The Ark's 21st-century rock star Ola Salo does his thing, shoots, and scores
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When I reach the Ark's rock idol Ola Salo on the phone at his apartment in Malmö, Sweden, he's getting ready to meet friends to watch his country's team take on Paraguay in the World Cup. Sheer lack of time calls for forward gestures, so I ask him to describe his boudoir, a CD- and book-strewn "one and a half" room apartment. "It looks like a pretty storage room," he says, amusedly. "I have a plastic chandelier. I've got my big black piano and my black angel wings. I have art and furniture that friends of mine have made, such as a big purple lamp made out of ladies' stockings. The apartment is a color explosion of chlorophyll green and bright yellow and pink and black and white. That's the scheme — and purple. It's harmonic but playful and energetic."
Sort of like the Ark's music, as showcased on State of the Ark (Virgin), the band's first US album and third to date. In the recent glam sweepstakes, Salo and his four bandmates trump the Darkness with greater songcraft and less falsetto gimmickry — they also have more chops than any prefab pseudo-punk American loogie hocked up by the MTV machine in the last decade. Basically, the Ark prove a 21st-century band can honor the likes of the New York Dolls, Bowie, Queen, and company while still being relevant. On songs like the fabulous handclap stomper "Calleth You, Calleth I" (from the 2002 Virgin import In Lust We Trust) they are capable of turning a banal gesture — in this case, the fleeting impulse to reach out to phone an ex — into an act of ludicrously glorious, wide-screen, Bic-waving grandeur.
Perhaps it's fate that gave Salo a last name that echoes the subtitle of Pier Paolo Pasolini's filmic revision of the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom. Because he's the son of a priest, it's tempting to think of him as a real-life rock version of bishop's stepson Alexander from Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, rebelling against punishing strictures. But it's a bit more complicated — Salo taps into and adds a twist to his religious roots, embracing the Bible's (and rock's) messianic outcast aspects and imagining his own miracles. One example is In Lust We Trust's "Father of a Son," which hit big in Sweden at the precise moment that a law preventing homosexuals from adopting children was banished. The song doesn't just refer to queer parenthood, it drapes an ascendant Salo in choral hallelujahs.
"The Book of Revelations was the coolest part of the Bible to me because of all the parts about smoke and fire and demons," Salo says. "It's very heavy metal. Growing up in a Christian family gives you this kind of stigma of being a pussy. People think that Christians are ... forget pussy, they're Ned Flanders–like. I wanted to do something of Biblical proportions, something magical or sensational, something with power and joy, something that if people thought it was silly or uncool or ludicrous I wouldn't mind."
The Ark’s new State of the Ark might not contain anything quite as spine-tingling and sublime as "It Takes a Fool to Remain Sane," the gauntlet-throwing leadoff hit from their 2000 debut We are the Ark. (That track has the "Hand in Glove" urgency of someone who has waited years to sing their life, and in pledging allegiance to the queer kids, the weird kids, and the fat kids, Salo's probably saved some lives.) But it has some great moments, such as the single "One of Us Is Gonna Die Young," an anthem to the joy of life rather than the allure of death. On State of the Ark, as on the Ark's previous album, Salo called upon Velvet Goldmine soundtracker and ex–Shudder to Think member Nathan Larson (whose girlfriend Nina Persson fronts Malmö's other top group, the underrated Cardigans) to help him recognize the difference between "stupid strange" and "creative strange" English lyrics.
Nonetheless, Salo agrees that one billion ABBA fans can't be wrong in noting that a Swedish band's approach to the English language as an "artifact" yields special interpretive appeal. He's also more than willing to discuss the country's past and current role in the musical landscape, lauding Göteburg-based Sarah Assbring's el Perro del Mar project for making "probably last year's best debut album" and playfully admonishing me for ignoring ’60s garage instrumentalists the Sputniks when I race through a shorthand version of the country's pop history. "Sweden has a very good social welfare system and people have good living standards and we haven't had any wars," he pointedly observes. "We have had a lot of time to do luxurious peacetime things like making pop music."
Perhaps because Salo is "too egocentric" to be a fan of the past rock stars he admires, the Ark's brand of performance is exactly the type designed to incite maniacal worship. Such fan-demonium hasn't kicked in all over the United States, but it has in other countries. "Fans are crazy in Italy, which you know if you've ever watched Italian television," says Salo. "And the paparazzi — there's a reason why that's an Italian word." He goes on to tell the story of a girl who was paid by an Italian tabloid to sleep with him. "I was not interested at all," he concludes, with a dry laugh. "She got drunk and failed at her goal — miserably."
As opposed to Salo, who is more than ready to seduce at any time. All those who saw or read about the Ark's springtime South by Southwest shows know that he has no qualms about treating an industry barbecue like a stadium gig — he'll bump and grind in his boots and tighty whities right on past the most jaded zombie. Something tells me that sort of attitude and behavior mean this city will love him even more frenziedly than he might love it. What might he wear, or not wear, for his first visit to San Francisco? "Some flowers in my hair, I guess," he deadpans. "I've heard that's obligatory. Actually I'm getting a new suit, or dress, for the SF shows. I hope it's a smash."
That said, it's World Cup time, and who is Salo's favorite player on the Swedish team? "Zlatan Ibrahimovic," he answers, in a tone suggesting that looks might have something or everything to do with it. "Now I'm going to go watch him do his thing." SFBG
With Mon Cousin Belge
Fri/23, 9 p.m.
Cafe du Nord
2170 Market, SF
SF Pride Festival
Sun/25, 3:30 p.m. (Shadowplay stage) and 5:15 p.m. (main stage)
Civic Center, SF