So many people have asked me about The Hives story that I decided to start a section called Friday Flashback and share some of these stories with you all. Gearhead is often left out of the history of this band, but trust me friends, we were very involved!
Mike and I had just finished our first year of Gearhead Records, releasing a flood of garage punk rock gems from The "Demons" to Red Planet. It was amazing; the response was overwhelming to the music, the packaging, and everything we touched just rocked. It was pretty fun and pretty cool. We already had our second year of releases lined up and were talking about all the new bands we wanted to work with.
Mike had just returned from a visit to Sweden, where a bunch of Gearhead fans had organized the second Gearfest. He and his then-girlfriend Cathy had spent several weeks rockin’ out with some of the best Scandinavian up and coming bands and he was really excited to share some new demos with me for possible release on Gearhead.
One of those bands was called The Hives, a scrappy little 5 piece from a tiny Swedish town called Fagersta. They had played a killer set one night during Gearfest and Mike had really hit it off with them. As we pulled away from the Mordam warehouse in my little Ford station wagon, Mike popped in a cassette, bursting with excitement. “You’re gonna dig this!” he exclaimed, and he was right. Raw, fast, loud, melodic, literally bursting from the speakers, the demo he played me had everything that we were looking for in a Gearhead release. We were both so excited about this band; we knew we had something special. They had a couple releases out on a label called Burning Heart in Sweden, but no US presence, so I reached out to the owner, Peter, and suggested we license his records and put them out in North America. It was a pretty easy negotiation, and once the contracts were signed we moved forward at lightening speed to get the art and masters put together for the first release, the A.K.A.I.D.I.O.T 12” E.P, which we quickly followed with the 7” Hate To Say I Told You So.
I really wanted to release them together as a full-length for the US market. 12”s were a hard sell with the American audience; they didn’t have as much perceived value as a full-length. It was also a lot more work and way more expensive to release two separate titles than one. I was out-voted by Mike and the band; they had a vision they wanted to preserve releasing their music that way, and despite my certainty it was a mistake, I did it anyway. Those records came out in February 2001 to a disappointing showing, 300 copies of each sold.
Shortly afterwards I moved Gearhead to a new distributor. I had gotten fired from Mordam a week before Christmas 2000 for insubordination and my hurt and distrust of the punk rock distributor ran deep. Owner Ruth had made some pretty big changes in the company that seemed to go against everything it stood for, and I really didn’t want Gearhead to be a part of it anymore if I wasn’t there to over see things. Sales were down for all the labels, not just Gearhead. Luckily, I had got a new job pretty quickly as Sales Manager for the brand new Emerge Distribution owned and operated by DNA/Valley Media in Woodland, CA. My job, starting January 2001 was to find as many smaller emerging indie labels and fuse them together into a cohesive collective that was attractive to stores trying to take advantage of the explosion of indie bands in the sales market, which up until that time, really weren’t viewed as a money-making segment of the music industry. Bands like Modest Mouse, Jets To Brazil and Jawbreaker had broken into the Billboard Top 100 and the industry was starting to take notice of the bubbling underground rock and garage scene. Because I had worked with all of those bands and labels first at the record store I managed, Reckless Records on Haight St. in San Francisco, as a writer at Maximum Rock and Roll and finally as a sales person at Mordam, the powers that be felt I would be the best choice to head up this new venture.
It was a no-brainer to move Gearhead over to this new, bigger distribution company that I was heading up. I was anxious to take full advantage of the expanded sales network to get those Hives records out into the market place. Coincidently, Epitaph Records had recently signed a deal with Burning Heart as well, and the Hives second full-length Veni Vidi Vicious was scheduled to come out that spring. They had a much bigger marketing budget (read, Gearhead had none) to take ads and place the record in listening stations, so my plan was to piggy back on their marketing to get my records out too. So in June 2001 with a new distributor ready to rocket the Gearhead brand into the market place, I re-released those two Hives records, followed shortly by the reissue of the Hives debut record Barely Legal, their first full-length.
Sales were again disappointing, with only about 500 copies going out into the market place, but the Epitaph release had moved about 1500 units, so my goal was to use those numbers to bump our numbers up. I kept feeding sales reports to the Emerge sales team and little by little it was working.
Unfortunately, things weren’t looking so good for DNA/Valley, Emerge Distribution’s parent company. Rumors of bankruptcy were floating around and labels were getting nervous. The labels weren’t being paid, and there was some talk of the company going under with all of us losing our jobs. I went to my boss Tim with these fears and was assured everything was fine, to keep selling records and to keep encouraging the labels to send inventory to fill those orders. I knew something wasn’t right, so I started telling the labels to hold off restocking orders. I did that for my own label, why wouldn’t I do that for the labels I was responsible for? Sales were picking up, but I knew something wasn’t quite right and I didn’t want it to be worse in case we did close.
And then Sept 11, 2001 hit. This day has gone down in many Americans’ mind as the worst day of their lives. When the Twin Towers crumbled at the impact of those suicide planes, we all watched in shock and horror at what was happening. Work came to a standstill as we crowded around computers and television screens watching the devastation unfold on national TV. I had just released Red Planet’s epic Let’s Degenerate record and the band was supposed to travel to Las Vegas to play the Las Vegas Shakedown Sept 28-30 2001 with fellow label-mates “Demons”. I was really hoping this would launch that record with great press. Red Planet was supposed to tour opening for New York Dolls' Syl Sylvain and I was counting on this tour and festival to boost sales. But with the events of 9/11 shaking up travel plans across the country, we weren’t sure if “Demons” would even be allowed into the country, much less that the festival would even happen, or the following tours to take place. But it did, and despite the almost empty casinos, the festival was really fun and pretty well attended.
Barely Legal was sputtering along, as was the Red Planet record. No one was really interested in stocking their shelves with new garage punk records when their faith in the safety of the American marketplace was in question because of the attacks. Rumors were getting worse that Valley might close down and everyone was jittery.
Demand for The Hives records was picking up steam however as the band was getting great press and preparing for their first US tour. I rented the boys a huge white cargo van and arranged for a back line so all the band had to do was show up and play. Epitaph had gotten them on an opening slot for some major label band I can’t even remember the name of. Needless to say, probably no one who saw that tour remembers who else played on those shows because The Hives simply blew everyone away. I still remember Mike pacing nervously back and forth in front of the stage at The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, as the band was getting ready to take the stage. He so badly wanted them to be well received, and we had stationed ourselves right in front so we could be a friendly enthusiastic presence in case things went terribly wrong during their set. Suffice it to say, the exact opposite happened. The entire audience seemed to get sucked into a boiling rocking singing dancing frenzy as The Hives ripped through their set in just less than thirty minutes and by the end, they had won over the sweaty dancing crowd. No one could believe what he or she had just witnessed. It was epic. We ran backstage to hug and kiss the band and congratulate them with beers all around.
We went to China Town afterwards to celebrate with drinks and karaoke, and to this day, I still regret not getting up on stage to sing a duet, Islands in The Stream, The Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton hit, with Niklas. He had asked me to sing it with him but I was too shy and embarrassed to get up on stage. I wasn’t drinking like the rest of them because I was driving, darn it! Maybe if I had enjoyed some liquid courage I would be sharing that memory as well.
We sent them on their way in that white van to play one of the most pivotal tours of their career, and as they say, the rest is history.
Valley Media did indeed file bankruptcy one week before Thanksgiving 2001, and I lost my job, along with 400 other employees. I also lost almost all the Gearhead inventory and over $10,000 in unpaid invoices. I was devastated. I had never filed for unemployment before, and now in less than a year, I had to do it for the second time. I had just gotten my wisdom teeth pulled that fateful week, and Mike came to stay with me and nurse me through pain and heartache as we planned what our next step was.
I have never thought of myself as an organizer before, but I wasn’t gong down without a fight. I got on the phone and organized about ten labels that were affected by the Valley shutdown. We hired a lawyer and fought Valley for a year to get our inventory back, which had gotten rolled into the bankruptcy even though Valley didn’t own that stock. We won, and eventually got all that inventory back.
I had been looking for a job, but no one was hiring in the area. In the meantime, The Hives were starting to explode, and demand for their product was skyrocketing. Since I was a sales person, I got on the phone with stores I had done business with at Mordam and Emerge and sold to them directly, shipping everything from my tiny living room in Davis, CA. Epitaph got Hate To Say I Told You So placed in the new Spiderman movie, and a Sacramento news team came out to interview me because Gearhead had released that song first.
I decided I didn’t have a choice but to make Gearhead my full-time gig. What else was I gonna do? They say everything happens for a reason, and looking back, I can say with certainty this is true, although at the time it sure didn’t feel like it. I had been really frustrated balancing a full-time job with the increasing demands of Gearhead. I had contemplated quitting and trying to make a go of Gearhead, but the fear of not having a steady paycheck or benefits had kept me from taking that step. The Universe clearly had different ideas, and with the loss of my job, I had no choice but to jump in with both feet.
It was crazy trying to keep up with the demand. I could barely move around my tiny house. It was like a maze with boxes of CDs and albums piled everywhere. But sales were steady so I eventually got an office and hired an assistant. By February of 2002, I had found a new distributor, Big Daddy out of New Jersey and they took over the sales, while I focused on running Gearhead. The Hives legend was increasing every day and they were starting to get coverage from all the media outlets including Time Magazine and Newsweek! Their song Hate To Say I Told You So was breaking sales records and was becoming a national anthem. When I heard it played on Regis and Kelly I almost fainted.
The boys were coming back to the states for a headlining tour February 2002. Warner Brothers had signed the band and taken over Veni Vidi Vicious. They asked Gearhead to handle the vinyl since they only were interested in pressing CDs, so I went back to Burning Heart and negotiated a separate contract for that record, with Warner Bros.’ blessing. Epitaph was out of the loop by that point since they had sold the record to Warner Bros.although we put their logo on the record too.
Mike and I drove to L.A. to hang out with the band during that tour. I felt like such a country bumpkin. I had never seen a body guard before, and had no clue that the heavy set gentleman keeping people away from Pelle while we chatted was exactly that. Mike had to fill me in later, much to my surprise! It was weird seeing the band up on stage holding court to an audience of thousands. I was so proud of them, and a little dazed at all the commotion. I knew they were great, but honestly hadn’t expected this sudden rise to stardom. It was unreal, like being in a dream that I wasn’t sure I wanted to wake up from. I can’t imagine how it affected the band. They seemed to just take it all in stride, like they knew at some point they would be a household name.
People think Gearhead made a fortune on The Hives, and the truth is we were able to finally pay ourselves a small salary, get offices and put out a bunch more records. Our deal with Burning Heart was a 50/50 split after expenses were recouped, so any profit was split up. I have no idea what Burning Heart paid the band, but that was between them and the band. We got hammered with taxes because we were a partnership at that time, so there was no store house of cash being stashed for a rainy day. By the end of 2003, things were slowing down tremendously, and our contract was coming up for renewal with Burning Heart. Peter wanted to renew the contract with Gearhead, and the band wanted those records to stay with Gearhead, but Epitaph had bought Burning Heart by then, so technically they got to make the decision.
They decided they wanted to re-issue those records on Epitaph, so we had to finish selling off what inventory we could before the contract ran out. Epitaph did a really shitty thing though. They started pressing records before our deal was up, which crippled our ability to sell through our stock. When I called them up to tell them I still had six months left on my contract, they told me to fuck off and sue them if I didn’t like it. Of course I didn’t have the resources to do that, so we just had to suck it up. I lost respect for Epitaph that day.
Working with The Hives was one of the best, and most surreal experiences of my life. I made a lot of mistakes mostly due to ignorance and being unprepared for success of this kind. I learned so much and best of all, got to work with an amazing group of guys on some records that I really dig. I hope this sort of an opportunity comes my way again. I’m much better prepared to handle the commotion now and enjoy the ride.
Rock 'n' Roll/Automotive Journalist, Influencer, Editor and Publisher of Gearhead Magazine,