They probably wouldn’t be into this description, but Les Big Byrd are something of a supergroup. Lead by Jocke Åhlund of Teddybears, Caesars, Smile and more, and Frans Johansson of Fireside, the group’s line-up stretches to include Martin ‘Konie’ Ehrencrona (Viagra Boys) and Nino Keller (Caesars). But even supergroups find it hard to get out of the recording studio in one piece sometimes. After releasing debut album They Worshipped Cats in 2014, they were ready to go again at the end of 2015, even recruiting producer Pete Kember to work on the new album. But sessions went south after clashes between Kember and band friend Anton Newcombe, who had also decided to help out on the sessions. Things were put on ice for a while, and the band released Two Man Gang last year, a song which went on to be their biggest hit to date. But now they’re really back. Album number two, IRAN IRAQ IKEA is finally here, they’re heading out on a Swedish tour, and we spoke to Åhlund and Johansson about it all.
So, this album’s been a long time coming together, both in terms of time and the process of making it. There were the scrapped sessions with Pete Kember [aka Sonic Boom, former Spaceman 3 member and producer of MGMT’s Congratulations] and all that. So has it been tough to get to this point, where it’s done and finally released?
Jocke: It’s been tough. As you said, it’s been a long journey.
The initial sessions with Pete Kember were in 2015, if I’m correct?
Jocke: It was in the winter, so winter 2015 or January 2016. Around that time. Those sessions weren’t exactly scrapped, there are elements of what we did with Pete still in this record. Only we didn’t complete it with him. But there are versions of songs we recorded during those sessions, and you can hear a little bit of synth that he’s playing on A Little More Numb. So there a couple of songs from then, and then there are a couple of new songs I’ve finished since. The problem wasn’t really Pete, it was a lot of things. It might have been that the songs weren’t really finished. We thought we would finish them in the studio, but that didn’t happen. Maybe if it had been a better environment in the studio we could have finished them. But a lot of time was devoted to other things.
Like arguments between Pete and Anton Newcombe?
Jocke: Not really arguments. More like ‘mantrums’ [laughs]. Throwing little mantrums every now and then and storming out of the room. It was a little bit like that. And that was taking the focus away from what we should be doing.
You wanted to get in an outside producer from the beginning of the process. So why was that? You’ve spoken before about how maybe Les Bird Byrd is one of the most personal of the projects you do, so did you want some distance?
Jocke: No, I didn’t want distance, but I wanted some help. It’s hard to write the songs, play the songs, sing the songs and produce the songs. And to have the executive producer role as well, it’s up to me to see to it that the whole album is finished, that the files are delivered, that it gets mixed and mastered and so on. It’s a lot of work. So I was thinking, that maybe if I got a producer they could be the teacher in the room, and I could be more one of the guys, and play, and be an artist. And not have to be the one with all the responsibility for organising everything. And I could just focus on writing and performing as well as possible. But maybe it was a futile idea. It dawned on me during the process that I’m not really ready to give away that control anyway. So then I whine ‘oh, I have to do everything’. But that’s what you have to do when you want the control.
So it was more of a workload thing than wanting an outside pair of ears?
Jocke: Yeah, but I’m also a really big fan of Pete’s work. Frans as well, I think it was Frans’ idea to contact him in the beginning. So we’re big fans of Pete’s work, both in E.A.R., his own records as Sonic Boom, Spaceman 3, everything. So I really thought it would be interesting to bring him in and see what he could contribute to us musically as well. But again, it feels like this our project and we have to do it ourselves. Pete does fantastic work, but this is our record and we had to finish it.
So the album is called IRAN IRAQ IKEA, and you’ve got that Statue Of Liberty painting on the front cover, but you said that you like the title for its “poetic, political intrigue”, when you saw it in Berlin somewhere.
Jocke: Yeah, the title originates from a tie, I saw and bought in Berlin maybe twenty years ago when I was there, when I was touring with another band. I saw it in a clothes shop, and printed on it IRAN IRAQ IKEA. I actually still have it. I thought it was such a perfect combination of those three words, and all the connotations you get in your head when you hear it. It’s not trying to be overly-explanatory, it doesn’t force ideas down your throat. But that’s what I mean with poetic, political intrigue. It’s kinda vague, but suggests something. And I really like that, that’s what I think good poetry should be.
With both phrase, and with the album cover, it kind of feels like you’re using them and their political language and symbols more for their aesthetic, artistic value, rather than trying to make a direct political point?
Jocke: It’s not direct, it’s more indirect. But it’s still political. Even if it’s an emotion. It’s not a direct political point, but you get the vibe. And I really like that in art. If you look at the album cover itself, that painting, it’s almost a little too obvious. But if you use it with the title, it almost adds to the painting.
Makes it more three-dimensional?
Jocke: Yeah. And the title gets more meaning from the painting. I’m quite happy with it.
But in general, this is a more personal that a political record, you would say?
Jocke: Oh, absolutely. The lyrics aren’t political at all, from my perspective anyway. Maybe some places, if you’re a political person, it kind of seeps through somehow.
It seems like a more personal record. A lot of the lyrics are about analysing the past, mistakes and flaws, a lot of language about ‘ruining’, ‘fucking up’ whatever. So you would you say it’s quite a reflective album, in its themes?
Jocke: Absolutely. We’re all pretty old now, we’re not twenty years old anymore. So it would be pretty odd to sing about those things, ‘school’s out for summer’ or whatever. We’re old enough to have a lot of failure in our trail! And also, I went through some shit, between the last record and this one. A lot of personal shit. So that’s also in the lyrics of course.
Do you find there’s a value in writing songs like that? That it’s kind of a way of handling regrets and bad memories or whatever, to put them out in song?
Jocke: Not really, I don’t feel better about the actual stuff. It’s not like, ‘oh I wrote a song about it so not it doesn’t hurt anymore’. But it is a way to get at least something good out of it. If you have a shit year, and you go through a lot of bad emotional stuff, that doesn’t go away just because you write a song about it. But at least you get a good song. That’s something.
I was impressed the way you managed to keep that kind of vibe, even on a song like I’ve X-ed Myself From Your World, which doesn’t have lyrics, but it capture that gloom, heady headspace.
Jocke: Yeah, it’s melancholy. We have it in our blood as Swedes. And I’m part-Swede and part-Hungarian, and those are the two most suicide-prone people in the world. So it’s quite a thing that I lived to be this old. But melancholia is an important part of everything that’s good. I don’t like things that are just happy. I can’t relate.
Frans: No, it’s hard. In comedies as well. If it’s not sad it’s not fun. If it’s only fun fun fun, then it’s not so fun.
Jocke: Yeah, the only fun comedy is sad comedy. The more depressing it is, the more fun it is. Normally.
Frans: Because then you can relate.
Jocke: Seriously, it is the same with music. It doesn’t get me, if it’s not melancholic.
On the musical side of things, there’s a lot of this Krautrock style on the record, with the motornik beats, and those airy, soaring synths. The record tends to focus on this sense of space and air, stretching towards something, it kind of gave me the vibe of when you look up at the sky and it’s completely cloudless, just this huge space stretching off into something. Was that sense of air and space what you were going for on this album?
Jocke: I think in the sound, yes. We do love Krautrock, if you’re talking about string machines through phasers, that gives you that feeling. It feels like going on a never-ending road. And that’s absolutely something we really like. But for a couple of years now, there’s been a movement towards that kind of music, at least on an indie level. So a lot of bands are doing that now. But what we’re trying to do, which is really hard but sometimes we succeed, is to try and have that sound, that monotonous sound, and still get a good song in there. Sometimes the song can take away from the monotony, and it’s really hard to combine those two. But we are at our best when we succeed with it, I think. To get, like you said, that feeling of open air, and like a train just chugging, but also to get a song in there. That’s a challenge.
What struck me was not just the music stylistically, but also the way you’re not afraid to let the songs take their time and have space in the songwriting structure as well. There are songs there, and you said you were going for that and you wanted there to be a song, but you’re not afraid to leave say a one-minute gap where the song builds up for a while.
Jocke: Exactly. That’s the thing, we’re not making three-minute songs. We take the time to stretch out. And when we play live, we take the time to do that even more. And then there’s space for a little bit improvisation, we almost look at it like jazz, space to everyone to improvise a little bit. And also to let the song breathe and take its time.
You’ve been playing a couple of shows over the last couple of weeks right?
Jocke: We played with the Brain Jonestown Massacre in Paris.
Frans: And we played one here in Stockholm too.
So you’ve played a couple of shows with the new album with you. So how have the audiences responded to the new songs?
Jocke: The funny thing is it’s not out yet, but there’s been a really good reception for the new songs. When we started playing I Fucked Up I Was A Child, there was an immediate reaction. And it’s so nice when you try the song live before you release it. If you hear it for the first time and it communicates directly, that’s something. And also it’s not a three-minute pop song, it’s a seven-minute fucking motornik, weirdo, space-rock song.
Do you think it shows that the audience is really playing attention? Because when it’s a new song you haven’t heard before, you’ve really got to tune it and focus.
Jocke: Exactly, absolutely. It’s one thing if people are singing along to Two Man Gang or whatever, but if you play something new, that’s for the ones who are really playing attention.
Finally, you’ve both got so many musical projects, what would you say defines Les Big Byrd for you. What is it this band means to you?
Jocke: I don’t have that many…ah, well I do. The other things I do, that’s also stuff I want to do. But this is really the kind of band I want to be in. These are the songs I want to write, the music I want to play, everything. And it’s definitely my most personal project. Writing the lyrics, singing. I hadn’t really been signing before in any band, apart from backing vocals. So here I am, singing my own lyrics. It was kind of scary, and it can still be scary. But it’s also nice and rewarding when you pull it off.
Frans: It’s also my personal project, as I’m most involved in some way. And it’s the most fun to do I think.
IRAN IRAQ IKEA is out now on PNKSLM. Les Big Byrd play Vasateatern on Oct 31.
Photo: Miki Anagrius