Astropol on Love, Loss, and Lyrics

Like labelmates Amason, Astropol is a new kind of super group formed in Stockholm and composed of indie music staples Björn Yttling (Peter Bjorn and John), Bebban Stenborg (Shout Out Louds), and enigmatic musician-producer-writer Smash. The trio has been working the past four years to produce The Spin We’re In, their debut album that will finally be released December 4 via Ingrid. So far, they’ve only released one single, “Make Love Stay,” but here, we’re pleased to premiere a second track, “Always You and Me.” Though the song began with relatively uplifting lyrics written by Smash, when a friend of Stenborg’s suddenly lost her husband, the lyrics took a downward turn.

“It became about this idea of losing somebody and what if you had a chance to make it right one last time, if you could get them back to say goodbye properly?” Stenborg explains over Skype from Stockholm. “That’s something I think about a lot when you lose people: If you knew beforehand that you were going to loose them soon, what would you do?”

On “Always You and Me,” Stenborg’s soothing and angelic voice opens the song with “Come along with me to the other side / There’s a place where we’re still good / And love’s still blind / Where the leaves never fall from the trees,” atop beautifully layered synths, guitar, and slight percussion. The song continues, “Time’s a wastin’ / It will all be gone someday / You better hurry now / Before it fades away,” making the message very clear and relatable to anyone who has ever lost someone. Prior to Astropol’s album release, we spoke with Stenborg to learn about how the band came to be, the label and artist collective Ingrid, and the role gender plays in lyricism.

EMILY MCDERMOTT: To begin, how did the three of you first meet?

BEBBAN STENBORG: I knew Björn from quite a long time ago, because he produced the Shout Out Louds’ second album. Then he knew Smash; I think they were in a band together a long time ago. Smash had been writing songs, and the two of them met and were talking about how they wanted a third band member, so they called me four years ago.

MCDERMOTT: It’s taken you for years to produce the album? That’s quite a long time.

STENBORG: Yeah, it is a really long time. It’s been fun and good to do it that way, mostly because Björn has Peter Bjorn and John, so many other things he’s working on, and I have had my other band, too. So Björn and I didn’t have this as our first priority. For Smash, it was kind of lame to wait for us, but in time, I started to feel like this is the number one thing I want to do right now. So for the past year, we’ve been focusing mostly on this. That’s why we’re finished. Otherwise we would’ve just kept going for four more years.

MCDERMOTT: I can’t imagine balancing such huge other commitments with starting a new project. Do you think Astropol will continue?

STENBORG: I think we will keep going because, for me, it’s been a learning experience to work with other people. I’m so used to working with the guys [in Shout Out Louds]; that’s the only other musical project I’ve ever been involved in. So for me, it’s been really interesting to work with new people. Maybe because we worked on it for such a long time, it grew on us. I think we’ll keep making music together, absolutely.

MCDERMOTT: What are some of the major things you learned from working with new people?

STENBORG: Mostly I’ve learned to communicate very straightforwardly. With the Shout Out Louds, we were childhood friends, and that changes communication because you have to maintain the friendship more than the professional stuff. So it’s been complicated to communicate about professional things. In this case, Björn is really short in the way he expresses himself. That has been a really good thing for me. Now, when I come back and meet the bandmates with Shout Out Louds, they think I turned into Björn. [laughs]

Also, with this project I have gotten the chance to look at lyrics in a much less roundabout way than I’m used to; I haven’t had to keep much of anyone else’s perspective in mind. One thing that has become clear to me is that lyrics can be perceived very differently depending on the gender of the person delivering them. Smash already had lyrics to quite a few of the songs when we first got together. They were all [written] in a very simplistic style, and at first I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t strike me as fulfilling—until I was supposed to be the one singing them. I came to the conclusion that it had a lot to do with me not being a man.

I find that there is almost no limit to how banal a man can be and people still won’t dismiss him as silly or too cutesy, at least much less so than when a woman makes sloppy lyrical choices. I know it’s a generalization, but it made me listen through a lot of old jazz standards to see whether I felt differently about, for example, Ray Charles singing, “I’ll be seeing you,” than I did about Brenda Lee doing the same song. And I didn’t. Aside from the fact that I prefer women’s voices in general, both renditions felt absolutely equally heartbreaking.

Mostly men wrote those old songs that became classics, but it seems like back then it didn’t matter as much who interpreted them. I don’t know that that’s true—I’m trying to learn more about it—but that’s what I’m looking for in music right now. I want [lyrics] to work for all genders, and that’s why I still care about “love” as a lyrical theme, because love is the same for everyone—or it should be. I’m sure Smash agrees because he totally understood my complaints and let me treat his original lyrics very disrespectfully, which I think was really cool and modern of him.

MCDERMOTT: I’ve never thought about the difference in lyrical perceptions based on gender, but now that you’re saying it…

STENBORG: No, I hadn’t thought about it earlier either! So that has probably been the main learning experience. I’m still figuring it out, but I think it’s a really interesting thing to keep in mind.

MCDERMOTT: Can you tell me a little bit about Ingrid? I didn’t know much about it, but then realized a lot of bands I listen to are on it…

STENBORG: I know most of the artists on Ingird. It’s a pretty tight collective and we all see each other because the studio, the office, and all of the people who work with Ingrid are in one building, a small theater, in Stockholm. We all work together in one way or another. Ingrid was a perfect way in for us, because there is already a studio and people working. It’s set up to be easy for the artist.

MCDERMOTT: I apologize for this slightly annoying question that everyone hates answering, but what’s the story behind your name?

STENBORG: [laughs] It’s always a little awkward to talk about band names because I think it sounds stupid when you explain it. But we were looking for something that sounded a little bit distant and cold. It means “star city,” so we were thinking about a place that looks beautiful and inviting from a distance, but then, when you get there, it’s all petrified and dead-difficult and impossible to live in. It’s also a little bit of a parallel to being in a relationship with any other human being: When you look at it from a distance you see the good stuff, but sometimes when you’re in it it’s really hard.

MCDERMOTT: Can you tell me a little more about the song “Always You and Me”?

STENBORG: That song was one that Smash brought into the project. We did it together, but the beginning of it came from him. He and I were talking a lot about it because the lyrics ended up being about a friend of mine whose husband passed away all of a sudden out of nowhere. That was a year ago. After that happened, I couldn’t write the lyrics in the direction that Smash had started. That’s a sad song for me to think about, but it’s also comforting to think that there might be a place where you could still [make it right with someone you’ve lost], even if it’s only in your head.

MCDERMOTT: Is there one song on the album that you feel encapsulates what the three of you together, as a band, are trying to do?

STENBORG: I think it is that one, “Always You and Me,” because there’s nothing profound about the lyrics. There’s nothing that’s unique. When it comes to love songs, when I was younger, I used to listen to Bright Eyes or Joni Mitchell; you want to relate to the music, but you feel you’re still unique in your feelings. But as I get older, I start to think there’s a huge comfort in the plain-ness of heartbreak. Most people have felt it and it probably feels more or less the same for everyone. So I think that finding words that describe something for everyone is not unique, not that deep. It’s something very simple. That’s what I want with this project.

That actually comes from—I knew a girl who worked for you guys. I met her at an interview for Interview like 10 years ago. She had a bad breakup and did something that I thought was really strange: She sent out this breakup CD to all of her friends with heartbreak songs. It was a very extroverted thing to do, when you are experiencing something this hard. I loved that CD, and I still listen to that mix sometimes, because it contained Kelly Clarkson, and Pink—

MCDERMOTT: All the early 2000s staples!

STENBORG: Absolutely—even something from the Glee soundtrack! There was no pretension about what kind of feelings she was having. But then it was mixed up with Neil Young and Tom Waits. It was shameless, that mix CD that she made to describe what she was going through. That’s when I started to think about [the fact that] there’s more comfort for me in Kelly Clarkson or Pink than in Bright Eyes, these days.

MCDERMOTT: It’s more universal.

STENBORG: Yeah, exactly. So that was the whole foundation for this project, for me at least, for this album. I wanted it to be relatable and accessible.

MCDERMOTT: Are you going to tour?

STENBORG: We haven’t decided that yet. I think we all want to paly live, but we don’t know in what context. We don’t want to do the normal way, starting in the main Swedish cities, then maybe go outside in Scandinavia, then maybe Europe, and then maybe America. If somebody wants us to play, we’ll think about it.