They might not be a household name with mainstream audiences, but Norway’s Turbonegro have quietly assembled a small army of underground support for themselves. Heading towards their 25th year together as a band, the group has long carved out a dedicated, diehard fan base through a unique and confrontational look and style of music. Self-styling themselves as “deathpunk” and having almost accidentally built a worldwide fanclub of sorts known as Turbojugend, the band has returned with a vengeance. Now, they’re back with a new singer—their first since longtime vocalist Hank von Helvete departed—named Tony Sylvester (his moniker is The Duke of Nothing). Having just released an excellent new album called Sexual Harassment, we were thrilled to speak with Sylvester a mere hour before their festival closing spot at this year’s FYF Fest.
Photo credit: Raymond Flotat
Relatively speaking you’re the new guy in the band.
How long have you known the guys in band for?
Over a decade.
Over a decade?
That’s kind of what’s of funny about it. I’ve known the band for a long time and I’ve worked with them. I did their press on Party Animals. I’ve always kind of been there in the UK doing stuff for them. Kind of the same with Tommy the new drummer. He was the drum tech. He basically grew up with the band on the road. He’s like 31 so he’s been working with the band since he was 18/19. The only two people that didn’t know each other were me and Tommy. So it wasn’t like some weird get together and, “Oh, how’s this going to be?” On that side, socially or whatever, we all knew that was going to be fine. It was just whether it would work musically. Which always helps. There’s a very underestimated thing about being in a band actually is whether you get on with people. It’s kind of like the last piece of the pie but of course the most important one is how you get on.
There wasn’t much in the way of try-outs then?
I guess. It was pretty much a straight-up rehearsal as far as I knew. But they didn’t talk to anyone else.
Nice. So you were the choice.
Yeah. After a couple of songs it was really apparent that it was great and working and we liked it so we did it.
Photo credit: Raymond Flotat
Were there any conscious decisions in terms of the direction you guys were going to go with you as part of the band?
Yeah, definitely. Definitely was a big part of it. When I went in for rehearsal I didn’t really think it was going to work out. Mainly because, I’m not Hank. Are they happy with it being different? And of course they were, and that’s exactly what they wanted, so that’s why it’s worked out. Like any band when you’ve been together that long, when you’ve been together twenty/twenty-five years, you know, ups and downs. I think they came out of that last era needing a break. There were people in the band who didn’t want to do it. There were people in the band that were happy and relieved that it was stopped. At the same time you fast-forward 18 months and suddenly, “Oh, maybe we should do this again. I really miss playing.” That was kind of the point that I was kind of around and was talking to them again. They had this idea of doing a karaoke version of the band with different singers coming up to do it, Damian from Fucked Up, Jello Biafra, Mike Patton, just celebrity fans coming and maybe doing a show or two. Kind of a last blast or cheap cigar kind of deal. That was kind of how things started rolling around again. Then they asked me and here we are. I don’t sound anything like Hank, but at the same time I was a huge fan, obviously I was a fan of the band and a fan of his thing. Think we really wanted to do it differently. And I think the real Turbojugend themselves really get it and really have taken me onboard. Maybe some more of the more casual fans or maybe fans who got into it later, maybe through a Jackass thing or from something else, maybe they don’t really like the direction, and that’s fair enough. People who’ve been into the band for a long period of time kind of understand because I hark back to maybe an earlier incarnation of the band.
Since you went down that corridor I’m going to follow you…
Come in the water’s fine. [motions with his hand]
With most bands it’s the complete opposite. It’s such a strange paradigm where there’s this notion you can’t accept anybody else once you’ve had an impression of how the band was.
You know I didn’t really think about it until afterwards, but there’s never really been a second singer after a “very long period of time singer” who hasn’t been successfully accepted unless someone died. Honestly, there’s not many. I can’t think of many. I really only thought about that afterwards. I think I went into this with a certain amount of naiveté and a certain amount of carelessness, if that’s the right word. And I think that’s the probably the best way to approach it to be honest anyway. I know the band were big in Scandinavia and still had that firm fan base around the world. But at the same time, I don’t think any of us expected the kind of size of response that we got. Or even that there was still so much of a… people’s memories are so short these days, three years is a long time in pop culture. You see everything coming and going and new stuff all the time. We’re going to be like… not the oldies circuit… but it’s kind of going to be a bit like… I don’t know, you’re gonna see GBH, you’re gonna see Dr. Know you go and see an old punk band. The fact that we’re coming in and the next thing we know we’re being asked to close a festival like this, who knew?
Photo credit: Alyssa Fried
You guys have a reputation of being a little more on the wilder side. I wonder after all these years, is there pressure from the fan base to try to keep up the pace of that? Is there pressure to continue to keep things wild/crazy/aggressive?
I don’t really know. You gotta take this shit seriously in terms of actually performance-wise. I’ll put it like this. This is the first band I’ve ever been in where I feel an expectation in terms of how I perform in terms of that being entertaining and pleasing to people. Every other band I’ve ever been in is much more about, “You’re paying us $50 bucks to play. Fuck you. You get what you’re given.” Or, you’re not the draw. You’re playing on a tour with another band who’s the draw, or a fest or a punk show somewhere. I’ve never actually felt that before. So I’ve come to it like, “I can’t fuck up people’s nights.” I don’t want to be the one that had the worst night and they paid all this money to see and it was terrible. That curtails any kind of real wildness. Always got a show you know? At the same time what’s the point of being in a band if you’re not—we’re all men of the world—so it’s somewhere between the two is what I’m saying. Plus you know what it’s like, you get into your late 30’s/early 40’s. It’s not the same as when you’re a kid. You gotta plan that shit out. You’re talking 2-day, 3-day hangovers. You can’t do it like you used to. [Laughs]
So you’re in the midst of a modest tour. Not a huge extensive tour right now.
No, that’s kind of how we’re doing it. We’ve played basically all summer since April—this is what we did every weekend. We kind of been doing one to four shows every weekend, going home for the weeks and coming back out.
So you’re on the back of a great record in Sexual Harassment. You’re finishing off this festival, what comes next for you guys?
We’ve got the club shows to do in Europe. We’re gonna do them in a similar run. We’re going to do one run for Germany, one run for Sweden, one run for Norway, one run for the UK. Just do like 3 or 4 little shows. Going to Australia at the end of the year. Fitting in Fun Fun Fun in Austin in there. Next year we’re going to start working on new stuff and then doing the summer run again. You know, we’re a little way off obviously being ready to record, but we’ve gotta probably sit down and start thinking about that. The muse whatever that is, is good in a minute. We really want to embrace it.
At this festival, bands of every color and variety of hardcore are here. Why did it take so long? Why are people embracing this now? After all these years and all of these bands being so great, why is it that now people seem interested?
Turbo is a very strange band. We don’t really fit in anywhere, and that’s kind of been to our advantage in terms of longevity. The fact is we have fans from that real greaser rockabilly scene, through metal, through ’60s garage, through to Poison Idea and maybe hardcore fans. For me, playing on the same stage as Converge and American Nightmare is like playing with peers, personal peers. Maybe not necessarily to the band, but people who I’ve known for a long time who I’ve grown up with that are similar ages to me. I think there’s two kinds of bands here. There’s bands who just kept going like maybe Converge—and to a certain extent Turbo because our gaps have been quite short—and then there’s these bands like Refused and American Nightmare where there’s enough interest in bands in this very, very small genre to actually even generate enough interest to kind of comeback, and do proper comebacks. And that’s bizarre to me. I can remember The Who’s first comeback, The Velvet Underground even Stones tours and those were the bands that you associated with that. I can remember The Pixies were the band the first one’s that blew people’s minds. That blows my mind, even business practices of what I used to consider the old fashioned proper rock and roll is kind of permeated down as far as our level, and that’s crazy to me. I think it’s obvious there’s people that it’s some kind of cashing in, and I think it’s obvious there’s some people who are doing it that really, really enjoy it. And I would certainly put American Nightmare in that category. What they’re doing is really controlled, and from what I’ve seen from the shows that they’ve done it’s incredible. It’s exactly like it was. I’m really happy that they’re doing it.
You guys should all get on a tour together.
Oaf. I don’t know about that. It’d be the death of me.
Photo credit: Alyssa Fried