Peter Bjorn & John’s Writer’s Block was my favorite album of 2006, and is still one of my all-time favorites. Lead singer Peter Moren was good enough to answer a few questions about the band’s latest synth-infused effort, Living Thing, and what it’s like to rub elbows with the likes of Dave Gahan and Depeche Mode…
Sonically, Living Thing is completely different from Writer’s Block. It’s less guitar-heavy, and there’s so much more space in the arrangements, seems like the songs are breathing freer and there’s less melancholy. How did you decide to go in such a dancey, synth-based, almost pop direction?
Peter Moren: To us Living Thing is a natural progression from an arrangement style that we started on Writers Block but that we know have taken to an extremer degree. Songs like “Young Folks,” “The Chills” and “Amsterdam” are also lacking a lot of guitar and have a lot of air and a less-is-more approach. So it’s kind of more of the same. We did listen to a lot of 80’s pop from our childhood this time around as inspiration, a bit more glossy synthy reverby pop like OMD, Depeche Mode, “Tango In The Night” by Fleetwood Mac, etc. We wanted the retrofuturistic, scifi sound dreams are made of. We did use some synths but hardly any drum machines at all. Just beating up natural objects. And African music, funk, hip-hop and soul informed the dancier arrangements. At the same time, Living Thing is the PBJ record so far with the most guitar solos!!
How has the songwriting process changed, if at all, now that the music is less guitar or melody-focused?
Not at all. We write exactly the same way, we just arrange differently. Some of the songs are old and were written around [the same time as] Writer’s Block.
Did you have any apprehensions about how people would receive the experimental turn you’ve taken, or that they might be expecting a sequel to “Young Folks”?
According to what I answered earlier we think we did a sequel to “Young Folks.” Especially “It Don’t Move Me” has a very similar form and arrangement — it’s just sadder, more of a break-up song then a getting-together song. To do something very different would have been to go very guitar-indie-rock, cause that is exactly what “Young Folks” isn’t and what made it stand out a bit on Writer’s Block.
I’ve read reviews that say the new album is darker than Writer’s Block, but I think there’s a lighter and more playful feeling. What are your thoughts on that? Did you draw inspiration for the lyrics from a different place?
The lyrics are, percentage-wise, darker than on Writer’s Block, but WB had some really dark songs too. We try to keep a balance. We also work with contrasts. “Living Thing” sounds upbeat but has a dark lyric; “Last Night” has a happy lyric but sounds downbeat. Maybe Writer’s Block was more straightforward in that sense. Our darkest album lyric-wise so far is still the second, Falling Out. So if that was dark and WB a bit more happy and light, Living Thing is somewhere in the middle.
What was the most exciting thing about recording Living Thing?
For me, hearing Bjorn and John do the backup vocals to “Stay This Way.” It’s so vulnerable and lovely. I got goosebumps!
How do you decide who sings lead on the tracks?
I sing lead on most songs, even songs that Bjorn and John have written the most of. But sometimes their voices are more suitable to a certain feeling or style. Like “4 out of 5” – that just has to be Bjorn! He has a drone-like voice that suits these types of songs.
What’s your favorite song off the new album?
Again I would say “Stay This Way.” It’s very emotional for me and I think we nailed it! I also love John’s “I Want You!” Those are the 2 I would like hearing any time. Of the singles, “It Don’t Move Me” is the best I think, so far.
What was the inspiration behind “Lay It Down”? Ever been in a real barroom brawl?
It’s an interior monologue, so it never became a real barroom brawl, just in the song – which makes it sadder. It’s about being disappointed in a good friend acting stupid.
As the first single off Living Thing, “Nothing To Worry About” is a far cry from “Young Folks” — how’d that song come about?
It was the last song we made for the album cause we needed a catchy single. The children’s chorus came about cause it lacked something in the refrains and that made it even catchier. It’s got a great hip-hoppy beat and it’s fun playing live.
Your tour with Depeche Mode just started at the end of July — what are you most looking forward to? Are you big fans of the band? How’d that pairing come about?
We just played Hollywood Bowl and that was what I looked forward to most. And it was great. Bjorn is a big [Depeche Mode] fan. I like some of the songs a lot, especially the older ones like “Stripped” and “Everything Counts.” Some of the newer songs sound like Kent, a Swedish stadium rock band, but with better vocals. But I’m a bigger fan of the Beatles, that’s why I wanted to play the Bowl. They asked us to come along and we said yes! Depeche not the Beatles…
How’s the tour going so far? How have the fans received the show, and hearing all the new songs live?
It’s been great! People seem to be really into it, especially the new songs! I think Depeche fans can relate to songs like “It Don’t Move Me” and “Just The Past” cause they sound Depeche-y.
What’s in store for PBJ after the tour ends in October?
Another tour in November. Also check out our great new mixtape assembled by producer Mick Boogie, where hip-hoppers do their versions of the whole Living Thing album. It features legends like GZA and Jazzy Jeff. It’s great, and it’s called Re-Living Thing.