Music News

Turbo Charged

Like commandos descending from helicopters in the night, Turbonegro's boisterous irreverence lands just in time to deliver a pinprick of humor to puncture rock's ballooning self-importance. Theirs is a crowd-pleasing blow to the crotch of angst-ridden over-emoters and other phonies, resurrecting the idea that music should be fun and a little transgressive.

Naturally, this gets them in trouble from time to time, as when singer Hank Von Helvete inserted the Swedish Royal Family into "the aristocrats" joke during a show in Sweden.

"He described everyone — the son that everyone knows is a homo but nobody says so. He says, 'One of the girls has an eating disorder,' which is also true, 'and is puking,'" explains founding bassist "Happy Tom" Seltzer, leaving the rest to your imagination. Apparently, there's still a law on the books about insulting the royalty and, initially, the royals threatened to sue.

"Of course, we wanted them to pursue it, but I think after they cooled down, they thought, 'Eh, let's not stir up anything more.' And we're sitting there saying, 'Come on,'" he says, imagining the headline: "Alcoholic with Record Collection and Sailor Cap Sued by King."

Of course, pushing buttons is what Turbonegro does, besides delivering a raucous rock 'n' roll show. With almost 20 years since their formation in the late '80s, there's more than a little water under that bridge, and they've survived a four-year hiatus that only seemed to heighten their popularity. These days, there are more than 1,400 fan clubs around the country and the world whose members are known as "Turbojugends." They're practically a cult.

"A lot of bands start as a riot and end up as a parody. We started out dicking around and it turned into this global youth subculture," Seltzer says with a chuckle.

Turbonegro began with a dark, primitive sound that recalled early, pissed-off Cleveland proto-punkers like Rocket from the Tombs and the Electric Eels. Around the time of the '94 Winter Olympics in their native Norway, the band was touring squats in Germany and came up with the idea of dressing in costumes (in this case, Gore-Tex Olympic jackets and big mustaches).

Several shows were canceled when people thought they were undercover cops, but the dress-up conceit stuck. For a while, they wore blackface and big Afros with little hats stuck to the side of them. Seltzer recalls smoking a joint with Rasta hardcore act Bad Brains before one of those shows.

"They didn't mind; they just wouldn't stop giggling," Seltzer recalls. A year later, they would have the idea of dressing in denim and sailors' caps, peppering their songs with an over-the-top gay aesthetic exemplified by songs such as "Rock Against Ass," "I Got Erection," and, of course, their classic Stones rip, "The Midnight NAMBLA," off their third album, Ass Cobra. It began as a blow against indie orthodoxy. "They wanted an alternative band, and we thought, 'We're going to give them an alternative band. We're going to become a homo band.'"

After Ass Cobra's '96 release, the band underwent a lineup change, which brought on guitarist Euroboy. His arrival signaled a new direction for the band, steering them toward the glam/metal sound of today — a canny mix of AC/DC, Judas Priest, and the New York Dolls, with lyrics by Spinal Tap's David St. Hubbins.

"Ass Cobra was the pinnacle of our punk rock-ness. We felt we had kind of reached as far as you could go at the time," Seltzer says. "[Euroboy's] vision was to take this dark, destructive, very minimalist deathpunk and give it this classic '70s arena-rock edge."

The first album with this new sound, 1998's Apocalypse Dudes, was scheduled to be part of a trilogy, but as they finished a string of sold-out shows across Europe supporting the album, Von Helvete's health became a growing problem. His alcohol and drug abuse culminated in an emergency visit to a psychiatric ward in Milan, Italy, which sounded the death knell for the band.

That lasted until 2002, when the band was persuaded to perform at the Quart Festival in Norway, and ended up booking two more festival dates. In their absence, Turbonegro's popularity had grown exponentially, but they weren't about to reprise the ill feelings of their final tour.

"We said, 'Okay, let's just do this and see how it goes. If we're this terrible, bad band like we were before we broke up, let's just leave it there,'" Seltzer says. "There was a lot of concern."

Fortunately, Von Helvete escaped that dark period in his life, and things have only gotten better for Turbonegro. They completed the trilogy with their 2003 return, Scandinavian Leather, and the '05 follow-up, Party Animals. They also got an unexpected boost from MTV's Jackass, which featured their song "All My Friends Are Dead," and from the spin-off featuring Bam Margera, Viva La Bam, which has featured them as guests in addition to pimping their music.

"So we've got a lot of younger fans now, which is cool because you don't want to play for 40-year-old record collectors for the rest of your life," Seltzer says. "Plus, the young kids sort of alienate the older fans, which I think is cool. It is sort of like punk rock in the States, when the suburban kids came in and beat the shit out of the art school people. I like it."

Turbonegro's currently supporting a new album, Retox, their antidote to the rehab craze. It features more outrageous tracks, including "Stroke the Shaft," "We're Gonna Drop the Atom Bomb," and their ode to balding hair metal frontmen, "Hell Toupée." It's another dose of loud, bracing, rock 'n' roll that's quite smart in how dumb it is. "Our fans are the smartest kids and the dumbest kids," Seltzer says. "Everyone else listens to Coldplay."

Of course, those looking for the old faux-mo erotic stage show and costumes may be disappointed to hear that the gay theme has been retired. "Homo became so mainstream, with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and all the metrosexual stuff, where everyone is into food and aesthetics. We said, 'What kind of thing can we do to be unpopular now?' and in Europe, it's to be American," Seltzer says. "American is the new homo."

So, according to Turbonegro, you may want to pick up some leather chaps if you're traveling abroad — it's better if they think you're gay.