Known by his first name as the drummer in Peter Bjorn and John, John Eriksson spent 2012 under the moniker Hortlax Cobra, creating music miles from the sunny Swedish pop of the trio. Eriksson’s first solo album, Night Shift, dropped in the summer, but his pet project made it out just at the end of year. Directly influenced by Van Halen’s 1984, Eriksson’s version shares the album and song names, tempos and track lengths of the original album, but the songs are dark, electronic, and often spare.
We shared a long distance phone line with Eriksson (who even stood outside in the Swedish snow for better reception) to discuss the offbeat concept album, his love for Van Halen, and how to make a masterpiece.
How did you come up with the concept for your version of 1984?
I had some kind of writer’s block, and I thought back to when I was young. When you’re a kid, you have feelings that are more intense, and you fall in love more often…you have stronger feelings for songs. The first song I had this enormous feeling for was “Jump” from Van Halen’s 1984.
And for me, it’s more interesting to make some kind of bigger project, especially when I wanted to make an album. This was almost like an art project for me. I worked with classical music before contemporary music, and I wanted to try to make an electronic-sounding record, but I had to find somewhere to start.
Even though it was released afterwards, you recorded 1984 before your “first” solo record, Night Shift, right?
Yes, 1984 was the first step for me as a recording artist. I’ve been playing music with Peter Bjorn and John and other artists for quite some time, but I’ve not been completely on my own. So I did something inspired by something else first then I did something that was completely my own music. 1984 was like a prequel.
I wanted to learn how to find exciting sounds and how to work from electronic music to make whatever I want, but I didn’t know how to start, and I thought back to that first music I really loved. When I was a kid, I was a hard rocker. I listened to Iron Maiden, Van Halen…and for me the fun thing was all of the mystery, the powers, that made me want to do something weird and find another angle…that makes it sound really complicated. [Laughs] Mostly, 1984 was a way of starting to make songs – to cut and paste and find something.
Do you think Van Halen’s music is more mysterious to you because you grew up in Sweden?
Well, I didn’t know English that well back then…I’m not super-good at it now either. [Laughs] So I didn’t understand what the songs were about. When I read the titles from the Van Halen records, the way I saw it, they sounded like they were Swedish words. The music was probably much more strange in that way. But when I was young, it was just about going around jumping from chairs – you know, it’s very hard to make cool jumps. [Laughs]
I’ve never been that super-interested in lyrics. I’ve mostly listened to instrumental music all my life. It’s only since we started Peter Bjorn and John that I started to listen to lyrics, and now I see it’s most important thing. [Laughs] But for this project – or any electronic dance music – the most important thing is sound, and so it’s just most important that you find words that sound good. The way the words sound when you sing them, it’s almost like an instrument. The meaning behind them is not the most important thing for me. For Peter it’s the most important. His lyrics are true to himself, they’re clever…I look upon it as just as sound. The lyrics in my 1984, as you may hear, are not very thought out. It’s just stuff that sounded good at the moment. I’m working into getting more into the words.
Do you think you could have made Night Shift without first making 1984?
I think it was really important to have made 1984 first. After I made it, I felt really secure. I knew how to make the music much better. It’s like painters, who make sketches before making the big piece. It’s the same thing.
Even though it works as a sketch, is 1984 its own masterpiece?
My 1984 is a very interesting album, it’s a piece of its own, and hopefully people can feel something when they listen to it, so definitely. I worked so hard on it. I spent almost two years — eight, 10 hours a day — so every detail is extremely focused. I think it’s a good record. But Night Shift feels more like a proper album. It’s also kind of a concept album, since it’s based on the idea of one night in a person’s life.
I think it’s good to make as much music as possible. The more you do, the greater the possibility that you’ll make something great one day. I might have done the best I could already, I might make something better in 5 years or something, I don’t know. Making music in different ways…sometimes you might make an album and other times you might hit yourself in the head with a bottle. [Laughs]
How does this far more conceptual work fit into your life as Peter Bjorn and John?
When you’re in a band like Peter Bjorn and John, you make an album, tour on that, have a break, start writing songs…there’s always time in-between and the three of us are restless and need to make music all the time, and when we make our own music, we can do what we want. And because of that, when we get together with the band, you’re more relaxed. You don’t have to fight for every detail because you just made a solo album. It makes it easier to be a band. It’s like going to a therapist.
I guess more than the time spent apart, these projects seem very different from the music you make in PB&J. Far from pop! What drives you away from that more accessible music into this very different sound?
It’s exactly that – that you can make something completely different. We all save our best songs that we think have the possibility of being the best pop song for Peter Bjorn & John. Since we’re thinking so much about creating timeless classic pop songs in PB&J, for me it’s very important to do something that’s less commercial; to dive into something more mysterious and experimental. And also I’m almost too inspired by stuff, so one week I want to make an album with just two chords going on for 45 minutes, and the next day I want to make the new Robyn or whatever…you get this feeling…each day it shifts. I can’t make up my mind. So I figured out it’s probably better to make experimental stuff on my own. Some art is better to make on your own in a secret hiding place or mysterious music cave. You need that time to dive into your own head, and other music gains from working as a collective.
Alright, I’ve got to ask: if you could be any member of Van Halen, who would you be?
[Laughs] I would be the drummer, because that was my goal when I was a kid – to have a big drum set like Alex Van Halen. Alex Van Halen, he’s got the most drums – 3 kick drums, 18 toms and 100 cymbals, so of course I would love to be him for one day when they were at their peak.
What’s next for you?
Right now I’m working on a mixtape. I just wanted to put together a mixtape with new songs, but ended up recording stuff over songs so it seems like I made a new album – stupid but also fun. [Laughs] I also just started making songs with Peter Bjorn and John. We’re working on something new, but it’s going to take a while, no rush…it will probably be out in one year or something like that, but it’s very good, I can tell you. You’ll see!