The Hives are a tribute to the power of self-promotion, 'idiot concepts' and shoes with white soles. Leonie Cooper meets a band that has given up giving up
Howlin' Pelle Almqvist, the extravagantly immodest singer of the Hives, is in agreement with something posted on the band's website by one of his fans. Their fourth album, the fan had suggested, should be called The World's First Perfect Album, since that is what it would be. "It's a rumour we're glad to spread," he says.
"They hadn't even heard it yet," interrupts the band's drummer, Chris Dangerous. "They were just pretty sure it was going to be perfect."
"It's not, though," counters Almqvist. "If it was, we'd have to quit now. If you went and did the perfect record, that wouldn't be all that much fun, would it? Obviously, we have had to hold ourselves back in order to make something unperfect ..."
The Hives are never shy of boasting. When they unveiled their new songs at the 100 Club in London in the summer, Almqvist proclaimed, "You have missed the Hives!" The crowd shouted back, prompting Almqvist to admonish them: he had not been asking a question, he said, he had been making a statement. That was also the show at which the Hives unveiled their newest look, a style they are calling "Ivy League bully". They have always worn stage uniforms, in black and white, and this time it's what Almqvist decribes as "an American misunderstanding of English school uniform" - a school blazer affair with piping modelled on outfits worn by "this band who used to play in smoking jackets, called the Devil Dogs", and a Hives crest. "The crests are our attempt at a classic punk logo, like the Dead Kennedys or Black Flag," he says. "It's supposed to be easy to draw on your leather jacket." Or as a tattoo? "Hell, it'd make a fantastic tattoo!" he says. The effect is finished with white US Navy dress shoes the band bought off the internet. "The good thing about them is that they have white soles, which is really hard to get with white shoes," Almqvist says, with a straight face. "Oh, and they're also rubber, so you can sneak up on people and kill them."
The Hives' whole career has been based on a canny understanding of the power of self-promotion and rock iconography. They have always claimed their songs are all written by a mysterious svengali named Randy Fitzsimmons. Almqvist's brother, Nicholaus Arson (real name Niklas Almqvist), is believed by everyone outside the band to be the true songwriter, but they persist with the story. (Arson says of Fitzsimmons' current role: "He's more of a mentor now - he used to be more involved, but he's been telling us to do so many things that now he's more like an inner voice, and we know what he would think about things.") They have all adopted pseudonyms: in addition to Howlin' Pelle, Dangerous and Arson, the band is completed by guitarist Vigilante Carlstroem and bassist Dr Matt Destruction. And, in a masterstroke, they won over the UK in 2001 by calling their first British release, a best-of compiled from two Swedish albums, Your New Favourite Band.
Your New Favourite Band emerged at a time when garage punk was undergoing one of its periodic bursts of popularity, and the combination of some killer riffs (Hate to Say I Told You So) and outrageous stagecraft (the band freezing their poses, mid-riff, for 30 seconds or more) won them an audience that took them from clubs to big halls and a major-label deal while many of their garage peers failed to get down the drive.
But their ascent, inevitably, brought its own problems. Although their major label debut, Tyrannosaurus Hives, reached No 7 in the UK, it received an underwhelming reception, critics carping that it merely repeated the moves they'd heard on Your New Favourite Band, only not as well. Other musicians, meanwhile, tired of the Hives' unrelenting self-aggrandisement and willingness to accept contrivance. Jon Bon Jovi tore them apart, accusing them of being all style and no substance, and Almqvist, in particular, of simply aping the stage moves of James Brown and Mick Jagger. "I guess it's scary when a new alpha male turns up on the scene and the old alpha male has to scoot off to the side," reasons Almqvist.
The band have since made some efforts to move their sound on from sturdy garage rock, working with producers such as hip-hop's Pharrell Williams and Jacknife Lee, the current choice of rock bands seeking a stadium-ready sound. They met Williams backstage at a festival in Japan in 2004, says Dangerous. "We high-fived and he said, 'I love you guys, I wanna work with you someday - something big is gonna happen.'" They only worked together for two weeks last winter, but wrote eight songs. "He's a very busy man, so the way he makes music is very fast," says Almqvist. "It was really good for us to make music that way, because we can be very anal - that's why we only put out a record every three or four years."
Oddly, though, the tracks produced by Williams bear fewer traces of hip-hop than does the one they produced themselves, Giddy Up, on which, Arson claims, "you can hear the proper hip-hop beats". ("We did a bloody good job, don't you think?" says Almqvist.)
They're not concerned about the idea that the music they make is, well, silly; they say silliness is at the heart of great rock'n'roll. "We always loved songs that were borderline novelty songs, like Wooly Bully or Ça Plane Pour Moi - they're such idiot concepts that they're glorious," Almqvist says. "It's nonsense, but it's amazing nonsense! We're not trying to write Born to Run, here, we're trying to write Wooly Bully!"
What they have learned from the world of hip-hop is, astonishingly, to be even more aggressive in their self-promotion. They approve of 50 Cent's threat to stop making music if Kanye West outsold him: "It's good, you've got to put pressure on yourself", argues Arson. "Yeah, if we don't sell more records than Elvis, then we'll quit," says Almqvist. "But he's been selling records for such a long time, so we have a few years to catch up."
The Hives have now been together for 16 years, by their reckoning, and they see no reason to stop yet. "We kind of gave up the idea of giving up," Almqvist says. "Either you do the one really great debut album and then you quit, then you're in the history books forever - see the Sex Pistols - or you do three records. Other than that, you have to keep on going forever and be AC/DC or the Rolling Stones."
"It's gonna be harder to do this shit when we get older," adds Dangerous, "but we're gonna try as hard as we possibly can to play punk rock when we're 70." And if they are aiming for an AC/DC-esque career, they refuse to countenance AC/DC's stage effects. "Pyrotechnics are for bands who don't do anything on stage and need other stuff to do stuff for them," says Almqvist. "I am a human pyrotechnic."
But, for all their bravado about their incredible talents and amazing performances, there is a chink in the Hives' tailored armour. Back home in the small town of Fagersta, they own a large house that acts as band HQ - "sort of like the Monkees' house," according to Almqvist - and in its grounds is an orchard. "It's got some really, really tasty apple trees," says Almqvist. "It's a shame that when we're on tour, we don't get to eat those apples."
·The Black and White Album was released on October 15 on Polydor.
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