18 Jul 2006

Glam squad

+ posted by FlamingWhopper

Part theatricak flair, part cheeky beat, the Ark conjures its own kind of magic

"I grew up with a lot of church music and classical music," explains Ola Salo, lead singer of the Ark. ``And then, one day, I was listening to Vangelis, and my head just exploded."

In the background, Salo gradually pumps the volume on ``Chariots of Fire" to illustrate the life-changing qualities of new-age synthesizer anthems. Vangelis's pompous keyboards swell, completely consuming the trans-Atlantic connection. ``No, I'm joking," he says, chortling at his own silliness and mercifully cutting the song just before it hits the tinkling piano bridge.

Still, a Vangelis obsession wouldn't be out of the question for the Ark. This is a band that embraces both the hip and the garish -- the early theatrics of Kiss, the glam-era sexual inclusiveness of David Bowie, and the fondue goo of the annual cheesefest known as the Eurovision Song Contest, all set to a driving rock beat and an occasional Ace of Base synth flourish. The Swedish band plays tonight at T.T. the Bear's Place in Cambridge.

``They're a fantastic combination of glam-rock menace and sweet kindness, like a rural bar band," says John Cameron Mitchell a few days later on the phone from New York. The ``Hedwig and the Angry Inch" writer and star has chosen two songs from the Ark to use on the soundtrack of his forthcoming sexploration film ``Shortbus." ``They're like a mix of Queen, T-Rex, and a little bit of ABBA. If it was the 1970s or early 1980s, they'd be number one already."

The band is huge in its homeland, where it has released three albums. (Strangely, it's also big in Italy.) The group's latest, ``State of the Ark" serves as the US debut. Comparisons among the Ark, Scissor Sisters, and the Darkness were inevitable, although the Ark existed long before the Darkness and the Scissors.

``When those bands first emerged on the music scene, I felt like you might if you discover siblings that you didn't know about," Salo says on the phone from his home in Sweden. ``Like if your father had other children from a time when he was a sailor. I was very glad."

In real life, Salo's father was a Lutheran priest in Smaland, the town that shares its name with the children's play area at Ikea. Salo's exposure to pop music was limited until his teenage years, and even after discovering Swedish chart busters of the 1980s, he was uninspired. It wasn't until a friend lent him a cassette from the band Saga (``really bad Canadian AOR metal band") that his life was altered. The friend had recorded Saga over Jimi Hendrix, and when Saga finished its Canadian AOR metal, young Salo heard Hendrix warn: ``Here I come baby, coming to get you."

``That was very appropriate because that's what happened," Salo says. ``This music was so sexy and mysterious. It had energy, and at the same time it had an open attitude toward life and imagination."

A fascination with psychedelic rock melted into an obsession with the glam rock of T. Rex and Bowie, which then bled into the world of 1970s musicals such as ``Jesus Christ Superstar" and ``The Rocky Horror Picture Show." The boy who grew up surrounded by religious hymns and classical music evolved into a teenager who worshiped fishnet-wearing androgynous superstars of the 1970s.

But Salo, who has been known to slink along the stage in catsuits and high-heeled boots, prides himself on delving beyond the glimmering surface. His religious upbringing has given him a fascination with the spiritual quality of music, and he likens the Ark's concerts to a religion, or, at the very least, a cult. In his halting English, he repeatedly mentions that he's looking to create music that is mystical.

``Growing up in an environment where music was viewed in a ritualistic way, or as part of a holy ritual, I think I came away with the idea that music should never be sonic wallpaper," he says.

After seeing his son in a television documentary wearing nothing but a thong and boots, Salo's father has ``selective vision" when viewing the Ark's music but is generally pleased with its output , Salo says .

Not only is the music -- at least in Salo's eyes -- mystical, it's also political. In 2002, the band released the song ``Father of a Son." It's a fist-pumping stadium rocker in which the singer declares ``I may be gay, but I'll tell you straight away, that I'll become a better father than all of you anyway." The song gleefully dumped a can of lighter fluid on a gay parenting debate in Sweden and served as a sort of victory anthem when a law banning adoption by same-sex couples was lifted there just a few weeks before the song was released.

``The only thing I ever tried to do with my music was create a world in which I can live," he says. ``I want to create my own context in which I can be free to be whatever I am in a world that consists of everything I'm crazy about. The world that I create in my music is a very tolerant world. It's a world where emotions, imagination, and joy get to rule instead of fear."

Salo's inner world may sound as rainbow happy as the ``Chariots of Fire" theme, but Mitchell, who befriended the band, says one of its mottos, no joke, is ``dare to be nice." Although at this moment, Salo is no longer being so nice. He's about to pack for the US tour, and, to get inspired, he's playing Vangelis again.

``It makes me think that the future is full of hope and triumph," he says cheekily of the song as it starts playing again in the background. ``It makes me think that very soon the Ark will have a private jet, and I'll be able to hire someone to pack my thongs and catsuits instead of doing it myself."

Credit: Christopher Muther | www.boston.com

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