If heroine-addled angst was the key ingredient in Seattle’s rise to rock dominance a decade ago, then Stockholm’s current blitzkrieg is fueled by sheer arrogance.
Every Swedish group that’s gotten even an ounce of hype in the last year has claimed it will change rock forever. The International Noise Conspiracy have no problem announcing they’re the best Marxist band ever—lots of competition in that category. The Hives titled one of their albums Your New Favorite Band. Singer Pelle Almqvist even told people to turn off their TVs after the group thundered through “Main Offender” during August’s MTV Music Awards since, obviously, there was nothing else worth watching. He was right. It might just be overcompensation, since Sweden has had to live with that Yngwie Malsteem black eye for the last decade. Even so, it seems being cocky is an essential part of life in Europe’s Great White North.
But Division of Laura Lee’s Jonas Gustavsson is a little too understated and quiet to be so cavalier. His calm voice doesn’t carry a hint of conceit. When he says that, in fact, D.O.L.L. is the best band ever, it’s like he’s confiding a secret, one so juicy that it’s bound to get out. There’s no flash, no bravado. The bassist is just stating facts. Arguing is futile.
“Of course, it’s justified,” he says. “We do believe we’re the best band in the world. We’re making music the way it should sound and the way we love, so why wouldn’t we think we’re the best band out there? You can take that however you want. You have to make up your mind whether you agree with me or not. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m right.” True modesty at its best.
Yet Division of Laura Lee is starting to rack up the kind of evidence that makes Gustavsson’s claim at least sufferable. Like The Hives before them, D.O.L.L. is now England’s favorite new flavor, every music rag proclaiming the band the next whatever. And stateside, Rolling Stone has been chiming that the group is the latest Hot Thing from the Swedish deep freeze. Sales don’t necessarily reflect that yet: The band’s sophomore disc, Black City (Epitaph), is just beginning to crack the charts.
But such trivial things don’t really matter to Gustavsson; he’s earned the right to his pride. Before Sweden became garage-rock central, D.O.L.L. was just another struggling band. The group released their own records for years before any labels started sniffing around. And the group’s first tour of Europe was anything but glamorous. Few other bands can actually say they’ve played a Spanish pig barn where swine outnumber people nearly five to one. Or that they’ve rocked a cave outside Berlin.
“We’ve played some places with really low standards,” Gustavsson says in his best diplomatic tone. “Sometimes there wasn’t even electricity in these places. But it’s good to learn things from scratch. Tour life is different. Stuff like that makes you not so afraid when you’re on the road. It proves you can handle anything.”
Honestly, it doesn’t matter if Division of Laura Lee is playing a gravel pit or a presidential dinner; the group is going to rock everyone and everything in the room just the same. The evidence: Black City. Full of clangy, brash riffs and plenty of feedback, the album plays like a Fugazi beach bash, complete with Ian MacKaye doing the Swim. Yes, songs like opening “Need to Get Some” and the guttural “Number One” borrow The Hives’ black-and-white wail, making it easy for some to write the group off as a Xerox. But unlike their Swedish brethren, D.O.L.L. kick open the garage in hopes of broadening their horizons. The bongo-heavy “I Guess I’m Healed” is full of enough melancholy and unrequited love to make Morrissey smile. And “Trapped In” owes as much to Joy Division as it does The Stooges.
Gustavsson says it’s all really just a product of the group’s pedigree. Every member has done time in various hardcore and punk bands. “I played in a group that was really into Minor Threat,” Gustavsson admits. But when the members finally agreed to start Division of Laura Lee in 1997, they originally tried to be a straight soul band. It didn’t really work.
“It’s hard to make something that soulful,” Gustavsson says. “But we learned some things from doing that. There’s an honesty and emotional quality to soul that people don’t really do anymore. We try to use that, but just dress it up in punk rock. We really try to be honest with everything we do and with ourselves. I think it shows. That’s what makes us so great.” Who can argue with that?