- Rock revisionists: The Raveonettes offer a new twist on gritty greaser rock.
The Raveonettes come on like your classic slick European, yanking up America's musical roots, then standing there with the limp weeds and a smirk on their purty faces. A cursory pass over the Denmark duo's 2002 debut, Whip It On, might reinforce this stereotype. The sound of their electro-buzz guitars over droning processed beats, led by coolly detached vocals, is all très Sprockets. But spin it for a while, wear the sheen off a bit, and you'll realize this ain't no snarky art-school project. There's an inherent hold on the basic liberating beat of the American rock and roll it plunders that can't help but reflect a deep appreciation of the music -- rather than the expected ironic ennui.
There's a lot of this nostalgic rock revisionism going on throughout the Raveonettes' home continent these days. Young combos (Hives, Sahara Hotnights) that neither totally embrace nor deny "retro" influences are ingesting all the old noise, letting it wash around their guts, then belting out something fresh. The Raveonettes get their motor running with the devolved sneer of such mid-'70s-cool creeps as the Cramps and Suicide -- especially Suicide singer Alan Vega's subsequent lost solo records of the early '80s.
It's hard enough to find those albums here, so imagine tracking them down in Denmark. With no indie record stores teeming with opinionated shopkeeps, no hip rock dives to trade tips in, Raveonettes singer-guitarist Sune Rose Wagner did most of his youthful musical hunting in . . . libraries.
"It would have been great to have someone give me the stuff," Wagner says with a sigh. "There wasn't anyone around me who knew about old music. I would just go to the library and take out lots of records." Here was this wide-eyed Dane, devouring everything from the Stooges to the Gories, Sonic Youth to Buddy Holly, all at about the same time, with none of the chronological this-begat-that baggage of most indie fans. "I'd just read about some band and go check it out."
All those visits to the library eventually spurred Wagner to delve into way-reverbed greaser rock twisted by Evol-era Sonic Youth atmospherics, B-movie noir lyrics, and even sampling -- from lost '50s strip-club tunes to police sirens. Wagner's playing, paired with the smoky vocals of female bassist Sharin Foo, yields a sexiness absent from almost anything in rock today.
Despite the free-floating musical scavenging this pair indulges in, Wagner lays down some strict rules when it comes to making music: no solos, no songs much longer than three minutes, and no more than one key on each record (since abandoned). Is it that detached Euro artiness rearing its pointy head?
"Well, that all came about because of my travels," Wagner says.
Around '94, he ditched the dusty stacks of Denmark's libraries for the blacktop highways of America. "I went back and forth, I'd work a little, go over to America, come back, work," he says. "I stayed mainly in New York City. Then I settled in L.A. for a couple of months. That's where I got the inspiration for this band. I saw all these terrible pop-punk bands, so I started doing songs as a reaction to what I'd seen. I was into the Dogme school of filmmaking and figured I'd lay some rules on my music, like they did in those films, just to make sure I didn't do anything like that pop punk."
The Raveonettes aren't all about grad-student-style musical research. Wagner's got the leering heart of a rebel, which lends a defiant edge to his band's pulsing rock.
"I was hoping people would get angry at us for all the 'strict rules' talk," he says. "We got horrible reviews in Denmark. They hated us. So growing up there was a good experience because, well, it made you want to leave. We had no intention of promoting the record there. Not until we got some press in the U.K. and the rest of Europe did we get back home, and now we've won some awards and stuff. Whatever."
Talk of the band's acclaim in the U.K. press leads to the inevitable White Stripes comparisons, which dog the Raveonettes in most every article. Yes, the Raveonettes are a guy/gal duo, and certainly the success of the White Stripes rang some editors' phones for them. But both bands formed about the same time. And while the White Stripes use every modern marketing technique to get the word out that modern culture sucks, Wagner speaks more about new faves such as Interpol and the Kills. He delights in the seamy underbelly of Americana new and old, with no qualms about tossing that on top of processed drums and coming up with something futuristic.
The Raveonettes also admit to an open affinity for artful conceptualists: Jesus & Mary Chain and Kraftwerk figure in this duo's sound as much as their favorite rockabilly. There's a devil-may-blare feel, as the Raveonettes mix their roots like so much Stoli and orange, with no trace of the Catholic guilt of many artful U.S. indie rockers, who feel a need to defend their influences. "I don't care about things people write," Wagner says. "We're just doing what we like. We're just going to keep going."