Nothing will ever feel as free as the first time you leave home to make it on your own, a rush that Norwegian pop-punk foursome Sløtface channel perfectly on their debut album. The joyful thrash of “Sunbleached” is all ripped jeans and clear skies, as bandleader Haley Shea chronicles carefree roadtrips and the relief of pitch-black Norwegian winters finally giving way to summer. But as the album’s title hints, with freedom comes newfound anxieties. On the exhilarating Try Not To Freak Out, Sløtface tear through the fears – from our own racing minds, and manipulated media messages – that hold us back from reaching our full potential. They don’t have solutions (if only it were that easy) but they know the liberating power of an ecstatic scream just as well as their spiritual forebears Bully, Be Your Own Pet and Paramore. “The main thread of the album is never feeling that you’re in the right place, or that you’re not doing the right thing, which I think is a common thing in your twenties when you’re trying to figure out what you wanna do with your life,” says Haley.
For the members of Sløtface, at least one thing was clear: they were always going to make music. Now aged 20 to 22, they grew up in Stavanger, a city on Norway’s south-west coast. They weren’t all at the same high school, but met through the local music scene. The big pop shows that came through town required adult accompaniment for entry, but the punk gigs were straight-edge, so they became a second home to the town’s teen musos. The scene was full of bands trying to follow in the footsteps of hometown metal heroes Kvelertak, including, for a while, the future members of Sløtface: bassist Lasse Lokøy and drummer Halvard Skeie Wiencke (Hal) were in a hardcore band, while guitarist Tor-Arne Vikingstad and Haley were in punk rock bands. But that never quite felt like the right fit. “I didn’t really enjoy it that much,” admits Hal. Rather than typically dark Nordic sounds, or the locals’ favourites Slipknot and Disturbed, they all secretly harboured a love for British indie bands from the mid-2000s — The xx, Arctic Monkeys and Los Campesinos! (Haley’s favourite band of all time) – and Scandi pop acts like Robyn and Veronica Maggio.
When Tor and Haley wrote some new material that didn’t fit their current line-up, they got in touch with Hal and Lasse to see if they wanted to start a band. They found more than just matching record collections. “We realised we all wanted to play shows, we wanted to be professional,” says Haley. “Whereas for me, every band I’d been in, it had been a pain to get people to show up and rehearse.” This was serious business: before they played a lick of music together, they spent three months of 2012 conceptualising exactly what kind of band they were going to be. “We would come up with all of these stupid similes and metaphors, like, ‘It’s the kinda band you wanna wear sunglasses to!’” Haley recalls with a wry laugh. “We also talked a lot about teenage apathy, and the way we’re raised through popular culture to expect certain things from being a teenager. We wanted to be engaged. We wanted to make music videos and put on shows and parties and have experiences with people that we wouldn’t necessarily meet in our hometown. I wanted to write indie rock stories from a female perspective, and be really specific about that experience – women have been able to relate to indie rock dudes forever, so guys would probably be able to relate to my stories, too.”
The name was a huge part of this. Initially, they were known as Slutface. “We wanted to be different from the other bands, and thought that by having a provocative name that was also silly, people would know that we weren’t taking ourselves too seriously, and that we were about having fun,” says Haley. “We wanted people to have a conversation about why the word slut has a bad connotation, why it’s a slur.” But their message didn’t reach the ears of the big social media sites, which kept censoring their shows, and causing them to lose gigs with promoters seeking a more cybersocial sell. Ultimately, they changed it to Sløtface, which has the same pronunciation as the old name. “It was a really long conversation about what we were giving up and what we were gaining,” says Haley. “We’re not a punk band but we do have a little bit of that punk ethos, and we wanna talk about things that are important, and tell the truth, so were we just changing our name to be more marketable? In the end, we thought we could reach more people with our lyrics, which contain those ideas in different ways. We would be working against ourselves if we were so preoccupied by selling out that we couldn’t reach people.”
“People have been like, ‘Yeah but the Sex Pistols made it,’” Tor groans, “but it’s a completely different time – back then you didn’t get all your information from a platform run by math and algorithms.”
They started shredding through their local live scene. Sløtface are obsessed with classic American high school movies and wanted to kickstart a culture of bands playing house parties in Stavanger, where it barely existed – other than in this one Norwegian high school movie, 2008’s The Man Who Loved Yngve, about a local band that goes awry when its frontman reckons with his sexuality. “It’s a big thing for our hometown and people that are our age,” Haley says of the film.
They made it happen. “We played a lot of parties with our friends, in the crowd,” says Lasse. “It was just sweaty and really good. I think at least we still want to do that because they’re the most fun shows to play – just in a living room, or a football clubhouse, or anywhere that the crowd is on the same level as the band. I think that’s one of the nicest concert experiences we can have.”
But because they were one of the few non-metal bands in town, it meant that they also got gigs supporting big pop acts like A-ha. “We were lucky because we didn’t really fit in,” says Haley. At first, Sløtface were totally focused on being a live band – the only reason they recorded their debut EP was to get more gigs. But over time, they were drawn to the studio, refining their sound and the feminist perspective in their lyrics. Released in 2014, the We’re Just OK EP earned them domestic acclaim, while 2016’s Sponge State EP broke them outside of Norway – particularly thanks to the video for the title track, which saw them performing atop the Førde Fjord in support of youth activists who were peacefully protesting a Nordic Mining operation dumping more than 250 million tonnes of chemicals and waste in the fjord. “A change of pace from our sponge state,” Haley sings in the video, cheeks flushed from the freezing cold. “A new approach, shaking it, we’re making it.”
They made half of Sponge State with producer Dan Austin. “We co-operate a lot better when he’s around, I think,” Lasse laughs. So it made sense that they would ask him to produce their debut album. Now students in Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, they recorded in downtown Oslo over three weeks in summer 2016, when the city empties out for the season, in a concrete bunker of a studio. “It was a good thing for recording a rock album,” says Haley.
And leaving behind the nuanced themes for just one second, Try Not To Freak Out is nothing short of a massive rock record – one that weds the pop nous of Robyn and Blondie to the exuberant, freewheeling attack of bands like Joyce Manor and Little Big League. Guitars gleam, choruses soar, and Hal’s racing drums exude pure adrenaline. It’s a record made for the height of summer, for punching a pillow, or for drowning out the rest of the world. And it’s all the better for Sløtface’s unique lyrical perspective. On “Nancy Drew”, Haley reinterprets the teen detective as the noble vanquisher of indie rock’s boys’ club. “My girl is wiping slates clear/And I long for the look/And a soundtrack of women who all know what’s up/I keep hearing their cherry bombs through the walls,” she seethes amid sneaky, plundering guitars.
Haley’s lyrics aren’t explicitly gendered, but she transcends indie rock bravado and self-pity, and instead dismantles the patriarchal structures that hurt everyone. On the playful, euphoric “Magazine”, she challenges absurd body image standards. “Thoughts that aren’t mine keep running through my head… Thunder thighs keeps reaching for the measuring tape,” she sings, and perfectly distills the dissonance between knowing intellectually that these images are bullshit, but still feeling drawn to live up to them. “I really wanted to write a breakup song, but I’ve never really had any experience with heartbreaking, devastating, aggressive breakups, so I thought I would write a breakup song about breaking up with bad body image,” she explains.
She brings a similarly nuanced approach to anxiety on the tense “Night Guilt” and explosive “Try Not To Freak Out”, capturing its debilitating physical effects in a fashion that recalls Fiona Apple’s unflinching gaze. “Pulling my eyebrows out/Feeling like I smell when I’ve just showered,” she rails on the latter.
“I’m one of those typical over-achievers that’s trying to convince themselves that you can always do more and be better and the only reason that you’re failing at things is because you’re not working hard enough,” she says. “If you step outside of yourself and analyse that, it’s a really unhealthy way of thinking about things, but when you’re in your own head, it feels like it makes perfect sense. That song is all about feeling like you’re not being good enough, and all of those weird physical manifestations that you have, and also the process of trying to negotiate that with another person. I wanted to release all of that anxiety by throwing those things into an upbeat song that has this nervous energy to it to try and get rid of all those feelings.” (You can also hear her trying to blast them out on “Pitted”, a tough-hearted caper and brilliant introvert’s anthem about not wanting to go out, but having the greatest night when you do.)
Try Not To Freak Out is as sensitive as it is riotous. On “Galaxies”, “Slumber” and “Backyard Adventures”, Sløtface commune with the teen selves they’re leaving behind as they embark on their 20s, and life as a touring band. “I know that I’ll never have friends like these again,” Haley laments on “Slumber”. “And I’m giddy with companionship.” Ever the movie buffs, Sløtface describe these songs as the credits rolling on their teenage years. Classic teen movies tend to produce pretty ropey sequels. But something says that Sløtface’s thrilling next chapter will be the definitive exception to the rule.