John Eriksson: Portraits
(October 2010 Issue)
Seeing Peter Bjorn And John’s John Eriksson add his fresh sounds to the band’s pop-rock mix is like watching a four-star chef toss ingredient after ingredient into a smoldering pot of stew. We asked Eriksson to share the percussive recipe he followed on PB&J’s last album, Living Thing, as well as their worldwide 2007 hit, “Young Folks.”
MD: Can you explain some of the unconventional sounds on Living Thing?
John: Sure. On “Just The Past” the backbeat sound is knuckles knocking against the side of the same grand piano that Abba used on “Dancing Queen.” The snare is actually played with a fingertip pressing down the skin quite softly and then amplified afterward, with a fast delay added in now and then. The snare is sometimes also overdubbed with the wooden end of a violin bow dropped toward the strings. The clap sound is from a Yamaha RY30 drum machine recorded through a Yamaha REX50 effects box. Then I put that sound on a sampler pad and played it through a huge echo chamber. The kick sound on “Last Night” is me hitting a vocal microphone with my hand. The gated stuff at the end is Peter, Bjorn, and me hitting junk that we found in a container.
MD: How about “Lay It Down”?
John: There’s a lot of weird stuff on that song. There are some swishing sounds that are papers being ripped apart, and also two knifes scraped together. The snare sound is drumsticks bounced against each other, distorted finger snaps, and an old broken drum machine pad. There’s also the sound of an umbrella being opened in there, and the tom-tom sound is a tambourine without jingles.
MD: “Blue Period Picasso.”
John: That has the snare sound from a matchbox that I hit with my fingers. The kick sound is an old suitcase filled with crap. I played it with some wooden stick we found laying around. That’s how we work in the studio.
MD: How do you have all those sounds worked out on the samplers when you play live? Can you explain what you do on some specific songs?
John: On “It Don’t Move Me” I have three different sampled hi-hat sounds from the album. They are recorded with different types of delay, and I’ve put them on the top three trigger pads. On the middle part of the SPD-S there’s a huge clap sound on the right that’s played in the break before the chorus. On the left there’s the clave sound from the album. On the lower right there’s a dry electronic clap sound that I play at the same time as the snare on the choruses. In the bottom middle there’s a reverbed clap sound that I use in the intro. On my second sampler pad, the right-side one, I have more hi-hat sounds at the top, and on the middle pad there’s a special crash sound that comes in at the first beat of the chorus.
On “Living Thing” I trigger the synth chords in the chorus on the lower pads on the right SPD-S. On the left SPD-S I have two different sampled maracas that I hit randomly throughout the song.
MD: Is the triggered sound on “Young Folks” just a pad? Where is that sound from, and who whistles most of the time?
John: When we play “Young Folks” live I use the SPD-S pad a lot. Since Peter is so bad at whistling, we need to dub his attempts with a sampled whistle. That whistle melody I have divided in three parts, and they’re on the three top trigger pads. There is no click track or anything; I play to the whistle. On the three middle trigger pads I have sampled synth chords, and there are two chords per pad that I trigger during the second part of the verses. On the refrains I hit two of the pads at the bottom. They’re sampled with a huge “clang” sound that’s a cluster of recorded tubular bells and dulcimers and stuff. On top of that I try to play the beat. I often try to combine the sampled sounds and regular drums.
A funny story about the opening fill of “Young Folks” is that I tried to play the corniest fill I could think of, and when I almost started to laugh we knew we had the right intro. And the bongos are actually very, very important for making the song take off in the chorus, so every time we play it live we try to find drummers or other loose people that can do the bongo part. Sometimes it works really well.
MD: Playing as just a trio, are there sometimes things that you just can’t re-create from the record when you play live?
John: Yeah, I think so. But I always think when you go to live concerts you want to see something different. Sometimes it’s better to fall over the drums rather than play them. I mean, it’s more about the feeling and the energy. So some songs we change a lot, and we try to do new arrangements, to keep it fresh.
MD: You sing with PB&J as well.
John: I’m not Phil Collins just yet, but I actually sing on three songs on the last record: “The Feeling,” “I Want You,” and “Last Night.” When we make records we treat the singing as any other sound, so we try to choose the type of voice that would suit each song the best. When it comes to live performances, though, it’s a different story. Peter is the lead singer, and Bjorn and I sing like one tune each. I think that’s enough.
MD: What drummers and recordings have inspired you?
John: There are a lot. I mean, the first record I ever bought was Van Halen’s 1984, the one with “Jump” on it. I love that record a lot. [laughs] The funny thing is I remember I hated the cymbals on that record. Yeah, I think I’ve always hated cymbals. I’ve always loved the sound of drums and wooden instruments, stuff like that.
MD: But you still use cymbals.
John: Yeah, I have to. [laughs] I try to find old, dark, dry, dirty hi-hats and cymbals. Of course to find a good old vintage K Zildjian is the best thing. I also had this Zildjian pre-aged ride that was amazing, but a stage technician in…I think it was Madrid…pushed it down from the stage, and it broke. I kept it for a while. I sawed the edge of it and was able to play it for a couple of months, but then it cracked. I miss that cymbal a lot. I’ve never found a better cymbal.