Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit

JJ: "Don’t hate on reality, push it the way you want it to go"

09 December 2014, 09:30
Words by Andrew Hannah

“That’s great, the video works! Let’s do it – nice to meet you, nice to see you!”

Given the mystery surrounding the mainly reticent Swedish duo of JJ, I wasn’t expecting such an effusive welcome from Joakim Benon, one half of one of the most exciting and genuinely adventurous bands around.

Benon explains that Elin Kastlander will be along shortly and I don’t have too long to wait to see the slightly sleepy and bedraggled “jag” part of the band (for those of you who don’t know, JJ stands for “Joakim och jag” or “Joakim and I”). Together, Benon and Kastlander have produced thrilling music since forming in 2009, somehow combining the icy romanticism of their homeland with hip hop, club music and electronic pop without letting anyone seeing the seamS. Back in 2009, we got jj n° 1 – a curious otherworldly and swaggering (useful, since “My Life, My Swag” is a title) track mixing spoken word samples, ethereal ambience and folksy strumming that sounded nothing like we’d heard from Scandinavia before.

It wasn’t long before we got their debut album jj n° 2 – a record of some importance to the band to this day – yet they remained a shadowy act, and it was only thanks to Sincerely Yours that we even found out that jj consisted of more than one person. From the bliss-outs of “From Africa to Malaga” to the hip hop strut of the Lil Wayne-sampling “Ecstasy” it remains the band’s defining statement; Kastlander’s lovelorn lyrics of loss and desire and drugs and comedowns sounding like no other writer out there, while Benon cherry-picked from various genres, not once letting a single note sound out of place or unnecessary. Although jj n° 3, recorded at the same time as the debut album, wasn’t well received, the duo simply kept on going, creating the stunning mixtape of Kills; that was heavy with jj’s influences, from Dr.Dre to 2Pac to Robyn, all filtered through the band’s increasingly narcotic haze.

As the duo became less shadowy, Benon and Kastlander went on an ill-fated US tour with the xx and then disappeared off the radar for a while until last year, when we got the first in a series of announcements that would lead to the release of third full album (and fifth proper release) V. We now find jj in the form of JJ, and the capitalisation is completely appropriate: V is the sound of classic jj, amplified and better produced than ever before, with Kastlander on incredible form lyrically and vocally and Benon looking back to his previous records for inspiration. And that’s the perfect entry point for our conversation with the band, as Joakim tells me what he and Elin have been up to prior to getting online: “We’re just listening to music...” I ask what they’ve been listening to, and it turns out it’s not been for inspiration: “Our own!” he exclaims. “I found a song from 2010 that Elin recorded by herself, and I just found it last night. I’d never heard it, and it’s amazing!” I wonder if it’s too much to hope that we might hear it, given it harks back to jj’s most productive period…but Joakim is extremely positive: “I would love to [release it], because the song is so much about what’s just happening now and what we’ve been through...and what’s still the same. Diary shit, real diary shit!”

Given how confident V sounds, I ask the duo if this record is the sound they’ve always been working towards since we heard those first steps back in 2009?

Elin: “Yeah, I dunno...I prefer to look forward, but yes, in a way.”

Joakim: “I think we have a really strong vision, emotionally, and during our long adventure – before and after we got official and all that – we’ve connected with this feeling around the world, and knowing that now it’s real. So with taking all of that in, the reality, our reality and the reality we try and create, and see that the world is in that vision as well. We’re really realising we’re doing this together and to what level we’re doing it together. So, since we got official the vision has been created by everyone. All the energy we create, since we know about each other, it’s kinda obvious...”

As well as being such a huge sounding record, there are echoes of jj n° 2 all over V; from the intro of the title track which samples strings from that debut album, to “Dean and Me”, a reworking of “Me and Dean” (jj do like to rework their titles), down to the reinterpretation of “Ecstasy” being all up in the club again on “Inner Light”, it feels like jj are returning to a place they know and love, but with the knowledge that comes with experiencing the good and bad of the music industry in the intervening five years. I ask Elin and Joakim if this was always their intention, to go back to the start?

E: “When you share your music with someone, that’s really personal and it’s a part of everything jj does....”

J: “Everything fell into place but, like, that dimension of it, connecting with history in such an obvious wasn’t thought about at the beginning but at the end of this process and making this happen, it came, and it came as a surprise. We were like ‘Oh yeah, we’re gonna bring it back! Bring it back to ’09! Of course we were, it was so obvious but we thought ‘that sounds fuckin’ good!”

I mention that the artwork for V - a photo of a naked back, an arm stretching around to throw up two fingers – seems to suggest more than a couple of things: yes, there’s the “V” for the number five, but it’s also two fingers making a gentle nod towards that epochal second release…but maybe also two fingers up to critics who seem to have decided jj didn’t follow the path they expected. I ask if that was anywhere in jj’s mind at the time of writing and recording, that some people felt they had failed?

J: “Of course, always! [Two fingers] to everyone; to everyone who doesn’t push their reality – don’t hate on reality, push it the way you want it to go. That’s always part of the way we do things; but still, it’s nothing that we particularly considered.”

From the strings, to the beats, to the vocals, everything on V sounds better than anything jj has recorded before, and I wonder if that comes from either gaining more confidence in the studio, or having more time and money to make a bigger statement…

E: “Wellll, the money’s not here!”

J: “We never had any money; but time, always time of course. ...”

E: “I think that after you’ve done something for a while it just evolves, I guess.”

I find it strange that some reviews have suggested that V is a limp rehash of previous jj records, especially given the magisterial sweep of “All White Everything” and the 80's power chords of closing track “All Ways, Always” don’t really sound like anything the band has recorded before, so I ask if Elin and Joakim feel like jj has evolved since those first songs in the way they expected…

J: “I just saw Enter the Dragon last’s like, what’s your technique to handle something? If you do anything, you need to know to have fun and a reason to do it. That way, you always develop and you go to where you get the most out of it. We work with sound, and it needs to develop – it’s not solely for someone else to say where it should go.”

E: “Yeah, when someone wants a record that we’ve already done...well, they can just go and listen to that record I guess. Everything is just constant; if you want to have a new ‘Ecstasy’ song, just listen to ‘Ecstasy’. Remix it! Do what you want.”

J: “That’s the human feeling of wanting to have something that doesn’t exist...that problem will never be solved, so I don’t really take it serious.”

I mention that V has some sounds we’ve not heard from jj before….I’d even go so far as to say closing track “All Ways, Always” even sounds a bit like Bruce Springsteen…

J: “Springsteen? [laughs] For real?”

E: “It’s back to our roots, I guess. That’s where we started in the beginning and we were finding different things...”

J: “As kids we picked up guitars for the first time, that’s what you did...”

E: “So that one, that’s a nice song to listen to’ve gone back ten years and you’re just rocking out!“

One of the great things about jj is the way Kastlander approaches her lyrics; a mix of cribs from hip hop tracks (this time around, “Dean and Me” has nods to Drake in its “it’s my party / I’ll get high if I want to”), your typical singer-songwriter subjects (“Don’t play games with my heart…I wanna be with you when we lose control” on “Dynasti”) and nights spent misbehaving in clubs (“I don't know how these drinks keep coming by / Oh no, boy, they make me see you so bright just like tonight” on “When I Need You”), they’re also the most sweetly lovelorn lyrics you’ll ever find. But on V it sounds like Kastlander is taking us on a, without wishing to be clichéd, clear journey from jj’s past to present, and for all the heartbreak and despair and drink and drugs the album does seem to end on a high note…was that something Elin was aiming for?

(What follows is a delay while Joakim translates for his partner in crime…)

E: “It’s spot on!” A fairly succinct answer, but at least it means I was right, huh?

J: “We’re realising what we’ve done after we’ve done it; the first month after we’d finished, we were listening to it and saying ‘this is an adventure! It has a start and an end, and it is so clichéd! What the fuck!? We hadn’t thought about it at all; we’ll pick up something here from five years ago and there’s a line [connecting] and we don’t think why we put it there...”

E: “It’s like the lyrics; you get it after…When I listen to a song right now I can understand what the song is about, and I didn’t understand before so…everything is like that for me.”

I wonder, given that jj and their world seems fairly insular, if any outside influences make it through their bubble. Sure, there’s the obvious hip hop and club music that peppers their output but it’s hard to imagine the two – as they eat some nice looking olives and drink beers before me – actually sitting down and listening to albums to see what’s going on in the outside world. So, what gets through?

J: “It’s hard to say; to me, in the last couple of years when I make music I just want to be in my own world. It’s a completely different state nowadays, now our bodies know how to work machines to make it happen. Our state can be free, and when you don’t have any thoughts at all you just go with it….but before, it was more like learning. The first time you’d hear your music or someone else’s coming back to you from the speakers – it was a learning process and from it your ears are always ‘on’. Now, when I make music, nothing else exists – I don’t even exist!”

The next step for jj is to move out of their bubble, out of the studio and on to the road again to play these sonsg live to people. I ask if jj has learned any lessons from that difficult time on tour with the xx, an experience that seemed to be too much too soon…

J: Oh we’re learning all the time, always!”

E: “Yes, very much! We’re not that bad anymore!”

J: “I think we were awesome…”

E: “Yeah we were….I think it’s the way people see everything - just because you do music you don’t have to jump about on a stage and entertain. We’d only performed about seven times when we went away with the xx so….it’s pretty good to me that we survived all that!”

J: “Yeah, we survived in America; to me it’s so much more about people and that’s why we started doing stuff at all – to see what the world wanted from us…and it’s so obvious [that they need to play live].”

E: “I mean, I will never like…well, never say never…but I’ll probably never like, do breakdance on the stage, stuff like that. People have this fantasy of when you do music and perform it – you’re supposed to build it in some kind of way and that’s pretty boring! When we went away with the xx I was super-satisfied with our work…but we work from a different place to them. It was hard to deal with, being on stage and around new people, being on tour…we’d never done that before. It was very overwhelming and everything like that…but it’s not like that anymore!”

There seems to be real confidence in jj as regards their live show, and it’s hardly a surprise given the power of some of the songs on V. I say to Elin that a lot of this comes from her voice seemingly being stronger, and shorn of the drugged-out fug of the early records…

E: “Yeah, I guess so…”

J: “I think we were just finding our voices…”

E: “Like when you’re trying to talk and it takes a while to express…it’s just a different thing. It’s not like it was bad before on previous records!”

J: “We just try things and see what happens; people wanted us in the world, we got invited as ourselves…so what do you do? You go there and be yourself – and we don’t know who we are but we’re learning and we’re finding out more about ourselves…”

E: “I think with my voice, it’s an expression…I think it’s just because I’m older…older and colder haha! And angrier…sad!”

Before the tour, though, Benon mentions what’s coming next for the band: “First it’s the new video…that will be out soon [it is in fact now out, and it’s incredible] and that will be some treatment.”

E: “Oh yes, very exciting!”

J: “Then of course always making new music…and we’re actually planning on a tour. At least European to begin with [the dates are now confirmed]….London, Lisbon, Berlin, Amsterdam and then more places in the UK – and that’s a dream come true.”

Given that Benon mentioned the video side of jj, I have to ask from where that vision comes. From the sparse black-and-white of “Let Go”, the creepy “All White Everything” to the latest, the stunning “Dynasti” you can tell when a treatment is a jj treatment. I can only think of iamamiwhoami having such a unique and identifiable aesthetic.

E: “It’s one of our best friends [Olivia Kastebring & Fabian Sigurd] who makes them that we’ve known for a long time….the girl who takes our pictures [Kastebring], and they’re also from our home town. We’ve known each other for loads of years and we work together. We never have to talk about what’s going on, it’s very natural.”

J: “I’ve been in love with Olivia, who makes the videos, since I was 18! I’m 27 now…”

E: “Still working on that?”

J: “That’s how we want to live and create and work. We want everything to be the same and if you want to make something good you have to take it from real life – that’s strong, and real…and what are the strongest things for me? Best friends, lovers…stuff like that. All you need is love….it’s such a cliché but it’s still true.”

V is out now via Secretly Canadian. The band play their first ever London show tonight at Oslo Hackney - tickets available here.

Share article

Get the Best Fit take on the week in music direct to your inbox every Friday

Read next