As Their Themes Get Darker, Peter Bjorn and John Find Enlightenment in Their Music
After exploring darker themes on their last two full-lengths, Peter Bjorn and John start a brand new tour by diving through their past and rummaging for songs that almost never saw the light of day.
Peter Bjorn and John
22 February 2019
After taking what seemed to be a hiatus in the early 2010s, Peter Bjorn and John came back stronger than ever in 2016 with the thrillingly bleak Breakin' Point, an album where they sang about personal troubles, turmoil, and confusion. Their 2018 follow-up Darker Days, was no different in terms of content, this time they explored global issues and wondered where we were headed. Despite the less optimistic nature of their lyrics, the band had reached an all-time peak of sonic creativity. Richly layered numbers like the rousing "One for the Team" and "Dark Ages", the latter of which sounds like a lost hit from '70s country radio, revealed a band that had used that mini-break as a way to recharge on every single level.
After breaking out internationally in 2007 when "Young Folks" from their third album Writer's Block, became a minor global sensation (it was the very first song in the pilot episode of millennial soap Gossip Girl), the band continued releasing albums almost every two years. They experimented with form while retaining their very Swedish-pop style. They went on world tours, collaborated with Drake, and in the case of guitarist and lead vocalist Peter Morén, they also released solo albums.
Morén spoke to PopMatters about the band's newly released EP, appropriately titled EPBJ, a three-song collection that includes an outtake from Darker Days, and serves as a teaser for their latest tour. Morén shared insight on how all three band members collaborate, and why they're still making music together after two decades in the business.
What was the idea behind releasing the EP? Is it a continuation of Darker Days, the beginning of something new, or something in between?
The funny thing is that the three songs in the EP were all written before the album but never properly recorded. A different version of the song "Darker Days" was written for Breaking Point, the album before, and we liked the song but we didn't like that version. So we called the album Darker Days after it and it gave us the frame of the album, but we had never recorded the song. The songs in the EP feel like part of that family though, we recorded them quickly after we finished the album, so you can think of them as an encore or an appendix. They're slower songs too, so they made sense as an EP. I wouldn't call them the beginning of something new, but who knows?
When do you know you're ready to move on to the next phase? Are you done exploring the themes in Darker Days?
It's a continuing process. We all write songs continually, so it's more like: what song do I bring to the table? For example, in Darker Days there was "Silicon Valley" which I wrote before we had started working on the album. Rather than writing all new songs, sometimes we see what we have that might fit the concept. We write all the time, it's more of a matter of what you capture in the moment. Right now, because we made Darker Days with darker lyrics, the next record has to be, not the opposite, but a slightly different outlook.
That's so interesting because right after Writer's Block you put out an almost completely instrumental album, you've also played with electronica in the past. Do you ever start a new project on the premise of doing something unexpected?
We used to do that a lot, as you said Seaside Rock was definitely that. We wanted to have fun in the studio, we never expected the success of Writer's Block, we had put out two albums before that not a lot of people heard, so when success came we had no idea. We thought that meant we could play around, which was probably stupid. We should've made Writer's Block Part 2. Instead, we decided to do something very different, followed by Living Thing which was also very experimental. We've done many of those left turns. I think Darker Days was really the first album where we didn't work like that, we looked at our own back catalogue, didn't try to reinvent the wheel and asked ourselves what is Peter, Bjorn and John? We're in a relaxed period, at some point we'll throw that out too, but right now we're in a phase where it's comfortable to be whatever we are.
I like how the end of "Bones" seems to transform it into a completely different song as if you're about to tell us a different story. What is your take on storytelling through music?
Good question. I think there are so many ways of telling a story. There might be a song with impressionistic scenes, maybe you look out the window and write some lines like a haiku. Then you might have deliberate stories like we did in "Blue Period Picasso", where we followed a narrative line. I like when you have words and sentences you react to as a listener, that's what I love in other people's music. Things don't have to rhyme all the time, you might have a place or a tactile object turn up in a lyric, a dish, food or whatever. You see these things and can picture them clearly listening to the lyric. I like when it's not too smooth, looking for rhymes can become boring, like a regular pop song. I'm not answering your question, am I?
No, you are…
I was thinking about this yesterday because I did an interview and they brought up our song "Paris 2004", which had scenes like that. I don't know what to answer really. [laughs]
The orchestration in "Saying Goodbye" is almost mournful. I'd love to hear more about the choices you made in how you used the instruments in this song, and the dichotomy between the melody and lyrics, which are in conversation and also in contention at times.
That was a very simple song to record. It's very acoustic, everything is almost live in it. There are some overdubs, but it's not like a beat, it's based on the acoustic guitar and we added some mandolins, a pump organ, and timpani, the big drums. In that way, it was more like a performance, almost like recording a jazz piece, rather than a pop song. So it didn't change that much from the original composition when I was just strumming with a guitar. Some songs take on different clothes every day when you try them out with the band, but that song came along like [snaps].
When it comes to melody and lyrics, I think we all like when we have all these layers, almost like an onion, or an Easter egg and you get something that you didn't expect in a song. That's something that you can find in all our discography, we have upbeat music with depressing lyrics and I like that! I also like the opposite, people play around too little with that. It's nice when you're tapping your feet to a song and suddenly pay attention to the lyrics and go: is that what they're really singing about? Wow, that's harsh! I think that's an old tradition in R&B and some of the Beatles' music. Obvious music is boring, I like an upbeat melody and lyrics that say "Help, I'm a loser".
Darker Days was done as a reaction to what you were seeing in the news. Did releasing the album serve as an exorcism? Did you make sense of the mess or is it still as confusing?
It's still as confusing, but it's a process of rumination. Songwriting is almost like going to the shrink. You think a lot about things, you put them in songs, and it might not fix them or give you answers, but at least you take them into account. Maybe that's our next phase, we won't become more positive but more like philosophers, trying to find a path through the mess. How do I get along in this mess? It might be shit, but it can be good if you negotiate or navigate through it. It's good to talk about these things, people sometimes ask why are you talking when you're an entertainer. But all the great entertainers talked about shit, you don't have to align with a party.
With that in mind, how has the experience of playing in America changed under the current administration?
Generally, the people who come see our shows are hopefully smart people. I don't feel any anger directed at our subject matters. But I do feel there's a dampened mood when you talk to people, you hear loss of hope and resignation, but also a depressing mode. When we play shows it's not that different, but you can feel something in the air. The Swedish Krona isn't doing well, so it's also really expensive to be in America right now. [laughs]
In the past, you've each put out singles you've worked on individually and Darker Days was also an album where you worked separately. Are there moments when you're playing a song another band member wrote where you realize you're all in sync, maybe they wrote something you feel?
When you've been a band for almost 20 years and constantly work together it's funny because you find so many similarities in their melodies and riffs. It's almost annoying in a way, [laughs] but it's normal, it can also be helpful because when we swap instruments in a room we find riffs that the other member liked and they bring into their song. We all have very different tastes, so it's interesting that we end up writing so similarly. There are songs where you go "Wow, that's good!" and somewhere you're like "It's OK, I can play that." Sometimes you'll find an arrangement in one of the other guys' song and you bring it into yours to make a piece that fits in an album. It's why we're still a band.
All three of you have sons, which made me think: the band will live forever cause they'll train their kids to take over…
...you've been making music together for 20 years, what do you think the next 20 years of the band will be like?
I have no idea and that's the beauty of it. We have an agreement within the band, I can't remember when we came up with it, but we decided we were going to make ten albums. We really don't have that many left, but we're making ten. After that anything is a bonus, we might continue, we might not, we might take a break and do a big comeback tour in our 50s and cash in. That would be good!