Translated from German, ‘Große Freiheit’ means ‘Great Freedom’. Indeed, the street from which tonight’s venue takes its name has a history of libertine activity – from legendary rock events to unbridled debauchery. In the 1960s the Beatles played here, and various music nights that survive today were established. From the 1970s a string of new adult theatres, drag nights and squatters began to arrive, gradually turning Hamburg into Germany’s avant-garde bolthole of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.
Today The Beatles are no more, but the sex and drugs remain. The sex part is especially ‘out there’, with a dizzying plethora of neon slogans like ‘SEX HOUSE’ and ‘TITTY TWISTER’ glaring from here and all the way down the infamous ‘Sinful Mile’. But outside Große Freiheit 36, some hours before showtime, an enormous queue of punters suggests that rock’n’roll isn’t doing so badly either. There are teenage girls, laddish groups, greying men in Motörhead T-shirts and everything in between. Tonight’s headliners, Royal Republic, are playing an extra show here because the last one sold out. As we see inside later, this show is stuffed full as well, with fans packed into every crevice.
Having formed in 2007, Royal Republic have quietly become one of Sweden’s most bookable rock exports. These ex-music students started as, in their words, “monkeys with guns” (with bright-eyed, break-neck speed debut We Are The Royal), then cut the chirpy attitude and went all “grunge” (2012’s Save The Nation) before acquiring Stetsons and banjos for 2014’s Royal Republic And The Nosebreakers (essentially a countrified tribute to themselves). It’s been a propulsive, if unpredictable journey, dogged by pressure to conform to traditional rock archetypes.
“In the beginning we tried hard to fit in with the whole ‘rock’n’roll’ thing,” frontman Adam Grahn explains, backstage pre-show. “Hamburg, the Ramones, punk… People wanted us to be so rock’n’roll, and we’re not rock’n’roll in that Mötley Crüe kinda way. Our first record label were actually willing to pay to give us some headlines, y’know ‘will you just trash the bar? We’ll pay for it.’”
This identity crisis was resolved with Weekend Man; last year’s razor-sharp, hit-stuffed fourth record. It’s a masterclass in rock’n’roll entertainment, leaving sell-out crowds across the continent giddy with exuberance.
“I was born with a desire to please, or something like that,” Grahn smiles. “It is highly addictive, making people happy…”
A former (nearly pro) footballer and one-time model, Grahn is attractive in a maverick sort of way. He’s really tall, with a confidently moustachioed look that’s part formal cowboy, part 70s porn star. During tonight’s show, he’ll tell us how, as a child, he was “such a camera whore” (and one guy from the record label will laugh “what’s changed?!”), and dedicate People Say That I’m Over The Top to “all the difficult children here”. Guitarist (and classically trained pianist) Hannes Irengård, Jonas Almén (beardy bassist with an impressive history of skiing accidents) and drummer Per Andreasson (former orchestral percussionist, with the babyface of someone younger than his actual 36 years) complete the line-up. Offstage they’re a charming, cheerfully nerdy foursome; in that inimitably Scandinavian way that’s easy without being smarmy. Today it’s Andreasson’s birthday so his bandmates have bought him a trombone. Like you do.
“It’s much more fun having your birthday on tour,” Andreasson grins. He can’t play the instrument, but takes an enthused stab at it. The tour manager smiles wearily.
Over the years Royal Republic have been called “the new Hives”, “Chuck Norris rock” and “kung fu rock” among other things. Not that they really mind, as long as people like it. Earlier they sound-checked playing Steely Dan and Sting covers, while their stereo plays everything from Bob Dylan to Metallica and Cannibal Corpse. Purists they are not.
“I don’t care what people call it,” Grahn says emphatically. “You can print that it’s rock or punk or funk or ‘it really touched me’. You experience it however you want. We like to think of ourselves as entertainment, pure and simple. I don’t want to mix politics with music. A lot of bands do it really well, but our goal is basically to say ‘come over here [to our show] and forget about your problems for ninety minutes with us, or deal with them if that’s what you feel like doing, for those ninety minutes’”.
Weekend Man, it must be said, was practically tailor-made for such a purpose. As stage time arrives, the band stride out – suited, skinny-jeaned and booted – to the swells of Handel’s Music For The Royal Fireworks; La Rejouissance and hammer down an almighty opening high with When I See You Dance With Another and Walk. Mosh pits break out within two minutes, and while Grahn is generally the loudest personality offstage, onstage all four are firing from all cylinders. No ‘bookends’ in sight.
“Ahh new people!” Grahn booms, having done the regulation ‘who’s seeing us for the first time?’ shout-out. “I love innocence, and ruining it!” The crowd roars in approval.
Perhaps his joie de vivre stems from relief, on some level. Weekend Man took at least 20 months to write, including a trip to Los Angeles for Grahn and Andreasson, where their label hooked them up with professional songwriters. It was a frustrating experience, albeit one that reaped the aforementioned crowd hit When I See You…. Another writer/producer had just snubbed an idea of theirs…
“So me and Per went, furious, to the Rainbow Bar and had about a week’s worth of Jack and Coke in two hours,” Grahn recalls, “then we got behind the wheel and drove back to our place with Zeppelin on the radio, shouting out of the window, just releasing all the fury, this primal scream therapy.”
A three-in-the-morning jam under the stars and another bottle of JD later, the song was conceived and then perfected back home in Sweden.
Are you perfectionists?
“I would definitely say we’re perfectionists. I’m not saying that we are perfect, but it’s annoying how much we can keep tweaking things,” Grahn says. “I could just demo something with an acoustic guitar and send it off to a producer and he could do the job, but it’s rarely just a riff or a vocal line that comes to mind, it’s like a whole Ikea box of stuff; you get all the parts and the brochure and in five minutes we have a chair. Song-writing’s pretty much like Ikea.” He thinks about this for a second. “Well, Ikea the exclusive line maybe. Expensive Ikea.”
Onstage every tune is a floor-filler. A jutting, almost-finished Make Love Not War halts as the band freeze in Stayin’ Alive poses. Cheers build. Then, without missing a beat, they reanimate and swerve into a sassy blast of James Brown’s Get On Up. Precision-engineered fun.
This discipline didn’t come from nowhere. Royal Republic met at the prestigious Malmö Academy Of Music, where Grahn, Irengård and Almén trained to become music teachers, while Andreasson played percussion in the symphony orchestra.
“I couldn’t stand it,” says Grahn. “There was no expression, it was a big mash of cover musicians. They weren’t aspiring to be artists.”
For guitarist Irengård the disenchantment began earlier, studying piano at music school in his teens. “I was playing something by Chopin, giving it some of my own style, and the teacher hit a ruler across my knuckles,” he recalls, eyes rolling. “It was so narrow-minded.”
Starting Royal Republic, therefore, was something of an act of rebellion – or at least a desire to break from their formal and classical backgrounds.
“We tried so hard not to be nerds, ‘coz we thought ‘people want broken jeans and tattoos,’” Grahn remembers. “But we come from a slick, working musician background. And the thing is we actually wanted to be a rock band for the posh people, for the Queen of England, olives and martinis… We wanted to be like a James Bond rock band.”
This new comfort in their own skin is oddly liberating in itself. As a smooth, Billy Idol-referencing Any Given Sunday closes Grahn takes a swig of cider, declaring “I hate beer! It tastes like pain!” with the delight of someone who’s just realised he doesn’t have to pretend anymore. A few jokey ‘boos’ emerge, but everyone’s totally on side and laughing with him. Soon after, the band gather round microphones for a capella number Addictive. It’s a delightfully silly yet operatic moment. Around this time someone throws some pink undies on stage. Apparently academic training isn’t as unsexy as it sounds.
“Nowadays we embrace it more than ever,” Grahn says, “the fact that we are [trained] musicians, that we can do a four-piece a capella number. We have skills that a lot of rock bands don’t have, so we said: ‘Okay, let’s use them, because it’s fun and other people seem to dig it too.’”
Indeed, as they approach the feelgood, blues-hooked strut of Baby, Grahn tells the story of the fan who wrote a 30-page erotic novel about them – after Grahn decided kissing Irengård would be a good way to spice up one gig (“just a friendly kiss between two men, with a little bit of tongue…”).
“You should read it,” he tells me later. “Per found it online. It is indeed rough, hardcore gay sex, but really well-written. I’m sure if I was attracted to men in that way I would probably get off on it.” Mrs Royal Republic, a singing teacher back home in Sweden, apparently takes it well.
An encore triple-whammy of the pretty, sunkissed American Dream (its live premiere), a full-pelt High Times and stomping old favourite Full Steam Spacemachine seals the deal. Breathless faces all around us are fixed in Cheshire Cat grins.
Backstage post-show, the dressing room is full of band members in tight boxer briefs and varying states of undress. Topless, fly open and with a towel round his shoulders, Grahn is in high, sweaty spirits.
“Just another day at work,” he grins wryly, before nodding: “but no that was a good one. But we’re pretty spoiled with our audiences, and this album feels like it’s levelled everything up.”
It’s curious to think that Grahn, who keeps a giant Fifa ‘game case’ on tour, was poised to become a footballer as a child. Then his parents – both musicians – went through a messy divorce involving his best friend’s family.
“We were 11, both serious football players at the time and we really didn’t know what to make of it, it was a very weird time,” he remembers. “In retrospect I see what it did, because the self-esteem just went downhill.”
A “shitty couple of years” of beatings from older boys followed, until one day he brought his guitar into school.
“I’d always played guitar at home – my parents didn’t push me but they were very much like… ‘Go! Try it!’ which was very cool. But these guys who’d beat me up heard me playing and were like ‘woah!’ So suddenly I became a cool kid.”
Back to the present, the Beatles play on the stereo and everyone chatters over beer and whisky until 1am. When the venue closes, Grahn leads assorted band, crew, PR and yours truly through the neon streets off the Sinful Mile, passing Jack Daniels round the group as we go. A towering, dapper Swedish bloke, he stands out in the dishevelled hoards outside ‘Sex House’, ‘Thai Karaoke Bar’ etc, but he carries it well – like a suave, devious Pied Piper, gamely volunteering to be ‘breathalysed’ by two grinning ladies who might not be real policewomen.
“I’m actually a little concerned,” he grins slightly guiltily earlier. “We’ll see what happens. It’s no reason to panic or go to rehab yet, but we’re really enjoying everything at the moment.”
Do you ever get nervous onstage still?
“Unfortunately not,” he says. “I miss that. I really miss it. But I feel confident. I feel very confident when we go on. I know that we have something pretty good.”
Eventually we end up at the tour bus, winding down with JD and cokes before parting ways around 3.30am. We’re not totally sure how we got back to the hotel, but it’s been a hell of a night – even if there is still a ring of trombone in our ears…