Scandinavian Leather (Epitaph)
An interview with bassist Happy Tom
by Scott Hefflon
If you’re into rock’n’roll, Turbonegro are a band you either loved in the late ’90s, or later claimed you did. They’re from Norway, are buddies with black metal crazies, dress like gay sailors, openly do drugs and party like the last days of the Roman Empire, and they write the simplest, dumbest, but catchiest rock songs that you’ll never, ever mistake for some fabricated, squeaky-clean major label band. The Apocalypse Dudes are dangerous, not especially pretty, the real deal without knowing what the hell that means. They’ve peeked into the abyss, and in fact, they revel in the darkness most people spend their lives running from. The first time you hear a song like “Good Head” (or pretty much anything off Apocalypse Dudes, easily one of the top ten records of the ’90s, as consistent, strong, and influential as, say, Nevermind or Pearl Jam’s 10, in case yer still not getting the scale here), you realize that not since Bon Scott-era AC/DC has a band been so accidentally great. They’re primal, dirty, and wild, and they have the solid chops and melodies to match their addiction to the kind of decadent rock’n’roll lifestyle your parents warned you about.
They also broke up in ’98 when their King Diamond face-painted singer lost his mind. And now they’ve returned, five years later, to once again pillage your town, drink your beer, piss in your sink, and sleep with your girlfriend, sister, and perhaps some of your pets. And you’ll cheer the whole time, boy…
Some might say Turbonegro exploded the way a good rock band should, at the peak of their success. Did you actually get a chance to live the good life, or did you break up and then achieve legendary status only to discover “cult status” doesn’t exactly keep your rent check from bouncing?
We started playing big shows in late ’96/’97 (for Ass Cobra), so the snowball of denim was rolling, and it didn’t stop when we broke up. The decadence kind of surpassed the success, and it tasted good!
One thing I’ve always liked about Turbonegro is the pleasure in prowling the seedy, dark underside of rock’n’roll.
The downward spiral into darkness is [unintelligible mumbling, but it was probably deep, and he said “baby” at least once]…
And your singer followed that path perhaps “too far”…
He followed it all the way. We decided to get off, and he wasn’t ready to get off yet.
Do you talk about that?
Sure, we don’t mind. Heroine abuse is an important aspect of rock’n’roll… Hank’s had mental problems, light versions of schizophrenia, since early adolescence, and thus began his self-medication, and various other band members have been around that block as well… But we’re in better shape now than we’ve ever been…
Does that mean that you’ve cleaned up, or that you’ve learned how to make it work for you?
Hank quit, but the rest of use… Well, our last few tours have been blizzards, but, ya know, we don’t feel the need to… Girls just want to have fun, ya know?
One of my best friends, Fenriz from Darkthrone, saw a picture taken while we were on stage at a festival we played in Germany last summer. The shot was from behind, looking out over the crowd, and he noticed some water bottles on the drum riser, so he called me up and said “Hey Tom, what’s with these water bottles? Do you drink water on stage now?” And I’m like “No, I drink beer on stage. We all do.” And he’s like “So what’s with the water bottles on stage? Have you matured? Have you cleaned up your act?” He was really pissed.
So heroine is ok, but water is bad?
We’re in it for a laugh and a lager, mate!
I’ve always been a big fan of Hanoi Rocks’ “Self-Destruction Blues” and the like…
That’s the way it should be. Finland’s a cooler country than Norway, cuz they had all the good hardcore bands in the early ’80s, plus they have Hanoi Rocks. But Sweden is poser central. Everyone wears designer clothes. Norway was the poorest country in Europe at one point. We had the canned fish industry, and some potato farms, but the rest is bedrock so you can’t grow anything. There’s always been hunger and high infant mortality, but then they found oil on the coast, so now we’re rich. When you give poor people money, it’s pretty cool. I think the nouveau rich are always a lot cooler than old money people. Look at Elvis. They know it might not be there tomorrow, so they really live…
The Swedes are old money, they have taste, so they despise us for being such vulgar buffoons.
I’ve interviewed a lot of Norwegian black metal bands and gotten some good history and social lessons.
Really? We grew up in the same tiny village as Darkthrone and Mayhem and Satyricon…
I might actually be starting a band with Samoth from Emperor, and Faust, too, because he’s out of jail now (jailed for murder during the church-burning days of black metal’s beginnings). I think they’re good people with a real musical vision. I’ve known the Mayhem guys for 20 years, and they’ve always been very supportive of us. They always say “There’s only one band in the world that’s more evil than us, and that’s Turbonegro!” (laughs)
I feel more related to them than I do some rock bands from Stockholm that dress up like Lynyrd Skynyrd and go around saying they’re for real. I don’t give a fuck about all that…
Is that the reason Turbonegro got back together? To show the posers how it’s done?
We got back together because people offered us a lot of money to play festivals last summer, and the cocaine prices in Norway are awfully steep.
But seriously, we decided to do the three shows, and if we played as well as we did in ’98, we’d stay together, and if not, they’d just be three parties. People often say we got back together to cash in on our legend, but we didn’t sign to a major label, we signed to Burning Heart, people we’ve known since ’86 when they were a small mail order. We’re one of the only Scandinavian bands not signed to a major. People at Burning Heart have Turbonegro tattoos… You going to get that level of commitment from a major?
We knew that whatever label we went with, we were going to sell a lot of records, so why not put it out on Burning Heart, because they deserve it? Majors have signed anyone with a guitar, but a few good things came out of it… Ebbot Lundberg of The Soundtrack of Our Lives – when he was in Union Carbide Productions – was like a mentor to us, and the way The Hives took off was incredible… When they were 16, their mothers would drive them to Turbo shows, and we’d play for 12 people. They’re from a small steel town, and they became huge without asking the scene if the scene thought it was alright. All the petty nagging and gossip really irritates me. It’s fashion fascism.
You recently toured the States with Queens of the Stone Age…
They’re an incredible band. They had a list of bands that labels were going to pay them lots of money to take on the road with them, but they decided to fly us in and pay us good money… Josh and Nick saw us play in front of 23 people back in ’95, and they’ve been huge fans ever since.
You planning on staying together for a while?
Sure, why not? Our next record may be a full-length film. We’re talking to Spike Jonze about it. He did Being John Malkovich and a Beastie Boys video. Him and Jeff Tremaine, the Jackass producer, did a video for us in Los Angeles for “Sell Your Body (To The Night).”
A friend of mine, Rachel Varla, played a French hooker in that video.
Oh, you know her? She does that magazine Varla… We like that magazine a lot…
What’s the movie going to be like?
We’re at the level of greatness now that we can make a really idiotic film and pass it off as a record. We can make our Hard Day’s Night, with our songs as the soundtrack, and it’ll be this totally pretentious project everyone would hate, but it’d be untouchable because it’s by us. (laughs) It’ll be like the movie when Dennis Hopper went to Peru to make a film, and they came back a year later and no one remembered anything and all the film was gone.
There are so few true wildmen left… We’re left with the right-wing butthead the Nuge has become.
If you want to kill animals with arrows, why don’t you use a harpoon like Norwegian whalers do? Our next goal is to take homosexuality to the next level, which is cannibalism. Not only will you suck cock, but you’ll eat cock. When you mix all of the colors of the rainbow, it gets dark.
You must take shit for the homosexual overtones… Well, I guess it’s pretty blatant!
A lot of people like it, especially girls, but sometimes people shout “you faggots!” In Oslo, a big skinhead yelled “you faggots!” at us, but he was so into the band, he later yelled “fuck my ass, Turbonegro!”
How’d you ever come up with the idea to make the apocalypse dudes gay?
It goes back to the black metal scene again. We grew up with those guys, and that scene was getting wilder and heavier, they were killing each other and burning churches, and we were like “fuck, how can we outdo that?” Our friends had become the scariest guys on the planet, but how were we going to scare them? So we were sitting around, drinking beers, and we said, “A-ha! Homos! That’ll scare them!”
But they love it, so it kind of backfired… It’s an impossible, half-assed image, but we’re kind of stuck with it now, and we wouldn’t trade it for the world. It’s kind of taken on a life of its own. It’s no longer the Village People, NME called us the Pillage People…
I know you hate this question, but what was it like to go into the studio after such a long break to follow up Apocalypse Dudes, one of the top ten rock records of the ’90s?
We get asked that a lot, even by friends of ours. But we love a challenge, especially one we know we can’t win. But on a serious level, it’d be stupid to think we’d achieved such a level of artistic genius that we can’t make records anymore. Why should the peacock hide its feathers? We had to try, and I think we made a great rock record. The magic is still there. The biggest hurdle has been overcome, and now the worst that’s going to happen is reviewers are going to be comparing us to ourselves.
What have you been doing since the band broke up?
I’ve been working at a market analysis company, cuz that’s what I went to school for.
That’s kind of an unrock’n’roll job, isn’t it?
Put it this way: Norwegian farms are going down the drain, and my team developed a product that saved 200 farms the first year it came out. It’s easy to be idealistic when you’re a teenager, squatting at a punk rock flophouse, but then you grow older and return to your rich family and get a career. You never have to be a whore to a commercial culture in order to eat.
What about the other guys in the band?
Pål Pot ran a pizza place called Pamparius, and they had to sell it because so many people called because of the song “The Age of Pamparius,” and it became impossible to run the place. Euroboy and Chris Summers played in Euroboy, and Rune was their manager. Hank moved away from Oslo to get off heroine, moving way up north to where his family lives. He was in treatment there for a while and he worked in a whale hunting museum.
We’re all very different people, but when we get the denim on, all differences are erased.