Troy Patterson
May 28, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

There’s a framed pair of J. Lo’s hip-huggers on the wall and a hat from Madonna’s cowgirl phase hanging right beside them, but the most eye-catching costumes on display at the Hard Rock Cafe in Stockholm are the ensembles worn by a homegrown group on its way out the door. The Hives are done up, as usual, in coordinated ebony-ivory finery. Today’s look involves white patent-leather lace-ups, slim-cut black high-waters, and black button-downs under white satin jackets. The quintet is a spectacle, even down one man. (Rhythm guitarist Vigilante Carlstroem is at home with his wife, who’s expecting a li’l Vigilante any minute.) Yet strolling into the April afternoon, the Hives attract not a single glance. ”In Sweden, people just look the other way at weird behavior,” explains lead guitarist Nicholaus Arson in a light accent. ”It’s strange to us when we go to America that people see us in matching jackets and stuff and ask, ‘Are you guys in a band or something?”’

As it happens, the Hives have convinced some Americans that they aren’t just a band but the band. In 2000, they released ”Veni Vidi Vicious”: 12 songs, 28 minutes, blast after blast of exhilarating raucousness. It was raw, catchy, hard-charging — and it first arrived to no fuss at all. Two years later, after the Strokes and the White Stripes had made radio safe for the tough, roomy racket we call garage rock, it was rereleased. Though the album peaked at No. 65 on the ”Billboard” chart, the joyfully sneering single ”Hate to Say I Told You So” approached omnipresence. The Hives found themselves anointed the latest saviors of rock & roll.

For this they were prepared; their merchandise, in fact, includes T-shirts playfully boasting in Latin ”Nulla salus sine the Hives”: No salvation without the Hives. That the band has such a talent for cheeky bombast (note the stage names) and retro theatricality (check the threads) variously helped and hurt its cause. In some quarters, the Hives’ high style was considered refreshing, an antidote to standard-issue indie mopiness; in others, it was thought unacceptable for rock to be served on a shtick, especially in the pre-Darkness world of 2002.

On July 20, the band will return with an album — eagerly anticipated, yet to be titled — that’s the first installment of a three-record deal with Interscope reportedly worth $10 million, a handsome sum given that ”Veni Vidi Vicious” has yet to go gold. Its sound is meant to be tighter, drier, more new-wave. Where they earlier garnered comparisons to the Beatles, Stones, Stooges, and Ramones, they’re now leaning more heavily on Kraftwerk. The whole point, however, is that they’re getting to sound more like the Hives — the Hives being a kind of Platonic ideal. ”A rock band should be something loud and dangerous,” says frontman Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist. ”Like a tank with a brain. But it should also be clever. It should be almost to the point of caricature. You have to stand on that line of ‘Are they serious or are they not?”’

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