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From Sweden to Brussels: The European dimension of The Hives.

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By Marnix de Witte The Hives! This Swedish garage rock band has, during more than fifteen years, established itself as one of the most exciting live rock acts. Their energy and stage performance are unbeatable. Cafebabel asked the band some questions; about Belgium, their experiences throughout Europe, and their Swedish roots.

What is the European dimension of this band after all these touring years?

The five band members come from a small town in Sweden, Fagersta, with only 11.000 inhabitants. Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist (the leadsinger), Nicholaus Arson (guitar), Vigilante Carlstroem (guitar), Chris Dangerous (drums, percussion) and Dr. Matt Destruction (bass). They have slowly conquered Europe with an incredible confidence, an ever-changing stage performance and their characteristic black-and-white costumes. The Hives have so far released five albums, Lex Hives (2012) is their most recent.

I meet them in Brussels, Belgium. A country that loves the band and a country which the band regularly visits. After a stroll through the backstage labyrinth of the Ancienne Belgique, the venue of tonight’s gig, I find myself sitting in front of Chris Dangerous and Dr. Matt Destruction. Five minutes in the interview, Nicholaus Arson also walks in. I explain them first about Cafebabel, the multilingual European magazine. “It is not translated in Swedish…yet”, I add. They seem satisfied to be eyeoneye with a different kind of journalist for once. Matt looks, with shining eyes, suspicious at the Belgian waffle- partly covered with chocolate- he is consuming. “Tell me, why do these Belgian waffles have whole sugar bits in them. It confuses me sometimes that there are sugar cubes in there”, he asks me. I explain him that waffles are differently produced in every part of Belgium. That is the only explanation I can give him. He seems satisfied with the answer and finishes the sweet delight. I tell them that I saw the Hives performing in The Ambassador in Dublin, back in 2004. I was eighteen and the band was still unknown to me. Joining a friend, I was blown away by their performance. Afterwards I repeatedly saw them playing at the infamous Belgian festivals: Pukkelpop, Rock Werchter and de Lokerse feesten. The guys nod in acknowledgment of the festivals and seem pleased by my short introduction. Time for the ‘real work’ and a little insight in the travelling life of the band.

At times like today, when you’re in a place like Brussels, do you have time to enjoy the city? If so, what do you like to do?

(Chris): “We actually had a day off yesterday, so me, Matt and Nicholas went back to Sweden for twenty hours or so. The other guys stayed on the bus I think. Or at the hotel, and did pretty much nothing. We are kind off…hammered after being on tour for such a long time [three weeks now]. So myself I did not do anything today. I went to the airport, got driven here, sound checked and now I am talking to you, so that what I have done today [laughs]”.

But if you have some time, what do you like doing in a foreign city, just stroll around a bit?

(Chris): “Yeah, we try to see as much as we can. You know, as long as you have energy for it. Myself I have a bicycle on tour, so I go riding my bike a lot. And the other guys like to take walks…you know, whatever there is to do in a city, and if there is time, we try to do it”.

You have been in Belgium a lot, here in the Ancienne Belgique and at our many festivals. Can you share an anecdote being in Belgium? You must surely remember the Rock Werchter festival of 2008? [Where The Hives played for an extra 15 minutes, refusing to leave the stage because they, along with the audience, were having too much fun]

(Chris): “Yeah, sometimes stuff like that happens and I guess that was one of those that we felt that we were not really quite done yet. And sometimes you get in trouble for it, but we are usually kind of spot on because we know what it is like if someone before plays and they run over…and you get less time. But sometimes, and very rarely I must say, we do erm, fuck up a bit for other bands by playing too long. But sometimes it is worth it, and you can prepare yourself for a fight” [laughs loudly].

And sometimes it is great for the audience to get unexpectedly rewarded with a longer show. Now I would like to ask some things about Europe, first with a slightly philosophical question. Through all your travelling- from when you formed The Hives almost twenty years ago until now- do you think Europe is more diverse or equal than you thought before?

(Chris): “When we began touring, in like 1998, Europe was way more diverse than it is now. Now I can even get vegetarian food in France, and I can speak to people in a way I could not before. So Europe has gotten a lot smaller in that sense, and the culture and everything gets a little more blended nowadays, you know? [Nicholaus walks in and gives me a high-five]. We were also younger and we had never been to all these countries. No, absolutely, it is way more once place now than it used to be.”

Which European countries or cities are your favourites, personally or as a band, and why?

(Chris): “We had some really, really good shows in France recently. Some really good shows in Spain, Belgium and Germany [Matt and Nicholaus continue mentioning other places]. And Norway is fucking beautiful [laughs], I mean, you can have great shows everywhere. For us it almost feels like touring the US, it is the same thing, you go from state to state, and here you go from country to country, but it is still sort of the same thing. And I can’t really put a European country in front of another.”

Fair enough. And is there a place where you have not been and which is still high on the list? In Europe, or elsewhere?

(Chris): “we have not played Russia, and we would really like to play Russia. And Hawaii [laughs out loud]. And I do not know, are there any European countries that we have not been?”

(Nicholaus): “Some Eastern European countries. We never played Romania, or Bulgaria [the guys start discussing which countries whey have and have not been, sometimes searching their memory].”

(Matt): “And Greece!”

(Nicholaus): “Yeah, Greece is actually a place where I would really like to go, because we are getting emails from fans since we got started pretty much, asking us to come to Greece…”

(Chris): “The punk scene in Athens is supposed to be huge. But we have never been, shame on us”.

So still a few countries to visit. And what has been the worst place you played, the worst experience you have had, and why?

(Matt): “My worst experience was at the Zwarte Cross festival [the biggest motocross festival in West-Europe, a festival in The Netherlands]. I almost got hit by stuff from motorbikes.”

All thrown on to the stage?

(Matt): “No, they fell off, dropped, something broke. There were motors everywhere, people jumping 12-meters high over the stage with their motors. It was wild, kind of strange.”

That is hard to imagine. Is there something typical Swedish you always bring when touring?

(All together): “Snus!”

(Chris): “And the band members [all laugh]. We cannot go anywhere without ourselves. But other than that, like I said, Europe- and the whole world basically- is getting more and more like one place, so you can always find anything you need in any country.”

(Matt): “And now when you have this [shows his Iphone], you are connected at all times.”

And is there something special that you always have on your rider [this is a list of comforts for a band at a show], something that jumps out?

(Matt): “Soap!” [laughter].

(Chris): “We used to have flowers and some candle lights, but I do not know what happened to that” [looks around in the room].

(Nicholaus): “Champagne on Friday, so we would know what day it was!”

(Chris): “Other than that it is basically beer, every night we try to have a beer that is from the region. Like a microbrewery type.”

I question which beer they received today. “It depends on what we get”, Nicholaus answers. I am invited to open the fridge and find Jupiler. I ask them if they are not drinking the special Belgian beers.

(Chris): “Like the Duvels and all of those, yeah we know them. But they are too strong for us, you know. You can not drink thirteen percent beer before going on stage, it would fuck you up” [laughing].

I explain them that I lived in Sweden for half-a-year and that I was impressed by the way Swedish people are generally dressed; always neatly, especially in Stockholm.

Is this cultural characteristic also once of the reasons you are always so well dressed on stage, with the black-and-white uniforms?

(Chris) “We always think of the Italians that way [laughing].” He takes a couple of seconds to think, and adds “I don’t know, we just like looking good when we are playing. We want to dress up for the show and we want to look and sound as good as we can, we are here to entertain people. No point for us in dressing down…that is just not our thing.”

I suggest that is typically Swedish. “Yeah, maybe it is build in somehow”, Chris confirms. I want some more anecdotes.

You have given many interviews in all the countries you played, probably often with journalists that speak only little English. Can you tell me an anecdote about an interview that comes to mind?

(Nicholaus): “I remember one we did in Norway once, with a guy who was like “yeah this is my first television interview”. We were sitting in a couch, he was on the side of us and had a ‘cheat-sheet’ where he had all the questions written down on a piece of paper. And every time he was going to ask us a question, he went like this [puts the hand vertically next to one eye, and moves his head slowly to the right and back, imitating the interviewer “so you guys have erm…”], as if the camera couldn’t see he was reading his list [everyone laughs]. And I could not really tell if he was joking or if it was sincere. And after he said “Oh well I thought that this went really well, this was my first interview”.

And you still remember it, so it was quite a success.

Nicholaus laughs, “I indeed remember, it was one of the funniest interviews”.

(Chris): “Sometimes you get weird people that sort of already answer their own question while they ask you, and if you do not agree, they get irritated. They are like, “So you have been a band for twelve years and you have made three albums, right?”. We answer “not really”, after he says “yes, you have”. He just wants you to sit there and listen to him...but all we think is, “what the fuck is wrong with this guy?”

(Nicholaus): “Some people interview you by just talking to you and you do not even have to answer any questions, and then they go “oh thanks, that was it”.

Coming back to Matt’s stage story, I imagine that a lot of stuff gets thrown on stage- what has been the weirdest?

(Chris): “The weirdest thing in sort of a, this guy has to be fucking stupid-perspective, is probably beer bottles, thrown from 50 meters, this close to your head. And you think, what is wrong with people, do they want you to play the song, or, you know, do they want to kill you? So that is pretty weird in one way, and then there is really weird stuff that comes up, the typical rock stuff like bras…”.

(Nicholaus): “…panties, underwear, demo’s, bottles, glasses”.

(Matt): “Something like three shows ago, I got a pair of sneakers in front of me. And I thought they were thrown on or something, so I threw them back, so someone could get them back. After the show, outside, there was this young kid, probably 10, this tall [points to his waist, imitating him] “Oh, I got your shoe”, and he had taken one shoe and wanted me to sign it. I did and then he left” [laughs].

Well, it is a great way for the kid to meet you, a funny story. Thinking back of the beer bottles now, if something like this happens, how do you react? What happens at that moment, it might have an effect on you?

(Chris): “We always continue, and I don’t think any of us have been hit that bad by a bottle. But we have been so close that you can feel it. But I do not know what would happen if it would hit. I would probably pass out and then it would take you a little bit before you can continue. But I just think it is so stupid. Once we got a bunch of keys thrown and that could also hurt you a lot. But we never stop playing.”

(Matt): “One bottle is okay, it would be different if they would throw ten of fifteen bottles. Then we would maybe get concerned if we could continue playing.“

(Nicholaus): “Usually their aim is pretty bad, so they never hit you” [laughter].

Finally, what will you guys do for Christmas; will you go back to your families in Fagersta?

(Chris): “Yeah, Nicholaus and Matt still live there, while the rest of us are pretty spread out. But it is family time, before we go to Australia.”

(Matt): “I will go up the mountains and spend Christmas on the ski slopes in a cabin, skies, snow mobile...”.

And Christmas in Sweden, is it a traditional Christmas like we know it in general from the movies? [They ask me which movies I mean, I answer the classic Hollywood movies that are always on the television at this time of the year]

(Matt, laughing loud): “They do not all have big tits and are blond, you know?”

(Chris): “Santa Clause comes at night and gives all the children gifts, and I guess it is all pretty traditional, meet up with the families and have nice food.”

(Matt): “We have cooked ham and herring, pickled herring, schnapps,”

Is that the haring that smells so bad?

(All excited): “No, no, that is not the one. You mean surströmming!” [This is fermented Baltic herring, usually bought in a can. When opened, an incredible stench fills the area].

(Nicholaus): “No, we eat all kind of haring. The surströmmingis mostly from the sea-side and some might eat it at Christmas.”

(Matt): “It is more of a midsummer tradition.”

You never take the surströmmingwhen touring?

(all): “Noooo”.

(Nicholaus): “We do not even eat that to begin with. Not everyone likes it, not even in Sweden…”

(Matt): “…and not even within a family”.

(Chris): “I am vegetarian, so I would not know.”

(Matt): “The can you buy it like this [pretends to hold a small can with his two hands], and when the can gets likes this [doubles the size between his hands], it is time to eat it. It is so fucking weird. And you should open it under water, otherwise boom” [laughs].

I explain them that surströmmingwas one of my Swedish ‘discoveries’. Some friends I met, who already knew it, told me to open the can at home and of course I did. All of them laugh loud as they can perfectly imagine this first-time experience.

(Nicholaus): “There were these two Spanish guys to visit some relatives of mine and on the last day they wanted to cook for them, something typically Swedish [they all start laughing already]. So what is typical Swedish? Of course they came home with a can with that stuff [now all laughing loudly]. They said they would never going to open that, while we answered that you can actually eat it. And there was another Canadian guy who did a year at school where I was. The host family that he lived with asked him to come out in the garden to have some food. So he went out in the garden and he was so shocked”.

Surely this must have triggered your interest to try surströmmingnext time that you visit Sweden. My time was up, the entertaining chat flew by quickly. I thank them for the interesting interview and their friendliness. Of course, I also wish them a great show ahead. They ask me if I was also going to see them, after which I explain that the concert was already sold out when I moved back to Brussels a couple of months before. “Nooo”, they answer, and a minute later I am on the guest list. We take a picture and I leave the backstage of the Ancienne Belgique with a big smile on my face.

A couple of hours later- together with the lucky +1 who was very happy to accept my last minute invitation- we are ready for ninety minutes of catching energy. The crowd goes mad from the start, youngsters express this through a hormone-driven mosh pits during every song. Lead singer Pelle interacts perfectly with the energetic crowd. The three band members I spoke with a couple of hours ago perform solid and convincing. The Hives are great, still and forever. Tick, Tick…Boom!

From left to right: Dr. Matt Destruction, Chris Dangerous, Marnix de Witte, Nicholaus Arson.

A Swedish band- singing in English- enchanting an international crowd on a Sunday night in Brussels. The friendly persons behind the black-and-white costumes make the picture complete. The Hives took me on a small journey from Belgium back to their Swedish roots, while giving me an impression of their life on the road. Cafebabel style? Definitely Cafebabel style! Tack så mycket!

Photo credits: Tim Troncko