Per Borten is not interested in politics, but his grandfather was. “My grandfather, he was a prime minister from ’65 to ’71,” Borten says. “Kind of a strange guy. Queen Elizabeth of England stayed in his house, at our farm. Basically the whole place was packed with paparazzi photographers, and still he got up at six o’clock in the morning and did what he usually did in the summertime—mowing his lawn in his underwear.”
In a café in Trondheim, Norway, over the first couple beers of a dim afternoon, Borten looks more David Byrne than dynastic, with big, black, square glasses and a blond pompadour swept up and over, the sides shaved clean. It’s four in the afternoon. Borten’s just out of bed and still tired from the set his aspiring-to-big-things pop band, the New Violators, played the previous night—the inaugural evening of Norway’s annual by:Larm festival, a home-team exhibition for Norwegian bands. Slumped over the table now, Borten is not wearing the tight white jeans in which he performed the night before.
“Said trousers are so tight that you can make out the shape of every last hair on his buttocks,” wrote a reviewer at the local festival daily, under the headline “Too Young to Know Better.” “His behaviour is lascivious, sexual, predatory, but lacks foreplay.”
“That’s a good thing, eh?” asks Borten (who looks like a debauched 28-year-old, which is approximately what he is), trying to make out the English. Without a record or a trip outside Norway to their credit, the New Violators are already the subject of an apparent backlash in their hometown. “Is this a good review or a bad review?” he asks one last time, staring at the newspaper in his hand. “The way I read this is, like, this is not a guy who’s really enjoying himself.”
Last night, out of the white cold and darkness, thousands of kids had come to Dora 1, a stalwart once-Nazi quasi-fortress built to house German submarines during the Second World War. Outside, tiny fires set up as guides to lead visitors around threw shadows across nearby buildings. Inside is a warren of concrete rooms, delineated by four-meter-thick walls.
When New Violators take the stage, the slapback on Borten’s vocals careens across the vast enclosure. Onstage they are six, counting a deadpan, beautiful blond female backup singer. They are distant but not inert. Borten spreads his legs wide, lifts his hand to his ear, and sings straight up into the air; his bandmates, all dressed as well as he is, are silhouettes in the backlight, nodding their heads to the changes. The crowd, as if taking cues, nods too.
In the home of black metal, New Violators play Springsteen-sized, brooding 1980s pop, a cavalcade of sound blurry with familiarity. “My biggest influence lately might be Echo and the Bunnymen,” says Borten, who sounds most like Morrissey when he sings (he claims he doesn’t spend much time listening to him). “I like that first album. And David Bowie. And the Cure, probably. It’s not more complicated than that.”
Influences have proved so far to be more of a question for spectators than for the band itself. “Do you like Mission of Burma?” asks Borten. “That’s why our song is called ‘Burma.’ ” Another song’s working title is “Robert Smith.” Howard Gray, who helped produce the Cure’s Head on the Door among other ’80s rock, has lately taken the band under his wing. “I was there. I’ve seen all the bands; I’ve worked with them,” is what he says, according to Borten. “And I can tell you this is not the sound of the past.”
“I am open to new sensations” is the band’s swooning rallying cry. Their songs are full of longing, sweat-soaked declarations of fleeting love, mainlined and boiled down: I want to make you want me. Dance the night away with me. Take me away, round midnight. The band’s there to, as Borten begs, “Beat the devil out/Of the hot-blooded singer.”
“All the jeans are from Dr. Denim,” Borten says. “And shirts, shoes, coats, whatever.” Stuck on fashion in our café: A Swedish clothing company evidently sponsors the New Violators. Later, I ask about the shirt Borten’s wearing, just after the band’s second set of the festival, early Sunday morning. Just behind the arms, up near the biceps, sprout what look like bat wings, two fan-like swaths of cloth that descend down and attach somewhere on the lower half of the otherwise normal shirt. He tells me it’s “custom-made.”
Borten, who writes all of the New Violators’ songs, says he hasn’t heard of Lansing-Dreiden, New York’s own fashion-forward, ’80s-synth-pop worshippers, though that band recently remixed recent Vice signees 120 Days, the New Violators’ fellow Norwegian countrymen. But the band is already wising to the same image-is-everything, fashion-ain’t-music critiques lobbed at their Stateside counterparts. “It seems like this person”—Borten has returned to the confusing, jeans-obsessed review—”feels that the New Violators are more like a fashion package than really inventing something new,” he observes. “A lot of Norwegian writers do that as well, instead of giving a proper review.”
The band is about to learn whether it’s any different outside the country they know. New Violators come to New York this week, then touch down in Texas for South by Southwest. “If there’s one place I might want to move to, it’s probably New York,” Borten says. “It’s so big that you can be alone, you know?” In Trondheim, he says, “you might get a strangling sensation every once in a while.” And “you can’t wear white shoes either,” on account of all the snow.
New Violators—good luck.