Thursday, June 2, 2011

Peter Bjorn and John interview

Photo by Johan Bergmark
A version of my interview originally ran in the North County Times and can be viewed here: 

When it comes to cultivating a large fan base here, Swedish pop and rock musicians have an edge over those from neighboring countries.

Some people credit ABBA for paving the way, but the lead singer/guitarist for Peter Bjorn and John attributes it to a far less obvious source: iconic television character J.R. Ewing.

“The reason we’re so good at pop music is that we’re good at English. We don’t use dubbed TV or films,” said Peter Moren, in a phone interview from Chicago. “As a kid, I saw “Dallas” on TV and heard the way they spoke in Texas. You also get conversation” that’s different from just listening to American music. “I think it helps to learn the language if you want to write English pop songs.”

While they’re best known for the breezy, whistling tune “Young Folks” (an international hit in ‘06), PB&J gravitate toward crafting more downbeat material.

“I really love different dimensions in a pop song, where you get one impression from listening to the record, then the lyrics are something else completely. It just adds something,” Moren enthused. The best pop songs [often] have a certain melancholic feel to them. Even ‘Young Folks’ is not super happy.

“Most of our records have that tension. Percentage-wise, there are more sad songs than happy ones in our collections,” he admitted with a laugh.

Defying expectations, PB&J followed the successful single and solid “Writer’s Block” album with a limited edition, all-instrumental effort “Seaside Rock” and experimental, percussion driven “Living Thing” in 2009 (rappers such as Kanye West and Drake are avid followers who frequently cover or remix the band’s songs).

On the latter collection, they took unusual sounds to the extreme, “tried to almost give up normal instruments and use objects…we definitely have a history doing that, but I think it’s more common than you realize. A lot of bands like messing about with stuff.”

For sixth release “Gimme Some,” the trio – which formed a dozen years in Stockholm – utilized an outside producer for the first time. Per Sunding, an ex-member of Swedish pop progenitor Eggstone, helped evoke the PB&J concert sound in the studio.

Once the general direction was established, Moren said it was essential for bassist/vocalist Bjorn Yttling, drummer/vocalist John Eriksson and him “to have a couple extra ears without giving up opinions in any way. We all still had ideas about everything. It’s more like we brought in a fourth member. Everyone had equal say.”

The process was “more relaxed. A lot of the songs are live takes. Things were improvised and happened in the moment,” It was a distinct change from previous PB&J releases overseen by Yttling, also a sought after producer/arranger with Lykke Li, Int’l Noise Conspiracy, Robyn, The Hives, Primal Scream, Natasha Bedingfield and Shout Out Louds among his multiple studio credits.

“We have a better sense of our strengths as persons and as a band; what we do well together and apart. At the same time, we’re always learning.”

Overall, Moren said the results are “really direct and punchy.”

Indeed. From the dual punk blitzkrieg “Black Book” and “Breaker Breaker” (both run less than two minutes), ominous  Godfathers-esque rocker “(Don’t Let Them) Cool Off” and infectious danceable pop nugget “Dig a Little Deeper” to the ‘70s AOR vibe of “Second Chance” (more cowbell!), Elvis Costello-ish power pop of “Lies” and extended kraut rock-meets-new wave closer “I Know You Don’t Love Me,” the new album is excellent from start to finish.
Come Sunday at 94.9 FM's sold out Independence Jam - held at the Oceanside Pier Amphitheatre in Southern California - Moren hopes to take in a quick swim nearby and catch sets by Crocodiles and the Soft Pack (“I just discovered them and really like the record”). 

Later this fall, PB&J will return for some residencies in several cities across America, including four shows at different sized L.A. venues and a return to San Diego County at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach on Sept. 30.

“It’ll be nice to stay in the same areas and do a longer stretch. I’m going to try and bring my wife.”

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