TRANSVERSO

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Still Whistling Through the Darkness: Peter Bjorn and John On Reaching 'Breakin' Point'

Music InterviewWeston PaganoComment

Bands are often boxed into having narrow calling cards despite their best efforts, whether it be a niche genre or a particular magnum opus from 2006 unfairly labeled as a one-hit wonder. But five years after their last LP, Gimme Some, gave us 300% of a normal thumbs up in the form of guitar-driven power pop, and a full decade after their ubiquitous hit, "Young Folks," whistled its way into hearts and sync licenses everywhere, Peter Bjorn and John's seventh album, Breakin' Point, offers something altogether different.

Their first full-length released on the band's own label, INGRID, but polished by a veritable all-star team of outside producers, it's a pure pop collection of 12 singles that simultaneously signifies both increasing independence and their most controlled and collaborative effort to date. It's 41 minutes of danceable relief from some of the negative themes lyricized - such as dealing with The Man and modern music industry woe - made all the more special considering its creators only had two hours of sunlight back home in which to play it.

On a recent warm summer night, Peter Bjorn and John continued the first steps of an American tour in support of Breakin' Point as the headlining act at a modest food festival in the streets of Chicago's West Loop neighborhood. Several delays (the preceding band's grand piano didn't exit the stage without an apparent fight, nor did the Swedes' monitors play nicely) and a hard curfew saw the easy-going trio abruptly cut off after 40 minutes, leaving throwback set closer "Objects Of My Affection" sadly unperformed, but even that did little to mar what was a classically exuberant PB&J show now also aided by new touring members and that special kind of excitement that can only come after a hiatus as long as theirs.

Transverso sat down with guitarist and lead vocalist, Peter Morén, and percussionist, John Eriksson, following their set to discuss Breakin' Point, illegitimate sons, and why they keep on whistling even after all these years.


TRANSVERSO: So tell us about this Breakin’ Point tour.

JOHN ERIKSSON: This specific tour is the first feeling of how the songs are taken by the audience [that] has heard the whole album, and it’s very different from all other tours because we’re bringing all our families in a hippie bus. There’s one family bus and one crew bus; I think the family bus, that’s where the party is! [Laughs]

How has bringing your families along affected tour life?

PETER MORÉN: We just started, so we’ll see. All day is gonna be taking care of kids.

How has leaving your old label and releasing Breakin’ Point on your own startup, INGRID, changed your process? Do you feel you have more freedom now?

MORÉN: Not really. We didn’t know it was going to be on INGRID, really, but we started the label in between the records so it felt pretty natural eventually, but I don’t think it affected the record.

ERIKSSON: Pontus [Winnberg] from Miike Snow - they are also in the INGRID label - actually co-produced two of the songs. I think that might not have happened if we didn’t have that label with [them]. We worked in the INGRID studios in Stockholm for a week and the week after Miike Snow did their new album, so meeting Pontus was a natural thing to collaborate. We might play on their record and Pontus worked with us, so that’s the good thing about INGRID: collaborations and stuff.

And it wasn’t just Pontus; you enlisted a lot of outside producers for this album including Paul Epworth (Paul McCartney, U2, Florence And The Machine) and Patrick Berger (Robyn, Icona Pop), which you don’t normally do. Has that outside influence in the studio made it more difficult for you to translate the record to your live show?

ERIKSSON: No.

MORÉN: It was hard doing the record. It took a long time, but when we finally got the record done and started rehearsing live it felt pretty natural to do the arrangements. That’s partly why we wrote in those [new touring members]. We usually only play the three of us so this is like an upgrading or something. [Laughs]

ERIKSSON: Its PB&J Big Band... PB&J Plus Two.

I was thinking, because of your band name you can’t ever really change members.

MORÉN: [Laughs] It would have to be the same name.

How many bassists are there named Björn?

ERIKSSON: There was a guitar player named Björn Ulvaeus in ABBA, the old Swedish band. He played the bass too. Yeah, we met [him] at the airport a couple of weeks ago. He didn’t say so much, but he might be able to fill in. [Laughs]

I read that ABBA’s been such a huge influence on you you once jokingly claimed to be their illegitimate sons.

ERIKSSON: [Laughs] Oh yeah!

You’ve been around a while now yourselves, is there another band you’ve influenced that could be your illegitimate sons?

MORÉN: [Laughs] Ooh, good question…

ERIKSSON: There was a Swedish guy [Peter] actually did some work with, I thought he was your son, he seemed to like the same stuff you did. He was a Swedish hairdresser, that guy.

MORÉN: [Laughs] What? A Hairdresser?

ERIKSSON: Yeah! His name was Mikael… Mike? Mikey? Michael? I don’t know. [Laughs]

MORÉN: Someone I played with?

ERIKSSON: Yeah!

I know Paul McCartney is another big influence of yours, and it was his birthday yesterday. I know it's kind of an impossible question, but I was curious if you might have a favorite song of his.

MORÉN: Ooh, that’s interesting. It’s funny, because yesterday we were playing Nashville and Ringo Starr was playing [there too] on Paul’s birthday. It’s kind of hard, I’ve almost heard them all. Let me think… I actually did a Spotify playlist with 150 Paul McCartney songs, it’s actually pretty good.

ERIKSSON: [Laughs] For who?

MORÉN: For anyone who wants it! [Laughs] And I didn’t even count the classical records or experimental electronic records, I just did the pop records. But that’s a good playlist actually, I recommend it, I’ll send it to you! [Laughs] There’s a pretty little song I’ll pick today called “I’m Carrying.” It’s on the London Town record. That’s George Harrison’s favorite Paul McCartney song, so I pick that today, and tomorrow it’ll be something else.

ERIKSSON: You’ll have to update your website.

You critique the music industry in “Pretty Dumb Pretty Lame,” specifically the entitlement of some artists. Is there anything specific that inspired that subject?

MORÉN: It began with this thing where artists moan about how hard it is being an artist. Like, okay, skip it then! [Laughs] I don’t get [it], like things should be great if people come and see you play, otherwise you should skip it. I don’t see the point in being an artist if you don’t enjoy it, because no one forced you to be come an artist. There's a lot of shit in this industry for sure, it’s kind of quite fucked up, so there's a lot to critique. [Laughs]

You're successful artists who seem to enjoy what you do now, but I know Peter was studying to be a librarian before the band took off. That made me wonder: if you weren’t Peter Bjorn and John, what would you be doing instead?

MORÉN: I had some [jobs] before: I did some teaching, I worked in a bookshop. It would always be jobs because you had to pay rent, it wouldn’t be passion. I enjoy studying film, so I don’t know, it’s hard to say. Maybe I would write something like music reviews, that’s fun.

ERIKSSON: Luckily I had an old music career - I don’t want to call it career because it’s a hobby still, music - but I played classical percussion in a classical ensemble, so if PB&J hadn't happened I would still be doing that, I think. I’m happy I was drawn out of that because I did it for a long time, but now if I could choose I wouldn’t go back to that. I’ve been thinking about that… as Peter said I like movies too, but you know how hard it is to make an album, then to make a movie it’s like 20x the troubles with every detail, so I wouldn’t go into film. So same as Peter; just writing words. That would be fun because then it’s quiet and you can do it anywhere. That must be a very good job to be a writer, I must say, as you are. If Björn was here he would answer he wants to be a tennis pro, I’m sure.

In the past you’ve discussed the juxtaposition of light and dark present in both Swedish culture and the pop genre. Can you elaborate on how that inspires your creative vision?

MORÉN: It’s not something we discuss or decide about, it’s just something that happens quite naturally. It’s been like that on almost all the records, but I realized there are some very positive songs as well here and there. But if you take like a whole catalog and divide it down theres a lot of more depressed lyrics or slightly negative. I like that juxtaposition, but, for me anyway, it’s not planned like I think I should write negative lyrics to positive music.

ERIKSSON: It’s a natural Swedish melancholy always in every laughter. [Laughs]

MORÉN: [Laughs] It’s a long tradition in pop music. It’s quite common actually even in stuff you don’t think about, like even early Beatles songs that are happy are like, “I’m a loser,” “Help!” It’s all shit. Lyrics are really depressing.

ERIKSSON: It’s dark; during winter season where we come from up north it’s like two hours a day you might see the sun. Apart from that it’s just total darkness. So maybe that should affect you in some way, but also it might be a reason why there are so many musicians; you have to be indoors when it’s too cold to be outside [so] you either become a hockey player or a musician. If you live in Brazil you can be outside all day, you can be good at football.

MORÉN: For us at least, and a lot of Swedes, I think, the way we were brought up in really small villages [in] the middle of nowhere there wasn’t a lot to do. There were a lot of people doing sports and [we weren’t] into that, so when I got into music I did a lot of it myself. I learned to play guitar by myself and just listened to records and write songs to keep myself amused. Then of course when you grow up and move to Stockholm there are a lot of things happening, but I think sometimes you try to get back to that vibe of being bored to be able to create music. [Laughs]

ERIKSSON: All our friends, all my classmates were playing hockey except me. I found music, and same for Peter and Björn too. So it’s interesting that we three met [because we] started off not finding any bandmates because we lived in this small city up in the north of Sweden. But then you end up in Stockholm and you form a band that’s now playing in Chicago! It’s pretty weird and amazing. [Laughs] 

Breakin’ Point features a decent amount of whistling, but in the press release you made a point to say it shouldn’t be seen as a big deal. Have you felt pressured or hesitant about including whistling in your songs since “Young Folks”?

MORÉN: Yeah, I guess. I don’t know if it was discussed on any previous records but there was some whistling on the instrumental record called Seaside Rock, but no one noticed. There is whistling on [Writer’s Block track “Amsterdam”], too.

ERIKSSON: And on “Objects Of My Affection” and the B-side “Ancient Curse.” We whistled the whole summer.

MORÉN: And on this record we whistled on “Nostalgic Intellect” as well, but it’s together with the organs so it doesn’t sound as much. I think even on this new one we were kind of hesitating, which is why I said it wasn’t a big thing. It is something you do naturally; I always see people [doing it]. You just whistle stuff, you know? So on that song “Breakin’ Point” we had the piano melody already recorded, but then I was recording my voice and I started whistling, and someone said we should keep that and turn it up. But we were hesitating, actually. [Laughs]

ERIKSSON: Yeah, it’s like you did a magic trick at a party; you can’t do it at the next party or people with think you're cheesy or something. [Laughs] Peter had a supergroup called Tutankamon for a while, and you did a song with whistling and it was kind of not so far from “Young Folks.” You played it in a jeans store and did that whistling and I thought, for me, it didn’t fit. Like, Peter shouldn’t whistle, that felt bad.

You can't whistle with other bands!

ERIKSSON: Yeah, I felt betrayed actually! [Laughs]


Read our review of Breakin' Point here.