Vaguely Poetic: James Yorkston Chats with Peter Morén (Peter Bjorn And John)

The two songwriters worked together on Yorkston’s latest.

James Yorkston gathered a big group of musicians for The Wide, Wide River, which is credited to Yorkston and The Second Hand Orchestra. Among those contributing to the album is Peter Bjorn And John’s Peter Morén, who plays guitar and sings on four songs. The two had a lively, slightly sarcastic conversation from their homes in Scotland and Sweden, respectively. 
—Josh Modell

James Yorkston: How are you man?

Peter Morén: I’m good. I’m in Stockholm and it’s snowing. I don’t know if you can see but there’s actually snow. Can you see the globe over there? It was built in the ’80s, and it was a very bragging symbol of Stockholm back then. It was built for hockey and big events and concerts and stuff. It’s quite ugly.

James: Is that a Hockney behind you?

Peter: We like his paintings, but it’s just a poster though. It’s not…

James: Oh, I know. I know.

Peter: Can you see this? It’s Paul McCartney and a dog.

James: Oh man. I heard a Paul McCartney song the other day that I quite liked. It was on Paul McCartney I, and it was one of his silly songs, but it had been left off the White Album, apparently.

Peter: “Junk”?

James: Yeah. I thought it was a very good song. I really enjoyed it.

Peter: It’s great. He’s got a lot of good songs.

James: I’m sure he does.

Peter: You might learn something from him.

James: Your English is very good. It’s much better than my Swedish.

When I go to Sweden, and I’ve been to Sweden loads in the last 20 years, it always surprises me how amazing everyone’s English is. Do you get taught it at school?

Peter: Yeah. We start at 9. In Germany and Spain and a lot of countries, they have dubbed movies, which we never had in Sweden growing up. So watching TV, watching Dallas or Falcon Crest or whatever…

James: This explains a lot about you, if you grew up watching Dallas and Falcon Crest.

Peter: Didn’t you? It was huge in the ’80s.

James: No. They were terrible.

Peter: Yeah, but I was very small. You’re a bit older than me.

James: I am not. How old are you?

Peter: It’s rude to ask. I’m turning 45 this year.

James: Wow. So I am a little older than you. But we both agree that I look younger.

Peter: Yeah, of course.

James: As soon as the hat comes off, I look a lot older.

Peter: But seriously, I think that helped, that we watched a lot of TV and movies and no dubbing. We saw a lot of British TV too, a lot of comedy and Monty Python, and it was never dubbed. So of course you pick up on how to speak.

James: So what are you working on at the moment? How are you filling your time?

Peter: I’ve been quite bored this year, to be honest, which is obvious. Bored and confused, but I’m getting into the groove now and getting used to it. I don’t know about when you grew up, but the inspiration to do music in the first place was because of boredom.

James: Do you have a place you can go to and work?

Peter: Years ago, I got some equipment and tried to start learning Pro Tools, but it’s a bit like math for me, stuff I couldn’t do in school. I’ve been spoiled because my band mate Bjorn has been producing since 2000. He’s always been interested in that. In high school I had a four-track where I did demos, but then I met him and I got spoiled. But I do sit at home and write mainly on the acoustic guitar. I have a little keyboard, too, and I can make demos. But if I want to do something properly, I work in a studio with an engineer, even if it costs a little bit of money.

James: Your job is songwriter, really. I only use very basic recording equipment because I don’t really use any effects or anything. I just layer things up one by one. In fact, sitting just at the back of my room is my old 20-track machine, which is like a four-track except it’s got 20. It’s broken, but I can’t bear to throw it out. I’m looking at it right now. I’m crying. I’ve moved on to a thing called Cubase, which I use on my iPad. But I do miss the physical thing of pushing faders and having to have your hand on all the things.

Peter: We’re so old, both of us. I remember when we did the first couple of records with the band, we were actually doing that on a mixing desk and everyone had their couple of channels you had to work. And at that point, you’ve moved that fader, and then it was done.

James: I’ve used tape for every record except for the last two. So the one we did together, The Wide, Wide River, that was done entirely on digital, wasn’t it? But before then, every single album had tape at some point.The one thing I really don’t like about digital, I’m going to sound like an old man here, is people adding more and more and more to songs. And then they’ll send you a WAV file, and it’ll just be flat, and it’s just a horrible thing to listen to. All that compression, everything is audible, but sometimes it doesn’t need to be. Sometimes it’s better if the bass is just bubbling away underneath and just pushing frequencies. 

Peter: Yeah, yeah, yeah. More and more, I try to delve into songwriting with other people, just because it can’t be all about my own projects. I have too much time. I’m so bored. So I’ve been trying to write with people.

James: That will be very flattering for everyone that you’ve worked with, knowing that you only worked with them because you’re so bored.

Peter: No, but seriously, it’s good to branch out in different fields, and I just like songwriting a lot. I have to work with someone technical, and a lot of the younger people, they do know their technique. So I come in as the old dude with the guitar and some melodies. I was writing with a young guy here in Stockholm, no names mentioned, and the song was around three minutes. I said, “Yeah, this is a good length.” And he was, “I think it’s very long.” Because these days, in the playlist, the streaming world, a lot of the songs are two minutes because it’s all about the instant kick and they don’t want people to skip to the next song. So it’s getting more and more condensed.

James: I think when you get to a certain age, you just have to do what you do. But as I said, I’ll let Domino do what they want with the single edits. Good luck to them. Really there are so many people working behind the scenes. This album has had so many names on the emails that come through to me and all these people doing things. And I feel I’d be a bit of a wally if I was saying, “No. The single is going to be six and a half minutes,” because It’s just never going to get played. So long as the album stays as I want it, I don’t really mind what happens with this digital thing. 

But you’re right, it does remind me of those rock & roll songs. I remember, one of my favorite ever songs is a track by Carl Perkins called “Glad All Over.” I think it comes in at two minutes, and it’s perfect. Maybe that’s what we should do for the next one. I was talking to my friend Steven, who I do the podcast 46-30 with, and he was saying that he was listening to a couple of old albums last night, and they both came in at sub 30 minutes, which seems like a perfect length. But my record contract tells me they have to be over 35 minutes. 

Peter: Back in the ’60s, the albums were around 30 minutes, 35 at the most. So this is all like a disease of the CD era when the albums were like 70, 80 minutes long, and now we’ve gone back.

James: So you obviously know a bit more about this than I do, because I don’t really buy youngsters’ music. But you’re saying that the new albums, they’re really long, but the songs are all really short?

Peter: I think the albums are short now. Shorter. I think we have both. I guess from the R&B, hip-hop world, they came of age in the CD era. I think those albums are a bit longer, because that’s how they build the albums with skits and stuff. I don’t know. I think anything goes these days.

Peter: You always do vinyl for every record?

James: Yeah. I’ve been very lucky with Domino. I remember asking Lawrence about this, he’s the head guy. This was before the vinyl boom, since it’s come back. I remember saying, “Are we going to continue with vinyl?” And he said, “Yeah. We’re a record company.” The people who like my music tend to want to buy it on vinyl. They seem to be old guys like you and me, one step from death, and spending the last of our pensions on some plastic, which is great. Most of them listen to it digitally, but they just want a souvenir. 

So let’s see, what were we talking about? We should talk about some other stuff. You know what interviews are like. Every single one, you get asked the same thing. And it’s great that people are interested. It’s very flattering, but it’s always the same questions. What did you think about the new record? Because I’ve been asked plenty of times. For the listeners, Peter came on board. None of us knew the songs except for me. And then he came in with his Rickenbacker, and you just … How was the experience for you, not knowing the songs and just being within the room?

Peter: It’s great fun. With the band, Peter Bjorn and John, I might mostly be known for writing songs and singing and the pop craft. When people listen to our records, it’s quite arranged, I guess, even though it comes from a lot of improvisation. So when you lay down a backing track, even though we have the song, we do improvise a lot, but then maybe you arrange it in the computer, take out stuff.

James: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Peter: But then, of course live, I’ve always been into the long ending and the rambling and the just vibing and weird solos or whatever. So I’ve always been into improvising. What was so special about this thing was that we were actually recording the first impulse or maybe the third impulse. And also that situation of being so many people in the same room, I don’t think I’ve done that before. I have played on stage with a lot of people, but not in a recording studio. So you can go with the flow but then you just have to use your ears and listen to the other people. I think everyone listened really well and it became this organic mess moving together. I thought it was going to be harder. When you listen to the whole album, I’m not on all the songs, of course. I’m not on the first session, but it almost sounds like it’s done at the same time, even though it’s two different locations and it’s two different studios. It sounds very of a piece, I think.

James: I was in awe of what you’re able to do in the studio without thinking about it. Your hands are just running around, and you’re hitting all the right notes, except for that one time, and I was in awe. I think it’s in “Very Old-Fashioned Blues,” where you take the solo, and it’s in minor and you come in with a major scale, but it sounds brilliant. I absolutely love it. As soon as you did it, I said, “We’re not changing that note.” And it’s a highlight for me, when you suddenly come in wrong. Everyone was just there to serve the songs. I don’t think there’s anyone thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to do a solo. I’ve got to stick out,” or anything. It was a thrilling experience for me, a lot of fun, and great hanging out as well.

Peter: I was going to talk about singing together with other people in harmony or just singing in a group. There’s something a bit religious about it. I had a similar experience recording your record when everyone was just chiming in. Having your lyrics there and then just finding a harmony, spur of the moment.

James: It’s a communal feeling and there’s something when the voices are harmonizing together. If you slightly go off tune of course, you get that weird sound, which is a very comforting sound when you’re all in tune. I’ve got a couple of questions for you. You had your big hit single years ago with… What was the name of it? Young…

Peter: “Young Folks.” 2006.

James: When that came out, in Scotland, that was pretty much seen that it was like you listened to a lot of U.N.P.O.C., from the Fence Collective. Is that true?

Peter: That record was on repeat, I think, for both me and probably Bjorn as well, but I don’t know if that’s the reason it sounds like it sounds. But I know Bjorn was really into the Beta Band as well, who were some friends of yours, right?

James: Yeah, I was an altar boy with Steven. We went to the same primary school, the same secondary school, and now we’re on the same record label, Domino Records, so we’ve been friends a long time. 

Peter: I think a lot of that stuff was inspiring, but I think the thing with that specific song was it started like an instrumental track actually, like a piano piece. And then we tried to make it into James Brown or something. I don’t think U.N.P.O.C. was part of the discussion in that. Does he whistle? I can’t remember.

James: Yes, he does whistle. But you don’t have to worry because you have admitted that you basically stole it off him, and he has a good job now and he’s not going to sue you.

Peter: Yeah, yeah. The thing is there’s so many people that stole from us after that that are a lot bigger than us now. So that’s just the name of the game.

James: I think I stole a lot from you but it didn’t work for me. Every time I stole one of your songs, my reviews just got worse and worse, man.

Peter: Makes sense.

James: I know you’re a massive fan of The Beatles. Were you a fan of the Beach Boys as well?

Peter: It’s funny you’re asking that. You know that Phil Spector died, when was that? Last week? For some reason, I was reading something about Phil Spector and I like a lot of the Spector stuff of course, even though he was a turd of a man. But it made me listen to the Beach Boys again because they were really into Phil Spector. I always go in these periods where I circle in on a genre or an era or something and just try to learn more about that and listen more to that and find new stuff I like that is very old. But then you have your touchstones that you sometimes fall in love with again. So right now, I’m into the Beach Boys again.

James: Same here. I got a copy of Pet Sounds in the car for the kids to hear because I listen to a lot of traditional music and a lot of, from around the world, a lot of South American, a lot of African, and my wife is always saying to me, “James, you have to play the children some more up to date music.” So I brought Pet Sounds.

Peter: And they had so much more to offer as well. But it’s a weird story, like that whole band and the brothers and the cousin and the mental illness. There’s so much weirdness. And a lot of songs from later years, like mid ’70s that are almost like a bit uncomfortable but still quite good. I don’t know if you heard the Love You album.

James: Could I ask you a favor? Could you make me a compilation of stuff that isn’t on Pet Sounds that is good?

Peter: There’s so much. Yeah.

James: I would absolutely love that because I don’t know where to start. I’ve only got really that one album. And I remember I had demos from an album called Smile when I was younger, and there’s an amazing song called “Surf’s Up.”

Peter: OK, yeah. I’d love to do that, yeah.

James: You shouldn’t have told me that you’re so bored at the moment.

Peter: I actually never answered that question of boredom, why I started doing music in the first place. Where I grew up, everyone was into sports and computer games, which is funny, because my son now, he’s really into computer games and sports and I was not. My dad was a sports nerd. My friends were into computer games and sports, and also in the ’80s, there was this, what do you call that? Role games?

James: Dungeons and Dragons?

Peter: Exactly, yeah. I thought all that was so boring. I was only into music and maybe some movies, but that was it. So it’s so funny now, my mom says that our family skipped a generation because my son is not into music. Maybe he’s going to be, but I think that was quite important, that I couldn’t bond with my friends. As I do now, I had a lot of time, and I was living out in the woods and I learned to play guitar and I listened to music. So I think sometimes it’s good to be bored, because you start projects. I actually started a new solo project, which is going to be in English. I’ve done a couple of solo records in Swedish, so I don’t want this to be under my own name. I’m going to invite some singers. And again, to circle back to your songs, I deliberately made a couple of these songs quite long. I think that’s an inspiration from you, just to lay back in the song a bit and let it stretch out.

James: I think a lot of people when they’re bored, they think of my music. No, I know exactly what you mean. This whole album promo period that I’m in now, I’m super busy. But before then, I was just writing and writing and writing in my studio, and I’ve absolutely loved having all the time to sit down with a piano, and just swimming in days of time, and I found it very inspiring. If you send me that Beach Boys thing, I’ll make you a compilation of some other music that you may or may not like. It’ll be my way of saying thank you. And you can see if you like it, or you don’t like it, but you may find something in there that you get.

Peter: We should mention that maybe that we did put out a record last year. And that was our 20th anniversary.

James: You’ve got this thing that you’re only going to do 10 albums as Peter, Bjorn and John, right?

Peter: That’s a secret, or maybe it isn’t. I don’t know. Maybe I said it to a magazine. I don’t know. But I think it’s undercover, but in the band, we said we’re going to do 10 albums. So we’ve done nine now and the last one came out last year, and that was our 20th anniversary as a band. So we’re supposed to go on a big tour, of course. And the album came out the week before everything shut down. I’m just so happy that we never went to the States. Had we gone, we’d be stuck in a hotel for a month. And then we released an EP in December, which was an encore to the album. We did quite a lot of press around the album, and then no shows. We did a TV show in Sweden, and we did some streaming stuff, but no actual shows. And there’s something about that that makes … I’m not really inspired to go and do another record with the band. I have other projects right now. But there’s something about not playing the songs. Doesn’t have to be like 200 shows but, I don’t know, 10 shows, something, five shows. Just playing the songs live — that feeds back into wanting to make another record. There’s something that feels unfinished.

James: If we don’t get to tour this record at some point, even if it’s just a handful of gigs, I will be disappointed, but I don’t really mind. I love being at home, and I don’t really love airports. I don’t really love the motorway journeys. There’s lots of things about touring I don’t enjoy at all. But I’m writing still. Do you write as a process? The way I write is an idea comes to my head and I’ll try and get my feelings out, and I’ll try and explain what’s going on. But I never try and write a pop song as if I’m writing for someone else. Do you ever do that? Do you ever sit down and say, “Right. Today, I’m going to write a song about an egg,” or whatever?

Peter: I think most of my writing is such a cliche, but it’s just a flow, just a stream of consciousness, just like where am I right now and trying to process stuff. But then, most of the time, you want to finish it, and you want to condense it somehow and make it into a song. I have so many riffs and loose ideas. How do you start?

James: I start with lyrics. I used to keep these riffs and these loose ideas, as you call them. But now I find that they hold me back, because say you’re two-thirds of the way through a song and you’re really into it, but then you start dipping into those old ideas. I find it very constraining now, so I just try and get rid of them. I got to a stage when I realized they were holding me back because I was subconsciously using them just to get rid of them, if you see what I mean. So I find it easier if there’s nothing there. If you’re in the flow, and then, “Oh no, this isn’t working. Why don’t I reach back into that cabinet and see if I can find something from 10 years ago, which might work in a song?” It disturbs things, so I don’t do it anymore.

Peter: If there’s an artist I’m trying to write a song for, I always try to go in completely blank. There’s a lot of talking, obviously. You just talk to this person if you haven’t met them before. “Where are you going with this project? Who are you? What do you like to eat?”

James: That’s more important than sitting down and jamming with them. I think going out for a meal, and just sitting and talking about ideas and music and what you want to do. I think that’s more important than just going straight in.

Peter: I never come in with any preconceived ideas. The only problem with that is if you do lots of these things, you have to be aware that you might throw out the same thing because you have certain … There’s certain progressions I like or certain riffs, so I might fall into the same thing. But when it comes to my own stuff, that’s when I use that bank sometimes. Not all the time, but sometimes, there might be something you like or a melody that you remember. I do use my memos. And then sometimes, I’ve been trying to start with the lyrics, too. I think that’s interesting because then the melodies can go other ways, unexpected ways, if you start with the lyric.

James: For me, the lyric is the most important thing, because that’s where the soul is for me, and that’s where the heart of the song is. And I find if I’ve got a lyric that I can work around, it works much better because if I’ve got the music and then I start to write lyrics, I find myself in that thing of saying, “Well, I have to get something that rhymes or scans.” And I think then you end up writing something, or one can end up writing something that perhaps doesn’t actually mean anything because all it means is that it rhymes or it scans.

Peter: Which can be OK too.

James: Yeah, but not for me, man.

Peter: No, no, but I mean everything means something.

James: There’s that phrase. I remember working with someone in a songwriting workshop over here. One of the guys said, “It doesn’t matter what the lyrics say. They don’t mean anything so long as it sounds vaguely poetic.” And that, for me, is a complete no-no. That’s like a punch in the gut. Songwriting is such a precious and such a joyful thing to be able to do for a living. There’s no way I could hand out something just because it just sounded vaguely poetic. That’s just using the rhythm and the melody of the words as a melody, as another instrument. And for me, the lyric is more important than just another instrument.

Peter: But a lot of people do that, of course. And I guess the thing to be said for that is that people can put their own emotions into it. If it is vaguely poetic, they might feel it. I think there’s a lot of good songs that are crafted as a hack. I think it can still be a very powerful song. But I think often when people say that, that they do something vaguely poetic, I think everyone reaches from somewhere. You might have some emotion you have buried somewhere that you use, or some experience that you use. It all filters through.

James: I guess even in the people going for the vaguely poetic, I suppose they’re all drawing on something from their past. You’re probably right. Maybe I should make my next album just vaguely poetic.

Peter: It’s a good title, actually.

James: Vaguely Poetic.

(Photo Credit: Nadja Hallstrom)

James Yorkston is a Scottish singer-songwriter who recently released his tenth album for Domino Records, The Wide, Wide River. Yorkston has worked with a wealth of talent over his prolific two-decade career, including Four Tet, Alexis Taylor, KT Tunstall, Rustin Man, Simon Raymonde, and many others.

(Photo Credit: Ren Rox)