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

Photo: Jen Dessigner courtesy of Pitch Perfect PR
Photo: Jen Dessigner courtesy of Pitch Perfect PR

DC Post-Punk Trio Flasher Dishes on Making “Material”

Do you remember that video your older, horrible friends showed you of a car driving through what might as well be the Shire? Soft flute music plays and then out of nowhere you shit your pants.

That video and the rest of the YouTube “k-hole” will come back to you when you watch the video for DC post-punk trio Flasher’sMaterial,” one of the tracks off of their debut album, Constant Image.

The video features the same kind of everything-under-the-sun content you find when go down the YouTube k-hole, from a cappella and conspiracy videos to Adult Swim and Dr. Pimple Popper videos.

The video’s been remarked upon by a few outlets, like NPR and Rolling Stone, but none of the clips actually feature the band, so I called them up to talk about it as they were heading to Madrid. I chatted with Emma and Danny of the trio, and learned that the video-making process isn’t what I thought it’d be, that I wish we were friends and that they have a special release available only at their upcoming Black Cat show on November 30.

The video-making process demystified was actually somewhat straight-forward and obvious. The band’s label, Domino Record, gave them a list of potential directors and then they choose a few they like, and, from there, directors send them treatments.

Flasher chose director Nick Roney, who then sent the band a treatment of his video for “Material.” They found the idea intriguing, plus stopping to shoot in LA worked well with their touring schedule. It was on their drive to the shoot that Emma and Danny realized that the music video was going to be great.

“We got on the phone with him,” Danny says, “and he almost shot-for-shot walked us through it.” That clear storyboarding allowed the band to shoot the video in just two days.

“He has a vision,” Danny adds. “What was such a really manic, disparate idea was ingrained in his head.”

When asked what they like best about the video, they mention the nostalgia it evokes for sites like eBaum’s World. When I tell them that I’ve never had any firsthand experience with eBaum’s World, I’m met with incredulity:

“Whoa, whoa, wait,” Danny says, pausing over the phone. “Our references are going over your head. How old are you?”

I’m 24. So sorry, dear.

He compares the video to a pre-hyper-curated YouTube, when a related video really could lead you any which way, if somehow also always to Tycho.

“It took us back to a time when internet videos were a lot more diffuse, videos weren’t quite content but experiences.”

For single moments from the video though, Emma and Danny both mention the culty student film scene for the art shown in it, and the scene of the couple driving in the sun, which we could never imagine as a shot in DC.

After Flasher returns from the European tour, the group will kick off their U.S. tour November 30 at Black Cat. Public Practice and Gong Gong Gong both open for them and will join them for the entire tour. To commemorate the night, look for a flexiglass disc of original music which will only be available at the show.

“It’s going to be a night with bands we really love,” Danny says. “We wanted to consecrate it with a release so we can feel accomplished.”

The music will be more electronic and won’t be available beyond the merch table. “It’s for flashers-only,” Danny says with a laugh.

Welcome these clever, fun, post-punk bbs back home when they play Black Cat on November 30. Don’t miss secret merch and sweet openers either. The show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15. To learn more about Flasher, go to www.flasherdc.bandcamp.com. Watch “Material” here

Black Cat: 1811 14th St. NW, DC; www.blackcatdc.com

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RDGLDGRN at Union Stage

DC band RDGLDGRN returned to the District, bringing their distinct sound of infused hip-hop and go-go to Union Stage on November 24. Photo: K. Gabrielle Photography 

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Manchester Orchestra and The Front Bottoms at The Anthem

Manchester Orchestra and The Front Bottoms‘ joint tour hit DC’s The Anthem this past weekend on Saturday,  November 24. Photos: Mike Kim

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Young the Giant at The Anthem

Since the band’s 2010 inception, Young the Giant has made a name for itself in rock as the “thinking man’s band,” winning over fans, radio, and press with their incendiary live shows, strong musicianship, and poignant lyrics. The LA band brought its talents to The Anthem on November 16. Photos: Shantel Mitchell Breen

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Mitski and Overcoats at 9:30 Club

Hailed as the new vanguard of indie rock following the breakout success of 2016’s Puberty 2, Mitski played the 9:30 Club on November 16. Overcoats opened. Photos: Mike Kim

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24th Annual Old Ebbitt Grill Oyster Riot

Old Ebbitt Grill celebrated its 24th Anniversary of the two-day Oyster Riot, featuring tens of thousands of oysters, award-winning wine and awesome tunes. Photos: Mark Raker

Photo: Matt Hogan
Photo: Matt Hogan

Caroline Rose Dug Her Own Grave

I’m almost ashamed to admit that it wasn’t Caroline Rose’s music that first caught my attention, it was her powerful aesthetic.

When you’re doing the Music Picks at On Tap, and you don’t recognize a band, sometimes you make a judgement call on whether to give them a listen or not based on their artwork or images. For Rose it was a shot of her in a bright red tracksuit with a blasé expression and mouth full of cigarettes. It was one you couldn’t just scroll past.

You’ll notice in all her photos and videos she’s wearing that signature red, and that’s something I brought up with her when I got her on the phone in anticipation of her November 17 show at the Miracle Theatre.

“It’s just too far gone at this point,” Rose tells me when I ask her why she always wear red.

She’s speaks very down to earth and you can feel the humor.

“I’ve gotten rid of all my other clothes at this point, I’m in too deep,” she adds.

I press her on what the red makes her feel and she tells me that sometimes she’ll see a “very beautiful red and feel passionate,” but otherwise, she feels, “nothing.”

“I’ve dug my own grave,” she says laughing.

Rose’s music is much like the aforementioned photo, which is album artwork for her latest release, LONER. It’s funny, but also vulnerable. Her songwriting is a less weathered U.S. Girls, and not unlike Meg Remy too. She’ll inhabit characters, but never in a way that feels mean spirited.

The lead track off the album, “More of the Same,” gives a good example of the way her songwriting uses humor to make its point.

The second verse in particular: “I go to a friend of a friend’s party/ Everyone’s well dressed with a perfect body/ And they all have alternative haircuts and straight white teeth/ But all I see is just more of the same.”

Rose says there’s two stories to that song. The first has to do with a record label that didn’t trust her and had her constantly sending in demos of her music. The other is the one she often tells onstage, captured in that verse.

Sonically, the track is a hard turn from her previous release I Will Not Be Afraid. Until LONER, Rose’s music has been very much Americana.

On the 2018 release and in “More of the Same,” Rose moves into art-pop, making ample use of wobbly synths and other funky sounds, namely a range of samples from her apartment including “glass clops,” as she calls it. 

Over the phone, we talk a little bit more about the party.

“I was the only person dancing,” as she puts it.

That’s a succinct way of expressing a moment of displacement. She says the song is ultimately about how to be yourself when everyone is trying to make you fit in.

On tours, she and her band make a point of having some fun, so before or after the show look for them about town. Previous outings for the band include the movies, laser tag and Mall of America. Follow her on Instagram to catch up on the band’s latest shenanigans.

Also check out the production value on these the music videos for “Jeannie Becomes a Mom” and “Soul No. 5” on YouTube, they’re lush.

Caroline Rose plays with And the Kids at the Miracle Theatre on November 17 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15.

Miracle Theatre:  535 8th St. SE, DC; 202-400-3210; www.themiracletheatre.com

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Kamasi Washington at Lincoln Theatre

Kamasi Washington played a sold-out show at the Lincoln Theatre on November 10. Check out our select shots from the intriguing show. Photos: Mike Kim

Photo: Mike Kim
Photo: Mike Kim

Kamasi Washington Gives Us Butterflies

Kamasi Washington played Lincoln Theatre Saturday night and, sitting fat and happy in the audience, I had butterflies before he went on.

The opener, RVA-based Butcher Brown and his band, played a jazz and funk set to open, and they were great, but on either side of the Butcher Brown band drum kit, you could see Washington’s two-kit setup bookending the stage, hinting at what we could look forward to.

Washington released his debut record, The Epic, in 2015 (clocking in at just under three hours!), and has since made himself the face of contemporary jazz whether that’s for his contributions to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly or for his own solo material, like The Epic, or his subsequent records Harmony of Difference (2017) and Heaven and Earth (2018).

From the titles of his records, you can tell the man doesn’t shy away from high aspirations and that comes across in his live set. Like on his recordings, the live set is both challenging to listeners and lush. Lush in its melodies and instrumentation and challenging because there are no eight-bar solos and there are no three minute songs.

Onstage, Washington was flanked by vocalist Patrice Quinn, trombonist Ryan Porter, Brandon Coleman on keys, Miles Mosely on upright bass, and drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr, musician Thundercat’s younger brother.

I may have been miffed at first to only see a seven piece band, knowing how orchestral Washington’s recordings can be, but that was soon forgotten. These players are among the very best.

Standouts from the night included a Miles Mosely composition called “Abraham,” which he led on upright bass and soloed over using a bowing technique and a wah-pedal, Brandon Coleman’s solo on “The Space Travelers Lullaby,” Patrice Quinn on “The Rhythm Changes” and the drum “conversation” between Bruner Jr. and Austin.

Onstage, Washington actually referred to “Space Travelers Lullaby” as the “Space Cadets Lullaby” and called Quinn the “queen of all space cadets.”

“To this day, I have no idea how she gets to gigs.”

Watching her onstage, you might have thought the same thing. She only sang on a few tracks and otherwise danced onstage. But her dancing was otherworldly. Imagine an oracle moving and swaying, or imagine a priestess dancing with someone, that someone lacking a body.

Still, my favorite song from the night was “Truth,” the final composition off of Washington’s Harmony of Difference record. One of the things I love about that record is how symphonic it is. The first five tracks feature five different melodies, all of which come back on the final track “Truth” and are played simultaneously. It’s sounds like it could be a cacophony, but it’s so far from it.

“I made Harmony of Difference,” Washington says onstage, “to remind us of just how beautiful we are, and that the difference between us is what makes us great.”

At this point in the set, he really had our ears.

“Diversity among all the people on this planet is not something to be tolerated,” he continued, “it’s something to be celebrated.”

Truth was the metaphor for that message and the night was a celebration of that message. Don’t miss Washington the next time he comes to town.

For more information about Kamasi Washington, go to www.kamasiwashington.com or follow the musician on Instagram at @kamasiwashington, Twitter at @KamasiW or Facebook at @kamasiw.