We're Not All That Smart: Viagra Boys Interviewed

We're Not All That Smart: Viagra Boys Interviewed

Swedish outlaws on jazz, disco and just how seriously they take being stupid...

Every year, London’s Southbank Centre famously enlists a musical icon to curate the line-up of its long running Meltdown Festival.

Some choose to stack the bill with likeminded acts (M.I.A. with Young Fathers and Princess Nokia, James Lavelle with DJ Shadow and Scratch Perverts), while others broadcast their eclectic taste by selecting artists from way beyond their wheelhouse (Massive Attack with Fleet Foxes and Elbow, Robert Smith with Deftones and Nine Inch Nails).

Given that this year’s line-up is selected by slick disco king Nile Rodgers, it is unsurprising that it largely features similarly smooth artists such as Jungle, Alfa Mist and, of course, his own band Chic.

But nestled further down the bill and sticking out like a sore middle finger are the decidedly rough Viagra Boys, one of the most peculiar acts to emerge from the peculiar Stockholm scene over recent years. It’s pretty funny to imagine the insouciant Rodgers wearing his trademark grin and grooving along to the band’s abrasive brand of semi-post-punk, but the writer of smash hits like ‘Lady (Hear Me Tonight)’ and ‘Get Lucky’ must have latched onto something in their decidedly non-dancefloor sound to enlist them alongside the likes of Thundercat and Johnny Marr.

“I’ve never spoken to him, but I think he personally booked us,” frontman Sebastian Murphy tells me while doing his laundry back in Stockholm, before admitting that he personally doesn’t know all too much about the scene Rodgers dominated throughout the 70s and 80s. “I mean there are a couple of old disco songs I like. Chic and stuff like that,” he adds, as though worried that revealing the extent of his ambivalence towards disco might get the band kicked from the bill by a vengeful Rodgers.

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This is not to say that Sebastian (who claims he mainly listens to country when he’s back home) and the rest of the band only enjoy the sound of the kind of music they play.

“We’re all jazz fans, actually,” he drawls in the same captivating Californian accent that makes his performance on tracks like ‘Best In Show’ so mesmerising, “I’ve actually recorded a little project with a friend of mine who plays stand in sax with us every once in a while, Isaak. He has a free jazz trio that I did some vocals on recently. I don’t when it’s going to get released but I’m looking forward to that! But yeah, I love all kinds of music.”

Viagra Boys have bolstered their reputation as a highly singular live band over their latest run of festivals thanks, in part, to Sebastian’s tendency to end up sprawled on the floor after a bout of exaggerated meatheadedness. Or, as he undersells it, “Some guys stand there and get drunk and lay down for half the show cause they’re too tired to do anything else… We don’t like jumping around and kicking in the air, you know? I prefer laying down.”

Not all crowds immediately vibe with this bizarre approach, “(Some people) definitely shake their heads and look like they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing there!” he laughs. “I noticed a bit of that in All Points East. There was one group of rowdy young dudes wearing Viagra Boys shirts who all knew the lyrics and shit, then everyone surrounding them were wearing The Strokes shirts and looking a bit confused. But that’s just fun, you know? It’s fun to see. And hopefully we turned some of them.”

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The unsettling, off the rails nature of Sebastian’s ‘drunk man embarrassing himself onstage’ performance technique is more comparable to the emotionally naked cocktail of tragedy and stupidity found in an Eric Andre comedy routine than it is the stage presence of any other singer.

“That’s like life, it’s stupid and tragic!” he agrees when I put this comparison to him, “Yeah, I don’t like taking things to seriously, so I can see how it can be seen as stupid. But I like that. There’s not a lot of really serious music that I listen to these days. I mean, you could maybe call jazz and maybe a lot of angry music serious, but I don’t like it when people try to sound intelligent, you know? Like, I listen to hip-hop but I don’t want to listen to someone fucking trying to sound like a genius!”

Viagra Boys are frequently compared to British post-punks IDLES, partly because they share an aggressive, bass-driven sound, but also because both bands embody an exaggerated send-up of the dumb, self-destructive machismo of traditional punk and male-centric guitar music. This has led some observers to suggest that this crop of playful modern punk bands are little more than ironic pastiches of what has come before, an accusation Sebastian refutes heavily on Viagra Boys’ part.

“Ironic? No, I wouldn’t say that. Maybe… I don’t know, there’s definitely irony in a lot of the stuff we do, but I would never call us an ironic band. We play the type of music that we like to hear and we don’t only listen to ironic music, so it’s more a truthful band than an ironic one,” he argues, “We just try to keep things honest, not play some fucking role with political commentary or some bullshit like that, you know? We don’t try to look smart, because we’re not all that smart! That’s about it.”

Perfecting this delicate balance of honesty through stupidity is central to the appeal of Viagra Boys, and Sebastian admits that it is something he struggled with during the band’s early career.

“That was definitely an issue for me in the beginning, maybe for the first year of playing. I was like ‘Oh Jesus Christ how did I end up doing this?’ you know?” he admits, “But now I don’t really think about that sort of stuff anymore. It’s pretty straightforward that we stand for everything we say and we don’t really put on a show, we just try to be ourselves. And whether that be negative or positive, I don’t give a shit. I think punk is punk. If you feel like your attitude is just ‘fuck off’ then it’s punk.”

When you watch early footage of Viagra Boys playing Stockholm, it’s easy to assume that emerge fully formed. In reality it took them a while to get to grips with what kind of band they wanted to be.

“When we met up none of us had really played together except the guitarist (Benjamin Vallé) and the bassist (Henrik ‘Benke’ Höckert),” he recalls, “Benke had quite an idea of what he wanted to make. And then I got in there and I think it emerged rather than knowing what we actually wanted to do. But we all knew we wanted to do something that wasn’t so complicated, you know? We all wanted to make simple music that reminded us if the shit we listen to. So it came kind of naturally I guess.”

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Sebastian might front the band and write their lyrics, but it’s clear that he views his co-founder as the engine that powers Viagra Boys. “The arrangements of the songs were more done by Benke, who had a pretty clear idea of how he wanted us to sound. We would record a verse and then a chorus and then another verse and then a chorus and another verse and then Benke would go away and listen to it for a couple of weeks and just say ‘No’, or ‘Take that away’, ‘Make that chorus half as long’. He’s a visionary in that sense, he knows exactly how he wants a song, which is cool.”

Sebastian himself has an audibly improvisatory approach to writing lyrics, something which will no doubt serve him well during the impending spoken word jazz phase of his career. “Sometimes I’ll get an idea and write it down first,” he explains, “But I have a hard time preparing for recording and usually I don’t get any good ideas until I’m stood in the booth listening to the music. So yeah, a lot of it is freestyle, freestyle rapping almost! I’ll record a bunch of it and maybe take some parts out and polish some of the lines that are maybe not so well thought out, you know?”

Listening back to Street Worms it is impossible to mistake this stream-of-consciousness approach for anything calculated or overly considered. It also demonstrates that there are certain subjects that are never far from his thoughts. The two main topics that he repeatedly returns to are a) dogs and b) sports. “Dogs for sure, not sports!” Sebastian replies when asked whether these are the two subjects closest to his heart, “I love dogs, not so much the sports.”

(Please don’t let this revelation dissuade any TV producers reading from playing Viagra Boys’ single ‘Sports’ over all ITV/BBC’s Rugby World Cup coverage, I beg you.)

After around a year touring the songs from Street Worms, Sebastian insists that he’s “fucking bored of them. But not completely done with them.” Thankfully it sounds like new material for its follow-up is in the pipeline.

“We’re recording and I’m writing lyrics now,” he replies when asked about what we can expect from the band’s sophomore effort, “I have no fucking idea what direction it’s going in, which is maybe a good thing, so yeah we’ll see. Right now we’re just in the state of writing some riffs and adding a bit of lyrics to some of those riffs, but I don’t really know. It just sounds like Viagra Boys. Just… good!”

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Viagra Boys play London's Queen Elizabeth Hall on August 11th.

Words: Josh Gray

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