I felt like Philip Marlow as I lunched with the four young women from Sweden. I'm not a private detective, but I was having one of those days when I felt outclassed the way Marlow did when he was forced to fraternize with Beverly Hills swells. On my left sat the two blonds, Maria and Martina. A dark-haired girl named Anna was sitting across from me. Another brunet, Flavia, was parked to my right. The women all wore black slacks or jeans. No one had spikes or black leather knuckle-guards. Flavia appeared to be the only one who was heavily tattooed. They all were gorgeous.
Before lunch began, the women were discussing how hungover they were
after a night of revelry at the Grand Havana Room.
"We were in a penthouse where there were panorama windows," said one.
"Cigars and food."
"Cigars and wine."
"Big fat cigars."
"Did you smoke cigars?" I asked.
"Yes, oh yes."
These cigar-smoking Swede's are Drain STH, a Swedish heavy metal band. STH stands for Stockholm, where they live. "Do they smoke cigars in Sweden?" I asked.
"They smoke them everywhere in the world," Martina, last name Axen, said. As I mentioned, she is blond. She also plays the drums. "I smoke cigars because I quit smoking cigarettes," she added.
We were having lunch at the New World Grill, an outdoor cafe in the courtyard of World Wide Plaza Building -- a gorgeous skyscraper made of pink stone in Midtown Manhattan. Drain STH and I seemed to blend in perfectly among the tourists, suits and suitettes. Even Flavia. Two businesswomen chatting at a nearby table sported tattoos as well. Ah, spring. Women -- tattoos and not. The temperature was in the low 80s.
I am a man devoted to the appreciation of women, but not necessarily heavy metal. I dig music. I write about it. To my ears, Drain STH is heavier than heavy rock but more subdued than Japanese noise guitar. Maria sings surprisingly pleasantly for the genre -- no screams or sneers. The beat for most songs is a modest goose-step. They're not bad. So when offered a lunch date with Drain STH, while they were in town promoting what Mercury figures will be their breakthrough album, "Freaks of Nature," I couldn't find any reason to say no.
"Freaks of nature is a perfect description for an all-girl heavy metal band
from Sweden," I ventured.
They laughed. They knew I was being ironic. These four women were too poised and intelligent to merely be a Viking version of the Spice Girls. "People seem to think it's unusual," Maria said.
"I don't think we're such freaks," Martina objected. "You know those freak shows in the old days? They'd pack all these weird people -- some had too many legs or no legs at all. And they would move this gang around and people would pay money to see them? That's a freak show!"
"Are Americans more interested that you're women or Swedish?" I inquired.
"Americans don't know what Sweden is -- 'Sweden? Switzerland?'" answered one.
"They think we have polar bears on the streets."
The combination of women and Sweden and heavy metal may seem odd. But it's not. Apparently, death metal is big in Sweden these days. Ozzy Osbourne is a god. Flavia and Martina began jamming in the mid-'80s. Loved their sound. Did a little searching to find two other woman to play with. Audiences took to the resulting group almost immediately. But that's Sweden. Drain STH's debut album in America, "Horror Wrestling" (1997), sold 60,000 units and was deemed the best metal album of 1997 by the Atlantic Monthly, of all places.
"America is very focused on America itself," Maria said. "And Sweden is not.
It's focused on the whole world."
I've neglected to mention the group's publicist was also at the table. "Maybe you could talk about the Swedish music scene," she piped up.
"In Sweden we have so many bands," Martina said. "Everyone is in a band. I think most of them are in hard bands. But it's difficult because there is only one label to sign those kind of bands in Sweden."
"There is only one club in Stockholm to play," added Anna.
Our food arrived. The singer had salmon and a Caesar salad. The drummer had
gazpacho. The bass player had gazpacho and salad. The
guitarist had a Caesar' salad and dumplings.
"I'm a man," I told them, "and I'm having pizza." They had mentioned
earlier that Swedish pizza is better than American.
"Is it good?" the drummer asked.
"Probably not as good as the pies in Sweden," I said with a grin.
This comment leads into a discussion of music journalists and the dopey questions they ask. "Usually they want us to answer things that I don't have a clue," the drummer said. "'Why is there not more women in rock?' How would I know? I think it would be probably easier if they ask women who are not in rock music. 'Why don't you play?'"
When the Mercury publicist left to make a phone call, I took the opportunity to ask what the label was really like.
"They've been very good," the drummer said. "We're pretty glad we survived. They dropped 250 bands out of 300 bands from the label."
Surviving that kind of downsizing is remarkable. Either a lot of Mercury
suits read the Atlantic Monthly, or they are huge fans of Ozzfest, which Drain STH toured with last year and will join this summer.
"Do you have groupies at your concerts?" I asked.
"We get that question all the time," the drummer, who's clearly the leader of
the group, said. "First you have to specify: What is a groupie? A man who
would like to have sex with me? Then I think all men are groupies. You know, a lot of guys form a band to get chicks, right. We don't have to do that because we have guys anyway."
"The heavy metal audience is men," the singer
observed. "It's good for us. But I can't believe all the guys forming bands.
If they want girls they should be in another kind of music."
The waiter came with the check. As we were leaving, I brought up Igmar Bergman, mentioning how depressing his movies are. "Bergman's movies define our vision of Sweden," I told them. "You Swedes must be really depressed."
The guitarist spoke. "We're second in the world for suicides. Japan is first."
"I wonder if it's a sunlight thing," I ventured.
Several woman nodded. "In mid-winter, the sun goes up at 10 and down at 2," one said.
As the drummer left with her group, she added, "The summer in Stockholm is extremely nice. The sun goes down for an hour. And then it's up again."
Who can imagine that much sun, even in summer? I watched Martina Axen (drums), Maria Sjoholm (vocals), Anna Kjellberg (bass) and Flavia Canel (guitar) pile into a black limousine, and thought: the Nobel Prize. Volvo. Absolut Vodka. And now, Drain STH.
They will be playing all summer in Ozzfest '99. Better get your sunblock.