Sound: Pelle Almqvist – The Hives


Posted 1 month ago in Music Features

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Linn Koch-Emmery gets under the skin of Hives frontman Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist ahead of their visit to Dublin’s 3Olympia this month.  

Sometimes I’m reminded that there’s a connection between growing up in an industrial town and making a bit of a show of drinking your coffee black. Or at least avoiding “capsules and stuff,” as Hives lead singer ‘Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist says.

“If you’re very involved in brewed coffee, you can probably tell the difference in all sorts of things. A bit like being able to hear the difference in different types of guitar distortion. I think it’s about how long you look at something. It’s like the Eskimos’ thousand words for snow”.

Common to most small towns is also that at a certain point, they leave their young people something to fantasize about. It can lead to varying outcomes, but sometimes it leads to them starting a rock band. A quick compilation of Sweden’s most successful rock exports in the last 30 years confirms this image. It seems to require a lack of external entertainment for music to happen.

According to legend, Howlin’ Pelle, Chris Dangerous, Vigilante Carlstroem, Nicholaus Arson, and Dr. Matt Destruction were five teenage boys in Fagersta when in 1993 they each received a letter with a time and place to meet. The sender, a man named Randy Fitzsimmons, explained his role as mentor and songwriter for their upcoming band. Four years later, The Hives’ first full-length album, Barely Legal, was released via the punk label Burning Heart Records. When the follow-up Veni Vidi Vicious was released in 2000, success was an international phenomenon. While the band’s members toured the world, their founder maintained a more laid-back profile. At regular intervals, he appeared with ideas and songs for a new album before returning to the shadows. Over ten years ago, he disappeared completely.

“It was like the break never ended. He never showed up again”, says Pelle.

Almost everything got an explanation. Just over a year ago, an obituary appeared in the Fagersta-Posten.

“Perhaps he knew he was going to die, but we don’t know how it happened. We don’t actually know for sure that he’s dead. But we have to assume that he is”, says Pelle. “Or it’s just an advanced way to break up with us.”

It’s vague, he admits. But Fitzsimmons didn’t leave his disciples completely empty-handed. The obituary pointed in a familiar direction. Under a gravestone, material was found that has now become The Hives’ first studio album in over a decade, The Death Of Randy Fitzsimmons.

 

It makes me think of Peaky Blinders. Then I think of Nick Cave. Some of that has probably sneaked in, more atmospheric stuff. A little more dynamic than before, perhaps?

“If you imagine Hives in some kind of cliché world, every other song is super fast and every other song is kinda half-fast. To maintain that feeling throughout a whole album, there has to be change. If it’s going to feel like you’re running fast, sometimes you have to walk.”

 

You have to have the stamina?

“Many of the favorite bands we had when we were younger used the same gear all the time. Back then, it was enough if it was loud and fast. Now I’ve become more picky. I love rock music so damn much that I hate when it’s mediocre. However, it sets a pretty high bar if it’s supposed to be worth making more music yourself.”

 

Do you have performance anxiety?

“We’ve really proven everything we need to prove. There are probably enough bands that sound like us. Hives tribute bands in Sao Paulo and whatever. Over the years, you’ve heard so much good rock music, it’s like you think you’re going to compete with it somehow. The Hives have done a lot of things that I think are good. That’s something to compete with in some way too. It’s like you’re going for the Nobel Prize in rock.”

 

Is that possible?

“You have to try.”

He admits that there’s a part of him that would find it a bit comforting if this is The Hives’ last album. It would have been a comfortable decision to make. The problem is what to do instead.

“This is what I’ve spent my 25,000 hours on. If I’m not going to make music, I’ll have to accept that maybe I need to do something else that I might not be as good at. Many bands have stumbled upon that when it comes to quitting. Just because you’re good at one thing, you assume you’re just as good at everything else.”

 

Isn’t it most dignified for a band to just disappear?

“The most dignified thing is not to say that you’re quitting. Just stop booking gigs. Then you don’t need to make a big deal about starting again if you want to.”

 

Isn’t that what you’ve done?

“Even dorkier than making a big deal about quitting is making a big deal about coming back. What was it the English queen said? “Never complain, never explain.” Don’t celebrate anything, don’t mess around. You do a few gigs and record when it needs to be done.”

 

It feels silly to justify your choices so much.

“You’re right about that. You’re making me wonder why I’m sitting here doing an interview about exactly that. I think that’s why I like artists who no longer exist. You can’t ask any questions.”

 

Is restraint the finest thing we have?

“In a way, it is. But at the same time, there’s a big risk that it’s just a damn boring person with nothing to say. I can like an entertaining show-off, David Lee Roth, for example. But as usual with this kind of crap, you end up somewhere in between.”

He stops himself. Doesn’t it depend on the genre, I just realized? If you’re a low-key singer-songwriter with a bubbly and snappy personality, it’s bad for your career. I think it has to match.

“It’s in the nature of rock music to reinvent itself. After a decade of extravagance, it rears back and puts on pajamas; ten years later, it regrets it and knocks on the door again. The Hives broke through in a period where it was important to radiate that you didn’t care too much. Just before that, bands like Alice in Chains, Nirvana, and Soundgarden had popularized depression as an artistic expression. Energetic punk rock in matching suits had no clear place in rock history. Everything had to be so damn ordinary all the time, and genuine. That’s probably why we’ve related more to hip-hop than to rock over the past twenty years. There’s room for that kind of bragging personality. In grunge, the narrative was always that they suffered so much, but then they played the music and you knew, that’s guaranteed fun.”

 

It can’t be both, you think?

How both? Either you have a feeling in your body or you don’t have a feeling in your body.

 

Can’t you feel both sad and happy at the same time?

“Yes, I can. But why would I want that? It grated on me that they played music that sounded vital and lovely while all they talked about was how sorry they felt. The idea that everyone who sings about being depressed is so damn genuine, is it really that simple?

 

Can’t we agree that it’s not that simple?

“Yes! It’s nice that we can agree on that, haha. What I might question is depression as an aesthetic in music. That it would be proof of a genuine feeling, a more genuine suffering.

 

Yes. Why isn’t there true joy then? Why is it perceived as more fake? Do you feel true joy when you sing?

“I don’t like singing. But I feel true joy about the music. It’s one of maybe two, three things that have given me the most pure joy in life. Rock and performing with this rock band. Now we’re going out to play again. Will it be fun this time too? Time will tell.’

Last spring, the band embarked on a tour that currently extends a year and a half into the future. A few cities in the USA have already been played, followed by an arena tour with Arctic Monkeys in the UK. This summer, the band plays in Europe before heading back to the USA and England. It’s good manners to tour if you’ve made a record, says Pelle.

“I think I’m afraid of two things. That I’ll no longer find it fun. Then there’s so much I have to change in my life. And that I’ll stop coming up with things to say. It would be boring if it just became silent in my brain.”

 

Do you think that could happen?

“I think history is full of people who have had it and then lost it, and haven’t noticed it themselves.”

 

I think most people would be fascinated.

“Yeah. In a way. I could probably sell it well too.”

 

If you woke up tomorrow morning…

“Yes, please, that sounds good.”

 

…And you were fourteen years old again. You’re going to do it again…

“If I did it the same way, if I knew everything that I know now? There are things I would have done differently, absolutely. If I had been keen on doing it again? What’s the question really?”

 

What would you have done differently?

“God. There are people I wouldn’t have hired. It would probably have been good if Hives took a complete break sometime too and didn’t book gigs for a while. When it was most bitter between us. We continued instead. Those are the first two things that come to mind.”

 

Not that you moved to Australia and started surfing instead?

“Right. Didn’t even think of that. If Australia was closer, I might have moved there now. But now it’s quite far away.”

 

You surf?

“I like to do it. But since I consistently do it about three days a year, I’m not good at it. “

 

But living in different places, you could have done more of that.

“Ever since I entered the music industry, people have loved to tell me how unfashionable and hard-working rock music is. A silly and completely baseless argument if you look at the type of artists who actually manage to tour year after year, without tearing down streams on Spotify or doing Coca-Cola commercials. Lately, bands like Fontaines D.C, Idles, and Viagra Boys have thankfully problematized the mossy argument about the death of rock.”

However, Pelle notes, it has become more talkative.

“It’s 100 percent as weird as everyone starting to sing like Eddie Vedder. It’s the weirdest way to deliver a text. But if you like shoegaze and stuff, do you even want to hear the vocals?”

 

Preferably not, but most people in the audience seem to want it.

“It’s the same for us. Especially if you’re playing at a small venue and the PA is way out on the sides, then there are ten people standing in front of the guitar amp and bass drum signaling wildly that they can’t hear anything. Shit messy. I have other things to think about besides the mix.”

 

If you often play support, it’s hard not to notice the bunch in the front row who look half-conscious with boredom.

“That’s something people get a kick out of doing. When we were the support act for the Rolling Stones, the entire front row was people making an effort not to like the support band, they think they’re bigger Rolling Stones fans if they don’t.”

 

Maybe they think you can’t see?

“Like watching TV or something? I think that’s been half the deal with our live concerts, that we’re always addressing that we see the audience. If someone is using their phone, I take it and throw it behind the drums. They understand that it goes both ways.”

 

Difficult if you also have to exude depression.

“You’re not really depressed. You’re actually happy inside, completely ecstatic. The whole thing about shoegaze bands turning away from the audience is actually because they have to smile because they think it’s so fun to play guitar with loud sound. They take a big smile and then turn around and pout with their lips.”

 

Has your attitude towards music and what you do changed?

“Unfortunately not. It’s probably still as important to do something we’re proud of and fight for. We might be less stuck in the hip, because we used to hang out every hour. We also live in different cities and stuff now. But no, it probably hasn’t changed the attitude towards music.

 

So is this an ending or not?

“It is, in a way. Since we don’t know if there will be more. But really, we see each album as an ending. It should feel like a last will and testament every time. You should squeeze out everything. Then there’s the thing that you have to come up with what to do instead. I haven’t cracked that yet. It feels too late to become a surfing pro.

Words: Linn Koch-Emmery

The Hives play The 3Olympia on Monday April 15th. The Death Of Randy Fitzsimmons will be released on August 11th.

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