After more than 15 years, the Swedish indie rockers still embrace the brighter side of pop life.
As it turns out, only a small group of lucky Swedes got to see a springtime show from Peter Bjorn and John in support of their new album, Endless Dream (released on March 13). The Swedish band were supposed to do a U.S. tour, but it got postponed until September and October due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Calling from his home in Stockholm, vocalist/guitarist Peter Morén recalls how, when it became clear the spring tour dates probably wouldn’t happen, the band decided to celebrate the new album anyway. “We had a party in our studio. It was probably far too many people, now with hindsight. But we played five songs from the new record and one old song. The day after, everything got canceled. And now there’s no shows anywhere.”
Still, Morén says, “The new songs work really well live, they really do! They are a lot of fun to play live.” Given that, the band again put together another impromptu show—this time, it was a 36 hour livestream from their studio on March 27, featuring not only their band, but several other Swedish artists—with all proceeds from the “virtual tip jar” divided between the crew and the other artists.
This determination that their music will persevere despite the pandemic even extends to Morén’s attitude toward the fact that his fans around the world are being ordered to self-isolate. “You have to think positive,” he says. “People stay at home and ingrain the music properly. When we finally get out there, they’ll know everything by heart!”
Even the title of Endless Dream points to the band’s decision to take a more optimistic stance, despite the odds. Morén says the mountain range depicted in the cover art is a visual representation of this viewpoint. “Mountains that you might never reach—it’s an unattainable dream, but it’s important to keep that dream alive anyway,” he says. “Dreams are what make you wake up in the morning and keep going. I think it’s really important to keep dreaming. It’s trying to see the positive. That’s the idea. Trying to add some color to your gray day.”
And, as Morén points out with a laugh, the LP version of Endless Dream even has a practical benefit for bored homebound fans: “On the back, there’s actually a board game. If you have some dice, you can actually play it. I tried it with my son, and he quite enjoyed it. It’s fully functional. That’s an extra unique selling point! You listen to the record, and you have a board game!”
As for what fans will hear on Endless Dream, Morén says it is “all in a nice medium pace groove. When we play together, there is a certain sound that comes that is natural, because we’ve been playing for so long together. When you’ve found your sound, then you try to get away from it. But then you end up liking it again. At this stage, we’ve been a band for 20 years. We’re proud of what we’ve done before, and you take stock of your old records and can self-reference a bit, in a way.”
The band started when Morén and bassist Bjorn Yttling met in high school. They befriended drummer/percussionist John Eriksson when they moved from their town of Mora, Sweden to the capital city, Stockholm, in 1999. Morén says it was clear from the start that they would work well together. “Even though we don’t have exactly the same taste, we find the common ground and influence each other. We get inspired by how the other people play or write. I think that’s really important that we still do that today.”
The band released their self-titled album in 2002, followed by Falling Out in 2004. Neither album achieved widespread success, however, and Morén admits that the band was ready to break up as a result.
“So we said we’re going to make one more album, and we didn’t have a lot of money. That of course was the Writer’s Block record.”
Writer’s Block, released in 2006, is best known for the hugely successful single “Young Folks” with its distinctive whistling intro. “It didn’t sound like anything else on the radio because it was inspired by James Brown drum and bass groove, and then this really melancholic melody on the top of it. It’s a weird mix. It was very different,” Morén says of the song, which hit the charts in 14 countries, has been used in numerous TV and film soundtracks, and was covered by everyone from The Kooks to James Blunt (and about a dozen more artists). Kanye West even sampled the song for his 2007 release Can’t Tell Me Nothing.
Everyone expected Peter Bjorn and John to capitalize on this success by making another album of similar songs. But Morén laughs at the memory of what came next. “What we did do, which was probably stupid, was [2008’s] Seaside Rock, an instrumental record, which only has spoken word in Swedish dialects from our hometowns. So we have sort of a self-destructive element about us,” he says wryly.
Seaside Rock aside, though, most of their nine studio albums are more straight-ahead indie rock. “Guitar, bass and drums, with vocals: that is our core sound,” Morén says. “When we perform live, that’s all you need, really. Live, when there’s not too many people onstage, you can hear what everyone is doing. It’s almost like it sounds more because it’s less, because the dynamic becomes so big. If I throw in a distortion box, it’s like, ‘Wow, it’s like there’s 10 guitars there!’ It becomes really important what you do.”
Morén credits the members’ good balance of musicianship for Peter Bjorn and John’s unique sound. “John is classically trained, and Bjorn came from a jazz background,” while Morénsays that he is “the least schooled,” though he still worked just as hard at mastering music, in his own way. When he was about 10, he recalls, “My mother had an old acoustic guitar at home. I bought these books where you can learn chords, so I learned to play the guitar by myself. And started writing songs as a kid.”
Later on, Morén did take lessons, though he says that he “wasn’t really into it that much. I never learned to read music or write music. I’m very much a spontaneous and intuitive player. Sometimes I think pop musicians that aren’t schooled, they can make really weird songs because they don’t know what’s right or wrong.”
Becoming a professional musician is something that Morén never seriously thought would even happen. “When we started releasing records, I still had that feeling that it was a hobby. People that release records still have other jobs, it’s quite common, because it’s hard to make a living out of music. But we have been doing this now as a living for 15, 16 years. We didn’t expect it at all. It’s pretty crazy. But it’s good!”
This isn’t to say that things have always been easy for the band, however. Even after being together for so many years, they’ve still sometimes hit a rough patch. “We made this record, Breakin’ Point , that we worked on for four years. We kept changing the songs over and over again. It took so long. And of course it cost a lot of money. But we could have finished that record two years earlier and it would have been just as good. So after that, we are never going to spend that much time on a record again.”
Now, with Endless Dream, Morén is pleased to report that they’ve again found their correct equilibrium as a band. “You don’t want to put out something that sounds unfinished. It’s a hard balance to have something that feels joyful and feels worked through and produced, but also spontaneous at the same time. With this record I think we made that balance.”
Now, quarantined in his home like so many others around the world, Morén cheerfully finds one more silver lining in the situation: “We can make another record before we actually get to do the tour for this record!” No doubt fans would welcome a double-release tour—or another livestream from Stockholm in the meantime—but either way, it’s clear that even a pandemic can’t keep Peter Bjorn and John down.
Conditions permitting, Peter Bjorn and John will play Rough Trade in Brooklyn on October 7.