VIDEO: Peter Bjorn and John, "Young Folks"
In “Young Folks,” the hipster hit by the Stockholm-based indie-pop trio Peter Bjorn and John, Peter Morén boasts that “we don’t care about the young folks.” Maybe not in song, but in reality it’s hard to believe the band care about anything more because, right now, Morén and his mates are part of a new wave of Swedish indie acts intent on breaking through in the US. Just how intent? Over the course of a one-week visit beginning in late January, PB&J played three sold-out gigs in three different New York City clubs, appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, performed on tastemaking DJ Nic Harcourt’s West Coast radio show Morning Becomes Eclectic, and made Drew Barrymore dance at the Roxy in Los Angeles. (Barrymore became such a fan that she wore a PB&J T-shirt on Saturday Night Live February 3.)
“The guys in Peter Bjorn and John realize they have this opportunity to cultivate a following here,” Harcourt says. “And they’re willing to do the work. The common thing that binds a lot of these Swedish bands together is that they can’t make it just in Scandinavia — the market’s too small. So they have to look outward.”
Who else is looking? Beyond such 2006 success stories as José González and the Knife, there’s I’m from Barcelona, a 29-member orchestral-pop outfit, art-folk types Frida Hyvönen and Tobias Froberg, the one-man band Loney, Dear, the electronic duo Lo-Fi-Fnk, and singer-songwriter Sarah Assbring’s neo-girl-group project El Perro del Mar (who play this Friday at the MFA with Under Byen and Frida Hyvönen). Each has a new release or tours planned for this spring, and several are hitting South by Southwest in Austin later this month, where they’ll do what they can to attract the eyes and ears of America’s indie-scene elite.
The acts span a wide stylistic turf, but as Sub Pop A&R exec Tony Kiewel, who signed Loney, Dear after a booking-agency friend sent him an MP3 and he “fell head over heels for it,” says, “There’s a strong pop overtone to a lot of the stuff coming out of Sweden right now. I mean, think about it: what’s the biggest band in Swedish history? Abba. Something can be drawn from that.”
Indeed, what these artists share is a refreshing willingness to embrace accessibility. There’s none of that passive-aggressive rejection of success that’s always plagued the American indie scene, where commercial failure gets viewed as a badge of artistic credibility. Of course, in Sweden the government doles out generous grants to the sort of up-and-coming artists who’d have to wait tables to make rent in the States. And when the taxpayers are helping to fund your recording, shouldn’t you give them something they can tap their toes to?
“The government in Sweden recognizes music as a valid industry, and they’ve been nourishing it,” Kiewel says. He also points to the increased ease of worldwide communication as a factor in Swedish pop’s growing profile. “In the past I’ve backed away from working with international bands because it was so much more expensive than developing an unknown band in Seattle.” Now, thanks to the Internet, “it’s much more doable.”