Q&A with John Eriksson of Peter Bjorn and John

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Although John Eriksson, who stars in this week's Westword profile of his band, Peter Bjorn and John, was trained to be a classical percussionist, and spent years as a member of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, he's come to appreciate the perks of being a rock star -- particularly the gastronomic ones. The Q&A below begins and ends with food. Apparently, he feels that a drummer is only as good as his stomach is full.

As he's enjoying a delicious-sounding hotel-room meal, Eriksson talks about his formative years, spent in a small Swedish village; the influence on his career of his father, a classical guitar teacher; his classical training and related projects, all of which got backburnered when the 2006 PB&J album Writer's Block hit; his nascent attempts at pop tunesmithing, as well as his efforts not to compose like the drummer he is; the breakthrough of the single "Young Folks," which got attention on these shores thanks to a little TV show called Gray's Anatomy; the decision to follow Block with Seaside Rock, a not-very-commercial instrumental album that wound up exerting a strong influence on its successor, 2009's Living Thing; the manner in which he and cohorts Peter Morén and Björn Yttling balance their contributions; assorted percussion experiments, one involving a matchbox; and the pros and cons of opening an amphitheater tour for a group, Depeche Mode, with an especially loyal fan base.

Unsurprisingly, food plays a role. Eriksson's certainly got good taste.

Westword (Michael Roberts): Is this a good time for you?

John Eriksson: It's the perfect time. I'm just having some breakfast.

WW: What are you having?

JE: Some omelet with avocado and some tomatoes.

WW: Sounds pretty extravagant.

JE: Oh, yeah. It's out there (laughs).

WW: Well, while you're enjoying that, could you tell me a little about your background? Where originally are you from? And how would you describe the town you grew up in?

JE: I'm the one in the band who comes from most further up in Sweden. The northern part, in a small village on the coast called Hortlax. I think it's quite similar to Peter and Bjorn. We all come from small villages with very little to do. All my friends were playing ice hockey except for me, and all my friends had these small pets, and I didn't have that. So I practiced drums for seven hours a day and did, like, some skits on the tape recorder.

WW: Skits?

JE: Like these crazy mix tapes. You put five seconds from a Van Halen song and five seconds from a Lionel Richie song. Almost the same things we do now (laughs). Playing drums, doing music. I haven't really developed beyond that.

WW: What drew you to the drums in the first place? And how old were you when you started playing?

JE: I think my first drum kit when I was about five. I think my parents noticed that was my interest. I don't know how they got that....

WW: Were you always pounding on things?

JE: I think so. All kids do that, but maybe I did that more (laughs). And also, my parents took me to a lot of concerts. My dad was a classical guitar teacher. And then I saw a percussion ensemble, and I thought it would be really cool to play on all that different stuff.

WW: Did you start out playing classical music? Or did you gravitate toward it as you got older?

JE: I experienced classical music from an early age, and I wanted to do that almost from the beginning. So I started on classical marimbas and things like that as early as possible. I took private lessons from when I was, like, eight-years old or something. At the same time, I was listening to hard rock and heavy metal, and I wanted to play that on drums, too. I did both, and I've been doing both ever since. I studied classical percussion at the University of Stockholm for four years and worked in a Swedish radio symphony orchestra. And then I worked in a classical percussion ensemble for seven years. And then Peter Bjorn and John hit, and "Young Folks" came out, and since then, it's been moving toward this band. Now, it's impossible to do both. I'm leading the shy little dream of being in a rock band (laughs).

WW: Do you miss being able to play classical music on a regular basis?

JE: Not really. Since I've been doing that for such a long time, it feels good to be able to do this, and experience this. It's amazing that you can live from a rock-and-roll band. It's a great feeling to be able to write songs and earn a living from your own music. That's also something you dream of. And when you do this kind of thing, you have time to do your own projects, and that could be. I might do some weird classical album later on, and I can do my own music, and play with other people. It's more up to you now, and I think it's great, actually. It's the same for Peter and Bjorn, too. I think we're all feeling very creative right now.

WW: At what point did you start writing songs?

JE: For the band?

WW: For yourself, as well as for the band....

JE: I was writing music, trying to. I wrote some really crappy classical pieces when I was younger. And I've continued writing songs for percussion and people I played with, and also in jazz bands, writing those kinds of songs. Jazz-fusion stuff. But the first time I wrote a pop song was for the third Peter Bjorn and John record. And since then, Peter and Bjorn encouraged me to keep on doing that. Now, each of us write 33 percent. We each have four or five songs each on this new record. I think it's good, because you get some variety, and the way we arrange it together, it makes it like our own type of music.

WW: It's fairly uncommon for drummers to write their own songs. What do you think your drumming background brings to the songs you write for the band?

JE: I don't know. I try not to write things like a drummer, with a lot of strange rhythms. I like it more minimalistic. I try to focus more on a feeling or the atmosphere in a song. Peter is more lyric-based and Bjorn might be more groove-based, writing catchy-type songs. But my songs aren't like typical drummer compositions. I try to do the opposite. Keep it really simple.

WW: In some ways, then, you have to put your drumming abilities on the backburner and focus on other things, so the songs don't become stereotypical?

JE: That's right. Exactly.

WW: All of the songs on the new album are credited to all three of you, but as you mentioned, you each contributed a third of the material. How much do the songs change from the demo stage to the completed recording?

JE: Usually quite a lot, actually, and that's a good thing about this band. We feel so comfortable. It's easier for Peter and Bjorn to come up with ideas on my songs than the opposite. But someone has to have the first idea. The chords, the lyrics, the first kind of draft. And then we change things around. We might change the style of it, the tempos, might add some new riffs and melodies. Sometimes the song is so good, they can keep it the way it is, with just some small production changes. And sometimes it's like a completely new song. It's hard to explain. It's not like a general thing.

WW: The three of you played together for several years before Writer's Block came out. Was that an advantage for you? Did it help you deal with the success because you'd been able to play at a more low-key level for a while, as opposed to having a huge hit the first time out?

JE: That's a good question. I think definitely that was the case. I also think Writer's Block is the first album, I think, that we really found a unique sound and style and felt comfortable with the way we write our music. We wanted to break through when we did our first and second albums, and after the second one, we did a gig in Norway and a couple of gigs in Sweden, and nothing really happened. Then I think we kind of relaxed a bit more and didn't take it as seriously. And then Writer's Block came out and it was a big success.

You're totally right. It was good that it didn't happen before. We were a bit older, so I think we dealt with it in a very relaxed way. We don't feel like celebrities or anything. We're in it for the music, so to speak.

WW: In this country, a lot of people were introduced to Peter Bjorn and John by "Young Folks" being used on the TV show Gray's Anatomy. Was that program familiar to you at all? And did it seem a bit strange that, at least in the U.S., you broke via a television show as opposed to getting a song on the radio?

JE: I heard about that TV show. A girlfriend of mine told me there was a really cute doctor in it (laughs). So when we were supposed to say yes or no, I didn't really know about the series. I've seen it now a couple of times, and I think it's a really good program. It's a new way to do it, and it's sort of strange. In some ways, it seemed a bit more natural the way it was before, where you record an album and you get it out through radio and through the music. Now, as it is, you have to reach people through other channels. You might not like it. It can feel like you're more in the hands of commercialism and stuff like that. But if someone recognizes our song through a good TV series or maybe even a good beer commercial, that's the way it is right now. Maybe that will change. But I don't have a problem with that, as long as it's not like we're selling machine guns or something like that.

WW: Have you had some of your music used in commercials?

JE: Yeah, we've had a couple, and when it's beer, we think it's okay (laughs). We did this list, and I don't want to read the list of things we won't say "yes" to. But if we feel comfortable with it, especially if it's movies or TV. That's culture, and I think that's a good thing.

WW: A couple of years after Writer's Block came out, you released Seaside Rock on vinyl and digitally only, and it certainly caught many of your fans off-guard. Especially the ones who thought you'd be making Writer's Block, Part 2. Were you consciously trying to let people know you weren't one-dimensional and could do a lot of different things? Trying to surprise listeners, catch them off-balance?

JE: Yeah (laughs). Yeah, both of those things. And also, just for us, it felt like progress, learning how to record and experiment in the studio. We experimented a lot in how we recorded sounds, and we used that on this new record. It was like a pre-stage to re-furnish your house. I think it was really necessary for what you said, and for the sound of the band. And also, Seaside Rock is a lot about our hometowns, where we come from. In a way, it was like digging in the dirt and coming up like a zombie to do something new.

WW: The experimentation you mentioned definitely on the new album. For instance, I understand that on "Blue Period Picasso," you're actually playing a matchbox. Is that true?

JE: Yeah. The snare drum part. And also, the bass drum part, that's a suitcase, I think. There's no real drums on that song, and not any on some other songs, either. There's a lot of stuff like that. We like that kind of work.

WW: Were you able to do those kinds of things because you had more time in the studio than on your earlier albums?

JE: Actually, we had less time because we booked time in good studios. We just had seven or eight days to finish it. But we did a lot of pre-production, and really thought about what we do. And all this stuff, like the matchbox stuff, was spur-of-the-moment improvisation and playing around. I think everything shouldn't be too thought out. I think it should be a mix between brain and heart.

WW: You mentioned how much of an influence Seaside Rock was on Writer's Block. But I think a lot of Writer's Block fans never got a chance to hear Seaside Rock, and that might explain why so many people have been taken aback by the new album, thinking the sound is so much darker and denser. Do you think if people would go back and check out Seaside Rock, the new album would make more sense?

JE: I think so. It's like when you see an exhibition from a painter or an artist. A retrospective. When you see an artist's early work and you can follow it through the years. And when you look at it that way, I think it's really interesting. And when we've recorded five albums more, you'll be able to find the thread between the albums in some way.

It's a bit dark, but still, at the same time, it's quite happy. There's a lot of sounds on the album. Writer's Block, there are a lot of skin sounds, where we play things on our stomachs and stomp our feet, and a lot of drum hats and piano and guitar. And on this new album, there's a lot of wooden instruments. Sticks and things. So maybe it's more organic, like a rainforest type of thing.

WW: You wrote "The Feeling" and "Last Night," the first and the last song on the new album. Was there any politics about that? Did you have to fight for your spots? Or are you guys pretty egoless when you sit down to decide how to sequence an album?

JE: This time it was kind of hard, because we had more songs than ended up on the album. But we try to find a good flow. We still think you should be able to listen to an album in a good way. But the first and the last song, all of us thought it was a good way to put them. So I was lucky in that way. And I have two other songs. I wrote "Lay It Down," which is number seven, which is also a favorite spot of mine. That was lucky, too (laughs).

WW: On "Lay It Down," Peter sings the main part instead of you. How did that happen?

JE: At first, he thought that I should sing that, and I recorded the vocals for it. But then, a couple of weeks later, he wanted to sing that, and since he's the lead singer, and I think he's the one in the band who can actually sing (laughs), I wouldn't say "no" to that. And also, when we decided to use that as a single in some territories, it was very natural, because Peter sings that. I think it's better for me to sing the Ringo Starr tunes (laughs). And the same with Bjorn.

WW: Here in the states, you're touring with Depeche Mode, meaning you're playing in front of a huge audience that's mainly there to see somebody else. How challenging has that been for you?

JE: It was quite a challenge at first. We didn't know what to expect. We heard some rumors about what their audiences are like. But I think they're much crueler in Europe. Here, it's been super-super good. People seem really open to our music when we play these arenas. There have even been guards who stopped people from dancing. They had to put people back in their chairs, because they've been like, "We like this band!" So for us, I think it's a perfect thing to meet a new audience, and it's been good for us to play in these big arenas. You have to think in a different way to reach out and be even more focused. So even if we don't gain thousands of new fans, it's been good for us. I think it'll make our own headline tours better. And it's nice to see a band like Depeche Mode, how they play, and how a big production like this works. And also, the catering is really good (laughs).

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