Songwriter Interviews

Peter and Bjorn of Peter Bjorn and John

by Greg Prato

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For Breakin' Point, the seventh release by indie popsters Peter Bjorn and John, the Swedish trio tried a different approach. Instead of enlisting a sole producer, a variety of producers worked with the group: Patrick Berger (Icona Pop, Robyn), Paul Epworth (Florence and The Machine, U2, Paul McCartney), Greg Kurstin (Sia, Adele), Emile Haynie (Lana Del Rey, FKA Twigs, Kanye West), Pontus Winnberg (Miike Snow) and Thom Monahan (Wild Nothing, Devendra Banhart).

The band that originally formed in 1999 and is best known for the 2006 hit "Young Folks" has been consistently issuing albums since 2002, with Breakin' Point the first released on their own imprint, INGRID (via Kobalt Label Services). Both Peter and Bjorn spoke with Songfacts shortly before its June 10 arrival.

Greg Prato (Songfacts): How is the new album, Breakin' Point, similar or different to previous Peter Bjorn and John albums?

Peter Morén: This time it was about songs first and album concept later. We always have been trying to write great songs, but we sort of haven't let them take the lead. More like we had an album dogma and tried to make song ideas fit into that. This time, the concept was just good songs, and the production had to make 'em shine. It should always be like that now I feel. I've always been more of a song-oriented than sound-oriented person. But of course, it has to sound great too, otherwise no one will listen.

Songfacts: Which tracks came the easiest, and which ones were the most challenging to complete on the new album?

Peter: With "What You Talking About?" and also "A Long Goodbye," we had about five almost-finished versions in different styles, so they took time to find their right place. With songs like "Nostalgic Intellect" and "Dominos," the basic track and style was relatively easy, but we changed the choruses up until the very last minute.

Songs like "Do-Si-Do," "In This Town" and "Between the Lines" were maybe more simple and straightforward from the start. Also, the title track we had the basic song for a long time, but just waited for the right beat/production. Other ones were somewhere in between. But usually, the first basic idea we hardly ever have a problem coming up with. It's more about finishing; deciding about details and arrangements.

Songfacts: How does the songwriting work in the band primarily?

Peter: It usually starts with one person coming up with a song idea. Sometimes it's more fully formed, other times more a riff or a rough draft. Then we sit together and work on the song till everyone likes it. If we still don't like it, it gets dumped!

But more than ever on this record we have worked meticulously on every small detail from form, key, tempo, words, length etc. And all this way before we even enter the studio! We kept changing chords and melodies to the very last minute though.

So we have been trying to melt into one brain. Not so easy. We are all strong-willed and egoistic, but also believe in some sort of creative democracy. We also all chip in during the arranging and production, swap instruments, come up with riffs and hooks, etc. Also, sometimes one person might write a chorus and someone else a verse. I write a little bit more lyrics than the rest, partly because I enjoy it but also since I'm singing, and I want to feel comfortable with what I sing. But all are good lyricists in different styles. Both Bjorn and John are really good with lyrical hooks. I'm quite good at making a verse interesting and telling a story, fleshing it out.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind the song "What You Talking About?"

Peter: The initial idea came from an episode of Mad Men and the power struggle between Don Draper and Peggy Olson. How to be accepted and respected and not suppressed by your boss. How to evolve under those conditions? How to maybe break free? The tagline "What You Talking About?" came first though so the rest of the story had to build from there.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind the song "Breakin' Point"?

Peter: It's about what's going around in your mind when you're expecting a child.

Maybe you've seen this and that and hit some physical and mental dead ends. What will happen now? Will this new person fix it or fuck it up even more? Or neither. Anxiety and expectations.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind the song "Dominos"?

Peter: Already touching on the work theme with "What You Talking About?", we went full-on with this. The whole album artwork and concept is loosely tied to an idea of going to the pop factory, handcrafting classic sturdy tunes. But here it's more about working for the man in general, stuck and lost in the everyday grind of being just a cogwheel in the bigger industry machine of society. What will then happen to the dreams? How do you stand up for yourself when everyone falls because one motion is started somewhere out of your powers, over your head?

I guess you could call it sociocritical of the modern life, but also it was just really important to make it swinging and rhythmically groovy like old-time rock n' roll, like "Tutti Frutti." So wordplay and just words that stuck out was of equal importance.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind the song "It Don't Move Me"?

Björn Yttling: There's a really cool song with Mountain Goats called "See America Right" that has an interesting verse feel. This song took its first inspiration from that track. Thematically it moved into questioning all those material things that mean a lot to you in a certain part of life, but then mean nothing in the next. Also those small things you do with someone you love that when love ends, stop feeling the same and turn into something different.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind the song "Amsterdam"?

Bjorn: It came from Lou Reed and one of his '90s songs - "Modern Dance" it's called. There's a little bit about him possibly moving to Amsterdam and doing a "Modern Dance" by the big canal.

Songfacts: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?

Peter: Lennon/McCartney, David Bowie, Abba, Pet Shop Boys, Curtis Mayfield, Burt Bacharach, Buddy Holly, Carole King, Brian Wilson, Smokey Robinson, Gamble & Huff. In all cases to different degrees; good sense of rhythm, chords, form, melodicism, eclecticism, adventure and arranging skills. Little Richard just because.

Songfacts: Who are some of your favorite lyricists?

Peter: Hal David and Smokey Robinson, because they can always make a seemingly clichéd pop-love song say so much more, and make you feel clever and emotional while listening to it. And good rhymes.

Joni Mitchell because of the honesty and the randomness. Dylan because he shows us anything goes in the right hands and order. Elvis Costello because of how the word cuts hard and how he plays with them rhythmically and aesthetically. Go-Betweens because of how their pictures make your mind go places you haven't been. Morrissey and Cohen for many things but not least their self-awareness and humor. Paul Simon because of all of the above and having a rapper's sense of detail. Frank Ocean is great among the youngsters, also for a lot of the above. All of these write good melodies too though!

June 7, 2016.
For more Peter Bjorn and John, visit peterbjornandjohn.com.

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