Peter Bjorn and John, for those living under a rock for the past decade, enjoy status as Sweden’s biggest indie export. Best known for their album Writer’s Block (2006), and more specifically “that whistle song” ‘Young Folks’, the trio hit commercial success and made Pitchfork’s Top 50 Albums of 2006 at #24. For those who remember, this was a pivotal year for indie rock. The next steps beyond Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, Elephant and Brazilian Girls were vague and, given a few duds in 2005, the future was looking a little bleak. This is a band that helped define an era; both for the indie connoisseurs of ’99-’03 and those coming of age at the time.
Peter Morén, the band’s lead vocalist and songwriter, has also embarked on a extensive solo projects, both in English and Swedish, which allowed him to stretch some creative muscles outside of the classic indie pop sound. We chatted with him about the band’s latest album Breakin’ Point, a big leap from indie pop and into the realm of modern electro.
The new album is very disco. It’s great. I wasn’t expecting it. It’s always a nice surprise when you kind of go in another direction.
Peter Morén: Yeah, I guess it is. We had some trouble in the beginning finding a direction for what we wanted to do, but one thing we talked about early on was ‘disco’ and of course there’s plenty of different types of disco.
I think for every record we make with this band, we always have the same sensibilities in the melodies and the lyrics, something connecting all the records, but then you want to dress the songs in different clothes every time, sort of. I think in my solo stuff.. it seems like we always talk about how different we are in our tastes and we always have trouble finding a common ground with what we want to do, but now I think of the solo record I’m working on, there’s some disco in that too. So it always seems to go hand in hand somehow, even though you don’t think it does.
What was the most complicated influence to work with, say of Bjorn or John’s, that just doesn’t fit with you?
PM: Obviously we all have stuff that we don’t bring in there but I think me and John have very different backgrounds. He comes from a background of metal and 80’s hair metal. That’s what he listened to as a kid, and also some fusion stuff. When I was a kid I was all 60’s pop and maybe you know some 80’s stuff that was quite poppy. But then we never really do heavy metal, but we might do stuff that sounds slick, and I think John likes slick stuff. But when we do punky stuff he always comes out with the punkiest songs. He’s quite extreme. He can like the really abrasive stuff and really noisy stuff but also the slickest. I usually keep somewhere in the middle.
Yeah, this is nowhere near Judas Priest or Metallica or anything like that.
PM: That will happen.. But we all like stuff that swings. We all like stuff that you can dance to or sort of tap your toe even if it’s a folk-rock thing, we like when it’s a good beat.
Not to harp on Writer’s Block, but Let’s Call it Off doesn’t seems like something you would dance to, but it totally is. That’s something great about your discography. I haven’t found anything that isn’t danceable.
PM: Yeah exactly!
Someone mentioned a boat gig in your very early days. All they said was ‘unsuccessful’, without any reference to an interview or anything.
PM: Haha. That comes straight from us. It’s not a lie. We did a gig on a boat and it was three or four people in the audience, and a dog. In those early days we had only done a couple of demos and took any gig we could. It was good practice. Some of those gigs we had an extra member who was a bass player while Bjorn was on keyboard and we were just trying out things. I don’t think there’s any existing media of that show.
Me and Bjorn have been having bands since we were 16 and we met John in ’99, but I’m not sure we actually did any gigs then. I know we did some songwriting and rehearsal but maybe the first gigs we did were maybe around 2000, around there. Then our first album came in 2002, so that’s when we kind of got started.
I noticed around 2008 there was a callback to the 60’s-70’s aesthetic, in musical style and fashion. Were you a part of that?
PM: I’m not sure exactly what happened then. We were out touring and working on the Living Thing album, so I’m not sure I was paying attention. I feel like the older you get and the more music you hear– for me I’m constantly adding things to my musical puzzle and embracing different styles. But at the same time you bounce back, so it’s funny you mention the disco influence on this record because I realized a lot of the earliest pop music I hear was disco influence. My dad had the Bee Gee’s and Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and Donna Summer. My dad wasn’t a hip guy by any means but these were the big hits of the 70’s. ABBA of course, and Electric Light Orchestra. I listened a lot to those records that my dad had, and even though they were pure pop they were very influenced by disco. It’s funny when you try to make something current, that to us would feel, like our latest record, something that would fit into what goes on now maybe, but at the same time you always bounce back to your roots.
I never really got metal, like I said (laughs), but I think live I could enjoy it. I also never really got into the progressive rock thing of the 70’s. The songs are too long. Most genres you can find something you like. For me usually the common ground is some sort of melody and I still like the classic pop song, and that goes even further back than the 60’s, like Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein, like those are really great and well-crafted pop songs, so maybe you try to dress them in different clothes.
Which classic album to you, either from that era or as a teenager, makes more sense? Do you find you relate more to lyrics of certain albums as time goes by?
PM: Let’s see.. Do you know The Housemartins? That was an 80’s band from Northern England. They only put out like two records and a bunch of singles and the singer started a band called The Beautiful South who were pretty big there in the 90’s, and the bass player became Fatboy Slim. But this was their first band, like guitar pop.
The lyrics are really political. Red and very leftist. And I just loved their music. Going from ABBA and all that, The Housemartins was the only new band I found that I really liked. As a 10 year old, I was really trying to analyze those lyrics. I come from parents who were apolotical and I have sort of a Christian background. It’s so funny that I was so into this band, with my school English, trying to learn these lyrics that were basically leftist politics. So I listened to this as a 10 year old and I think I sort of got the basic meaning to it which to me rhymes pretty well with just common sense; like the poor are supposed to have money and you’re not supposed to be a bad person. That’s what I got out of it. But now it sinks in that it’s just politics!
Peter Bjorn and John are on tour for the album, with a stop in DC’s Lincoln Theatre on Saturday.