Jonas, Bjorn, and John Give Some Thumbs Up
Published June 10, 2011
PETER BJORN AND JOHN. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHAN BERGMARK
Perhaps the most successful Nordic music import since ABBA, the Swedish group Peter Bjorn and John celebrated their new album Gimme Some last night with an exhibition of their cover art by artist Jonas Torvestig. The band is also celebrating its eleventh year of making music; Gimme Some is their sixth full-length album. While Peter Morén was missing for the night, Björn Yttling and John Eriksson, along with Torvestig, celebrated the release by partying at the Tribeca Grand surrounded by Torvestig’s art. We caught up with the newly-formed trio to talk about being mistaken for New Yorkers and the start of their new record label.
GILLIAN MOHNEY: What stood out to you when you saw Jonas’ work?
BJÖRN YTTLING: I saw a menu he did for some restaurant in Stockholm—John had the idea of getting Jonas, and he always has flawless taste. When we met Jonas and talked about the idea, it was just easy to relate to his ideas and put a lot of trust in him. That was the main reason. I think we try to not get involved in the details. Just try to headhunt and get good people who do what they do.
JOHN ERIKSSON: Every artist more or less has great ideas. Sometimes we don’t know how to make the idea work. But I think the best idea is to find the right person to make the ideas work.
JONAS TORVESTIG: I got the album from Peter Bjorn and John—not the master, I have to add. But it was okay… just kidding, it was great. It really influenced me. They used a simple idea, which I think is brilliant, of things in threes. They requested to have the exact same thing in this one… There was some kind of new title to the album—Gimme Some wasn’t totally decided. With that there was “Thumbs Up,” and from that I think this was the first sketch that came to mind.
JONAS TORVESTIG’S GIMME SOME COVER ART, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
ERIKSSON: As I remember it, we sent an email with some pictures of thumbs, but Jonas never saw them. When we got to the first meeting, [Jonas] was like, “I made this and this.” We were like, “So did you make anything out of the thumbs?” “What thumbs?” We wrote in text, like, there are three thumbs for three people. We’re gonna use thumbs—use this.
TORVESTIG: The three thumbs—it was photographs. I didn’t work with the photographs. It felt natural to me to do an illustration. But that was because I never saw [their] photographs. I didn’t scroll down that far.
ERIKSSON: He also didn’t scroll down further because we also had the idea of three penises.
TORVESTIG: I never got that far—but this is something for the next album.
MOHNEY: The cover art really encapsulates the music of Peter Bjorn and John—
TORVESTIG: It’s such a morbid kind of design, with the severed hand. It needs a pop-art color to contrast it. Not so much Goth or too much punk. That went quite well with the new album…with Peter Bjorn and john and their pop music 2.0.
MOHNEY: You’re one of the few bands that has crossed over into the American mainstream; do you feel pressure to represent the Swedish music scene?
YTTLING: I think people here do not really know if we’re Canadian or from Albania. If we go to LA, they think we’re from New York, because we’re weird or something. At the same time I don’t know, here we feel very much a part of the American music scene.
MOHNEY: After working together for a decade, do you approach making an album differently than when you first started out?
YTTLING: The first album… it’s like your first interview. We learned as a group to make albums. We’re much more prepared and relaxed now. It’s easier.
ERIKSSON: Now we’re like a 50-year-old guy who starts jogging. You know how to do it because you were running when you were 20. It takes a while to get into it. It’s may be more hard work now. Before it was like, “Let’s go to the forest and eat some mushrooms.”
YTTLING: Eat some mushrooms? [laughs]
ERIKSSON: We make better decisions these days. We save energy. That’s in every aspect, that’s in touring, recording. It makes it smoother.
YTTLING: That’s going to change; it’s going to be like, “He looked at me in that weird way!” [laughs]
MOHNEY: Is there a band out there that you hope to be like?
ERIKSSON: The Rolling Stones, I don’t know how they did it. But it’s our goal to go beyond that.
YTTLING: What we’re going to do is, we’re not going to change personnel like they did. They got people drowned, they got people playing with Jeff Beck—
ERIKSSON: Excuse me, they even had a saxophone player.
YTTLING: We’re not going to change personnel. That’s what I can say to you, Rolling Stones!
ERIKSSON: We even have our contract that if someone leaves the band, then the band dies.
MOHNEY: Really, is that binding?
YTTLING: It’s a band contract. It’s binding, it’s legal, and it’s awesome.
MOHNEY: What are you hoping for the band in the future?
ERIKSSON: It’s great we connected with Jonas because we’re making a new record label called Ingrid, like Ingrid Bergman. That’s a new thing for us. Whether we fail or succeed—
TORVESTIG: Mostly succeed, I think—
YTTLING: It’s going to be like a mother asking you to do homework. You’ve got a reason to put out records, and they might be strange or weird. We were talking about putting out albums that might have talking… or not talking with music. It’s like an option to get music out [where] you don’t have to answer to anyone.
GIMME SOME IS OUT NOW. GIMME SOME ART: AN EXHIBITION OF THREES & SOME THUMBS UP IS ON DISPLAY AT THE TRIBECA GRAND FOR THE NEXT FIVE TO SIX WEEKS.
With their ubiquitous international hit “Young Folks,” Peter Bjorn and John went from longtime indie also-rans—the trio formed in Stockholm a decade ago—to overnight sensations. In short order, Kanye West covered the song, Drew Barrymore was spotted wearing a Peter Bjorn and John T-shirt on Saturday Night Live, and the whistling intro of “Young Folks” even made an appearance on Gossip Girl. But achieving any kind of widespread notoriety—let alone permeating the culture at large—seemed a far-fetched aspiration for the band at the time. “We’d given up,” explains the group’s nominal front man, 33-year-old Peter Morén. “I was studying to be a librarian when ‘Young Folks’ hit . . . The next thing we knew, we were running into Jamie Foxx on talk shows.”
Despite having toiled in obscurity for so long, Morén and his two partners—multi-instrumentalist and producer, 34-year-old Björn Yttling, and drummer, 34-year-old John Eriksson—are doing their part to avoid being condemned to one-hit-wonderdom. Their latest album, Living Thing (Almost Gold)—remarkably, the group’s fifth—has at least two more surefire smashes on it: “Nothing To Worry About,” the album’s first single, which features an insidious hook sung by a children’s choir and a video depicting a Japanese gang fight; and “It Don’t Move Me,” an infectious, curmudgeonly rant. But while the record is undeniably catchy, it is also refreshingly experimental, incorporating everything from synth pop and doo-wop, to Ghanaian rhythms and homemade percussion. “For the beats, we’d crash bottles together or pop a balloon, put a bit of reverb on it, cut it up in the computer,” Morén explains. “We’re trying to deconstruct pop music and put it back together again with this album. It’s a journey through musical history—from the African villages and the slave fields into the luxurious but cold techno dancing of the ’80s. We’re constantly trying to surprise ourselves.”
According to Yttling, Peter Bjorn and John’s trademark idiosyncrasy stems from a sort of turbulence—creative and otherwise—that is at the core of the group’s dynamic. “One New Year’s Eve, me and Peter were sharing a hotel room, and we had this huge fight,” he explains. “Everything was crushed in the room—shattered glass everywhere, all the paintings torn down off the walls. Then we woke up, and we were like, ‘Okay, we have to go home now.’ It was quite funny.”
“We’re three separate people,” Morén continues. “Björn is the electro guy, John is hip-hop, and I’m the sad Leonard Cohen–type,” he explains. “But when we get together, it’s like this monster. It’s not like a rock band—it’s like three dictators.”
Listen to more cuts from the new album at the band’s MySpace page.