A Week With The Foremost Soldiers Of Rock n’ Roll
Liquor and Poker
by Todd K Smith
Four years is a long time for any band to be away from their fan base - especially in fickle ‘ol USA. Only a select few can pull that off and get away with it. Heavy hitters with lots of radio play like Boston and Def Leppard come to mind, but without a constant “airwave” reminder, a band can be doomed. Recently several Scandinavian bands have experienced quite different results. The resurgence of Turbonegro and Backyard Babies, after what many considered a permanent hiatus, has taken many by surprise. Add that to the rising popularity among the street-wise punkster crowd of Gluecifer, Millencolin and The Flaming Sideburns, and you’ve got a nasty little nest of rock and roll hornets.
With the Hellacopters, it’s complicated. Formed in 1996 as a side project for drummer Nicke Andersson of Swedish death metal act Entombed and guitarist Dregen of Scandinavian rockers the Backyard Babies, the band had a surprise hit in Super Shitty To The Max (1998) their first LP out of the box. Granted it was rough and tumble, somewhere between Motorhead meets the Stooges full on distortion, frantic and hell-bent to change the face of rock ‘n’ roll. It did, and won a Swedish Grammy for best new rock record of the year. The band flew to America and met with major record labels from Geffen to BMG. The US was hurting for decent rock and threw the band free meals, hotel upgrades and loads of chicks. The “Copters decided to signed with SubPop, a small independent label with a big reputation out of Olympia, Washington. That pissed the majors off.
At the time the band consisted of Andersson (vocal, guitar), also know as Nick Royale, Dregen (guitar), Robert Eriksson (drums) Kenny Hokansson (bass) and Bobby Lee “Boba” Pett (electric organ and grand piano). Two amazing slabs of vinyl came of the band’s association with SubPop; Grande Rock (1998) and Payin’ The Dues (1999). Many regard these two records alone as putting the band on the road to immortality. With a tighter production and a maturing songwriting style developing between Andresson and Dregen, the band forged their own formula of straight-up North American rock in the vein of Grand Funk Railroad and Bachman-Turner Overdrive with the Detroit one-two-punch of Stooges meets MC5. They also got a say in how their music got packaged. BIG fans of vinyl, the Hellacopters released their singles as 45’s and countered each CD release with a vinyl gatefold.
After a triple US package tour with Wayne Kramer and The Supersuckers, co-founder Dregen left to concentrate more fully on his writing with the Backyard Babies. Robert “Strings” Dahlqvist, of the Faces-styled Diamond Dogs stepped in just in time for the Hellacopters Gearhead/Universal debut High Visibility (2002). Dahlqvist’s long golden hair and tall lanky look had “rock star” written all over it. Together with Andersson they settled on a searing twin guitar ala Thin Lizzy presentation, which bolstered not only their musical efforts but their image. Videos for songs “Toys And Flavors” and “Hopeless Case Of A Kid In Denial” saw the band perfectly situated for late night TV. They had the whole package, the hip clothes, hooky songs with memorable licks and all the right poses.
2002 saw another North American tour, this time with DC cult-rockers Adam West and the Gaza Strippers, showcasing the full power of the Hellacopters as they preached their brand of high-energy rock to mid-sized clubs. The three-week tour was documented by filmmaker Jim Heneghan and released as a DVD titled Goodnight Cleveland. The “Spinal Tap-like” rockumentry followed the band from town to town for a first hand look at the rigors of the road. Though the band fully supported the film, it’s single camera angles, shaky pans and poor sound quality didn’t do much to elevate the band’s potential. Yet, they returned home to Stockholm eager to work on the next platter.
Andersson’s voice was becoming more and more palatable for what was now a well-oiled machine. A hybrid of Robert Younger (Radio Birdman) meets Robin Zander (Cheap Trick) with passionate Steve Marriott-like howls became his signature delivery. His guitar playing also found it’s voice landing somewhere between Hendrix, Wayne Kramer and Ace Frehley. When he was off the road, Andersson was spinning records at a weekend dance club allowing him to play his favorite albums ‘till all hours of the morning. An avid fan of soul and R&B, he was soon bringing those elements into his songwriting. By The Grace Of God (2002) heard the results in the title track, “Down On Free Street” and “Rainy Days Revisited.”
Sadly, due to contract issues, the record didn’t see a US release for another eighteen months - and no US tour. But that didn’t stop the Hellacopters from playing sold-out shows in Australia and Europe including opening for The Rolling Stones. Unphased by their inability to crack the States, the band forged ahead finally signing a North American distribution deal with Century Media imprint Liquor and Poker. It seemed the band might have another shot at the US after a two-year hiatus. Then a jolt can. Suddenly fans were alarmed by what appeared to be a complete dismantling of the band’s website. A static page stating, “Rock and Roll is Dead” was all that remained. With no other information, other band websites like Gluecifer, Datsuns and Turbonegro were inundated with inquires about the Hellacopters current status.
I joined the Hellacopters three dates into their current US tour. Their first in four years. They are traveling with label mates Nebula and joined by New Yorkers Bad Wizard and New Zealand band the Datsuns. My first question, as I set on the couch with Nick Andersson, was in regard to the band’s website. “We were recording our new album and at the same time decided to change the website,” says Andersson. “There was no real thought process. We had to fix the website - which took some time and wanted to be involved in the layout and design. We had the title for the record in mind so we thought we’d put it on there. We didn’t mean to scare anyone or have them think the band broke up. But I must admit we did find all the commotion a bit funny.”
The band decided to call the record “Rock and Roll is Dead” after a Rubinoos song off that band’s 1977 debut. “I like the song and it makes a statement,” continues Andersson. “I’m not trying to be political, but today’s rock is dead compared to how exciting it was in the Seventies.” Though a cover of the song is not found on the new Hellacopter disc, they do add it to their live set, the first song of the encore, with Andersson introducing it as “three classic chords.” Determined to bring back the edge in rock, the Swedes crafted 13 tracks that follow the lines of their heroes catchy, powerful and full of swagger. Among those are two singles “Everything Is On T.V.” and “I’m In The Band” that followed the European release of the record last fall and are featured prominently in the live set.
Chaos set in early for the Hellacopters this time around. After clearing customs, the band were told all their equipment was held up in Germany and wouldn’t show until their Baltimore or New York gig. Several people came to their assistance including Randy Gregg, American bassist for the recent incarnation of Thin Lizzy. Playing on borrowed gear and Nebula’s backline made for a challenging 75-minute set. Yet the advantage of playing with Nebula paid dividends. Consummate professionals, the California trio set the stage with their tuned down stoner riffs. Just the mood setter in Philadelphia. So when the Hellacopters took the stage, a hysterical frenzy greeted each song. The packed the Khyber Pass seemed undeterred by Andersson’s numerous tuning breaks and with rabid passion cheered the evening’s headliners on in a sweat-soaked chorus.
“I’ve been listening to soul and R&B for a long time,” Andersson admitted after the show. “I write songs and I don’t really think about it too much. That’s really the only way to do it. Maybe I hear a new chord something like that. Like the Chuck Berry “Sweet Little Sixteen” rip off which introduces ‘Before The Fall’.” The guitarist/vocalist is candid about his passion for rock and roll. He loves, Kiss, The Stooges and The Rolling Stones. “We did two shows with The Stones in Europe,” says Andersson. “We opened for them in Finland with ZZ Top. That was a huge arena. But, the coolest show was the Stockholm show ‘cause that was a tiny club for them like 1,500 people. To see The Stones in a small place like that was unbelievable.”
The gear never showed for Baltimore. The crowd was more subdued, the band more pissed off. Andersson and Dahlqvist locked horns, time and again raising their guitars to the ceiling in perfect unison - literally wailing their way through the set. Drummer Robert Eriksson beat himself past exhaustion slumping over his kit as the spotlight lit the “Grace Of God” logo on his bass drum. Thunderbird over the shoulder, bassist Kenny Hokansson stood on the edge of the stage, his hands in a prayerful a-frame, bowing to the audience. “It could be 20 more years or it could be over in a month,” said Andersson as we walked to the bus. “Who knows how long we’ll last. A live record would be great, maybe even a classic double vinyl gatefold.” His voice trails off as he thinks about it. Sure, were ready for another “Alive II” or “Live in Budokan.” Leave it to the Hellacopters to bring back the medium.
New York was sold out. The Datsuns followed Nebula playing their distinct brand of AC/DC-styled rock. Singer/bassist Dolf De Datsun looks like a young Pete Way with his low-slung bass and jet-black hair. Their rising star is guitarist Phil Datsun who, through small in stature (his guitar almost dwarfs him) plays some of the hottest licks conceived. There was a longer than usual set change and once the stage lights fell on Andersson’s brimmed hat I knew he was not a happy camper. Still playing his rented guitar, he thrashed through “Action” stopping after every song to re-tune his guitar. Typical of a New York crowd, they shouted for him to leave it alone and get on with the show. Only the sweat on his face cooled him down. “I know what I like to listen to and that’s how I write music,” Andersson told me later on. “You play what you want to hear. I think, I hope, I might be listening to us if I weren’t in the band.”
Boston was perfect. Went off without a hitch. The gear finally showing up, it was an early show and the Hellacopters proved they are probably the hottest band on the planet. Smiles replaced the week’s pensive expressions. They looked fresh, vibrant and ready. True to form, they destroyed the place with a set so perfect, so in tune and so ballsy that even I, after seeing them four times in a row, raised my glass. The Swedes were happy so it was right that they spend the night celebrating. I didn’t catch them again until two weeks later in San Francisco. The ever-jovial Robert Eriksson greeted me with a smile and caught me up on the rigors of the road since we last spoke. He commented that I’d missed a brilliant show at SXSW, food poisoning in Salt Lake City (it’s always chicken Chinese that gets ya) and in Vegas, some bastard broke into the bus and stole a load of equipment including Dahlqvist’s personal computer with a number of song demos.
Keyboard extraordinaire Boba vented his frustration. “Everything been lost, some stolen, and everything that could possibly go wrong has,” he says. “Still, the crowds have been very enthusiastic and people have been helping us out with everything. That makes it worthwhile, otherwise we’d have been on a plane back to Scandinavia weeks ago.” He went on to comment that, “the shows have not been the best, but it’s been worth it ‘cause people are into it and glad we’re back. The energy level never drops.” Even Robert “Strings” Dahlqvist found the upside of a costly spring 2006 tour. “We’re glad we did it, the fans have been great and we’ve been able to see a lot of our friends we haven’t seen in a long time. What’s most amazing is the crowds knew the songs even the new ones, and sang along with us. It’s like we were never away.”
Setlist: Action, Move Right Out Of Here, Before The Fall, Monkeyboy, Better Than You, Toys And Flavors, Put Out, No Song Unheard, Everything Is On T.V., Carry Me Home, Like No Other, No Angel To Lay Me Away, It’s Good, By The Grace Of God, I’m In The Band, Soulseller
Encore: Rock And Roll Is Dead, Hopeless Case Of A Kid In Denial, Kick Out The Jams
Wedsites: Hellacopters, Liquor and Poker