The Hives and the creative urge

On stage at NEXT, The Hives’s Pelle Almqvist talked to Fabian Frese about their creative process, and how drugs, money and AI impact it…

Pelle Almqvist’s first creative outlet was painting and drawing; it was what he got his first compliment for. But he stopped — “cold and hard” — when he started the band. He was 14 when he started making music, with almost exactly the same people who are still in the band 30 years later. And it was the forms of creativity that would come to define his life.

“We tried playing other people’s songs, but we weren’t very good at that, and it seemed less interesting than making different sorts of noise,” he says. They’d play all morning, stop for a swim and a sandwich, and then play all afternoon. “It was all we really wanted to do,” he says.

They don’t just make their own music. The band designs their own t-shirts, they were the art directors of the new album.

“If you’re a fan of something, you want everything to come from the thing you’re a fan of, not ten consultants. And for the first seven years, no consultant wanted to work with us. And when they were interested, we knew we could do it without them. We weren’t interested.”

Even when the Hives finally signed to a record label, they didn’t want to relinquish control – and their label respected that.

The Hives’ creative process

The band has an idea phase and a work phase. It can take five minutes to come up with a good idea. But it will then take hours or days to explore 140 different versions of that. He admits that there are sometimes creative tensions in the band — not surprisingly after 30 years together — but they generally serve to push them to create better music than they would have done without that conflict.

“It’s part of the process to make something you hate. I used to think it was doing it wrong is we made a bad song, but if you make a lot of stuff, the chances of some of it being good get better. If you make 300 songs and only three of them are any good, that obviously sucks, but if those three songs give you a way forward, point to where you need to go, you can’t be that mad at it.”

Sometimes they go back and listen to the old version of songs that became hits. That can be a pleasant experience, because they see how much better the songs get over time. But the reverse is also true: when they start writing new songs after two years on tour with an album, the first attempts sound like “the work of children”, as Almqvist puts it, ruefully.

Creating the sound

The Hives aim for a middle ground between AC/DC and David Bowie in their creative approach. They don’t want to be like AC/DC who do the same basic thing every album, but do it incredibly well. But they also don’t want to be David Bowie, who was constantly reinventing his look and music.

“It’s important to us that you can listen to a Hives song and know what era it’s from,” says Almqvist . “We have an identity, and to scratch that and do something completely different feels wrong.”

15 years ago they started letting people use their music on commercials. While not being very punk rock, they had a reason for it. “We got played a lot on rock radio in the states,” he says. “But when we released Black & White, the conglomerates sold all the rock radio stations to Christina talk radio. And, overnight, all the stations who could have played our music became Christian talk stations. So, we had no airplay in the states. “

So, they started saying “yes” to commercials — it was their loophole back into people’s lives. It was a promotional tool they got paid for.

Money and the creative spirit

Is money a help or a hindrance to their creativity? “It depends why you’re creative,” he says. “You can certainly see people lose motivation when they make money, but I think we were’t doing it for money before we made money. We didn’t think we would make money doing punk rock.”

There was a small lull in there creative when they first had money, but they slowly realised that creating music is what they liked the most. “It’s a very strange Western idea that you do something until you make enough money that you don’t have to do it any more. We’re not good at having free time. We bore really easily.”

The pandemic showed them how much they liked touring, for example, even if they complained about it. Their first tour post-pandemic was the first one none of the band members complained about being homesick.

AI and drugs: a creative way forwards?

Almqvist’s experimented with AI a little, mainly for his amusement, but isn’t convinced it would be of use in the band’s creative process. “The point of music and art is not to use AI, it’s about using everything you are, flaws and all, to make a human connection.”

He’s not interested in a perfect work of art — the best art is “fucked up and upside down in some way”.

“Rock’n’roll is something where skill can make you worse. Sometimes it’s better to not know what you’re doing, and AI is the opposite of that.”

He’s not a great believer in drugs as a creative spur. If it’s the drugs, where are you in the process? “Besides, the feeling of 50,000 people scramming at you when you’re playing a song is so amazing without the drugs.”