HomeMusicBack in Black and White: It’s the Hives

Back in Black and White: It’s the Hives

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Onstage at the cozy Chelsea club Racket in May, Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist had an important announcement.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” the frontman shouted to the mess of bopping heads and airborne limbs gathered before him. “Due to an unfortunate rift in the time-space continuum, it has been 11 years since the Hives played New York.” He tossed his arms triumphantly in the air, as if landing a triple axel. “We are back!” The crowd gleefully erupted.

The Hives, a five-piece punk band from Sweden, released five studio albums from 1997 to 2012, making their biggest splash with the single “Hate to Say I Told You So” — a garage-rock gem that spent 11 weeks on the Hot 100 when the group’s second LP, “Veni Vidi Vicious,” arrived in the United States in 2002.

The band got swept into the “rock revival” of the moment alongside the White Stripes and the Vines. But they had already made their name onstage, where their arsenal includes matching black-and-white suits and instruments, Almqvist’s high kicks and charming provocations, roadies dressed like ninjas and a guitarist called Nicholaus Arson who sneers, crowd surfs and dramatically blows on his curled fingers as he flicks picks into the crowd.

“They’re probably the best live band I’ve ever seen,” said Max Kuehn, the drummer of the California surf-punk band Fidlar, who was honored when the Hives took his group on the road for its first national tour. “If you go to a lot of shows,” he added, “you can really tell the difference of just how tight their songs are and how rehearsed everything is.”

Though the Hives continued to play concerts every year since the arrival of “Lex Hives” in 2012, they had no fresh music to offer — until now. On Friday they will unleash “The Death of Randy Fitzsimmons,” 12 new tracks filled with head-snapping riffs and shout-along choruses led by the explosive single “Bogus Operandi.”

“There was a lot of time where we didn’t have songs,” Almqvist said as the quintet gathered at a rooftop restaurant in Manhattan two days after the Racket show, dressed ­­— you guessed it — in matching Hives daywear, white denim jackets with black shirts and jeans. “It was like a slow, 10-year-long panic,” he joked with a slight accent, adding a dose of classic Hives bravado: “It was never an outright panic because we continued to be so immensely popular worldwide.”

“But,” he added, “it sucks being in a good band that doesn’t make new music.”

The Hives have never seemed at risk of running out of steam. Almqvist and Arson, brothers born a year apart, grew up in Fagersta, a small city a two-hour drive from Stockholm, where they soaked up every punk record they could get their hands on ­— trading tapes, scraping together money for imports, taking in pals’ rejects. “That’s how we found the Sonics,” Arson said. A friend handed the LP over, “and it kind of blew our minds.” The guitarist rattled off a list of acts that had made an impact on them: the New Bomb Turks, the Oblivians, the Remains, the Misfits, the Dead Kennedys, “a lot of ’60s music.”

The original band — the brothers plus the guitarist Vigilante Carlstroem, the drummer Chris Dangerous and the bassist Dr. Matt Destruction — came together in the ’90s when the members were in their teens, and “the mosh pit thing was big for us,” Almqvist said. “Going nuts and falling over each other was for us always a part of the concert experience. If the crowd wasn’t doing that, it didn’t feel interesting.”

Showmanship was a priority from day one. “I think before we were good, we were entertaining,” added Almqvist, who is known for his strutting and agitating. (In June, he split his head open with a swinging mic.) “People who didn’t like us would still watch us doing whatever we were doing, because no one kind of knew what was going to happen.”

The music was fast; Almqvist’s wit matched it. “We grew up on 50 percent punk and 50 percent stand-up comedy,” Arson said, including “Saturday Night Live” reruns on MTV and VHS tapes of Eddie Murphy specials.

Before they could afford props, the Hives thrifted black and white clothes, painted a guitar and made their own light-up sign that blazed onstage, giving them heat rash. Almqvist estimates they played 500 shows in their first suits. “They smelled so bad,” Dangerous said, “when we walked onstage at the end of the tour, the audience stepped back.”

But the efforts paid off. The Scottish music business icon Alan McGee became an early supporter, putting out a greatest hits of sorts called “Your New Favourite Band” in 2001, which brought the Hives wider attention from listeners and U.S. record labels.

Interscope reportedly paid millions to secure the band (the Hives still won’t confirm the amount) and gave them creative control. “They created a buzz on their own, a subculture,” Jimmy Iovine, then the label’s chairman, told Spin for a 2004 cover story. “I respect that. I will pay for that. I will let them drive.”

The group stuck to its formula on “Tyrannosaurus Hives” from 2004 — 12 songs, less than 30 minutes — and stretched out on “The Black and White Album” three years later, which featured production from hitmakers including Pharrell Williams and Jacknife Lee. “We were probably the last rock band to have a big budget,” Almqvist quipped. “We almost owe it to rock ’n’ roll to use it,” he recalled thinking. (They went independent and self-produced “Lex Hives” in 2012.)

The Hives were continually presented with unlikely opportunities, which they wholeheartedly embraced: recording a Christmas song with Cyndi Lauper, licensing “Tick Tick Boom” for a Nike commercial, taking on challenging assignments opening for both Maroon 5 and Pink in arenas across the U.S.

“We have to go and find people who hadn’t heard us before. And you want to be able to turn over a crowd,” Arson said. “It’s a way of keeping your tools sharp.”

But new songs — at least, new songs up to Hives standards — weren’t flowing. When the pandemic hit, the band ruled out remote recording and turned to a fellow Swede: the producer Patrik Berger, whose credits include Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” and hits by Charli XCX. Berger had started out in a punk band called Snuffed by the Yakuza and is “a proper music nerd,” Arson said; the Hives trusted his judgment.

“They played me some demos just to hear like, which of these, like, hundred songs do you think would fit on a record?” Berger said in a phone interview. “My role,” he explained, was “getting them in the room and start having fun with these songs again and not overthink it so much.”

The result is a classic Hives album filled with boasts, powder-keg energy and punk angst. (“They say that life’s for living/But life as we know it’s a stick up,” Almqvist croons on “Stick Up.”) “Countdown to Shutdown” is built on a bouncing bass line by The Johan and Only, who replaced Destruction in 2013. “What Did I Ever Do to You?” originated on a hybrid instrument — an organ, guitar, drum machine and microphone — that Almqvist picked up on Swedish Craigslist for $400, which included the patent.

The album’s title is a nod to some Hives mythology — that they are the creation of a Svengali named Randy Fitzsimmons, who writes all their songs. In truth, the band labors over every track. “They turn every stone,” Berger said, “a little bit like working a Rubik’s cube, trying to figure out how can we make this as good as possible?”

The band’s absence from recording coincided with a drop-off in rock’s cultural and commercial might, a fact that provided Almqvist with an easy layup: “I’m just saying that the Hives don’t release a record for 10 years, rock becomes completely unpopular,” he said. “Coincidence? We think not.”

Onstage at Racket, Almqvist assured everyone that the new songs would soon be their favorites, and presided over the controlled chaos like an exacting but lovable school master.

“Everybody shut up for one second,” he ordered as the crowd clapped slightly offbeat to the breakdown of “Hate to Say I Told You So.” The room went silent. “And now,” he said, “we restart.” The audience laughed, obeyed and joyfully threw themselves in the air.

Content Source: www.nytimes.com

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