Bjorn Again: The Peter Bjorn and John Q&A
Peter Bjorn and John are set to release their new album Gimme Some on March 29. Formed in 1999, the band rose to critical acclaim with their 2006 breakout album Writer’s Block, which featured the near-ubiquitous, whistling-laden track “Young Folks.” Since then, the Swedish trio have been firmly established in the Scandinavian indie pop canon, including 2009’s well-received LP Living Thing. Between PBJ projects, bassist/keyboardist Björn Yttling has also established himself as a producer, working with artists such as Lykke Li, Shout Out Louds and the Suzan. We spoke with Yttling about songwriting, producing and rappers’ affinity for indie rock cred — “Maybe they ran out of disco, I don’t know.”
This album leaked two months before its release date. How did you feel about that?
I was first surprised, and then a bit proud that people cared about the songs. Since it seems like people love the album, I’m happy and it’s no big deal. People would have waited until its release to download it anyways, if they wanted to download it. We like the reactions a lot.
How does this album mark the band’s evolution?
Maybe we’re moving in a sort of figure 8. I listened to an old demo from before the first album and it sounded sort of like the new album.
How has the way you write songs changed over the course of your career?
Me and Peter wrote songs for the first two albums alone, without John. At the time, I think we wrote more together in a room, for the first album. We started writing more separate[ly] after. On the first album, we shared the same apartment, and it was easier to work [more closely]. Then John started writing songs on Writer’s Block and now it’s like we come in with an idea that’s not so figured out, but there’s a written song.
Lyrically, does writing in English open up more ways for you to experiment?
I don’t know, I never wrote anything in Swedish. I’d be better at writing songs in English than in Swedish because I never wrote anything in Swedish. Just because it’s not your native tongue, it’s like, if you do something for a long time, then you get better at it anyway. We just hope for the best that you guys can understand it.
Are there any other new influences on Gimme Some that you haven’t had in the past?
I think the influences are old, like the Nerves, 70s rock, pop-rock like Dr. Feelgood, Stone Roses, all that stuff we listen to, even the Strokes. What we really managed to do was cut out all of the other stuff. So we wanted to make a guitar rock album that really focused on the trio format. Just being able to cut out all of the other stuff made this a coherent and focused album, I think. If you like garage rock and rockabilly and different sorts of guitar rock, then this album is for you.
Can you talk about the songs “Breaker Breaker” and “Black Book”? They’re both under two minutes long.
John usually writes sort of short songs, and this time he wrote shorter songs than he usually does. We had some short songs on Living Thing and Writer’s Block, and usually they’re his songs. This time, we even extended “Breaker Breaker” a little bit longer than he intended to, on the demo. We’re lifting a lot from Guided by Voices and stuff like that, and they can fit in a lot of songs on their albums, if they have some shorter ones. There’s pretty good energy [compared] to longer songs.
Overall, this album sounds more energetic than some of your previous work. Was there anything in particular that inspired this change?
What we did was we took out the other stuff that’s not so energetic. We took out the balance. If we would have been on the first or second album, then we would have had a soft song to end it up, or a soft song without drums in the middle or something, you have to make it a bit more varied. I think this time we just focused on the energetic stuff. We had it always, but this time we took out the other ones.
Which songs are you the most proud of?
Personally, I’m the most proud of “I Know You Don’t Love Me.” I wrote that song because we all love those Krautrock bands, like Can. We play that style pretty well in our own PBJ way. I wanted to look into making a song that would have that thing and not so many chords, there’s just like two chords in that song. As for the song itself, the demo was just…all of the melodies and everything were there, but it was intended for us to play live, and we really nailed a good version on that one. It’s all live on that song, and it’s really a great vibe on that song, and I love the lyrics, too. I think it’s really good.
Your band has been together for a relatively long time. How do you keep things fresh in the studio and on tour?
It’s hard to keep it fresh, but you’ve got to try and hang and meet between tours, too. It’s hard to discuss stuff when you’re on tour, really, but if you try to get together–which we do in Stockholm–when you’re off, then you can talk about shit. Then, we try to play different songs every night. We never use a backing track, it’s just our force onstage. One show is not really the same as the other ones. We try to mix stuff up, switch up songs and setlists and all of that.
Where are your favorite places to go on tour?
It’s fun to go places that you don’t [get to go to] as often, like Australia and South America. We’ve got a really good base on the American East Coast and the West Coast, especially. If I was going to choose, if I could play California or Japan, I would choose California. We’ve got a great following and great fans there.
A couple of years ago, Kanye West sampled you, and more recently Drake sampled you. What do you think about the increasing collision between hip hop and indie cred rock, with more rappers like Theophilus London and Childish Gambino sampling indie bands?
Well, before, indie rock was more like, Oasis, stuff like that. That’s tricky music to sample because there’s a lot going on, the drums are not that great. It’s just like some geezer sitting in the back, playing to a click track, it’s not that great of a drum beat. Maybe because we listen to a lot of Devo and John listens to a lot of hip hop and tries to move around the timing of the snare and all of that, we make better beats than we did in indie rock 15 years ago. Maybe they ran out of disco, I don’t know.
Do you listen to a lot of hip hop?
More when Wu-Tang was new and hot, but no.
Who are some new artists you’re excited about?
I think Wild Nothing is one of the best bands that is not even a band, maybe, but that’s one of the greatest albums that I’ve heard last year. There’s a great garage rock thing going on in San Francisco, Thee Oh Sees, Girls, Ty Segall, stuff like that.
You produced Japanese group The Suzan’s debut last year, which was a really diverse album.
It’s a good rock album, I would say. It’s a more live album than any other album I’ve worked on, because they were really a group coming in that had sometimes rehearsed but not so much. We tried to get it down quickly. Also, it’s an interesting album because I don’t really know what they’re singing about, either. Sometimes it’s a tricky one, you know?
I’ve read something saying that their English isn’t necessarily the best, but they just write because they like the way it sounds.
Yeah, like the song by them called “Nice Codes.” I’ve never heard anyone talk about “nice codes.” I didn’t really understand what they sang when I saw it on paper. But it’s like listening to French pop music, Russian pop music, or whatever. If it sounds cool, then it’s good.
The new Lykke Li album that you produced just came out. How did your approach change from her first album to this second one?
We didn’t really have much to start with. We didn’t have a band, we didn’t have a crappy demo, even. It was sort of just some GarageBand piano stuff. There was sort of no sound there on the first one. There are a couple of different areas on the first album that are a little Nick Drake sometimes, a little bit electronic, dance-y stuff. This time, we knew more what would suit her best and we also had a live band that we could use, so there was a big difference.
Has working with these other artists influenced your own music?
Yeah, I try to take the best from everyone and apply it to the other projects. Like, working with PBJ, it’s really influenced the Lykke Li albums, and also the other way around, because you understand things in the studio after a while, what things work and don’t work and you put one and one together after being in the studio for a long time. You just figure things out. But this time, I didn’t produce Peter Bjorn and John’s album, so I was more of an observer.
Anything else you’d like to say about the Gimme Some?
We made it to measure. It’s sort of like if you’re standing in a bar, and every song is supposed to be something positive if you heard it in a bar situation. If you want to order one more drink when you hear the song, then it’s a good song. All the other songs, we took out of the album. If you’re running a bar, it’s a good album for you to buy and play in your bar. (laughs)
You’ve talked a lot about taking things out. Did you go into the studio with a lot of different songs before picking the ones you wanted to release?
Maybe 25 songs, and then there are 11 on the album. We didn’t record all of the 25, but we recorded more than 11, maybe 18 or 19, and then we cut down. You just narrow it down to a good drinking album.
Are there any plans to release the additional material, like a ballads EP?
Maybe, I don’t know. We didn’t really finish all of it. There’s a couple of tracks that we did that are going to be out at least in Japan, they always love the extra stuff there, or on a vinyl or something like that. Maybe we’ll go back and remake the songs, and make them better songs.