IN THE MODE: Peter Bjorn and John look to Depeche Mode for inspiration.
The Bjorn Identity
Swedish trio follows Depeche Mode into the dark and gets to play with its heroes
By Steve Palopoli
BY THE mid-1980s, Depeche Mode was sick and tired of being teen-pop idols. Their early hits, such as "Dreaming of Me" and "Just Can't Get Enough," were catchy candy that they had outgrown quickly. Even worse, they broke onto the U.S. charts in early 1984 with "People Are People," a throwaway tune with lyrics so dumb they made its writer, Martin Gore, cringe—he dislikes it so much the band hasn't played it in more than 20 years.
As the impressively thorough behind-the-scenes documentaries on Depeche Mode's recently rereleased albums show, the band's concerns were changing fast. They were discovering exotic subcultures in metropolitan cities all over the world. They were writing songs about S&M and dressing like goths, and it was only a matter of time before their music caught up to their mindset.
In 1985, it did. In January of that year, the band released "Blasphemous Rumors," their darkest song yet. Slow and creepy, it was about a girl who slit her wrists in a failed suicide attempt, only to be killed in a car crash. The chorus brought them no end of controversy: "I don't want to start any blasphemous rumors/ But I think that God's got a sick sense of humor/ And when I die/ I expect to find him laughing."
Despite Dave Gahan's chilly, measured vocal, "Blasphemous Rumors" was as rhythmic and percussive as Depeche Mode's club hits. It was electronic music too slow to dance to, a beat slowed down to a sinister crawl. They would go on to perfect this art on their Black Celebration album, especially the single "Stripped," which used a slowed-down sample of a motorcycle engine running as its beat.
This is about when Bjorn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John became obsessed with them. "I listened a lot to Depeche Mode—a lot—in '85, and started playing keyboards because of it," says Yttling.
This was while he and band mates Peter Moren and John Erikkson were growing up in Sweden, a well-known bastion of DM fandom. There are several Depeche Mode tribute compilations, but only one non-U.S. country has produced one: I Sometimes Wish I Was Famous: A Swedish Tribute to Depeche Mode.
"They had more hit singles than the Beatles in Sweden," says Yttling. "Even the B-sides were hit songs there."
Echoes of mid-'80s Depeche Mode can be heard all over Peter Bjorn and John's new album, Living Thing. "The Feeling" has every element of a dance song—right down to the hand claps—but it plods along in a way that shifts the focus entirely to the lyrics, from the feet to the brain. "Just the Past" has the dark reverb and quasi-industrial background of DM on a bender. Even their danceable single "It Don't Move Me" has a menacing staccato piano riff, and the whole album is peppered with samples of found rhythms.
"We stole some tricks from them," Yttling says of Depeche Mode's audio assault. "There doesn't have to be a manufactured instrument. You can just drop your laundry from six floors and record that. On our newest album, we even used a balloon."
Peter Bjorn and John found an audience in the United States with their song "Young Folks"; it was the 2007 iTunes track of the year and was covered by Kanye West on his Can't Tell Me Nothing mixtape album ("That was crazy," admits Yttling). Somehow their music attracted the attention of Depeche Mode themselves, who invited them to tour this summer with them, including Wednesday's show at Shoreline.
"They asked us, then they thought about it a bit more," he deadpans, which is not always easy to do when English is your second language. "But they couldn't come up with anyone else."
The trio also share musical influences like the Velvet Underground and electronic pioneers Suicide, who were also masters of Dance Music Not Meant to Be Danced To. And yet, being from Sweden, they are doomed to fail every attempt to escape from the shadow of ABBA.
But they're taking it really well. "I mean, it's like British music that got compared to the Beatles," says Yttling. He's even come around to showing some grudging respect. "If you like music, you can't overlook ABBA. There's a lot of crappy tracks, but there's a lot of fantastic songs too."
But he doesn't think Americans should get carried away about the good music they're hearing from Sweden, like the Sounds and the Legends.
"There's some kind of pop music green card that you only give to music that's good," he says. "We sure got a lot of shit in Sweden."
DEPECHE MODE, with PETER BJORN AND JOHN play Wednesday (Aug. 12) at 7:30pm at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View. Tickets are $35–$99. (877.598.6659)
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