THE VALLEY OF
May 4, 2000
By KEN SHIMAMOTO
Over the past two
decades, Stockholm, Sweden's Nomads have taken the whole history of rock'n'roll
(the cool parts, anyway) and recast it in their own image, an amalgam of Detroit,
garage, rockabilly, Gibsons through Marshalls, and love (but not reverence)
for roots. If you haven't surrendered to their sound yet, try listening to their
double-disc Showdown 81-93 comp on Sympathy and coming away unconverted -- I
DARE YA! For proof, try on, say, their killer covers of Alex Chilton's "Bangkok"
or the Lyres' "She Pays the Rent" or I-94 Bar firm fave, the Dictators' "16
Forever." And these guys can write 'em too; just check out Nomad-penned classics
like "Lowdown Shakin' Chills" or "Primordial Ooze" or "Surfin' in the Bars."
The current "Big Sound 2000" disc alone bears "Don't Pull My String,"
"Ain't Dead Yet," "Another Man's Cross," and "The King of Night Train," and
there's much, much more. Or better yet, if you can go see 'em live.
I caught 'em three times on a recent jaunt through Texas, twice at SXSW, once in Dallas, playing on borrowed gear, including guitars, and I tell ya, these guys are incapable of playing a bad show! Really!!! Twenty years of gigs and records together for front Nomad Nick Vahlberg and guitarist Hans Ostlund; over a dozen of 'em with the current rhythm section of bassist Bjorne Froberg and drummer Joakim Ericsson has made these guys the team to beat in the big wide world of rawwwk. Plus, they're the nicest bunch of guys you're ever likely to encounter, a big plus in my book. (Who wants to have to make excuses for somebody who's a genius musician but an amateur human being? Not me, that's fer sure.) Nick Vahlberg sat down with me at a picnic table outside Emo's following the soundcheck for the Nomads' SXSW performance on Thursday, March 16, 2000. It was raining lightly as we began our conversation.
K: Congratulations on winning a Swedish Grammis!
N: We didn't win, we were only nominated. But it was fun to be able to go to the Grammis show. It was stupid, but...
K: It's a party.
N: I was a little bit disappointed at the time when they announced the winner. I thought, "Maybe we might win this after all," but this really crummy hardcore kind of band got called up, and they won.
K: From over here, it seems like all the bands we hear from Sweden are cool, but I guess we don't get to hear all of 'em.N: I'm really surprised these days when I pick up American music magazines and fanzines. There's all these reviews of new Swedish bands, it's quite amazing that so many of them actually get their records out here in the U.S. Not only the cool ones, but the not-so-exciting ones, like hardcore bands or pop bands or whatever. It seems that things are going really well for Swedish music in general these days.
K: Tonight the Backyard Babies will be playing up the street, tomorrow night Gluecifer...
N: They're from Norway, the country that borders Sweden.
K: What's the situation for bands in Sweden now as far as gigs, as far as records, as far as audiences?
N: It's a bit surprising that so many bands are coming along, because there's a big shortage of venues to play. Even in Stockholm, where we come from, there's only two clubs right now where it's possible to play. It's ridiculous! It's almost a million people living there, and only a couple of venues put on good bands, so it's quite hard. We're pretty established, we've been going for a long time, so it's quite easy for us to get gigs, but I don't know how the hell new bands can manage to get going, because it's so hard to even find a place to play.
K: The festival season in the summer I guess provides some work, but for newer groups that are just starting out, that might not have a name yet, that might not have a record...
N: No, there's no way that they can get onto the festival. The festivals are more for the already-popular bands.
K: Comparisons are NEVER fair, but how would you compare audiences in the States with those in Europe?
N: It depends so much from night to night, city to city. I really like playing in the U.S. It seems we get a lot more people that are like us, that are a little bit older, in their 30s, that don't mind going out and checking out bands, whereas in Sweden, for example, when people turn 30 and they get a family and a job, they stop going out, they stop going to shows.
K: That's a lot more true in the U.S. than you'd think!
N: It's probably true everywhere, but it seems like a slightly older audience around here, and for the rest of Europe, it depends a lot from country to country, but the further south you get, the more wild and enthusiastic audiences are. Like in Spain, for example, people are just CRAZY about rock'n'roll. They go completely wild! You see the worst in Greece or Italy...they RIOT! It's fun!
K: They probably riot at any excuse there...soccer games, rock'n'roll shows...
N: Any excuse for a riot!
K: Any chance you guys are going to Australia anytime soon?
N: Well, we'd love to, but it's so far from Sweden, so I can't really see how that could happen. We're pretty close friends with the Hellacopters, and we've toured quite a lot with them, both in Europe and the U.S., and they went in January. There was talk last year that perhaps we could join them, but then they got on that Big Day Out festival and all that, so it just didn't work out. I would love to, of course. Japan and Australia are two of the countries that I'd like the most to come to for a time.
K: Logistically, it's hard, though. Can you think of any bands from Scandinavia that American and Australian audiences might not be familiar with that you think deserve to be heard?
N: One very underrated band is the Robots. They've been going for ten years, but they're not very ambitious guys. They just play for fun. But they keep putting out some good stuff, and they have an album coming out on Man's Ruin, actually, that might make a bit of change, that it's out on a well-known American label. They're pretty great. They're straight punk rock, but really cool. Dave Champion [of Nomad Records, no relation] put out that single, which is one of their best in a long time. This very original band called Bob Hund, which is more like in the quirky, "art"/New Wave kind of style like Wire, Pere Ubu -- they're just an amazing band. They're trying right now to get some new stuff together in English, because all their stuff has been in Swedish so far. They're thinking of calling themselves "Bergman Rock" here. That could be worth looking out for; they're just great. They're one of my favorite Swedish bands. Another great new Swedish band -- or not new; they've been around for awhile -- Robert Johnson and Punchdrunks. I should actually give you a copy of their CD [Fried On the Altar of Good Taste on Silence Records], because this is pretty awesome stuff. They're an instrumental band, very original -- they mix Link Wray with Suicide, if you can imagine that!
K: Did you guys bring your own equipment for SXSW?
N: No, we'll play with some of the other Estrus bands' equipment...the Gimmicks have some Marshalls, which is what we're most comfortable with using.
K: You guys take your own effects wherever you go?
N: Hans really needs his fuzzbox. Those happen to be easy to carry around. We didn't bring the guitars this time for different reasons, but those are really easy to bring with you.
K: I grew up in New York listening to bands like the MC5 and the Stooges, the Dolls, Nuggets, things that weren't all that popular 30 years ago. But how'd you hear that music growing up in Sweden?
N: Well, those bands were pretty popular in Sweden at that time. Around '75, '76, '77, when me and [guitarist] Hans [Ostlund] started a band -- we were only 14 or 15 at the time, but we had a lot of older friends that pointed us in the right directions. When the punk thing started happening, it was pretty easy...you read in all these interviews with the punk bands that the New York Dolls and the Stooges and MC5 were the main inspiration for a lot of these bands, so obviously you wanted to go back to the roots.
K: There's a lot of rockabilly influence, particularly in your early stuff. Where'd that come from?
N: Well, the Cramps, probably. We were HUGE Cramps fans, ever since the very first record, so I guess the Cramps, Gun Club, Tav Falco's Panther Burns were the contemporary bands at the time we started that influenced us the most, especially the way those bands could pick rockabilly songs, garage-rock songs, and in the Gun Club's case, they could even take jazz songs or country-western songs and mix them with their own songs and it all came out sounding like these bands! We thought it was really cool that we didn't have to limit ourselves to playing 60s garage or whatever. We wanted to play everything that we liked, which was Blue Oyster Cult-type hard rock, rockabilly, punk; we just wanted to mix all those influences. Those rockabilly songs are so easy to play! Very easy to figure them out, but fun playing them.
K: You guys DO blend a lot of influences, and you definitely make all of it your own, whatever you play. I was reading the interview you did ten years or so ago with Steve Gardner on his website. Talking about playing live, you said you "like to get the heaviest sound possible," but you want to "avoid being a metal band."
N: Yeah, that's pretty much our musical vision. We want to have a powerful Gibson-Marshall sound. I guess DMZ was another band that influenced us a lot in the beginning, too, because of the way they took old garage stuff and crunched it up a little bit with Marshalls and Gibsons. So that's always been the way we wanted to sound.
K: You're definitely a far cry from some of those garage bands that are playing Farfisas through AC-30s!
N: We had a guy [Frank Minarik] playing Farfisa for awhile in the lineup. But you can't really hear it that well! He just kinda got buried...just more equipment to move!
K: Being a big Dolls and Heartbreakers and Johnny Thunders fan, I gotta ask you, what was it like working with Johnny in the studio on "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls?"
N: It was fun. It was really cool. He was living in Stockholm at the time, so it was quite easy. We just drove out to the Stockholm suburb where he lived and picked him up and drove him to the studio. It was cool. He was off drugs, it looked like at the time. He wasn't exactly friendly, because that's not the kind of person that he was. He didn't say that much, but he said something to the effect that, "Ah, this is a pretty good song. This is a pretty cool-sounding recording." So I guess he was in a good mood.
K: You got a pretty good solo out of him.
N: It was just fantastic to sit there in the control room and watch him do it. It was only two takes, I think. He said, "Well, you got two to choose from now. That's it. I'm not doing anymore." We had about nine different amps in the studio and he rejected all of them! "Ahhh! I can't play this one! Can't play that one! Can't play this one!" Luckily, there was an old Ampeg standing in some corner of the studio that belonged to the studio, and luckily he accepted that.
K: Are you guys still working day jobs?
N: Yeah! The band has only been a full-time occupation for short periods of time every now and then. I guess around '90, '91, '92, we were pretty commercially successful in Europe, and at least I tried to make it a full-time occupation, but these days, it's different; it's just a hobby. We play quite a lot, but we try to make the tours really short, so we're only away from home about a week or two weeks at the most.
K: It's great that you've been able to sustain for so long on that basis.
N: Yeah, we're gonna celebrate our 20th anniversary next year.
K: Any special plans for that?
N: Obviously, we should have a big party. We had a pretty great party when we had our 15th anniversary. The Hellacopters played, Sator played. That was a great party, so we should definitely have a big party in Stockholm next year. It's on Good Friday next year. The first show in 1981 was on Good Friday, so that should be the date.
K: Dave Champion's supposed to be sending me a copy of the Stagger In the Snow cassette.
N: That's pretty hard to find these days. That came out in '83, I think. '82, maybe.
K: Estrus put some of that out on the Raw & Rare album. What were the circumstances when you recorded that?
N: Those are demos and live recordings and just odd stuff we did back then. We did a couple of different studio sessions at the time, just because we had friends with access to studios and stuff like that, so we just recorded whenever we got a chance. A lot of it is really primitive and sounds pretty crummy, but it has a lot of youthful energy. It's quite fun.
K: Speaking of studio stuff, how would you compare working with Chips [Kiesbye] and 4-Eyed Thomas as producers?
N: 4-Eyed Thomas is not really a producer in the traditional sense. He's been a mentor of the band ever since we started; he's one of those older friends I was talking about before. Someone who's always been very helpful, given us a lot of tips on covers and stuff like that. He worked for Amigo, the label that put out all our early stuff in Sweden. Chips is more like a real producer. He helps out with arrangements, is a wizard as an engineer. He's very helpful for us because we're not always that organized, but Chips is EXTREMELY organized, and he helps us get our stuff together and helps us get the songs together and helps with the arrangements and stuff like that. Especially with the last album [Big Sound 2000], he's been like the fifth member of the band.
K: Do you think that it makes a difference that he's also a musician, plays guitar with Sator?
N: It's really great for us. We need someone like that.
K: You guys have so many records on so many labels!
N: It's ridiculous!
K: How are you able to work that?
N: We have problems saying no when someone gives us an offer, I guess, because there's so many cool labels out there, and it's just nice to put stuff out. It's so easy these days -- just send someone a tape and after a couple of months, you get a 7" single back, and a lot of times, the single looks pretty great and it's a really cool thing. It's just fun to do that, but it must be hell for our fans to try to keep up!
K: Do you ever get static from a big label like Amigo or Sonet about doin' all these other things on the side?
N: We started doing all these side projects, really, after we left the big labels. Sonet was the last pretty big label we worked with, and we left them in '94, so it was mainly after that when we started doing a LOT of 7-inches and compilations and stuff. We'd done some stuff like that in the past, but that was never a problem. It's good promotion for any label that the band does things like that. It's stupid when the Backyard Babies, for instance, had some problems with Warner, their English label, because Warner didn't want them to put out that EP on Man's Ruin. Which is just stupid. I mean, that's just good promotion for the band!
K: What's up with White Jazz right now?
N: Well, the label got bought by MNW, which is the biggest independent in Sweden. I don't know; it's too early to say what the changes will be, but as it looks right now, it'll only be for the better, because distribution will be better. Carl, who runs [White Jazz], can do pretty much what he wants -- that's what MNW has been saying so far, anyway. He's got some really interesting projects coming up. I know he's been talking with the Dictators about perhaps doing their next album for Europe, which will be amazing.
K: They should be done with that soon.
N: It IS finished, actually, so I guess Andy Shernoff is going to shop the tapes around and see what offers he can get.
K: Have you heard any of that Dictators album?
N: Yeah, I've heard a bit. Andy's become a friend the last couple of years, so the last time we were in New York about six months ago, I got a tape with some of the stuff. It's just amazingly good.
K: If you had to pick five of the Nomads records as your favorites, which ones do you think you would pick?
N: I probably still think that the first mini-LP, "Where the Wolfbane Blooms" -- that's about half of that Outburst album -- that's probably my favorite, and the second would be" Sonically Speaking". The Showdown thing, I'm really happy with the way that came out. "Big Sound 2000", and I guess "The Cold Hard Facts of Life", which is a really nice, very relaxed thing, where we just took a bunch of Canadian songs and recorded really quickly with Chips. It just came out really nice.
K: Now I wanna go hunt down some of those originals!
N: Jack Lance Rock, who put it out, helped us out a little bit with finding some of it. That's a fun record.
K: I heard there was a little bad blood with Jeff Connoly because you covered "She Pays the Rent."
N: Yeah, that's terrible, because he's been such a big inspiration for the band. We were really close friends around '84, '85, we did a couple of shows together. But he just got really upset when the "She Pays the Rent" single came out in the U.S., because there was some misunderstanding there. He thought it was only going to be out in Sweden on a 7", and then it came out in the U.S. as a 12", and then on top of that, got really good reviews. Forced Exposure said something like, "the Lyres' version of this song gets totally shoveled under by the Nomads," and at that time, Forced Exposure was pretty influential, so Jeff just got really, really upset about that. But we're friends again; we played at Cavestomp garage rock festival in New York together a couple of years ago, and it was really good seeing him again and everything's fine. But there were a couple of years where he badmouthed us a lot in interviews. Really a sorry situation, because we're big fans of his. But he's that kind of guy; his temper can change fast.
K: How do you guys pick songs to cover?
N: Well, every once in awhile, you hear a song that feels like it could be interesting to hear what this sounds like in a Nomads arrangement. These days, we don't do as many covers as we used to, but it was a lot of fun back in the eighties when we took a lot of different songs from different eras and they always came out sounding like Nomads songs after we reworked them for awhile. I guess that's just the way we play. We did a single under the alias the Screaming Disbusters and we thought, "Let's try to be a real heavy metal band!" and of course we failed; we couldn't play well enough to sound like REAL heavy metal! It came out sounding like the Nomads.
K: I guess you can never really be anybody but yourself.
ON TO PART TWO