As the shimmying, strutting frontman for the Hives, Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist has carried on in the tradition of great rock ‘n’ roll performers like Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop—and has arguably looked better doing it. With a preacher’s intensity and a hustler’s arrogance, Almqvist has been the focal point of his band since they started out as 14-year-olds in the small town of Fagersta, Sweden. Since then, the group’s released a quartet of albums, steadily increasing their audience until 2004’s Tyrannosaurus Hives charted on both sides of the Atlantic.
Almost disappointingly polite and reserved in person (a bold contrast to the supercharged energy he gives off on stage), but still dressed all in black and white, Almqvist spoke with PopMatters in advance of the upcoming DVD release of Tussles in Brussels a new concert film and documentary which, as always, sheds no light on the mysterious Randy Fitzsimmons, the supposed svengali behind this band of two-toned Swedes.
PopMatters: It wasn’t that long ago that you were playing in a garage in a small town in Sweden and now you’re sitting in a corner office high above Manhattan, promoting a DVD and talking to journalists. How weird does it seem?
Pelle Almqvist: Being in the band, it’s always more gradual than people watching it from up above. For us it’s been small steps. We play to 100 people a night, 200 people a night, 800 people a night. It would double every six months or a year. That’s what we notice more than magazine coverage or anything like that. But it is very weird because the success part has always been secondary.
PM: What’s been primary?
PA: The music and what record we’re making at the time.
PM: But it’s clear you’re thinking about other things. With the band’s presentation and the, I don’t know if you’d call it irony—
PA: It’s sarcastic.
PM: Do you wonder if those other non-musical things might be getting in the way of the music.
PA: I don’t think it does. It never really did for me. It’s just something you can add to it. To say that pop music is just music is wrong. It really is that simple. I mean Isaac Hayes (pointing to an old Isaac Hayes promotional poster hanging on the wall of the office), he’s bare-chested, he’s surrounded by girls, do you think people only listen to his music because it’s good music? And that’s the way it’s been for all time.
And the sarcastic part is that we’re too aware of what a bizarre situation we’re in, standing around screaming in front of 2000 people. It’s so bizarre that sometimes you just have to mention how bizarre it is. It would be weirder for me to just play and stop playing and then start a new song without addressing the fact it’s this strange situation.
PM: But a lot of bands act like it’s not that weird, or pretend that it’s not weird.
PA: Yeah, exactly. Obviously the crowd is here looking at me. Not acknowledging the situation is almost more obnoxious than what I do.
PM: You all wear matching clothes, your own stage presence and banter is kind of old-fashioned in a sense, and even your music has an older sensibility. Why are you attracted to that?
PA: Yeah, I like a lot of old stuff. If you really like music for the sake of liking music—I can’t see how you can be a music fan and only like current music. Obviously, what’s happening now can’t top the fifty years coming before that.
PM: Why is that obvious?
PA: It’s one year compared to fifty years. There’s more stuff to choose from if you listen to older music, too. I’m just way too interested in music to only listen to stuff that’s coming out this year.
PM: You’re obviously attracted to an older sense of style as well.
PA: We’re just attracted to classic style. We want to have staying power and be interesting ten years from now.
PM: You know, on-stage you come across so larger than life and brash; now you seem like a pretty normal guy.
PA: I try to keep it down during the day.
PM: Is it hard to stop being “Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist”?
PA: It almost seems like the rest of the day I’m keeping it down more than trying to turn it on. I feel like the 23 hours of the day that I’m not on stage are when I’m pretending. If I were to be like that all the time it would never work socially. I’ve always had way too much energy. I was a hyperactive kid.
PM: Well, what’s hyperactive to a Swede might be different than what’s hyperactive to an American.
PA: Maybe. Swedish people don’t have nothin’ going on.
PM: I know about that. I’m Canadian.
PA: Yeah, there are similarities.
PM: Do you think the DVD captures the energy?
PA: I think it came out really well. I’m actually going to watch it in a movie theater when I go back to Sweden. It’ll be the closest I’ll get to seeing us live. I’ll be able to tell if we’re any good or not. We were very wary of doing it because most DVDs I’ve seen are bad and don’t really capture what it’s like to be at a concert. So that’s why we decided to have the concert in a small club and even have people with cameras in the crowd.
PM: Did having the concert filmed change the performance?
PA: I was aware of the cameras for the first four or five songs and then I forgot about them, but it was weird in the beginning. But nowadays most shows you do are being filmed by someone, so you kind of get used to it.
PM: Are you working on new stuff?
PA: Yeah, we just got back from a tour, so we’re starting to work on new stuff.
PM: Has it taken any direction yet?
PA: It depends on what ideas make the final album. It could be a very pop album or it could be a very punk album. At this point we have all kinds of ideas laying around.
PM: Have you ever had hives?
PA: My brother did.
PA: They’re gross. It’s a weird name for a band.
PM: It was just that when we were 14, we found it in a dictionary and it said it’s a rash you get, a disease you get from eating strawberries or whatever and we thought it was a lot more dangerous than it was. We also thought it was contagious.
PM: It’s a nerdy rash.
PA: It is. But we didn’t know that at the time.
PM: Do you care that guitar-led music isn’t actually that popular anymore? It’s certainly far from being the most popular.
PA: This is what we do and this is what we want to do. We never sat down and had a marketing meeting about what will be popular. Hip-hop sells the most, but after one year most hip-hop albums are completely dead and no one buys them anymore. But a rock record, if it’s a good record, can last ten or 20 years.
PM: There are classic hip-hop albums.
PA: Yeah, like N.W.A or Public Enemy, but other than that it has yet to be proven. It’s still young. But so much hip-hop is about making a quick buck. If that’s what you’re after, it will be quick. That’s never how we thought about our music. We thought about it as something that we would do and then when we were done doing it we would get real jobs and ten years people might find our records and like them—which is what happened with a lot of bands we like. But as far as maintaining a dominant position, we’re not concerned with that. We just want to make good music and we’re not interested in compromise. We do well enough that we make a really good living at it. What else do you want, really?