A Fireside Chat with Gay Norwegian Sailors: An Interview with Turbonegro by Rex Reason

Dec 23, 2003

There's the ridiculous, the sublime, the sublimely ridiculous, the ridiculously sublime, and then there's Turbonegro.

The scene in Los Angeles while Turbonegro shot a video for "Sell Your Body (To The Night)" from their first studio album in five years was like the greatest, sickest circus to never happen. A grizzly bear, pseudo-celebrities famous for backyard stunts, Mexican wolfboys, Academy Award-nominated directors, transvestites, and denim-clad Norwegian men in inch-thick makeup who sing about the North American Man-Boy Love Association were all in attendance.

You have to expect a particularly potent brand of darkness from a country as far north as Norway. Formed in Norway at the tail end of the 80s, Turbonegro didn't hit their stride until the mid-90s with the homoeroticly-charged shock punk of Ass Cobra. The band had morphed from a standard punk outfit to a denim-clad, mustachioed hardcore homosexual dream come true. Living in the heart of the church-burning, rival band-killing Norwegian black metal scene pushed the band to come up with the one thing that could scare the black metallers: flagrant, flaunted homosexuality. Songs like "Sailor Man' and "Midnight NAMBLA" backed their visual cues with a sonic punch.

Shortly after the release of Ass Cobra, personnel changes within the band brought in guitar virtuoso Euroboy and drummer Chris Summers. These additions, a shift in songwriting and refinement of the band's image all came together to produce Turbonegro's widely hailed Apocalypse Dudes in 1998. Less GG Allin and more Alice Cooper than the band's previous work, this album was the culmination of the band's decade long punk aesthetic and homoerotic image with the hard rock of Cheap Trick, KISS, and T Rex. Jello Biafra declared that Apocalypse Dudes was "possibly the most important European record ever."

Just as the band was ready to capitalize on the album, disaster struck. Singer Hank von Helvete had a heroin-related nervous breakdown and the band broke up before the US release of Apocalypse Dudes. Somehow, the band became bigger than ever. A tribute album featuring an eclectic mix of punk, metal, alt-rock, and Euro-pop groups followed a few years later. Then it was announced that Turbonegro would reform for a few European festival dates in the summer of 2002, nearly four years following their meltdown. The news got even better for loyal Turbojugend ("Turbo Youth") as the band announced a new album to be released on Burning Heart/Epitaph in the Spring of 2003. The band then embarked on their first US tour in 5 years with a mix of sold out headlining dates and opening slots for Queens of the Stone Age.

Happy Tom: When you wake up remembering how fucked up you were, "Fuck, man, I was bad Mongo last night."
Hank von Helvete: That's actually how we started doing it because we were like, "I was so drunk last night I was total mongoloid."
Rex Reason: Are you familiar with Happy Tom's Hamburgers here in Los Angeles?
Unidentified: That's where I was going to take you. It's right where we're shooting tomorrow. We should pick up a shot where you walk in.
Tom: It could look like one of those cheap commercials on American television. "Hi, this is Bob!"
Unidentified: "I'm Happy Tom for Happy Tom's Burgers!"
Tom: Happy Tom's burger empire. I started with 2 empty hands and 2 buns.
Hank: I saw that in Illinois it was like Ray's Gun Store. "You buy a Winchester, you get a small Derringer in the deal! I don't wanna make any money, I just LOOOOVE selling guns!" And he looked like Buffalo Bill.
Rex: Is the acceptance of leather a new philosophy for Turbonegro?
Tom: No, we just did it because German journalists we knew they'd be focusing on denim, because they're so meticulous. "You wear denim, and now leather. Why is this?!".
Hank: And this (points to exposed chest) is Scandinavian leather.
Rex: Human flesh?
Hank: Only cloth with nipples.
Rex: Are American journalists as anal as the German journalists?
Tom: No, much cooler.
Rex: Is denim still king?
Hank: Yeah. It's what we wear. That's our second skin.
Tom: And it's blue. 'Cause that's the color of… if you take ultraviolet photos of frogs and other animals fornicating, they radiate a blue aura. So that's what we're like.
Hank: On the astral level.
Tom: It's like Hank says, he's omnipotent. He's got an erection everywhere.
Rex: How much of the homosexual image is fact and how much is fiction?
Both: Yes.
Hank: That's our answer to that.
Rex: Has there ever been backlash against Turbonegro from the homosexual community?
Hank: No, they're kind of contemporaries.
Tom: What are they going to do, hit us with their purses?
Hank: They're actually embracing us.
Tom: Yeah, we've got a lot of homo fans.
Hank: It's actually cool. They think it's cool that heterosexuals are making this homo statement.
Rex: So you do admit that there are heterosexuals in Turbonegro?
Hank: There are some closet heterosexuals.
Tom: Periodically.
Rex: Does Turbonegro get more male or female groupies?
Hank: Actually more females, but quite hot females, too. We used to have what we called groupers. No girls. Just boys coming in to talk about groups. Bands.
Rex: Have you ever seen the mouth on a grouper fish?
Tom: Yeah, they have big lips.
(A man walks by with his thong underwear pulled high over the top of his sweatpants)
Rex: Is Turbonegro the greatest Norwegian band ever?
Hank: Wrong. We're worldwide. We don't consider ourselves a Norwegian band. We consider ourselves a European band.
Tom: North Atlantic.
Hank: A NATO band.
Rex: Are you greatest NATO band ever?
Hank: Greater.
Rex: What about the UK?
Hank: We're a Western band.
Tom: The UK Subs? Yeah, we're better than them.
Rex: Do you feel that Scandinavian Leather is as corrupt as predicted?
Hank: Ice cold and corrupt?
Tom: Yeah, it's pretty corrupt. It's kind of like Los Angeles in the late 80s. That was a very corrupt period for hard music. Big hair, Sunset Strip. But it's also Detroit 1973 and Stalingrad 1943 all blended in one record. And actually, seriously, it could have been much more mainstream. It's rawer than Apocalypse Dudes. A lot of naysayers, people that play in other bands in Scandinavia, they don't like us because we're so great. They say they like us, but they don't. They talk shit. "Yeah, Turbo got together again for the money. They're just going to make a mediocre record and take the money and run," and we made our best record ever. I really wouldn't say that if I didn't think so.

Rex: How do you feel about the Scandinavian rock thing?
Tom: Sucks ass.
Hank: We don't want to be a part of that. We don't like to be put into that group. We're a deathpunk band.
Tom: We've got more in common with the black metal bands because that's the guys we grew up with.
Rex: And the success of bands like the Hives?
Tom: Yeah, but they're great. Because they weren't part of any like hierarchy, weren't part of any "scene", and they just became huge. And when we played for like 12 people in the middle of nowhere in Sweden in like 1996, all the Hives guys would always be there. Fifteen years old, they would have their moms drive them to our shows.
Rex: And these bands that said you were getting back together for the money, do you mean like the Hellacopters?
Tom: Yeah, they said like, "I don't know why Turbonegro even broke up in the first place…I don't want to comment on their reunion." It's like they're making it suspicious. You know that Hank almost died four times in 1998 from heroin? And that's more important than being from fucking Sweden and dressing up like Lynyrd Skynyrd. I like Lynyrd Skynyrd, but I don't fucking dress up like them. We take our costumes off when we go offstage. Maybe somebody else should start doing that too. Like Soundtrack of Our Lives are pretty cool. Great people, a great band. Scandinavia used to be a good hardcore center. There are cool bands like Amulet and JR Ewing.
Rex: Euroboy produced Scandinavian Leather along with Turbonegro?
Tom: Yeah, he was like the lead, main producer. He was the main man on the production.
Rex: There are some Euroboy influences too, like flutes on "Ride With Us". Hank: We're taking that Phil Spector thing. Euroboy is very focused on good productions and to have a difference between being in a studio and playing it live. They're two different things. When you are in a studio you have lots of possibilities and the resources to create a studio recording. When you play it live, you're doing something totally different.
Tom: We don't like low-fi either. "Oh, this record is 40 minutes long and we recorded it in 22 minutes." It doesn't give your music more soul. You can spend a week on one song. We want to get it right and we want it to be perfect. Don't waste your life trying to be mediocre.
Hank: You know, that's the version of the song that's going to stand forever. A live version disappears after the song is done.
Tom: I even know bands that won't do a second take of a song, even if the first take is bad, but they know the song is good.
Hank: Some evil tongues say like, "Oh, Turbonegro is having strings and flutes, I'd like to see that live," and they get it all wrong. That was never the point.
Rex: How did the move to Burning Heart/Epitaph come about?
Tom: Because when we got together for these summer shows (summer 2002), we said, "OK, if we sound good this summer let's keep going." Because Hank was in good shape, we all wanted to do it again. We never wanted to break up in the first place. We did the shows and they were great. We listened to the recordings and we sounded better than ever so why shouldn't we get together? We'd already talked to labels because labels were all over us because at that time if you were from Scandinavia and playing electric guitar anybody could get signed to a major. So it's not like out of political reasons. But, if you signed to a major label during the middle of some Scandinavian hype, then the A&R guy that signs you, he's not going to be there in 8 months because they're only half a year. And then nobody at that label knows who you are and they don't give a shit. So Burning Heart, they were on us even back in the day when we were still together, so they came to talk to us, and we decided to go with them because that's the only label where people that work there have Turbonegro tattoos, and they're not going to be fired in the next year. So we're the only Scandinavian band on an indie now, I think. We come from the same…I've been in punk bands for 22 years, and I don't plan on quitting being in a punk band or being a punk.
Rex: How do you like American pizza?
Tom: It's pretty good. Large slices.
Hank: New York pizza is very good.
Rex: You should have toured Chicago.
Tom: Oh yeah, they have great pizza.
Hank: The thing with American pizza is that you actually just go and get a sauce and cheese pie and you don't have to have any toppings on it and it's a great pizza anyway. European pizza or Italian pizza you have put on lots of meat and shit to get a good taste.
Rex: Tired of playing for ugly American hipsters yet?
Hank: No. We played for a lot of good-looking people here. We played for a punk crowd and they were not kids you know, they were grown up.
Tom: A lot of talent in this town.
Hank: We saw, like, good-looking punk chicks. In Europe if you're an ugly girl you become a punk. You fight like, the "beauty dictatorship." But in L.A., if you're a good-looking girl you can be a punk chick.
Tom: We are a beauty dictatorship. Our motto is the better you look, the more you're seen, and now we get to see America. We get to see the big halls of America with Queens of the Stone Age.
Rex: How did you like touring with them?
Tom: Awesome. They treated us well. Like we were saying, they're starting to get so big now, and then all major labels they just signed a new band, they pay bands like Queens a lot of money to bring their little band on the tour as an opening act. It's like a promotional budget thing. The Queens had a list of 50 of these bands and they just tore it up and said, "We're bringing over Turbo." So they flew us over and they paid us money. Really good guys. They're an awesome band.
Hank: We weren't treated as an opening band.
Tom: They treated it like a double bill.
Hank: The thing is there's always the hierarchy, the difference between the opening band and the headlining band, but they were like "whatever is ours is yours." Even though we got a smaller backstage room, we wouldn't hang out there. We would just go and hang out with them.
Tom: And they'd go complain; they always went and checked our room to see. If it was too shitty, they'd complain. They took really good care of us. They gave us half their booze.
Rex: They're known for being a hard-partying band.
Tom: So are we.
Hank: We used to.
Rex: Were their fans ready for you?
Tom: Yeah. We won their fans over, a lot of them. I'm sure, some of them were skeptical, but can't win 'em all. A lot of people came out to see us, too.
Hank: Some of them were travelling far.
Tom: There was a kid who flew in from Argentina for a little show in Florida.
Rex: Your English is great. Is English commonly taught in Norway?
Both: Yeah.
Hank: We don't dub movies, we just subtitle everything. So when you're a kid you go to school, you learn English, that's mandatory. And all the TV shows are imported because we're such a small country so we don't produce that much TV. So we watch a lot of English and American TV shows and they're always subtitled into Norwegian. In other countries they would dub it, put on Italian. Clint Eastwood speaking Italian, but we get the real version with subtitles. So, we learn English.
Rex: What did the various members do while Turbonegro was inactive?
Tom: I was a market analyst and I taught consumer behavior at the business school in Oslo.
Hank: I did rehab. I worked at a museum.
Rex: Euroboy produced records?
Hank: Yeah, and did the Euroboys. Rune Rebellion was their manager and Chris was also in the Euroboys. Pål sold the pizza shop, Pamparius, and he went to New Zealand. He went to film school for 2 years.
Rex: Is he involved in the shoot today?
Tom: He's involved in it.
Hank: All visual productions Pål has the last say in. In the band he has that responsibility to talk with the director. That's good to have that experience. And now Pål wants to kill me so he put up a scene with me and a grizzly bear.
Rex: Is there a philosophy of darkness?
Tom: Yeah, darkness…it's kind of secret. You don't know what it is. People think if everything is transparent they see the whole picture, but they don't.
Hank: We've always been a dark band and had that element of darkness.
Tom: We're taking darkness back from the goths.
Rex: There was only one ass rocket on the tour?
Tom: Yeah. New Orleans.
Hank: Yeah, that Great White thing. It's too close.
Rex: Before you broke up last time, Turbonegro seemed to be on the verge of getting relatively big.
Hank: The previous US tours were always a struggle because we were unknown. It's a totally different situation with bands in America than in Europe. There's no catering, you can't even expect to be paid, stuff like that, when you're an unknown band. Even though you've come a long way, they don't treat you better. There's so many bands here, everyone's struggling. You pay to play. But now we came here and we've been treated totally different and welcomed. I think something big is going to happen.
Rex: Last time something big was going to happen there were troubles.
Tom: That doesn't mean there's a pattern. That doesn't mean there's a recurring pattern. Josh Homme said after the third show (with Queens of the Stone Age), "I'm watching you guys in the process of becoming the biggest rock & roll band in the World. Are you ready for that?" And we're like, "Yeah."
Rex: Well, there hasn't been a band the level of like an AC/DC or Guns N' Roses in years.
Tom: We're the new Ramones, goddamn it.
Hank: There's an opening for a band like that. Might as well be us. We even have good music.
Rex: From album to album there has been a bit of a change in the band's sound. It seems with Apocalypse Dudes and Scandinavian Leather there has been more of a consistent sound. Is that sound now Turbonegro?
Tom: Yeah. We're going to try to take it from there and keep going from that level.
Rex: Is that the additions of Chris Summers and Euroboy?
Tom: And everyone else. We got tired of just being the punk band, and we knew we had it in us. I still write most of the music, but we have a new process and Euroboy arranges it, and sprinkles magic powder on it.
Rex: And you used to play drums, and now Chris does.
Tom: Yeah, he's a great drummer. He's a much better drummer. A lot of drummers these days, they go out of their way to use the toms, to use the whole drum kit all the time, the whole song. Chris plays like a Motown drummer. He plays like Hal Blaine, the guy that plays on Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys. Very economic drumming. Kind of like Phil Rudd of AC/DC.
Hank: Really steady. Tom actually never was a drummer in the first place. Even though he played drums, he always was a bass player. And the rhythm line becomes much steadier, and much more reliable when Tom is where he feels comfortable.
Rex: Has it been strange touring America during wartime?
Tom: We don't notice anything. The US is always at war. What's the difference? You know, Tariq Aziz, Saddam's second in command is actually Christian? A couple interesting details that are never discussed. The American press is quiet about that. That's why the Pope is against the war. Heart of Darkness all over again. Everybody goes up the river to get their boy who's starting to do his own solo project and they won't have any of it. Kurtz wasn't a nice guy either, you know.

(Later with Euroboy)
Rex: How was it filming with a live grizzly bear?
Euroboy: It was on the verge of going out of control at any moment, that's what I thought.
Rex: Were the flutes and strings on Scandinavian Leather your additions?
Euroboy: It's not like I tried to make my mark on the album. It's more that I tried to make the best out of every song, make it as good as possible. The outro for "Ride With Us" became almost this evil, psychedelic chord progression and it reminded me a bit of "Interstellar Overdrive" by Pink Floyd. The original idea was that it should just end with just a wild ass guitar solo, but when I listened to the album I thought there was just so much soloing on the album it got kind of tiring, kind of tiring on your ears. So I thought it would be cooler to have a release at the end, as you go into Deathpunk Heaven. And the song's called "Ride With Us", so maybe I'm over-explaining things, but it's sort of "come with us".
Rex: So when we die and go to Deathpunk Heaven, there will be flutes there?
Euroboy: To Valhalla.