks, white patent leather shoes, and white zip-up windbreakers. Call it Hives workwear.
Almqvist, Arson, and I are sitting in the food court of a downtown Stockholm mall this May afternoon. Drummer Chris Dangerous, 25, and bassist Dr. Matt Destruction, 25, their lips swollen with snus (strong, local smokeless tobacco), remain a floor below in the bunker-like Megaphon Studios, listening to playback of a new song, “Missing Link.” Although lightweight, breathable fabrics might be more comfortable in such an airless environment, the pair are wearing the same outfits as their bandmates. Somewhere in rural Laxa, two hours away, the Hives’ bear-size guitarist, Vigilante Carlstroem (whose wife will give birth to a baby boy a week and a half later) may very well be pacing his kitchen in the same finery, should he have to rush to the hospital on short notice. The Hives don’t know the meaning of undercover. The public never sees them in blue jeans and ball caps. The only T-shirts they wear bear their names in large block letters. They shirts, too, are black and white.
Almqvist lives nearby, as does girlfriend Maria Andersson, of Swedish punk group and summer touring partners Sahara Hotnights. The other Hives (excluding Carlstroem) are staying in a Stockholm hotel while they mix their first album in four years, the excellently titled Tyrannosaurus Hives. As work stretches perilously close to the July 20 release date, many short coffee breaks are taken. This is one of them. Outside it’s pouring. The cobblestone streets are slick and gray. Dampened pedestrians have taken shelter in the warmly lit mall and now surround us. Many of them observe, but never approach.
“That’s just very typically Swedish,” Almqvist notes. “You’re not supposed to act like you recognize someone. You just walk on a few extra blocks and then you whisper to your friend, ‘Did you see who that was?'” Suddenly a tiny pink hand tugs on his sleeve. A blonde toddler in a back harness has broken free from his mother’s grip and bucked local etiquette. The little Hives fan’s grin is beatific as he gazes at Almqvist. The singer smiles. Arson, 26, the more stoic of the pair, only smirks. The child’s mother blushes and gently removes the tot from the harness and pulls him to her lap.
“Babies love the Hives,” I suggest.
“They actually do!” Almqvist says. “At least from when they’re three. They start doing this.” He cheerfully imitates a baby emulating one of his signature hand-jive stage moves. “And that’s like a receipt. It’s something that we, as a band, always like, ’cause it’s a receipt of universal appeal. There’s no coolness or cred involved with three-year-olds.”
Almqvist uses the term receipt a lot in conversation. If you’ve ever seen him strutting onstage, shouting “Show me love! You are not loud enough,” or boasting of bogus album sales in the tens of millions, you know he’s a guy who requires validation for what he’s giving out: Fun. Release. Pure Rock Pleasure. The private Howlin’ Pelle says similarly outlandish things.
“We think we should be popular because we are good,” he tells me at one point. “This is what you should like. It’s healthier for you, our kind of music. We’re like social workers telling people what to eat.” Although part of him might just believe such claims, Almqvist, a former school teacher, is also completely aware he’s being a brat. The other Hives share this weird fondness for poker-faced impudence. Earlier I tried to get a rise out of Dr. Matt Destruction just to see how fierce he actually is (Destruction is a misnomer; he’s the sweetest, most jovial Hive).
Spin: So, are you an actual doctor?
Destruction: Yes, of course.
Spin: Well, if someone got hit by a taxi outside, could you save them?
Destruction: Yes. With my bass guitar.
The Hives’ fidelity to grand-scale impishness is one of the things that makes children want to reach out and grab them. In their matching outfits, the band members can appear doll-like. Thanks to an unwavering code of conduct, a rigid distinction between rock’s good and evil sides, and a solemn pledge to uphold the former, they conduct themselves like comic-book crime fighters (one B-side is called “The Hives Are Law, You Are Crime”). The uniforms remind the group of their calling as they move through the city and, more crucially, through the corrupt metropolis of the music industry.
“Maybe sometimes during the day you don’t wanna play, but when you start getting dressed, it’s more like a state of mind,” Carlstroem, 25, says a week later. “It is like the police wearing uniforms. We’re on duty.”
II. Why Dress Down When You Can Dress Up?
One of Chris Dangerous’ all-time favorite albums is Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen. He likes the general bigness of the production, but some of the themes must get to him too: the conflict between comforting small-town simplicity and nagging wanderlust, as exemplified by the title track and “Thunder Road.” Fagersta, Sweden, like Springsteen’s Freehold, New Jersey, is an industrial town. About one hundred miles northwest of Stockholm; population just over 12,000. There are a few hotels, a bookstore, a hockey rink. Not much else.
“We grew up in a square kilometer, basically,” Dangerous says, withers much wistfulness as a scowling man full of snus can muster. This “ghost town,” as Almvqvist calls it, is where the Hives were born, and where they could have remained forever. “About 80 percent of the people in Fagersta have the intention to leave,” Destruction says. “But they get stuck. They get work at the local factory and it pays pretty good.” Talentless at hockey (another Fagersta export: former Detroit Red Wing Ulf Samuelsson), the future Hives might have ended up in the steel mill as well if it hadn’t been for the intervention of a Svengali/songwriter named Randy Fitzsimmons, who allegedly put the group together in 1993 (when Almqvist was all of 14). Some say Fitzsimmons is really a pseudonym for Nicholaus Arson, which itself is a pseudonym for Almqvist; the Hives say he lives.
Visually, the Hives were a reaction to the mouth-eaten-flannel and dirty-denim grunge movement then at its apex. “We wanted everything we could get our hands on that would tip the scale,” Pelle Almqvist recalls. “The best-looking stuff at the thrift store. If someone found a nice pair of white shoes—”
“The other ones had to go out and get nice white shoes,” Arson finishes.
“We thought, ‘Why dress down when you can dress up?'” Destruction adds.
“The whole grunge thing, we never understood it,” Dangerous says. “It just doesn’t look good. So we rebelled.”
Musically, they were a hardcore band that dressed like a new-wave band and secretly loved power pop. They played daily in Hive Manor (actually, the Destruction family basement), trying to make that amalgam functional. “There’s a lot of frustration when you know exactly what you want to sound like, but you can’t because your skills are limited,” Arson says of the early rehearsals. “It’s like your brain is moving faster than your fingers. It was a process of exclusion. We’d exclude everything that was bad: guitar solos, reverb. We banned a bunch of drumbeats. Some are still banned.”
“After a while,” Almqvist says with a laugh, “we ended up with nothing.”
“Eventually, we found out that some of our bans were wrong, so we’d change the constitution,” Arson says. Even Destruction’s facial hair was up for debate.
Destruction: I was about to take off my mustache. The other guys said no.
Dangerous: We voted him down.
Spin: What would have happened if you’d shaved it off anyway?
Destruction: Well, I wouldn’t have a mustache left.
The Hives soon began to book shows—at school functions, discos, and clubs all across Sweden. They’d play with punk bands, metalheads, ska combos. Sets consisted of originals like “a.k.a. I-D-I-O-T” and “Automatic Schmuck,” and a few accelerated ’60s covers. Almost as quickly, the band attracted a diverse following. “We had five people from every subculture at our early shows,” Arson says. “There’d be five punks with Mohawks, five mods, five skinheads, and several skateboarders.”
“There was always a mix of girls,” Almqvist says, smiling. “We used to say that our typical audience was a mix of 16-year-old girls and 45-year-old men. Record geeks and young chicks. So I guess the typical Hives fan would be a 30-year-old hermaphrodite record collector.”
III: Regis Philbin Doesn’t Love The Hives
In 1997, Sweden-based Burning Heart Records released the Hives’ frenetic debut, Barely Legal. West Coast garage-punk label Gearhead released the album and an EP in the U.S. in 2001, after Epitaph, which had a deal with Burning Heart, declined to pick up the option. “They were sitting on such an explosive thing and they didn’t know it,” Gearhead co-owner Mike LaVella says. “I saw the Hives and was like, “This is it!'”
With radio dominated by nü metal, spirited and poppy Swedish garage punk like “Hate to Say I Told You So” (which Gearhead released as a single in 2001) had a bout as much potential crossover appeal as spirited and poppy New York and Detroit garage punk did. Then spirited and poppy New York and Detroit garage punk started to cross over big in England. Creation Records founder Alan McGee, who had signed My Bloody Valentine and Oasis in the U.K., was searching for his own Strokes (who were on indie rival Rough Trade), so he put out a Hives compilation, Your New Favourite Band, on his nascent Poptones label. It contained material from both Barely Legal and the Hives’ more accessible 2000 album Veni Viidi Vicious (which Epitaph did decide to release). The garage-mad British press went garage madder. Once the buzz hit America and the two-year-old “Hate to Say I Told You So” became a smash “new” single on modern-rock radio and MTV, Epitaph turned to Warner Bros. to supply the demand.
Capitalizing on this good timing, the band, which has been touring constantly for the better part of ten years, went back on the road. In every city, the Hives applied what they knew to be good in an effort to justify the buzz. Their stage show was electric. Collecting bits and pieces over the years from iconic crowd-movers like James Brown (the splits), Roger Daltrey (the mic-cord lassoing), and Mick Jagger (well…everything), Almqvist had become a master frontman. Arson twirled his guitar around his neck in a move borrowed from Swedish shredder Yngwie Malmsteen. The portly Carlstroem and Destruction left quarts of sweat on the floor. America ate it up like candy fish. “It was like someone threw the fame switch,” says LaVella. “I turned on my TV one day and Regis Philbin was playing ‘Hate to Say I Told You So’ and going, ‘I love the Hives!’ Regis Philbin doesn’t love the Hives!”
By 2003, the Hives had signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Interscope, which edged out Warner Bros. and others by promising the band total creative control. “What these guys did was what record companies around the world should be doing,” says Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M Records. “They created a buzz on their own, a subculture. I respect that. I will pay for that. I will let them drive.”
The arrangement seemed ideal. Problem was, Burning Heart claimed the Hives still owed the label one more record and launched a breach-of-contract suit, which remains unresolved at press time. “That’s the first time we had legal trouble as a band,” Almqvist says wearily, “but probably not the last time, since it seems like the more popular you get, the more legal troubles will show up.” In a typical display of music-biz one-upmanship, Warner Bros. will release a domestic version of Your New Favourite Band a week before Interscope debuts Tyrannosaurus Hives.
IV: It’s Like ‘Is It Kosher?’ But It’s Hives
After the mixing session is over, the band agree to head out into the daylight for some entertainment (Sweden’s springtime evening sky looks like dusk all night long). I’m picked up in a taxi at my hotel at 7:30 P.M. by Dangerous and Arson, who have changed into Hives rainwear (essentially waterproof Hives workwear). Dangerous wordlessly hands me an orange wristband that will get me into the secret Beastie Boys show at Nalen, a local ballroom. We meet Destruction and Almqvist inside.
Hundreds of kids—the boys in trucker hats or Strokes gear, the girls varying in style from ’70s glam rat to rockabilly chic—pour into the vast hall with its pillars, high ceilings, and blue velvet curtains. The four Hives stand close, speaking in low Swedish. Arms folded, they stare dourly at the crowd. If this is how the locals unwind, it’s easy to understand why Sweden has one of the highest suicide rates in Europe. Here is a band who have conquered their home country. They are rich rock stars, with fast cars and big houses, and they don’t seem to be having much fun at all. No heavy drinking. No drugs. No picking up the retro babes.
After a dazzling intro by Mixmaster Mike, the Beasties bound onstage and the kids commence hopping and cheering. The Hives continue what can only be described as monitoring for quality control. “My home stereo is louder than this,” Almqvist complains. Only when the DJ scratches the Dead Boys’ punk classic “Sonic Reducer” (on the Beasties’ “An Open Letter to NYC”) does Almqvist pep up. After the show, we move to the candlelit lobby where Almqvist critiques the shambolic hour-long set, during which Mike D forgot many of his two-decade-old rhymes: “Well, they weren’t charging for the tickets, so it’s okay.”
We hail another taxi and head toward Debaser, a no-frills rock club with cheap beer and vintage Kiss and Stones pinball machines. Friends of the Hives are hosting Club Wild Kingdom, a powerpop-heavy live-karaoke party. Inside, DJs are playing vintage hits from the Go-Go’s, Nick Lowe, and the Real Kids. The young crowd stands around drinking and studying the DJ booth.
“Jaded music fans,” Arson whispers as we order a couple of cocktails. “They won’t dance. They’re too busy trying to work out the snare drum.” When the house band the Wild Kings emerge to back patrons’ renditions of Badfinger and Cheap Trick, the tension in the room eases slightly. Almqvist tells me that he’s going to perform, but unlike the others who’ve been up there, he’s totally sober. I sense a little pride in his voice, a genuine excitement, but mostly again, a sense of duty. He ducks into the bathroom to learn the lyrics to Jack Lee’s “Come Back and Stay,” an ’80s hit for Paul Young. Fifteen minutes later, he jumps onstage. They’re used to seeing him here (the Hives have performed at Debaser before, and show up at the club night whenever they’re in town), but Almqvist still manages to thrill. He grabs the mic stand with both hands and throttles it to the beat. It never looks like hard work. That happened in the toilet with the lyric sheet. Nobody saw that part. By the end of his number, the rock snobs are sweaty and elated. “It’s never work [for any of us] up there,” Dangerous says. “The minute that stops being fun, we’ll quit. I mean it.”
Spin: How much does being in the Hives inform the way you live your daily life?
Almqvist: It informs everything. You can’t help it after awhile, ’cause the band is based on what we like.
Spin: And you’ve been doing it for so long.
Almqvist: Yeah. Even buying furniture is influenced by the band. It’s become this thing: “Is this Hives or is it not?” It’s like “Is it kosher?” But it’s Hives.
The Hives do hold dear a few things that violate their code. Destruction, for example, likes yellow. He prizes his vintage canary-colored bass. But it never leaves his apartment. “It’s a great guitar,” Almqvist elaborate, “But [he] can’t use it ’cause it’s not white.” Dangerous has a jones for Formula 1 racing. Carlstroem enjoys fishing. “I used to wear short pants during the summer,” Arson admits.
“This is like confessing sins,” Almqvist says when I ask him for his most un-Hives trait. “I do housework. I don’t know if that’s not Hives, though. It’s kind of very Hives because you do it yourself.”
V: We Never Jam. We Discuss.
Spin: Is there a theme to this record?
Dangerous: The theme would be that people are idiots.
When they began work on Tyrannosaurus Hives in late 2003, the Hives’ opinion of humanity was somewhat low. So they decided to become robots. It’s a logical extension of their meticulous approach to all things band-related. Where some artists will select from a pool of 25 or 30 songs, many born out of long jam sessions, the Hives usually enter the studio knowing exactly what they want to put to tape. “We record what we have,” Carlstroem says. “We never jam. We discuss. Then we play.”
The early discussions for Tyrannosaurus Hives centered on German synth maestros Kraftwerk and enlightened new-wave mutants Devo. “We like everything about those bands,” Dangerous says, “and we were really into sounding metallic: We wanted to play real instruments and get them to sound like machines. That was the whole idea. Not the other way around, like people do today.”
“On [Veni Vidi Vicious], we wanted to sound like a band playing in a room,” Almqvist continues. “This time, we ended up shooting for a dry, almost dull sound. And then we’d have to play our hearts out to make it sound interesting.”
Back at Megaphon Studios, Destruction thumps through a pile of very old European music magazines. Dangerous makes a pot of super-strong coffee. The robot work has resumed. But the music that pumps out of the speakers has more warmth than I expected. The Hives, it seems, had played like robots a little too well. Apparently, the new stuff sounded too metronomic and soullless, and halfway through recording, they took a break and resumed discussions. “We sort of got fed up with it,” Dangerous says. People may indeed be idiots, but they are required to create authentic rock’n’roll. “You have to destroy your influence a little bit to make them your own,” Almqvist says.
Now when the industrial-style guitars drill, as they do on “Diabolic Scheme” (which Almqvist calls a “violent ballad”), they’re punctuated by campy B-movie strings. “Two-Timing Touch and Broken Bones” has a jerky, monotonous chorus, but its riff, borrowed from the Monkees’ “(I’m Not Your) Steppin Stone,” was wheeled right out of the garage. “Walk Idiot Walk,” Tyrannosaurus Hives‘ first single, marries the precise rhythm of Devo’s “Freedom of Choice” to a vintage riff that echoes the Who’s “I Can’t Explain.” “Chris played a bit of drum machine on the record,” Almqvist says. “But we had to get the human-error factor in there to make it more interesting.”
VI: Alternative Ulster
Like most comic-book crimes fighters, the Hives are frequently conflicted about their unending duty. After spending a few days with them, I get the feeling that they’d like the freedom to suck sometimes. At least Carlstroem would like to take a longish guitar solo once in a while or spread some quality time with his newborn boy before embarking on yet another world tour.
Given their newfound interest in musical change, I wonder if maybe one day they’ll lose the matching suits, as the Beatles once did. Go to India or Berlin or Hollywood for total reinvention. Or maybe just dance badly at rock clubs with Tara Reid while wearing a “Jesus is My Homeboy” T-shirt. But until they decide we don’t need them anymore, our heroes must remain good. Good intentions. Good third album. Good shoes.
As he finishes his fourth espresso, inserts even more snus under his lip, and prepares to listen to “Missing Link” for the umpteenth time, Dr. Matt Destruction grabs his chubby belly and groans.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“I have…how you say? Ulshter?”
“Ulster? ‘Alternative Ulster’?” he asks, invoking the classic song by Belfast punks Stiff Little Fingers and cracking himself up. Even as acid floods his stomach lining, Destruction has his mind on good rock’n’roll. It is both the cause and the relief of his ailment.
This story first appeared in the August 2004 issue of Spin.