At first blush, Sune Rose Wagner can seem like a man of baffling contradictions. Almost everything he’s done over the last 13 years, seven LPs, and five EPs as guitarist, songwriter, co-vocalist, lyricist, and multi-instrumentalist for Danish garage-surf duo the Raveonettes is antithetical to how the average guitarist would do it. A couple of perfunctory examples: He and fellow Raveonette Sharin Foo (vocals, bass, guitar) tend to steep their tunes and guitars in so much fuzz and reverb—including two or three Boss RV-5 pedals at the beginning of the signal chain—that sometimes you can’t quite tell what instrument is making what sound. And then there’s the fact that both are avid fans of ’60s Jazzmasters, Musicmasters, and Mosrites, yet they’re thoroughly uninterested in amps of the era. Or any other, for that matter—they haven’t used a guitar or bass amp on a single Raveonettes track. Ever.
But the more you learn about how Wagner does things, the more you realize that maybe he’s not contradictory as much as he’s just a sonic sadomasochist in the name of art—someone who sees light in darkness, melody in cacophony, congruence in disparity, renewal in destruction. Someone who gets off on being confined and restricted.
Admittedly, the 41-year-old Sønderborg, Denmark, native’s approach also has a lot to do with being as big a devotee of the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, ’60s girl bands like the Ronettes, and Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” production style as he is of the Cramps, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and ’80s hip-hop pioneers like Eric B. & Rakim. But with sweetly morose lines like “Flowers in the daytime and Lucifer at night” (“Observations” from 2012’s Observator) being commonplace in the Raveonettes repertoire, there’s got to be more going on in Wagner’s mind than a hodgepodge of musical influences.
How else do you explain a guy who says drums are his favorite instrument to play (he picked them up at age 5), yet insists on using loops rather than live drums on all his albums? Not to mention, on every Raveonettes release—from their 2002 debut, Whip It On, on up to this summer’s Pe’ahi—it seems the more constraints Wagner puts on himself, the more he’s inspired.
For Whip It On—where the Raveonettes’ now-signature ambience envelopes huge dance-club beats driving fuzzed-out spaghetti-western riffs that sound like someone slipped Chet Atkins LSD and a cranked RAT pedal—Wagner willingly strapped himself into the dungeon-master garb of playing every tune in Bb minor. For the follow-up, 2003’s Chain Gang of Love, it was nothing but Bb major. And for this year’s LP named after the famous Maui surfing spot, the longtime L.A. resident decided to challenge himself both physically and mentally: He switched to gargantuan flatwound strings—.014–.055 sets—and based his writing sessions on a willfully obtuse set of diametrically opposed lyrical themes.
“If you commit to a certain … not necessarily a theme, but a way of thinking—a certain inspiration—it makes it worthwhile. It’s a lot easier,” Wagner explains. “It’s the contrast in music that makes it interesting. If you can take a song and lure people in with a great guitar line, or a great melody, or a fantastic beat, all of a sudden they realize that they’re in a very different universe. This is not just a happy song, this is about something else. It doesn’t have to sound evil to be evil.”
We recently spoke to Wagner about his creative process, his recently revamped pedalboard, how he sounds nothing like his early 6-string heroes (including Mark Knopfler, Jimmy Page, and Randy Rhoads), and how the surf and skate culture and Pearl Harbor inspired the lush, addictively gripping tunes on Pe’ahi.
You often choose themes or strict parameters to work within when you’re writing for a new album—like the key restrictions for Whip It On and Chain Gang of Love. This time around, the album title and songs like “Endless Sleeper,” “Z-Boys,” and “Kill!” reflect another set of thematic restrictions. Does confining yourself that way make you more productive as a songwriter?
Yeah, I think it’s great. I know this is a strange analogy, but I have always been fascinated with fashion designers. They have to make at least four collections a year: spring, summer, fall, and winter. They’re inspired by what’s coming up next, what the colors are, what people are into, and all that stuff. I think it’s the same when you make music. If you commit to a certain … not necessarily a theme, but a way of thinking, a certain inspiration, it makes it worthwhile. It’s a lot easier.
For a lot of musicians, powerful, unexpected events tend to inspire new songs—you hear a touching news story, have a really cool experience out in nature, or whatever. But a theme is kind of the opposite. What kind of headspace do you have to get into to really feel inspired by your theme? Is there a trick to getting inside your theme and having it work for you instead of against you?
Yeah, I can use the new album as an example. The inspiration with this album was war. It was southern California surf culture and the prettiness and beauty of Polynesia, especially Hawaii. If you take those things and put them together, you quickly realize that there’s something wrong. Why would you take something innovative, exhilarating, and exciting, like surfing and skateboarding history, and add it to something really beautiful like Hawaii or some exotic island, and then add a different theme about war—something that’s destructive and ugly and despicable? You see pictures from the attack on Pearl Harbor, and what you see in the foreground is beautiful palm trees, a tropical island—sort of heaven on earth—and then in the background you see the USS Arizona on fire, people dying and screaming, Japanese bombers unloading their evil bombs on this pretty island. When you look at it, it doesn’t make any sense—because how could you have so much beauty and destruction at the same time? It doesn’t make sense.
It’s sort of like Bikini Atoll, the atomic-bomb test site: If you see that famous picture, in the foreground there’s a beautiful, tranquil, serene beach with palm trees, little huts, and a really beautiful ocean. Then, in the background, there’s a mushroom cloud. It doesn’t make any sense! But as long as humans have lived, it actually does make sense. That’s why we have black and white. It’s why we have night and day. It’s why we have beauty and the beast. That’s why we have happiness and sadness. To me, there’s nothing weird about it. I just like to find things that people maybe don’t think about that much.