Author: Riscica, Anthony
Date published: October 1, 2010
It's a Monday night in New York City, and Peter Bjorn And John are minutes away from taking the stage to play to a packed-in Webster Hall audience. Drummer John Eriksson greets me, and as we walk upstairs toward his dressing room I'm immediately taken in by his jovial nature. Though most of us caught wind of the Swedish indie-pop group only after the success of its whistley 2006 hit, "Young Folks," PB&J are on their tenth-anniversary tour and have honed their stage show to seamless, rapid-fire presentation. Eriksson leaves me to go prepare for the show, and when he reemerges on stage, not only have his clothes changed, but so has his demeanor. Focused yet loose, John and his bandmates tear into the first part of their set, and I'm left in awe as the drummer, who's playing standing up, dances around from sampling pads to drums to cymbals and back again, setting an exciting and intriguing pattern for the set.
Though early videos of the group show Eriksson playing seated, the sample-heavy nature of the band's work recently prompted a change. "I wanted to come up with a way to combine the regular drumset and a lot of sampled sounds," John explains. "I'm using two Roland SPD-S pads, and I thought it was important to have them placed so that the audience could see where the sound was coming from. I sing lead on some songs too, and I just thought it would look better if I was standing up. I've also been playing a lot in percussion ensembles for the past ten years, so I was used to playing standing up."
Eriksson doesn't record the group's records-the latest being 2009's Living Thing-standing up, but he does suggest that by thinking like a contemporary classical percussionist he's inspired to choose unusual sounds in the studio. "I take a lot of time to find the best possible sound that suits each specific song," he says. "Sometimes a matchbox sounds better than a snare drum. On another song we might record four different snare drums and create a new sound out of that."
Eriksson's interest in esoteric tones runs deeper than your average PB&J fan might realize. He's involved in a number of unusual projects outside of the group, including the remix-oriented collective Hortlax Cobra and the experimental ambient duo tuktuk, and he's long been heavily involved in non-rock musical situations. "I've been playing classical percussion since I was seven years old," the drummer says. "I heard a percussion ensemble at a music school in the north of Sweden when I was six, and after that I wanted to learn all the instruments that I saw on stage. Luckily my parents talked to some of the students, and I started to take private lessons.
"I have always practiced both classical percussion and drumset," Eriksson goes on. "In high school I practiced marimba, vibes, multi-percussion, and snare drum for like ten hours a day, and then from midnight to three in the morning I practiced drumset."
During and after his studies at the Royal College Of Music in Stockholm, Eriksson worked in the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra for four years, focusing on marimba. "I explored that instrument as much as I think is possible," he says. "Then I got offered a job in a full-time percussion ensemble in Stockholm called Kroumata. That had been my dream since I was a kid, so it was very amazing-and very scary. The first year I had to learn all the new pieces by Xenakis, Cage, etc. But after a couple of years I learned to relax and enjoy it."
Around this time Eriksson met Peter Morén and Bjorn Yttling. After realizing they were all fans of the "great melodies, strange drum patterns, and complicated chord progressions" on the album Better Can't Make Your Life Better by the American indie band Lilys, the trio decided to try their hand at similar sounds. "Fortunately our band didn't break through until later," Eriksson says, "because in Kroumata we did a lot of tours and many gigs as percussion ensemble soloists with symphony orchestras. I loved playing in a classical ensemble, and I'm so glad I had the opportunity to play all that music and meet people like Steve Reich and other amazing composers from all over the world."
For more with Eriksson, including secrets to how he gets many of the unusual sounds he uses with Peter Bjorn And John, go to moderndrummer.com.