An EXCLUSIVE Q&A with PETER BJÖRN AND JOHN’S Peter Morén
Swedish trio Peter Björn and John have created a musical universe that is constantly evolving. However, they’ve managed to retain their unique charm that made them press darlings a decade ago with “Young Folks”. What many didn’t realize is that that hit’s parent album, Writer’s Block, was the trio’s third in a career that has seen them stretch the boundaries of Pop music. While Top 40 radio’s Pop guidelines are pretty rigid, Peter Morén, Björn Yttling and John Eriksson treat them like elastic rubber bands, bending and twisting those guidelines into new and exciting aural avenues. They’ve even managed to carve out musical careers outside of PB&J while never lowering the quality control level on the albums they record together. And can you believe they even collaborated with Canadian hip hopster Drake a handful of years before he became a musical sensation?
Breakin’ Point, their first album in five years, finds PB&J offering up a collection of songs that are so instantly lovable that you’ll swear you’ve been in love with them for years. Every track on the album is a potential hit single – the melodies leap out and grab hold on the first spin. Their songwriting is based in classic ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s Pop/Rock, but the production, arrangements and inventiveness is thoroughly modern if not outright forward-thinking. They’ve sidestepped the experimental moodiness of some of their past albums and embraced their more playful side. This isn’t an album that tries to revisit their past glories – it creates new ones.
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to track down band member Peter Morén, who kindly took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about Breakin’ Point, PB&J and more…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Breakin’ Point is just about to be released. How are you feeling about the album and the reaction to it so far?
PETER MORÉN: I think it’s our best album ever. You’re always supposed to say that but this time I really, really mean it. We played 6 new songs on our recent brief US visit, our first gig in 3 years. People loved the new stuff! Hands down!
SPAZ: It has been five years since the release of Gimme Some. Why did it take so long for this album to come together?
PETER: First off we didn’t work on it every day. There was other stuff going on as well. But even so, MENTALLY it’s been an ongoing thing for four years. We had a couple of false starts finding our feet. We then realized we started recording and producing too fast so we went back to the drawing board to make sure we had a bunch of classic songs. These needed to incorporate great melodies and lyrics, which you could play on a guitar and still make interesting. After that we proceeded to work on production and arrangements. We treated the album more like a bunch of singles rather than just an album. So every song got the love and care it deserved down to every last detail. And to up the ante even more we called in all these producers to add stuff that we wouldn’t have thought of or could pull off. So that took some time as well.
SPAZ: The album is filled with beautifully written Pop melodies, inventive arrangements and that unique PB&J “atmosphere”. Is the process of writing and creating music that much different today than it was when you recorded your 2002 debut album?
PETER: Thanks! It gets harder every time. First off is because you want to do your very best. Also you don’t want to repeat yourself, while at the same time you want to keep that ‘atmosphere’ that is quintessentially “us”. Also we wanted to make danceable modern chart-contenders that could also work on a more mature, introspective singer-songwriter-level. Not really a contradiction, but still. And the three of us sometimes want different things and pull in different directions. We have to find our common ground and love the finished product, which takes time. Maybe it won’t next time? We have learned a lot during this process and made mistakes that we hope we won’t make again. In the early days we sort of just did things on the spur of the moment and that can work nicely too, but not forever. Possibly we think too much now and demand too much of ourselves? But on the other hand if you’re happy and content, then what’s the point in pushing yourself into doing more music? So we keep looking for new goals to reach!
SPAZ: The musical landscape changes rather quickly. As you prepare to release the album, does it feel like a completely different industry than it was the last time you released one together? And is that a little daunting or is it exciting?
PETER: Both. I think the diminished value of the album as a whole is a little sad. This surely is an album in the truest sense but then again it works well as individual tracks. I love the tactile thing of physical records and so does my three-year-old son. There is a magical element that doesn’t translate to streaming. However you have to go with the flow and I just hope people can find our music, whatever way or platform they may use. Streaming is great for when you’re out and about, listening to all sorts of music. A combination of both is what you hope for of course. It’s a bit like comparing good fast-food and fine dining, both are nice and taste good!
SPAZ: Breakin’ Point is packed with potential singles. Do you have an input into what tracks get released to radio or do you leave that to other people? It must be difficult since you are so close to the music…
PETER: We do leave that to others. This time around we especially tried to produce the record like 12 singles so it sort of felt like they were all singles to us. Like a new “best of” 😉 But the radio landscape is something for people who work with radio promotion, as they know better. It’s obvious though from just fans and journalists that a lot of people have different favorites from the get go.
SPAZ: The album shows that PB&J are still as relevant as they’ve always been. Did you have a clear idea on what kind of album you wanted to make even before going into the studio or did it grow organically? And was there a particular song that you wrote or recorded when you realized, “Yes, this is all coming together!”?
PETER: This time we had less of a clear idea than we usually have, and maybe that’s why it took a long time. But we surely did still want to feel relevant J. Often in the past we have had a production or style dogma before starting an album. This time that lay more in the songwriting than in the production. We wanted classic pop songs with a current twist, which involved great melodies, words, form and shape in a medium tempo all clocking in under four minutes. There were no super-short superfast punkers or super-long experimental tracks or slow ballads, we managed to stick to that rule for sure! But in addition the word “disco” and “danceable” was also mentioned. When it came to production everything was allowed, really. Any color could be splashed on the black and white canvas that we had sketched. More was for once more and when all doors are open it’s harder to choose. But with the help of the producers we were able to choose wisely in the end.
SPAZ: Was there a particular song that you wrote or recorded when you realized, “Yes, this is all coming together!”?
PETER: It was a different story for different songs. For some we have almost five different finished versions and in the end which one to choose wasn’t that easy. We kept changing them ‘til the very last minute, changing choruses and melodies even. So a clearer deadline could have been helpful. But a song like “Do-si-do” came to shape pretty easy and early on felt great. Also the mix of almost acoustic folk with disco felt like some sort of direction for proceedings. However, when we worked with Paul Epworth on “A long goodbye” in London, that really turned everything upside down from all the versions we previously had; he changed the beat and added a lot of textures. So that was a real turning point for me at least. Sometimes you look for something special that you really can’t pinpoint or describe, and you don’t know what it is until you hear it!
SPAZ: Breakin’ Point is certainly a classic PB&J album yet you continue to shape and improve your “formula” over the years. Is it difficult to grow and create new sounds when you are an established artist and your audience has certain expectations?
PETER: I think the highest expectations are from ourselves. But I agree that keeping your personality through the changes is important. We have a wide and eclectic taste in music between the three of us, and when we boil it down we get the classic PBJ-recipe; the magic is in the combination of us three. It’s hard work but shouldn’t sound like hard work. It should sound effortless, otherwise it wouldn’t be good pop! So let’s just hope the fans and us have the same hopes and expectations!
SPAZ: How much material did you have for the album? Are there finished tracks left over for future releases (b-sides, deluxe editions, etc.)?
PETER: When we wrote songs we had tons of ideas but when it came down to the recording we kind of decided which ones to finish. There was one track “High Up”, released on the INGRID vol. 2-collection last year and another one “Bad taste”, which turned up on the “Breakin’ Point”-7inch and will eventually be released digitally. There’s at least one or two more tracks almost done that might turn up in the future.
SPAZ: What’s next for Peter Bjorn & John?
PETER: Touring, touring and touring.
SPAZ: What are you currently spinning on your record, CD, DVD or Blu-Ray players?
PETER: Talking about streaming…I listen to a lot of music on my phone while running in the woods.
Lately I’ve been digging the new albums from Andersson Paak, Kanye West, Emmy The Great, The Cactus Blossoms, Steve Mason and just yesterday the new one from James Blake which sounded great. At home I mostly listen to records though, and then it might be old stuff on vinyl like Harry Nilsson, Tim Hardin, Paul McCartney, Laura Nyro, Bert Jansch, Go-Betweens and such. I took out Damon Albarn’s Everyday Robots yesterday for a re-spin and it’s still fantastic. And I’ve just rediscovered the sophistopop-classic Meet Danny Wilson (by Danny Wilson). Fine tunes. I often let my son pick, so it can be quite random. I revisited Billy Paul after his passing as well. On DVD, I mostly stream TV-series or movies on Netflix or HBO. Just saw the classic movie To Kill A Mockingbird with Gregory Peck. Old Hollywood sure knew how to do a film. But my DVD-box of Father Ted never has a cobweb on it. Pull that out every so often.
Thanks to Peter Morén
Special thanks to Shari Segalini, Michael Nobrega and Nick Kominitsky