It could be the high, Nordic-god cheekbones, or perhaps the white trousers so tight they'd make Barry Gibb blush. It might be the pelvic swivel Axl Rose would envy, or just maybe it's that legendary and indefinable something that makes it practically impossible to take your eyes off the Ark's lead singer, Ola Salo.
Born the son of a preacher man in what the band's bio describes as Sweden's "IKEA country," the openly bisexual Salo was able to shed the conservative confines of his religious upbringing while simultaneously absorbing its mysticism, once stating, "I was raised in an environment where things like ascensions, apocalypses, and magic legends were a natural part of your everyday life. A naked man nailed to a cross. Oceans dividing. I always had a feeling that I was destined to do special things."
Special indeed. While countless musicians aspire to stardom, Salo's magnetism suggests he's among the elite few who are simply born stars. Naturally poised and confident, Salo's view on rock-star posturing is made clear via a sharp line in "Rock City Wankers," one of the strongest tracks from the band's latest, State of the Ark (Virgin). Expressing a sentiment shared by anyone who's been in the presence of a musician whose ego has superseded his talent, Salo quips, "You ought to know/Just because you're full of it, doesn't mean you're the shit."
The Ark was conceived as a band whose outrageous image would serve as a direct response to the affected apathy of the '90s European shoe-gazer movement—a genre which, to Salo, "felt like a big mask people were hiding behind. We never bought into that authenticity bullshit either—that you somehow were more credible if you were going onstage in an anorak, looking completely emotionless." It was with this disdain for pretension that Salo, along with one-name guitarist Jepson and bassist Lasse "Leari" Ljungberg, conceived the Ark's flamboyant, theatrical stage show.
Cementing its lineup with the addition of guitarist Martin Axén and drummer Sylvester Schlegel in 2000, the Ark recorded their debut, We Are the Ark, a Bowie/Bolin gold-miner that gained them homeland notoriety. They followed up with 2002's more Pulp-ish In Lust We Trust, a move that thrust the band into an international political hotbed with the controversial single "Father of a Son," an impassioned song supporting gay adoption rights. State of the Ark is a remelding of their previous work, resulting in a sound that combines the danceablity of the Scissor Sisters with the big guitar hooks of their jumpsuit-clad brethren the Darkness, and the moxie of a '77-era KISS. The Ark topped their thoroughly modern lyrics with production so slickly shiny it could gloss a porn star's lips, and the resulting record has served as the boys' brazen and well-received stateside calling card.
Sipping tea and speaking via phone from his home in Malmö, Sweden, Salo tells me, "I came to the states with low expectations and was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm Americans had for the band's music... in Sweden people are skeptical about musical showmanship, [but] American audiences appreciate the extroverted theatrics. We are very much a love/hate-type band. People adore us or loathe us." The band counts John Cameron Mitchell among the adoring set; the indie filmmaker recently included their song "This Piece of Poetry Is Meant to Do Harm" on the soundtrack to his latest film, Shortbus.
Taking a hiatus from work on their next effort, which Salo says "will have more muscle, and harder, edgier guitars than State of the Ark," the band return to the U.S. this month, kicking off the tour with a gig christening the new Swedish embassy in Washington, D.C. It will be a daytime performance for several Swedish dignitaries, including the country's currently reigning king and queen. This high-flying guest list leads Salo to ponder whether George Bush will be in attendance. When I suggest that Bush would get so caught up in the band's infectious groove that the lyrics would fly right over his head, he interjects, "That's precisely the band's mission, I want our music to be a sugary poison that expands your mind." So people should think of the Ark as candy-coated acid? "Exactly!"