The Persistent Punk of Cockroach Clan

cockroach clan

Photo by Dan A Nachtnebel

Cockroaches are reviled by most right-thinking people, but there’s something oddly admirable about their resilience. Take, for instance, how their circulatory system is set up in such a way that they can miraculously withstand decapitation; they can live upwards of a month without a head.  Cockroach Clan, a Lillehammer, Norway-based punk ‘n’ roll group who are about to release their first full-length in 22 years, Songs About Blunt Knives and Deep Love, have a similar kind of persistence. 

Though the Norwegian outfit didn’t technically break up in the late ’90s (they’ve played a handful of gigs around Scandinavia every year) they have lain relatively dormant, due to a series of line-up changes, side projects, and health issues. While the album primarily consists of rerecorded material, on a new number called “Believer” vocalist Eirik Norheim (aka Billy Cockroach) channels the group’s guiding insect when he chokes out: “Need I remind you, I will never die!” But when a friend first offered the quintet free studio time to have another go at their back catalog, Norheim had reservations.

“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, shit.’ Because I’ve heard a lot of other albums with re-recordings of old songs, and quite a lot of them suck,” he says. But though they were initially leery, the pro bono studio opportunity with engineer Hugo Alvarstein also meant the group had nothing to lose. “We couldn’t turn that down,” Norheim says, ”and we had a couple of new songs as well.”

 

Norheim’s love for aggressive music stems from an older uncle’s record collection, which introduced him to Black Sabbath, Motörhead, and the Sex Pistols. By 1984, he was a full-on punk and metal devotee craving all things fast and furious. He was recruited by founding Mayhem guitarist Euronymous and bassist Necrobutcher at a Dio concert after they complimented his Venom patch on his leather jacket. As Messiah, Norheim played the group’s earliest gigs, but by 1986 he decided to leave Mayhem for life in Lillehammer. 

While still active in altered form, Mayhem’s legacy is complicated by certain members’ violent acts and racist rhetoric. Most infamously, during bassist Varg Vikernes’s brief tenure with Mayhem in the early ‘90s, he stood trial over a series of church burnings, and was convicted for the murder of Euronymous, who he stabbed 23 times in the summer of 1993. 

Despite the stigma of being associated by proxy to Vikernes’s well-documented white nationalist politicking, Norheim looks at his time with Mayhem—he left well before Vikernes joined—as being “quite innocent.” “What I liked about the time I spent with Mayhem was the punk attitude: ‘Fuck off! Fuck the world! Fuck you!’” he recalls, reiterating how arson and murder were never topics of conversation when he was in the band. “When all the mad shit happened I was glad I was out, but I kept in touch with Euronymous until he was killed.”

After landing in Lillehammer, Norheim focused on delivering damaging bass and gravelly, yet melodic vocals in the Motörhead-influenced Within Range, who would tour the European squat scene before calling it quits in 1992 (they also undertake the occasional reunion show). By 1994, he hooked up with longtime friend Atle “Akke” Glomstad to form Cockroach Clan, and together they quickly created a songbook of sugar-buzz hooks that liken to the Clash, raspy English pop-punks Leatherface, and future tourmates the U.K. Subs.

As they built their reputation, Cockroach Clan looked forward to breaking out of Scandinavia. But following the release of their sophomore LP, Roach, Norheim had to undergo surgery for a heart condition he’d been facing since birth. “We were supposed to go on a rather long European tour in ‘97, but just days before we were supposed to go, I was hospitalized and laid there for two months. We had to cancel the whole tour,” he says.

Following Norheim’s health scare, members began drifting in and out of Cockroach Clan; Norheim and Glomstad were the only constants. While the band was content to bust out the hits for fans across Norway and Sweden, engineer Hugo Alvarstein’s recent offer to re-contextualize their material reinvigorated the crew.

Songs About Blunt Knives and Deep Love is a sonic upgrade, and the revamped tracks benefiting from extra raw performances and the absence of that omnipresent ‘90s-era snare reverb. In contrast to his origins as a brutal black metaller, Norheim’s Billy Cockroach persona prefers to joke about punks poking holes in the ozone layer with their mohawks (“Crash Ka-Boom”). In the age of social media, there’s a quaintness to him railing against Dr. Phil-style daytime TV oversharing (“On an Island”), but Cockroach Clan have updated other cuts for 21st century audiences.  

Over e-mail, principal songwriter Glomstad confirms that the new record’s “Gene’s Got A Bun Too” was previously released with different lyrics on Roach as “Barbie’s Got Drugs.” The original was written as a “youthful protest to the porn industry,” but the guitarist explains that sentiment wasn’t exactly nuanced. The song has been rewritten as a critique of Kiss member Gene Simmons’s headline-grabbing offensiveness. Glomsted says, “I can be fixated on how much I dislike his statements and opinions, whether it is about Prince’s death, women, Ace and Peter, punk rock being insignificant without the help from major labels, et cetera. So the lyrics are partly piss-taking Gene, [and] partly piss-taking my own incurable annoyance.”

Despite coming down on the Demon for his retrogressive views on women, the song’s pro-feminist slant is thrown off by Cockroach Clan misgendering Simmons, and offering to give the aging bassist a bra since they’ve grown “titties.” Glomstad concedes to this point, noting: “To feminize Gene within the lyrics might be an insult to women, in which case I apologize.”

“Gene’s Got a Bun Too” isn’t the only complicated song choice on the new album. It opens with a distortion-slammed cover of U.S. indie folk outfit Mountain Goats’ “Going to Georgia.” Though songwriter John Darnielle hasn’t exactly disowned the track, over the years he’s explained in concert that he considers the narrator of the song—who shows up at someone’s house for unspecified reasons with a Colt .45 in his hand—to be an asshole. Calling the song “misogynistic garbage” during a 2016 performance in Chicago, he elaborated that what seemed like an edgy expression of emotion at the time has since left a bad taste in his mouth. Darnielle did, however, tweet his approval of the cover, stating that it “supercedes the original in every way.” 

“I understand John Darnielle chose to drop it due to a concern that the lyrics can be misinterpreted to idealize gun violence and misogyny, which is a reasonable choice,” Glomstad says. “But at the same time, it’s such a beautiful melody, and I don’t believe anyone would misinterpret Darnielle to be, or to defend, the narcissistic narrator in the song.”

After being rejuvenated by revisiting their past, Cockroach Clan have already begun writing sessions for a proper new LP. Norheim’s also been enjoying his own black metal renaissance of late as the vocalist of Order. That group features fellow former Mayhem member Manheim, a drummer who likewise left Mayhem before “the shit hit the fan,” and released the searing Lex Amentiae in 2017 to critical acclaim. Norheim, who reclaimed his Messiah mantle for the band, says they’re currently sharing song ideas for a sophomore release over Dropbox. 

Shortly after this interview, Norheim had to undergo another heart procedure, which puts both bands’ concert plans on hold for the time being. The singer believes he’ll be back on stage in no time (“I’m not quitting this!” he says). After all, it takes a lot to keep a good cockroach down.

-Gregory Adams

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