The irony of being a Norwegian band is that, even though your country's original-music scene is roughly as large as that of a medium-sized American city, it's still somewhat difficult to make an impression. Granted, the country has recently yielded a crop of ethereal electronica like Royksopp, and Norway's next-door neighbors in Sweden have all but reignited a garage-rock craze. But for years, the instant musical association with Norway has been churches burnt by homicidal death-metal bands. And that's a hard association to overcome. For the past 15 years, Oslo's Turbonegro has been doing their best to do just that.
"Three of us are from this tiny place outside Oslo where all the black-metal bands come from," says Turbonegro bassist Happy-Tom. "We were trying to figure out what's the only thing scarier to most people than Satanists who burn down churches. That's being a homosexual rock band. Gay culture in the '70s is where it was at."
And '70s gay culture was precisely the thematic overload that made Turbo-negro's 1996 "Ass Cobra" such a surprisingly influential album. Turbonegro had been releasing impressive slabs of post-grunge "death punk" since 1990, generating consistent -- if minimal -- affection for it. Unable to shake their audiences out of a collective stupor via their music, the band thought it might be an attention-getter to go on stage in blackface. Yeah, a band called Turbonegro started to bring it Jolson-style.
"We played with the Bad Brains once -- in blackface and Afro wigs -- and we sat around having fun after the show," says Happy-Tom. "They thought we were the best support band they ever had.
"[Our name] is just really fast and black. Like a black mamba or blacksnake. It's not this negative, racist image that people have. There's more Funkadelic in our band than in most R&B bands."
Despite what would have seemed a recipe for, if not success, at least notoriety, the band still found themselves playing for barely a dozen people. A new approach was necessary and the coupling of the 'Negro's unmitigated rock power with some ultrasleazy and ultracliché gay imagery was just what the doctor ordered for "Ass Cobra." Stacked with tracks like "The Midnight NAMBLA," "I Got Erection" and other more "typical" fare like "Turbonegro Hate the Kids" and "Hobbit Motherfuckers," "Ass Cobra" burrowed its way into the consciousness of various rock cognoscenti ranging from Jello Biafra to Dave Grohl, artists who still loudly sing Turbonegro's praises. That the album cover looked like a cross between "Pet Sounds" and an ad for a Berlin bathhouse probably helped a bit too.
With the 1998 follow-up, "Apocalypse Dudes," the ante was appropriately upped. Though Turbonegro's image-tweaking for the recording was probably an homage to their obvious love of Alice Cooper (witness "Zillion Dollar Sadist" for further clues), the reconfiguration resulted in a look that was more a King Diamond-fronted, denim-clad Village People and a sound immersed in a previously unexplored territory between Sweet and Motorhead.
"We think rock should be flamboyant, but we're not a joke band," says Happy-Tom. "We're just heavy, and we're just music fans. We like everything from Funkadelic to Venom. We wear it on our sleeves."
Fans who had been converted by "Ass Cobra" were proselytizing after "Apocalypse Dudes," and it appeared that Turbonegro was finally poised to put a new kind of scariness on the face of Norwegian music. It turned out to be the perfect time for the band to disappear.
"We got torn apart and out-psyched by chemical imbalances in the brain," says Happy-Tom. "We'd been touring for years, playing for 10 people. It was escalating, but at the same time, people in the band had bad habits and [bad] psychiatric diagnoses. It was impossible to keep going."
After vocalist Hank Von Helvete's increasingly erratic behavior landed him in a Milan psychiatric ward during a 1998 European tour, it was decided that the years of uphill struggle weren't worth it, and the band called it quits. But their reputation grew with evangelical fervor in their absence. Once-underground rockers like Queens of the Stone Age had found bigger and louder stages to preach the gospel of Turbonegro from. Much to the band's surprise, they found that quite a few other bands had been sufficiently influenced by Turbonegro's power to commit tracks to a 2001 tribute album, "Alpha Motherfuckers." Such homage was inspiring -- and surprising -- to the band.
"Everybody was talking about us," says Happy-Tom of how Turbonegro's reputation grew during their retirement. "Whenever we'd play Sweden, half of our audience was three of four of the guys in The Hives whose parents had driven them, so they've been real supportive since they became popular. Whenever [Queens of the Stone Age] come to Oslo, we have a really big party. They'd seen us in Texas and California in '95 and '97 and they were huge fans. Black-metal kids in Norway love us. Satyricon and Mayhem play Turbonegro covers. There's 27 Turbonegro tribute bands around the world. We never had any fame or anything, so it's insane to see that."
Given such idolatry, and the fact that, according to Happy-Tom, the band was "healthy and speaking to one another," it seemed only natural for Turbonegro to give it another shot. The enthusiastic response to a handful of reunion shows at European festivals provided further convincing, and it was "decided to make the magic happen again."
Now signed to hot Swedish label Burning Heart (Refused, Division of Laura Lee, The Hives), Turbonegro recently saw "Ass Cobra" and "Apocalypse Dudes" reissued after being largely unavailable for some time. Though the releases are good primers, little can prepare audiences for the assault Turbonegro will deliver as the opening act for Queens of the Stone Age's U.S. tour. But between those shows and the May release of "Scandinavian Leather" (surely Turbonegro's finest hour yet), it does look as though the days of denim are upon us.