The fuzzed-out, down-tuned sounds of stoner rock acts like Kyuss and Fu Manchu have always inspired a similar style of amplifier worship from European bands, but perhaps nowhere more than Sweden. Back in the early '90s, Nordic desert-rock disciples like Dozer, Lowrider, and Spiritual Beggars proved Joshua trees and dry heat weren't required to create compelling, psychedelic stoner grooves.
Fellow Swedish outfit Truckfighters didn't form until 2001, but over the past decade, the band has established itself as one of the genre's most tuneful purveyors of thunderous, psychedelic heavy rock. Championed by American imprint MetorCity Records (who put out the band's full-length debut, Gravity X, in 2005), Truckfighters deliver a compelling combination of guitar heft and spacious jams that never skimps on memorable melodies.
Heavy touring and a steady rotation of drummers slowed founders Oscar "Ozo" Cedermalm (bass, vocals) and Niklas "Dango" Källgren (guitar) during the five years it took to record their latest effort, Universe. The stellar mix of urgent, riff-driven anthems and intricately layered epics like 13-minute album closer "Mastodont" proves the disc was well worth the wait. We recently caught up with Källgren via phone shortly after the band arrived in Austin, Tex., for South By Southwest, to discuss Truckfighters' influences and songwriting process. The group plays its first-ever San Francisco show this Thursday at DNA Lounge with like-minded rockers Crobot, The Devil in California, and Blackwulf.
What is it about the desert-rock sound of Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age that inspires Swedish musicians? Before Truckfighters came together, bands like Dozer and Spiritual Beggars had successfully explored similar territory.
I think there's kind of the same vibe in Sweden. Instead of being really warm with sand and stone, there's lots of snow in the winter with trees everywhere. The common thing is there are not so many people around. Maybe that's why you get more or less the same vibe.
What was your introduction to the sound? Did you hear those Kyuss albums when they first came out, or were you exposed to Dozer and Spiritual Beggars and their take on stoner rock first?
I heard Kyuss for the first time in 1999. I had met these new friends when I started a new school, and one of the guys was like "You have to check this band out! They're my favorite band!" So I tried and listened to all of the albums in a row and it was too much. And then he tried again a few months later, and after a while, I kind of got sucked into it. But I didn't hear them until after they quit.
Five years passed between the release of Mania in 2009 and Universe coming out this year. Were there reasons beyond revolving drummers that contributed to the gap?
Of course the drummers affected it. But also we've been touring a lot; all the time. But it takes some time to make the best album we've done before. We really wanted work through it and check all the details and do the best we can. We also recorded it in lots of different sessions, which made mixing take a really long time.
On the other hand, all the songs got their own vibe. It was almost like mixing the whole album each time we started with a new song. We'd start from scratch and try to bring the same feeling to it. I think the drums were recorded in five or six different sessions for the seven songs on the album. So it was lots of work, but it was fun to have all the songs getting their own feel to them.
I think the whole time perspective also made us maybe work through the songs even more. A few songs we'd kind of think were finished, but then we'd come back and listen to it again a year later and think "Hmmm, maybe this is not optimal. Maybe we should change it a little." We're kind of perfectionists, so it takes time [laughs].
Has your approach to songwriting changed since early years of the band? You and Ozo have always been the principles throughout; are you essentially working together the same way?
On Universe and also on Mania, we haven't had a fixed drummer. So we kind of ended up with me and Ozo just writing everything together with a computer. We have a click track, a bass, and a guitar, and we just sit down and compose stuff.
Normally, we listen to old and new ideas that we have recorded during rehearsals or jam sessions or sound checks or whatever -- though sometimes we just come up with a riff out of the blue. So we try to get the pieces together and listen to the various ideas, maybe one idea is two years old and one idea is a few hours old.
Then we take the parts that we like and we feel might fit together and we actively compose the song and continue the process until we consider the song to be finished at the end of the recording. Nowadays, we don't write the songs and say "It's done. It's finished. Let's record it." In the early days, when we were a band with steady members who just came together and jammed and hung out, then we wrote the songs before recording them.
Does your songwriting differ when it comes to longer tracks like "Mastaodont" on Universe? Are you finding different parts that fit together or do those songs emerge as a whole while jamming?
I don't think we've had something come together as a whole song while playing. It's too complicated to manage that and remember what we played [laughs]. We never, ever think beforehand "Are we going to do a long song or a short song?" We just do what feels good and we continue until we feel like it's finished. Sometimes it's 10 minutes and sometimes it's two minutes. We don't have a fixed way of doing it.
Does the title of "Mastodont" refer to anything? I thought of the band Mastodon, even though the song doesn't really sound like them.
No, not really. It's more like it became so long, we were like "Whoa! This is a huge song!" So we called it "Mastodont." But lots of people seem to think it's kind of like Mastodon. I've seen it in lots of reviews that say "blah blah blah, inspired by Mastodon."
Longer tracks are often the more experimental or improvisational ones for stoner-rock bands, but "Mastodont" is one of the catchiest tunes on the whole album. Did you consider trying to condense the song into something more radio-friendly?
No. Absolutely not [laughs]. Of course, we don't mind that it's catchy. We just do stuff we think is good. We don't care if it's catchy or heavy or whatever; as long as we like it, we keep it. We never thought that we should make it shorter to like make it a single or something. No way.
There are a couple of points where you make dramatic use of filters, both at the beginning of "Mind Control" and for the drum break in middle of "Prophet." Are those ideas that come up in post-production and mixing?
Those were things we did in the mix. We think "Well, here we should spice it up a bit" and we try different stuff. That kind of radio-like filter is a classic thing and it works, but we haven't used it that much.
As a fan who mostly buys records, I was wondering if you have any plans to make your earlier albums available on vinyl?
The problem is we haven't had any proper distribution in the U.S. We did do a vinyl package with the first two albums in a box with three discs and we've been selling for about a year in Europe. But the idea is to have it and Mania on vinyl distributed here as well, of course. It's just a matter of getting it out in the States. We're also working on a U.S. based web shop where we can just sell our stuff straight to the customers and avoid all the international shipping and long waiting time for delivery.
I know you have a pretty packed schedule during South By Southwest, but were there any bands you were going to try to see while you're there if you have time?
The only one I saw is that Soundgarden is playing the big iTunes show, but that's going to be hard to get into. I don't know if they're doing any other shows or if we're playing at the same time and have to miss it anyway [laughs]. But that would be cool. I've never seen Soundgarden and they're one of my favorite old bands.