The Raveonettes: Back to the future

The Raveonettes tell Kevin Harley why the best of music's back-catalogue keeps them moving forward
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It's the kind of refreshing effect The Raveonettes have on pop. Sure, on paper, their first two releases, the 2002 mini-album Whip It On and their debut album, 2003's Chain Gang of Love, sound like art-pop experiments, with the attendant risk of sterility that entails. With cute conceptualism, all the songs on Whip were in b-flat minor and those on Chain in b-flat major; both set the angel-faced melodies of a Buddy Holly and Everly Brothers tint to dirty drumbeats, beat-generation imagery and thickly distorted guitars. The results come across like a neatly be-quiffed rock'n'roll revivalist meeting, albeit set in a graveyard rather than a diner. But Wagner and his main collaborator, Sharin Foo, make their knowing guitar pop sound distinct, too. There's a chemistry there, rooted in an infectious love for the material they draw on.

After two albums of concept-band minimalism, though, Foo and Wagner have decided to freshen themselves up. Their new album, Pretty in Black, drops the distortion. It draws on more than one key and more than three chords; meanwhile, Foo has ditched playing bass guitar to concentrate on singing. The results still hum with history, but this time in the form of surf twang, Elvis croon, romantic swoon and girl-bop that goes "woah oh-oh oh-oh". The Raveonettes are moving on: from being a great idea to a band of genuine scope.

There's something refresh-ing in itself, too, about a band prepared to take a slow-build route, distinct from blowing it all on a debut-album splash. As a friendly Foo reveals in a London bar, that was the plan. "Initially, we wanted to do two mini albums, one in b-flat minor and one in b-flat major," she says. "Combined, they would create a whole album. But things started moving so fast that by the time we were doing Chain Gang Of Love, we wanted to make a full-length album. They were meant to be tasters, those two, but we ended up in that space longer than we anticipated. I think people thought that was all we were. And we were like, no! We had so many places to go from there."

Did their minimalist mono-key approach start to pall? "It wasn't like we had a crisis meeting," says Foo. "But we were a bit fed up with playing in the same few chords. The restrictions had been a means to make us push ourselves, but it started to seem like a constraint, which was never the purpose. It must have been hard for people on tours, too, to listen to a set of songs in one key. Y'know, we changed."

Like many good rock "eureka!" moments, the change came accidentally. At some point last year, Wagner started to write the songs on equipment borrowed from the band's producer, Richard Gottehrer. Wagner had left his distortion pedals in Denmark, forcing him to abandon the basement flavours and sordid imagery of Whip and Chain for songs of a sunnier disposition. "I've always been a fan of surf guitars," he says, "I've always thought they were powerful, a lot more so than, say, a black-metal band. So, the demos were done with no pedals, which had a charming, raw sound."

"We kept thinking," Foo grins, "that we'd put the distortion on in the studio because that's one of our trademarks. Suddenly, the guitars started to sound so great when they were completely clean. Very dancy and cheeky and refreshing."

"Refreshing" not least because the sound continues to keep Foo and Wagner out of step with many recently emergent 1980s retro bands, from The Killers to The Bravery. "I totally missed the Eighties," Wagner admits. "They just passed me by. There is a lot of Eighties stuff going on and I'm not saying I'm not liking it, but it doesn't hit me in the heart in the same way that 'Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow' by The Shirelles does. When I was young, I was dreaming of getting away and going to the States. We even went to New Mexico to check out the studio where Buddy Holly recorded... You have to do these things, right?"

Particularly if you're not from there. If audiences find a freshness in The Rave-onettes' take on pop arch-ivism, it's partly due to the appeal of beehive-and-bubble-gum Americana to a duo raised under rainy Scandinavian skies. "We've met people in the States in their fifties and sixties at our concerts, who love what we do and perceive it to be romantic," says Foo. "They say, 'No American band could do it in the same way because they're inside it - they can't see the beauty of it.' "

"I think I have a nostalgic take on music," says Wagner, "because I wasn't surrounded by the culture in which it was made. When I was growing up, I got into music by listening to Fifties and Sixties compilation albums. I was always dreaming about where it might have been made. Like, 'Jeez, I wonder what Texas is like?' "

Wagner is now New York-based, while Foo lives in London. They're of a like mind about music, though, which helps explain the chemistry at its core. Like most working duos, too, the contrasts between them are as much part of their chemistry. Foo studied music at the Conservatory in Copenhagen and taught Wagner about jazz when they met eight years ago. Wagner taught Foo about Fifties rock'n'roll and arrived trailing a reputation for being, in her words, "the enfant terrible" of the Copenhagen scene, thanks to his lead role in the local band Psyched Up Janis.

"Sune has always been outspoken and provocative," she says. "I guess he has a difficult time relating to reality. He's very artistic and I think I sometimes keep him connected to the real world. It works very well between us and he always writes songs with the two of us in mind. So, meeting him has been like a revelation, because I think he is a brilliant songwriter."

A studious one, too. Wagner is as much bookworm as musophile, and it was the time he spent brushing up on music history in his local library that got his band a name. Just when he and Foo needed her, he came across a book with a heroine named Ravonelle. "He thought the name was very beautiful," says Foo, "and I said, 'Yes, but what can we do with it?' Then somehow it changed to The Raveonettes, which was perfect, with the Buddy Holly 'Rave On' connection and the girl-pop thing. The only thing was, at first, people thought we were a girl group - they'd say, 'Where's Miss Rose?'"

Gender mis-assignments aside, Wagner didn't care if people saw the ghosts of older bands in his band. Indeed, he set up the band on a conceptual basis: which bands, he asked himself, would he like to see if he was going out to enjoy music for one night? "So, I made a list: Buddy Holly, Jesus and Mary Chain, Velvet Underground, The Cramps... The idea was to have simple beats, like The Cramps or B52s, add sweet vocals like the Everly Brothers, put on raw guitars, and do simple music, like Buddy Holly or Hank Williams. Only I'll do it even more simple: I'll write them in one key. So, when people say, 'You sound like these bands', I say, 'Yes! I know!' The thing was to have all these great artists in one band."

Fittingly, three such musicians are in the band for Pretty in Black. It's easy to be won over by Foo and Wagner's fannish enthusiasm, and they took a fan-based approach to roping in guest performances from Spector, the Suicide keyboardist Martin Rev and the Velvet Underground drummer, Maureen Tucker. Tucker even took time out on her 60th birthday to play drums on five tracks. "I needed the extra element to make it the perfect record," says Wagner. "So, I wrote a list of four people and I thought if I could have those, it'd be a masterpiece. The fourth was Mary Weiss from The Shangri-Las; unfortunately, we didn't get her. Moe Tucker was flattered that we asked her, and the feeling was, of course, very mutual."

Having these guest stars seems to fulfil what Wagner and Foo, at least in part, set the band up for. "It's like bringing it full circle," says Foo. But they sound revitalised, too, like they're going places rather than muddling in pastiche. It's not bad going, considering that, two years ago, Wagner talked about his band as an experiment that wasn't designed to last. "This record has opened so many doors for us," he says, "because it shows that we can do whatever we want to do. I feel like we're now starting to become a really good band."

"Having the guests is like having the history with you," says Foo. "We're suckers for nostalgia and very sentimental. But we want to combine that with all the things that make it new. We would never be a retro band. We're here to bring all those influences and turn them into something exciting that kids can get turned on to." History hasn't let The Raveonettes down, and the good news is, they're not about to let it down, either.

'Love in a Trashcan' is out on 11 July and 'Pretty in Black' on 25 July on Sony/Columbia; the UK tour begins at Cargo, London, on 13 July