From The Hives‘ onstage bravado, wild uncontrollable outbursts, scissor kicking frenzy and obscenely arrogant banter, you might expect them to prove a difficult band to interview. In the past they’ve certainly tried to make it that way, turning interviews around with ease and making journalists the baffled subject of an in-joke they’re not privy to. The five gracious men sitting around me – a.k.a. “The world’s wisest musical council and international rock sensation” according to their latest press release – offering me Mexican crisps and beer and asking about my tattoo are not what one may expect. A couple of the band come in late and apologise politely, Loveheart sweets are scattered over the table and my inner 14 year old fangirl is fucking psyched to be here and having minor palpitations.
The band, on the other hand, are totally composed and relaxed after a return from a stint touring in the US that included characteristically mindblowing shows at Coachella. Back in the land that adopted them early on as part of a fledgling garage rock resurgence, guitarist Nicholaus Arson, tells me “We enjoy being in London very much. It feels like coming home and we spend so much time over here”. Of course, The Hives never really get to spend too long anywhere, with a live reputation that precedes them, the band have critics fawning over their notorious live shows and are always in demand. With so many gigs, how do they keep things from feeling stale? The impossible ball of charisma – and admittedly the cause of my slightly clammy hands – that is frontman Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist answers “Play just as hard as you can at every show. We play basically the same songs but you don’t know what’s gonna happen between the songs” (Judging by their live record, it seems like what usually happens between songs is complete unabashed immodesty courtesy of Pelle in the form of declarations such as “I’ve been busy being fantastic”) Nicholaus continues, “Playing live is supposed to be like dancing on the edge of a blade. Everything is supposed to have the chance to go wrong, nothing is supposed to be planned.” It turns out that at one of their recent shows, the thing that went wrong was Pelle falling off a lighting rig and giving himself concussion. “It was rough”, he tells me. “It was only a few songs in but I finished the show. Maybe the concussion made me stupid enough to think it was a good idea to do that!”
Being on the road so much of the time must take its toll on a band and I want to know the best and worst things about touring. Turns out the best thing, as Nicholaus says, are the shows themselves. The worst thing about touring leads to an unexpected exchange after bassist Dr Matt Destruction chips in:
Matt: “I hate the travelling, the waiting and waiting! And getting up in the morning and wanting to take a dump and you can’t.”
Pelle: “Yeah, not being able to shit on the bus is one of the worst things.”
Matt: “The music would work so much better if you could take a dump on the bus.”
“You’re asking all the wrong questions!” Pelle laughs at my barely concealed horror. I take a different route and ask about their black & white dress code, which I imagine is a laundry nightmare. A mixed load would spell disaster. (Today they all wear matching leather biker jackets, white shirts and black trousers. The effect is inadvertently adorable.) “We were always impressed by bands that looked like a gang,” Nicholaus says. “In the same way we made up rules for our music we made up rules for what The Hives could wear. It’s like James Bond. He doesn’t wear slippers, he doesn’t grow a beard…” So I guess ‘The Pastel Album’ isn’t in the pipeline.
After discovering their band name is based on the desire to get under people’s skin, I ask what gives the band hives. Nicholaus tells me, “I get proper hives. I’m allergic to raspberry jam,” before drummer Chris Dangerous admits, “there are types of music we really don’t like.” They laugh at my suggestion to name and shame but Pelle offers “Crybaby music,” and Nicholaus adds “Rock bands that don’t sweat.” The Hives are a band that certainly sweat their hearts out when putting on a show and though meticulous over their image, they couldn’t care less about posturing and deliver their songs with unmatched self-assuredness.
“Our confidence falters when you don’t see us,” Pelle insists, “but when we’re done making a record it’s like ‘shit, this is amazing!’… Being away for four years, your confidence shakes but then it’s done and you think ‘Wow!’ So why have The Hives been away for so long? “We’ve been around for a while now, made a few records and done a lot of the things we set out to do. So then you have to find new challenges,” Pelle says. Nicholaus continues, “in the beginning we scrapped songs earlier on. Now we have the time to work on songs and they end up being really good. We wouldn’t do demo songs in the beginning because we thought… the dynamic would fall out the window,” Pelle explains. “There are albums where the artist will later release the demo’s for it and there’s always something that’s better about them. There was a Bad Brains album that was the raw takes of songs and that was the thing we’d listen to but on the actual album they put out, Rock For Light, the same songs are just played slightly faster and it sounds like they care slightly less.”
Citing contemporary peers they love as Queens of the Stone Age, Eagles of Death Metal and Swedish hard rock band, Graveyard, the band got to work with the QOTSA frontman who produced tracks for their new album, Lex Hives (Their “body of laws” in song form). “He was someone we trusted,” explains Nicholaus, with Chris Dangerous adding, “being under pressure and not having much time, he was still very meticulous in the same way we are.”
With their playfully dark alter-ego monikers, I want to know what The Hives nice names would be. Matt Destruction says “Mine would be Dr Matt Construction, like a handyman. Or just Sexy Bear,” while Nicholaus suggests “Mine would probably be Nicholaus not-arson. Or Nicholaus Parsons. Chatting Pelle Almqvist?” Their semi-dangerous names are reflective of the playful jibes that conceal a confrontational feel in the delivery of their songs. “The music we play is such an outlet for blowing off steam. Bad politics annoys me. Everything that’s wrong about the world, we write about,” Nicholaus says. And where would The Hives situate themselves on the political spectrum? “It’s hard to say,” he explains, “because a lot of the time modern politics are so corrupt and insincere in a way that means it doesn’t matter. We lean more to the left than to the right, where everyone has a fair chance and the kind of society where people take care of each other. For the most part it’s just common sense that gets thrown out the window because lobbyism and bureaucracy get in the way.” So it seems that for all their surface tomfoolery, there’s a social conscience beating away under the black and white guise. Who knew?
The Hives may not have reached the public view until 2002 but have actually been together since 1993 and still have the desire to come back and give more. Where do they find the inspiration? Pelle answers “For me it’s being curious about what we will do next. I don’t know what The Hives next record will sound like and I can’t wait to find out. We couldn’t be happier with Lex Hives right now but there’s always that thought of “Could we beat this one?” “The panic in the notion of maybe going away makes me want to come back” Nicholaus adds. “Every record we make we think it’s our last record; that we can’t pour any more into this.” I want to know if they’d ever pour it all into a ballad and Nicholaus admits “We tried on Tyrannosaurus Hives with ‘Diabolic Scheme’. The intent was to make it a ballad but people tell us it isn’t… We had other ballads in the running. We had a 60s type ballad for The Black and White album. Are you talking power ballads?” (At which point he does an impression of big, 80s drums central to the sound of Michael Bolton et al.) “We really like ballads,” Pelle insists, “but there are enough people who sing about girls and love and we deliberately don’t do it… We write ballad type songs but they probably wouldn’t be called ‘Emma’ for example.” Disregarding my heartbreak, he adds that they couldn’t write a better ballad than Nick Cave, which is probably the best reason you could have.
So what do The Hives want to give the world? “A hard on. Or happiness I think” Pelle offers. “Same thing”, Nicholaus deadpans, to roars of laughter. “In a roundabout way, yeah” Pelle adds. “The best feeling of joy I get doesn’t come from going to church; it comes from the friction of when something feels good. If our live show appears confrontational it’s because we love the confusion, ‘do these people love us or hate us?’ And we love that feeling. It’s exhilarating and we want the world to feel that way and love us and give us a lot of money.” What would you say to a Hives novice to convince them to come see you play? “You’d have to come to the show to let us convince you. Our shows are a long presentation of how good we are” Nicholaus asserts. Pelle continues, “I think we would say, really, you have no idea how good it is. If you don’t love it I’ll give you £100.” If this is The Hives cast iron guarantee of an amazing gig then you might say £100 is a little humble, especially since there’s no way they’d ever need to pay out.
Of course, when The Hives first came to the public’s attention, guitar music at that time was on a commercial high and informed by a punk ethos that led to a thriving garage band scene. Would The Hives still class themselves a punk or do they think the genre is dead? “Absolutely, we’re a punk rock band but here’s what I would say about it: we were just at a friend’s art gallery and he’s going through a punk magazine as he’s writing a book about the punk rock aesthetic and they weren’t allowed to use it but on the last page there’s a photo of the cover of Architecture Digest and it’s Demi Moore in a feature on ‘At home with Demi and Ashton’ and she’s wearing a Sex Pistols t shirt. There’s also a photo of David Beckham wearing a Crass t shirt. I think that means punk is dead; it’s as good a case as any,” he laughs ruefully. “Rock & Roll and punk rock is in rude fucking health really. I mean, do people ask, is jazz dead now? They don’t, even though nobody’s actually listening to it. When we’ve just played to 85,000 people, I don’t think it’s dead. The teen rebellion of the punk ethos has always been around. There were ‘Swing Kids’ in north Germany. That’s more rebellious than being a punk in the 70s.”
Nicholaus continues, “If you look at punk as a movement that was a rebellion against something else then of course it’s dead. But if you’re looking at it as a style of music, like where we come from in the Swedish sticks, it’s huge. Punk goes into hibernation, in 80s California it wouldn’t be visible but it’d be around in Anaheim and it will always be around. It’s the music that can’t die… The ones who were saying “Punk is dead” were always people who were punks at one time and just didn’t really have the energy. ‘Yeah, punk’s not what it used to be’ (feigns snoring)”
After this, we have to wrap it up. And I’m left to consider the five delightfully charming men I’ve just spent my afternoon with. The Hives seem a much tamer beast than they once were, and appear to have mellowed into pragmatic, mature adults with a penchant for disguised social commentary. I begin to worry if this inner calm means they’ve lost the very essence of what made them so exciting and made me fall in love with them all those years ago. And then I watch their tiny sold-out show at The Borderline and realise there’s nothing to fear. Their live show is their true raison d’être and showcases them at their most vital. It is electric, thrilling and yes, the utter metaphorical equivalent of a hard on. Lex Hives Rule 1: Never doubt them for a second.
Lex Hives is released on 4 June through Columbia.