The Hives: All over you like a rash

Rapid success and riches have destroyed many bands. But Sweden's favourite punk exports, The Hives, are refreshingly unchanged. Steve Jelbert talks to them
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The Independent Culture

Mikael Niemi's acclaimed coming-of-age novel Popular Music, a runaway bestseller in his native Sweden, introduced his countrymen to the concept of knapsu. This expression, previously local to the author's home region and the book's setting - isolated Tornedalen, hard by the Finnish border - roughly translates as "unmanly" and the heroes of his novel, music-obsessed teenagers Matti and Niila "often discussed whether our rock music could be regarded as knapsu". After all, in their home town "even singing was deemed to be unmanly, assuming you were sober".

Mikael Niemi's acclaimed coming-of-age novel Popular Music, a runaway bestseller in his native Sweden, introduced his countrymen to the concept of knapsu. This expression, previously local to the author's home region and the book's setting - isolated Tornedalen, hard by the Finnish border - roughly translates as "unmanly" and the heroes of his novel, music-obsessed teenagers Matti and Niila "often discussed whether our rock music could be regarded as knapsu". After all, in their home town "even singing was deemed to be unmanly, assuming you were sober".

Just what the hard men of the north would have made of The Hives makes for interesting speculation. Their front man, Howlin' Pelle Almqvist, is the nearest to a young Mick Jagger that continental Europe has ever produced, and yet he's blessed with a wit that wouldn't have let down Muhammad Ali. This is a man who once picked up a trainer hurled at him by a member of an American festival crowd and held it at arm's length by the lace, before complaining, with magnificent distaste, "Do I look like I need a new shoe?" and chucking it back. At one cramped London show, he called for medical attention for a girl suffering a bad cut without even halting the music, simply riffing his plea over a well-practised routine

After his band's recent hiatus while recording their fine new album, Tyrannosaurus Hives, he feigned horror at their comeback show this spring, charging the audience with unfaithfulness on the grounds that they might have been "seeing other bands". Nonetheless, even the indefatigable Almqvist has limits. "I can improvise," he admits. "When you're up there playing music, it makes you feel you can do anything and say anything. But I couldn't be a stand-up comedian [that most knapsu of trades] or make a speech. I need the music."

His older brother, the guitarist Nicholaus Arson (née Almqvist, presumably - their mother taught English incidentally), quite possibly the most deadpan interviewee on the planet, is aware of his sibling's idiosyncrasies. "It's a very no-no thing in Sweden to talk about yourself, so those bands who do it to become popular are seen through at stage one, and they're eliminated from whatever people see as good. That's the thing about The Hives. It's very un-Swedish to be outspoken about how good you are, but if you have the band and the songs to back it up..." He doesn't bother to add any more.

"It's unusual to show off but it's just the way it should be with rock music. It should be spectacular, not mundane and everyday," admits Almqvist, a man who always gets his comebacks in first. "We always thought that a band who react negatively show a sign of weakness. You know, when someone throws an empty beer cup at them and they almost walk off stage or stop the song. That spoils the fun for everybody. A band onstage should be unstoppable. You should feel that you could throw a rock at the head of one of them and they'd still keep playing."

He recently took this ethos to its limit at the Download festival - where big-shorted, small-hearted teenagers gather - when he exclaimed that it was the sort of event where he might expect bottles of urine to be aimed at the stage. Cue the inevitable barrage.

The Hives' rise certainly took everyone by surprise, even themselves, as they're coming to realise. On only their second tour here, promoting 2001's Your New Favourite Band, a compilation of their two previous Swedish releases, their energetic stage show and concise punk tunes captured the national imagination at a time when live rock was making one of its periodic resurgences.

The album bailed out Alan McGee's floundering Poptones label and sold more than 400,000 copies. They were headlining ever bigger venues within months.

"We just thought 'That's the way they do things over there. Bands blow up every week.' It didn't strike us as odd at the time," says Nicholaus.

"Isn't that how England works? Bands are popular for a few years, then everyone has to hate them," Almqvist laughs. "That's the way it looks from outside, anyway."

The five-piece from little Fagersta, an industrial town a couple of hours north-west of Stockholm, hadn't planned for such adulation at their inception a decade before while still schoolboys. "Coming from such a small town we were the only five people interested in the kind of music we were playing. You can't change members because there's no one else who'd like to be in the band. You work at making it good as opposed to changing bands every six months," says Almqvist. "We weren't working at being famous. It was a pursuit of excellence." He cracks up at his claim.

Even today, Nicholaus and the drummer, Chris Dangerous, live in their hometown, probably without the pseudonyms, and Hives HQ remains there. The guitarist, Vigilante Carlstroem, might collect vintage cars and the bass player, Doctor Matt Destruction, has recently had his honorific replaced by the words "Weapon Of", but otherwise they seem remarkably unaffected for a band who reportedly signed a seven-figure deal with Universal soon after their initial breakthrough.

They had thought it would take considerably longer. "Most of the bands we liked weren't around any more, so we always thought it would take 15 years to discover us. Because we never thought good music would be popular on a mass scale," says Almqvist, laughing, before facing the conundrum of success. "Mainstream music has always been pretty horrible, but it's hard to tell if you're going to become part of it."

They're all their own work though, even their supposed svengali, the mysterious Randy Fitzsimmons who allegedly directs their career from the shadows. Nicholaus laughs nervously at a comparison with Santa Claus, preferring to say only that "It's better to believe than disbelieve", and admitting that all he cares to know about his own favourites is "reading the chapters I like in their biography."

Almqvist claims instead that Mr Fitzsimmons is "a guy we know who's with us when we make music, but he just doesn't want anybody to know who he is. It freaks people out actually that someone is going to do something without trying to be famous. It's the polar opposite of a reality TV show." (Almqvist also says about anecdotes in general that "If it's a good story I want it to have happened." So make up your own mind.)

What is true is that The Hives still manage their own affairs, so suggestions that the band are no more than a cartoon are understandably resented. "If you dig really deeply into something when you're young, with the dedication that it takes, maybe there's something comic about that dedication, and sometimes it appears too much," concedes Nicholaus. "But for us it wouldn't work any other way."

Tyrannosaurus Hives has had a muted reception in some quarters, although why people expected anything different from a band known for their aggressive and snappy garage rock is a mystery. In fact its hard, repetitive textures are very deliberate, captured on the excellent "Walk Idiot Walk", their biggest hit to date. At times they even hint at a potentially funky future, if they can ever break that three and a half minute barrier.

Though an acclaimed live act they take recording very seriously. "We probably value the records more in a way," says Almqvist. "It's kind of scary to know they're going to be there for ever. We'd forgotten how hard it is to make something you're going to like for the rest of your life."

And which they'll have to tour for a long time. "We have expectations to go to the places where we played before and play there again," says Nicholaus, possibly the most lugubrious comment ever made by a rock musician.

Yet for all their apparent drums-guitar-and-bass conventionality they are not like other bands. It's no coincidence that one of the influences Nicholaus should cite, alongside the more obvious AC/DC and Ramones, is the impeccably turned out Kraftwerk. These people actually put on T-shirts with their individual names on them after changing out of their ever dapper stagewear, even if there's no one present to meet and greet.

It's hard to imagine anyone working harder. What do they do when they have time to themselves? Almqvist has the answer.

"If we have a few weeks off we grow beards and dress like ordinary people as much as we can to disappear into the crowd. That's when we dress up. The rest of the time we're The Hives."

'Tyrannosaurus Hives' is out now on Polydor

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