In a fair world, seasoned Swedish trio, Peter Bjorn and John, would’ve been big pop stars. An eclectic combo fashioning engagingly melodic hook lines with a keen eye looking towards rock and roll’s glorious past, these versatile Scandinavians bounce between various familiar contemporary styles while stuck just outside stardom’s short and narrow reach. In spite of it all, they don’t really care all that much about worldwide takeover.
Of course, PB&J did experience a modicum of international fame when their contagiously frolicsome whistled shuffle, “Young Folks,” became ubiquitous on album-oriented radio, a major car ad and Grey’s Anatomy. But this catchy calling card merely scratched the surface since numerous charmingly insouciant trinkets have been spread across five English-sung long-players starting with a formative self-titled 2002 debut.
Though 2004’s promising Falling Out barely made a dent in America, it set the stage for 2006’s precocious pinnacle, Writer’s Block. Given universal exposure via “Young Folks” (featuring Victoria Bergsman of Swedish pop wunderkinds, the Concretes), this magnificently advanced follow-up gave the Stockholm-based threesome, consisting of schoolyard pals Peter Morén (guitar-vocals) and Björn Yttling (bass-keyboards), plus longtime percussionist John Eriksson, instant accessibility akin to likeminded peers The Shins and The New Pornographers. Moreover, murkily drowsy electro-pop epistle “Amsterdam” may’ve been inspirational for MGMT breakout hit “Kids.”
However, the path to definitive mainstream celebrity was temporarily halted by ‘08s sidestepping instrumental excursion Seaside Rock, a tribute to native Nordic villagers released only on vinyl and MP3. Perhaps revolting against those adversarial critics pigeonholing the tidy triumvirate as trendy Euro-trash pop swindlers, this divergent side trip definitely slowed momentum, at least on a multinational scale.
By the time 2009’s luxuriant Living Thing dropped, an unwarranted hackneyed commercial backlash grew. Despite being completely approachable and debatably bettering previous efforts, its broad-ranging fare nearly fell on deaf ears here in the States.
Yet there were many undeniable gems consuming Living Thing’s impressive ensemble of lightly symphonic constructions. In typical PB&J methodology, a certain duskily deviating contemplative melancholia counters the customarily buoyant ebullience. Though they still paint inside the lines of basic pop structures, the general template works wonders intersecting art-rock with tween pop and crisscrossing quirky psychedelia with new wave á la Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark, Ultravox and Spandau Ballet. Cautiously exploitative adventurers, PB&J herein douse their winningly rudimentary recipe with lessons learned from the Ethoipiques series of rhythmic, Jazz-affected West African pop, best exemplified on the a cappella voicing, strict riddims, and hypnotizing repetitiveness lavishing the “Graceland”-spurred title track.
Moodier passages sweep through dubby trip-hop industrial sendoff, “It Don’t Move Me,” itching to get at mightily mutinous mantra, “Lay It Down,” where the ominously defiant unison chant of “Hey, shut the fuck up boy/ You’re starting to piss me off” rings out loud and clear. An addictive children’s choir (reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall” or Jay-Z’s Annie-derived “Hard Knock Life”) pilots the sinisterly snarling sneer, “Nothing To Worry About.”
Prepared to gain a stronger marketable foothold without getting pretentious and indulgent, PB&J affably retain the glossily polished studio sheen for a bunch of roots-rocking regalia on 2011’s instinctually rousing Gimme Some. A brighter tuneful vibrancy, appropriated by likeminded outside producer, Per Sunding, girds each invigorating number.
Amassed tribal drums and a sitar-like Turkish lute (known as a cura saz baglama) create a mesmerizing transcendental motif for playfully parading foot-stomped Farfisa-flavored, schoolyard-rhymed opening lullaby “Tomorrow Has To Wait” (further excavating Living Thing’s exotic tendencies). From there, guitar-spackled, conga-lined calypso “Dig A Little Deeper” finds convenient ‘80s-bound middle-ground betwixt Squeeze and Kid Creolo & the Coconuts. And the radiant “Second Chance” slyly dupes the Romantics’ “Talking In Your Sleep.”
As Gimme Some gathers momentum, a spry Bo Diddley beat propels “Eyes.” And jittery, pile-driving cadences stimulate the Dave Edmunds/Nick Lowe-fabricated pub rocker “Breaker Breaker.” All this nervous energy doubles on dizzyingly derailed rebuke “Black Book” (the closest PB&J have ever come to emitting post-punk hardcore bashing). But they save the absolute best for last as exceptional dramatic closer “I Know You Don’t Love Me,” slips into a reverberated surrealistic séance that locks in the album’s underlying lovesick anxiety then heads for the ionosphere.
Starting as informal recreational kid’s play, Peter Bjorn and John’s hobby turned into a bohemian lifelong vocation. It’s their incredibly steady pop ingenuity that serves notice to lesser lionized lapdogs lamely lurking inside America’s restrictive airwaves.
Below, Peter Morén partakes in some Q&A.
Who were some early influences?
Back in the day I was a true ‘60s freak—Beatles, Beach Boys, Byrds and Dylan. Later, I got into Elvis Costello and Tom Petty, then, Stone Roses and Teenage Fanclub. Some ‘90s lo-fi stuff as well. We formed our band right afterwards. But I’d already done some cassette recordings with Björn before high school.
Though Gimme Some’s theme seems to be about frustration and heartache, the whimsical arrangements are nevertheless joyously uplifting.
We don’t think of that much, but 60 percent of our albums have dark lyrics matched to positive sounding music. We also contrast sad sounding songs with positive lyrics. It should be more than meets the eye and ear so you’ve got to scratch under the surface. Gimme Some’s cover design projects similar contrasts as the music does. There’s a peppy thumbs-up, here-we-go, gimme some positivism but the hand’s cut off. So it’s morbid as well to match the dark lyrical underbelly.
How did Per Sunding, your first outside producer, help Peter Bjorn & John capture raw spontaneity without losing the gleaming dynamics?
He added a lot. He went with our ideas from rehearsals for the arrangements and vocal harmonies, but he put his perspective on lyrical changes. Then, we went to the studio and he provided the right energy, tempo and takes. It sounded like a live band but we moved around a lot of gear. We took the drums into the kitchen and guitar in the hallway to create different sounds. It was very hands-on, like [electronic music pioneer and “Telstar” composer] Joe Meek. That was fun and brought a lot of enthusiasm into the studio instead of getting stuck in our old ways.
I thought Gimme Some diverted away from Living Thing’s Western African juju influences and art-damaged curios with its spunky garage verve.
I agree. (Laughs) It’s different. Part of the reason is we wanted to make a more rootsy sounding record to reflect the live band better—where we’re more punky. But we focused on getting the arrangements correct early on with the three basic instruments. Instead of creating weird sounds deconstructed in the studio, we did more work and preparation beforehand. More thought was put into the playing for the live tracks.
The infectious “Dig A Little Deeper” may be the greatest dance floor contribution PB&J have yet made for the prevailing club scene.
That was actually a happy mistake intended to be a funk song. The last few years I’ve been digging funk, like Archie Bell & The Drells’ (number one ’68 song) “Tighten Up.” I wanted to do something similar with the guitar riff. But I’m the worst drummer on the demo and the funky groove I gave the guys didn’t sound anything like funk. But John liked it and copied it anyhow.
On the other side of the musical spectrum, “Lies” maintains an exuberant power pop impulse.
That’s an old song written in 2002. We practiced it once but the guys don’t remember. I changed the lyrics a little. That’s more like we sounded in the early days with Box Tops or the jam-type energy, sort of Beatles versus punk—a powerful thing. It would have suited Falling Out. We recorded that one later on in the Gimme Some sessions because we didn’t think it fit the album. But we did it really fast in a couple takes. Then, Per had the idea to overdub the entire band. So we played it twice and put the two takes on top of each other for a fuller sound that doubled the pleasure.
Many of your songs touch upon different rock-based styles. Has PB&J ever covered anybody’s stuff?
We do them live now and again. What we usually do is in the new wave or power pop vein. We’ve done the Nerves’ “When You Find Out,” “Fa Ce-La;” by the Feelies, and “Silly Girl” by Television Personalities. However, if we do acoustic sets, we’ll play Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly or rockabilly.
What music styles would you like to delve into on future recordings?
We’re still hungry. We haven’t succeeded in doing a proper rap song. I’ve tried writing rap, but it hasn’t really worked, even though we’ve worked with Talib Kweli and GZA. Maybe I could rap with Dylan’s type of early ‘60s flow. We’ve been talking about extending this funky soul experience with some slower New Orleans-styled Meters grooves. I’ve also been into Origins Of Guitar Music From Southern Congo And Northern Zambia, field recordings made in the villages where they play vastly different than the western way. You could see the formation of the High Life style. Also, David Byrne’s Luaka Pop put out [World Psychedelic Classics: Love’s A Real Thing], featuring William Onyeabor’s “Better Change Your Mind.” And Konono # 1-Congotronics is great as well. For me, soul, funk and rockabilly go well next to African pop. It’s almost seamless. Sometimes we might be influenced by Eddie Cochrane, but the song sounds like African music.
Getting back to your indie rock auspices, “May Seem Macabre” seems to glide along a grungy “Smells Like Teen Spirit” six-string groove.
The lyrics are really different from the rest. On the last record, I had “Blue Period Picasso,” written from the perspective of the painting. “May Seem Macabre” is actually like a dreamscape or an out-of-body experience, watching your own burial while friends and relatives mourn. You see what fabric you’re draped in. But you’re being buried next to your spouse so you’re not going to the other world alone. It’s a positive “When The Saints Come Marching In” thing. The title has different layers of meaning as usual.
However, there’s no denying the bitter acumen of “I Know You Don’t Love Me.”
That’s Björn’s lyric. He likes keeping it short. I’m a bit wordy. I especially like the tension of the band playing together and nailing it when the unplanned guitar solo comes out of nowhere. We usually end sets with that before encoring with past hits.
Tell me a little about the two solo albums you’ve done recently.
The 2010 one, I Sparen Av Taren, was Swedish. Both have stuff I felt I couldn’t do within band confines. The English record [2008’s The Last Tycoon] had some that could’ve been good PB&J tunes, but I was listening to old Brit-folk by Richard Thompson and Bert Jansch. Those were more self-contained, based around acoustic guitar and fingerpicking. Some lyrics may not fit a pop setting. They’re wordier and the sound’s softly laid-back. The Swedish record may be the favorite thing I’ve done, combining soul and pop.
Peter Bjorn and John will perform Sept. 10 at The Trocadero in Philly, Sept. 12 at Brooklyn Bowl, Sept. 13 at Maxwell’s in Hoboken and Sept. 15 at Music Hall Of Williamsburg. For more, go to peterbjornandjohn.com.