Where José González confesses to yawning on record, and the band decides to keep it in the mix.
As I walked into NYC's Irving Plaza shortly before Junip was set to soundcheck, keyboardist Tobias Winterkorn was walking out. I recognized him from the band's press photos, and though he couldn't have recognized me, he nodded and smiled warmly as he ducked around the corner with a sack slung over his shoulder, headed toward Union Square. A few minutes later as I was shooting some exterior shots for an accompanying video profile, Tobias re-appeared, this time with a slightly confounded look. He approached me and said "Hello", his Swedish accent barely noticeable.
"Hi Tobias. I'm Ryan. I'll be interviewing you and José a bit later on."
"Oh very nice to meet you. I was wondering if you could tell me where I could go to get some laundry done?"
I directed him to a few spots in the other direction along on 3rd Avenue. He thanked me and was off.
Inside an hour later, the band began to soundcheck. Word was singer/guitarist José González had been fighting a cold. You couldn't hear it, as the familiar timbre of his voice and nylon stringed-guitar warmly filled the empty room. Junip travels with their own audio tech from Sweden, and the two conversed in their native tongue in casual tones and laughter-filled exchanges. These two, like the three members of Junip themselves, were clearly old friends.
González and drummer Elias Araya grew up together in Gothenburg -- Sweden's "Brooklyn" to its "Manhattan" of Stockholm. They attended grade school together and began playing in hardcore bands in their early teens. On this scene they encountered Tobias playing in various hardcore and metal bands. An instant rapport developed around the trio's shared desire to shed the constraints of conventional hardcore and wander freely through a mélange of genres as far-reaching as 70's moog, Afrobeat, and krautrock.
Just as these seeds of Junip were being sewn in the early aughts, González's solo career exploded. His Veneer album (2003) introduced the world to his starkly haunting sound at once both singular and familiar -- expert guitar craftsmanship and restrained, tactfully delivered vocals conjuring the moody ghosts of Nick Drake and Elliott Smith like no artist before or since. It caught fire and sold a million worldwide.
Solo touring duties completed, González returned home eager to re-ignite Junip, but his bandmates hadn't been sitting idly by. Araya had been studying art in Finland and Norway, and Winterkorn became a teacher, built a recording studio, and started a family. The trio managed to re-group to write and record its Black Refuge EP (2005), which included a rousing cover of Bruce Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad". But the affair felt rushed as González was compelled to attend to his solo follow-up to Veneer. In Our Nature would appear in 2007, and -- POOF! -- once again José would vanish from Sweden to tour more and expand his already global audience.
The load shouldered by a world-renowned solo artist can grow heavy, and González returned home to Gothenburg in 2008 once again eager to collaborate with his old friends. This time the trio made a pact to go for broke, and began vigorously jamming, writing, and recording together. The ten years since the band first formed had allowed its members to mature into adults with a newfound need to prioritize and appreciate what's important. Focused, all three tapped into a creative wellspring that only flows from collaboration among old, true friends speaking unspoken languages. Junip's Rope & Summit EP would drop in early 2010, whetting the appetite for their full-length Fields which emerged on Mute Records this past September. Two world tours and critical acclaim would follow, as would an unlikely "Best In-Game Song" Award at the Spike Video Game Awards.
Soundcheck (and laundry) complete, Winterkorn and González sat down with PopMatters in Irving Plaza's green room to discuss what allowed the band to finally seize this moment. They also gave insights into sharing a rehearsal space with fellow Gothenburg band Little Dragon, whose lead singer Yukimi Nagano José is currently dating. And Tobias revealed how his wife gave birth to their third child during this tour, whom so far he'd only met via Skype. And who is that audibly yawning on their record?
What's different this time around compared to when Junip toured the States this past June?
Tobias Winterkorn: The crowd is about the same in terms of number of people. But people recognize the songs more and are yelling more requests.
With so many shows packed into such a short amount of time -- do you find it a bit of a grind?
José González: Well, some shows are amazing, other nights you feel a bit tired. I've been having -- I've been a bit sick for the past two weeks. But apart from that, the shows are really fun.
Just getting to the show can be a drag?
JG: Yes. Waiting to get a shower. Waiting to go to eat. Those details are boring.
TW: I like to play every night. So if there's a night off, I feel really restless. The more shows the better.
I understand the song "At The Doors" which opens 2010's Rope & Summit EP was essential born out of a jam session?
TW: Yeah that's true.
So the song just happened spontaneously?
TW: We jammed with the structure a couple of times. Not many times. And then we recorded it all in one take. Then we added more instruments and stuff like that. But it was not many takes.
I think I can hear a distinct yawn at the end of the song.
JG: [laughter] Yeah. That's me.
You're actually yawning, José?!
JG: The lyrics I did for that one were really short and not really any structure to that song. So the vocals I did were pretty much improvised. I just didn't know what to sing at what point. I just left the mic open. I yawned, and we kept it in the mix.
I hear a lot of existential themes in the lyrics on Fields. The song "Howl" especially ...
JG: I always start with the music, and then try to figure out what I want to write about lyrically. So that song "Howl" started with a feeling -- [sings] "Ooo-oo-ooo-Ooo". I started to thinking about animals howling, and then about human nature ...
What motivates us all?
I understand when you were rehearsing songs for your LP Fields you were sharing a rehearsal space with [Swedish band] Little Dragon while they were rehearsing their new album. What was that like?
JG: It was great. Me and Yukimi [Nagano, Little Dragon's singer], we are together so it was nice to be close to her.
Did a situation ever arise where you'd hear some really weird, funky sounds coming from them in the next room, or vice versa?
[Tobias and José look at each other and laugh.]
TW: It was more for them.
JG: For them.
TW: Yeah. They'd say 'Why have you been playing that same stupid song two weeks in a row?! Just get it done already!' Because they write like three songs a day, and we're much slower. We take a roundabout way of getting there.
So I want to go back a bit. You guys have been playing together for a decade, and have been friends for even longer. Looking back to even five years ago, could you have predicted you'd have released two records and be on your second tour of the States all in less than a year?
TW: No. Five years ago, we released the Black Refuge EP. We had a lot more songs than are on the EP, but they weren't that good. We didn't get much attention for the Black Refuge EP, so back then I had no real expectations at all.
Tobias, I know you have a wife and kids in Gothenburg. Was touring the world a harder decision for you, or is this a dream come true?
TW: Oh, it's absolutely a dream come true. But of course I talked about it a lot with my wife and children before committing.
How many children do you have?
TW: I just had my third two weeks ago!
Congratulations! That's amazing!
TW: Thank you. Thank you. So yeah that's one of the things we in the band have been talking about -- compromise and collaboration. Between having children, going on tour and other things, everything needs to be timed out.
Have you seen your third child?
TW: I've only seen him on Skype!
You must be so excited to get home.
TW: In five days!
Wow, congrats again Tobias.
TW: Thank you.
José, at what point did you so decide you wanted to focus your creative energies on Junip?
JG: Ever since I started touring seven years ago. After my first album [Veneer], our first attempt with Junip was in 2005. I've been really bad at saying "no: to stuff, so I was always headed back out on tour. So in 2008 it needed us to just put our foot down and decide properly that "next year we're going to record it, right? Right?!'
Do you work better when you set a deadline for yourself like that?
JG: It wasn't a deadline. It was more about a start line. More about saying 'no' to other stuff -- not having a deadline, but starting to write and letting it take the time it needs. Deadlines are bad actually.
You guys met on the hardcore scene in Gothenburg in the 90's, which coincided with the city's death metal scene.
TW: I played bass in a death metal band. Very briefly. Some death metal stuff is quite good. I liked it more than I liked the hardcore scene for example.
JG: And Elias used to play drums in a death metal band.
What is it about Scandinavian death metal bands that's so different from metal bands here in the States? I mean, we've all read the stories about ...
TW: Norwegian crazy people?
Yes, the crazy Norwegians. Does that carry over into Sweden?
TW: It's not as hardcore as it is in Norway actually, where they were setting fire to churches and tearing up graveyards. But really it's just like three or four people in Norway doing all that crazy stuff.
JG: One of our childhood friends -- Elias and I went to the same school with him -- he was really into death metal. And he had -- what do you call it? Cats in a jar?
You mean actual cats in jars? Like in formaldehyde?
JG: Yeah, cat parts in jars. He and his brother -- they were both very into death metal. And his brother put poop in the school ventilation system.
That's a good trick -- an oldie but goodie.
JG: [laughter] Yeah.
TW: [laughter] So that's Swedish death metal for you. A little tamer than Norwegian!
On Junip's first tour of the States last summer, I read the craziest rock star behavior you pulled was swimming in a hotel pool after-hours.
TW: [laughter] Yeah. That's true.
Have you guys stepped it up on this tour with some Guns and Roses or Led Zeppelin shenanigans -- trashing hotel rooms, etc.?
TW: Not really. Every once in a while one of us might get too drunk and pass out on the bus or something. But no real interference with the law.
JG: Well, we did set off some fireworks two days ago in North Carolina.
TW: That's true.
JG: After the show we were happy. It was our last show with Sharon Van Etten. Someone bought fireworks and we set them off. And apparently there was a police station right next door. The police came and kept asking "Who did this? Who did this?" And nobody would say anything. And then they said, "You're not getting in trouble. I just want to know who did this." And then it was okay.
I used to live near Chapel Hill for many years. I'm surprised that the police didn't join you and start shooting off their own fireworks!
JG: They were surprisingly low key about the whole thing.
Speaking of Sharon Van Etten, I saw you covered U2's "With Or Without You" with her at your last show together.
JG: Sharon chose the song. We said we would like to do something together, and she chose the song. It's too bad she's not here.
TW: Yeah, today should be really like a grand finale for all of us. Sharon included.