Rikard Sjöblom (Photo: Simon Hogg)

Destined for Greatness: A Conversation With Rikard Sjöblom of Beardfish

Beardfish frontman Sjöblom discusses the makings of his latest solo effort, The Unbendable Sleep, as well as the future of Beardfish, Big Big Train, and more.
Rikard Sjöblom
The Unbendable Sleep
Gungfly Productions

Formed in 2000, Swedish outfit Beardfish is undoubtedly one of the most colorful, consistent, and complex bands in modern progressive rock. Led by the distinctive vocals and lyrics of singer/ songwriter/ multi-instrumentalist Rikard Sjöblom, the band never fails to produce an infectiously intricate yet wholly accessible gem. In fact, several of the group’s LPs, such as Destined Solitaire, Mammoth, and most recently, +4626-COMFORTZONE, rank among the best releases the genre has ever had.

Naturally, Sjöblom has also delved into other projects over the years, including two albums with Gungfly, as well as stints with The Tangent and Big Big Train. Recently, he put out his second official solo record, The Unbendable Sleep, which will undoubtedly top many ‘Best of’ lists at the end of the year. Always cheerful yet introspective, Sjöblom couldn’t be happier about all that he’s accomplished thus far, nor could he be more excited about what’s to come in 2016 and beyond.

Your records usually have quirky, somewhat cryptic titles. Why call this album The Unbendable Sleep?

It came out in an improvised sentence when I was recording vocals for “Love and War Part Two: Lucky Star“, and I thought it fit quite well with an idea I had in mind regarding the mirror image as an entity of its own, stuck behind that glass. I thought there was a connection with the mirror on the topic of self-esteem and all that.

I think there are a lot of people out there who have, on at least one occasion in their life, looked into a blank surface and for a moment they didn’t realize they were looking at themselves in a mirror. It’s easy to go astray if you want to, and the mirror always shows us how we really feel, even though we might be good at hiding it from strangers, friends, or even family. It’s kind of cheesy, I know, but I couldn’t help it and just rolled with it.

That makes sense. It’s actually really profound. You’ve explored subjects like love, death, identity, and self-actualization before. As you say, people can look “into the mirror and not [recognize] the person staring back at [them]”. Why do these topics appeal to you so much, and what are you saying about them on this LP?

It’s just subjects I deal with myself all the time. Life is tough, you know? Writing lyrics about the ordinary, everyday struggles we all go through is therapeutic to me. I think I’m finally coming closer to realizing who I am and what type of person I am. It’s taken me 33 years (oops, 34 very soon!) to get this far, though, and I don’t think I’m done with the subjects by a long shot. To me, life is about learning stuff and trying to evolve; to pass the knowledge onto our kids and those around us who wants to listen and then leave this life.

I feel the same way (having just turned 28). It takes a few decades to grasp who we really are and who we want to be. Along the same lines, I wonder if The Unbendable Sleep is autobiographical at all, or if it’s all fictionalized? In other words, how much of it was influenced by your personal life and experiences?

I tend to take an event or a feeling out of my own experience and then build around that so what I end up with may or may not be what actually happened (or how I chose to deal with what happened). In the end, though, it will still be based on my own life.

That makes sense. There has to be some distance and artistic license there. In terms of the music itself, how would you say that this record differs from your Beardfish efforts?

Difficult to say! Usually, the prog rock stuff goes straight to Beardfish, but I really like to record by myself from time to time, and it’s been a while since I did that. I invited [drummer] Petter Diamant, [bassist] Rasmus Diamant, and [bassist] Robert Hansen to each play on some songs, but mainly I wanted to do the album by myself. There’s a whole musical vibe of a band like Beardfish that I couldn’t re-create by myself or with different people than Beardfish, even if I tried; the band playing together is something unique in itself.

Oh, absolutely. Beardfish has such a characteristic vibe, and each member is needed for it.

If anything, I think I didn’t really divide things up this time around, like I might have done with, say, the Gungfly albums. I just wrote some songs, knew we weren’t doing anything right now with Beardfish until later in the spring, and recorded them! There were a couple that was intended for this project that I happened to play to the guys in Beardfish (as unfinished projects) and all of a sudden they were Beardfish songs! [laughs]

I’m sure that happens a lot when an artist is involved in solo work and band work. Moving onto the cover art, what is it about the Bernt Daniel’s painting that appealed to you enough to use it? How does it represent the music and/or themes on the album?

He sent me that painting (Beste Schweizermilch) as a postcard back in 2006, as a thank you when I sent him a copy of Cyklonmannen (Bernt painted the cover for the book with the same name) and since then I’ve been wanting to use it on the cover of an album. There’s something about this painting that speaks to me, and it was really inspiring to the music, too, because I asked him (sort of in the middle of the recording process) if I could use it.

Maybe it’s just me, but the people visible on the painting look like they’re walking around like shadows in this surreal city. It may have reminded me a bit of the feeling when you just want to hide; you know, people as silhouettes; that is, until they stumble upon a mirror again. Or maybe until someone says, “hello”. I don’t know.

It’s a beautiful image, and as you say, it’s very dreamlike. It warrants a lot of close interpretation. Going back to the music, how did the writing and recording process for this record differ from previous records?

I did something I almost never do (really, I’ve only done it once before), and that was to make projects with demo versions for quite a few of the instruments, like drums and bass and keyboards and stuff ( even guitars). Some of the guitars and synths actually ended up on the final album (because I’d grown attached to the sounds and the vibe they gave the song), but most of it was replaced with “real” takes. The writing was stretched out over a year and a half, mainly due to me having lots of other stuff going on, but once I started recording for real it took me about a month and the album was finished.

Wow, that’s a relatively quick turnaround. When it comes to your writing process, do you typically think of the melodies first, or do you come up with something on an instrument first? I’m sure it differs from song to song.

Yeah, it differs, but most of the time it’s a melody line or a riff, and it’s almost never because I’m playing; usually, it just pops up in my head and then I sing it into the voice memo on my phone so I’ll remember it. I’ve got tons of stuff like that on my phone so if I died (or lost the phone — what the hell?!?) and someone found it and listened to that stuff, they would think I’m crazy.

Well, the most creative and adventurous artists usually are a bit mad, right? Now, the album is bookended by the “Love and War” duo. What’s it about? How do the two parts connect thematically and/or musically?

I like to bookend albums. To me, “Love and War” is my life: my relationships, kids, friends, family, and on top of that, myself and all of my thoughts. The two songs share a few melody lines, but mainly it’s the lyrical theme of finding out who you are that ties them together.

I thought so. I love when pieces connect like that; it takes a few listens, but then you recognize a lyric or melody from one part in the other(s). It’s very cool, and clever. You’re no stranger to multipart pieces. What attracts you to that form?

I just love the continuity of a concept that can come and go. I think that’s why I love albums so much, too (even though a good single is a good single!): because it invites that type of behavior. Take Sgt. Pepper, for instance, or any other album that does this. Those are the ones I always return to and call “my favorites”. Frank Zappa was a master at that and even had the concepts spanning through decades!

Oh, totally. Zappa would rework themes throughout his discography, so in a way there’s really no official version for some of his pieces. Devin Townsend is the same way; he sometimes uses the same lyrics and/or melodies on multiple albums (which is why I think of him as the modern equivalent of Zappa).


Do you have any favorite songs on The Unbendable Sleep? If so, why?

If I had to pick one, it would probably be “Realm of You and Me”, just because it just came so easily. I started picking that guitar line in the beginning and 20 minutes later I had the song, basic lyrics, and all. “Love and War Part One: I Am Who You Are” was also like that.

Those are two standouts, for sure. It’s amazing how quickly you can come up with such intricate and engrossing material. I imagine that there were some songs that didn’t make the cut, right? What will become of them?

Well, as you know, Beardfish stole a couple [laughs], but yes ,there were two or three songs that just didn’t fit in with the rest of them. I started recording them but just felt that they would get in the way; plus, I didn’t want the album to be too long (I’m done with that 79 minutes and 58 seconds duration-per-album behavior!), so I’ll just save them for the next album or something because they’re not bad songs.

I’m sure they’re great. Now, you’ve mentioned a desire to perform these songs live. What difficulties would come with recreating these tracks live? How much would you be able to do on your own (in comparison to requiring a full band)? Do you know who you’d bring on tour with you?

It all depends on if you wanna recreate them entirely or just do cool versions of the songs. With these types of songs, it can be cool either way. If I play by myself, I’m fairly limited to one instrument and my voice; some of the songs work pretty well in that setting, but other ones won’t. My preference for bringing people out on the road is to have the guys from Gungfly and Beardfish (as long as they’re available) so there will be familiar faces on stage!

That would be an awesome show! Since you mentioned Gungfly, are there any plans to do another Gungfly album?

There actually is an entire album recorded already, in Swedish! It hasn’t been released yet because I’m planning to record English vocals as well and then we can decide on maybe doing a double disc thing or something. I recorded the album together with Petter and Rasmus Diamant, and it was a very collaborative effort so they have both left a huge mark on how it came out in the end. I hope we’ll be able to bring it out sometime in 2016.

Me too. I’d love to hear it. I suppose the inevitable question is: can you discuss anything about the next Beardfish record?

It’s being written right now, actually! We’ve rehearsed some of the songs and it sounds great. Being a five-piece band has made the sound a bit bigger as well, and it’s fun to be able to write for two keyboard players, too. I think we’ll be recording in the early summer probably.

I can’t wait. You guys put out records relatively quickly, yet they’re always fantastic. Looking back over your career thus far, which albums stick out the most and why?

Probably Destined Solitaire with Beardfish because of the complexity in the arrangements, and I also think that’s the best period I’ve ever had with my voice (if I’m allowed to be nostalgic!).

Honestly, I think that’s my favorite Beardfish record, too. As we discussed a few years ago, there’s a great Zappa vibe on it, and it’s a fine example of how you guys balance serious songwriting and playing with plenty of off-the-wall humor and eccentric moments.

Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.

Of course, another one of today’s best progressive rock bands is Big Big Train. Recently, you started working with them. Are you an official member, and how does working with them compare to working with Beardfish?

I am an official member now, yes. I was contacted because they wanted to start playing live again after a 17-year long hiatus from the stage. They needed someone who played guitar and keyboards, and could do backing vocals. The idea was to rehearse at Peter Gabriel’s Real World in Box, England for a week in the fall of 2014, as well as film the entire adventure for a future video release ( Stone & Steel — Live at Real World, coming in March on Blu-ray).

I had been recommended to them by their sound engineer, Rob Aubrey, who was the engineer and tour manager for Spock’s Beard when we (Beardfish) toured with them in 2013. I’m very thankful to him for that because I really like the band and the music, so it was a lot of fun. Of course, it was a very demanding task to learn the songs, but incredibly rewarding! We played three sold-out shows at King’s Place in London in September 2015, and it was just fantastic.

I bet. What a great opportunity.

Definitely, Oh, and regarding working with them compared to Beardfish, it’s completely different for me because I’m not the songwriter in Big Big Train, so I get to be in a different seat and see how that feels. I like it!

I imagine that there’s a bit less pressure because of that, at least in some ways. So what’s on the horizon for the rest of 2016?

First of all, finishing the new Big Big Train album; I have some stuff left to record for that one. It’s called Folklore, and I think it will be out in May. I’ve also recorded an album with my organ/drums duo (with Petter Diamant), Bootcut. I play organ and he plays drums. That one should be out in some format during the spring, and we will try to play out some more as well. That’s also something I’m gonna try to do more of in general with all of the projects: play live. I’ll be over in England in May, playing solo. More news on that soon!

Oh, if I were in England, I’d definitely try to make those shows. Come to Philadelphia! Anyway, any final words for fans?

Thanks for listening and supporting me and all my projects! Stay tuned to my website for news about gigs, releases and so on.

Will do, Rikard. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. It’s always a pleasure to shoot the breeze with you, man.

You too, Jordan. Cheers.