When The Hives are onstage, they aim to look like a gang of Swedish pimps working the world's most elegant street corner. All five band members wear identical black dress shirts and trousers, set off by white shoes and fluorescent white ties folded to look like ascots. Offstage, the Hives prefer black T shirts that blare their individual rock-'n'-roll pseudonyms--Chris Dangerous, Dr. Matt Destruction, Howlin' Pelle Almqvist, Nicholaus Arson and Vigilante Carlstroem--in big block letters. They are not courting anonymity. Nevertheless, shortly before their concert last week at Chicago's old Metro theater, the Hives walked past their fans in the theater lobby, sporting their identity-shouting T shirts, without so much as a single "Isn't that Howlin' Pelle?" or "Look, it's Dr. Destruction!"
The Chicago gig, like every other date on the Hives' current U.S. tour, was sold out. All their fans seem to know--or care--about them is that the Hives are an oddly dressed punk-pop band from Sweden. U.S. fans are flocking to the shows largely on pronouncements from the giddy music press and the desperate American record business that a) rock is back and b) the Hives, along with American kindred spirits the Strokes and White Stripes, make up rock's new ruling class. Never mind that none of the would-be rock revivalists has yet broken through the platinum sales mark. As for the Hives themselves, the hype surrounding them is only mildly outlandish. They are not yet a great band, but their blistering punk and postmodern pranks are huge fun. If rock is going to make a fresh imprint on the culture, it might just do it with a Swedish accent.
With ABBA as their only cultural reference point for Swedish music, most Americans think of it as being a little peculiar. There's plenty peculiar about the Hives. Having grown up in the mining town of Fagersta (pop. 13,000), the band members, now all in their early 20s, claim they were brought together as schoolboys by an unlikely sounding guru known as Randy Fitzsimmons. From the start, the Hives tried to replicate the sounds of the punk rock and '50s soul music they loved. There were two problems. The first--overcome through years of dedicated strumming and banging--was that they had no prior acquaintance with musical instruments. The second was that Fagersta had no good record stores. "We couldn't get all the music we wanted to get," says lead singer Howlin' Pelle in flawless English. "So we had to try and make it up. We had no idea what rockabilly was, but we would try and make something that sounded like rockabilly--" "Sometimes," interrupts Nicholaus, Pelle's older brother and one of the band's two guitarists, "we had only seen bands in pictures or seen them on a record cover. So we had to try and figure out, What does that haircut sound like?"