The Fantastic Five

Photo: Lars H

The first time I saw the Ark live, I wanted to scream like one of those apoplectic teenage girls immortalized in pictures of the Beatles’ first trip to New York. Fortunately, I was not alone in this. Within the comfortable little den that is the Mercury Lounge, they produced genuine euphoria, an awesome accomplishment anywhere, but especially so in a room where the accepted manner of music appreciation is to stand with your thumbs hooked in your jeans and maybe, if you’re really feeling it, casually bob your head. As it was, heavily rouged lead singer Ola Salo had the crowd belting out lyrics that will seem corny on the printed page, but, I assure you, felt deeply meaningful in the moment: “Let your body decide where you want to go,” we sang like kindergartners set loose on a playground. “High or low, fast or slow.”

No, that is not a slightly dirty Up With People cover. It is an original by the Ark, a Swedish band that owns the Scandinavian charts and has also risen to near-superstar status in Italy (where they like a good diva). The Ark came to New York for the first time last year, as part of the Swedish government’s annual rock promo tour, and just about caused a riot at CBGB; they’ve been back a few times since, pulling in a bigger audience each time and forging an unlikely alliance with the downtown crowd. Two weeks ago, before their record was even available here (it comes out April 11), they filled the Bowery Ballroom.

The Ark have been described in two ways—“glam rock,” in the gender-bending tradition of David Bowie, T. Rex, and the New York Dolls, and “Queen meets Abba.” Both only scratch the surface of the band’s charm. Their songs are big but nimble, built around anthemic hooks and driven by rock-dance rhythms. That, however, only makes them a good band; what makes them more than that is their joyful humanism. The Ark are not maudlin, angry, cynical, or ironic, which distinguishes them from almost every other current band I can think of. Put another way: They have absolutely no fear of being uncool.

Salo, 29, is the visionary. Like the rest of the band, he comes from a semi-industrial rural area called Smaland, the upstate New York of Sweden. The son of Lutheran missionaries who had lived in Africa for a decade, he was sawing away on the violin by age 5 and, not much later, writing his own material. His first songs were in made-up English, a language he thought far superior to his native tongue. “My parents had these two dictionaries side by side, the English-to-Swedish and the Swedish-to-English,” he says. “The first one was so much bigger because English has so many more words, so much more creativity. Swedish was the language of all the stupid people I had to meet every day. Stupid people speak English, too, of course, but I only discovered that later.”

Rock music marked the way out of a stoic culture burdened by low expectations. “Growing up in a religious household, I expected life to be full of miracles,” Salo says. “When I realized that nobody was ever going to walk on water or split any seas in this world, it was deeply disappointing. I thought that in music, I could create the magic missing in real life.”

In 1991, Salo started the Ark, its members brought together by a love of sixties psychedelic rock. “Our parents were old hippies, and they had these great record collections,” says guitarist Martin Axén, who was close to the band from early on and joined it officially in 1997. “Compared to Hendrix and the Doors and Jefferson Airplane, everything else sucked.”

“Stupid people speak English, too, of course, but I only discovered that later.”

The Ark became known in Smaland not just for their music but for their extremely long band meetings. “They were so serious,” says drummer Sylvester Schlegel, who also joined later. “They would lock themselves away for hours.”

“We wanted to be anything but normal,” says Salo. “So we had a lot to talk about. We wanted our shows to be a total experience, something that would make you think that maybe life could be different.” They staged wild floor shows and wore glittery, feathery costumes. All that, however, would have meant little if the Ark didn’t also have great songs. Salo created an operatic style of rock; one of his classic compositions is the blazing, thoroughly uplifting “Father of a Son,” about gay parenting, which became a hit in Sweden just as the law was changed to allow it. Opponents of the change—and there were more of them than you’d think in Sweden—were singing along to the chorus without knowing what they were saying.

The album that comes out this week, State of the Ark, is the band’s third and the first one available in the U.S. The tunes have a harder rock edge, and the lyrics are sharper and funnier, as in “One of Us Is Gonna Die Young” and “This Piece of Poetry Is Meant to Do Harm.” Salo bravely attempts a software metaphor (“I don’t want the trust than can be bought / My kind of trust is shareware”) and shows a touch of pique in “Rock City Wankers,” a rebuke of rock stars who glamorize their own bad behavior (“Try some manners, fuckface”).

Accustomed to stadium mobs in Europe, the Ark are back to grinding it out in the clubs and making the best of the conditions they encounter. At the recent South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, they played an afternoon gig at an outdoor barbecue, to a crowd of hangover-nursing zombies. This might have been an excuse to mail one in, but Ola would do no such thing. “He started jumping on the picnic tables,” says Schlegel. “Tacos went flying.”

John Cameron Mitchell, the creator of Hedwig, was an early convert to the Ark, picking two of Salo’s songs for his next movie, Shortbus, and hosting them at a private show last month on the Lower East Side where Salo climbed up onto the ceiling pipes during the set. “I’ve gotten a lot of people into them,” says Mitchell. “If people meet them halfway, they’ll do great here.”

Before coming to America, the Ark had a pretty idyllic existence. “We had Scandinavia and then we had Italy, where we could go for the sun and the food and to lip-synch in front of 20,000 people, which they make us do there,” says Salo. “So we don’t need America. But America might need us.”

The Fantastic Five