Q&A With Howlin' Pelle Almqvist of the Hives

The Hives are a Swedish import with staying power, and the band’s lead singer, Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist, knows it, as he makes clear in the following Q&A – a conversation conducted in advance of the outfit’s impending visit to Denver (see the appropriate Now Hear This item for the particulars).

Almqvist begins with a few comments about his return to Sweden following a trip to a vacation locale suggested by a friend in Turbonegro. From there, he talks about the assorted big-name producers who assisted on the act’s latest CD, The Black and White Album; the motivation behind some of the disc’s stylistic tweaks; his contention that most hip-hop is ephemeral – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing; the Hives’ sense of humor, which doesn’t fit the Swedish mold by his own admission; the scenes in which the band has been inaccurately lumped; the joys of theatricality; and the unused song the group wrote for the comeback album by the New York Dolls, whose frontman, David Johansen, also recently chatted with Westword.

Isn’t it great when everything comes together?

Westword (Michael Roberts): Are you at home in Sweden right now?

Pelle Almqvist: I just got home yesterday, actually.

WW: How much time do you get to spend there?

PA: I could have spent the last two months there, because we had some time off. But I spent a lot of it abroad. I just discovered traveling without the band. It’s fun. Airports kind of freaked me out for a long time, because it kind of means work to me…

WW: Where did you go during your two months without the band?

PA: I got a place in New York, so I went there for a while. And I’ve also been to Costa Rica.

WW: Did you stay on the beach?

PA: I did, actually. Do you know the Norwegian band Turbonegro?

WW: Yeah.

PA: My friend in the band has a house there.

WW: So I guess you’re tanned, rested and ready to rock.

PA: (Laughs.) Indeed I am.

WW: Then let’s talk about the new album. When it was released, you talked about having worked with seven or eight different producers, but there are only four listed in the liner notes aside from the band.

PA: Well, wait a second. I guess there was the Timbaland stuff that didn’t get finished in time for the record. What else would there have been? No, I think the Timbaland stuff was the only stuff we recorded that didn’t make it on the record. So maybe we’re missing one, but I can’t remember who it would be.

WW: Was it hard to convince Interscope to foot the bill for you guys recording with so many different producers, given the situation the record industry is in these days?

PA: Not really. I think they were contractually obliged to do so (laughs).

WW: Was the idea originally to have someone different record each track? Or was it more like, let’s record with a lot of different people and see what we like best when we’re finished?

PA: A lot of it was the fact that we wanted to work with Dennis Herring, but he’s kind of a slow guy, and he had some projects he had to finish before us. It just kept dragging on and dragging on, and we decided we didn’t want to wait. So we decided to record with some other people. That’s apart from the Pharrell thing, which we’ve been talking with him about doing since 2004 or something. And that was never meant to be an entire record anyway. It was just meant to be a couple of songs. Something we all wanted to do.

WW: So the goal wasn’t, we want to totally change up our style and do something totally different than we’ve ever done before?

PA: Well, there’s always a phase right after we’ve been touring for a long time and we’ve been playing the Hives kind of music for a long time where we want to do something completely different. And then the early songs are always very different from what we usually do. We just decided to keep more of those songs in there now, I guess. But it’s always hard to tell how different it’s actually going to end up. We play the kind of music we play because we love that kind of music. But we also love so many other kinds of music. Sometimes we end up with a song that sounds like us, and sometimes we end up with a song that doesn’t sound like us – and sometimes we think it sounds like us but other people don’t, and vice versa.

WW: The songs that didn’t make the cut: Were they too much like the songs that did, or were they experiments that didn’t really pay off?

PA: Mainly, there were just too many. Basically, we had a bunch of songs and it came down to us asking a friend to make a set list for us – a song order for an album. And there were songs he didn’t use. That’s basically what it boiled down to, because we couldn’t agree. So we just decided, okay, let’s have a third party to put it together, and then he did. There’s always some people who don’t get their favorite on there, but everybody’s happy with the record. That’s as much as we can hope for. And the good thing is, we’ve got a bunch of songs we don’t want to throw away. We have the start of something new.

WW: Your friend’s set list: Is it actually in the same sequence, too?

PA: Yeah, the sequence, too. We just had him do it, and everybody liked it.

WW: The Timbaland tracks: You’ve said you hope they come out someday, but you’ve also said they’re unfinished. What state are they in?

PA: They could be finished, but they’re not. We’d have to work on them a little bit more, I think.

WW: Did your style not mesh with his that well? Or was it more about timing?

PA: Well, it didn’t get finished on time, because we needed the record out, and we couldn’t work with him until very late in the process. And he’s very busy, so if we’re going to finish them, we need to know why we’re finishing them. We can’t just meet up and finish them anytime, because he’s a very busy guy, and we’d have to know what to do with them first. But maybe they’ll come out eventually.

WW: On the tracks that did make the album, there are definitely some stylistic switches – kinds of things you’ve never done before. What did you learn about the band through trying those different styles?

PA: I think we learned during this record that we can do anything, and usually we’ll do it pretty well, at least in our opinion. I think we were a little bit sick of some things. This has happened to us a little bit, where people have called us a garage punk band so many times that people just assume everything we do sounds the same, based on the idea that all garage bands sound the same, or whatever. It’s sort of like when your parents say all heavy metal sounds the same. Or your parents say that all hip-hop sounds the same. I think we were a little sick of that, so we decided to let other stuff get on there. And I think we learned to be a little more flexible. We don’t think everybody in the band has to play on every song. We do whatever sounds best. There are no egos or anything like that. If a song doesn’t want to have drums on it, let’s not have drums on it – and then maybe Chris doesn’t have to play drums.

WW: Usually the type of people who say all of a certain type of music sounds the same are people who don’t know very much about that kind of music. Have you discovered that, too?

PA: Yeah, that’s pretty much it. And usually people who write for magazines are people who are into one kind of music, and then they assume that all other kinds of music all sounds the same. It just comes from hearing enough of it to realize the differences – or not hearing enough of it to realize the differences. It’s kind of like when people from Finland think that all Japanese people look the same. You just haven’t seen enough Japanese people.

WW: Did you also discover that you guys have a strong enough personality that no matter who’s producing, it’s still going to sound like you?

PA: Yeah, definitely. If we’re playing, there’s nothing anybody else can do about it. It’s going to sound like us. Which was really important for us to learn, because we’d always recorded before with just one guy [Pelle Gunnerfeldt]. It’s basically down to what we do and what the song is – and the songs come from us. There’s only so much that can happen with a different producer. So I think the record sounds different more so because we wanted it to than because there were different producers. It’s not that easy that you can just get a different producer and the song is going to sound completely different. It’s still going to be the same song, and the same band playing it.

WW: One of the things that interested me about you working with Pharrell and Timbaland is that in some past interviews, you haven’t always been terribly complimentary about hip-hop. I found one where you said hip-hop albums tend to stop selling after a year or so because they’re not really built to last, whereas a great rock album can keep going and going.

PA: That’s not really a put-down. I really like hip-hop, but the fact of the matter is, that’s kind of how it works. It’s very flash in the pan.

WW: And you don’t see calling it flash in the pan as a negative?

PA: I mean, there are some classic hip-hop albums. I still listen to N.W.A. But a lot of new hip-hop is only done to be popular that week. It’s kind of the way R&B has always worked. R&B in the ‘60s was based on, like, popular catch phrases and stuff like that, and they’d be popular that week. You’re not trying to make something that lasts, you’re trying to make something that’s popular that week. It’s kind of like a good action movie or a good drama. You’ll remember the drama longer, but it doesn’t mean the action movie’s useless (laughs). I find a lot of hip-hop boring, but the stuff’s that good can sometimes be fantastic.

WW: In terms of style, though, a lot of hip-hop artists are more into showmanship, the way you guys are. Do you feel they’re better at putting on a show than a lot of rock bands out there?

PA: Yeah, definitely. I think hip-hop is way better at celebrating the kinds of things that rock and roll used to be good at celebrating. Like extravagance and being kind of ridiculous and over the top. I think that’s one of the reasons why we get along well with a lot of hip-hop people, more so than with a lot of rock bands that are just concerned about credibility. They don’t really want to make an impression. They just don’t want their fans to be embarrassed by them, it seems. The driving force behind a lot of modern rock bands is just not to embarrass their fans. You understand what I mean?

WW: Yeah. Sometimes it seems that there’s a gene in rock musicians that makes them so self-conscious about seeming cool that they’re actually not cool at all when everything’s said and done. Do you feel as if you don’t have that gene? You don’t have that problem?

PA: I think it comes from never being part of a scene. I think being part of a scene, which most rock bands are, can be a very negative thing. You’ll get support, but all of that support kind of forces you to conform to certain standards and ideas that might not be yours. And in the end, that kind of waters it down. And I think us coming from a small town and being very isolated all the time, we had to be the scene ourselves, just the five of us, and listen to what we wanted to. So I think the realization that we were probably never going to be very popular let us do exactly what we wanted. Truthfully, that’s a lot of what made us what we are. Just not adapting to anybody and being ourselves.

WW: Another thing about that overly cool mentality is that the people who affect it are often pretty humorless – and you guys aren’t humorless at all. In America, there’s a stereotype that people from Sweden don’t have a great sense of humor. Is that an accurate stereotype?

PA: I don’t know, actually. I think it’s a very low-key humor. It’s not a very extroverted humor. It’s kind of self-deprecating humor – a little bit like English humor, but less over the top.

WW: How would you describe your sense of humor in contrast to that?

PA: I think a lot of what we do is very un-Swedish. The whole extravagance. Swedish society, I think, is built on people adapting to each other, and it works great for a society. But there’s a reason why more interesting artists come from America, where it’s all about one person succeeding and the American dream and stuff like that. Whereas in Sweden, it’s a country where everybody’s pretty comfortable. And I love that in a society. It’s fairly equal and just and stuff like that. But it also kind of means that everybody has to conform to each other, and sometimes that can be bad for artists or bands or stuff like that. Like, you would never have Little Richard coming from Sweden. He just wouldn’t exist here. You could get decent copies after he got popular, but he wouldn’t come from here.

WW: That’s true. A lot of Scandinavians love American rock, but they have produced a lot of bands that are as flamboyant as American bands.

PA: No, but they’re great keepers of the tradition – way better than they are in America. They usually don’t invent it, though. People in Sweden are great at copying things. It’s like IKEA and Hennes & Mauritz [H&M clothing]. That’s what we do. We copy things and make them cheaper and better (laughs). Like the Japanese.

WW: When the Hives first hit in the United States, there were a lot of signings of bands from around Scandinavia, like Division of Laura Lee. And while a lot of those bands were good, they haven’t lasted in the U.S. and you guys have. Do you have a theory about why?

PA: Not really. I guess we’re better, you know. Or we were around before that scene and we’ll probably be around after, because we never considered ourselves a part of it. We just keep going.

WW: At this point, do you feel that you’ve transcended being “this band from Sweden” and you’re now just the Hives?

PA: I think so. A lot of people we meet seem to think we’re from England or America. I’ll be the token Swedish band. I don’t really care that much. But I don’t think a lot of people are very focused on us being from Sweden anymore.

WW: You’ve also outlived the whole garage-rock movement of a few years ago. Do you feel that people tried to make you part of that scene whether you wanted to be or not?

PA: Yeah. The good thing about that whole garage rock thing, though… I mean, I didn’t think a lot of it really sounded like garage rock. The Strokes have nothing to do with the Sonics or anything like that. I think they’re great, but it’s definitely not garage rock. I think the White Stripes definitely have a lot of garage-rock roots. But the good thing about that particular scene – and we’ve been lumped into so many different ones – is that I liked a lot of music. Whereas we’ve been lumped in with a lot of music that I don’t really like.

WW: What are some examples of that?

PA: We were kind of lumped in with hardcore punk in the beginning, because that was pretty much all that was around in Sweden when we got started. We would pretty much only play shows with hardcore punk bands. The hardcore punk fans would like us because we’re fast and stuff. And I didn’t think we really fit in there. And we were part of this movement in Sweden that they called action rock. It sounded a lot like MC5, but it had a lot of guitar solos. It was mostly metal people who did it. It was heavier. And I don’t think we fit in very well there, either.

WW: It sounds as if you’re happiest when you don’t fit in.

PA: Yeah, because it means that we’re free to do whatever we want. I’m happy that we can be successful without having to fit in anywhere. I like that.

WW: While pulling together material for this interview, I came across a review where a writer compared you to David Johansen of the New York Dolls, and by coincidence, the Dolls will be in Denver the same week you will, and I just spoke with him. Was he an influence or an inspiration for you?

PA: I didn’t really hear the New York Dolls until people started comparing us to them. I really like them, but they weren’t really an influence to what we sound like. I guess we both got a lot of influence from the Rolling Stones, though.

WW: The Dolls definitely had the sense of theatrics and costuming you guys do…

PA: Yeah, and I really like that about them. It must have seemed so much like a different world. You know, women’s clothing and all that. In 1974, it must have been pretty spectacular. We actually wrote a song for them for their reunion album, but they ended up writing all the songs themselves, I think. It’s really good, though. I think we’re going to have to do something with that song ourselves.

WW: What was it called?

PA: I can’t even remember what it was called. It was something about David Johansen dating an older woman (laughs). It was pretty good.

WW: At this point, are you seeing a lot of Hives imitators? Or are you too singular at this point to really be imitated?

PA: No, we have a lot of imitators, and I’m really flattered by that. I really like that. We actually have a couple of tribute bands that do Hives songs.

WW: Are there any other bands out there right now, among your contemporaries, that you feel are on your level? Or do you feel that you stand alone?

PA: There’s a bunch of bands that I like. I don’t know about levels, but there are a bunch of bands that I like. I like the White Stripes, I think the Black Lips are good and stuff. Usually I think we’re better, but there are a bunch of bands that I like.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts