Peter Bjorn and John have been musical mainstays for many years - but their new LP Breakin' Point is like nothing they've done before.
Singles such as "What You Talking About?" and "Breakin' Point" pointed to something thoroughly fresh from PB&J. On the follow up to 2011's Gimme Some, the likes Patrik Berger, Paul Epworth, Greg Kurstin, and Emile Haynie all contributed to the Swedish indie trio's uniquely brilliant style, and the result is an uproarious anthology of vibrant, hyperactive pop - it's unabashedly classic with enormous splashes of contemporary flair.
On the day of its release, the band's Peter Morén speaks to Best Fit about his craft, the definition of 'pop', and working with top producers.
Stream Breakin' Point below, and read our Q&A with Morén after.
How did this album come together?
We took a year off after the last record's touring. Late 2012 we began, and we have been working on it, on and off since then. It’s true we all have different side projects and activities and also these days parental obligations, and we set up the collective/label/studio Ingrid which we also did some big festival shows with, but that’s not why the record took time. It’s cause we had some trouble finding the right direction at first.
We also worked with a lot of different people and spent more time on making sure the songs were just right before we started recording. We paid attention to all the small details like key, form, tempo, and all the words and melodies before we even opened a computer, so in that sense we did it in a very classic singer/songwriter way but as trio. Since we all have different taste it was hard to reach common ground. After that we wanted to make sure every song had the right production as well, and in that process we did change some choruses and parts again. Some of the songs have up to five different versions almost finished. We lacked a clear production dogma this time as we have in the past. Almost anything was allowed which makes it harder to finish. We just talked about writing classic medium-tempo pop songs all under four minutes, and we did talk about flirting with disco.
We also lacked a clearly defined deadline.
What's it like coming back after so long away from the band?
We never really were away from each other or our work, just from the public eye, so that’s what we have to jump back to now. Doing interviews and playing live. I love the live shows. We have never been this good! People seem to love the new songs even though the record isn’t even out yet as we speak! We also bring with us two extra musicians, another first, which makes for a different sound at times than just the power trio.
What was the effect of having lots of different producers as opposed to one?
We wanted to treat the record more as a collection of 12 singles then an album where each song had to fit into a certain mould. So in that sense it made sense to use different people for different songs, to get them distinct flavours, the best fitting costume, and make them flower up in unique ways. We still wrote the songs and plays 95% of the instruments so it still fits together. We also mixed it in Sweden. Most of the stuff was recorded in our studio do we did do a bunch of session with Paul at the amazing Church Studios, and some of the producers sent us stuff they had done in L.A.. But still it really fits together as a whole.
I think energy-wise it’s perfect having different people if you want to makes sure every song gets equal attention and care. Also they would think and come up with stuff that really suited the songs that we probably would not have brought in ourselves. Sometimes you get to stuck in your old ways within the chemistry of the band which can be inhibitory in the creative process. But still it was very much a co-production. We did loads ourselves as well, and maybe learned that we also are no hacks compared to the big names. We’re all different but we also have a lot of similarities. And we learned a lot from how they work. But the idea at first was actually to just have two producers. One of them being Patrik who we started with. But I think it worked out for the best for the songs.
It can be hard to keep the energy level up working with us for six songs. Let alone twelve! This way no one tired!
How do you define pop music?
I’ve always all my life said that I’ve been a popmusicfan. People even called me Peter Pop in high school.
Then of course it depends of what the word implies. If it’s only literally Top 40 popular music, well then of course I might not be into everything. But a well written pop song to me could be anything from Gershwin and Buddy Holly to mainstream '80s music, indie-pop with guitars, soul-pop, synthpop or new current stuff. But I think I define it as something catchy and melodic, playful, seemingly or really honest in its emotion and also pretty strict in form, verse, chorus, bridge etc., but often with surprises and turns within those limits. It should feel effortless even when it's hard work.
I think a really good pop song should not be limited to the production values. You should be able to play it on a guitar just like an old folksong and it should still translate. To me pop is kinda modern folk anyway. It doesn’t hurt if it’s got a good danceable beat either but pop ballads are also great of course.
The words should also be hooky and well-written but hopefully with a twist that makes em interesting and not just run of the mill. A good pop lyric is better than most poetry and could make you laugh or cry. A good pop song should be like a bag of multicoloured sweets but with some really salty and sour pieces mixed in.
Some of the most clever, original and brilliant music ever made is pop music so to me - I definitely do not see it as a dirty word. If someone defined me as 'rawk' I would be more offended, though I do like rocking out now and then. Pop that rocks maybe? I feel Beatles and Bowie are more pop then rock in their constant change, experimentalism, eclecticism, and melodicism. Pop can contain so much in a good chef's hands! No limits. But they still could rock of course! Stones for example is RAWK apart from some songs and because of that less fun to me.
Funny enough a lot of the most popular music right now that I also happen to like is more to the cutting edge R&B-side and I have a hard time categorizing that as pop since it’s to me less melodic and has less classic structure. But it’s often hooky anyway of course.
Which pop song do you wish you'd written?
Tons. Don’t get me started. But a Swedish example is ABBA’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You” or “The Winner Takes It All”, either of those. Because the melodies and arrangements are brilliant and clever and contains surprises but feel natural and effortless. They feel 'europop' in the best sense of the word in that there’s a hint of melancholic chanson and maybe even Swedish folk, but no blues. But they also are danceable like the best American disco. The lyrics are sad and heartbreaking, always a nice contrast to a cute melody. It makes you connect with the singer and gets you emotionally. The best way to get the listener. Unless they are only after pure fun! Nothing wrong with that either.
What song will always get you dancing?
I love older soul music and early disco. Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes' “Bad Luck” because of that crazy bassline and the whole euphoria of the piece with the voices, the strings, and the beat. Love it!
What did you learn while making this album? What did you find out about each other?
Maybe that we all are so good at different unexpected things. John is really good with words but in a completely different style than me which means we have to co-write and change if I’m singing so it feels natural to me. Also that I’m a pretty good and inventive bass player but again in a completely different style than Bjorn. So then again we have to sit with the basslines together so he can live with them, even when I play them on the record.
As I said we learned a lot from the other producers' processes. There is no set way in how you create a great record. Sometimes you might think that when you work in your built in way that you have nurtured and evolved over the years. Any way is good if the result is. So maybe that will makes a bit more open-minded and freer in the future.
Also we all learned about each other that making music together after so many years doesn’t become easier. Rather the opposite. We are all more sure of ourselves, what we like, what we want and we won’t give in. We all have a wide variety of experiences of different kinds to draw from, both from the band and other projects. But at the same time we believe in the Swedish way of democracy. So three strong-willed egomaniacs set on making a record together and applying some kind of democracy? Go figure it might take five years since it’s quite an impossible equation. But I think we’ve learned so much during this process that it will be quicker next time. It has too. Or we might explode/implode.
What was the biggest surprise while making the record?
I thought for a while that we might be able to make a record in a modern, cut-and-paste-style in the computer. But pretty soon we found out that for us it’s always about the classic pop song. So we had to write great songs first. At least since our goal this time was a 'classic with a current twist'-pop record.
What's next? Are you back for a while or do you have your own things planned?
We are surely back for a while. I hope and wish this record translates so that we could tour it for a while since it’s been so fun to be back and play this material live. But we also will have time for our own stuff in between. I’m finishing a new Swedish-sung solo record for example.
What are you most looking forward to this summer?
The touring. There isn’t much time for much else. Always look forward to good dinners. And sunshine. And baths.
Breakin' Point is out now via INGRID, Warner Sweden, and Kobalt Label Services.