Turbonegro: You couldn't make 'em up

They are ludicrously un-PC and straddle the fine line between clever and stupid, but Turbonegro say they're here to stay. Steve Jelbert lauds the Village People of Norwegian metal
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The Independent Culture

"Grown-ups now think they're better at being young than the youngsters," complains Thomas "Happy-Tom" Seltzer, the bassist and lyricist of Turbonegro, Norway's greatest-ever "death-punk" band. "You have to respect the kids no matter what. The 16-year-olds decide what's rock'n'roll," explains Knut "Euroboy" Schreiner, the appropriately over-the-top lead guitarist.

"We're just delivering the pizza. They're the ones who decide what's on it," adds singer Hank Von Helvete (born Hans Erik Husby, but "Hank from Hell" has more of a ring to it, don't you think?). The analogy isn't accidental. How many rock bands include a keyboard player who owns a pizza parlour? They even paid tribute to Pal Pot Pamparius's establishment with their crowd-pleasing track "The Age of Pamparius", with its brazen declaration that they're "gonna bake a motherfucking pizza tonight". Phew! Rock'n'roll!

You've quite probably never heard of Turbonegro, a bunch as gloriously (and often sharply) un-PC as their name might suggest. Originally formed in Oslo in the late Eighties, they went through several line-ups before finally releasing their one great album, Apocalypse Dudes, in 1998 - a time when grown men with a fancy for yelling sarcastically homo-erotic lyrics over a raucous stadium-punk backing couldn't have been more out of step.

When Hank gave in to his demons and a debilitating drug addiction, they knocked it on the head just as fame beckoned. "When we played our last show in Oslo we sold out for the first time, and it was only then I realised Turbonegro could be actually be successful," recalls Euroboy.

But their legend grew. A tribute album of their greatest "hits" appeared. Acts as diverse as Queens of the Stone Age and Blümchen ("the German Kylie") paid their respects, while the Hives, Foo Fighters and the Jackass crew love 'em. Eventually, Turbonegro gave in to public demand, and reformed last summer to an ecstatic welcome at festivals across Europe. The anatical response to their first-ever British shows earlier this year showed just what we'd been missing for so long.

Klaus Voorman even re-emerged to design the artwork of their reunion album Scandinavian Leather, the first such job he'd taken since illustrating the Beatles' Revolver. (It transpires no one else had even thought of commissioning him in the intervening 37 years.)

Simply put, they are not like other bands. From a nation where "black metal" fans and performers thought little of burning ancient churches or murdering each other, they realised that the easiest way to shock such types was to goad their instinctive homophobia.

So they devised the "maritime rock" look, an unholy blend of Pat Butcher and Jean Genet, all denim and shameless faux- mosexuality. They secured sponsorship from Levis (that's good), but local neo-nazis wanted to kill them (that's bad). It certainly beat their previous look, of "Goretex ski jackets" (that's very bad...). If the image of grizzly old rockers in make-up pretending to be gay throws you, then that's the idea. "Baudrillard said that in our time there are many layers of culture on top of each other, but everyone wants them to be transparent," declares Tom, "No! Too much transparency is killing the mavericks. People should wear masks, at least on Friday and Saturday nights."

So are you gay then, gentlemen? "You can't live in a male society such as a band without being a bit closeted," says Hank, quite reasonably. "We say every band tries to be the most heterosexual. But we try to be the most homosexual," says Tom.

"And so we end up as the most heterosexual band in the world," adds Hank, "Homosexuality is all part of a total sexual package. Ask me what turns me on."

What turns you on, Hank?

"I'm turned on by 'yes'. It has to do with "yes" people and "no" people."

Things very nearly became "no" forever for poor Hank. Their last European tour in 1998 ended when he broke down and was institutionalised in Italy. The astonishingly unglamorous Turbonegro - The Movie, the perfect riposte to anyone who thinks it's all hi-jinks on the road, captures the encroaching insanity, as the band find themselves in yet another concrete shopping centre in Germany looking for the venue. ("I didn't want to see it for a long time," admits Euroboy, "But friends in bands were watching it. It's become a tour bus classic," warning darkly however that the documentary was "put together by Germans").

Hank fled to his home region of Lofoten, hundreds of miles to the north, to clean up. Reportedly, he managed a whaling museum (unlikely) and fronted a local band called "Alcoholocaust" (distinctly believable).

"It's dark, but not complicated," he now says, "I had to leave the city - too much drugs and madness. The others pursued their careers in other bands and other parts of the entertainment business." (The extremely bright Tom worked as a "trend analyst".)

"But I had to mend my life. It was that or die. We had some contact, but it was important for me to stay away from everything to do with my past. When I found myself, I realised the band was me, and had kept me alive when things were going downhill. I've been dissecting my life into rubbish, maybes and 'yes'. 'Yes' is rock and love, 'maybes' are where to live, that sort of thing, the rest I threw away.

"When I came back there were accusations that this was a career move, to become legends. What a compliment! Even our enemies thought that. Four years off have worked for us, but a sensible person would never speculate on such a move. Everybody has evaluated from a distance, and we've all chosen the band now."

They all have their opinions on their roles too. According to Tom, "We're art rock for people who hate art." "It became clear we were one of the great formula bands like AC/DC and the Ramones," says Euroboy, ever the guitarist. "We are very charming blokes. We are saucy," declares Hank, like the younger, naughtier Ozzy he truly is.

Catchy, rocking tunes such as "Wipe It Till It Bleeds" and the new single "FTW" (short for "Fuck the World", of course, but their intention is to pleasure it, not destroy it - they're not politicians), with its dramatic string section and jovially obscene chorus aren't likely to make daytime radio any time soon. Yet their cultdom is easily understandable: Turbonegro straddle the fine line between clever and stupid.

"Norway has exported three musical things," announces Happy Tom, "A-Ha, Black Metal and, to a certain extent, us. And they all have one thing in common - men wearing make-up. That doesn't fit in to the national cultural brand of strong men fighting nature, and I'm very proud of that." And who could argue?

'Scandinavian Leather' is out on Burning Heart. Turbonegro play at the Mean Fiddler, London WC2 on 5 July (Ticketmaster 0870 534 4444)