All Those Expectations: An Interview with Peter, Bjorn and John’s John Erikkson
You would have been either living on a desolate humanless island somewhere in the South Pacific or found a way onto one of those Space Tourism flights with astronauts to have escaped the Swine Flu like spreading of Peter, Bjorn & John’s “Young Folks”. And those fortunate enough to listen to the track’s Writer’s Block album know it was just as excellent. Fortunately for us, PB&J’s John Erikkson informed us what rocketing to fame has been like, how the group began, and some tidbits on the Swedish scene.
PB&J got their start ten years ago in the Swedish capital city of Stockholm. At the time, Peter was studying Film, Bjorn was working within schools and John had been a classical, orchestral percussionist–including an eight year stint in a percussion ensemble. The three cross paths, and began collaborating. “We met during a traditional Swedish party. We have a lot of traditional parties, where you eat crayfish with drink and punch. It was a party at Bjorn’s place. I talked to Bjorn about how we liked the same groups, same with Peter. They didn’t have a band at the time. So we tried to play later that November, we started rehearsing,” John said.
From there the band got after it in Stockholm, releasing a self-titled album in 2002 and its 2005 follow-up, Falling Out. “In the beginning we all listened to a record by the Lilys, a record called Better Can’t Make Your Life Better. And we all liked that a lot so we tried to do something like that. Over the years, we sort of found our own sound. We listen to different kinds of music, so I think it’s a mix between our sounds. It took a while to get that group feeling.”
Down the road, PB&J’s international success would lead them to become a sort of ambassador to the Swedish music scene. Beforehand they were involved with that scene, working with Swedish groups like the Shout Out Louds—who’s Ted Malmros directed the “Young Folks” video. “Stockholm is the capital city of Sweden, so you meet other people that play in other bands all the time. I don’t think we had heard much outside of where we played. You always pickup the bands that you see around you. You see a band like Abba, The Hives, able to make it outside of Sweden and you get some hope that it could be possible for you. I think it was inspiring. A lot of bands from Sweden, in some ways, do well outside of Sweden. I don’t know why.”
In 2006, the group released their album Writer’s Block. The album went on to ridiculous international reception, including end of the year album awards from both Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. Its whistling hit “Young Folks” — synonymous with popular music in 2006–did even better with top marks from NME and Pitchfork. While the band knew they had made a solid album, they had no idea of the success around the bend. “You always like to do the best possible record. But we didn’t know what would happen. When we finished “Young Folks”, we sort of thought that was our best song. We played it at a disco the same day as we had mixed it and like five people came up and asked what band it was. That was the first time people were really interested. We thought that song was special, but we never expected the things that happened after that.”
“Young Folks” took off, as did the band that made it. It became the number one song of 2007 on the iTunes store. Though it added expectations for the band, they gladly accepted the new attention. “It’s like our virus, our Swine flu that we created, spreading all over. But people, by getting that virus, they may be interested in checking out the next virus. It’s been a good thing. It’s like a business card for us. It made us able to [play music] full time. We do this for real now. We love it”.
And Kanye West loved it as well. After using the song in a mix, he ended up playing with PB&J at a music festival in Sweden in 2007. “It was a festival in Sweden called Way Out West. We played in the afternoon at five, then Kanye came with his private jet around midnight. So we had a good amount to drink, so when we got on stage we were pretty drunk but pretty happy. A-Trak sort of managed it. It was very very improvised, but very very funny.
The act wasn’t PB&J’s final rap collaboration either. Their most recent album Living Thing was remixed into a rap album. “We had talked about doing something. We had a left over song from Living Thing, that was kind of a rap song. Peter tried to do that, but he’s not Sweden’s best rapper. So, we talked about asking Swedish rappers to rap, but we thought ‘No they’re not better than Peter’. Then we started looking for rap artists. But the idea came up from another person that we should do the whole record as a hip-hop version. So, Mick Boogie is a DJ and producer, he managed that. He curated the whole thing. The only thing we did was receive the versions of the songs. It was really amazing to hear what they had done with the song. It was a really good project.”
Living Thing was released this spring. A darker feel characterizes the album. “I think you can see a progression from our third record to our fifth record that we became more and more minimalistic. We’ve taken away stuff for each record. We take away all the unnecessary stuff, and keep it a “left more feeling”. Writer’s block was in a good way dirty and kind of an indie feel. And we wanted to do the same thing but really luxurious. If Writer’s Block was beer, we wanted to make this Champagne.“
Peter, Bjorn and John all have worked on separate projects. Peter released a solo album called The Last Tycoon in April, 2008. Bjorn has produced a number of other artists’ albums. “We all have projects. I have a solo project called Hortlax Cobra. We only released [the material] on vinyl. Bjorn is producing a lot and has a guest band that he plays regularly with. I think its good for us that we make stuff on the side, because then every time we meet again in the studio you have new input.”.
PB&J is headed back on tour this week. They will be traveling with opener Perro Del Mar. The tour brings them to House of Blues in San Diego on November 18th. “The next tour is going to be something special as well. Going to be a lot of surprise guests at every show. It’s going to be our last tour in the US [for the album].”