Topic A: Are the Hives the "next" Strokes or White Stripes?
Topic B: Are the Hives part of a Swedish invasion?
The band itself doesn't seem to know which is more difficult: talking about these subjects ad nauseam or escaping them altogether.
Granted, their experience would undoubtedly be quite different were it not for those two inspired bands that beat them to the buzz bin. But the Hives are hardly the next anything, just as they may be the only one of many great Swedish bands to make an impact in the U.S. and the U.K. These talking points are nothing more than a long-standing part of the rock machine's fetishistic fantasy of cycles and scenes, a clockwork that often obscures the magnificent energy of a pop group seizing the moment.
And regardless of the hype surrounding the Hives -- equal parts self-generated and foisted -- the band is exploding the underground and the charts in full-frontal view of much of the lonely rock and roll world. They're swinging their garage-punk balls and their art-school pop egos in a way their indie-bred American counterparts wouldn't dream of doing. And that shit's cool.
"We will achieve total domination of the United States," lead guitarist Nicholaus "Arson" has been quoted as saying. "It shouldn't take more than three weeks." That's approximately the length of the Hives' current tour, which brings them to the Beachland on Friday, June 7.
"Our philosophy is, when the Hives play a song, we want it to sound like it could only be the Hives playing that song," says rhythm guitarist "Vigilante" Carlstroem without a hint of bravado, but confidence to burn. "Like if you listen to classic Stones, you could hear it's them." And if you listen to last year's Veni Vidi Vicious or focus on its crunchy, vitriolic single, "Hate to Say I Told You So," currently causing a fervor at alt-rock radio and on MTV2 since getting Warner Music's backing earlier this year, what you'll hear is aggression mixed with chutzpah like it hasn't been heard outside of hip-hop in many a moon.
To approach such a pregnant moment at a cultural crossroads, you need a story, and self-produced mythology seems to come naturally to the Hives. The bio provided by the band's Swedish label, Burning Heart (home to other great Swedish bands like Refused, International Noise Conspiracy, and Division of Laura Lee), claims the quintet of teenage punk-rock boys was brought together in 1993 by a mysterious Svengali known as Randy Fitzsimmons. Each boy, the story goes, received a letter with a time and place to meet.
Press Carlstroem for further details about Fitzsimmons or how they came together, and he'll refer you back to the bio. Peter Ahlqvist, the Burning Heart exec who signed the band, is even more secretive: "Randy's the man, the myth, the legend deluxe. I know this guy personally, and he's a real character. But in my contract with the Hives, I signed the dotted line not to ever reveal his identity." (The mystery begs for an answer, if only to diminish the speculation that Fitzsimmons is actually Ace of Base mastermind John Ballard. Regardless, a new myth is born.)
What's certain is that the next five years saw Carlstroem, "Arson," singer "Howlin'" Pelle Almqvist, bassist Dr. Matt Destruction, and drummer Chris Dangerous perfecting their costumes, their attitude, and their sound within the insular Swedish rock scene. "We always wanted to play the kind of music we do now," Carlstroem says with a snicker. "But it took a couple of years to get the talent, to learn how to do it properly, [and] to get the sound that we wanted."
Their 1997 full-length Barely Legal and '98 EP "a.k.a. I-D-I-O-T" illuminate the band's progress toward that sound in stylishly self-aware fashion. In February, practice made perfect: When the U.K.'s Poptones label released a compilation of songs from all the Hives' albums, called Your New Favourite Band, the disc went platinum in a month -- with no promotion. This, in turn, set the ball for Veni Vidi Vicious's blowup on Warner Brothers.
And rightfully so. VVV has perfected an audio jumble of America's and England's punk ethos (Ramones and Buzzcocks true-school style), adding the garage dirt of the Sonics and the raw leather energy of '50s rockabilly records for maniacal cross-generational flavor, creating a pop-rock masterpiece that's a masterful 28 minutes long. What else will it unleash? Are the Hives really creating an opening for talented six-string-bearing Swedes to step through, and if so, why now?
Carlstroem has an answer: "For the first time in a while, bands that get big in England can get big in America. We were the first Swedish band to get really popular in England, and we got much attention in the media. Afterwards, I think people started listening to more Swedish bands and [discovered] Swedish rock." Almost absent-mindedly, he adds: "Also, right now, there are a lot of really good bands from Sweden."
"There's been great bands up here a long time," adds Burning Heart's Ahlqvist. "[It's] the network for bands to tour, release records, and the level of professionalism among people who work with music here [that's] improved a lot in the last few years." (Toward that end, the Swedish Music Information Centre has started an organization called Export Music Sweden, designed to get a more organized message about the country's sonic treasures out to the world.) Ahlqvist also cites the fact that Swedish bands sing in English, know how to appeal to international audiences with great live shows, and have "an overall band awareness of what's happening musically in both the U.S. and the U.K., melding these influences."
Oh, you mean like the White Stripes and the Strokes?
Almqvist stumbles back: "Of course these bands paved a bit of way, and to some extent these bands have a few common things [with the Hives]."
Ahhh, well, of course they do.