"If you want a cup of tea, have a cup of tea! Don’t make it look like something it isn’t! When you read about Black Rebel Motorcycle Club having bourbon bottles onstage, and there’s tea in the bourbon bottles, that’s fucking bullshit! They should have a kettle onstage then! They shouldn’t be afraid of who they are! It’s not based on who these people are, and what they create and what they do, so I don’t see how they can grow, and how they can have a career like Aerosmith, which is what we’re gonna do."
It’s the end of a busy year for Norwegian riot rockers Span; since a triumphant appearance at Manchester’s A&R-a-go-go In The City event last year, they haven’t stopped touring. Now they’re recording their debut album, and Fridtjof Nilsen, guitarist and self-professed "Rock ‘n’ Roll Missionary Man", is indeed a man on a mission. "I hope people will realise that this is something which isn’t like everyone else." Joff's unadorned self-confidence will set the tone for the rest of the interview; we’re sitting in the band’s kitchen in plush St John’s Wood – their nicer-than-average pad comes with the studio next door, where Span are recording for the next couple of months. "It’s going very well. It’s fun, we’ve been sitting on so many songs for such a long time, and finally something’s happening, so it’s a bit like giving birth!"
The band are working with producer Gil Norton, known for his work with The Pixies, Foo Fighters, Longpigs and Feeder among others. "I had this list of whoever produced albums I truly loved. We met with a few producers, and Gil’s really focused on the ‘band’ thing, capturing energy instead of editing everything in Protools. And he’s made ‘The Colour And The Shape’ which is one of my favourite albums ever," enthuses Nilsen. "The thing I really like about his philosophy is he uses pre-production to get under the band’s skin, and understand what they’re about. He’s a huge fan of pre-prod and after we’ve done it I am as well. You can go properly into the songs and look at the tiny details without the meter running. It’s been an eye-opener. He forces us to look into things that we’ve taken for granted for a long time. Some of these songs are a year old, and you’ve gotten them so much under your skin that you’ve forgotten what you’re singing about. I don’t feel he’s changed us from what we were to something new, but he’s helped us redefine what we’re doing. I’ve got a much clearer vision of what the band really is now than I had a month ago."
Following in the tradition of several decades of rock mythology, it was alcohol that was the clincher, however. "We went to Belgo’s the first time we met him and he and bought us 10 pints of this Belgian beer which has like 14% in it, so we were all crawling home afterwards! *Drawls* – ‘Shyeah, he’s a nice guy, we’ll go for him,’" he laughs.
Beer-related anecdotes aside, Span are serious about what they do. Nilsen delivers his manifesto over a bowl of cornflakes – it sums up the band really. They’re four regular guys, but they mean business, and Nilsen’s determination and focus are obvious. "This band is so much more than music, it’s my whole life, it’s what I do," he asserts. "We’ve given up everything back home just to do this. We badly wanna make the best album ever. We’re gonna make this album really loud, really punky, really rocky, and we’re gonna bring the punk aspect into the slow songs as well. Whenever I listen to a cd that I love, it’s always the ballads that I grow tired of. I hate them after a year. It’s the uptempo rock songs that I listen to for years and years, so I don’t think there’s gonna be many ballads on this album," he says, chuckling. The stakes are high though. "If this goes bust, if this album doesn’t work, then there probably won’t be a second album cos we’ll be dropped. I’m not really scared by the pressure from the record company and the producer and all that, because the stakes I’ve set for myself are so much higher. We’ve put everything on the line here, so my standards... well they’re expecting a lot but I’m expecting more."
Ah. Pressure from the record company. Yep. Span have just signed to Island Records (part of mega corporation Vivendi Universal and home to PJ Harvey, U2, Midtown, Martin Grech and Blackalicious among others). Nilsen’s optimistic about their prospects on Island – it’s clear that Span didn’t just sign to the highest bidder. "At In The City last year there was a little hype that arose, and we got offers in from several labels and ended up turning them all down, because it felt very wrong. S2 and BMG came in with the biggest offers, and they made the others fall away. We ended up with two offers that had loads of money and loads of plans that weren’t our plans. They ended up being more in the way than helping really. So we turned them both down and signed for one single with Yogaboy (Jetplane Landing + Smother) to get some music out and show what we’re about. Then Island came along. They’ve got a reputation, you look at their roster and see bands that you don’t see on other labels – not on major labels at least. They let the artists and the bands be what they are. Take PJ Harvey for instance, if you’re gonna release something you think will sell before you’ve tried it, you wouldn’t let her release "To Bring You My Love" for instance, cos it’s quite quirky, not a very mainstream album, even though it sold shitloads. And there’s guys like Lewis Taylor and stuff like that which hasn’t done well, but they’ve kept with it for 3 albums... and dEUS, which is like the weirdest thing in the world."
These aren’t Nilsen’s first dealings with record companies and recording studios however. He and Span’s manic singer, Jarle Bernhoft, served their time in another band in Norway prior to forming Span; they recorded an album under the moniker Explicit Lyrics. "With that band we felt that it was really going somewhere, and... it really wasn’t," explains Nilsen. "We were on a label called Mega Records; a week before we released the album, that was closed down, and some of the guys started a label called S2 (not the Sony offshoot, a different label altogether) instead. That taught us a lot about how it is when other people are supposed to do what you normally do yourself. We released a 4 track EP in Norway; the record company couldn’t get it out to the stores and it was just horrific watching them fuck up things for us. And you learn from that that when you get signed, that’s when you start working, cos nobody works harder than you do." From such uncertain beginnings, however, came the start of Span. "The drummer and bass player quit. So we were standing there saying ‘We’re not gonna quit, we’re gonna keep going at this.’ We wrote for half a year and tried different people; Freddy (Wallumrod) has been living as a drummer since he was 18 , so he tried out for this band and it was just, no problem. And the bass player from his old band (Wes Stavnes) was also very into Explicit, so he got a cd with like 18 songs that we recorded with Fredrik in our home studio – we were a 3 piece with Jarle playing bass, and he wanted to get off that so we could do more guitar stuff and he could be freer onstage. I hadn’t played all of those songs for like a year… and the new guy was teaching me one of our own songs, so it was like, ‘Ok..you’re in!!’, haha. So it’s really working."
One thing Nilsen has mixed feelings about is the comparisons Span have had in the music press. The NME called them ‘the thinking man’s Hives’, others have compared them to the Datsuns, Strokes & Co leather jacket brigade. It’s not something Nilsen feels an affinity with. "With loads of those bands, like The Hives for instance, I really enjoy seeing them live, and I enjoy some of their music on record, but it’s Iggy and the Stooges on record, it isn’t anything new. If you’re gonna do this, you have to write music that’s from you. When I listen to an album that moves me or that makes me wanna jump around, it’s because I understand what they’re about. I can’t relate to things that are phoney and I don’t think other people can either. You can only keep being phoney for so long, it gets boring after a year. When we did In The City, I was appalled by so many of the bands up there, it was just like the coolest leather jackets, and the bourbon onstage, and it sounded for shit. It was all about the money and the image and nothing about the music at all."
Yet there must be a tangible reason why Span are getting compared to these bands. Nilsen is somewhat dismissive: "I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that garage-rock is so in nowadays. If you’re a rock band people will throw comparisons to things that are hot nowadays if they like it. When people call us ‘the thinking man’s Hives’, like NME did, I’m happy. But I wanna get to the point where the Hives are ‘the stupid man’s Span’. I don’t mind people drawing comparisons in any direction really. If they think we’re like the Hives, it’s because we play rock music and jump around onstage, and because we’re from Scandinavia, so ok, good on them. I can’t see the link to the Strokes though, I’m struggling a little with that," he ponders, with a pained look on his face.
What is it that’s drawing so many crowds to see Span then? Nilsen thinks it’s the live performance. "It’s great fun, it’s good time rock ‘n’ roll. It’s about energy and feeding off each other, and we’re gonna make it worth it, if you come and see us live. I don’t wanna sell to people who don’t get into it. I want people to listen to the album because – well it’s not done yet but I think the songs and the music can give people a lot of enjoyment... and if you can’t relate to it, then don’t buy it. But I think there’s stuff in there that people can relate to. I can relate to it, and I don’t think I’m this very special human being. There’s only things to be gained by checking out new music… especially us!"