Words of Wisdom: Peter Bjorn and John
The pop-savvy Swedes share the secrets of their well-planned success.
Drinking lagers on a cold, slushy January night at a Brooklyn diner across from the intimate, sold-out Rock Shop, where in a few hours they’ll perform the entirety of their snappy new back-to-basics guitar-pop album Gimme Some (StarTime International), Peter Bjorn and John have the relaxed bearing of men who enjoy their freedom, which is to say, their ability to hock loogies at will.
“When I worked in a symphony orchestra in Sweden, I always wished I could spit onstage, but only the trumpet players were allowed,” says impish drummer John Eriksson, the most heavily bearded, and only non-blazer-wearing member of the trio (he’s opted for the Winnipeg tuxedo: blue jeans and jean jacket). “Now I can spit onstage whenever I want. I always appreciate that.”
Bassist Bjorn Yttling, tall and wry, raises an eyebrow. “That’s disgusting,” he says, a pre-show omelet in front of him, Meat Loaf’s “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” mewling from the speakers above. “I’m more glad that some idiot is always willing to put out our records.”
This is good, explains singer-guitarist Peter Morén, the slightly more serious side of this sardonic Scandi triangle, “because we want to make a few more. There were a couple years where we just hopped on the rock’n’roll train and let it ride. Now we’re in a very comfortable place.”
It’s a spot in which few bands are fortunate, and savvy, enough to land. Since forming in Stockholm in 1999, the trio have gone from hip obscurity (their first two albums of lightly psychedelic indie rock) to indie-pop ubiquity (via 2006’s Writer’s Block single “Young Folks,” whose whistled hook is in your head right…now) to their current position — solidified by 2009’s subtly experimental Living Thing and the sterling Gimme Some — as dependable purveyors of cleverly arranged, highly melodic ear candy for grown-ups.
So how did they avoid getting Marcy Playgrounded into one-hit wonders? “We thought about that when we made [2008’s all-instrumental] Seaside Rock,” says Morén, 35. “?’Young Folks’ was a watershed moment for us, so we wanted to let off some of the pressure. We even started having meetings where we took notes and talked about what we wanted to achieve with our music. If you’re a solo artist, it’s easy to have a concept in your head and just do that. In a band you have to be open to input. This time we decided we wanted to capture us playing together in a room with groove and swing and energy. In a way, I think we sound younger than ever.” The songs on Gimme Some, particularly the mod strut of “Dig a Little Deeper” and the punkish jolt of “Black Book,” ably support that claim.
As does Eriksson, 37, with reservations: “The problem is that we like everything — super hit music to noise punk — and we want to do it all the time. You have to limit yourself and think like a manager. We put so much soul and effort into the music, why would we let other people make the important decisions? This felt like the right album at this time in our career. There’s no tricks or horn sections. It’s just us.”
For Yttling, 37, who produced Lykke Li’s recent Wounded Rhymes, realizing that money didn’t fix everything was a key part of PB&J’s education. “No one can solve the problems of being in a band for you,” he says. “When you’re young, you think you can just get a couple lawyers who will tell you that you should tour South America in the fall. The truth is a booking agent calls you and says there’s a show, and you’re like, ‘Should we do that?’ And he says, ‘If you want.’ You’ve gotta be involved in all aspects of your career. No matter how much the people you pay care, they don’t care as much as you. It took us a while to get that. Also: Check what time in the morning your flights leave.” (The band’s plane to Los Angeles tomorrow, explains a grinning Yttling, takes off “late in the afternoon.”)
Back in Sweden, the guys have entirely different issues to consider. “I still get pissed off sometimes,” says Eriksson. “I meet people in bars and they say they never heard of the band. Then I come here and the taxi driver says his daughter loves us.”
Morén nods glumly. “We’re not well-known at home.”
“My mother knows us,” says Eriksson.
This spurs another deadpan aside from Yttling. “Family is another thing that you have to manage,” he says with mock irritability. “I never bring my daughter to rehearsal. She’d just want to play bongos. You can’t play bongos in rock. It’s fucking childish.”
Finally, before the band leaves for soundcheck, Yttling has some practical advice that even nonperforming music aficionados can use. “If you wanna take a picture with us after the show, try to inform the person who is actually going to take the picture how your camera works. Lots of times it’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t know this camera.’ That creates long lines and unnecessary waits. Thank you.”
WATCH: Peter Bjorn and John, “Dig A Little Deeper” (SPIN Sessions)