Photo by Marcus Palmqvist
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Björn Yttling started off with a disclaimer: “I’m probably the worst list-maker in the band. Ranking things is not really something I spend time on. So this will be more of what I enjoy listening to right now.” But his warning is hardly necessary. Despite his lack of self-confidence, the middle titular member and bassist for Swedish indie pop veterans Peter Bjorn and John [the umlaut is only used when he is an individual] is actually a star when it comes to ranking his band’s work.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock or in a coma for the last decade, there is no possible way you haven’t heard PB&J’s mammoth 2006 hit “Young Folks.” It was a big song of that year’s summer, as well as the next, inspiring even Kanye West to jack it for his Can’t Tell Me Nothing mixtape. That single was lifted from the band’s third album, Writer’s Block, which turned out to be a gift that just kept on giving to hip-hop acts: Drake sampled “Let’s Call It Off” for So Far Gone and Azealia Banks claimed “The Chills” for an early single. To date, Writer’s Block is still the trio’s most recognized work, but since then, they’ve been busy working together, on their own (Peter Moren has a solo career) and with others (Yttling has produced and written for Primal Scream, Franz Ferdinand, and Lykke Li; John Eriksson has played with Lykke Li, Sahara Hotnights, and the Concretes).
Peter Bjorn and John have just released their seventh full-length, Breakin’ Point, and if he were allowed to, Yttling would have put it at number one on his list of rankings, because to him, “It’s just that good!” It should be, as it took them five years to make. But that was in order to make it their best.
“We could have put it out in 2013 with almost all of the same songs, but then we wanted to up our game and see where it could take us,” he says. “We were trying to make pop songs this time. Ballads as good as “Moon River” and up-tempo songs as good as “Beat It.” So we had to reach out to more producers and we thought, ‘Why not reach out to the best?’”
They weren’t kidding. To help them achieve their goal, they called up pop’s biggest hitmakers: Greg Kurstin (Adele, Taylor Swift), Paul Epworth (Adele, Florence and the Machine), Emile Haynie (Eminem, Lana Del Rey) and Patrik Berger (Robyn, Icona Pop). But even with all of these miracle makers in the studio, Yttling says it wasn’t automatic. “You can’t just kick out songs like U2 or Paul McCartney or Adele,” he says. “It took some time to get everything together and do all of the session work.”
6. Living Thing (2009)
Noisey: Why is this your least favorite?
Björn Yttling: I think it’s not just my taste but that the songs are too long. And the whole process of making that album was weird too. We didn’t really have a great, holistic perspective. Because we made that in 2008 when we were coming out of heavy touring, having the success from “Young Folks.” There was talk about making a double album, and some of the songs are either too long or too short. I think it was more production by committee first and no one was really steering it.
Was there a lot of pressure to follow up Writer’s Block because it was such a big success?
Yes, I think so. We saw Max Martin in the studio working on an album by P!nk or someone, and he said, “Oh, so do you have a new ‘Young Folks’”? We were trying. But we wanted to do something with less guitar. We had this idea of making great melodies on rhythm instruments and making rhythms on melodic instruments, which did not make it easy.
I think “Young Folks” made people think you were this sunny pop band and were then a bit thrown off by how much darker this album was.
Yeah, maybe. We did a lot of stuff before “Young Folks.” But we went for more dark 1980s stuff than 1960s lighter stuff, so they were right.
5. Peter Bjorn and John (2002)
We did this one back in 2001 in my apartment. Actually, some basic tracking was done in Studio Gröndahl in Stockholm, and we did the rest of it in my living room. It’s a cool debut album, because you hear the energy is all over the place. Some songs were just put together the night before the mastering, because we needed one more song. It was made on a 16-bit computer; it was very lo-fi and not the dynamics we would want nowadays. It was like, we needed to record a piano, but I didn’t have one at my house, so we went to the school with a MiniDisc and a mic. It was definitely an indie sound to it, and some songs weren’t meant to sound like that. So I think that’s what I hear. I don’t listen to it so much but there are some cool songs on it. “Falling and Passing” has this weird, pitch-shifted sound, which is still interesting today, I think.
I read that you and Peter were playing in a shoegaze band before this album. Is that true?
Yeah. We went to a music school where most people played classical or fusion jazz. This was around 1990 and we were more into Stone Roses and Manchester bands, but were the only ones. So we got two guitars and a drum machine, and banged out some tunes. We had some different bands a few years before we moved to Stockholm and met John.
4. Seaside Rock (2008)
I like a lot of instrumental music, and basically I haven’t listened to it much. But it fits in nicely at number four. That one we made after all of the touring before Living Thing, just to get into the studio thing and get into some recording vibes. But then it turned into a concept album about being near water and where we’re from. It’s a pretty nice album to listen to, actually. We recorded it in Stockholm, of course, but also in Hoboken, in Sonic Youth’s studio. We stayed in New York for a while after touring. We wanted to make music that sounded like children playing instruments. I played saxophone and Peter played violin. We definitely were like beginners playing.
I don’t think anyone expected you to release an instrumental album after Writer’s Block. It was definitely a surprise. Did you guys think it was a weird idea?
I think everybody hated the idea but it wasn’t like, “Oh, let’s put out an instrumental album!” It was more like, “Let’s get into the studio and record again after being on the road so much.” I think we just thought instrumentals would be a lot easier. We went into the studio with snippets of ideas and not full-grown songs. I think it only came out on vinyl too, so I’m not sure why it ever came out at all in the end. [Laughs] I’m not sure it even came out! But people wrote about it, and the damage was done.
Do you consider Seaside Rock as the proper follow-up to Writer’s Block?
I mean, Living Thing came out on Columbia and Seaside Rock did not. I don’t think we had a concept of follow-ups, even to this day. Up until that point we didn’t even have a music career, so we just did whatever without thinking. I mean, shit happens!
3. Falling Out (2004)
We did this one in the same studio the same way as the first one, but this time we had more knowledge about how to record. We didn’t have any money at the time, so we had to go in on New Year’s Day. I remember we got some crazy sounds because we didn’t know what we were doing. The last song was recorded on a mobile phone, so there are a lot of textures. And we borrowed a lot of the Hives’ guitars, which were lying around. So we got some cool sounds in that studio. We had some massive fights in the studio over things, but I remember it being very interesting. The song “It Beats Me Every Time” was a minor hit in Sweden. Because there was only really tiny labels in Sweden the guy who released it disappeared a few months before the record was gonna hit record stores, so we had to put it out ourselves. But then we got some help from a publishing company. We did this trick where we bought up our own CDs, like hundreds of them, and it got up on the charts. [Laughs] So the publishing company guys saw that we were on the charts, and they offered us a proper deal. So we could then put more money into recording.
This album got a release in the US in 2005 via Hidden Agenda. Did that feel like there was some progress being made as far as getting heard outside of Sweden?
Ah, right, yes! You’re right, I forgot about that. So we got a little international recognition. We worked a lot and tried everything to figure out how to campaign without money. After we had done all of the work, our energy was low. But that effort took us into Writer’s Block.
2. Gimme Some (2011)
What happened was we did Living Thing and we had a hard time doing that live because it was really made in the studio. These very intricate sounds that were hard to do live. So when we came back from that tour we wanted to make more of a power pop, guitar, bass, and drums record. We thought that would be fun. We looked up who could do that. Like James Murphy. But he didn’t want to, or maybe just didn’t have the time. Or some guy from Germany who recorded Queen, but no. We all loved this Swedish band Eggstone when we were kids. They had Tambourine Studios, which they ran, and they had a particular sound. So we asked the one guy Per [Sunding], and he wanted to make a great power pop album. So we went down with our songs and he was the first outside producer we’d had and I think it was great. We were listening to Guided By Voices and the Nerves, and we agreed that we were do it with guitars, drums, and bass, or at least do overdubs to make it sound that way. I think it came out as a great whole album. We weren’t aiming for a hit, but more just cool, power pop songs and play in the rehearsal space. I think it’s great for what it is: a rock album. We also had a song called “Second Chance,” which turned out to be a bit of a hit on a TV show.
Yeah. It’s the theme song to 2 Broke Girls.
We were like, “Should we let them put it on there?” We were told they’d also use it on bumpers. And we were like, “What are bumpers?” But we knew it would help the song, even though people would hate that. So we decided to just do it. And it turned out to be a hit. It wasn’t bad for us. The song is intact and people love to hear it live. There aren’t really any fundamental problems with it.
1. Writer's Block (2006)
So why is this your favorite?
It’s so varied, but I love listening to it. I have been listening to it even more now because it’s ten years now. If you had asked me maybe five years ago, it might not have been on top. But I think it’s just a great effort. We were sick and tired of trying and not getting anything out of it. We couldn’t get a break. So we decided to do this album just for ourselves. It was recorded in my new space, which was not my apartment and sort of a studio. So that was pretty cool. We did what we could with the money had. We went in to mix it on Christmas Day. We had a guy to do it but he didn’t come in—I think he just wanted to be at home—so I did it because no one was there. For the first time, I think we were three songwriters, because John started writing too. It was quite an acoustic album, but we were listening to ESG, the Chills, and all of this indie stuff.
Has the appeal of “Young Folks” worn off at all?
I think some people in the band got tired of it, the other guys got more into it. But when it comes on over a PA it just sounds so good with that intro. With that, we were trying to mimic the drums on Daft Punk’s “Robot Rock” [makes a rolling drum sound] in a very indie way.
Victoria Bergsman has a perfect voice.
Yeah. And it was great to go on and do a whole album with her [Taken By Trees’ Open Field] for her solo project.
This album was popular with not just rappers, but the two biggest in the world. “Let’s Call It Off” was used by Drake and Kanye West used “Young Folks.” You must feel quite proud of that.
Yes. I mean, it was crazy when the Kanye thing dropped. We wondered, “Can he even sing?” [Laughs] It turned out he couldn’t, but he did it anyway. I really liked that. And Drake changed some of the lyrics, which was very cool. It was like having the story told by a different band. And then “Amsterdam” was big with other rappers. We also had Re-Living Thing, the rap version of Living Thing too. I forgot about that.
Drake wasn’t a big star when he used your song. That’s something you can look back on and say he sampled your song to help his career.
I mean, he hasn’t sent us flowers yet. But it’s fine. He also did a Lykke Li song too. We’ve always been up for sharing and doing new versions and people using our music. It wasn’t us ever reaching out to those guys. They did it on their own. That is the best honor you can get.