When the Hives last played the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, the appearance could have been considered a victory lap for the band. It was 2003, and the practitioners of lean, fashionable rock 'n' roll had a year earlier seen their air-guitar-ready scolder "Hate to Say I Told You So" crack the top-100 on the U.S. pop charts. The success of the song ultimately led the band to a multi-album global deal with Universal Music U.K. said to be worth seven figures.
Rock 'n' roll, it seemed, had been very, very good to the Hives. The Swedish quintet weren't the only ones. Along with the likes of the Strokes, the White Stripes, the Von Bondies and the Libertines — the latter three of which were also on the Coachella 2003 roster — the Hives were swept up in the turn of the century's garage rock revival.
Today, the Hives and Universal's Interscope have parted ways, the Strokes have accessorized their guitars with new-wave trappings and the others are on the inactive list. But if there's a place to stage a comeback, it's Coachella.
This year's lineup sees a number of artists either reuniting or returning after long absences, acts that, like the Hives, formed or rose to prominence in the late '90s. Dreamy locals Mazzy Star, class-conscious British rock band Pulp and the Hives' aggressive-to-the-extreme country-mates Refused are among those scheduled to appear on the Indio, Calif., stages.
"At the Drive-In are playing too, right?" asks the Hives lead singer Howlin' Pelle Almqvist, referring to the experimental hard rock band that first called it quits in 2001. "There you go. This is time warp to 15 years ago."
The Goldenvoice-promoted Coachella, now in its 13th year, has long had a reputation for connecting generations. The Hives' first Coachella, for instance, featured genre forebears Iggy & the Stooges, and with headliners this year including Radiohead, Dr. Dre and Noel Gallagher of Oasis, the desert fest has a decidedly '90s vibe.
"It's bizarre," Almqvist continues. "It's weird to me. The late '90s, to me, does not feel like a classic era for music. There were some great underground punk albums. I think Refused is amazing, and I think Turbonegro's 'Apocalypse Dudes' is fantastic.... Other than that, I thought it was a pretty [bad] time for music. Gladly, most of the good stuff is back on here at Coachella."
Unlike Coachella peers Pulp and At the Drive-In, the Hives never split. When the band returns with "Lex Hives" on June 5, it will be the group's first album in five years, and first recorded and produced independently. The 12-track album captures the band at its most professionally reckless, with a hint of glam in lead single "Go Right Ahead" and a dip into recession-timed blues in "Without the Money."
"We've always been Screamin' Jay Hawkins fans or blues fans," said guitarist Nicholaus Arson. "The Rolling Stones would always have a country ballad, and to a certain extent, our version of a country ballad is on the new record as well. 'My Time Is Coming' was originally a country song. We play it more like a hymn meets the Seeds."
The Hives haven't strayed far from the garage rock formula of frenzied hooks and a sneering attitude, but when the world last saw the band on 2007's "The Black and White Album" the act was experimenting with groove. On what would be the band's last album for Interscope — an option for the two sides to extend the deal wasn't renewed — the Hives worked with R&B/hip-hop producer Pharrell Williams to add bits of funk and soul to its repertoire.
"We were trying to stretch the Hives in different directions," Almqvist says. "What happens if we work with an R&B producer? What happens if we don't use guitars? Stuff like that. Now we know of no greater sound than the five of us playing in a room together, so it's fully valid to just record that and have that be a pretty good record. It feels really powerful."
"Lex Hives" is being released on the band's own Disques Hives, and is being licensed for U.S. release to the Warner Independent Label Group. There was much less fanfare in the Hives' latest label move than there was in 2002, when Universal battled Warner Bros. Records for rights to the band. That's fine with Almqvist.
"A lot of time when there are articles about people, it makes it sound like they're so independent because they put it out on their own label," Almqvist says. "But there's still a record company working it. It's just not the logo on the album. But this gives it a feeling of independence, I guess."
The Hives, says Arson, are on "borrowed time." The members are approaching their mid-30s, and Arson said the band's teenage mission statement called for three albums and three albums only. A breakup may have given the Hives more in common with some of their Coachella peers, but Almqvist says the band has come out ahead.
"I feel like we're the winners because we never quit," Almqvist said. "It's our way of getting out of a lame reunion. If you were ever in a great rock band, you should really try to keep that going. History has proven that whatever you do after it is usually worse."