Pages of history will be left mostly unrecorded here. The quick version is that Hell on Wheels once recorded for my label. As no one got rich or famous, it was mostly a fruitless business relationship. It did, however, spawn a fun personal relationship that began over emails, peaked with my long visit to Scandinavia, and dissolved when Hell on Wheels recorded its next album for another record label. However, when the band discovered it'd be playing its first shows in the US, they contacted me to see if I might be close to any of their three tour dates: New York City, Austin, and Los Angeles. A US tour consisting of only three cities?
Well, its not so much a tour as a showcase sponsored by Export Music Sweden and the Consulates General of Sweden in New York and Los Angeles. The goal is (quite simply, honestly, and transparently) to help Swedish bands become successful in the States, whereupon they can make lots of money, and return it to Swedish tax coffers. While the chosen bands were to play three shows in the US, they were also required to listen to countless pitches from within the US music industry, as well as attending pointless "meet and greets" with minor politicians. Each night after the bands played, they'd be rounded up, tossed on busses, brought to the airport, and flown off to the next locale. No, this wasn't really a tour; it was, however, the first US dates for the majority of the bands invited along for the showcase. It was also the first visit to the States for many of the band members.
I took an early bus down from Boston to meet Hell on Wheels before the show. Although the previous day had been clear and unseasonably warm, when I arrived, it was snowing, grey, and miserable only fitting for a Swedish music showcase. I met up with the band and we had time for a quick "meal" at an East Village diner before hurrying back to CBGBs for a 4:30 soundcheck. The odd blending of personalities and attitudes would first become evident here. Without going into too much detail, the club was filled with music industry weasels and support personnel with conflicting loyalties. We can divide these folks into three groups. The first consisting of important people such as domestic and foreign politicians, US label executives, and Swedish label and press personnel. The second group consisted of cocksure technical folks including those provided by the club, those traveling as part of the showcase, and others sprinkled through the bands -- each were sure they knew what sounded best. Lastly, there were the anxious wranglers, club managers, and band members. The tension made for an unholy brew one I was happy to escape when Hell on Wheels' soundcheck was over.
Back at the hotel, the band prepared for the show. Everyone pulled out his or her pressed stage clothes, but while Asa did her makeup and Johan showered, Rickard slept on the couch, allowing Law & Order to play on without notice. The previous night had been an eventful one, rumoured to have been defined by large quantities of alcohol, stimulant narcotics, and at least one bar fight involving Hardcore Superstar and members of the traveling press. If Rickard felt the way he looked, then sleep was probably the only thing staving off death. However, the first band was to go on at 8, with doors at 7, leaving him little time to rest. An hour later when Rickard refused to be roused, he was pratically carried out the door unshaven face, limp greasy hair and all.
Johan seemed surprised that the club had no DJ and quickly inserted himself into the position. While the local soundman wasn't quite accommodating, he eventually left his stool and allowed Johan to get me up to speed with the current state of Swedish music, or rather updated me on the Swedish music I became aware of in my scouting trip some years back. Everyone has a new band, or every band has a new sound. Things change quickly in Sweden, and it seems chasing a trend doesnt have quite the same stigma it does here in the US. If a band doesn't find an audience for its intimate acoustic offering, its next album is likely to be electro-pop, or even a dirty rock send up.
At 8pm the club was still largely bare, so the powers that be decided to hold the show off for another half hour. In that extra time, I learned about the latest projects from Honey is Cool's Karin Dreijer, and Candysucks' Marit Bergman. Everyone in Swedan has a latest project. Even Johan has a latest project, and he played it for me. Its called The Janitors and is a dense and noisy rock adventure influenced heavily by The Jesus and Mary Chain. Just as I began to feel a bit guilty about not having a latest project of my own, Johan was told to cut the sound so Kristofer Astrom could take the stage.
Kristofer Astrom opened up the evening not because he was the least known of the five bands, but rather due to the organizers' hope to maintain flow. As the evening went on, bands got progressively louder, not progressively more popular. In fact, out of all the bands in the evening's showcase, Astrom is the only artist with substantial US name recognition. Not only have his solo recordings earned homes on countless mix tapes traded about by the sadcore and no depression fanatics, his work as guitarist/vocalist for post-hardcore rockers Fireside has been released on US labels like Crank!, American, & V2. A typical bill would have Astrom deservedly headlining
Astrom began his set to a filling room. Those already in attendance were noticeably older than the typical weeknight concertgoer, and each seemed to have a small digital camera or picture phone they put to use while sitting at the small tables near the club's stage. Where these countless captured memories end up is anyone's guess. However, the motivating factors that brought this audience to CBGB's became completely transparent between songs. In between polite clapping, the attendees would quietly, and under their breath, speak to each other in Swedish. Although I hadn't paid mind to that fact before, it soon struck me that this wasn't a rock show with Swedish bands, but a Swedish show with rock bands.
Although the majority of the audience seemed unfamiliar with Astrom's emotive alt-country, the audience did contain a few fans who clapped and whooped when each song became recognizable. With the candles on the tables, the older attendees, the acoustic performance, and now the applauding audience, it was as if I had been secretly placed on the set of VH1 Storytellers, or, at minimum, MTV unplugged. This, however, was a good setting for the directness of Astrom's material. His fingerpicking is interesting and requires the attention that a larger venue just wouldn't be able to provide. Furthermore, his tales of love lost would seem out of place in a hall of cheering rowdy fans.
Astrom's voice is strong, yet contains a charming vulnerability. In many ways his voice resembles Texas native Richard Buckner more than any Swedish act. In fact, Astrom has a similar drawl when he sings, and his high notes come from the back of his throat, nearly swallowed, in much the same way Buckner's do. How does a singer/songwriter from Sweden come to resemble one from Texas so closely? I suppose that's something the Swedes would have to explain everyone has to learn their English from somewhere, and while the schools can teach the mechanics, it's popular culture that provides the semantics for expression.
After Astrom finished his half hour set with the brilliantly lonesome "One Last Drink" from his 2003 ep Dead End, he walked off the stage with his guitar in hand. The audience applauded, Johan returned to his DJ duties, and I left my post near the stage pushing my way through the unrelenting audience to Asa, in hopes of getting a refresher course in Swedish for Travelers. Afterwards I was able to make my way back through the crowd with constant utterances of "ursäkta mig."
If Krisofer Astrom is the evening's most renowned artist on this junket, Stockholm's Holden may be the least. This new quintet is fronted by vocalist Jenny Ohlund a name that is unknown to Americans, but evidentially carries considerable baggage to Swedes. From what I was able to gather from broken conversations with the other bands, she seems to have a disreputable pop pastcrooning for the cruise ship set or some suchas well as being named the sexiest woman in Sweden by a popular magazine. As such, many Swedes see her interest in legitimate music as suspect. While I can certainly appreciate that skepticism, the reality is that Holden doesn't seem to have designs on street credibility at least not as it is defined in the US and as such, the blonde, bubbly Ohlund can only be an asset to the band stateside.
To place the focus where it is due, Jenny Ohlund is the face of Holden. She bounded out onto the stage wearing pointy, white ankle boots, a sheer, ruffled skirt (revealing a tighter, shorter, white skirt underneath), and a black chemise, covered by a dark, textured, waist-length jacket which was soon discarded. The resemblance to a Virgin-era Madonna was uncanny. This is, however, not how Ohlund looked earlier in the day. Like every band member playing on this night (with the possible exception of Astrom), Ohlund had changed into this "haphazard" costume right before the show. Her bass player, Martin Eneroth, one-upped her however, taking the stage in a slinky, sleeveless evening gown and above-the-elbow gloves. For better or worse, his red eye shadow was more noticeable than his playing. This band seemed to be looking for a gimmick.
After all of this I began to suspect the band myself. Furthermore the nervous Ohlund was going way over the top to entertain the audience, or, more obviously, to impress the label scouts present. Between all that cloying, and the constant toying with the microphone stand, it was a battle to focus on the music at all. I wondered if maybe there was something she didn't want me to hear. When she picked up the guitar to (barely) play power chords, I could only think that she was searching for credibility.
If Ohlund was overbearing, the rest of the band seemed more seasoned. While there wasn't anything spectacular about their stage show, the visible members (keyboardist Anders Ehlin was hidden behind rented Marshall half stacks) seemed engaged, a bit more relaxed, and interested in both audience and performance.
As one might expect, musically Holden is dominated by Ohlund's girlish and coy voice. It oozes with practiced sexuality, but when pushed, can be strong and pleasant. Her light vocals sit well on the band's pop/rock base of catchy songs, defined by driving guitars and swelling synths. While the band has an obvious 80s retro bend to their music, it isn't represented in new wave quirk, but rather the neutered songcraft that keeps the songs from speeding into punk abandon. To put them in context, think of them as building from the template set forth by The Outfield, The Hooters or similar 80s pop/rock artists. It's entirely enjoyable, if a bit too bubblegum for my tastes.
If Holden hinted at an affair with synth-pop, the evening's next band, Kamera, was up front with their synthesizer obsessions. There are easy comparisons to be made, so let's not mince words. Kamera could be a boy-band version of The Faint, or any 1983 offering from Depeche Mode, Ministry or The Human League. The latter is particularly telling not only musically, but in regards to the band's stage show as well. As with Holden, the members of Kamera eschewed their street clothes before their performance began, and changed into their dapper stage uniforms. While both audience and band were spared the tightly tailored mod suits of the band's glossy promotional photos, there were still gallons of eye shadow and mascara present on stage. Leading the charge, was singer Joakim Hjelm who was dolled-up to resemble Philip Oakey, Gary Numan, or, alternately, and due in large part to his leather jacket, Lou Reed as seen on the cover of Transformer. To add further insult, Hjelm would frequently prance about the stage as his way of engaging the audience.
While the American underground is experiencing a bit of a synth-pop resurgence in the form of electro-clash, Kamera is simply not muscular enough for that bandwagon. Not only are songs simple verse/chorus affairs, their approach is positively too mainstream. Case in point: Hjelm uttered the horrid phrase "How are you doing New York?" The androgynous uniform may be right for electro-clash, but the attitude just isn't there. As such, the chance of them fitting into the US market seems thin. Let's hope for their sake that Europe is going through an 80s synth-pop revival.
For those still willing to admit their love for the genre, Kamera's offering is a bit hit or miss. The lyrics are simplistic and superficial, making current chart offerings from Brittany Spears seem soulful and deep. I'm relatively sure I counted 232 songs in the band's set that dealt with the urgency and danger of young love. Luckily for all, insightful lyrics were never a prerequisite for success in the genre; it's always been about the hooks and catchy melodies. In this department, Kamera is sound, just not terribly original. And while these skills are guaranteed to keep audiences dancing in the Stockholm discos, I'm afraid that off the dance floor the band's songs are just too studied to earn any real kudos. Sure, my toes tapped, and in the right setting I'm sure my ass would have shaken as well, but CBGB's was not that setting. While Kristofer Astrom's solitary guitar benefited from the intimate setting, the (charmingly) dank wooden interior of a historic punk club was entirely the wrong venue for Kamera. In a club filled with a thousand dancing bodies and pulsating lights, Kamera will shine, but if I want synth-pop in my headphones, I'll reach for Dare!, The Pleasure Principle, or Speak and Spell.
Following Kamera was MNW labelmate Hell on Wheels. And while Kamera is excellent at aping its influences, Hell on Wheels is much more subtle about its allegiances. Although comparisons to quirky indierock stalwarts such as Pavement, Superchunk, and The Pixies seem to come freely, placing any one song firmly in the repertoire of any other single band is impossible.
The band is led by vocalist/guitarist Rickard Lindgren who immediately distinguished himself from the previous bands by engaging the audience. He was conversational (even a bit rambling) and comfortable something the other bands had steered away from. In Hell on Wheels' ten-year history the band has found considerable success (at least in Europe), and, as such, there seemed to be less pressure on the band to impress the executives in attendance or, at least, the band made it seem that way.
While these extra years allowed for a certain degree of confidence, they exacted their price upon Lindgren. The previous night of hard drinking had taken a visible toll on him, and under the bright lights, as the sweat dripped off his stringy hair and down his scruffy face, he looky pale, even sickly. Although Lindgren and the rest of Hell on Wheels had changed into stage clothes, their costumes consisted only of black long-sleeved dress shirts not exactly flashyand that seemed to be the point. Hell on Wheels doesn't have a gimmick, a slant, or even an agenda. They're an indie rock band much like the American counterparts they've been compared to.
The band's setlist was considerably skewed towards their newest material, playing seven of the nine songs from their recent album Oh My God What Have I Done. While the album is a bit of a stylistic push into the recent rock-revival craze, live, the songs were pleasantly more focused on quirk and less on the big rock sound which colours the studio versions. The band also tossed in oldies "Having One's Luggage Labeled," and "The Soda" a song that Lindgren referred to as one of the best songs ever written. While I'm unsure if I was the only one singing along to the snappy nonsensical refrain, it didn't so much matter. Somehow that unabashed abandon with which the band plays, permeates its audiences, allowing them to bounce and sing along as if they were alone in their car or crooning in the shower. There is just no pretense in the band's music.
Although Lindgren's distinct vocals and ringing guitar do much to provide the songs' edge, the band's music is anchored by the tight drumming of Johan Risberg and accented by the bounding bass lines of Asa Sohlgren. Sohlgren also provides backing vocals that sit in tight harmony with Lindgren's. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever heard two vocals work so well together in a live setting. There was nothing tentative about the performance; the band simply nailed it. Leaving the stage, Risberg held a bleeding finger, smiled at me knowingly, and asked, "What did you think?" Now he knows.
Over the course of the night there was considerable audience turn over. The early crowd began sloughing off before 10pm to be replaced by a hipper set that was just arriving. While the crowd had reached it's apex for Hell on Wheels, an audience of over a hundred remained after midnight in anticipation of Hardcore Superstar's set. Between bands, I sat down on a bench where I was quickly accosted by a young Japanese grrl who asked what band was next. When I told her Hardcore Superstar, she lit up, clutched her readied camera and looked about the club to see if there was a chair open in closer proximity to the stage. I watched her for the next minute or so beaming, shaking, ready to wet herself. What was in store for me?
That question came with an obvious answer once I got a glimpse of the band. Every member had black hair, arms covered with varying amounts of tattoo work (guitarist "Silver Silver" winning the prize with two full sleeves), worn, rolled jeans, Doc Martin-style boots, and enough eye makeup to rival Kamera. Vocalist Jocke Berg is small and attractive in a way that Taime Downe, Bret Michaels, and Jani Lane only dreamt about. Despite his good looks, ridiculously low-cut jeans (low enough to reveal that Mr. Berg has had a recent wax job), wrist bangles and tight cut-off t-shirt, one gets the feeling that Berg is still a real scrapper. Like Traci Guns, Silver Silver seems to exist in both the sleazy world of Johnny Thunders punk rock, and in the sleazy realm of Nikki Sixx's theatrical metal. But unlike Guns, Silver looks like he's been through the ringer. The missing tooth in his grin is a not-so-subtle hint that he might just be dangerous. During the set he discovered his microphone wasn't working, and the growl he sent to the soundman was beyond chilling. Behind the pentagram-emblazed drum kit sat the lanky Tommy Lee-esque drummer Magnus Andreasson. Although large and rather menacing, his almost dopey smile was somewhat reassuring. Rounding out the line-up was Martin Sandvik a beefy man so dolled up and yet so ugly that he rivals Turbonegro's "Happy Tom." What was in store for me? Well, since the night began with the quiet, intimate music of Kristofer Astrom, I estimated that Hardcore Superstar would take the night to a loud, sleazy conclusion. CBGB's has undoubtedly seen it all, and, short of the Whiskey on LA's Sunset Strip, I couldn't imagine a better venue to showcase the American debut of this band.
From the moment the band walked onto the stage, the five-band Swedish music showcase was transformed into a Hardcore Superstar concert with a long list of support acts. The band's constant touring throughout Europe and beyond has given it a professional edge, and provided the band with a knack for crowd interaction. Although Hell on Wheels also has a bankable history on large stages, it was a long list of little things that set Hardcore Superstar's performance above all others. Specifically, Berg made it a point to thank the other bands for playingsomething entirely customary in the US, but completely skipped by the other acts. Was this a culture difference? Furthermore, while none of the performers struggled with the language (and all sang in English of course), Berg's use of American slang was spot on, and despite my perked ears, I heard no trace of an accent. The combination of universal showmanship, and these small Americanisms, cemented the illusion that Hardcore Superstar was simply headlining another show at CBGB's.
Of course the real key to the performance was the band's music. Easy comparisons can be made to Doctor Feelgood-era Motley Crue, as well as each of the aforementioned depraved rockers. Songs are fun, somewhat ridiculous, and entirely upbeat. Everything about the band has a familiar camp aspect, including Berg's screams that bear an uncanny resemblance to Sebastian Bach's. Although firmly rooted on the pop side of metal, Silver's Gibson SG played through a Marshall 900 couldn't help but occasionally bring forth a bit of Angus Young's AC/DC. That, however, was a bit of a red herring; Hardcore Superstar is largely by-the-numbers hair metal, with hints of both the glam and the punk that combined to create the genre's blueprint. I'm unsure if there is a market for this sort of revival, but with The Darkness selling out shows throughout the US, one can't help but wonder if we're on the cusp of the metal resurgence that Lita Ford has been praying for.
After the show ended, fans and bands sat "backstage" downing the remainder of the bands comped beer. The Japanese girl got her picture taken with the members of Hardcore Superstar, and she even got an autograph or two. Despite calls from the employees of the club for everyone to leave, at 1am the bands seemed to be just starting their festivities. Eventually the beer was consumed, and everything was packed up, allowing most of the bands to proceed to St. Mark's, where they were told they'd find an after-hours bar. The bands were required to be checked out of their hotel rooms and on a chartered bus by 6:30 the next morning. At 2:30am, drunken wisdom told many of the bands they'd be best just to keep drinking until 5:00 and simply sleep on the bus and airplane. Thankfully, Hell on Wheels was still weary from the previous night out, and I was able to join them in their hotel room for a few hours of required sleep before getting up early to bus back to Boston.