Interview: The Hives’ Vigilante Carlstroem Pushes Clean into Chaos
Photo by Gregg Greenwood
Though garage rockers the Hives have been described as “quirky,” cynical musicians might view the group’s antics as simply marketing kitsch. Sure, the band is always decked out in matching outfits, but plenty of bands have a designated group “look.” In show business, where image is everything, bands as diverse as the Temptations or Kiss owe at least part of their success to their carefully coordinated wardrobes. Yes, the Hives have created alter egos for themselves with strange stage names like Vigilante Carlstroem, Nicholaus Arson, Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist, Dr. Matt Destruction, and Chris Dangerous. But guitarist Vigilante Carlstroem (aka Mikael Karlsson) explores one quirky frontier that not many players have before: He is perhaps the only guitarist who gets his grit from a solid-state Roland Jazz Chorus cranked to the max. The Jazz Chorus is universally hailed among the greatest clean-sounding amps of all time, and for that very reason it’s never, ever, thought of as a go-to amp for natural dirt. It has so much clean headroom that it’s virtually impossible to get it to break up, and when it does, it’s no cranked Plexi!
A Jazz Chorus beaten into submission is but one of the many gruff sounds you’ll hear on Lex Hives, the band’s follow up to The Black and White Album, which featured hip-hop giant Pharrell Williams as one of the producers. “Last time we wanted to work with different people and try something new,” says Carlstroem. “I think it was fun, you know. We needed to do something different—to do something else. I don’t regret it.” For this album, the Hives produced it themselves, collaborating only with Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age, Eagles of Death Metal) for some of the B-sides, none which made it onto this record.
Here Carlstroem gives us the inside scoop on the making of Lex Hives, talks gear, and also reveals his surprising admiration for another famous Swedish guitar slinger: Yngwie Malmsteen.
What motivated the decision to self-produce Lex Hives?
We recorded the last album [The Black and White Album] with different producers and in different studios all over the world just to try something new and to see what came of it. It would have been boring for us to do another record exactly the same way, in the same studios. This time around, we pretty much wanted to be The Hives in the room playing the songs. That’s what’s on the record—just us playing in a room—and we’re trying to keep that feel. There aren’t too many extra guitars added to the tracks.
It’s been five years since The Black and White Album. Why did it take so long to create Lex Hives?
It usually takes us around four years. We tour for at least three years on every record and it also takes a long time to make the new one, too.
Do you write on the road or when the tour is done?
We pretty much just tour and when we stop touring we start working on the new record. I guess a lot of bands will do stuff while they’re touring, but we decided not to.
What’s the songwriting process like?
It’s not really songwriting in the traditional sense. It’s more like building a Lego with parts. It could be a drumbeat, a short riff, or anything—and with that we’ll try to put things together. We rehearse with the whole band together and with everybody there, we put the songs together.
Most of songs are short—eight out of the 12 tracks are in the 1-to-3 minute range. Your earlier releases consisted primarily of songs in that range, but your last record had noticeably longer songs. What made you return to a shorter song format?
If it’s too long it could be boring after a while. You want to try to make a song interesting all the way through to the end. A four-or-five-minute punk song would be just too much.
“Wait a Minute” has a really catchy riff. In addition to keeping songs short, what are some of your other secrets to writing a successful song?
We worked on that song for a very, very long time. We had that riff for a long time but we couldn’t go anywhere from there. I think that it was during the last recordings that we finally figured it out. It turned out really good but it was a hard nut to crack. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album.
Yeah, it’s great. In the middle of that one, at times, the two guitars are doing different things that complement each other. The intro to “Without the Money” also makes creative use of two guitars. What’s your strategy in crafting these types of parts between you and Niklas (Almqvist)?
We’ve always liked that kind of thing—we’ve been doing it for a while now. Twenty years ago, we pretty much just played the same chords together all the time. Later we started doing, I think it’s called a “neat beat,” where if you have a riff, instead of both guys playing the same riff, one guy plays every other note and together it becomes the riff, and you get some kind of stereo effect.
“I Want More,” is the only song on the record that has some lead guitar sort of playing. There’s a recurring “Back in Black”-esque lick in that one. Did you play that part?
Yeah, it sounds like a lot of classic rock songs. I played that part but even though we have two guitars, we never think about it as lead or rhythm guitar.
Some people believe that there’s “no money above the fifth fret” and just do away with guitar solos. Do you guys operate with a similar logic?
It depends. For us, we feel that the band together should be more like one instrument, so we’ve never really been interested in having guitar solos in our songs. And also for the music we do, we kind of like it without guitar solos. Although sometimes we have little bits of guitar solos, it’s not that typical bluesy kind of thing. It’s more like chaos when we’re doing guitar solos.
Meanwhile, your fellow Swede, Yngwie Malmsteen takes a completely opposite approach.
Yeah! He’s fucking great, though. It’s not that we don’t like it, but for our music we want to keep it to a minimum. When Niklas was young, Yngwie was his favorite guitarist.
Really? I never would have guessed.
Yeah, I like him, too. He’s cool. I guess when we were younger we wanted to practice more. Niklas wanted to be like Yngwie when he was younger, but not anymore. When I’m home, I don’t play a lot of guitar anymore.
Let’s talk about gear now. On “My Time is Coming,” there’s some tremolo in the beginning. Is that coming from an old amp or a pedal?
It’s actually a pedal. It’s made by a Swedish guy named Björn Juhl, who makes amazing pedals. I think his company is called BJFE Pedals.
On “Take Back the Toys,” the tone is really thick and fat. What did you use on that?
My Magnatone Mark III. I think it’s from ’66, and it’s one of my favorite guitars. It’s a really small guitar with a big, fat pickup. I think it’s kind of like the old Bigsby pickups. It sounds really muscle-y.
I understand that you have a nice collection of vintage gear. What are some highlights of your collection?
A lot of us in the band have been collecting vintage amps and guitars for many years now, everything from ’50s Les Pauls to Teles and Strats to crazy ’60s guitars.
Do you take the vintage equipment out on the road?
We toured with vintage stuff for a long time but it kind of breaks down, so the amps we use on tour now are newer amps. I use Divided by 13 amps. I have a few different ones but the one I like the most is the FTR 37, the 37-watt one. I also have one of the 100-watt heads. I think it’s called the JJN 50/100. I still use vintage guitars for touring and the Divided by 13 amps work really well with capturing the sound of all of the guitars I use.
Is your road rig what you also use in the studio?
For touring it’s one setup, but for recording it’s very different from song to song. It could be anything from a really nice, expensive, early ’50s, vintage Fender to a crappy guitar. Sometimes a crappy guitar and crappy amp works better in a song than the best stuff we have. For recording it’s pretty much old stuff. We never really use new stuff for recording. My favorite amp is my ’57 Fender Tweed Bassman, which I love. But sometimes we use a lot of small ’50s Gibson or Supro amps. I also love the Roland Jazz Chorus.
For the clean sounds?
No, you plug it in to the clean channel and then you play it so loud that it starts distorting.
Wow, that’s like the loudest clean amp around. You’ll go deaf before it distorts.
Yeah [laughs]. We’ve been using Jazz Choruses since our first record.
Do you prefer a cranked Jazz Chorus to a cranked tube amp?
Sometimes a tube amp can be too nice, too round, and too clean. If you push a Jazz Chorus and then you use, like, a Travis Bean guitar, it sounds really good.
Check out the following performances for a glimpse of why some consider The Hives to be the best live band in rock today.
The Hives perform “Go Right Ahead,” the first single from their new album, Lex Hives, on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
At Festival des Vieilles Charrues in 2008, The Hives perform an explosive version of their hit “Tick Tick Boom.”
The Hives perform their signature tune, “Hate to Say I Told You So” at the 2006 Hurricane Festival in Germany.