The Tough Alliance: Mixed Signals

September 16, 2008

The Tough Alliance throws the world overboard with its bright and breezy synth pop mutiny

From the magazine: ISSUE 56, September 2008

Fifteen minutes to midnight and the sun has just set in Gothenburg, a spotless seaside city on the west coast of Sweden, where a fish-choking bronze Poseidon guards Main Street and the biggest threat to public safety is an overabundance of beer piss in the old moat. The truncated dusk-to-dawn cycle of midsummer nights lasts four hours and tints the streets’ cobblestones a deep, dreamlike cyan—encouraging everyone to party beyond the break of dawn and the brink of reason. Bars’ closing hours are tiered so that no one can stay forever at one particular place, but they never have to go home. At 20 Andra Långgatan, some of Gothenburg’s most influential bands are chugging warm Carlsberg tallboys in deference to the closing of Blenda, one of the city’s last vinyl strongholds and the first stop on a twelve-hour bender that will most likely end up with someone pissing beer in the old moat. Packed into the tiny, hollowed out shop—which just a few hours before was stocked and staffed as if nothing were awry—are members of Studio, Air France, The Embassy and fifty or so young Swedes with varying tones of dirty blonde hair and tan skin who may or may not also be in bands. This congregation of musicians was not planned—it was inevitable. Gothenburg’s musical density dwarfs just about any other city on the planet, and right now all its particles seem to pass through the magnetic field of the divisive yet revered Tough Alliance.

Everyone at Blenda is Scandinavian fit and flushed, including The Tough Alliance’s Eric Berglund and Henning Fürst. Their arrival inspires the DJ to throw on their crushingly upbeat Swedish radio hit from last year, “First Class Riot,” which, if you haven’t heard, sounds like the sun emerging from puberty. Its synthetic sheen bounces and floats like a beachball around a packed stadium, and though it has probably been played a million times at parties like this, as the perfect pop segue between dance and dancehall, no one seems to mind hearing it again. Fürst and Berglund are ambivalent, having already noticed some lurking dissenters. “There are a few people here who don’t like us,” says Fürst, “but there are people at every party who don’t like The Tough Alliance.” Along with the titular chorus phrase coupled with Don’t you die yet and You can’t buy it, the song’s ten-line lyrics begin with There’s a crowd, talking loud, but they ain’t saying nothing/ Slow and stale, weak and pale, while we’re running and laughing. You can understand why people might hear “First Class Riot” and feel defensive. But these people are probably also dancing. If you hang out for a few days in Gothenburg, the scattered haters will reveal themselves, but without fail they punctuate every argument with, “but I love their music.” Call it the Five Stages of Dealing With The Tough Alliance: disbelief, confusion, anger, acceptance, devotion. Only the stages can get jumbled or occur simultaneously and repeatedly—just as The Tough Alliance wants it

When Fürst and Berglund met at age twelve, they didn’t even like each other. They were attending the same school in Onsala, a tiny seaside village about an hour south of Gothenburg with Viking origins running back to the 1100s, and made mutually bad first impressions. “I just didn’t like the way he looked,” deadpans Berglund, of the then long-haired punk Fürst, who nods in agreement. But, as often happens, their adolescent rivalry turned into an inseparable friendship within weeks, and the next thing they knew, they were in a band together. That band was not The Tough Alliance. It was also “not that good” as they’ll both say, but fifteen or so years later they have created an already astounding discography, the first portion of which will impact the world outside of Sweden this fall with A New Chance. At only eight songs and thirty minutes, it’s punk in length, but its breadth is oceanic.

It’s not hard to imagine Fürst and Berglund perched on the bow of a sailboat, floating out on the Skagerrak Strait to the North Sea, shouting their lyrics into a giant ram’s horn or something. From the opening classic house piano chords of “Something Special,” the album feels like coastal summer, but Gothenburg is doused in eighteen hours of daily darkness from November through February, and the absence of light and heat was their inspiration. “Winter in Sweden is all about longing, and that’s pretty much what music is about, longing and getting away,” says Fürst. “We don’t keep a logbook on our creative journey, but I’m sure the most tropical, summery stuff we’ve done was made on a cold and dark winter’s day. Gothenburg winter can easily turn into nothing but depression if you’re not careful, and the best way to get through it is to be planning and preparing something.” A New Chance is full of that yearning, that ache in late winter to sun your face and chest, when every second ticking closer to spring stretches unendingly into the next. Which may also be why it captures midsummer just as well—because even at the end of the best summer day, you’re closer to fall, and you know it and it sucks. But Berglund thinks it’s a waste to worry. “We generally try to avoid thinking about the past and future and try to be as present as possible in the now,” he says. “Now we want to focus on the summer and swim, lie on fields and just breathe, listen to favorite tunes, play soccer, and I’m sure amazing things will come out of that.”

“That some people actually come back and reconsider their spontaneous disgust for us, I find very flattering and inspiring.” — Henning Furst

An hour after arriving to the party at Blenda, The Tough Alliance, along with Henrik Markstedt and Joel Karlsson of Air France, are heading to “the boat.” The boat is Styrbord Babord (Starboard Port), a decommissioned dinner cruiser permanently docked in the aforementioned piss-filled moat, and it is Gothenburg’s weirdest and best nightclub. On the portside deck, people post up, drink Staropramens and flit from cluster to cluster because everyone knows each other somehow, but the top cabin dining room has been retooled into a disco complete with lasers and a steam machine. If you’ve watched The Tough Alliance’s videos, official or not, on YouTube, it’s where you would expect to find them slam-raving and inciting hooliganism on the dancefloor. In reality, they stay on the deck, talking to friends and keeping a low profile. In person, Fürst is gregarious and open, while Berglund is sensitive and dryly funny. Both are physically quiet and unassuming.

This reality is the most surprising thing about the creators of The Tough Alliance. Even the most cursory research returns stories of the two creating mayhem at their live shows. They are notorious in Sweden for blatantly lip-syncing—as in, they don’t even make the pretense of bringing microphones on stage. They are more likely to bring baseball bats or golf clubs and swing them somewhat menacingly at the audience as Berglund yells (some) of the lyrics over a backing track while Fürst conducts the air in front of a projection of crashing waves. When they performed this routine at Austin, Texas’ Beauty Bar during South by Southwest in March of 2008, Berglund nearly tore the ceiling tiles down from the tiny bar stage, maybe twenty people paid attention, and most of them looked bewildered or bemused. Tough Alliance’s shows in Gothenburg, though, regularly result in crammed rooms and lifetime banishments. At Air France’s first and only show a year ago, where they were meant to DJ but drunkenly attempted to play their elaborately tracked songs on a couple of borrowed instruments, Fürst and Berglund saved the day by jumping onstage with their friends, and the crowd got so hyped that both bands and all of their fans were immediately thrown out by security. (Air France hasn’t played a gig since, though they do paper Gothenburg with faux flyers announcing debauched shows at Fürst’s apartment featuring opening band “The Tough Lions,” dated the day before they post them, simultaneously building word-of-mouth buzz for the “missed show” and avoiding actually having to play.)

In both Texas and Gothenburg (and presumably everywhere else), Tough Alliance’s success depends on audience engagement and participation and, at least in Texas, whether enough people know the words to overtake the pounding playback. It’s not lip-syncing, the crowd is the microphone. Tough Alliance have extrapolated that goosebumpy moment in concerts when the performer extends the mic towards the audience and sings unamplified with them, instead of for them. To be at a Tough Alliance show is to be a member of The Tough Alliance. “I think we still lose and gain supporters every time we enter a stage, but I’m proud to say that at least boredom has never been very present in our audiences…so far,” says Fürst. “That some people actually come back and reconsider their spontaneous disgust for us, I find very flattering and inspiring. We’re only interested in creating a feeling and displaying not skills, but whatever is on our minds and chests that particular night—be it shyness, happiness or even anger.”

This willingness to lose their audience is what sets The Tough Alliance apart. The Tough Alliance has no MySpace profile, Fürst and Berglund only play a show when it feels right (Berglund flew home from a tour of Australia after one show on a bad feeling) and they are so protective of their personal lives and creative process that it can be a challenge just to do a story on them. And while you could argue that this tactic is just that—a tactic—it is not. They are sincere. “Our whole modern society is built on this role playing, those constructed identities and the fear of being rejected by society for listening to your heart and being yourself,” says Berglund. “It’s really hard work to not play along, but you will never be able to find real joy if you do. The Tough Alliance is about doing what you can to escape that spectacle and find real life, about creating a context where you’re totally free and comfortable, even if it takes a lifetime.”

“They’re full of shit. They’re sellouts.” This is the reaction to a question about The Tough Alliance by one Gothenburg music critic aboard Stybord Babord. “They came out saying they wanted to kill rock & roll and now they have signed a rock artist to their label,” she says, referring to Jöel Alme, who is hardly rock & roll, but in the relatively strident catalog of their label Sincerely Yours, is a mainstreamish transgression. “I don’t believe what they are saying. I think it is all an act…but I love their music.” She accuses them of flip-flopping, of insincerity and inauthenticity, but she misses the point: Fürst and Berglund do what they want, when they want (even if it contradicts what they did before) and do not particularly care what anyone thinks. To parse what they mean by something, you would have to know exactly what they meant by everything else, and they have taken great pains to keep that knowledge secret.

Even when they do something that might lead you to believe it is a statement, they will turn around and drop it like it was nothing. In its original version, A New Chance began with a sample of Azan, the Muslim call to prayer, a move that was both preposterous and epic in the same way the sirens and Griff’s marching orders were on Public Enemy’s “Countdown to Armageddon.” It seemed politically brave and provocative, but they used it simply because it conveyed the feeling of anticipation in the album’s opening moments—a religious experience for them. It was outrageous enough to bring a group of disgruntled Muslims to Fürst’s doorstep to explain why such usage was deeply offensive, and they’ve since removed it from the album, along with the Arabic imagery from the cover, which will be replaced with a barcode. So maybe they are flip-floppers, or maybe they see opportunities in change. Maybe changing with the wind means you can go faster and farther, even though it will throw you way off course.

The Tough Alliance is probably not going to sell a million albums, but judging from their actions they’d rather not anyway. They are a couple of friends who want to make music that makes them happy, but apparently it is more important that that happiness be pure. Whether such a thing is even possible these days is debatable, but in the long sunlit summer days of Sweden, you can be convinced it is. It’s a place where you can ignore sleep for a week, eat meatballs and drink beer as if they were bread and water, and make rebel music that sounds like windsurfing on a sea of champagne. To outsiders, The Tough Alliance might feel alien, hostile or just like a bit of a joke, but that’s okay, it can feel however you want it to feel. The Tough Alliance knows what it means.

The Tough Alliance: Mixed Signals