It's Official: The world now has more garage-rock bands than garages. The Raveonettes blasted out of Copenhagen last year with a stripped-down surf-punk attack all their own, joining the other Scandinavian garage rockers who have been making waves lately, such as the Hives and Sahara Hotnights. But the Raveonettes are the biggest Danish band to hit the international scene since... since... well, ever. "We're very competitive with the Swedes," bassist-vocalist Sharin Foo admits. "They have all the bands."
The Raveonettes look kind of like a Nordic version of the White Stripes. The male half is skinny twenty-six-year-old guitar geek Sune Rose Wagner; the female half is twenty-seven-year-old glamour gal Foo. Together, they whip up an explosive racket of feedback-heavy guitar fuzz and boy-girl harmonies, as they sing lyrics such as "Come fuck with the Vegas lights tonight!" over primitive drum-machine beats. Their songs are steeped in the trashy side of American pop culture — – Beat poets, old gangster movies, biker gangs —– with grooves inspired by noisy post-punk bands such as the Cramps and the Jesus and Mary Chain. Their new album, Chain Gang of Love, sounds like an early-Sixties beach movie as remade by Danish director Lars von Trier.
Some women get described as "striking." But Sharin Foo is better described as "punching you in the jaw repeatedly with a fistful of quarters." She is six feet tall, blond and one-quarter Chinese. She has the old-fashioned allure of the classic American movie stars, especially her favorites, Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, as she sips merlot in a slinky violet dress in San Francisco's Vesuvio cafe. She looks a lot like the Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico, except there's nothing the least bit frail or weak about her.
"I don't look too Chinese," says Foo. "I have all the Scandinavian colors, but I've got the Chinese nose and the eyes. My grandfather came from a tiny little three-house village in China –— he came to Denmark and had all these girlfriends, and he liked it so much that he had to stay. He started the first Chinese restaurant in Copenhagen. My father is totally Danish, but he looks Chinese." Foo's parents were part of a hippie enclave that moved to the Danish countryside in the 1970s, and she grew up in that rural free-spirited community. A few years ago, her parents celebrated their twenty-fifth anniversary by finally getting married. "My father was a rock guitarist," Foo says. "I was always going on tour with his band. They always had songs on the radio."
Foo spent six months in India, studying the ancient musical traditions of dhrupad and qawwali. But back in Denmark, she started playing bass in the Copenhagen punk-rock scene, where she hooked up with Wagner, and their musical (not romantic) chemistry clicked. "We have separate love lives," Foo says. Still, it's never too late to start claiming that they're brother and sister. Foo lets out her hearty laugh: "No, we're not into gimmicks."
Wagner is a man of many strange obsessions, most of them American. For instance, he is obsessed with Jack Kerouac. The reason he wanted to meet at Vesuvio is because Kerouac used to hang out here, right across the street from the famous City Lights Bookstore. Wagner, looking decidedly unrock in a yellow short-sleeve cashmere sweater, is snapping photos like a star-struck tourist. He has a huge tattoo of Kerouac on his right forearm. The tattoo is based on a photo he took of a Kerouac portrait the last time he was here, seven or eight years ago.
Wagner has traveled all over America, bumming around and writing songs in Las Vegas, New Orleans, Seattle and New York's Hell's Kitchen. His heroes are classic American musicians such as Hank Williams, Phil Spector, the Everlys and Buddy Holly –— the Raveonettes' live shows often begin with their noisy demolition of Holly's "Everyday." But on the road, Wagner is learning that American culture has its limits. "When you see The Osbournes over here, it's just one long fucking beep!" he complains. "When they show it in Denmark, they show the whole thing without the beeps. You can't watch it over here, because it's just beep beep beep all the time. It's really fucking annoying!"
Wagner writes the songs; together, he and Foo produce and play everything on their records. (For live shows, they have a couple of old friends from Copenhagen on drums and guitar.) They're both painfully aware that Danish bands have a reputation for sucking royally, but they're both proud of putting Denmark on the musical map. They're especially touchy about Sweden, the country that has been kicking Denmark's ass in the Scandinavian-rock game since Abba. "Swedes have a lot of self-confidence," Foo says. "In Denmark, there's a lack of self-confidence. Nobody's supposed to be better than anybody else. There's a saying: 'Don't rise above the noise.' That's why every Dane who's ever successful has to leave." So who do the Danes really hate? "The Germans," Foo says. "They invaded us in the Forties, so everybody still hates them. It sucks for the Germans, but you know, they fucked up."
"The French are assholes," Wagner adds. "Every single one of them," Foo agrees."Except Serge Gainsbourg. And Brigitte Bardot."
These days, both of the Raveonettes reside in London, although they're on the road too much to spend time there. "London shuts down so early," Foo says. "In Denmark, you just stay out all night. When the bars and clubs start to close down at 5 A.M., the morning bars are just opening." She seems amused to hear that Americans think of the Danes as decadent. "It's so funny," she says. "When our manager comes to Denmark, he's so freaked out, because the girls lie topless in the parks. He just can't get his eyes off those tits, you know? And we're like, 'What's the big deal?'"
"For us, it's very natural," Wagner says. "Denmark was one of the first places where porn was legalized. You walk into any 7-Eleven, supermarket, grocery store, and there's porn everywhere. We grew up with that shit, I guess. There is no censorship, so we have a healthy relationship with sex. It's a twenty-four-hour country. The place doesn't close down. It's not like here, where you can't smoke, you can't drink."
"They call Denmark the whipped-cream country, because it's so soft and sweet and mellow," says Foo. "People can pretty much do what they want. We have a long socialist tradition. We have a neighborhood in Copenhagen called Christiania, which is like its own little country. It's like a free town, where you can buy hashish. They have some good stuff out there. Good mushrooms."
All the talk of Denmark is making the Raveonettes a little homesick. But tonight, there's another gig to play in the big, bad heart of America. They finish off the last drops in their wineglasses, and make one last leisurely tour of the bar, with Foo and Wagner taking turns snapping photos of each other posing beside the framed Kerouac portraits. But Wagner has one more shameful confession to make. "I just wanted to be American because of all those John Hughes movies," he says. "Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, all that stuff. I really wanted to go to high school in the States, because it looked like they were having such a good time in those movies – proms, frat parties... things that I think now are fucking repulsive!"