Published Mar 29, 2009How do you overcome the weighty obstacle of having an unexpected international hit? Well, if you're Peter Bjorn and John, you simply ignore it completely. With their follow-up to the enormously successful third album Writer's Block, the famed Swedish trio have indeed looked back - to the '80s that is. With little interest in making another "Young Folks," PB&J rejected whistling and carefree melodies in exchange for an album focusing more on denser production. Living Thing finds the three Swedes continuing a trend that has found them pushing their pop formula with each album. The band's Peter Moren discussed how success has made things easier for the band, why an instrumental was the smartest thing they could do after "Young Folks" and why touring with Depeche Mode this summer scares them a little.
Did the success of Writer's Block make writing Living Thing any more difficult than your previous albums?
No, it made it even more simple, I think. We are able to concentrate on music now. When we did Writer's Block and the previous albums we had a lot more things to think about. So it's all for the better. Writing songs has never been an issue really. This time around we recorded a lot of songs; we thought about making it a double album. There were so many songs, it was just about what suits a specific album, what direction it takes, that makes it fit in or not. It's never the quality of the song... because the bad songs we never do at all.
We constantly write and some of the songs on Living Thing are kind of old. We tried out some for Writer's Block but it didn't work out. It's all about when you do a new album, you look through your drawers to see what you have and then think about what might work for that project. It's definitely easier, because we get a budget and can plan it in detail and do it more like a proper job in the studio, nine to five. With earlier albums it was more going into studios in the new year when it was cheap because there was nobody there. It's also easier to make records when you've had some success.
What made you guys record an instrumental album like Seaside Rock? It definitely came as a surprise.
It was kinda overlooked in a way, but to us it was an important record to make. I think that made Living Thing easier to do. Because after all of the touring and success was a big change for us, because before it was more like a hobby. And then suddenly it became your day job and you actually made some money, and then you have to see the other guys all the time rather then in your free time. It was a lot of tension, it wasn't all happy times. And that's why it was really good for us to go into the studio and do this album. It was almost therapeutic; instead of doing what Metallica did and get a shrink, we played around with things we couldn't play, like violins, saxophones and all that stuff. Anything went, it was a free for all, and such a fun record to make... and also a really good record that I hope people will find sooner or later.
And it was also kind of reaching back to our roots, because we used some dialects from our hometown. Like my grandfather is speaking on a track about a fishing trip he took, he's 92 years old. He speaks in a native dialect that people in Stockholm don't understand at all. It's getting extinct, that old language. So, it was really a good thing, like some of the grooves, the funk vibe was something that fed into Living Thing as well. We also wanted to surprise people, which I think we did; we got some jaws dropped. We don't want to be put into some little genre box because of Writer's Block and "Young Folks." We really want to do whatever we feel like, which is why it was important to do this record... and to show the media that we're a weird band! [Laughs]
Do you feel "Young Folks" is any kind of obstacle for you to get over?
No, definitely not. The whole process now of being able to make music full-time makes it easier to make music. You can get into this creative headspace so you just want to do more and more music. It doesn't have to be Peter Bjorn and John, we all have other projects as well. It's mostly been good. But again, I think that's why Seaside Rock was important, to kind of break away from "Young Folks" a bit, before Living Thing. That song has opened a lot of doors for us.
The press release mentions that you were looking to reinvent your sound. Why were you trying to change?
That's something we've always done, even on the first two records, there is a certain amount of change between all of the first three records. You just have to keep it fresh for yourselves, and it's not just the songwriting, because the songwriting is a continuing thing. We do write classic pop songs that could have been written any time. But then it's everything around it, like the arrangements, the production and how you approach each project.
This time around we focused a lot on the percussive elements, there are a lot of rhythms, it's a bit more dance-y. And even the normal instruments, like guitars and piano are played in percussive ways; there aren't a lot of banging out power chords on the guitar, it's more little melodies and rhythms. It is a deliberate thing. And the next album might be completely different again. You always recognize the band though, I think, through the voices and the melodies. So I think Living Thing is a very Peter Bjorn and John album, but it's still something new. And that's how I'd like bands I like to be. You don't want to get the same old album over and over.
I saw the list of artists you used as inspiration going into the studio. Did having those artists in mind give you inspiration to take more risks with Living Thing?
Yeah, everything - the history of music! Specifically for this album, we each made seven demos of new songs, and along with that gave the other two guys mix CDs with 20 or so songs with music by those artists. It was really helpful from a perspective of making the record. The songs were already written, the basic structure: lyrics and melodies, but then working on the arrangements, it's really good if you want to explain a piano sound or rhythm, just to play a song instead of describe it. That kind of gave the music a frame to work from, and all those references and artists.
It's interesting, because we were worried that the music we gave to the other guys wouldn't work, but there were a couple things that went through all of the CDs. There was a lot of percussive music from Africa and Brazil or pop music or funk from the '70s, and some early hip-hop, old R&B, rockabilly, and a lot of things from the mid-'80s, which were on the radio when we were growing up, like Paul Simon, Fleetwood Mac, Depeche Mode, OMD, Ultravox, very glossy, shiny, bubbly production. All that went into the mix, and I think you can hear that in a way; it kinda sounds retro-futuristic. It's a modern album, but all of the influences are old. We wanted it to be a bit spooky, chilly, like the reverb they used in the '80s. It's like a spaceship at a rockabilly ballroom with aliens landing [laughs].
This summer you're touring with Depeche Mode. Are you excited about that?
Yeah, we are - excited and a bit scared. I heard some nasty things about when Spiritualized opened one of their tours, the fans hated them. So I hope that's not gonna happen. But I think it's a really good fit, because this new record has, as I said, we listened to a lot of mid-'80s music, we did listen to some Depeche Mode making it. Obviously they're a really great pop band; they're seen as this depressed black music, but they have some really great pop songs. They have the melancholy but it's very danceable. I think we're pretty similar in a way. I'm not sure if they think so, but we're really excited and flattered because they did ask us - and they do pay us [laughs].