Turbonegro is one of my favorite bands. Bar none. I saw them for the first time in 2003 at Irving Plaza after picking up the reissues of Ass Cobra and Apocalypse Dudes from Epitaph records and instantly fell in love with their ass-fueled rock and roll. Their live show was like nothing I’d ever seen. From the first note of “Denim Demon” to the culmination of “Erection” featuring Hank von Helvete’s ass rocket, I was smitten and ran home to start my own Turbojugend. When Retox came out, Rey Roldan from Reybee Productions hooked me up with an interview with Hank himself. It lasted 10 minutes and was epically atrocious. He didn’t answer a single question and just prattled about nothing. Rey apologized and got me an interview with bassist and founder Happy Tom, which you can read in its entirety below. Not long after the Retox tour, Hank quit the band, found god and started singing operatic adult contemporary music. Turbonegro still carries the torch of death punk with a new singer and a massive fan following.
This interview was first published in Life In A Bungalo on Feb. 18, 2006
For more than a decade, Norwegian-bred Turbonegro have held the title of underground heroes to a legion of fans who shunned punk rock for a new breed of alternative music dubbed death punk. Dressed in make up and denim and sporting a little too much flair, Turbonegro made their mark with the now legendary records Ass Cobra and Apocalypse Dudes. Then they disappeared. Three years ago the band reappeared from out of the blue with a new record and a renewed quest for world domination. I had a chance to chat with Happy Tom about the band’s new album Party Animal, having Stephen Hawkins on the album and the band’s current U.S. tour.
What was it like making Party Animal; it’s quite a departure from the last record.
We just wanted it to be a timeless trinity of hard rock, punk rock and bubblegum. We probably broke a world record for length of time it takes to make a punk rock record. We spent four months in the studio, and basically we wanted it to be perfect. We wanted to be as minimalist as we could, but at the same time make it as grand as it can be.
You have fantastic punk rock songs on Party Animal, such as “Wasted Again,” “Death From Above” and “Final Warning,” but you also have a lot of accessible music on there too. Was that something you wanted to do from the onset?
It wasn’t a strategic thing that we did, but we had been listening to a lot of early Van Halen. Look, we’re basically music nerds.
Speaking of nerds — whose idea was the intro with Stephen Hawking?
That is Stephen Hawkins.
Seriously. Did you hear anything from him or his lawyers?
What’s he going to do? He’s a quadriplegic. What’s he going to do? Kick our ass. He may be the smartest man in the world, but we’re very smart too.
I do not doubt your intelligence. So what’s your favorite song on the album?
It’s hard to pick a favorite song when you’ve made the perfect rock ‘n’ roll album. When the label flew in from Sweden to check out the rough mix they said that every song on the record is a single. So I just can’t pick one song.
You guys have strayed away a bit from the shock rock lyrics that made you famous. Was that intentional?
Even though we have strong lyrics and use strong language, I think we have taken more from Randy Newman than, say, GG Allin. People might think that we are joking around, but I think, “Hell. The one thing we take very seriously is rock ‘n’ roll.” When critics say that Turbonegro used to be funny, but the shtick ain’t funny any more. Well, we thought it was funny too — for about two minutes in 1995. It hasn’t been funny in 10 years, what are they nagging about?
Well it has to be more than a shtick if you have this many people buying your records.
It many ways I think that we’re the last real rock ‘n’ roll band. The funny hats and all that shit might be a distraction, but we feel that it’s sometimes more real to put a mask than to go around and brag about how real you are.
Have you guys ever said screw it and played without the outfits on stage?
We played a festival in Austria this summer where our costumes didn’t make the flight. We played in plain clothes. The Hives were playing and Howlin’ Pete said, “This was historic. Even without your makeup, you’re still a pretty good band.” I think they’re a great band too. I think he was just poking fun.
It was strange how long it took for your new album to come out in the States considering how well the last one was received. Was there any reason why you switched labels in the U.S.?
It doesn’t really matter what label we’re on. We are pretty unmarketable. Turbonegro is more the band that you hear about from your friends than through an advertising campaign or the radio. We just wanted to try something new. There were no hard feelings with Epitaph. We’re not a label band — we’re a rock ‘n’ roll band.
You mentioned becoming popular through word of mouth, but in the States you gained a lot of popularity through Viva La Bam. That first episode is a major reason why a lot of kids discovered you.
That whole thing was very cool because MTV doesn’t like us. That’s no secret. Any time we submit a video, they make up some new rule why they can’t play it. Like, for three second he did something with his hand that they consider obscene in Malaysia. We need a ton of lawyers every time we want to get a video on MTV. The Wild Boys use our song as their theme. I think the whole Jackass group has been a good thing for us because it has snuck us onto MTV through the back door. Plus, they don’t show videos any more so it doesn’t matter. Several of us have a background with skateboard and surfing, so we are part of that scene anyway.
I recently saw the documentary “ResErection” highlighting your reunion and the shows that followed. Was that a difficult movie to make? There definitely seemed to be a lot of emotions running through all of you.
I only saw it once with my brother and my girlfriend. It was actually shown on prime time on Norwegian national television. A quarter of the population was watching it and it got really good ratings. It’s kind of painful to watch. The fact is, we broke up and we got back together again. We knew in January that we were going to be playing shows in July, so we had to start moving. Our merchandise guy is a documentary filmmaker and got some big film company to release it. It shows us as regular people and as rock ‘n’ roll stars. The proof is in the pudding.
In the movie, you mention to Hank that during the time that he was away the band had become huge and he had become a rock star. Were you surprised at the number of fans that you gained while you were on hiatus? Hell, your fan club went from a club to a cult in just over a year.
Yeah, our Turbojugend now has over 1,100 chapters. Most bands start out as a riot and end up as a parody. I think Turbonegro started as a joke and ended as a revolution. In a world where people like Hank and I can become rock stars, I think there’s something really wrong out there. The moment I realized that the band had become pretty big was during the break while I was in San Diego and I was at a pretty expensive fish restaurant. This young waiter was serving us lobster and he bends down very formally to serve us the lobster and he begins to recite the first verse of “Hobbit Motherfuckers.” It was like the Twilight Zone. The Turbojugend is really magical, because we have the same fans as the early punk rock scene. It’s like the smartest and the dumbest kids in school are into it and the kids that are in between don’t really care.
Where did you get the concept for the album cover? It’s just a plain black motorcycle helmet.
It’s sort of a Lou Reed rip off. It’s something satanic — like who is wearing the helmet. We call him the messenger. He’s also known as Lord of the Flies. Oh, and someone is actually wearing that helmet in the picture. You just have to figure out who. Actually, it’s Stephen Hawking, he needs a helmet because he knocks his head around so much, especially when he’s partying.
Do you guys have any regrets? You sound like you’re just out to take over the world.
A lot of bands and a lot of artists try to do the right thing at the right time at the right place. We always did the wrong thing at the wrong time at the wrong place. The sum of that is kind of magic. No, I don’t regret anything.