Dregen on welding, beer and rock’n’roll

The Hellacopters have a fab new album out and are touring again. Before their tour kicked off in Europe, Dregen swung by Roppongi Rocks headquarters in Tokyo to talk with Stefan Nilsson about the band, playing with Michael Monroe, launching his own Riff beer, the art of Charlie Granberg, welding, the Roppongi Rocks sofa and much more.

You recently reunited with the Michael Monroe Band for a one-off appearance in Helsinki to celebrate Michael’s 60th birthday. That show also included reunions for Demolition 23 and Hanoi Rocks. Tell us about it. “I’ve missed my time with Michael Monroe. We are still in touch. When he put together the band in 2010, he asked me to join the band. But at that time I couldn’t join. Then Ginger Wildheart took that position. But later when Backyard Babies took a break, Michael called and I immediately thought ‘Oh, yes. This will be fun!’ I think that during the three years I was part of it, we did great. I think the album ‘Horns and Halos’ is among his strongest cards. I really think we achieved something great with that. All of us contributed in a good way. I did fit into that band very well and I have missed it. I like it when there is some kind of organised chaos. And that’s what Michael Monroe is. OK, this time rehearsals started a week out, but I arrived the day before the gig to rehearse but even then it’s not… Ten minutes before gig, the set list is still not set in stone. Almost anything can happen. It’s like, ‘Why don’t you jump in and guest on this song?’ After the gig, my eyebrows were gone! ‘You could’ve told me you were gonna have pyro!’ When we’re out with The Hellacopters, we get told, ‘You can’t be there at that time on stage because then it will end badly’. At this gig, things just went off. I had no idea where or when things will go off. They didn’t tell me anything. But nothing bad happens to anyone. Somehow it always works out.”

The Hellacopters are alive and kicking with a great new album, “Eyes of Oblivion”, and a European tour. Having left the band that you co-founded and you then returned when the band reunited with original members Robert  Eriksson and Nicke Andersson in 2016. “Yes. Imperial State Electric is Nicke Andersson’s other band that he focused on once Hellacopters became inactive, or took a very long break. When I did a solo album in 2013, we then went out on a co-headline tour in Europe, Imperial and me as Dregen. During the encores, I would do “Gotta Get Some Action” and then Nicke would come up on stage as a guest. We started to enjoy ourselves. Then Sweden Rock Festival called us. They have been calling us for many years and asked us to do a reunion gig. We always said, ‘Never in this life!’ But Sweden Rock reminded us in 2016 that it was the 20th anniversary of our first album. Then we thought, ‘What the hell? OK. If we can just play the first album as a celebration’ and then we did that. It was extremely fun. Then someone in Primal Scream somehow broke their leg. Two days after we had done the Sweden Rock gig, they called from Spain and offered us a headline slot because Primal Scream had been forced to cancel. Then we thought, ‘What the hell?’ We were only supposed to do a one-off. But as we had rehearsed so much, we went to Spain and that was a lot of fun too. Since then we’ve just kept going and made a new album. We’re actually doing demos now and thus there will probably be a new album quite soon. Our latest album was very special. I love the album. It is really special and we will never do what we did with this one again as it was made during the pandemic. We knew we didn’t want to complete the album too quickly as it would then lie there waiting to be released and we would get tired of it before we could get out and tour the album. So, we’re now working on new music and doing a European tour. We want to keep The Hellacopters fun at all times. Thus, instead of doing nine-week tours, we’ve decided to do just a few things to keep it fun when we do things. With Backyard, we’ve had a three-year break. We did the last tour before Covid in February 2020 when we did England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland. We co-headlined together with The Wildhearts, Ginger’s band, so it’s all linked somehow. The tour was very good. Then we decided to take a break. The last festival summer before Covid was really pushing it for me. I have toured most summers with two bands. I felt that it isn’t fun. It’s too much work. It is really draining. Now I’ve really enjoyed The Hellacopters and once I realised that, I said that I wanted to only do The Hellacopters now and take a break from Backyard. I have started to think about another solo album too.”

The incredible cover art for The Hellacopters’ “Eyes of Oblivion” album was painted by Charlie Granberg, a very talented visual artist and the lead singer for Hellsingland Underground. “He did a record cover for Backyard too. En obscure ten-inch vinyl, ‘Minus Celsius’, a remix that Sound Pollution released. Charlie Granberg did that. This time, I and Nicke brainstormed. We wanted a painted cover, a real 70s style cover, nothing done on a computer but rather a cover properly painted with a brush. We were kind of in a hurry. We had a list of artists that we thought might be able to do it. We already had an idea for the cover: it should be a guy that looks like Keith Richards or someone like that, with aviator sunglasses, some lightning and a cigarette in his mouth. We had this concept from the start and then the question was who can create that? Charlie Granberg is very talented and we chose him.”

The painting kind of resembles Nicke Andersson, don’t you think? “Others have said that too. But the thinking was more of a cross of Dennis Hopper, ‘Easy Rider’, and Keith Richards.”

During the pandemic, you started to promote your own beer brand, Riff. Originally brewed in Sweden, it has now also been launched in other markets, including a licensing deal with Ezo Beer here in Japan. “I have been approached about doing a beer many times in the past. I guess my launching a beer is not exactly a world sensation. It feels like all artists now have their own beer or wine. It wasn’t that interesting in the past as I had a lot going on with two bands at the same time as well as a solo career. I had many things to deal with at the same time. But when the corona pandemic hit, suddenly we had no gigs and we weren’t making any money. With no gigs being booked, I started to make paintings and exhibit them at galleries. Then I thought I could revisit the beer idea. I got really into it. I don’t know what I was thinking. I kind of thought it was like buying instant miso soup here in Japan where you’d just add hot water, mix it and then it becomes beer. Maybe I am not alright in the head, but I know – and I am not going to name names – that many of these artists’ beers and wines, they haven’t even tasted them, just put their logo on them. For me, it’s been special with Nyckelbryggerier, the Swedish brewery that I’ve worked with. They are based near Luleå, in Älvsbyn, very far north in Sweden. I have been working there like Walter White in ‘Breaking Bad’ with a white lab coat and beer brewing tanks. It’s been a lot of trial and error in order to create the right beer. It is quite a craft to make beer. It’s been a lot of fun. But now it has become almost a luxury problem with everything else starting up again. It feels like I have had to walk around and put out some fires here and there. But it’s fun! If it wasn’t for the beer, I wouldn’t be sitting here today. Now it’s being released here in Japan and that’s great.”

You just did two special evening events in Nagoya, with you as DJ, to introduce the Riff beer to Japan. “Our fans are fantastic. I think it is more fun to come here – perhaps even for them – for these special evenings. OK, I just play records, but it is an opportunity to show people what kind of record collection I have grown up with and what I listen to. I freely play whatever records I want. I play everything that I like. It’s like sharing my musical DNA with the fans. Often, when I am here on tour and I go out to meet fans after a gig, I am so tired. Now I can hang with my fans a bit more and be more social. As you know, Japanese fans are very special. Now they have babysitters for their children. When they saw us for the first time in 1998 in Shibuya, they were barely old enough to be admitted to the gig. They have been hanging with us since they were 15 and now they are soon 50. They’re very loyal. The Riff beer is a great excuse to come to Japan. I enjoy meeting the fans. It’s a lot more fun to meet fans when I don’t have to play a gig as well. It gets very intensive, especially here in Japan. The days are long. At the end of the day, you’re drained and there is no energy. Now, we’ve been with fans to a kimono shop and a castle. We’ve dome tourist stuff. It’s fun!”

Will you be back in Japan for some concerts sometime soon? “Hopefully, but nothing has been finalised. We’ve been talking about it with our booking agent. Japan is high on our list for The Hellacopters to come here and tour. A tour of Japan is never really more than a week. Sometimes it’s two gigs and at the most four. It would be great as I have never played with The Hellacopters in Japan. And Hellacopters hasn’t played here since, I think, 2006. Thus I think a tour here would be appreciated.”

You are a guitarist that sometimes takes over lead vocals from Nicke Borg in Backyard Babies and Nicke Andersson in The Hellacopters. Are you a guitarist that wants to sing or do you sing because you have to? “That is a difficult question. I can’t really answer it because… I enjoy it but I don’t enjoy it that much. On my solo tour, it was fun. But I would rather be like a stray dog that can run anywhere I want to. Standing by the microphone stand feels like being on a leash. I think it is fun to do, but the two Nickes are fantastic vocalists. I think I like to sing a bit. I grew up believing for many years that I couldn’t sing. Then I met Pär Wiksten from Wannadies, who produced my solo album. He didn’t know much about what I had done earlier more than that we had hung out a lot together in London because Wannadies and Backyard Babies were on the same record label. We listened a lot to the same music. Of course, many people think that Wannadies and Backyard are from separate worlds. But we had a lot of the same musical references. He loved Marc Bolan. He thought that I was a good singer and encouraged me a lot. Thus, now things have become more relaxed for me. But I don’t know if I like it that much.”

You have used many different creative avenues, including music, art, furniture design, beer, book writing and so on. Is there anything creative that you want to explore more? “I want to weld. I am originally a welder. 75% of Backyard Babies are welders. I would like to have a big studio with a lot of iron and welding equipment. I don’t know what I would make of it, but it would be art. Some bigger art pieces would be fun. Welding together big bloody things! I like to paint too, but sometimes I can feel that a painting is very flat. It’s 2D. It can be nice to look at. But this sofa here, I think it is very nice. It is both nice looking and functional. I think art doesn’t only have to be 2D but can be something one can use to sit in. I don’t read art literature. I don’t know the names of people. But I am interested in how things look and how they function, especially here in Japan. I am impressed by the Japanese. I often think about things in the same way as they do. Some things are so bloody functional. Why don’t we think like that in Europe?”