Class Of 2015: Blues Pills & Von Hertzen Brothers

Scandinavia might be known for its dark winters and even darker metal scene, but the Stockholm that greets us today is decidedly bright – all sunbathed streets and sparkling waters. Continuing our journey through the cream of current rock’n’roll, we’re here with two of Scandinavia’s prime representatives: Finland’s long-serving, eclectic rock heroes the Von Hertzen Brothers (okay, Finland is technically Nordic, but culturally it’s considered Scandinavian by most of the world) and Sweden’s psychedelic, 60s-minded newbies Blues Pills. The mission: to delve into some local record shopping and see what Scandi tastes and home truths emerge.

Our first stop is the spacious Pet Sounds. Inside it’s an Aladdin’s cave of fantastic plastic, where Sweden’s recent Eurovision triumph seems obsolete. Keeping up with everyone is like herding cats. The Finns grab classic rock staples, while Blues Pills vocalist Elin Larsson pores over old soul. The two youngest Pills, Andre Kvanstrom (amiable, moustached drummer) and 19-year-old Dorian Sorriaux (very French-sounding French guitarist) land eagerly on Townes Van Zandt’s Nashville Sessions. “Dorian introduced me,” says Kvanstrom. “It’s really cool to see it in vinyl the first time.”

Blues Pills bassist (and Iowa native) Zack Anderson settles at the rear of the shop, rifling through Swedish LPs with the considered speed of an engrossed vinyl fanatic. “This is a really good Swedish folky psychedelic record,” he says, pulling out a record by Pugh Rogefeldt. “I discovered more of this after I moved here. But one of my favourite bands before I moved was also Swedish, called November.”

He sifts through a few more sleeves, grinning at one by 60s psych-rockers Clear Light. “I think this might be where we stole our cover art,” he says, as Mikko Von Hertzen brandishes a deluxe copy of Blues Pills’ debut.

As we learn over a few Mariestads later, Sweden is actually a difficult place to crack for a new rock band. “We haven’t really ‘broken’ Sweden yet!” Anderson admits sheepishly.

“We’ve always had a bit of a problem playing in Sweden,” Larsson adds. With her outlined eyes and retro attire, she looks rather like a young Twiggy. “We don’t get booked here. I’m not sure why. For some reason it’s gone better for us elsewhere. The first time we played Helsinki was sold out. That would never happen in Sweden, which is weird.”

It does seem weird, given that the country has long held its own on the world’s rock stage. Indeed, away from the pop of ABBA, Sweden has proved itself more than capable of producing great rock acts, from the punk of Backyard Babies to melodic rock kings Europe, the Hives, Opeth…

“Opeth have done well everywhere except Sweden,” Anderson says, grinning. “These guys [VHB] said they toured with them here and the shows were small.”

Mikko nods: “But then we were in Eastern Europe with the same guys and they were really big there. Somehow, in Scandinavia, especially Sweden, it feels like rock music doesn’t really go anywhere. Within the region, that is.”

Seemingly, while there is good rock music in Scandinavia, it has to go abroad in order to find its real audience. From Sweden, specifically.

“But not Finland, we’re Number One there,” Mikko says with a laugh. “It’s different though, because Kie, our brother [absent today due to family commitments], was already a star from being in Don Huonot, one of Finland’s biggest bands, so our family name was known. And of course we had that heavy metal thing for years. It used to be almost mainstream, with all the Nightwishes, Apocalypticas and HIMs. Nightwish are still huge, but none of the labels here are signing rock bands any more.”

His sentiments are echoed in the shop, as Jonne Von Hertzen rifles through some electronica. The softly spoken bassist/vocalist (and keen birdwatcher) stands out from his Scandi peers, under poker-straight streaks of dark hair. “Hip-hop is the only real mainstream music in Finland today. Hip-hop and EDM,” he tells us. “There aren’t really ‘scenes’ for rock here. There are rock bands, but they play on smaller, underground stages.”

“There is a big underground rock scene in Sweden as well,” Larsson says, looking up from the Black Sabbath LPs she and Mikko have been browsing. “You can see more and more people are turning to this underground scene, but they’re not going to be huge.”

“What’s the biggest rock band in Sweden now?” Jonne asks.

“Europe!” Mikko cuts in.

“Oh God,” she sighs, before pondering the question. “But no, probably In Flames.”

“And Graveyard, more recently,” Anderson adds.

Indeed, cutting their teeth in Sweden, Blues Pills had a classy local mix to look up to – as well as their beloved early Black Sabbath. The glow of Junip, Dungen, Jose Gonzalez and Soundtrack Of Our Lives reached across Scandinavia.

“In Finland, rock-wise we only really have Michael Monroe and us,” Mikko says. “I mean, we listened to a lot of international stuff.”

Jonne: “I listened to local bands when I was a teenager, but for this band it’s been Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, that kind of thing.”

The Finns’ father, Hasse Von Hertzen, played in Finnish rock bands in the 60s. But it was the British and American records he brought home that most affected his sons. In Pet Sounds, from The Who and Pink Floyd, Mikko gravitates to Little Richard, remembering first hearing him as a child.

“That’s the difference with French people!” Sorriaux perks up. “French radio is mainly French language. So a lot of French music stays in France while Swedish music travels across the world. And Swedes speak better English than French people.”

“Swedes learn English like this [snaps fingers],” Jonne adds, “because it comes from the same tree. So their songs translate better internationally.”

Having left Pet Sounds, Blues Pills lead us to another store. Eventually we find ourselves in the smaller, edgier An Ideal For Living, where vintage crockery sits with LP boxes, from which Jonne pulls out Crosby Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu. We head down to the basement to find plastic crates crammed with vinyl. Larsson, perusing stacks of new Swedish releases, reminisces about her school ‘disco metal’ band days. “I was in a Black Sabbath tribute at school as well,” she adds, “and then I was in an all girl stoner rock band.”

This can-do creativity is possibly symptomatic of Scandinavian schooling, where greater priority is given to the arts. “You can put your kid in music classes for free,” Mikko explains later. “And getting practice space is really easy and affordable. If you have an inclination towards music in Scandinavia, it’s given to you.”

Supplementing this artistic encouragement, the dramatic Scandinavian outdoors played a major part in both bands’ upbringing. The Von Hertzens spent summers kayaking and hiking, while Blues Pills skied through fir trees, all against a backdrop of beautiful lakes and islands. The flip side, however, is the long winters and lack of sunlight. In a part of the world known for its high levels of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), the prevailing temperament must be affected. And, consequentially, the kind of music produced.

“The darkness during winters can definitely be an inspiration for songwriters,” Larsson muses, “because of that kinda depressed, mystic feeling you can get. And where I grew up in the north, it was so cold in winter you had to stay inside. So you had to do something. I started writing songs.”

Mikko: “It is a weird experience for most people to come here in the summer and realise: ‘Fuck! It’s eleven o’clock at night and the sun is up.’ But we’re used to it. You stay up late, but then you sleep as long as the alcohol is in you.”

All agree that Scandinavian drinking starts at a young age, in earnest. “You’ll eat, then have a shot of vodka, and another,” Jonne says.

This outlook probably feeds into the national music, the Von Hertzens argue. “Finnish writing tends to have more of a Russian influence, it’s more melancholy. Whereas there’s a lightness in Swedish melodies,” Mikko says. “There’s a subtle mood difference.

“Finns are maybe a bit more… dark?” Anderson suggests.

“Yeah, the song always ends with, like, ‘no hope!’” Mikko deadpans, to much laughter.

This contrast in mood possibly comes down to Finland’s background with Sweden – or, more specifically, its weaker music business history. Apart from Hanoi Rocks, until recently most Finnish bands didn’t even have managers.

“The thing is, these guys haven’t fought a war in ages!” Mikko says. “It all boils down to World War Two, fighting the Russians while the Swedish were playing table tennis or something.”

Larsson: “Yeah, Swedes are shy. We seem to take control, then we let Hitler take over Norway and we’re just like: ‘Pass through, we’re neutral.’”

“Sweden ruled over Finland for six hundred years,” Mikko points out, “after which Finland was ‘given’ to Russia before we became independent. Sweden has always been like this happy big brother of Finland.”

“I’m proud to be a Finn,” Mikko says. “Finns are true and unpretentious. But in our eyes they’re [gesturing to Blues Pills] excelling in everything they do: Ikea, H&M, the best pop music in the world… Somewhere there’s always a Swedish person involved.”

It’s time to leave An Ideal For Living. Larsson leans against the record stacks outside, smoking a cigarette, while Mikko basks in the sun. They’re a chic Scandi pair, hopeful for their homeland’s future in rock.“We just want to be a better band, write better songs,” Larsson says, nursing her Bill Withers and Alabama Shakes LPs. “Whether that means breaking America or otherwise.”

“There’s a lot of talent in Scandinavia,” Mikko says thoughtfully. “Lots of good songwriting and high professionalism. The UK especially has such great rock history, but I think there’s something Scandinavia can offer the world.”

Class Of 2015: The New Generation Of Rock Stars

Polly Glass
Deputy Editor, Classic Rock

Polly is deputy editor at Classic Rock magazine, where she writes and commissions regular pieces and longer reads (including new band coverage), and has interviewed rock's biggest and newest names. She also contributes to Louder, Prog and Metal Hammer and talks about songs on the 20 Minute Club podcast. Elsewhere she's had work published in The Musician, delicious. magazine and others, and written biographies for various album campaigns. In a previous life as a women's magazine junior she interviewed Tracey Emin and Lily James – and wangled Rival Sons into the arts pages. In her spare time she writes fiction and cooks.