When you’ve made two knockout platters of fireball pop — Brill Building candy soaked in acid-bath distortion and iced with medieval-streetcorner singing — what do you for your third time around?
Sune Rose Wagner — singer, guitarist and songwriter of Danish sensations the Raveonettes — ditched the din. The band’s next Columbia album, as yet untitled and set for release early next year, is virtually fuzz-free, with stunning results. Wagner’s deep affection for early rock & roll and girl-group bop comes through bright and clear. So do his glass-sheet harmonies with vocalist and co-founder Sharin Foo.
“It was just circumstance,” says Wagner, now a Manhattan resident, over a cup of tea at an East Village coffeehouse. “Our gear is stored in Denmark, so I don’t have any distortion pedals here. I bought this amp on the road, an old Gibson Falcon with a great reverb sound, and I just plugged into that as I was writing these songs” — which he did in a two-week burst at the upstate New York home of his co-producer, pop studio legend Richard Gottehrer.
“That reverb was so big and nice, I forgot about the distortion,” Wagner confesses. “I thought, ‘I have to add some later.’ But once we got into the studio, we just used a lot of the guitar sounds that I got at Richard’s house, because they sounded so good.”
There is noise on the album: the antique crackle of what sounds like a knife blade on an old blues 78 under the Hank Williams death-bed melancholy of “The Heavens”; the wall of amp static in the Gothic slowdown of Buddy Holly’s “Everyday,” behind a solo Foo singing with angelic poise over a haunted-castle celeste played by Suicide’s Martin Rev and the funeral-march drumming of the Velvet Underground’s Maureen Tucker.
But where both the Raveonettes’ 2002 EP Whip It On and their 2003 debut Chain Gang of Love were triumphs of uniform mood — black-rain guitars and taut programmed percussion, lined with modal vocal chrome — the new songs are a whirlwind of ravishing noir and vintage-pop echo: the addictive roll and stiletto twang of “Love in a Trash Can” and “You Say You Lie”; “Uncertain Times,” a worried folk ballad via the tenement-romance sway of “Spanish Harlem”; “Ode to L.A.,” a palm-tree-dream marriage of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby,” sealed with the unmistakable “woah-oh-oh” of Queen Ronette, Ronnie Spector.
“I had four people that I wanted on the album: Moe Tucker, Martin Rev, Ronnie Spector and Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las,” says Wagner, who got three out of four. “The Ronnie thing — I thought that would be tricky. But Richard knew somebody who worked with her, so I just asked. I wanted her to do the ‘woah-oh-oh’s.” Spector so loved “Ode to L.A.” that she has asked Wagner to keep writing for her. “I’m in Ronnie Spector land right now. It’s awesome.”
Tucker was already such a fan of the Raveonettes that she showed up on her sixtieth birthday at a studio in Atlanta, where she lives, to add drum parts to five songs, including “Red Tan,” on which Wagner aptly spins out with some agitated Lou Reed-stutter guitar. And Wagner, a huge Suicide freak, was impressed by Rev’s intensity at the keyboards: “He wore his shades the whole day,” Wagner notes, laughing. “A very sweet guy, but also a little crazy — the way he played with his knuckles.”
A former alt-rock star in Denmark with his first major band, Psyched Up Janis, Wagner, 29, is obsessed with the musical vocabulary and pop-culture ideals of ages past, some of which died before he was born. “You should see my apartment,” he says with a fan’s smile. “It’s like a Fifties diner.” But Wagner doesn’t make music with his eyes glued to a rearview mirror. “I wrote ‘The Heavens’ for Elvis Presley, but I did it thinking that if he was alive today and doing good things, it would be a good song for him, with a ‘Love Me Tender’ feel to it. As I wrote it, I actually sang it in my best Elvis impersonation.”
The Raveonettes have come a long way since their U.S. debut in July 2002: a half-empty, dinner-hour showcase at CBGB in New York. At the time, Wagner and Foo, who had been working together for two years, were label-less in the States, hitting brick walls in Denmark and had been playing live with guitarist Manoj Ramdas and drummer Jakob Hoyer for just a few months. “All of a sudden, we were selling out [New York’s] Bowery Ballroom,” Wagner recalls. “What happened to us” — the Columbia deal, press acclaim here and in Britain, belated hurrahs at home — “happened so fast.”
The past year has been no different. Spooked by the fuzz-pedal overload on Chain Gang of Love, commercial radio stayed away from what should have been the summer song of 2003, “That Great Love Sound.” K-Mart had no issues with the snarl: the discount chain used the song in a widely shown TV ad, suddenly boosting sales of Chain Gang in the process — by 400 percent. “That’s what radio is supposed to do for you,” Wagner cracks. The Raveonettes’ 2003 holiday tune, “The Christmas Song,” has also gotten a new lease on life: in the soundtrack to the new film, Christmas With the Cranks, and on a new seasonal compilation released in conjunction with the TV show The O.C.
Other changes: There are now five Raveonettes, with the addition of bassist Anders Christensen, a veteran of jazz drummer Paul Motian’s band, freeing Foo to concentrate on singing and playing additional guitar. And they all play on the new record, which was recorded at Allaire Studios in Shokan, New York. After two years of touring, Wagner started to see the limitations he’d built into the ferocious, laptop-programmed discipline of the first two records. “I wanted to do more intricate stuff with guitars,” he says. “I also knew these songs could groove. I had the arrangements, but I didn’t play the songs for anybody until we went in. I said, ‘It goes like this — C, A minor, F, G.’ And we just did it.
“This has been a musical journey for me,” Wagner adds, glowing with pride. “To have people like Ronnie and Moe, who mean so much to me, playing my songs — you have to pinch your arms. And the album turned out so well. I’m really pleased with it.”
He grins. “I wish it could come out a lot sooner.”