The Hives: The Boys Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest

Hives

Twelve years after their first and last great album, the Hives cash out of the major-label casino and return to the sound and DIY roots of Veni Vidi Vicious with the new Lex Hives. But first they had to survive million-dollar lawsuits, severe concussions and nearly career-ending knife wounds. By Jonathan Valania

The NoMad Hotel is one of those swanky boutique hotels that bejewel the tonier provinces of midtown Manhattan. It is here, in this New Gilded Age outpost situated in the fragrant heart of the Perfume District, that the Hives have decamped for a four-day charm offensive on Gotham’s media elite, fresh off a triumphant return to stage-and-screen with a headlining slot at Coachella and a riotous studio-lot performance for Jimmy Kimmel Live. Inside the library lounge, suitably bedecked with gorgeously illuminated two-story dark-wood bookshelves lined with sumptuously appointed leather-bound tomes of unknown vintage, Hives frontman Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist and his brother, guitarist Nicholaus Arson, are holding court. There is nothing particularly punk rock about staying at the NoMad; however, it is very rock ‘n’ roll, and the Hives ceased being a punk band and started being a rock ‘n’ roll band a long time ago.

The room is full of stylish, important-looking people nipping fancy beverages, poking at smartphones. The one confirmed celebrity in the room, in addition to the aforementioned Hives frontman, is rapper Mos Def, who gives Almqvist that barely perceptible tip-of-the-hat nod that the famous trade when they spot each other from across a crowded room. It’s been five years since we last heard from Fagersta, Sweden’s finest. A significant amount of drama has unfolded in that time. “There were some problems that pretty much had nothing to do with anything, but something to do with a lot,” says Arson.

First, the Hives parted ways with Universal Music, walking away from the $10 million recording contract that tethered them to Big Music and ushered these punk-rock refugees from a backwater Swedish mining town into the ranks of the upper crust. All told, this parting of the ways is not necessarily a bad thing—but more on that later.

Secondly, Almqvist suffered a rather severe concussion when he tried climbing up a lighting rig during a show in Switzerland and fell nearly 10 feet onto his head. “I then finish the show limping like a three-legged dog and speaking in tongues,” he wrote on the band’s website. “Turns out I have a concussion and god knows what else. The highly skilled doctors are still trying to find out. X-rays, brain scans and running other tests. I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that, shit, I may even be mortal.”

Before that, he dropped a knife blade on his foot and severed a tendon governing the movement of a big toe that doctors say they have never seen on a homo sapien. “Basically, my big toe is biologically constructed like a thumb,” says Almqvist with a shrug. “Probably means that I’m the last step in the evolutionary chain.”

And then there were the lawsuits, which have punctuated just about every period of the band’s career, starting at the beginning when they told Warner Bros., “Fuck you,” and Warner Bros. said, “No, fuck you,” and sued the Hives for, like, a bazillion dollars. After two years of lawyering up, they wound up settling for considerably less. In 2008, a band called the Roofies sued the Hives, claiming that the latter’s “Tick Tick Boom” sounded too much like their song “Why You?” (It quietly went away.) Then, in spring 2011, fellow Swedes the Cardigans threatened to sue the Hives to recover the remaining half of the $6 million they claim to have loaned the Hives that had not been paid back. (This, too, went away quietly.) Concurrently—and, quite possibly, not coincidentally—the Hives sued their money managers, claiming they had helped themselves to a little too much commission. The Hives won.

On the good-news side, everyone in the Hives not named Howlin’ Pelle—Arson, second guitarist Vigilante Carlstroem, bassist Dr. Matt Destruction and drummer Chris Dangerous—had children. Somewhere along the way, the Hives managed to birth a new album, the skull-crushing, butt-kicking Lex Hives, easily their best since 2000’s Veni Vidi Vicious, the record that launched them into global stardom and conferred upon them their status as the New Saviors Of Rock ‘N’ Roll, a distinction they shared with class-of-2000 alums the White Stripes, Strokes and Vines.

After forays into Devo-esque cyber-punk (2004’s Tyrannosaurus Hives) and hip hop-inflected arena rock (2007’s The Black And White Album), Lex Hives finds the Hives getting back to where they once belonged and doing what they do best: ferocious brick-in-the-face garage-punk-shake-bamalama, bolstered by take-no-prisoners live shows, a boatload of charisma and balls the size of Oklahoma. Situated halfway between the primordial raunch ‘n’ roll of AC/DC and the primeval roar of the Stooges, Lex Hives brings a bazooka to the proverbial knife fight. Light fuse, run away.

“Basically, we wanted to get back to being the Hives again,” says Arson of the band’s decision to dial back the blockbuster chart expectations, not to mention the high-six-figures recording budget that governed the making of The Black And White Album. Without major-label financiers breathing down their neck for new product (Lex Hives is being released on their own Disques Hives imprint), time was on their side, which worked out well given the band’s slow-and-steady-wins-the-race album-making philosophy.

“We make music piece by piece, and it takes us a long time,” says Almqvist. “There’s a lot of talking and very little playing. We don’t jam. You know, basically it’s like Lego. We come up with one little section here, come up with one little section there, try to put them together, they don’t fit, try to put something else with it, and sometimes we come up with such a good 30 first seconds (and) we can’t come up with the other two and a half minutes for a year and a half. But once we’ve done it, we can play that song for 30 years and still like it.”

Although the bulk of the album was recorded in their homeland, at the newly minted state-of-the-art recording studio owned by ABBA’s Benny Andersson, drums and vocals were recorded in Berlin at the storied Hansa Studios, where Bowie recorded Low and “Heroes” as well as the dynamic duo of Iggy Pop’s solo career, Lust For Life and The Idiot.

“There’s a big banquet hall under the studio where they recorded drums (for those albums),” says Almqvist. “It’s an old SS banquet hall. The studio looks the same since the ’70s. All the old stuff is there. There’s a blue strip of tape on everything that Iggy and Bowie used, so that’s what we used, too. ‘Here’s the guitar amp Iggy sang through on “The Passenger.”’ OK, I’ll sing through that. Like, why wouldn’t I?”

***

Back in the early ’90s when the Hives were starting out, before they were even called the Hives, when they were all in their mid-teens and banging out the same riffs for hours on end in their parents’ basements, Almqvist sang through a guitar amp, but it was less a matter of aesthetics than necessity. Music gear was hard to come by in Fagersta, especially for a pack of post-pubescents without two kronor to rub together.

“There was a music store, but we just couldn’t afford anything in it,” says Almqvist. “Punk rock in our town was pretty primitive. There was a band that had the cymbals tied in strings from the roof because they couldn’t afford cymbal stands, so they could only use the cymbals once per song, and then the lead singer would have to duck. We used an old lamp for a cymbal stand. We’d use lids for cymbals. The snare drum had no snares, so we just tuned it really high, threw some screws inside so it would rattle. Whenever somebody would break a string, we’d have to wait until the weekend so somebody’s parents could drive them to the big city and buy strings.”

Fagersta is an industrial town situated two hours north of Stockholm, part of a latitudinal through-line known as the Vodka Meridian that stretches across Russia, Sweden and Scotland and constitutes the Rust Belt of northern Europe. With a doctor father and a teacher mother, the Almqvist boys were the exception to the rule amongst their fellow soon-to-be Hives, whose parents, like most Fagerstanians, worked in the drill-bit factory. Their first taste of demon rock ‘n’ roll was dad’s Chuck Berry and Little Richard records. Their second, when Almqvist was all of six and his brother was seven, came from an older boy down the road who came bearing a cassette dub of AC/DC’s For Those About To Rock.

“It was always somebody’s older brother—that’s how music worked in Fagersta,” says Almqvist. “I think that was the big eureka moment, at least for Nicholaus.”

“He said, ‘This is the coolest band there is,’” says Arson. “And I was like, ‘Yes, of course.’”

A few years later, they would intercept the Misfits and Dead Kennedys albums that were being distributed samizdat-style by youth of Fagersta. “It was always like somebody’s older brother taped something, and you’d hand it down,” says Almqvist. “Big brother to little brother, and little brother’s friends and so forth. That’s how it worked.”

“The record store in town had a punk and hardcore section, but those records were expensive, like $20, which was a lot of money at the time,” says Arson. “But you could get ’50s and ’60s records for five bucks apiece at the bookstore. You could get four for the price of one punk album: Little Richard, Chuck Berry, the Standells, the Sonics and that first Nuggets record. Which is sort of also the reason why we always listened to ’50s and ’60s music: ’cause it was cheap.”

Although hardly a mecca of rock ‘n’ roll, Fagersta did seem to draw just about any touring punk band in search of a secondary concert market after rocking Stockholm, and this too proved inspirational. Arson picked up the guitar, and Almqvist failed upward to frontman status. (“I was the worst at everything else,” he says.)

The rest of the lineup came together shortly thereafter—fleshed out with friends and neighbors—and set about mapping out the middle ground between Little Richard and the Dead Kennedys. They all immediately gave themselves punk-rock stage names: Pelle Almqvist became Howlin’ Pelle, Niklas Almqvist became Nicholaus Arson, Mikael Karlsson became Vigilante Carlstroem, Mattias Bernwall became Dr. Matt Destruction, and Christian Grahn became Chris Danger.

Now all they needed was a name. Danger suggested Hives, not so much in the place-where-bees-live sense, but more in the allergic-reaction-that-causes-alarming-raised-bumps-all-over-your-skin meaning of the word.

“He found it in the dictionary, and it said that it was a disease that you could get from eating lobster or strawberries, or something like that,” says Almqvist. “But the thing is that we thought it was a way more lethal disease, for one, and we thought it was way more contagious. So, we figured that we’d spread like a deadly disease across the land. For a while we just called it Hives before we realized that all good band names were plurals. They all had a ‘the’ at the beginning and an ‘s’ at the end: the Sonics, the Ramones, the Remains. It was basically R&D at this point, trying to figure out what made our favorite bands our favorite bands.”

Part of that R&D was figuring out that all their favorite bands wore matching stage clothes. Fancying themselves “punk rock aristocrats,” they started dressing all in black, save for white ties. Their look would evolve through various sartorially smart permutations of the suit-and-tie/black-and-white color scheme, eventually morphing into their current tux-and-top-hat aesthetic. “It’s sort of like Dracula meets the Residents,” says Almqvist of the band’s current look.

Back at the beginning, the unspoken motto was faster is always better. They took a blood oath to make three perfect punk albums, then quit, because to the best of their knowledge no band ever made more than three good albums.

“So that was our insurance that we would never suck,” says Almqvist. “‘Let’s just make three albums and be done with it.’ But then as time went on, we made our third record and realized that the fourth album of a lot of those bands started to sound good to us. Take the Ramones—now I think their ’80s stuff is better than their ’70s stuff, which I know is blasphemy.”

Burning Heart, Epitaph’s Swedish doppelgänger, liked what it heard and signed the band. In 1998, the Hives released Barely Legal, a buzzsaw blur of hormones, sweat and high voltage.

“I liked that title—I felt ‘barely legal’ at the time,” says Arson, who at the ripe old age of 20 was the elder of the group. It was while touring Barely Legal that their land-speed-record imperative reached critical mass. Although they never thought there would come a day that they would say it out loud, they all quietly agreed that they were actually playing too fast. This would prove to be a career-changing epiphany that would, in its own small way, alter the course of the first decade of the 21st century. Because, mark our words, if the Hives never lightened their foot on the gas pedal and found the sweet spot that was so abundantly on display on their next album, Veni Vidi Vicious, nobody outside of Fagersta would have ever heard of them.

“When we started touring (Barely Legal),” says Arson, “the rule was ‘fast as we can’ because we just figured that you can’t be a lame band if you play as fast as you can, right? So, we started touring that album, and our ‘as fast as we can’ got way too fast. So, then we were at a loss, like, ‘What the fuck do we do now?’ Can you actually be good and play slower than the peak of your abilities? So, that took a lot of R&D before we made the second record.”

This slight dialing back of the tempos would make all the difference in the world. The Hives were now ready for world domination. But first there was a lot of work to do. Literally.

“We would go on tour, come back, find another shitty job, go back on tour, repeat,” says Almqvist. Day jobs held by the Hives included: postman (Almqvist), sixth-grade teacher (Almqvist again), mental-institution orderly (Carlstroem), record-store clerk (Danger), kindergarten teacher (Destruction) and counselor of troubled youth (Arson). But eventually, the touring paid off, the crowds got bigger (as did the paychecks), and being a Hive became a full-time job.

Around this time, Creation Records founder Alan McGee discovered the band on German television, liked what he saw and took the Hives under his wing, offering invaluable advice on how to break big in the U.K.

“He was sort of a psychic when it came to the U.K. music industry,” says Almqvist. “He was like, ‘Yeah, we’ve got you on this TV show—if you do that, you’ll sell 50,000 records by Monday.’ So, we did it, and sure enough, 50,000 records went. ‘Yeah, now we’ve got this new TV show—if you do it, you’ll be at 150,000 by next Friday,’ and he would always be right. It was pretty rad. I guess there’s the thing about the U.K. where they’ve been living on that island for such a long time that they become genetically similar, and therefore they’re easier to pinpoint.”

Almost two years after its release, Veni Vidi Vicious was officially blowing up worldwide.

And so they strapped on their horned helmets, pointed their punk-rock Viking ship with the giant fist on the front toward America and started rowing. Their reputation would precede them. Burning Heart was distributed in the U.S. by Epitaph. Perhaps sensing big things were in the offing, Epitaph sold its rights to Veni Vidi Vicious to Warner Bros. without asking the band. To hear Arson tell it, “They were basically like, ‘We sold you guys to Warners, and it’ll be good. We got loads of money, but we’re not going to give you any. But you can be happy about maybe selling more records.’”

Not so fast, said the Hives.

“Because we were from a punk background, we figured that if we’re going to be on a major label, it’s our decision and not yours,” says Almqvist. “We signed to an indie label, and if you sell us to a major label—one, it should be our decision; two, we should get money. Therefore, since our record contract was up, they didn’t think it was up, but we decided it was up, and we signed to Interscope, basically.”

For a lot of money. Reportedly, their two-record deal was worth $10 million.

There were two reasons for the size of this deal. First, though it’s hard to remember now, back at the turn of the century, the majors suddenly decided that rock was back, baby, and big money was being thrown at the likes of the Strokes, White Stripes and Vines. Secondly, it was personal. According to the band, Interscope chief Jimmy Iovine was having a whose-dick-is-bigger contest with Warner Bros. CEO Tom Whalley, who had worked for Iovine prior to taking that job. Which is why, according to Almqvist, Warner Bros. stopped promoting Veni Vidi Vicious the moment the label learned the Hives had signed to Interscope, despite having sold a half million copies in just 10 weeks. Sales went from a gusher to a trickle. For all intents and purposes, Veni Vidi Vicious, arguably one of the greatest garage-punk albums of all time, was dead in the water. Killed out of spite by corporate hissyfittery/douchebaggery.

And then the label sued the Hives for breach of contract. “There was a lot of numbers thrown around, and there was a lot of new Nirvana, yada yada yada, so they were suing us for basically what Nirvana made when they put out Nevermind,” says Almqvist. “It was unrealistic. They had no case. We didn’t win, but it was settled for a measly little shit sum.”

Returning to Sweden, they decided to fuck with the recipe. “We were listening to a lot of Kraftwerk and Devo,” says Arson. “Basically we wanted to make an album of punk rock as played by robots. For better or for worse, that’s what we did. The record company was like, ‘This is the record that’s going to save rock ‘n’ roll for eternity.’ And we were like, ‘OK, that’s a lot of pressure.’”

When Tyrannosaurus Hives didn’t become a multi-million-selling blockbuster, the blame game commenced. “They just didn’t come up with the songs,” Iovine told the L.A. Times. “They thought people were just responding to the attitude in their shows, and it was never just that. But I’m not giving up. I’ve already spoken to them, and they know what they need to do.”

“That’s not what he told us when we played him the record,” counters Almqvist. “I still think to this day that there’s some really cool stuff on it. We do sound really frantic, and it was a weird time for us because we had just been through that whole lawsuit thing, and we were pretty paranoid and frantic. I can hear it in the record.”

Be that as it may, the Hives were ready to play ball with the music biz: big-name producers, opening-slot arena tours, shaking hands and kissing babies, whatever it would take. For the follow-up, a much more ambitious album was planned.

“We realized that just being the Hives to the 10th power, just basically taking the Hives as far as it could go on the Tyrannosaurus Hives album—tighter, faster, shorter songs and all of that sort of thing—was kind of a dead-end street or crawling up your own ass,” says Almqvist. “It gets really tight in there. So, we decided that whatever we could do to break that path would be good. From the time we put out Tyrannosaurus Hives to when we put out The Black And White Album, industry-wide record sales had probably dropped by a third. By the time we release the next record, it’s going to drop by another third, if not more. So, we decided that maybe this is the last big-budget rock record that anybody makes. We’re also sort of intrigued by rock bands going disco, like ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ by Queen or ‘Miss You’ by the Rolling Stones or “I Was Made For Loving You” by KISS—like these sort of songs that kind of make you cringe a little bit, but you like them if you have three beers.”

Hip-hop producers Timbaland and Pharrell Williams were brought in to work on tracks for the “black” side of the album, but a planned collaboration with Andre 3000, whose “Hey Ya” was reportedly inspired by the Hives, didn’t happen. “He was more into working on his acting career at that point,” says Almqvist. Dennis Herring, who helmed Modest Mouse’s breakout Good News For People Who Love Bad News, was brought in to produce the “white” side of the album. There was some friction between the band members, who were sticklers for being on time, and Herring, who, by his own admission, had a much more casual relationship with the clock. To make matters worse, Herring’s methods for getting top-notch performances out of bands he works with didn’t much jibe with the Hives.

“I think he was trying to play a lot of psychological games, like producer games with us,” says Almqvist. “It maybe could’ve worked if it wasn’t for the fact that we actually talk to each other. Like he would say one thing to one band member, then a different thing to another. He did that maybe because he thought it was going to psychologically trick us into making a great album, which I guess is a lot of producers’ idea of how to make an album. Basically we’d just switch to Swedish, and he’d have no chance. Like, ‘What are you gonna do now?’”

The resulting The Black And White Album wound up costing $700,000 to make. To promote the LP, the band agreed to take a seemingly implausible opening slot on a Maroon 5 tour—implausible only until Almqvist sells it to you.

“We had a great time,” he says. “We wanted to play to a crowd that wouldn’t know what hit them. On the Tyrannosaurus tour, we were just playing to our own fans; basically, we felt like we walked up onstage and had already won every night. It started to become sort of a problem for us, who were used to being the underdog or feeling like we had to fight for something. A lot of the Maroon 5 crowd was 15-year-old girls and their moms, and convincing them to like badass rock ‘n’ roll seemed like a really great challenge to us, and it was also really exciting because basically they were startled in the first few songs, and then at the end they were really getting into it, which was really cool. We love rock ‘n’ roll so much that we want to give it to everybody.”

Still, even if Maroon 5’s babysitter fanbase was won over, it didn’t necessarily translate into album sales. Black And White barely broke the 500,000 mark, impressive for indie punk, but a non-starter by major-label standards. Almqvist says, possibly with some exaggeration, that Interscope gave up on the record when it didn’t blow up after two weeks. To counter the label’s lack of promotion, the Hives said yes to something they had always refused to do: allow their music to be used in commercials.

“We had turned down tens of millions of dollars in advertising money,” says Almqvist. “But our manager convinced us that was the only thing we could do in order to keep our record afloat, and it worked really well.”

Good for the Hives, perhaps, who made damn fine money touring the album globally for two years, but not so good for Interscope, which elected not to exercise its option for a third album. The Hives were back where they started, albeit with a large global fanbase: older, wiser, a little broker but somehow even cockier. On the road is where they make their bones, and albums are less a cash cow than a raison d’tour. Rock the planet and get paid handsomely for doing it.

“We love it, and we are fortunate enough to be almost the same level all over the world,” says Arson. “We can go to Australia and play, we can go to Chile and play, we can go to North America and Canada and all of Europe.”

“Last record we went to South America for the first time, and that’s amazing,” says Almqvist. “They’re waiting for us by the hundreds at airports, and there’s thousands of kids at the shows.”

“The only problem is we can’t do it all at the fucking same time,” says Arson. “I mean, it’s a nice problem to have.”

Arson waves away the suggestion that they borrow a page from Coachella and send hologram Hives around the world: “I still don’t know what I think of hologram Tupac.”

Of course not, nobody does. Now, the machines? They know exactly what they think of it: The beginning is near.

***

Later in the evening, the Hives play a “secret show” for press, music-biz types and super fans at the tiny, 500-person capacity Webster Hall Studio. Message: The Hives are back in business—the business, that is, of kicking motherfucking ass. The place is sweaty and packed to the gills, and there is palpable excitement in the room as the Hives take the stage in their top hats and tails and proceed to rip New York City a new one. All wink-and-nudge bluster and faux-egotism, the Hives may not be an arena-rock band, but they sure play one onstage.

“This stage is not big enough for my ego,” says Almqvist, gesturing to the postage-stamp-sized floor before doffing his top hat and jumping into the crowd as one of the greatest live bands on the planet kicks off a sweaty, hour-long set. Almqvist demands that the audience give as good as it gets. “Silence is not on the guest list,” he deadpans, and judging from the high-decibel cheers and applause that punctuates the end of every song, silence didn’t buy tickets, either.