Björn Yttling is the B in the beloved Swedish band PB&J, as in Peter Bjorn and John. The threesome, which also includes Peter Morén and John Eriksson, have been creating music together since 1999, but it was first in 2006 that they exploded with full force onto the American scene with their third album, Writer’s Block, and the hit single Young Folks.
The band has released three other albums to date, Peter Bjorn and John (2002), Falling Out (2004), Seaside Rock (2008), and Living Thing (2009). In 2009, Mick Boogie curated a remix of PB&J’s latest album, calling it Re-Living Thing and featuring an impressive line-up of well-known artists and producers. In 2009, PB&J also collaborated with hip hop star Drake on the song Let’s Call It Off, from his 2009 mixtape, So Far Gone.
But Björn is not just a pop star, he is also a star producer. He has worked with hot acts like Robyn, Shout Out Louds, Lykke Li, Sarah Blasko, and Taken by Trees, just to name a few.
He is soft-spoken and careful. Modest but deliberate.
Did you have a musical childhood?
It started with an early “progg” record. “Progg,” that’s hard to explain; it’s like Swedish Socialist records for kids. They were about Vietnam and the war, run of the mill sixties stuff. I guess I was four years old when I got that record. Then I started playing the harmonium because we didn’t have a piano at home. In school, I played the recorder, because that’s what everyone does in Sweden. It’s a horrible instrument to start with because it’s pretty hard to play well. What you have to do is be restrained, and that’s the last thing you are at that age. Then, you give it your all, bust your lungs, which is the opposite of what you should do with any kind of flute. I thought it was pretty nerdy. But we had the harmonium at home, so I played that.
You had a harmonium at home??
Doesn’t everybody? I’m from Norrland, the North of Sweden. It’s like a poor man’s piano.
Did your parents play it?
No, it just stood there. It’s kind of like a big couch that you have and don’t have the heart to throw out.
Back to the music.
I started writing songs when I was in middle school. In third grade, you were allowed to play different instruments. But you weren’t allowed to play the piano— keyboard— because there were too many of us who wanted to play it and there was just one piano. So, I had to play the trumpet at first. It was awful, I quit right away. After that they let me play the piano after all. When I was ten, my grandmother gave me a keyboard of my own. Then I started writing songs. I ripped off Depeche Mode and things like that.
Did you parents play any instruments?
My old man played. But I didn’t live with him. But when I got a little older, like ten, I learned stuff from him. He played well. He was an amateur musician. He had a ton of instruments in the house and a good ear. So I cheated in music school and only learned by ear instead of by reading notes.
Where did you grow up?
2,000 people live in the town where I grew up, Norsjö. But I lived like ten miles outside of town. There were five homesteads within a few mile radius. The music school was in the town itself. I guess I lived there at the same time as Stieg Larsson lived there. He lived a few houses down, with his grandparents. They apparently didn’t have electricity or running water. I haven’t read his books, but they take place around that area.
How did you get to the music school?
Postbus. Mom worked at the school, so I rode in with her every day. But then I had to take the bus home by myself. And it didn’t go all the way, so I had to walk over a mile in the dark.
Did you play in a band early on?
We had a band right away. It was me and a friend and a Commodore 64. Then another guy joined. His dad played in a local dance band, so he had drums at home that we’d play on. The dad’s band’s name was Jan Östens, because his dad’s name was Östen. We made music videos too – filmed on one of those old-school cameras. There was a guy who we let play with us mostly because he had one of those cameras.
When was your first gig? Do you remember what it felt like?
It was early, when I was twelve or something. It was for a school function. We played a hard rock version of White Christmas. I was always nervous. Mostly, I was afraid something would break. So it was more a question of survival. More about getting it over with than some sort of external, performance thing.
You knew pretty early on that you wanted to work with music. Did you have some image in your mind about what it meant to be a pop star?
No, not really. Just from teen magazines. Not until I was sixteen did I understand what a studio was. Everything was pretty abstract. You kept striving toward something, you didn’t know what it was, but you still kept trying to get there.
When did you become more aware about what that ”there” was?
It was gradual. I think I knew more about what it meant to be a pop star then than I do now, because now I don’t really care that much. Back then, you knew that you had to be cool in pictures, stick out your tongue like Gene Simmons. Now, when I do it, for real, stand on stage and play, I’ve gradually lost all that. I’ve forgotten what it was I thought it meant to be a pop star.
How did your parents feel about your music interest?
It wasn’t a problem. The thing was, when you live far out like I did, out in Stieg Larsson-land, there aren’t any organized sports activities or things like that. But I did do a lot of sporty stuff. I would go skating on the lake by myself. But I did it alone, like really alone. I shoveled the snow to clear the lake by myself. All alone. There were no sports practices. And even if there were, it was hard to get places. So, there was a lot of time to sit and do music by yourself. It was a good thing you could do without neighbors or friends.
But what about having music as a profession? Did you ever feel pressure to choose a more stable career path?
Huh? No, no. But, wait, what do you mean, pressure? I moved from home to live with my dad when I was fifteen. He lived in Västerås [a small city]. And when I moved from there, I was eighteen. When you’re eighteen you have to take care of yourself, and I did.
But maybe it’s true that it’s different in the United States, that you have to make more cash here. But there was never any talk about that. We don’t come from a culture where you have to get rich in Sweden, especially not in the North! There, it’s best to shut up and not think too highly of yourself— then you’ll do just fine.
So you moved to Västerås to live with your dad. What happened after that?
At the time, I started playing with Peter from Peter Bjorn and John. I was seventeen and he was sixteen, I think. I was enrolled in a music high school and there weren’t a lot of other people who liked pop music at the time. I’d slid more into Manchester Pop by then. REM, early Nirvana, before they got big. Stone Roses. That’s the kind of music I liked, and nobody liked it. But then Peter came along, and he liked it. That’s when we started playing together, 1991 or 1992. That is almost 20 years ago! Wow.
Tell me about moving to Stockholm.
It was exciting. I enrolled in some class in order to get student loans, otherwise I wouldn’t even have been able to move there. If you were unemployed in Västerås it’s not like you could just up and move to Stockholm and be unemployed there. Unemployment benefits were, like, a dollar a day.
What kinds of jobs did you have?
I worked as a telemarketer. It was flexible, you could call the same day and say you could work. I’ve always tried to keep my schedule as flexible as possible so that I could play music. It was pretty dull, a regular, old, shit job. But you have to make money, so you just gotta bite the bullet.
And I worked in a record store quite a bit. But I spent a lot of my money on records too. I used to stand there and listen to records. It was a pretty good education.
I was also a piano teacher. I did it as little as possible, but just enough to make ends meet. I guess I lived on $900-1,000 a month.
Any other jobs?
When I was in high school, I went up to Norsjö and had a summer job as a musician. I was a bandmaster there when I was like sixteen. I would put together different musical arrangements. I had to be there from 8-5 every day even though I’d done all this work ahead of time planning the arrangements. I didn’t think it was fair. So when I got an offer to do another gig for the hotel in town, Hotel Inlandia, I did it during my lunch hour. The guy who hired me for the first job was super pissed. He sent me a postcard later, I remember: “Good luck with life.” [Laughs]
Wow, that is passive aggressive.
I think it was because it was Folkpartiet [the Liberal Party] that hired us during the lunch break and it was the Social Democratic Party that hired us during the day. I guess it was a little touchy.
Back to Stockholm.
Well, the indie scene had just started bubbling. I was playing in a lot of bands because I wanted to build a network, I didn’t know anyone in Stockholm. I met people by playing.
My goal at the time was pretty modest. It was to play more gigs than I had the year before. I would sit and count the gigs I’d done at the end of the year— like, ”OK, I did 150 gigs this year and I did 130 gigs last year…great! I’m on the right track.” What else could I hold on to?
Peter and I recorded a few records with a band, but there was no money in it. Then, at the end of the ’90’s, I started playing with Nicolai Dunger. I don’t remember how I got that gig, but it must’ve been through other gigs I’d done. That was around the year 2000. I started playing a lot with Soundtrack of Our Lives, too, toured with them all over Europe. I was subbing in for Martin Hederos when he had a baby.
How did you get on the music producer track?
Well, I started to realize that you can’t play live all the time. You can’t just keep playing more and more gigs per year, which was my earlier goal. So I thought: ”What can I do instead? Maybe produce music?” I’d seen other people do it, so I knew it could be done.
I started with Peter Bjorn and John, my own band— we’d met John by then, in 1999. Then I started working with Marit Bergman, who’d gone to school with Peter in Västerås. She’d quit her punk group and was recording her own album. That went well.
I co-produced Money Brother, with Jari Haapalainen, and that went well. I co-produced Nicolai Dunger with Jari too. I learned how to produce by watching him, him and Pelle Gunnerfeldt, who was producing The Hives at the time.
So you’re pretty self-taught?
Yeah, sure. You can’t learn to record albums any other way. You can’t learn theoretically.
What happened after that?
I started playing with Caesars Palace [known as Caesars in the States], too. I guess I did a lot during those years!
What years are we talking about, exactly?
Still 2000-2001. I was traveling like crazy all over Europe. No one did US tours back then. Håkan Hellström hit the scene and made indie big in Sweden, then The Hives came and made it so that people could come here [the US] and tour. In 2002, I toured with Soundtrack of Our Lives and played as the opener for Oasis in Europe. That was the time when The Hives were everywhere, crushing. That’s when we started setting our sites on the US. Caesars Palace got a hit at around the time that the first iPod came out, and that’s when we began touring in the US, around 2004.
In the meantime, how were things developing with your own band, Peter Bjorn and John?
Peter Bjorn and John’s first record was made in 2002, but we kept doing all that other stuff on the side since that’s what brought in the money. We made some records, it went OK, not great. Then we made the third album and it just exploded. It was 2006. It was insane. It was like a Hives situation for us here. Everything went really fucking well.
It was like the entire fashion world made a collective decision to play your song, Young Folks, for all their runway shows.
Yeah, that was totally insane. I think Collette started it and then it was like everyone else thought it was hip at the same time. It started in the European fashion houses, and then it came to the US. We didn’t understand a thing. We signed a deal in the US six months later, and then it was like fucking bananas over here.
Tell me about it.
Every single show was sold out for like a year and a half. We went to South by Southwest, and we were the most in-demand band in America. It was unbelievable. The guy who writes The Wire, David Simon, did a spoof blog about how Peter Bjorn and John were taking over and people needed to stage a demonstration or something. We were like, ”Someone’s writing a fake blog about all the hype? Wow.” It was totally sick.
We talked earlier about the idea of pop stardom. What was it like to experience it for real?
By then, I’d worked so much with music, I’d stood on the big stage with Oasis and things like that, so I was pretty used to it. But this was still bigger. It was ours. In 2007, we spent a few months living in New York and people would come up to us on the subway and know who we were. It was strange since no one really cared in Sweden. You might say that was a pretty crazy time.
What about after that?
I kept producing. I worked with Shout Out Louds [See interview with Carl von Arbin from Shout Out Louds for DoY here]. And Lykke Li. Then she blew up. We finished that album and things just kept rolling. But none of us in the band [Peter Bjorn and John] really understands how fucking huge we were back then. It was just insane. But, at the time, we were just like, ”Want to tour in the States? Sure, why not?”
How do you work— do you have a studio of your own?
It’s different depending on the character of the project. I have my own studio in Stockholm. Here, in New York, I just have some gear in the apartment. Now I have a budget and can travel and do things the way I like. Often when you’re just starting out, you don’t have a lot of options. Now I can choose if I want to work here or there, if I want to work short shifts or long ones, not work at all for four days in a row, get my assistant to do stuff….there is a lot more freedom. You can make all those choices once you’ve gotten over the budget hurdles. I guess that’s happened in the past few years.
Is having an artistic community important to you?
Yes, it was when I was living up in Northern Sweden. Then it was important to have buds who listened to the same music and that we could talk about it together. In Stockholm, too. But it’s not like I’ve locked myself into any particular “scene,” musically speaking. I hang with a lot of jazz musicians, some hard rockers…so no real “scene.” But community? Yes, absolutely. I still think that’s important. You get energized. Someone plays you a song, you visit other people’s studios. When you meet someone, the best thing in the world is if they mention an album they’re listening to. Then you can write it down and check it out. That is really fucking inspiring.
Does your job as a producer influence your work as a musician?
At first it did, because I thought too much, like, from the outside— the way you do if you’re producing. To really step outside. When I work with Shout Out Louds, for instance, and they’re playing a new song for me, I have to hear what everyone is doing, what everyone is doing right and what they’re doing wrong, the way the song moves, what kind of structure it has, the shape of it, if we should up the tempo…all that. Then you really have to listen and be super tense. If you try to do that when you play live, everything goes to hell. That can happen sometimes when I’m doing a soundcheck or rehearsing, it just gets too much. I’ve learned over time that I have to disconnect and only think about playing because I can’t be in control anyway. It’s impossible to hear everything when you’re caught up in the middle of it.
Do you have any advice for young musicians?
You can walk around and talk about doing something as much as you like, but it won’t help you. You have to put in those hours with the music, first hand. You can’t learn to fly with a flight simulator, you can’t fake it. I learned a hell of a lot playing with Nicolai Dunger, because he was very easy going and sort of did whatever. I had to improvise a lot and learn to be fast.
Later, when I was recording other people’s stuff, I learned to come up with things, remember them, and record them. To be professional. And that takes time. You can’t learn that by sitting at home and writing to a metronome. Or reading about what you want to do in magazines. Stop reading magazines, it’s better to spend that hour playing the guitar— always.
You have to do bad stuff all the time until it gets good. To plan stuff won’t make it good, the only thing that will make anything good is doing something bad first. It’s sort of like planning to write novel— that doesn’t work. You have to write. Practice doing it. Practice doing everything. Practice carrying gear. Practice playing rhythmically. Practice playing with someone else. Practice being nervous. Practice doing everything, everything. There is nothing you don’t have to practice doing.
Have your work habits changed at all?
What’s changed is that I’m more efficient now, my start-up time is zero. Now, I can just jump right in and do what I need to do. It took longer before, to get into things. That’s also about practice, practicing getting into the work-flow and doing what you need to do. No more excuses.
Interview conducted and translated from the Swedish by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Sven Lindahl