Speaking via phone before hitting San Francisco with a triple shot of live performances, Salo is reflecting on the recently concluded Eurovision Song Contest 2006. Sweden, he insists, didn't stand a chance in the annual continent-wide celebration of kitsch. Not when pitted against the sheer determination of perennial losers Finland. Still, he applauds his native country's representative, Carola, a tested Eurovision winner, camp icon, and born-again Christian.
"Carola is superhuman," insists Salo. "She is scary, bordering on psychotic, the way a star should be. I like that. Carola is the only true star we have in Sweden, besides me. She and I have a lot in common ... but not everything. For example, I don't regard homosexuality as a disease."
But they do share a belief in the power of showbiz spectacle. Since breaking into the Swedish mainstream in 2000, the Ark has built its reputation on outrageous stage antics that make most Las Vegas floor shows look like a Sunday school pageant. More than one critic has likened them to the Scissor Sisters crossed with Spinal Tap.
The band's latest album, State of the Ark, brims with unfettered guitar riffs, thundering drums, and falsetto vocals. The chunky "Girl You're Gonna Get 'Em (Real Soon)" recalls the Knack's "My Sharona" with the hiccups, while "Rock City Wankers" boasts thrift store keyboards being ravaged by B-52s wannabes. And the rapid-fire anthem "One of Us Is Gonna Die Young" suggests how truly marvelous the Electric Light Orchestra might have become, if only glitter-rock freak Roy Wood had stuck around to keep Jeff Lynne's Beatles fixation in check; just try dancing along to this song without slapping an imaginary tambourine against your hip.
Salo likes his rock icons over-the-top and outside of the mainstream. But even though he is openly bisexual, and pleased that the Ark is performing as part of this year's San Francisco Gay Pride festivities, he never looked exclusively to queer artists for inspiration. "I haven't idolized many people in my life," he says. "But I have looked up to the ones who seem free and happy just being who and what they are, even if that is something society tells them not to be. Freddie Mercury was never openly gay, but he was open about his 'otherness.' He enjoyed being something other than normal people. That is an inspiration: people who are making their supposed weaknesses into strengths."
Turning tables is a skill at which Salo excels. A few years ago, when the Swedish government was debating whether or not to finally allow same-sex couples to adopt children, the Ark released "Father of a Son," an original song that decried attempts to legislate who could have a family. "I wanted to write a song about queer people's rights that was not marginalizing queer people, but instead, saying, 'Fuck you, I'm going to do this, whether you like it or not. And if you are against this, you're against love.'"
Likewise, during the first decade of the Ark's career which began in 1991 when detractors claimed the band would never connect with mainstream audiences, Salo laughed and only acted more ludicrous. "What I like about rock music is it is a place where you are allowed to be a grown-up and a child at the same time," he concludes. "It is all about dressing up in costumes and playing whatever roles you want." And it works. Europe has clutched the Ark to its collective bosom; let's hope America adopts them soon, too. If not, well ... you're against love.