Swedish rockers The Hives on 15 years of making punk rock cool: ‘Nothing annoys punks more than David Beckham wearing a Crass shirt’

Fronted by Pelle Almqvist, The Hives came out of Sweden in the early Noughties  (Bisse Bengtsson)
Fronted by Pelle Almqvist, The Hives came out of Sweden in the early Noughties (Bisse Bengtsson)

Says here that we are undis-puu-ted icons of rock and roll.” Niklas Almqvist, lead guitarist of Sweden’s punky export The Hives, is reading aloud from a promo sticker on the vinyl cover of the band’s latest record, The Death of Randy Fitzsimmons. “Returning with a colossal album…” he continues. His younger brother, frontman and vocalist Pelle, turns to me and, in a similarly round Swedish accent, jokes: “You should print that.”

It’s not a stretch by any means. Together with The White Stripes and The Strokes, The Hives were torchbearers of rock’s turn-of-the-century revival. Across five albums and 15 years, their hits have been plenty: propulsive, petulant numbers delivered with a cocked hip and a hand clap. Their churning garage-rock anthem “Hate to Say I Told You So” spent eight weeks in the charts when their second album Veni Vidi Vicious was reissued in the UK in 2002. Reminiscent of the Ramones’ powder-keg energy and shiny polish, the song instantly set them apart from their moodier peers of the era. Their high-octane, high-kicking performances helped too. The Hives were there to have fun.

Decades later, it’s still the case. Niklas, 46, and Pelle, 45, are in high spirits when we meet on the top floor of a record store in east London. Introductions haven’t even been made before the latter pulls up an old skit from the British sketch show Harry & Paul on his phone for me to watch. There is good reason for their good mood. In less than 24 hours, The Hives will release their sixth album and first in 11 years. “We’ve been locked in a hyperbaric chamber,” jokes Pelle by way of explanation. “We’re at least as angry about it as the fans.”

For day one fans, the new album is worth the wait. The Hives pick up precisely where they left off. Sledgehammer guitars, sandpaper vocals and schoolyard chants are as predictable as they are completely entertaining. Lead single “Bogus Operandi” has a riff that’ll make your hair stand on end. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Suffice to say, this is not a band detailing its members’ innermost feelings and emotions. “The Hives is a thing we created; our idea of what a band should be and how it should operate,” says Pelle. “It’s not about what we feel as people in the moment. It’s like being a samurai or a karate champ – it’s not about you as a person, it’s about the thing you’re doing.” Niklas jumps in: “I think you can go two ways: you can either see a therapist or you can have 10 beers and scream your heart out at a rock show. We’re the second thing. We’re not therapists.” Pelle nods in agreement. “Basically,” he laughs, “no one in the band gets to do a divorce album.”

As the duo approach 50, adulthood is as boring a concept to them now as it was 30 years ago. Musically speaking, their plan is to stay young forever. “You listen to our record, and these are not adult rock songs,” says Niklas. “The Eagles and Dire Straits, that’s adult rock. We’re not.” Some of the best songs on the new album – like the self-parody of “The Bomb”, for example – dial up their juvenile insouciance to an 11. There’s no age limit on having a good time. That said, the band hope to induct a new generation of fans into the hive. “If you grow old with your fans, that’s not even stagnant,” says Pelle. “It’s worse, it’s declining. We have friends in rock bands where you see the same bunch of people showing up – slightly fewer and slightly less excited every time. This is the nightmare.” Who is a rock act that’s doing ageing right? “The Rolling Stones,” says Pelle. “They just deny it. Iggy Pop, too.”

If on one level The Hives embody the rock and roll dream, on another they have always resisted the cliché. When they first emerged as 20-year-olds from a sleepy town in Sweden (Fagersta, pop. 11,000) onto the rowdy music scenes of New York City and London, they refused from the outset to play the celebrity game. “We were avoiding fame to an extent that was ridiculous at times,” says Pelle. “The Hives was a vision of doing rock and roll this particular way. It had nothing to do with people in the band being famous, in fact it was the opposite of what we wanted to do. We wanted it to be a mystery.” So they turned down invites to parties and declined TV appearances.

“We also couldn’t think of any bands that we liked who were popular, so we thought, OK popular band means bad. Are we a bad band now?” Seeing bands that they did like become similarly successful, such as The Strokes and The White Stripes, helped put their own minds at ease. Looking back, the pair wish they had loosened the reins slightly – maybe lived up to the rockstar image a little more. “Milk it” is Pelle’s advice to artists breaking through now, “because it can be fun. But don’t think it means anything or that it has anything to do with who you are as a person”.

Famous or not, The Hives helped make punk rock cool again. So cool, in fact, that Demi Moore sported a Sex Pistols T-shirt on a 2007 cover of Architectural Digest and David Beckham was spotted in a Crass T-shirt that same year. “We thought it was kind of lame and kind of fun. Nothing gets punks more annoyed than David Beckham wearing a Crass T-shirt,” laughs Pelle. “I don’t think the intention was to piss off the punks, but it was a fun side effect. Everything about David Beckham is the opposite of what Crass is. When reality seems turned on its head, I think that’s entertaining.”

 (Phoebe Fox)
(Phoebe Fox)

Ask anyone who has seen The Hives live and there’s a good chance they’ll tell you it was the best performance of their life. Comments under YouTube videos of their gigs over the years attest to the same. Pelle is the same twisting, grinding, shimmying provocateur he was at 19. On his bicep is a big, blue bruise no more than a week old. “I’m as bashed up now as I was then,” says Pelle, divulging they had been “big mosh pit kids” themselves. “We were way more confrontational in the beginning. We’d be on tour in Germany and end up in fisticuffs almost, there were people attacking us.” He recalls all this fondly, with a wistful smile. They do love a hostile crowd at times. “If you play to people who love you for too long, it gets a bit stagnant,” says Niklas. “We’ve played at some metal festivals and people throw mugs of piss and s***. But usually, you can diffuse it pretty well by seeming unstoppable,’’ adds Pelle. “It’s a mob, right? And the mob is doing that to see if you back down; and if you don’t back down, you get the respect.”

If you’re at a concert and somebody throws a paper plane on stage and they cancel the show, nothing makes me believe a band less than that

What do they make of the recent trend of audience members throwing items at performers? “I get the instinct as a crowd member, because you want to stand out and you want to provoke the band and you’ve kind of paid to do that, so yeah you get to challenge us – and we get to not care about it,” says Pelle. “It gives us a chance to look invincible!” He compares it to the Monty Python sketch when the black knight shrugs off his missing limbs as just a scratch. “I love that,” Pelle grins. “If you’re at a concert and somebody throws a f***ing paper plane on stage and they cancel the show, nothing makes me believe a band less than that. Is it that fragile? You should just not tour… ‘Hey guys, that’s really uncool throwing sunglasses!’” Both Niklas and Pelle would like to clarify that this is not an invitation to throw things at them. “I don’t want them to throw dangerous s*** at us,” Niklas laughs. “But that happens sometimes.”

Touring has always been the raison d’être for The Hives. Even during this 11-year recording hiatus, the band performed throughout – pandemic permitting. Live shows are in their DNA. You’d think they’d happily be carted off from their final show as corpses in a wheelbarrow Monty Python-style, but they have other plans. “I’ve asked our friends to tell us when we go bad,” says Pelle. “There’s a lot of guys that just don’t know, they run around thinking it sounds pretty cool. No it doesn’t, grandpa.” Niklas agrees. “We’d be f***ing uncomfortable going around being bad. I think the reason we’re good is because we hate being bad. We’d have an average show here and there and we’d feel so ashamed.” Even The Hives have bad days – though today certainly isn’t one of them.

‘The Death of Randy Fitzsimmons’ is out now via the band’s Disques Hives label