The Many Flavors of Peter Bjorn and John
The wind howled, the rain began to slice through the air like wet daggers, and every terrifying bolt threatened instantaneous incineration. Wide-eyed and screaming, fans ran for their lives as though aliens were attacking, but Peter Bjorn and John and a few brave souls held fast against the brutal maelstrom, all of them putting their lips together and blowing through "Young Folks," the group's biggest hit, as if to say, Damn you, O wicked tempest — our buoyant melodies and unbridled joy shall beat back your ghastly blitzkrieg!
Okay, maybe that's all a bit hyperbolic. "It was a little scary," says quiet, polite PB&J drummer-singer John Eriksson a few days later, echoing my thoughts exactly, on the phone from a hotel room in Boston, where they're safely in the arms of Depeche Mode. Well, not literally; at least not to the best of my knowledge. Eriksson, frontman Peter (Morén), and bassist/keyboardist Bjorn (Yttling) merely hopped on the Depeche juggernaut tour as an opening act, mostly at big arenas. Indoors. Away from the lightning.
As it turns out, Philly wasn't the most frightening gig they've ever played. "It must have been like five or six years ago, we played this small place in Sweden — it was actually like a football club or something like that," Eriksson recalls. "We did sound check and everything was okay, but as soon as we started playing, the power went off. We tried to play anyway, which was hard, and then some Nazi people started shouting at us and fighting." Attempts to calm the angry horde with their catchy, sprightly tunes and sublime vocal harmonies proved futile. "Yeah. I don't know. Someone in the building kept turning the power off. It was bad. We got out of there quick."
And then there were the shows that were just meh. Like PB&J's first-ever gig, on a boat in Stockholm a decade ago. "There were three people there. And one dog," Eriksson says.
"Well, did the dog like you guys, at least?" I ask.
"No, he left after the first song. He was an old dog. But he was nice. And anyway, we got some free food and a couple cocktails. That was our payment."
But lest you think calamity's on the docket for every PB&J show, oh, no, no, no! They're a terrific and well-honed live act, and whenever they play, people are almost always smiling, singing, and/or whistling by the end of the set — usually even the most crabby, jaded assholes (not much you can do with Nazis, though).
And even though PB&J has a reputation for unabashedly upbeat alt-pop, Living Thing is at times a bit darker and moodier. In some ways, the album reminds me of a curious Swedish candy called Jätte Salt, which tastes like sweet black licorice, a salt lick, and cat pee all at once. The first time you put it in your mouth, you have no idea what to make of it. I hate it. I love it. I hate it. I love it. You want to spit it out, but then something about it is weirdly compelling. You swear you'll never eat it again, and then a few minutes later you're popping another one into your mouth, as if to determine once and for all whether it's completely amazing or really awful. But you never really can. And then they become really addictive in the strangest way possible. Yeah, that's what Living Thing is like, to me.
But enough about me. What's the one favorite word Eriksson's seen over the years that people have used to describe Peter Bjorn and John's music? "'Great'," he says. And his least favorite word? "'Not great'," he chuckles, before realizing that's actually two words. "'Strange'," he offers, after thinking about it for a few moments. "But that's okay — I like strange."
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