Hard Rock Cafe, Stockholm, Sweden
This Swedish rockers play their low-key first gig in nearly three years.
There are plenty of nasty things that can happen to a band over the course of their career. Onstage injuries and offstage bust-ups.
Car crashes and van smashes. An outbreak of collective herpes. But short of death or contracting a particularly nasty and incurable venereal disease, few things are quite as unpleasant as getting a phone call to say that all your equipment is currently sitting at the bottom of two feet of shitty water.
H.e.a.t can vouch for this. The Swedish band had barely begun work on their fifth album, Into
The Great Unknown, when drummer Crash got an unexpected phone call.
“We’d been given twenty-four hours to get out of our old rehearsal room, and somehow we managed to find another one, down in this basement,” says Crash (that’s Lars to his mum and dad) as we sit at a table in Stockholm’s Hard Rock Cafe, alongside singer Erik Grönwall and guitarist Dave Dalone. “We were really happy, moved all our gear in there: ‘We’re back in business!’ Then I got this call: ‘You better check out your new rehearsal place.’”
The drummer hightailed it down there in doublequick time. What greeted him on his arrival was biblical – if ‘biblical’ means ‘looking like a shit factory that has sprung a leak’.
“There was, like, this much sewage water in the entire space,” he says, holding his hand at table height. “Shitty, brown, horrible water. All our amps, guitars, drums, cases, cables were under it – everything.”
He genuinely looks like he’s about to gag. Next to him, Grönwall suggests the cost of the damage was “maybe ten thousand pounds”.
“H.e.a.t got weak when we stopped touring and hanging out.”
“That doesn’t really matter,” Crash says of the cost. “There’s a love between a musician and his gear.” How much of it did you lose?
“Well, we didn’t actually lose anything. But it doesn’t smell too great.”
Sometimes good things emerge from the darkness – or in this case, a giant pool of rancid bum gravy.
This faecal disaster inspired a song on H.e.a.t’s new album, the ingeniously titled Shit City.
“It’s a metaphor about the struggles you face as a band,’ says Grönwall. “But it’s also about finding your gear covered in shitty water.”
Thankfully, the Great Ordure Ordeal ultimately proved to be a surmountable, if pungent, blip. Not to mention a funny story.
Into The Great Unknown is the finest hard rock album of this year – a 10-track masterpiece of flash and charisma that remoulds such out-of-fashion concepts as punch-the-air choruses and lightersin-the-air balladry for the 21st century. Its standout tracks, Time On Our Side and Eye Of The Storm – the album’s thumping heartbeat and dramatic soul respectively – are two of the finest songs you’ll hear all year, full stop. If Into The Great Unknown had been released in 1987, then H.e.a.t would have been bigger than Def Leppard, Guns N’ Roses and Whitesnake combined.
But this is 2017, the music industry is markedly different from what it was back then, and things are scaled differently. Rather than launching the album with a party in a million-dollar Hollywood club decked out with solid-gold furnishings and staffed by the finest strippers money can buy, the Swedes are kicking things off with a half-hour unplugged set at the Hard Rock Cafe in Stockholm.
Not that playing an upmarket burger joint is anything to sniff at – Foo Fighters were here earlier this year, while even AC/DC have dropped by for a few songs. H.e.a.t don’t have anything like the clout of either of those bands, but they’re still a big deal in their homeland. Three of their four previous albums have reached the Swedish Top 5, while Into The Unknown’s predecessor, 2014’s Tearing Down The Walls, hit No.1.
Then again, this country of nine million people has always been a law unto itself when it comes to current trends. Hard rock may have lost the Grunge Wars in the early 90s, but Sweden has been fighting a rearguard action ever since. Since H.e.a.t first took up arms a decade ago, their success seems to have galvanised the homegrown scene, with young pups such as Art Nation and Midway following their trail.
This state of affairs has certainly been helped by the fact that the Swedish government’s Arts Council offers grants to musicians to help get their careers off the ground, creating the sort of hothouse environment that Britain and America can only dream of. The flip side of that funding is that income tax rates in this avowedly socialist country are north of 50 per cent.
“I think we’re taxed way too much here in Sweden,” says Grönwall. “But if I could choose where I could put my tax, that’s one of the places I would choose.”
Even without taxpayers’ money, Sweden has always somehow punched above its weight musically. In the 70s and 80s, ABBA bestrode the globe like white-satin-jumpsuited goliaths. In the 90s it was pop-rock titans Roxette who rivalled Ikea shelving as the country’s biggest export. Inevitably, though, the band who have had the biggest influence on H.e.a.t are Europe, Scandinavia’s original hard-rock kings.
“They’re from the same small town as us,” says Dave Dalone, referring to the sleepy suburb of Upplands Väsby. “It reminds you that this is not impossible.”
As a young kid, the quietly spoken guitarist was such a big fan of the group that he regularly sifted through the recycling bins of Europe’s six-stringer, John Norum. “I collected his beer cans, just cos he’d drunk from them,” he says.
Grönwall’s connection is less worthy of a restraining order. Before he joined H.e.a.t, the singer shared management with Europe, and frontman Joey Tempest wrote a song for one of his solo albums. It was Tempest who recommended he join H.e.a.t after the departure of original singer Kenny Leckremo in 2010. “That was the thing that sealed it,” he says.
Grönwall is a key component of H.e.a.t’s rise.
With his skinny jeans, blond topknot and unfettered enthusiasm, he drips rock-star charisma. Prior to joining H.e.a.t, he won the Swedish version of Pop Idol, performing Skid Row’s 18 And Life, Iron Maiden’s Run To The Hills and Kiss’s Shout It Out Loud along the way. He’s not exactly embarrassed about his reality TV past, but you suspect he wishes people would stop asking him about it.
“I’ve always been a band guy,” he says. “I always wanted to be part of the new Bon Jovi rather than be the new Jon Bon Jovi. It used to be that I had two audiences – one that liked me for the television star stuff and one that liked me for H.e.a.t. Now people come up and say: ‘Oh, you’re the singer in H.e.a.t.’ I don’t hear that Idol thing any more. I’m glad to get away from it in a way.”
H.e.a.t’s current hardrock magnificence isn’t solely down to Grönwall, but it’s undeniable that they’re an entirely different band to the one they were a decade ago. They were an altogether more AOR-centric proposition back then – fluffy of tunes and fluffier of hair, with Leckremo a would-be Steve Perry-type belter. They were also signed to a label owned by Swedish actor Peter Stormare – the blond-haired kidnapper from the original movie version of Fargo.
“He had some kind of childhood rock-star dream but he wasn’t a singer,” Crash says of Stormare, with a laugh. “So he had a label and lived out his dream through us. He really wanted to be the guy who knew how to do things in the music business, even though he didn’t really have any experience: ‘Okay, boys, this is this is how The Beatles did it, so this is how you’re gonna do it…’”
“We were struggling from the moment we signed on with him,” Dalone remembers. “We were two magnets pushing in different directions.”
H.e.a.t are in a very different position today. When they finished the tour for 2014’s Tearing
Down The Walls, they elected to take three years off to relax and recharge. In hindsight, it wasn’t the smartest decision they’ve ever made.
“So, the plan was to have a break from everything, then focus on the new album,” Crash explains. “We wouldn’t play live or do anything in public. But it was a step back from the spotlight.”
“For me it was a mistake,” says Grönwall. “H.e.a.t got weak when we stopped touring and hanging out. When we’re together, we’re this big machine – we enjoy hanging out together. Take that away from us and it’s like taking a break from a relationship. It’s weird. It was tough.”
There were further complications. When the band did reconvene to talk about starting work on a new album, guitarist Eric Rivers announced that he was quitting. “That was the big meeting to restart things,” says Grönwall. “He just came out with it: ‘I’m leaving.’”
Luckily, they had a ready-made replacement in Dave Dalone, the band’s original guitarist, who had tired of the touring lifestyle and quit H.e.a.t in 2013. Dalone had no qualms about rejoining the band he helped start (it also meant he missed their rehearsal room being flooded by sewage water).
Ramping up their ambition, H.e.a.t flew themselves and their malodorous instruments to Thailand to record Into The Great Unknown. They holed up in a studio near Pattaya. “This huge Playboy mansion, with a pool and everything,” Grönwall says of their temporary home from home. “We were living like big rock stars for a month.”
They occasionally behaved like rock stars as well. At one point someone suggested they go to see a ping-pong show, which involved girls firing ping-pong balls from orifices that weren’t originally designed for such a purpose.
“The funny thing is, while this girl was on stage, Dave jumped up and started fooling around, twisting and turning around the dancing pole,” says Crash. “Nobody was looking at the girl.”
“We were living in this huge Playboy mansion, with a pool
“I made more money than I did in H.e.a.t,” Dalone says drily.
Thankfully there are no poles or ping-pong balls on stage at the Hard Rock Cafe tonight. It’s a free show, so the audience is a mix of H.e.a.t diehards in front of the stage and regular diners around the side. It’s an odd ambience for a gig, but H.e.a.t don’t seem to care. This is their first gig in nearly three years, and no amount of clanking cutlery in the background is going to throw them off track.
As far as comeback gigs go, it’s a low-key affair. Stripped down and acoustic, there’s little in the way of old-school flash-bang-wallop, although Grönwall’s hyperkinetic stage presence compensates. He’s a dervish, whirling, shaking and exhorting like he’s playing a 20,000-capacity arena rather than a posh McDonald’s. At one point he tells the audience: “I swear I will fucking kill you if you don’t put your hands up in the air,” which seems a bit strong even for a nation that came up with the fiendishly evil idea of self-assembly flat-pack furniture.
Even in this unplugged format, the gulf between new songs and older numbers is evident. Living On The Run, which dates from Grönwall’s first album with the band, Address The Nation and Beg Beg Beg, which predates him, are assured enough, but they’re too respectful to melodic rock’s illustrious past. By contrast, Into The Great Unknown songs such as Bastard Of Society, Redefined and the blockbusting one-two of Time’s On Our Side and Eye Of The Storm are a class apart, re-routing the epic ambition of Muse (if not their sound) through the filter of Sweden’s innate knack for pop music. The gig is over too soon – just seven songs – but the potential for much bigger things is impossible to miss.
After the gig there’s a hard-rock karaoke – of course there is, this is Sweden – but the band are on schmoozing duties with friends and family. Burgers are scoffed and beer is hoisted in triumph. “Skol!” says Crash. “It means ‘cheers’. It comes from the word ‘skull’. Vikings would cut the heads off their enemies and chop their skulls in half, then drink beer or mead from them. Skol!”
A few hours earlier, Grönwall had pondered H.e.a.t’s place in the bigger scheme of things, and whether they were born 30 years too late.
“Kind of,” he had offered. “But then we’re children of our time. It’s our job to step up. We could do cheesy pop music if we were in this for the money. But we’re here to bring back the rock’n’roll. Motherfucker, we’re ready.”
“We’re back!” H.e.a.t kick back after their first gig in three years. Stripped down and acoustic, there’s little in the way of old-school flash-bang-wallop.
“Are you the guy who stole my drum kit?!” They may be playing an ‘upmarket burger joint’, but Erik Grönwall performs like the band are playing a 20,000-seater arena.