"People are forgetting about the rock," says Kenny Hellacopter, bassist for Stockholm's self-proclaimed action rockers the Hellacopters. "Especially in the States, where it's rooted and where it sprung from. Which is a shame, because it is such an important heritage. Americans should respect that and not mess around with it."
That's a brash statement coming from a guy who hangs his hat in a nation that's produced such profound musical lightweights as ABBA, Ace of Base and the Cardigans. But if any single person in Scandinavia (or all of Europe, for that matter) has earned the right to lecture the U.S. on the pitiful state of contemporary American music, it is Kenny Hellacopter. That's because for the past five years, Kenny and his crew (guitarist/vocalist Nick Royale, guitarist Dala, keyboardist Boba Fett and drummer Robban Hellacopter) have been crafting some of the boldest, brightest full-on rock and roll to come out of the Old Country since Motsrhead shook the plaster off the walls of the Hammersmith more than a decade ago. Taking their cues from the New York Dolls, the New Bomb Turks and everyone in between, these wanton Swedes strike up an ear-splitting ruckus that goes to the very heart of the classic-rock experience--greasy hair, bad breath and all.
Pinning down a particular set of adjectives to describe the Hellacopters' thunderous beat is difficult: Southern boogie, Motown, psychedelia and heavy metal are just a few of the genres purloined by this five-piece. Still, Kenny insists that the sneering sounds of punk's past are at the core of the band's formula. "When me and Nick were probably eight or ten years old, I remember we were flipping through my father's record collection, and he had all this stuff by the Stones and bands like that--and we just sort of ignored it," he says. "But then we got to the Ramones and Damned albums, and immediately we were like, 'Hey, what's this?' So we sort of got started from there.
"When my dad found out we were into those bands, he handed us an MC5 record," he continues. "But we were like, 'No way--not with them hairdos and bell-bottoms.' We wanted the punk rock. It took us a good five years or so to change our minds." Coincidentally, the pair came around at about the same time they first picked up guitars.
After various stints with combos in and around the suburbs of Stockholm, most of which never left the country, Royale signed on as drummer for Entombed, a progressive death-metal act that gained international acclaim in the mid-Nineties with the groundbreaking long-player Wolverine Blues. Critics and fans alike applauded the record, which combined neck-breaking grindcore with traditional rock riffs and time structures. But Royale, who was more interested in bands like the Supersuckers and Teengenerate than Morbid Angel, soon grew bored with the equation. The drummer left Entombed in 1994, just months before the newly formed Hellacopters released "Killing Allen," their first seven-inch. "I think Nick wrote the song with Entombed pretty much the same day that the idea for the Hellacopters took shape," Kenny notes. "It was recorded after only the fourth rehearsal we ever had together, so it's pretty noisy and pretty chaotic. But it's still similar to what we're doing now. The B-side is a cover of 'The Creeps' by Social Distortion. It's fast, straightforward punk, I guess you could say."
Not ones to waste time, the 'Copters fired off several more singles that year, followed by their first album, Supershitty to the Max. Recorded in two days' time, the 1996 platter (on Sweden's White Jazz Records) has a decidedly lo-fi, Raw Power quality to it--but poor production does little to mask its sheer intensity. In fact, the tinny crunch of the volcanic opener, "(Gotta Get Some Action) Now!" merely sharpens the tune's already jagged edge, and "Born Broke," "Random Riot" and the acid-tinged "Tab" cut like straight razors, thanks to ragged grooves and rapid-fire guitar workouts. Throw in Royale's emotive, rock-ready vocals (think Rob Tyner on a Jagermeister buzz) and you have one of the most powerful debuts in recent memory.
The disc's potential did not go unnoticed. Supershitty wound up on more than its fair share of best-of lists here, even though the disc was available only as an import at the time. Back home, Max was awarded a Swedish Grammy as "Best Hard Rock Album of the Year"--an honor that Kenny shrugs off. "It's kind of a laugh, really," he says. "It seems like each year, they want a joker in the card game. They want someone in a leather jacket being too drunk at the party--that sort of thing. The whole Grammy thing is more for the ABBA crowd than it is for us."
Payin' the Dues, the Hellacopters' White Jazz followup, received equal acclaim. Featuring frenzied punk-and-blues standouts like "Where the Action Is," "Hey!" and "Calapso Nervioso," the album received extensive airplay in Europe as well as on several American college stations, and it made the Top 10 in Sweden--although apparently no one informed Kenny about this development. "I'm probably the wrong person to ask, because I rarely look at the figures involving us," he admits, sounding genuinely bewildered.
Far more exciting for the bassist are the friendships he's struck up with idols like the MC5's Wayne Kramer, Scott Morgan of Sonic's Rendezvous Band, and the Dictators' Ross the Boss, who makes a cameo appearance on Dues. "We were sort of joking about it with him when we toured Europe together," Kenny remembers. "Then, when the Grammy thing got announced, we just decided to fly him over for the record and then invite him to the party. He got to shake hands with all the ABBA people. It was a grand time for all of us."
The band also played a series of stadium dates with KISS, Royale's personal fave. Kenny, however, was not all that impressed. "We didn't really hang out with them or anything," he points out. "We would just meet with them briefly when they'd walk off the stage, and they would throw a towel or something at us from the show and say things like, 'Well, make lots of money, boys'--or they would remind us that it was dangerous to smoke cigarettes and stuff like that. For huge rock stars, they were nice, I guess."
As for the experience of playing before thousands of rabid KISS fans, the bassist concedes, "It was tough. A KISS crowd must be one of the toughest crowds to play, because they are pretty fanatical. They only want to see KISS at a KISS show. But in Stockholm, at least, it went really well. Some of the people were even singing along with some of the songs, and a couple of rows back, you could see people clapping their hands. No bottles were thrown. They seemed to be into it, actually."
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That's not to say that the Hellacopters will be headlining Mile High Stadium in the near future. But time is definitely on their side. Within the last year, nearly every prominent indie label in the U.S. has been vying for a piece of the group, among them Estrus, Lookout! and Man's Ruin, which recently rereleased Supershitty to the Max and a split Hellacopters/Glucifer CD titled, appropriately enough, Respect the Rock America. Along with one original, Respect sports a handful of covers ranging from Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Working for MCA" to Wilson Pickett's "A Man and a Half." Also on hand is a markedly improved version of the Bob Seger warhorse "Strut," which Kenny describes as "sort of a chintzy song--but we really love some of Bob Seger's earlier stuff; it's really amazing shit. So when Nick found this really bad Eighties record by him, we decided we'd give it a shot ourselves. We figured he couldn't pull it off decently, so we couldn't make it any worse. Actually, that's one of the covers we've done that I'm sort of happy with."
Kenny is just as pleased with Grande Rock, the band's bow for Sub Pop Records. Yet another rock-and-roll tour de force, Grande finds the Hellacopters taking their hit-and-run sound into new directions. In addition to the usual guitar tsunamis, the record includes several refined, mid-tempo power ballads that would sound right at home on the Freedom Rock compilation. This description suits Kenny just fine; as he puts it, "That kind of purity in rock is important to maintain, I think. These days people use the term 'rock' to describe all sorts of things, like funk-metal and metal-rap and all these different things they come up with. But real rock is always going to be there, and it's always going to be the foundation for all other music."
If the Hellacopters have anything to say about it, that is.
The Hellacopters, with the Nomads and the Quadrajets. 9 p.m. Friday, May 21, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, $7/$8 day of show, 303-322-2308.