The Ghost of Ingmar Bergman: Peter Bjorn & John's 'Breakin' Point'
Peter Morén and John Eriksson discuss how their musical partnership is as strong as ever -- even if their belief in production dogma isn't.
Between 2002 and 2011 Sweden’s Peter Bjorn and John released six albums, roughly one every two years. When activity surrounding the last of those records, 2011’s Gimme Some wound down, fans predicted another PB&J project lurking around the corner. But nothing came. For five years there was no recorded output from the Swedish trio. Some might be forgiven for allowing their fertile imaginations to create scenarios for what the group was or wasn’t up to. Of course the absence of an album didn’t mean that the trio had gone dormant.
The three friends and business partners built a studio, started a label and were actually working on the songs that comprise the latest release, Breakin’ Point, for most of that period.
“We took a little break after the last tour but by late 2012 we already started with this material,” says Peter Morén. “The songs were there all along but we kept rewriting them and weren’t sure about the direction of the record. We decided to focus on the songwriting and let that lead the way rather than a production dogma. So, we wanted to write the strongest pop songs possible. Then came the idea of bringing in outside producers to make every song shine in different ways.”
Sessions started with Patrik Berger and longtime friend Thom Monahan. Berger had already helped PB&J work up some remixes for Norah Jones and the partnership yielded six tracks in the initial tracking for Breakin’ Point. “Patrik is a great songwriter and he likes to experiment and tweak sounds like we do”, offers co-founder John Eriksson. “We all wanted the album to have a melancholic Swedish touch so of course after a while the ghost of Ingmar Bergman appeared. Angst and dark existential questions started to appear and before we knew it we had hit rock bottom.”
“We had the idea to make the album even more brilliant, or at least different than what we would have done ourselves," recalls Morén. “We wanted some fresh ideas so we asked some highly respected names and they all agreed.” Those highly respected names included Paul Epworth, known for his work with Florence and The Machine, U2, and Paul McCartney, Sia and Adele collaborator Greg Kurstin, Mike Snow pal Pontus Winnberg, and Emile Haynie, known for work with Kanye West, Lana Del Rey and FKA Twigs. “They are all busy people so that might have delayed the record a bit too,” Morén adds, “but it was worth it.”
Ambitions ran high and for a moment there was talk of calling the album Thriller 2. Although the days of blockbuster albums such as the Michael Jackson album have probably passed for good, Breakin' Point acknowledges the era of pop that made way for Jackson’s world domination as well as the good time sounds of acts such as Donna Summer and, for a moment or two, Queen.
One can hear the influence of that time in songs such as “Dominos”. “We wanted that old schools ‘70s disco feel but with a different and current twist”, recalls Morén. “We grew up on Donna Summer and the Bee Gees and lately we’ve also been really into the Philly International stuff so it felt natural to record a song like that.”
“It’s like a pop art homage to '70s disco.” Eriksson says that he envisioned it as a kind of collision between that era and the work of performance/installation artist Paul McCarthy. It is, in its way, a collage of disparate elements that offer both a touch of comforting familiarity and smile-inducing surprise. “There are clown footsteps, a gospel piano, a fat snare drum on steroids, and a touch of the artist known as Prince”, Eriksson concludes.
Bridging the spark of inspiration and the finished product was a little more difficult than anticipated, notes Morén. “Making it bluesy and soulful was easy but making it current was trickier”, he says. “But that’s when Epworth brought in his magic!” Assessing the final product, he adds, “I love all the sections and how it moves you along and people love it live. We argued about the chorus and changed it many times before we arrived at what you hear on the record. The lyric is really snappy and wordy and alludes to both old school rock ‘n’ roll mumbo jumbo but also some sort of socio-political stance for the working man grinding through life’s struggles.”
Another key track on the record, “Do Si Do”, underwent some critical transformations. Initially set in Paris, that changed to New York. It was also one of the pieces begun with Thom Monahan, though finished by Pontus Winnberg. “It was one of the easiest tracks to finish”, says Morén, “though easy is a relative term.” The point was to meld a folky feel with a disco beat. “Like the best ABBA stuff”, he adds. “It feels really classic and ‘pure', which I like. So a short hug from a friend maybe?”
With disco and the pop of the late '70s touchstones to the sound, there was also room for hints of music that emerged later, such as on the track “In This Town”.
“I actually think it’s the most classic ‘indie’-sounding track on the record with hints of shoegaze and the Swedish swindie-movement that was influential on us in the early '90s”, Morén offers. “Like Popsicle or Wannadies. The lyric is about a city feeling cold and unfriendly. Maybe it’s not the town? Maybe it’s something bigger in the whole society? Scary stuff.”
Eriksson adds, “This track was one of the first songs we recorded back in 2012. At first it sounded very much like a big, epic Swedish indie track from the '90s. But we re-recorded the drums and added some muted piano and percussion to make it a little cooler and it did the trick. So yes, it now has a gentle touch of the '80s and I think it's a perfect track to play in your car, driving around the city at night, crying.”
“Between the Lines”, on the other hand, relies on acoustic guitar, something perhaps unexpected on a PB&J track. It’s a particular favorite of Eriksson who says it sounded a little too familiar in its initial iteration. “On the demo it sounded like the Madness song ‘Our House’”, he says. “But we played around with the chords and turned it into some sort of acoustic slow ABBA song / Swedish ‘dance band’ ballad. The two guitars in the beginning are fantastic. I love that intro.”
“John brought it in and we all finished it together”, says Morén. “It’s all acoustic and sounds better for it. It reminds me a bit of some of the tracks on Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde in its texture and feel. That’s high praise coming from me. I also hear a hint of The Shins. It’s grownup pop music. We did that with Thom Monahan. He’s great with the folky stuff.”
In conversation peppered with references to ABBA one has to wonder how Morén and Eriksson feel now that the legendary Swedish outfit has performed together for the first time in more than 30 years. And would PB&J work with A-B-B-A?
“I think Bjorn and Benny will continue do stuff for sure”, Morén says. “They never have stopped. But a full on reunion? I’m not sure. Maybe not to be honest. We would love to work with them in some way. But I hear Benny only does folk music now and Bjorn only listen to classical. So maybe not on a pop record.”