“Everything in Britain is pretty expensive… except the beer.”
Despite the current exchange rate misery us Brits feel each and every time we cross the Channel, Peter Morén is feeling the pinch while in the UK for a handful of live dates in support of ‘Living Thing’, the fifth album from Peter Bjorn And John. He concedes things are slightly better, but even now, doing this full time, he watches the pennies.
The trio did have a budget for the recording of ‘Living Thing’, though. “That was the big difference,” says Morén. “The first three albums, including ‘Writers Block’, were all done in our spare time. Like, for the second record, we borrowed The Hives’ studio over New Years.”
John Eriksson interjects: “We also borrowed The Hives’ drums. But we didn’t tell them. Well, I guess they know now.”
In a bar beside their label Wichita’s London office, Morén and Eriksson are enjoying real ales with Clash as Bjorn Yttling presumably occupies himself with another pursuit – the three have certainly been in demand since 2006’s ‘Writers Block’, their third album, tore up charts around the world and spawned the hit single ‘Young Folks’. The tape rolls as talk turns to ‘Living Thing’…
So we’re saying the new record had a budget then, more so than its predecessors?
Peter: Yes, this time we had a budget, and a proper schedule. We did pre-production, and talked about everything. We even made mix CDs for each other with referential songs on them. So it’s been very properly done, in a good way. I think it worked out.
John: But the most expensive record, I think, was [2008 instrumental fourth album] ‘Seaside Rock’, because we mixed it over and over again. That’s what the world economy does to you.
What was your thinking with ‘Seaside Rock’? It didn’t fit the mould you seemed to establish with ‘Writers Block’, and it was ultimately quite a low-key release.
Peter: For us, ‘Seaside Rock’ was really important to make, especially after ‘Writers Block’ had hit so hard everywhere. You can get connected to a song like ‘Young Folks’, but we want people to know that we are a weird band – we’re really not a cute band, not all of the time. And we always wanted to do an instrumental record, so the time seemed perfect. It was a bit of therapy after all the touring.
2007 seemed a rollercoaster year for you, as countries all over the world got properly into ‘Writers Block’.
Peter: 2007 was the big year, but it did start before that – we toured here, and in Germany and in Japan, all before we went to the States, so it all came gradually. We became bigger and bigger, slowly, and the big difference now is that this new record is actually coming out at the same time everywhere. Right now feels like a good time to be able to tour, because we hopefully have at least two records that people know well, and then the more obscure ones that we can pick a song or two from, so we have a lot to pick from.
What with the strong studio feel of ‘Living Thing’, its emphasis on beats, are the songs going to translate live? Are you going to need to bring anyone in on a live front?
Peter: We swap instruments a bit on stage, but we don’t bring in outside people. We want to keep it a challenge to do everything as a trio. We can play around with the songs that way – if you bring someone in to play with you, they’ll play it as it is on the record, and sometimes we can just look at each other and know where to change things. It’s worked really well so far – the shows are like our musical history.
John: I don’t know. Some people might think all of our songs sound the same live.
Peter: The melodies are similar – that’s what links this album to the last ones. But the sounds are very different.
John: What you said about the rollercoaster ride of a year – now, we’re into the ghost house, and we’re going to stay there for a while.
A nice metaphor, because I think this album’s definitely a lot darker, musically and lyrically, than ‘Writers Block’.
Peter: We react to our lives – and we’re not happy all of the time!
John: If ‘Writers Block’ was about love, then this album is about having feelings of being scared, about having worry. But in that respect it’s more outgoing.
Peter: It’s more pop, too. ‘Writers Block’ was very indie-rock, but for this one we listened to a lot of stuff that was on the radio when we were growing up, like late Fleetwood Mac and Depeche Mode, and OMD.
It’s got its ‘80s overtones for sure – a couple of tracks wouldn’t feel out of place in films like, I don’t know, The Breakfast Club, or Back To The Future…
John: Back to the Future is good, because he went to the ‘50s and saw his mother, and there’s a lot of rockabilly influences from that sort of time on this record.
Peter: It’s funny, because it sounds modern to me, this record, but the influences are all a lot older. We recorded it in a ‘60s studio.
And you worked for a while in Los Angeles, is that right?
Peter: It was mostly produced in Stockholm, but we did pre-production in LA, and arranged the songs and heard the references. Then we recorded in this studio called Atlantis, which was where ABBA recorded most of their stuff. It was built in the ‘60s, and has this big room. We used the piano from ‘Dancing Queen’.
John: (Laughing) Benny was really upset. We heard that he was. So, sorry Benny. And sorry The Hives.
Any worry that the direction of the new album might alienate fans who latched onto you around ‘Writers Block’?
Peter: I don’t think so. It’s the same singers, the same melodies; it’s still got the personal approach in the lyrics. You might be surprised at first, perhaps.
John: We wanted that less is more feel, combined with John Cage. A strange combination, but we took away all the unnecessary parts, and then it was clear we had to work a lot more on the beats as they’re the focus. So we built a lot of songs from just one sound, like a ghost piano with lots of reverb.
At times it has an almost hip-hop feel…
Peter: We had an almost a hip-hop way of working. Like, if you have only a couple of things you can hear them more, technically, when they’re not covered in guitars. Also when we play traditional instruments on the record, they’re played in a more rhythmical way rather than bashing out chords. We could easily play all of the songs traditionally, with chord sequences and melodies that are more classical, but this is us deconstructing what we do.
At times it’s a pretty bold sound, considering what’s come before.
Peter: We’ve never really repeated anything we’ve done. We always try to do something different, and you always learn – we learned a lot on ‘Seaside Rock’ that we have used now. Even on the early records, even though they are traditional power-pop, new-wavy records, there’s progression between the first two albums, and even more between them and ‘Writers Block’. So it’s a constant – we always try to reinvent. Some of the songs on this record we wrote around the time of ‘Writers Block’, but they sounded too different then to fit on the record.
You’re not the sort of band to sit still creatively, then?
John: You’re always moving on to the next thing, and every process inspires the next.
Peter: The more music you write, the more you want to do. With the first few albums it was a side thing, around our jobs, even though it was the most important thing to us; now we can do it full time, we actually have a lot of time to create stuff, so we do it constantly. We’re talking now about making another two records quite fast.
While you did release ‘Seaside Rock’, this record does feel in many respects like the follow-up to ‘Writers Block’, which makes it s three-year gap between albums…
Peter: ‘Writers Block’ came out in America in 2007, and that’s when it broke big, but I agree it does feel a while. I put out a solo album last year, so we we’re always keeping busy.
Does doing work outside of Peter Bjorn And John allow you explore a different musical mindset?
John: I think it could be a bit stressful, and very strange, if you did this all the time walking around with only the band in mind… But this is what we’ve ultimately been doing since we’ve been five.
Peter: It’s funny because people think you’re so busy all of the time, and of course we are, but without a nine to five we do have time free for writing. Like John says, if we went around in the Peter Bjorn and John mindset all of the time, we’d go crazy. You have to branch out, especially when you’re a bit older. You need to meet other people!
And when you get back together after being apart, does that intensify the working relationship?
Peter: You learn from other projects, and when you come back you remember why you started working with these guys. It can be a special atmosphere. We’re a bit like a monster – we’re three people that become a single living thing.
John: It’s also good to show your mother, because she was like: “You’re quitting your day job?” She thought we were nuts. But we’ve been playing since we were kids, more or less, so this has always been the plan. It’s just a bonus we can do it full time.
‘Living Thing’ is released via Wichita on March 30. The band can be found on MySpace HERE.