From performing for inmates in a Norwegian gaol chapel to hitting up the Art Rock festival stage straight from a hospital ward, Sløtface don’t do things by halves. Informed, intellectual, badass and upfront, the young band from Norway’s Stavanger have not only made waves thanks to their pop punk hooks and sharp, relatable lyrics, but also their steadfast belief that a band can do more than just make music.
That approach has already afforded them some rare experiences, like, as lead singer and songwriter Haley Shea puts it, their own version of Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison performance. “That was our reference point,” she says.
“We did a government-funded tour of these Norwegian high schools that have this cultural program and the inmates at this prison receive the same high school education, so obviously they have the rights to the same cultural exchange program. We played in their chapel in the prison to like 30 inmates who were between 18 and 60 years old. We had no idea what to expect, but it was really interesting. It was a really special experience.”
Intimate performances have been the group’s preferred gig of choice since they spent their formative years kicking around Stavanger, cutting their teeth as Slutface (before social media censorship prompted a slight name change). An obsession with classic high school movies meant it was a natural step for the band to smash out sets at parties whenever possible, and they came to love the tight confines of Norwegian living rooms.
But regardless where in the world they play, Shea is just happy if they reach like-minded people, bring them together and – most importantly – entertain them.
“Obviously it’s really fun to play big stages with, you know, thousands of people, but we still enjoy a really sweaty atmosphere, whether it’s at a tent at a festival or club, just because you’re closer to people and you can feel their energy levels.
“But then we did Sløtface karaoke,” she laughs, “as the closing slot at this big Norwegian festival where we were the band and the audience members came up and sang. We had like five or six people up onstage at all times and that felt like it was a giant house party – one with like 2,000 people.”
She pauses for a moment; reflects. “When we go to a show, we want to be entertained, have a really good time and make friends with other fans, so we hope that that’s what people get out of listening to our band and coming to our shows. We are kind of being inspired by each other, and by all of the cool things that young people all over the world are doing to make the world a better place.”
This month Shea, along with guitarist Tor-Arne Vikingstad, bassist Lasse Lokøy and drummer Halvard Skeie Wiencke, get to broaden their reach even further as they head to Australia, playing their first shows on our soil just before the release of their debut album Try Not To Freak Out.
Alongside Norway’s capital of Oslo, Sydney is one of the top five cities that stream the band’s music, so the anticipation is high on both sides. “We’re really excited. It’s also the farthest away from home we’ve ever played; it’s like the exact opposite of the world from where we live.”
When it comes to their live show set-up, Shea and her bandmates embrace their punk sensibilities, and they like to use gigs as a chance to let loose. “We’ve always tried to lean as close towards a punk live show and a punk aesthetic as we can,” she says.
“People use their stage personas for different things, but they also provide a chance to release a lot of anger and frustration. That’s kind of what I use those stage performances for: to be like the gassiest, angriest version of myself; the person that I can’t really be in real life because I want people to like me too much. Onstage it doesn’t really matter if you piss a few people off.”
Try Not To Freak Out is a pure, undiluted expression of the band’s intentions, an album that melds the Scandinavian hard rock and metal scene’s trademark energy and intensity with the pop sensibility Sweden has been championing over the last few decades.
With each member bringing demos to jamming sessions, the group built the record from cherry-picked parts, trying a swathe of different directions before Shea began carving out the lyrics. Indeed, it’s their differing musical tastes that she attributes to the idiosyncrasies on the record, although at the end of the day, Freak Out takes the nostalgic, familiar hum of American high school movies and makes it the band’s own.
That’s not even to mention the lyrics, which seem more nuanced and referential than those that carried Empire Records, their 2016 EP. Lead single and feminist pop opener ‘Magazine’ makes clear Shea’s intentions as a songwriter from the very outset.
“Patti Smith would never put up with this shit,” she snarls, the song going on to challenge the patriarchy while both addressing and rubbishing societal pressures. There is a reason, after all, Shea has been called the heir apparent to musicians like Kathleen Hanna and PIL-era Johnny Rotten.
Not that it’s all piss and vinegar. There are times when the record slows – when Shea takes the time to address her intense, often anxious thought patterns, as on mid-record stand out ‘Night Guilt’.
Part of the reason that Shea can talk about anxiety so honestly is that she still finds herself hounded by it. Some might think that success and acclaim have a calming effect on shattered nerves, but often the opposite is the case, and Shea still has to fight hard to conquer her negative thought spirals.
“Some days it’s really, really tough,” she says. “When you work really hard on something, you want it to be the best that it can be, and you get that sort of fear about not quite meeting expectations that you have for yourself.
“So there were days when I was really struggling with anxiety and then had to sing a song about anxiety. That was a little bit tough.”
For now though, the group are powering on with shows, and will play straight through to November, all the while working on their distinctly punk ideals.
“The whole ‘Why should musicians care about politics? Stick to the music,’ cliché is something that we have heard a couple of times,” Shea says. “It’s not something that we really care that much about, because we know that the people that like our music are on the same page as us.
“I am sure they think that music is an important tool to create awareness and bring people together and you know, inspire people to work together on things. I think that music just really makes you realise that people that love music have that in common, and that’s so much bigger and more important than a lot of our differences. That’s a cool way to see the world, I think.”