The Swedish sun is coming in at an acute angle and an even more acutely bright force as Dolf de Borst talks today from his apartment. He’s almost got a halo around him, certainly a glow, making him simultaneously radiant and impossible to see - a bit like, if you squint, as he can appear on stage sometimes in the gloriously extravagant rock poses and cocksure strut of rocking bands of yore.
If he wasn’t a New Zealander with the national preference for self-deprecation, a joke might be made about the sun clearly shining out of his arse because he’s that good. After all he is the frontman/bassplayer of that country’s best band named after a car brand that no longer exists, The Datsuns.
But nah. Like a Kiwi, that won’t fly. Especially in Sweden, which famously is as resistant to big-noting as de Borst’s homeland. Still, after a decade in Sweden, has he grown accustomed to the sun-rich/sun-starved/tamp down your ego Nordic life?
“It’s pretty wild,” he says. “I think I can deal with it quite well, but funnily enough my kids, they’re both born here, but they seem to wake at the weirdest times - it was 5 o’clock today. The sun comes up between three thirty and five at the moment and we’ve got blackout curtains, we even tape the sides of the curtains down.”
Since he is not yet showing signs of falling asleep on me it’s probably fair to say that blackout curtains are the least of the problems de Borst and The Datsuns - original guitarists Christian Livingstone and Phil Somervell, and the later arriving drummer, Ben Cole -had to contend with in the making of this year’s seventh album, Eye To Eye.
During the seven years (and several more Datsun children) since its predecessor, Livingstone joined de Borst in the northern hemisphere, basing himself on the Thames, while Somervell and Cole remained closer to their hometown of Cambridge, on the North Island. The songs were written in part in the UK, Sweden and New Zealand, recorded at Neil Finn’s studio in Auckland and taken back to Stockholm for final work.
If that sounds fractured, the result is anything but, with Eye To Eye extending their pleasure in and mastery of an unlikely mix of classic hard rock (think Deep Purple more than Sabbath), humour-edged boogie (think Bon-era AC/DC more than Johnson-era AC/DC), and equal parts energised punk-with-tunes and prog rock-without-pretentions. They may have first appeared as part of the Strokes/Vines/Jet new wave of short, sharp guitar rock at the turn of the century, but The Datsuns were never limited by those denim jackets and they’ve sneakily added more stylistic turns with each record.
In fact, I tell de Borst that my one complaint about Eye To Eye is that its final track, the five minute long In Record Time, finishes about five minutes to soon as it feels ready to take off into some space rock psychedelic grandness.
“Songs like that, we really should let it go the whole hog shouldn’t we?” he laughs. “I think because we’ve got quite short attention spans, though we also really love long, drawn out psychedelic sort of stuff, sometimes it feels like somebody else’s wheelhouse. We always had this thing with our short attention spans that we would say that’s too long, or we only need to do it once.
“Now we’re kind of exploring music where it’s the complete opposite of that and it’s like, yeah, maybe we should let that go on for a bit longer.”
Well they’ve had John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin produce an album (their second, Outta Sigh, Outta Mind) maybe they should get Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd for the next one and revel in it.
“We’ll see what happens with the next record. I don’t really know, it could be one-minute-long songs,” de Borst says with a grin. “But I’m really glad that you mention the different influences, where you can feel things moving in different styles, because sometimes when people talk about our band it’s like ‘they’ve been around 20 years, they pretty much keep making the same record, it’s rock ‘n’ roll’ or whatever.
“The way I always describe it is I feel like we try to push at the borders, stretch it out and play with those things, and expand a bit more while still staying within our kind of thing. It’s not like we are Ramones or AC/DC making the same record.”
And that is the truth. If people are honest, after the fourth Ramones album there wasn’t really much more to be revealed or that excited by. And some of us at least will tell you that there hasn’t been anything new or interesting in an AC/DC album for nigh on 40 years.
Whatever else you say about The Datsuns, simple repetition is not their method, with maybe the one constant being a visceral physicality that explodes thrillingly on stage. Not that even pre-Covid they got to play together all that often, or all that easily, what with the scattered to the four corners nature of their lives.
But de Borst has managed to keep his hand in as it were as the almost-Swede in a couple of bands led by his good friend, Nicke Anderson: the punkish Hellacopters and its power-pop cousin, Imperial State Electric.
Apart from the chance to play more regularly, has de Borst found the role of sideman rather than one of the decision makers refreshing and freeing?
“That’s massively liberating. Because for one, I get to play music, which is a huge release; two, I get to learn a lot, because it’s a different way of songwriting and a different set of influences; and, three, just playing bass.
“If you are playing bass and singing, I found that playing bass was kind of a secondary thing. It was something for me to do to feel safe on stage, so I could perform. I mean I enjoyed it, but with Imperials I can change the whole way the song feels by playing this note instead of that note. Just having that space to think about my parts.”
That must feed into his writing and playing within The Datsuns.
“Massively, massively. You can definitely tell on this record, possibly the record before too, that that’s creeping in,” he says. “The other thing [from being in these bands] is I learned to sing harmony parts on stage. We are doing more power pop-focused things and the other guys are both very good singers and I have to live up to that.”
Being able to switch off three, four lines of thinking and just focus on one job can be so invigorating for musicians.
“I’ve compared it to people having mental health issues getting into physical activities, like running or manual labour: your brain has to just focus on this one thing.”
Before we sign off I note to de Borst that if there was any more sign needed that he had long settled into his Swedish life, more than being in these bands, or even adjusting to the sun, it was probably when he started sporting a classic Swedish rock moustache. It feels natural, just like – after a decade - his Swedish. Right?
“It’s terrible. My Swedish is terrible,” he says, shamefacedly. “I have two children who speak Swedish very well, and I understand a lot, but my pronunciation is not very good. Both my parents are Dutch and there’s a decent amount of crossover and they gave me a kind of a good base, but I’ve had friends move here from Austria, France, and within a year or two they are speaking fluently.”
Any excuse Dolf?
“I just think they work in an environment where Swedish is more important. My job is I play music and the people I hang out with, the songs are all in English,” he says. “I’ve been … I mean, the word is privileged.”
Does he know the Swedish word for privileged?
“I have no idea.”
Perfect! Too privileged to need to know the word for privileged. And we both crack up laughing.
“There’s a moral in that story somewhere,” de Borst says. “Or poetic.”
Eye To Eye is out now through Hellsquad/MGM