Division of Laura Lee (left to right): Viktor Lager, Jonas Gustafsson, Håkan Johansson, and Per Stålberg. Photo by Erik Toresson Hellqvist
A little over 15 years ago, an envelope from Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz’s Epitaph record label crossed my desk. Inside was a CD by a Swedish band I’d never heard of: Division of Laura Lee. The name made me think of those Sara Lee fruit pies you see in the freezer section.
With not-high expectations, I popped Das Not Compute into my drive and, as banal as it sounds, it marked the beginning of a musical turning point for me. Not because the music was necessarily pioneering, but because the unique mix of alternatingly careening and fuzzed-out garage-punk and melancholy shoegaze atmospherics was simply refreshing. For music journalists, the daily deluge of PR-hyped albums can jade you after a while. But Das Not Compute struck me as much for its raucous energy, moody textures, and cool guitar sounds as it did for its lack of affect and pretention—think My Bloody Valentine meets Sonic Youth’s more song-oriented side. I soon tracked down the quartet’s 2002 Black City (also on Epitaph), as well as a compilation of their straight-hardcore ’90s work, 97-99, and I’ve eagerly awaited every album since, from 2007’s Violence Is Timeless to 2013’s Tree and, finally, this year’s Apartment.
Why am I telling you this and thus committing my biggest journalistic pet peeve—inserting myself into a story that’s not about me? I guess it’s because so many of the people I’ve introduced Division to over the years have really dug them. “Why haven’t I heard of these guys before? They’re awesome!” To me, it’s a bit of a travesty they’re hardly known—especially after landing such a promising deal with one of the U.S.’s foremost proponents of punk and post-hardcore bands.
“It’s bittersweet in that it was the best of times,” says guitarist/vocalist Per Stålberg of the short-lived Epitaph deal and their time touring with influential post-hardcore outfit Thursday—which ended abruptly halfway through and saw DOLL heading back to Gothenburg. “We toured a lot and had a really good connection with those guys, but we did a lot of wrongs, too—we were snotty kids. I’m so proud of what we did, though, because we never compromised.” Asked to expound on the “compromise” bit, the still-avid skateboarder says it was “the typical manager thing. Like, ‘Dude, I broke my arm. I can’t tour.’ ‘Oh, well, let’s bring another guy on tour.’ ‘No! No, we wait.’ And we waited. Is that good for your career? Probably not, but honestly I don’t give a shit. I’d rather be me than somebody else. We would probably be bigger if we stuck on and did them, but we didn’t. We can’t change that now.” Adds cofounding bassist/vocalist Jonas Gustafsson, “I guess if we had made it a bit bigger, it would have struck way harder. I don’t think we would still be around now if we were famous for, like, 15 minutes and then lost it all.”
But Stålberg, Gustafsson, and founding drummer Håkan Johansson didn’t leave empty-handed, as the band’s stateside stint had seeded a lot of growth back home. “Violence Is Timeless did really good in Europe and especially in Sweden—which was the opposite of before,” Stålberg explains. “Except for the hardcore scene, nobody really cared about us in Sweden when we were touring the U.S.—or maybe that’s when they found out about us. But [the hardcore crowd] thought we sold out because we played too much [straight-ahead] rock all of the sudden.”
The first single from this year’s Apartment, a scathing brawler called “Hollow Pricks,” was released at the end of 2018. But otherwise it’s taken seven long years for Division of Laura Lee to produce the follow up to Tree. The big reasons for this include the fact that they lost longtime guitarist David Fransson, and each member, including Fransson’s replacement, Viktor Lager, now has kids, plays in other musical projects, and has a day job. (Stålberg operates Welfare Sounds studio in Gothenburg; Gustafsson, in addition to working in retail logistics, played in a TV talk-show house band; and Johansson works as a graphic designer.)
It wasn’t just that life was busy, though. The ambitiousness of their previous LP—they’d convinced themselves they needed to “mature” into something more sophisticated—had worn them out. “Tree was a big step to the left for Division … soundscaping and not so much riffing,” says Lager, the band’s newest member. “It was very hard to play live.” Gustafsson chimes in, “[On Tree] we were working with [producer] Jason Lytle from Grandaddy and we were aiming at something else. So when we started talking about the new album, I had one rule: no vocal harmonies!” Stålberg concurs: “It didn’t feel like we could write larger-than-life pop songs anymore—it felt really phony. We spent a lot of time talking about what the hell to do. Six to seven months after ‘Hollow Pricks’ was released, we knew we only wanted to do punk songs—like, really on-point and uncompromising: Here we are, take it or leave it. The rest of the songs came super fast and easy. Basically back to what we did in ’97, but we’re way better now.”
Then came the pandemic. Slated for a May 8 release in Europe, Apartment was delayed till August in hopes the global coronavirus situation might improve. In the meantime, in a move hearkening back to their DIY roots, DOLL both teased new tunes and revisited their deep catalog at an April 30 gig live-streamed from a Gothenburg drive-in theater. PG spoke to Stålberg, Gustafsson, and Lager a few days later.
Apartment was written long before COVID-19, but many of the lyrics seem inspired by the pandemic. “Safe” talks about “Someday you will be safe / I’ll be here, waiting for love / Take some time not worrying about your altered career and all of that B.S.” “Paris” talks about having to “fear for your life / The primal instinct to survive / Waiting for disaster / Stacking up supplies.” And the urgency of the title track’s—“I need to get out / Out of the apartment … I’m trying to survive / But I can’t get out”—feels like a coronavirus cabin-fever anthem.
Per Stålberg: I know, it’s insane. Especially “Apartment!” But we were actually done recording in May of last year. It just took forever to start with mixes. It was all mixed and mastered in December
Jonas Gustafsson: It’s mainly the lyrics that I wrote, as well—maybe I’d seen too much of The Walking Dead [laughs]. I try to imagine other peoples’ agony, because I’m quite a happy person. I grew up safe in a normal family, I’ve got some money saved up, and everything is fine, but we have a lot of friends who have been damaged by drugs and violence.
Stålberg: When you’re getting older, you can’t really write about how you had a tough time growing up, you know? But the world is still a weird place. Sometimes you feel cornered or alone, even if you have a cool family—and we all do. But sometimes that 18- or 20-year-old dude in you crawls out again and you feel like a weirdo, totally alone. That’s when it’s really easy to write lyrics, I guess.
“Hollow Pricks” feels like a brutal indictment of the mainstream music industry. “I need to wake up rich / And say bye, bye, bye, bye / You hollow pricks / ’Cause I’m DIY and I’m not yours to fix / I got my own plans, thoughts, ideas on how / To make us all be real and forever stay true.” What’s the story behind that?
Stålberg: It was inspired by a conversation I had with friends who said you can only do punk when you’re young. I felt they were all wrong. I don’t give a shit what you think—I haven’t wasted my life on punk rock. I would never believe that. It doesn’t matter who you are or how old you are. You can do whatever you want.