By Mark Guarino
Thanks to the Stockholm trio Peter, Bjorn and John, 2007 has its first great pop album.
“Writer’s Block” (Almost Gold) is the band’s third album but the first to receive critical attention in the U.S. Although the trio’s previous two efforts exhibited a nimble talent for power pop, the new addition is more enhanced, with less guitars and featuring more nuanced ear candy, along with plenty of reverb. But even without the production magic, the 11 songs on “Writer’s Block” would survive on the songs alone, with their locked-in melodies, twee romance and beat happy impulses.
The band makes their Chicago debut May 8 at the Empty Bottle with two sold-out shows. A week ago, lead singer and guitarist Peter Moren, 31, spoke about the album from his home in Stockholm. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: The last Scandinavian band to make big waves in the U.S. was The Hives. Did their success help open the door overseas?
A: Maybe in a way. But that was more a garage rock sort of thing. As we’re maybe heavier live than on the record, it’s still more of a pop thing. The thing is now, a lot of bands have it a lot easier to get around the world because of the Internet and MySpace and also because there’s better distribution in Europe … there’s a lot more cooperation to getting things licensed in different countries. So I think there’s an easier situation for indie music than over the last few years.
Q: You title the album “Writer’s Block” but with such strong songs, it sounds like you had anything but.
A: It’s kind of joke. Our second album was called “Falling Out” and we wanted to do something with the same (number of syllables). Me and (keyboard-guitarist) Bjorn (Yttling) live quite close to each other. We also have a rehearsal space and studio in the same part of Stockholm. We thought about it as a block of writer houses. Also, we were talking about the Brill Building in New York and all the classic songwriters of the 1960’s working in a high-rise building. So it was all kind of clever (laugh), but not about actual writers block.
Q: This record has songwriting credits spread among all three members. Was that always the case?
A: The difference is (drummer) John (Eriksson) has written a couple of songs and he didn’t write anything before. He’s the George Harrison. If I would have been John, I would have liked to contribute at some point and maybe he was writing songs all along but didn’t have the nerve to show them. If you are a band and try to be democratic, you should be in a band all the way because otherwise you can be a solo artist. And also, his songs are great. They bring something else but also go along with other stuff.
Q: There are a lot of interesting sounds here, from hands slapping thighs to whistling solos, to unusual sounds made with your mouth.
A: We’re always trying to explore new things, always wanting to try something different from the previous album … On this one, there’s a lot of human body things, like clapping your hands or clapping your belly. (For the song “Amsterdam”), we stomped our feet but also smacked our bellies. There’s a bit less guitar on this album … acoustic classical nylon guitar than electric guitar, a dulcimer, different piano sounds. We also swapped instruments around in the studio. It was just a creative, experimental atmosphere. We wanted to keep it spare and not try too many overdubs. So what you have can shine, it makes the songs more special and brings out their essence.
Q: Did you always sing in English?
A: We never talked about it. Both me and Bjorn have written songs in English since we were kids. And, of course, we didn’t know English too well. It’s just something you do after listening to British and American music. Also, people in Sweden are good at English so we don’t have to do like they do in Germany and France and dub (English lyrics). One thing I think is good is (the lyrics) can be more personal (in English). I can lay myself bare. If you sing in another language, often people think it’s the opposite of what you really are. If I sing in Swedish, I might be embarrassed.
Q: Your lyrics are also overly romantic and optimistic, which makes me think you’re more Paul McCartney than John Lennon.
A: This is the positive album. The last one was very dark, so this is the thing that came after that. A lot of the songs are about getting older and liking it. Not being naively happy but saying, “it’s okay I’m in an okay place now and things are progressing nicely.” I haven’t toured so much I have this year. I know lot of bands tour a lot more than we do. But we’re all in our early 30s, so it’s a different thing than being 22. We didn’t want to be out for month, we try to have our weeks at home because you don’t want to spoil your relationships.
Q: You and Bjorn met when you both were in high school but didn’t hook up with John until seven years later, in 1999. What makes the three of you balance the other?
A: I think part of the thing is, we’ve been together so long we can play against each other, experiment and not be so precious about things. And even though we don’t agree on everything, we all listen to loads of different music and have an open mind about it. I also think the disagreements are as important as the understandings because, in the end, you reach something more interesting. If I bring in a folk ballad and John puts some hip-hop drums on it, something totally different happens. You try to squeeze these things together into something interesting than just three people trying to do separate things. I don’t think, me and Bjorn, if we met today, we wouldn’t form a band because we’re too different as people. And I think that’s a good thing, you shouldn’t be with people in a band just because you like them. But if I formed a band now, I would think, “ooh, who would I want to tour with?” That’s not the best reason.
Q: You have such a sweet voice. Who are some of your touchstone vocalists?
A: As a kid, I was a total Beatles freak. That’s how learned to play guitar. I sat around with Beatles books and tried to learn chords. I still think John Lennon is a great singer even though I never listen to him. I like a lot of McCartney solo albums. For singers, I also like Tim Hardin, Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson, and Colin Blunstone of The Zombies.
Q: The single “Young Folks” is already a hit in Europe. It’s a duet with Victoria Bergsman of the long-time Swedish pop band The Concretes. It’s really catchy but also does what a classic duet should do: bring together two disparate voices — your earnest pop vocal and her somewhat rough one.
Q: We talked about doing a duet for a long time. At first the song was a slow jazz piece, like Duke Ellington. But then we recorded it with drums and bass and it didn’t have any vocals and then I thought that maybe this is a good song for a duet. Me and Bjorn wrote the lyrics, which was kind of hard because we seldom write lyrics together. We wanted to get a cinematic feeling of two people meeting in a bar or a club. You have to get the right sentences of how people talk. The video (screening at peterbjornandjohn.com) confuses some people because it’s about kids. But if you listen to the lyrics, it’s about 30-year-olds who have been through a couple of things who are maybe a bit rough around the edges but want to try something new after all.