Photo: Johan Bergmark Medium
Photo: Johan Bergmark Medium

Darker Days, Brighter Sounds: A Conversation with Peter Bjorn & John

Keeping up with anything for 20 years is impressive. Crafting joyful, jangly pop songs with incredible technical precision for that long is an otherworldly feat. And yet here are Peter Bjorn and John who have done just that, especially with the release of Darker Days, their eighth full length album.

An insular recording experience, the band stepped away from using outside producers and built everything as a trio. This style lent itself perfectly to the lyrical themes of the album too – each member writes about different perspectives on darkness. Personal, political and environmental ideas of darkness are explored, all set to the trio’s signature sound.

We caught up with Peter Morén, guitarist and vocalist, on the writing and recording process for Darker Days, playing DC and the pride that comes with eight years of producing indie pop perfection.

On Tap: Darker Days is your eighth full length studio album – from a technical perspective, how did the recording process differ from previous albums? 
Peter Morén: We split up the production and songwriting between us. We have written a lot separately before, too, but also mixed it up, helping out and adding parts or changing them if one member wasn’t happy. This time we were three dictators. Maybe that was even more clear when it came to the production. We all played on the backing tracks of each other’s songs and arranged that together. Then we went off on our own and decided how to finish up the songs with edits and overdubs. Often, we brought in the other two as studio musicians to work on parts. But the end result of a song was up to its auteur. I think the album holds together because it’s us playing mostly in the same studio, and also that we have a lot of similar taste aurally.

OT: With a sizable catalog under your belt, what have you learned over the years that you were able to incorporate into the recording and production of this album?
PM: Every recording experience is different and we have tried a lot of different methods by now. We have a certain style and trademarks that we bring to every project even though they might differ vastly on the surface. I think it was empowering after working with all those producers on Breakin’ Point to find that we are more than able to pull it off in-house. For the first time, rather than take a stylistic left-turn, we looked back on our own catalog, got inspired by ourselves and what we’d done in the past and what we maybe are at the core, trying to act naturally. I think at this stage of the game it’s allowed!

OT: This album focuses on different types of darkness. Can you tell me more about how each of you incorporated your perspectives and ideas into the lyrics?
PM: A lot of the sketches and ideas for the songs were already started when we came up with the title, so it just tied in with that naturally. Songs usually dwell on what occupies you privately, at least it does for me. And for the last couple of years, the darkening political climate, the extremely dark threat of climate change and the planet’s eventual demise, if we’re unlucky, is constantly on my mind. Cheerful stuff! But that also ties in with personal doubts, midlife-crises, worries about the future for kids and family and maybe even the state of our band. It could also be a less negative darkness. Like the focus of black and white film, or the pleasant melancholia of the long dark Swedish winter. Those things maybe also inform how we went about playing and producing the sounds too. We all wrote about what we felt like, and took the songs that fit together best.

OT: What made you want to focus on darkness as the general overarching theme of the album? 
PM: We had this song called “Darker Days” which was about aging and death but also about the Swedish winter months in the North. That song isn’t even on the album, but we have recorded it now. So that was our starting point. We thought it was a good album title.

OT: What do you hope your listeners will gain or understand from this album? 
PM: If they just enjoy the music and get a vibe from the lyrics, that’s fine by me. Even a misunderstood lyric is a successful one. I like when people do their own readings or “mis”-interpretations. We’re not offering any solutions or great plans, we’re just as lost as everyone. But of course, if someone starts to think about issues they’re otherwise blocking out, that ain’t a bad thing.

OT: Any particular tracks you are most proud of?
PM: I’m really proud of “Living a Dream,” as a recording and as a song. I like all the little details in the arrangement and the sound of it. It’s a very “me” song. Especially considering I don’t see myself as a proper producer like maybe Bjorn. But you learn and it did work. Also I love “Heaven & Hell,” one of John’s. It’s really special and different, probably the best thing he ever wrote for the band. Even though it’s quite long, I could listen to it again and again. And I like that it’s [great] live too, with him really utilizing our improvised playing and ideas as a band, like my guitar stuff and Bjorn’s organ. It’s a performance and very us. But the whole record stands up. It’s one of our best. And the track-order is perfect. That makes for a good album.

OT: You’re embarking on a tour for Darker Days through this year and early next year – any place you are particularly excited to be playing?
PM: It’s always exciting to play cities you haven’t played before, and we have a couple of those on the European run. But then returning to places where we’ve always been [greeted] warmly, like DC, is exciting too. All-in-all we’re excited to play – new songs and old. Performing live only gets better every tour, I feel. We’re not old and tired just yet. More like semi-old, but on fire.

OT:  When was the last time you played DC? Any particular memories from a previous DC show or anything you’re looking forward to when you play Rock & Roll Hotel next month?
PM: It’s an intriguing name for a rock’n’roll-venue. Wonder what it looks like? And what goes on in the rooms? We came through DC on the Breakin’ Point tour in 2016 and played the beautiful, old Lincoln Theatre where you could feel the spirit of Duke Ellington. We have many great memories from the 9:30 Club. Their staff is the best. The first time we played there, our booked driver flaked and didn’t turn up with the bus. So they let us sleep in the venue and then drove us to New York the next morning. A terrible thing, but they handled it expertly and sweetly.

OT: With such an expansive catalog, how do you go about crafting your setlists?
PM: It’s a such a great feeling to have so much material to choose from. We usually try to bring in a couple of oldies that we didn’t do on the previous tour. And we enjoy changing the sets up almost nightly, even if it’s minor changes sometimes. I don’t feel you have to play your whole new album, it’s more important to get an overall good pace and vibe to a set. There are a bunch of songs that could fill the same role, so those you can swap around and play with. Also by changing the order of the same songs, it makes it feel fresh and adventurous. You might play them differently just because of that. Keeps you on your toes. Live should be totally live to make it work for us. In the moment, spontaneous. Too much planning, cues or choreography would spoil the fun. [Songs from] Writers Block and Gimme Some have always worked well for us live so we still play a lot of those tunes. But the Breakin’ Point songs work really well too. And now we have the new ones. It’s really only Living Thing (and more obviously Seaside Rock) that we don’t feature so much. It’s harder to play. And maybe the first two albums, since the audience doesn’t know them as well. But Falling Out turns up now and again. It’s one of my favorites of our albums.

OT: Any new songs you’re especially excited to debut live or older ones you want to revisit?
PM: “One For The Team” is really fun to do live, it’s one of PBJ’s faux soul funkers [that] gains from some clapping and audience-chanting. “Wrapped Around the Axle” is fun too. I love digging in to the back-catalog and picking golden oldies, sometimes rearranging them. We might do some Falling Out tracks we haven’t done in ages.

Peter Bjorn and John play the Rock & Roll Hotel on Sunday, December 2. Tickets are $20. Doors at 7 p.m. For more on the band and their new album, visit www.peterbjornandjohn.com.

Rock and Roll Hotel: 1353 H St. NE, DC; www.rockandrollhoteldc.com

M.K. Koszycki

M.K.'s entire life revolves around music, whether it be scouring Twitter for the band of the moment or catching a live show at one of DC's many venues. When she's not at a gig, find her hanging out with her golden retriever, drinking beer with friends or re-watching Twin Peaks for the hundredth time.