Defying the laws of rock and roll

Joe Shearer

Danish duo The Raveonettes bring alternative back to the States

In the stuffy basement of the Beachland Ballroom on the east side of Cleveland, Sune Rose Wagner nonchalantly lights up and takes a drag from a cigarette. I’m not sure if what he’s doing is legal with the recent smoking ban. Does it only pertain to the ground levels of these joints? I don’t know. The thought crosses my mind to say something, maybe crack a joke, but then I decide against it. He’s a rock ‘n’ roller. Who cares? And besides, Wagner doesn’t appear to be in the joking mood.

It’s about 1 a.m. on a Thursday in October, and his band, the Raveonettes, just finished playing a show upstairs. The night before, he was in Columbus, and tomorrow, he’ll be in Chicago. His answers are a little shorter and less enthused than when I first talked with him over the phone a few months ago.

Wagner isn’t an intimidating fellow by any stretch of the imagination. He’s thin, pale and has a boyish face. With his skinny black jeans, short-sleeved, button-down shirt and black, pointed boots, he has a somewhat-innocent early ’60s look to him. Sixties, before the drugs, that is.

Although a native of Denmark, his English is polished, warm and easy-going. He’s the kind of person anybody could approach and get to know. Near the end of our conversation, fans Joe Boyer and Mandy Daniels interrupt.

“Sorry, I had to sneak back here,” Boyer says. “Can I get a picture with you?”

“Yeah, yeah. Of course,” Wagner says graciously.

Daniels snaps the picture.

“Wait, me too,” Daniels says. “I want to sit on your lap.”

“All right, all right,” Wagner chuckles a little uneasily.

His generous demeanor doesn’t surprise me. I first started correspondence with Wagner through the Raveonettes MySpace page. MySpace, of all places! Sure, the Raveonettes aren’t the biggest band in the world, but you would think it’d be more difficult to get in direct contact with a group mentioned in magazines such as Spin and Rolling Stone. There was no formal set up, no manager involved. It was just two people setting up a time when they could chat.

Rules in a trash can

Nothing about Wagner or his band is exactly conventional. Their show consists of him and glamorous blond Sharin Foo on guitars and synchronized lead vocals, along with live-only drummer Leah Shapiro whacking away on a mere two drums: a snare and a floor tom. She stands the entire set, cueing samples mainly in lieu of the lacking bass guitar. Wagner and Foo’s noisy, feedback-emitting Fender Jazzmasters more than make up for the otherwise perceived thin setup. Drenched in surfy reverb, the whole thing plays like the chaotic soundtrack to a noirish dream.

“I think people really like the new lineup,” Wagner says. “That was how it was planned originally when we started.”

He’s referring to the band’s touring as a three-piece act. Two years ago with its third album, Pretty in Black, the band would appear live in a full, five-piece outfit while still signed with major record label, Columbia.

Although the release date was pushed back to February in the United States, Wagner and the Raveonettes are touring to promote their new album, Lust Lust Lust. Wagner says the band is merely “ahead of schedule” in touring early. That’s not a bad thing, considering a number of people are already familiar with the new material.

This album is not only new music, but something new altogether. Over the past year (or more), I, like many others, watched as Wagner posted several songs for the upcoming album on MySpace. He recorded all of them alone in his East Village apartment in New York City, and threw them online for fans to praise, criticize and advise on how to add to them. Before unveiling new songs, most established acts make sure tracks are in their completed form. Wagner seems to place a lot of faith in his fans, as he posts his songs in their infancy.

“I just write every day,” he says. “I have thousands and thousands of songs. I just post every once in a while when I hear something I find interesting.”

Wagner doesn’t follow music-industry norms. He’s no longer under contract with Columbia, instead opting to sign with various independent labels around the world to distribute the forthcoming album. His approach, as unconventional as it may seem, captures something unheard of in a business so hell-bent on polished perfection.

“Most of the stuff that you hear on MySpace is pretty much the final product,” Wagner says. “I don’t do demos, so to speak. I just like to record as I write. That’s why in a lot of the songs, there are actually little mistakes in the guitar because I wasn’t sure what to play at the time. But, it just has a certain spontaneity and energy to it that I decided to keep it.”

From there, a few extra instruments might be added, along with Foo’s vocals. The product is then mixed by an outside source.

On a more personal note …

Shortly after songs are posted, fans put their two cents in. This is where you see Wagner is much closer to his base than most rock stars care to be. This is where Wagner becomes a living, breathing human being and not simply an icon: on the Internet, through your computer.

“Throw in some tambourines or bells and you’ve got yourself an album-opener!” says one fan regarding a newly posted song.

“Ooh, the bells and tambourines are coming soon. . It will be sweet indeed,” Wagner responds.

On an April blog, he thanks the fans for their feedback and support.

“We really appreciate you guys commenting on the tunes, it’s great to hear some different opinions, and believe me, we do take them into consideration.”

Perhaps his most surprising entry was in May, the day before I first talk with him. He reveals to fans he’s seeing a therapist for anxiety and insomnia. A number of fans send Wagner their support, while some try to make light of the situation.

One steadfast MySpace friend writes, “Just don’t get SO healthy yer songs suck … “

When I talk to Wagner the next day, I don’t feel like I’m talking with him for the first time. No, he’s too open and too personal. As he tells me the meaning behind the album, which was still untitled at the time, I can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. It’s as if we’re good friends, and he’s laying it all out there for me. He’s more complex than the earlier Raveonettes material would lead me to believe. Those previous songs were much simpler, many of them having made-up scenarios and bubblegum appeal.

“It’s a much more personal album than any of the other albums we’ve ever done,” he says. “The album deals with lust, and my inability to make decisions. Whenever I make decisions, I always question them, meaning that it’s very hard for me to have relationships and live in one place. It’s very hard for me to exist in that sense because I always question what I do.”

Then, he sums it all up for me, and I realize he’s dealing with something a lot of people can relate to.

“I can never be satisfied; I guess that’s what I’m saying.” His tone shifts ever so slightly. Before, he started telling me about the album as any musician might tell a reporter. But at this point, I feel like it’s something more. Any artist can say things like, “This album’s very personal,” but Wagner doesn’t hide behind vague terms.

I wonder if what the fan said about not getting so healthy the songs aren’t good anymore has something to do with Wagner’s formula to making music. The best songwriting always seems to come from those who are in pain and who use music as a way of expressing that emotion to the world.

“It’s nice to go from person to person to person, but once you get stuck within certain boundaries in a relationship, you feel trapped and your creativity dies,” he says. “As you go through different stages, you pick out different individuals that can inspire you to write what you want to write.”

An artist’s vision complete

Wagner seems a little surprised by the night’s turnout. Having to contend with Game Five of the American League Championship Series between Boston and Cleveland — a possible World Series ticket for the Indians and elimination game for the Red Sox — the city is more interested in the action nine miles away at Jacobs Field, as only 96 people come out to support the band.

“We’ve had really good crowds recently,” Wagner says. “Not a lot of people showed up tonight, but the other places we’ve done, most of them (were) sold out shows.”

Still, those in attendance caused enough commotion to get the band back on stage for two encores after its proclaimed last song. The 39-year-old singer/songwriter doesn’t appear completely disappointed, although understandably, he may be trying to stay positive. He knows he has a long tour ahead of him as the Raveonettes go from the United States, to Canada, to Europe. One not-so-great turnout can’t get the best of him.

“I think the crowd was really good,” he adds. “I always like crowds that are very responsive, and they genuinely seem to know the music. That always is a very nice feeling.”

At the end of the night, I ask Wagner for an advance copy of the new album so I can write a review when it reaches Stateside. He agrees. We go back upstairs and he continues to converse with a few stragglers.

After about ten minutes, he grabs a padded guitar case. Wagner says he recently threw out his back and can’t lift too much. I grab a couple of hard guitar cases, and we bring the equipment out to a white van. The air is unusually pleasant and comfortable for late-October. A jacket would spoil it.

Wagner goes to the van and hands me a CD encased in a plastic sleeve with a grayscale printout of the track listing. I thank him and walk to my car about 20 feet away as yet another fan approaches him for an autograph. I get in my car and look at the simple, burnt CD. It’s lacking a cover, and a black marker is used to label the album.

Twelve of the “thousands and thousands” of songs Wagner’s created are present. It’s just a glimpse into this person’s life, but as I listen to the tracks with my windows rolled down, I can’t help but smile. I’ve heard most of these songs before, but not like this. Now, they’re more powerful and arranged in a way that feels cinematic: There’s a definite beginning, middle and end to the 40-minute, surf-rock epic.

When the track listing was first announced, fans expressed disappointment to see some of their favorites didn’t make the cut. You see, Wagner uploaded somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 songs. Ultimately, he was the one who decided what should stay and go, and the enthusiasts were simply witnesses to the development of an artist’s vision. Something Wagner said to me earlier makes me trust his judgment.

“I never stop writing,” he says. “That’s what I do. I don’t do anything else. I don’t have a job. I’m only in music because it’s what I do, and it’s what I have to do. If someone told me I was not allowed to write songs anymore, I would not be in the music business because that’s the only thing that gives me joy.”

Wagner takes this gig very seriously, and the fans see that. They know they’re given access most people don’t get from a favorite artist, so even if one or two of their favorite songs aren’t represented . well, at least they heard them in the first place. But most importantly, the creator of the music is close enough to listen to each person’s concerns. No one is on the outside looking in unless they choose to be.

Contact all reporter Joe Shearer at [email protected].