Interview with Peter Bjorn and John:
The hidden dogmas behind their records

In Interviews by indiespect

Peter Bjorn and John are currently on tour with their eight record «Darker Days». For the first time in ten years they stopped by in Switzerland to play a gig at the Gare de Lion in Wil. Before soundcheck singer Peter Morén was kind enough to sit down and talk about a lot of different topics. Where does the money come from nowadays? How is it to be on tour without main drummer John Eriksson? What are the secrets behind the album covers of the Swedish indie pop heroes?

Peter Bjorn and John are:

Peter Morén (vocals, guitar)
Björn Yttling (vocals, bass)
John Eriksson (vocals, drums)

Indiespect: On this tour it’s more like Peter Bjorn and Lars. Lars Skoglund from Shout Out Louds is replacing John during the Europe shows.

Peter Morén: Yeah, he’s jumping in for John. We also have another drummer called Nino (Keller) who is going to do the American tour later this year. The great thing about both is, that they actually played with us twelve years ago when we started touring a lot for the first time. John had a job in a classical percussion ensemble and he couldn’t get time off at their tour. They didn’t allow him to come on the rock tour. We didn’t plan to become successful and that’s why we didn’t know that we had to tour a lot. This two different guys toured with us the first couple of years, that’s the great thing. They’re sort of in the family already. So, we don’t bring in complete strangers.

Indiespect: So, it feels natural to play on stage with them ?

Morén: For the live show it works completely fine. John is still very much active in the studio and writing songs. He just has a really bad tinnitus. In 2017, we toured with him for the last time and he got really bad vertigo. It can damage the balance system. At the moment he feels that he can’t tour.

Indiespect: Do you know if this is something that might go away again?

Morén: I don’t know, it depends. He’s completely okay playing the drums in in the studio. But that’s more like a controlled environment. It gets a bit louder and we play harder on stage. We’ll see what happens. It would be nice to tour with him again, of course. But he has to take care of himself. And he wanted us to tour, that’s the other thing. The other option is to not play live and just release records. We wanted to play live and he also wanted us to do it.

The Wombats

Peter Morén, Björn Yttling, John Eriksson (from left to right)

Indiespect: It’s ten years ago, since you were in Switzerland for the last time.

Morén: It is, crazy.

Indiespect: But you not only didn’t play in Switzerland but also not in the area around here. There were quite few shows in Germany or other close countries. How did that come?

Morén: In the beginning, we tried to play everywhere. The first couple of years we toured properly and we came when anyone asked us to come. Then, we got quite popular in America. The tours there are always so long and there’s so many places to go. That’s why we started touring more and more in America. I think we did some festivals in Germany early on. I do remember we played some big festivals like Rock am Ring and a couple of smaller ones as well. The focus became more America and Latin America, Mexico and places like that. It’s hard to keep all the balls rolling. We played a lot in the UK in the beginning, too. When you come back couple of years later, people have forgotten you a bit. It’s a blessing and a curse for us. We played in the UK last week and we’re definitely a smaller band band now, than we were ten years ago, there. But the people that do come, are really passionate. We have really hardcore fans. We’re not huge anywhere but we have fans everywhere.

We’re not huge anywhere but we have fans everywhere.Peter Morén, Peter Bjorn and John

So, it’s kind of hard to decide where to go. The nice thing is, that we decided to release new music more often. On the Breakin’ Point album that came in 2016, we worked for four years with six different producers. We sort of never finished and kept re-doing the songs. Now, we’re back to basics and producing ourselves. Partly because it’s fun but it’s also an economical thing. We have realized that it doesn’t get better when we bring in other people. It was good trying that and you learn from that experience. But now, we’re quite confident. We have our own studio and can write and record quicker. You can put out an EP or an album and you don’t have to say that this is the tour for this album and then it’s the tour for that next after a year break. It can more be like an ongoing thing. When there’s an offer to play in a country, if it’s good enough or you have time, you can do it. It doesn’t really matter if you have a new album.

Peter Bjorn and John

Björn Yttling and Peter Morén at the Gare de Lion in Switzerland.

Indiespect: Quite a lot of your songs were used on television. «Second Chance» was the even the title track of the TV series «2 Broke Girls». Is it financially attractive for a band or is it more a promotional effect if that happens?

Morén: Definitely. I would say the syncs we’re having in films and in the past some commercials, that’s where we get most of our money. Record sales are almost nothing, but we do have quite a lot of streaming. So, we do get some money from that. On some live shows we earn money, on others we lose some. The festivals are usually good paid. The club gigs you sometimes do because you want to promote the album or if you want to go somewhere and play to the fans.  You’re not supposed to say that, but I like the small shows more (laughs). Because we play longer and you can do your own thing. But of course, when you play a festival, you play in front of lot more people, there’s better money and you spread the words. So, I would say, syncs, some streaming and festivals, that’s where we get the money.

The syncs we’re having in films and in the past some commercials, that’s where we get most of our money.Peter Morén, Peter Bjorn and John

Indiespect: I asked that because in an interview with Shout Out Louds I asked Adam Olenius and Ted Malmros how their song «My Friend And The Ink On His Fingers», which was only released on the Scandinavian version of the debut record, ended up in a movie called «Happythankyoumoreplease». Then they told me that they don’t remember getting asked at all.

Morén: Wow, that’s crazy. That probably can happen. But I would say, all this bigger things are definitely going through the right channels, for us at least. Maybe we were lucky. But it also spreads the songs. It’s good promotion as well.

«Second Chance» was used as the title track of the TV series «2 broke girls».

Indiespect: This might also have the effect that people only know those specific songs and don’t dig deeper into your works. Do you have people like that at your concerts?

Morén: I would say, the people that pay to go to our own show, usually know maybe not all the albums but more than the hits. At festivals there might be a percentage that thinks: oh, let’s check them out. They’ve probably only heard a couple of songs.

Indiespect: Your album «Writer’s Block» isn’t available on Spotify in Switzerland. Do you know why?

Morén: Do you know when it disappeared? It has been there before. Because we’ve had this problem. A lot of people from Latin America are complaining about this and also someone from Australia said it has disappeared. When that happens, it’s usually because it’s an old record deal. There might be some contractual things we have to solve. I don’t know exactly but it’s definitely not our aim. It’s up in Sweden, in America and most other countries.

Sunday morning,
On the bed two half-eaten croissants.
Sunday morning,
We’ll soon be out on the boulevards.Paris 2004 by Peter Bjorn and John

Indiespect: I have a personal story with one of the songs of this album. Years ago. I overslept and when I woke up there was you song «Paris 2004» playing. I thought: «oh nice. Sunday morning, I can sleep all day». But I should have gotten up to go to work. Is it possible to give a song a special feeling when you write it? Or is this all up to the listener?

Morén: And it wasn’t Sunday, wow! (laughs) I don’t think you can plan it. If you’re really skilled you can try to write like that. Songs that connect in the way you described are often personal songs. You might be able to put it into words, so that it feels universal. You always use some connection to yourself or things you’ve been through in your past. Then you can put it into stories or metaphors. Some of the songs that are really direct and where you talk about tactile or everyday things, become endearing. I feel that when I listen to a song and they mention everyday things, a place, a food dish or whatever. It’s not just some poetic rambling or rhymes. It’s not the most smooth sentences that are the best. I feel that sometimes when I’m singing. When I forget a lyric I think: maybe it’s not that good.

Indiespect: But then it’s too late because it’s already out.

Morén: Yes, exactly. (laughs)

Peter Morén

Peter Morén in action.

Indiespsect: When you don’t focus on the lyrics, most of your songs seem to be quite happy because they’re so melodic. But especially on the new record that’s not the case. «Dark Ages» for example has really dark lyrics. How important is it for you that people get the meaning of your songs and don’t just listen to the nice melodies?

Morén: If they don’t feel like listening to them, that’s totally fine by me. I also sometimes listen to music without paying really attention. Or I listen to music in languages that I don’t understand because it sounds good. Brazilian or African music or even French. I’m not good at that language but I still like the music, the sound of the voices and the words. So, it doesn’t really matter in one way. If you do pay attention and listen, there should be an easter egg like: oh, it’s that he is talking about. Not all of our songs are like that but I really like it when there is the combination of a dark lyric and an upbeat song. Or the opposite. It could be a happy lyric to a sad sounding song. It’s like an old tradition in soul music or even some Beatles songs.

Now the dark ages are back
We all spread the disease
Brought us down to our knees
Now the dark ages are backDark Ages by Peter Bjorn and John

Indiespect: Your latest EP is titled «EPBJ» and it was released on the 22nd February this year. It contains a song called «Darker Days» which is also the title of your latest album. Was it always meant that this song would be released separated from the record itself?

Morén: I don’t think that we were sure. The funny things about this EP is, that all these three songs were written before we recorded the album Darker Days. We never got around to record them properly. We started recording the song Darker Days when we were doing Breakin’ Point in a completely different version. But it was the same words and everything. When that ended up not going on that album because we weren’t happy with the version, we got really inspired by that title. We thought Darker Days is a good title for an album and we took that as a starting point to write the songs that would end on the album Darker Days. Also Bones and Saying Goodbye were written during Breakin’ Point. We feel that the songs really connect with this album even though we didn’t record it a the same time but a little bit later. We used some of the same sounds like the organ and recorded in the same rooms. It fits with the album, it’s almost like the encore to it. (laughs)

Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life

«EPBJ» contains three ballads and is the perfect addition to the album «Darker Days»

Indiespect: How independent are you these days in creating new music? I read that before you had your first big hit with «Young Folks» you even thought of breaking up. Did the pressure to make a hit like that come back again or does this huge success still help you this days to remain independent?

Morén: I’m still surprised that we’re actually doing this as a living. We do other side projects but at least for me this is my main income. I never thought I could do pop music for a living. When you keep a band going, you put money into it. You waste a lot of money all the time and you gain some, that’s part of the game. And the game is not to loose too much money, so that you can keep working and put food on the table. Because that is a long time ago, we’ve actually sold records by then. Writer’s Block sold physically quite good all over the world. We had a lot of commercials and syncs, so we got a lot of money with that. That’s an interesting question. Because, I think maybe if we would have stopped after that record, touring for three years and then quit, we probably could have had ten years just doing nothing. But, who wants to do nothing? (laughs) It’s quite boring. It’s a gift to be able to continue and make new music.

«Young Folks» was the breaking point in the career of Peter Bjorn and John.

Indiespect: You also co-founded a label called INGRID. How much time do you spend working for that compared to the time for the band?

Morén: Yeah, we have the INGRID thing which is a studio and also a label. It’s not a traditional one. We don’t really listen to demos and sign bands. It’s more a project where we can put out our own things. That has included our solo projects and things we produced. Now also our own record. How much time we spend is different for each member of the band. We don’t work with INGRID like that. Björn works with the studio, he’s part-owner of it. For the label side we have Hanna, who is also our tour manager and Niklas who is managing us at the label. They do the practical things. But, if I’m doing a solo record I do all the work for that. Of course record the music but also decide who is going to design the cover or make a video.

Peter Bjorn and John

All eight covers of Peter Bjorn and John contain three main elements. Only one of many dogmas.

Indiespect: Talking about covers. You always have three elements on your album covers that represent the band members. Do you always work with the same designer?

Morén: It’s been the same for the last three records, for Gimme Some, Breakin’ Point and Darker Days. It’s a guy called Jonas Torvestig. We wanted to stick with that concept of the pop art thing that he is been doing. Even before that we’ve always done the three elements. On the first two records it was just the three of us. But then we had the skyscrapers and the three animal heads. On the instrumental record we did, a rare record called Seaside Rock, it’s a bit less obvious. There’s a guy throwing a stone on the water and it creates three rings on it. It represents us. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but all our titles are two words and three spellings. Apart from the first one, that’s called Peter Bjorn and John. But on the other albums: Falling Out, Writer’s Block, Living Thing, Seaside Rock, Gimme Some, Breakin’ Point and Darker Days. That’s another rule we have. It’s kind of good. It becomes like dogmas and it’s easier to finish. We also talked about that we’re not gonna use the same first letter on another album. So, we have to look at the alphabet and think: we used that one, we used that. It’s the same when you make albums. That was part of the problem with Breakin’ Point. I really like it, but the reason why it took so long was, that we didn’t really have a dogma for the recording. It was like we could do anything. There were too many ideas, too many producers. On Gimme Some we had this idea that we’re going back to basics and we’re only allowed to use guitar, bass and drums. On Living Thing, which is maybe our most experimental record, we had this weird idea that we gonna build our own drum kit out of objects and hit anything we found in the studio. Play rhythms on guitar and not notes. It was very experimental but we still had dogmas and ideas. On Writer’s Block we had a couple of them as well. One was no cymbals. There are some but they’re overdubs. We also used the same drum pattern for the whole songs.

I really like it, but the reason why it took so long was, that we didn’t really have a dogma for the recording.Peter Morén, Peter Bjorn and John about «Breakin' Point»

Indiespect: On all of the songs?

Morén: No, no. But on one song. The first two records were probably the most easiest ones to do. On the early records you’re just happy to be able to record in a studio. You’ve written loads of songs for loads of years. You don’t have to think so much and just try to get a good sound. With Writer’s Block we started talking more about what we want to do now. We made two good pop records and then we had to do something a little bit different. On this new record it was also quite easy. We divided the songs. We recorded together to start with the basic instrumentation. We use each other as session musicians, bring each other in or do overdubs. There’s one guy deciding what’s going to be on the record in the end. In the past we were always arguing about everything, every little detail. The title was also a dogma. We had Darker Days and thought about stuff that would work with that title.

Peter Bjorn and John

Peter Morén: spreading the love with the fans.

Indiespect: But that might not work for every band. Probably they feel less free that way.

Morén: But you have to find your space in that. Especially since we’re three people and we all write songs. We have quite different taste. That’s why I think you have to frame it like that. It still sounds quite eclectic. It’s a way to finish and that’s good. (laughs)

Indiespect: We were talking about covers. How important are they for you as a listener? Does it have an influence if you listen to an album?

Morén: I think it does. Artwork is really important but it doesn’t mean I hate records because they have a bad artwork. I still like the music. Now that a lot of people are streaming music, maybe it’s less important in some way. In the other way I think our simple artworks that we’re using works quite well on streaming. It’s so simple, direct and clear. Maybe on a bigger album cover it’s nice if there’s more different information. But yes, I really like good artworks. My personal taste is maybe less pretentious than the band’s taste. I love a classic record with a good photo of the artist and a good font type. I don’t really have to have arty things, even if that’s great, too.

I love a classic record with a good photo of the artist and a good font typePeter Morén, Peter Bjorn and John

Indiespect: Maybe it’s more important when you listen to vinyl.

Morén: Yes, that might even affect if you buy it or not. I noticed this a lot more these days. I still buy records, too. I really enjoy to listen to records at home. You maybe think about it more. You listen to a record on streaming for half a year and if you really like it, you’re going to buy it. Before, I went to the store and bought it directly. I still do that sometimes but often I get records from last year that I listened to a lot.

Indiespect: Thank you very much for those interesting answers.

Morén: Thank you!