Whoever said that modern life is rubbish had a point. The four members of Blues Pills would probably agree, at least if their music is anything to go by. This Swedish/French/American collective may all have been born this side of 1988, but in their world every day is 1969.
Happily, the retro bubble – where psych-tinged blues riffs punch through the smoke; where Peter Green reigns supreme; where tie-dyed cheesecloth isn’t so much a fashion choice as a state of mind – suits Blues Pills. And people love them for it. During a recent show in Sweden one male fan even stripped naked. “His belt-buckle flew in my face,” singer Elin Larsson says with a laugh. “I was like: ‘Dude, put your clothes back on, seriously!’”
Thankfully there’s no aversion to clothes on this sunny morning in Vienna. Instead I’m greeted outside the city’s stately Belvedere Palace by a shyly smiling bundle of old-school hair and new-school hoodies ready for a photo session. Blues Pills are in town to play a headline gig at the less stately Arena Wien, a show that will mark a step on their journey from unsteady novices to a fully fledged force of nature.
In photographs, the Rapunzel locks and steady gazes of core songwriting duo Larsson (25, Swedish) and bassist Zack Anderson (24, American) exude statuesque elegance. Guitarist Dorian Sorriaux (19, French) has a porcelain pallor. Sitting together today they look like gothic rag dolls – tiny, pale vampire children blinking against the bright sun. Later, in the palace’s immaculate gardens, they relax when quizzed on their fondness for pre-1980 music.
“Back then it was so much more honest, with so much more emotion than today,” Larsson enthuses. “I don’t know if sixty years from now people will still listen to Britney Spears, but they’re going to listen to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.”
Blues Pills’ self-titled debut album – hell, let’s be properly old-school and call it an LP – is as pre-1980 as it gets. But while praise has been heaped on it, that has been countered by accusations that the band’s devotion to the past is a bit… well, past it.
“It is true, that’s the main criticism we get,” Anderson concedes, in a slow American drawl. “Some people are turned off immediately just because of that style. We want to sound like a new band. But we want to keep that organic quality.”
Sure, Blues Pills aren’t the only ones who are mining the past: they share a spirit, and a dress sense, with such fellow retro-travellers as Graveyard and Kadavar. Although not, Larsson insists, much else. “That’s the thing with genres like ‘retro rock’,” she says. “You put all these bands in one little box but they all sound different. I don’t think if you’re a major fan of Kadavar, for example, you’re going to be a fan of Blues Pills, because we sound completely different.”
The roots of Blues Pills go back three years and several thousand air miles. Larsson grew up in the mountainous north of Sweden, downhill skiing and smoking cigars by the time she was 12. “Me and a friend had ‘cigar Sundays’,” she grins. “We listened to Bob Marley and smoked cigars.” Smoke-filled Sundays led to a school-age dalliance with disco metal. “I fixed my hair in an Afro. We covered Donna Summer, ABBA… then put metal into it.” School was less enjoyable, though: “I had trouble focusing. I had a lot of energy.”
Across the Atlantic, the young Anderson was an academic and sporting ace. “I was the quarterback on the football team,” he says. “Then when I turned thirteen I got a guitar and my life just became about music. It was like an addiction, finding weird swamp-blues from the sixties and seventies that nobody knows about any more.”
In 2011, after getting fired from a waitressing job, Larsson decided to travel to California to “find herself”. It was there that she met Anderson and original drummer Cory Berry (since replaced by 21-year-old Swede André Kvarnström). Doing their bit for the aviation industry, the trio moved to Örebro, Sweden to develop Blues Pills – named after an obscure German music blog, rather than any fondness for head-scrambling Fleetwood Mac/Alice In Wonderland-inspired lysergics.
When it came to adding a guitarist, Anderson immediately thought of Sorriaux, who had opened for one of the bassist’s old bands at a gig in France. Sorriaux was a 16-year-old prodigy whose mature playing belied his tender years. He was keen to join the band, although it did mean abandoning a budding career as a freestyle scooter rider. “I did tricks, I had sponsorship,” he says in halting English. “But when I wanted to play guitar it was more hurtful for my fingers.”
With Sorriaux in place, Blues Pills were ready to go. An EP, 2012’s Bliss, brought them to the attention of indie label Nuclear Blast, who released their debut album this year, and watched it on to reach No.4 in Germany.
While Blues Pills are good, they’re not great – at least not yet. In July they played a showcase at London’s St Pancras Old Church, which showed up the flaws in their stagecraft. In between singing their big, impassioned songs, Larsson shuffled awkwardly. Her voice was tremendous, but true rock-star wattage was just out of reach. “Yeah, I never know what to say,” she sighs. “I was always like it in school. But I don’t want to put on an act. I do think we’re more confident now.”
She may have a point. At tonight’s gig – which takes place in the 1,000-capacity, heavily graffiti’d Arena Wien – something clicks. The venue is packed with tattooed Austrians, and Blues Pills seem both smokier and more steely eyed. The hunger and ferocity that was missing a few months ago now seems to be in place. Earlier, Larsson had told me how she fires herself up for a show: “Sometimes I eat lemons before I go on. You get a kick. If you’re feeling tired you just slice up lemons and eat them instantly. You can’t chicken out, you have to just throw it in.”
There’s no chickening out tonight. As Larsson suggests, the band’s live show are finally catching up with the album. If they can come up with one or two more killer songs they’ll be the perfect package. What their disrobing fans will think then is anyone’s guess.