Skate punk veterans on being more political and having social media issues : Millencolin interviewed

In the US, skateboarding culture has long been intertwined with popular music. As early as 1964, Californian duo Jan & Dean recorded “Sidewalk Surfin”, an adaptation of The Beach Boys’ “Catch a Wave” with new lyrics associated with skateboarding.

In the early-to-mid-80s, however, skateboard-riding punk/hardcore acts such as JFA, Hogan’s Heroes, Suicidal Tendencies, Agression, The Offspring and NOFX built sizeable followings on the LA scene, playing a type of music which supercharged punk’s three-chord basics with hardcore’s speed and frat-party humour. Rolling Stone Magazine nailed the skate-punk sound as simply “a sort of pop hardcore” with specific attributes: fast, thrashy guitar riffs with humour and radio-friendly melodies. And the scene was about to have a massive peak in the nineties.

In the wake of the grunge explosion in the early nineties, punk’s stock was again on the rise and many of the foremost skate punk bands duly began to experience mainstream success by the middle of the decade. The Offspring, sold a whopping eleven million copies worldwide of their 1994 album “Smash”and bands as Bad Religion, Blink-182 and Sum 41 also sold gold and enjoyed major commercial breakthroughs.

During that second wave of skate punk, in the first half of the nineties, Millencolin put together two cassettes, “”Melack” and “Goofy”, which gave them a deal with Burning Heart, and their debut EP “Use Your Nose” in 1993 and a year later debut album “Tiny Tunes” were realized.

Throughout the latter half of the nineties and the immediate post-Y2K years, Millencolin became a force to be reckoned with and quickly gained a massive fan base because of always being on the road, playing major commercial windows as the Vans Warped Tour and releasing the triumphant album “Pennybridge Pioneers” in 1999.

Punk scene veterans is what first comes to mind when you book an interview with these legends, and when we meet up with drummer Larzon ahead of their Hamburg gig on their “SOS” tour, it’s natural to start in summarizing twenty-seven years on the skate punk scene.

Veterans on the skate punk scene

Nine studio albums, twenty-seven years on the punk rock scene and many world tours later you’re still in the game. How would you summarize an almost thirty-year long career? That can’t be what you expected when you released “Tiny Tunes”?
Fuck no! It wasn’t even on my mind to reach this point.

It’s really difficult to summarize it all but what’s important to know is that we gained our fan base gradually and earned a great reputation on the way which made it possible to step up the continuously.

We played every city or venue that were available in Sweden during our first years in 1993 and 1994, with bands as No Fun At All, tours that were more or less subsidized with cultural funds which made it very cheap to come out for our shows, and we made somewhere between 150 and 200 gigs in Sweden those first two years and played like four times in the same tiny city (laughs).

But we’ve had a lot of luck alongside working hard for it; we played across Europe early, ended up at Epitaph Records which opened the doors to America, and we toured Australia quite early as well just because our label Burning Heart found great distributors down there.

And you played Vans Warped Tour already in 1997 which must have been a great window for you?
Exactly, and it was completely insane how many shows we did that tour. It was something like eight weeks and gigs almost every day where we were put up in front of a new audience. We did it ourselves as well on the Punk-O-Rama tours that Epitaph organized.

It hasn’t always been easy though, we’ve had our lows in the band where we didn’t always walk down the same road at the same time as the band gradually became more successful. It is hard to be four persons or a small business, because that’s what it is when you do it as we do, alongside having your own life to take care of and where families are involved. It’s not as when you’re young and only have an employer to deal with who let you have three months off for touring and, hopefully, let you keep your job until you reach the point where you play and get paid enough to pay the rent. That’s something that really put you up for a test because it’s on tour you earn your living as a musician today, there’s no record sales at all.

But if you consider the overall career of Millencolin it has been a great time except a breakdown just before we made “Pennybridge Pioneers” when we pulled the breaks for a while, and some minor struggles in the beginning of the 2000s when we didn’t really know in what direction we would take the band. We always want to progress with every new album, to make it sound different but still Millencolin, and that’s tough.

We’ve always been loyal to places we toured across the world, whether it’s in South America, Australia or Europe, and always want to visit those places a few times on every tour. That’s how you get loyal fans, I hope (laughs).

The punk rock scene has always been associated with being young and living for the day. You should come out for a fun show, drink beer and crowd surf, at least as I grew up with it. How is it to become older on a scene associated with being young? Or does the audience, and you’re fans, age together with you?
We get new and younger fans, you notice that before tours when people send song requests and they want songs from all our albums. Maybe it’s not twenty-year olds that is our main audience today, people at gigs tend be a bit older (laughs). But you always get so fucking surprised and happy when you go out on tour and realize that it’s sold-out everywhere and we need to change to a bigger venue. That’s a sign of a growing fan base.

And that must be very rewarding because it’s also a sign of having a loyal fan base.
Definitely, and we’re very, very grateful for that. I think that our oldest fans is old enough to have passed through the childhood years of family life and started to come back again (laughs). Maybe they have time enough to come out for five gigs a year and we just happen to be one of those bands they want to pay for because we’re a band that appeal to nostalgia and play songs from all our records. They’re back after a long family break and they’re back for us (laughs).

The Politics of “SOS”

On latest album “SOS” Millencolin share their stories of political understanding and attack growing nationalism and racism, climate problems and social media, under influence of the Swedish election where vocalist Nikola Sarcevic were bombarded with political messages on these topics. Naturally, it all ended up in lyrics but with much more focus on politics that ever before on Millencolin records.

You have a new album out, ”SOS”, which has received some great reviews in music media and at the same time feels like a ”True Brew” 2.0, but it’s also the same team behind the albums.
The team is basically just us and Jens Bogren except for the crew who’s fine-tuning the instruments, but that’s mostly friends doing that for us. Jens is a friend as well but it’s primarily a work relation when we record albums. 

”True Brew” was great for us but it feels like we took it a step further on this one and made it even better, but I do understand the similarities. We got a fresh start, new energy, and it became clear for us in which direction we wanted to go with the band after “Machine 15”, which was a very different album if you ask people about it.

But you also had almost an eight-year long break between “Machine 15” and “True Brew”.
You may think it was like that but we toured almost that whole period until ”True Brew” happened; it was almost like a seven-year long tour. It took a bit longer because people wanted us to come out and play and we just felt that until we have some good ideas for a new album we just continue touring. And of course, we have our family lives to take care of as well, it wasn’t only touring.

”SOS” deals with some hot political topics as racism and climate problems. It’s hardly new that punk bands make a record with lots of political references, that’s part of the punk scene since its birth, but you are more focused on it now than ever before. Have you become more political today?
Most definitely, but it started already on “True Brew” where Nikola wrote about the growing right-wing movement. He has always put focus on personal things but it became more political on “True Brew”, and on this one he took it a step further.

At the same, he always write with some sort of optimism, it’s not like everything is fucked (laughs). It’s like “If we want to do something about it, we can”. But you’re right, it’s for sure more political today.

I read a few fan blogs where fans are worried that political messages would be interpreted wrong. You’re not worried that people would start to think “Hey, Millencolin have become politicized”?
No (laughs). If that happens it’s on our terms, we have to defend our views at the end of the day. But it’s kind of basic stuff in there; climate change, the right-wings and social media as we see it.

The way Nikola write songs is not to shove things down your throat. I may not be the best to explain it, Nikola would probably be better suited for it, but I see it as we just describe what we experience in society, not how people should act, and from that perspective I can understand that some people react and just say “I can’t stand this crap”.

What people maybe react to is that the whole skate punk culture is based on going to gigs, drink beer and have fun, not being overtly political.
That’s just how we were the first ten years, the band who didn’t give a shit about politics. We wanted to have fun and drink beer (laughs). But there were loads of political Swedish punk bands in the nineties and we didn’t want to follow that, it was more about having fun, create a good atmosphere and play with internal band jokes (laughs). Just look at our artworks, promo pics and videos from the first decade, it was all about sarcasm and having fun.

“We suck at social media”

With the advent of the Internet there has been rapid progress in terms of marketing opportunities and the rise of promotion spaces in Facebook and Instagram. Fans, label and promotion agencies expect bands to take part in the social media circus and share their lives with the world.

These days it seems like everyone and their dog has social media. And in fact, there are way too many Instagram accounts dedicated to people’s dogs for my liking. But what does the social medialization of the industry means for a band like Millencolin? Is it even necessary?

I’ve always watched you through the lens of DIY work, Erik is doing most of the graphic designs for instance. Is it possible to keep all these things in your own control on the level you have reached at this point or has it changed along the way?
That’s very important to us. We have always been very lucky to work with a label that give us the freedom to do many things ourselves, they’ve trusted us with that as much as we trust them. DIY is how we started out and we have been involved in most things from the start; it would feel fucking weird to let someone else do it now, it wouldn’t work out for us.

It is super important for us to make those decisions and be involved in different processes when we think that it’s necessary.

Just like you said, ”SOS” is dealing with social media and if you consider how much the promotion side of the industry have changed from having labels doing all promos to almost be forced to self-promote yourself in social media, or expected to by fans, how has this development affected the band?
Where do I start? We’re a completely fucking disaster in terms of social media promotion, you can’t really describe it in a better way (laughs).

First of all we don’t have any idea what to post; just look at our Instagram page and we don’t have that many posts. Facebook came a few years before Instagram and we did our promos on there in the beginning. Second, it’s just too much and there’s no time or interest in dealing with Instagram or Twitter, we just put out the same posts in all our channels.

Luckily we have a label and people close to us that have access to our social media and can help us out, but we have strategies on how to promote things ahead of releases and tours, but that’s basically it.

But you don’t use fans to help you out?
I have no idea at all, I don’t think anyone of us has it. You really need to be a social media expert to deal with that whole world today. It’s just completely pointless because you will never understand the algorithms anyway; you can share a video on Facebook and nobody likes it or will share it, but a random stupid photo is shared a hundred times.

We got lost after the MySpace era when Facebook arrived and we realized it wasn’t enough being accessible through email. Just look at some small bands that just have been around for a year, released an EP and suddenly have half a million followers. How the fuck did that happen? But we have faith in that people who likes us will find us on Spotify.

We suck at social media and really don’t know how to deal with it but have our label. They’re that close to us that we’re more like friends and we trust that they promote us in our social media channels as we want it, but they always ask us if they post stuff. I just get tired of the whole circus.

To wrap it up and talk about something completely different. I know you’re huge fans of football and hockey in your home town Örebro, and Milencolin wrote a song to the football team, Örebro SK, for instance and you have a tattoo dedicated to the hockey team. Which Örebro team will be Swedish champions first, football or hockey?
That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot and I still don’t know if Örebro would be able to deal with that kind of success (laughs). We have always been a mediocre city if you don’t look way back in the past when we had the best bandy team [like field hockey but on ice] in Sweden.

Because I’m a huge hockey fan I really hope it will be Örebro Hockey. They have an amazing atmosphere in their hockey arena and the people of Örebro are very supportive, but whatever sport will reach that point first will be a massive success for the city. But I will say Örebro Hockey, they will make it (laughs).

Photographer: ©Jule Rog
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About J.N.

Music researcher with an unhealthy passion for music and music festivals. Former studio owner, semi-functional drummer and with a fairly good collection of old analogue synthesizers from the 70's. Indie rock, post rock, electronic/industrial and drum & bass (kind of a mix, yeah?) are usual stuff in my playlists but everything that sounds good will fit in.