As I prepared to interview Swedish singer-songwriter José González, I played his cover of The Knife’s “Heartbeats” out loud in the office. One of my coworkers balked at the idea that it was, in fact, a cover and not an original song of his. That’s the magic of his work — he approaches music as a living, breathing thing to be reinvented constantly.
Now, he’s done the same for his own music and taken frequent collaborators The String Theory along for the ride. While on tour throughout Europe, González and the Berlin- and Gothenburg-based orchestra reimagined some of his best work and deep cuts for a compelling double album, released last month. Before González hits DC, orchestra in tow, we talked to him about this ambitious project, working with The String Theory and how he chooses his cover songs.
On Tap: What was the inspiration behind recording this live album and then bringing The String Theory on tour with you?
José González: We’ve been collaborating for almost 10 years now, and on our first tour together it just sounded so amazing. It was a unique huge project to me at the time, and for weird reasons, both hard drives where we did the backup recordings disappeared — one in Berlin and one in Gothenburg — so since then we’ve been waiting until we got together to record again. When we started, we knew we just had to tour as much as possible and not lose anything ever again. That lead to this double LP that we released. We picked our favorite versions of songs from the European tour in 2017.
OT: A lot of the versions of your songs are a lot different than the studio versions. It definitely feels like your songs are living, breathing things. Why choose the songs you did from this project’s huge catalog?
JG: It started with them choosing which songs to arrange. I never gave them directions, I just let them choose freely. They didn’t know at first if they should choose the more popular songs or if they can chose any song. I wanted to give them that freedom. It’s such a big project to do arrangements for, and I wanted them to be excited, so it was fun to let them choose on their own. They came up with a mixture of songs I was a bit surprised about. Since we started touring we’ve been able to add more arrangements and choose from the songs we’ve been playing live. It feels like a band where I write the songs but they do most of the arrangements and artistic choices.
OT: Even being a bit more hands off with the decisions, what did this overall process look like for you and The String Theory?
JG: Some arrangements they did in great detail before we met, all written down very meticulously. But others were more dreamy and the musicians were asked to improvise. Of course there had been moments were things didn’t work, so I also felt like I was part of this process of making the orchestra more like a band, where people actually say no if they don’t like how we’re doing something — including me. Getting the percussion and beats somewhere I was comfortable with took a long time. My favorite percussionist is in the band, the only one who isn’t from Europe. He’s been touring with my solo band, and I didn’t want to lose that Latino touch since we’re playing with this more Nordic and German orchestra.
OT: Any songs that were particularly tricky to rearrange?
JG: One thing we were battling with for a while was the song “Down the Line.” We had an arrangement where it was very drony and trippy — simple in the arrangement, but heavy so to speak. It’s been changing shape from each concert until last tour when we recorded the album we started to do a Krautrock version, and finally it clicked after a lot of fighting [laughs].
OT: That one definitely struck me as the biggest departure from the original studio version. I can’t imagine coordinating the arrangements with that many people. What’s it been like touring with such a big group?
JG: It’s a lot of fun. When we started touring, many people in the band hadn’t been touring in the way that we were touring, so it was a breath of fresh air to have all these excited and amazing musicians in this trip of their life. For me, it’s been amazing to hang out with them, they’re all so excited to sing and hang out. Its just a very different dynamic than going on tour with just a few people. We’re like a little village, traveling around. It’s 22 musicians and then with crew, it’s nearly 30.
OT: Not a tour-related question, but I know you’ve gained notoriety for your unique covers of songs like “Heartbeats” by The Knife and “Teardrop” by Massive Attack. How do you decide what to cover, and what does your process for putting your own spin on these songs look like?
JG: There’s a lot of gut feelings going on. I know when I first hear a song and read the lyrics I’m on the right track, one other trick has been to do songs that are pretty well-known but maybe not expected as a cover. That’s a trick that I borrowed from Cat Power or Johnny Cash where their thing was to do cover songs in an unexpected way — in their own style. More recently, I guess I stopped doing covers in that style and have been okay with doing songs that are just nice to listen to, like “Blackbird” by The Beatles. So those have been my different, but main, ways of doing covers!
José González and The String Theory play the Lincoln Theatre on March 20. Doors at 6:30 p.m. Show at 8 p.m. For more on the artist, visit jose-gonzalez.com.
Lincoln Theatre: 1215 U St. NW, DC; 202-888-0050; www.thelincolndc.com