Björn Yttling is standing in my studio manhandling a Moog. He's not getting what he wants out of my old Realistic MG-1 that I've had since high school, but that's no surprise as it's been in the corner for years sucking up dust. He's got a determined look on his face, searching for a way through the noise to get at this beautiful melody that's he's working on. In about two minutes the old bird is singing sweetly — it's a minor miracle. Peter Björn and John — Peter Morén, Björn Yttling and John Eriksson — are at my place for a few days, rehearsing songs and demo-ing for a new record. They're winding up two years of touring for the ridiculously successful Writer's Block. You know, the record with that infectious whistle-laden song, "Young Folks"? C'mon, even your mom has heard it in the supermarket. We've got keyboards and drum machines on every surface and drums and amps strewn about. Even the piano is mic'ed, going into the PA with a ridiculous amount of reverb. They're completing songs and solidifying arrangements. Over the course of three days I hear the same set of songs played fast,slow,beats changed, different instrumentation and different feels. Björn has the band looking at the songs from every angle. It's a rehearsal-heavy pre-production ethos. Björn tells me that he's psyched to be in L.A. because the time difference keeps his cell phone quiet so he can work.
Björn is a powerhouse keyboard player/arranger who has been at the core of several great Swedish bands. He's played and toured with The Caesars, Nicolai Dunger and Dungen, as well as producing records for The Concretes, Shout Out Louds, Robyn and Lykke Li. With a fantastic ear for what makes a song tick, records that he works on feel timeless yet sound like they've been beamed in from another planet at times. Never losing the thread of what weaves serious hooks together, his arrangements are deceptively simple but can turn on a dime and head for Sun Ra territory. Just check out Yttling Jazz, his side project that sounds like Raymond Scott bouncing around inside a Mingus pinball machine.
Somewhere in the four days that he was in L.A. — in between Björn heckling bands at the Knitting Factory and getting 86'ed and banned for life from one of Steve Aoki's scenester Djnights-we sat down in my dining room to talk it up.
When did you start recording? Were you in a band?
I was on this Jeopardy-type TV show when I was a kid, and I won a trip to Copenhagen. I changed the trip to become a 4-track cassette recorder.
They just gave you some money and you spent it on a 4-track?
Yeah,and a pair of good AKG headphones.It was a Fostex cassette recorder, but I had used a Tascam [Portastudio] before — at music school.
You went to music school when you were in high school?
No, even before that. When I was 12 or 13 the school had this Atari 1040ST and a Tascam Portastudio. Later they bought a Roland D 50 [polyphonic synthesizer] and that's the first stuff that I started messing around with. Then I got my own 4-track. I just had a mic and was doing tape to tape — no turning back. Well, I guess you could go back one step!
How old are you?
So you're not like some people your age who basically have never used tape?
No, but I was into synth music. When the MIDI thing opened up it was great — you could do more stuff. I did [MIDI] on the Atari or the Commodore and would put it on tape and then record the voice. I then I went to high school with Peter [Morén] and I guess I continued recording on the 4-track.
So you were just recording yourself at first?
Yeah just me and a friend — songs that we wrote.
How did you start recording and producing other people?
I moved to Stockholm, where you could meet more musicians, and I got to play with this guy Nicolai Dunger — kind of the first proper gig for me. I was working in studios as a keyboard player for producers like Pele [Almqvist], who produced the Hives, and Jari [Haapalainen], who produced Ed Harcourt. So I was working and I realized that I didn't want to go around playing live all the time — it wouldn't be a fun life. I figured that if these guys were producing records then maybe I could too; I started co-producing with Jari, easing some of his burdens and learning what to do. I was arranging too — strings and horns. I had learned that before — I write sheet music. So I started with our first record, Peter Björn and John, in 2002. Then I recorded a girl called Marit Bergman — really the first record that I produced. It was a hit in Sweden. At that point there wasn't much indie rock in the charts — it was much older stuff and more slick stuff. Marit kind of broke the indie thing in Sweden. At first I didn't have good budgets, or any at all, but I did it anyway. I tried to take on bands when I didn't have work — to get them to pay for studio time — and I would produce them for free. I kept working all the time. At this time I played with The Caesars. That's where I got money from — touring with people. I toured the States and Europe. I co-produced some records with Jari, who became really successful. We did a couple of gold records in Sweden. Prior to that I had some extra work, like a piano teacher, but around 2002-2003 I just kind of quit.
How important is preproduction for you? Do you do a lot of that?
I don't really ever record anything before I go into the studio, but I rehearse a lot with people. I do pre rehearsals! That's the important thing! Getting the song structures, the keys with the singers. Sitting on the sofa singing — not being in the rehearsal space.
Just at their house?
Yeah, it sounds different singing in a mic. You tend to take it up all the time, because you can't hear yourself when it's low.
You mean you actually changing the key of the song?
People tend to move the key up in a rehearsal situation, but when we sit down on the sofa I can hear that it's much better in another key. Usually,...