I don’t know what they put in the drinking water in Sweden, but I wish they’d share their secret. The ever burgeoning music scene there has been a rich source of top shelf progressive bands for well over five decades. The 1970s brought us legends like Samla Mammas Manna and Kaipa. The second wave of the 1990s saw the likes of Änglagård and Landberk. The following decade, Rikard Sjöblom and his band Beardfish came roaring into focus, guns blazing and leaving a firm imprint as they unleashed a series of compelling albums whose praises are still sung years after their split.
Multi-instrumentalist, band leader, singer, writer, producer, mixer… Sjöblom wears many hats. He’s a rare breed who blends idea and influence in such a delightfully original way that it’s obvious who you’re listening to before he’s even sung a note. And so prolific has his charming and eccentric music been, one wonders if he even needs to write it, or if it simply oozes from him like sap from a maple. Vocally, he darts nimbly from gentle crooning to piercing wails, tunefulness to gritty rasp, angelic falsetto to deathly grunts, while his dynamic compositions traverse their own lofty peaks and winding valleys. It’s doubtful that Sjöblom has ever considered a sound or style unsuitable for his music.
His Gungfly project straddles the line between band and solo (if we’re being honest, it leans much more heavily towards solo), but new album Alone Together (released 4 September) comes across more like a proper working band. Perhaps not in the way that Beardfish was, but the fiery rhythm section of Petter and Rasmus Diamant elevates this music to great heights, and their contribution doesn’t go unnoticed. Alone Together finds Sjöblom tackling the subject of various relationships, often in a raw and emotional manner, while composing his usual effective brand of rock-meets-just-about-everything-else. Yet another robust entry in his impressive catalogue, Sjöblom was eager to discuss it – and other aspects of his life and music – in an honest and revealing chat:
VT: I’ve read that this album took longer than usual to make, but it’s only been two years since Friendship, that’s not really that long by today’s standards, is it?
RS: Well no, I guess not. I would have started recording it a bit earlier, but there were a couple of things: I needed to do a couple of tours, which was awesome, but it kind of put a halt to the songwriting at that time. Most of the tracks I started writing early 2019, then I needed to shift the focus to Big Big Train, and also a solo acoustic opening for The Flower Kings in December.
VT: It’s kind of a power trio vibe now, isn’t it?
RS: Yeah, usually when I make Gungfly albums it’s more of a solo project really, but this time around, I just knew I wanted Petter and Rasmus to do all the drums and bass, so I asked them early on and they were on board. There are quite a lot of instruments on there, but we were the three who made it, so that makes it a power trio album I guess! (Laughing)
VT: When you look back on things you recorded years ago, how do you think your writing has changed as you’ve aged and gained life experience – or has it?
RS: Yeah, I would say from a personal viewpoint, a lot of the earlier Beardfish stuff was quite happy sounding. And it’s not as easy for me to get there these days, to have that kind of naivete. Sometimes I can get there, mostly in instrumental bits I’d say. But lyrically… life takes the shit out of you, you know? (Laughing) That’s how it is. Usually when I write lyrics these days, it’s about more serious stuff, I would say. It’s not as much about ballroom dancers and imaginary stuff, it’s more about everyday life.
VT: Let’s dig into some of these new tracks! Traveler is a killer opener to the album, I keep finding new things in it with every listen. I love those odd little guitar sounds especially.
RS: Cool! It’s one of those tracks where I had the opening for quite a while, and I didn’t really know what to do with it, because I knew that I wanted it to kind of bubble along, this driving rhythm thing… just cooking, basically, and then sing some stuff above it. And the lyrics came quite fast when I started working on it some more. It kind of deals with the whole thing of being away from your kids when you’re on the road. You know, relationships in general can get quite tense. It was easier when I was younger, but when the kids grow older, it’s more difficult to go away from them.
VT: When you’re composing a long piece like that, how do you know the time is right to say ‘It’s finished’?
RS: Oooh! (Laughing) It’s a tough one, isn’t it? The thing is, I usually don’t time the stuff, which I know some people might do. I’ve always thought the songs were either longer or shorter than they actually are. And with Traveler, I had a hard time knowing how long it was. I guess I kind of knew I wanted to start and finish with the same thing, in general I like to return to the main theme of a song. And new parts just kept popping up. I think I actually shaved off some stuff as well. But eventually it just felt good to return to the main theme, and that’s kind of when I knew it was finished.
VT: I think my favourite track is Happy Somewhere In Between. It’s got a great chorus, Petter’s drumming is really tasty and quite complex, it’s got that cool instrumental closing, the whole thing is just bonkers!
RS: (Laughing) Thanks man! I wanted to write something that was a bit more upbeat for the album, and it just kind of came along one day. I think the first thing I wrote for the song was the chorus, actually (sings chorus melody) and the rest of it just came along part by part. And yeah, I agree with you, Petter does a fantastic job on the album, both he and Rasmus play their asses off!
VT: Clean As A Whistle is another one I really liked right away. More of a mellow, relaxed vibe that eventually gets quite proggy with all those keys.
RS: I think that was one of the first songs I wrote for the album, in early 2019. I had listened a lot to some acoustic players, like Bert Jansch for instance, the Scottish guy who was a fantastic guitar player, and I just wanted to write some acoustic guitar arpeggio-type things with kind of a folky vibe. I always liked that aspect of say, Big Big Train for instance, when I joined them, that whole vibe of playing really nice acoustic parts. So it was a fun song to write, yeah.
VT: The title track is probably the craziest and heaviest, but it’s very moving too, it has a really sad beauty to it.
RS: I had an idea that I wanted to mix quite a lot of styles in it. I didn’t want to do the whole ‘chugga-chugga’ metal guitar, even though it’s a heavy track. I wanted to incorporate some almost surf guitar sounds, even though there’s growling and stuff like that in it as well. I think it turned out pretty cool, it’s one of those experimental tracks. And I also had an idea of writing lyrics about the sadness of being a parent and not being able to help your child who is mentally ill, or has problems dealing with reality basically. Mental illness is of course terrible in itself, but I mean, having to leave your child in an institution or something, and you can’t actually take care of them… I got inspired by a friend of mine who works in one of those places, and he told me some stories. It’s just heartbreaking stuff, so I wanted to write a song about that, and it turned out the way it did.
VT: I think a lot of fans will choose the epic On The Shoulders Of Giants as their favourite from the album.
RS: You do, yeah? I have no idea. (Laughing) It’s always a guess for me!
VT: So much happens in that one. It’s a journey, and I think it will appeal to fans of what you do. Did you compose the main song section on guitar?
RS: Yeah, I did. It was actually kind of a slow acoustic piece at first, and I couldn’t get anywhere with it. So I started thinking in a different way and I put the main guitar thing in the beginning to a beat instead, and then the whole song kind of grew out from that. Yeah, it’s just about the whole prog scene in general, being a musician. I think quite a lot of the album has to do with that. It’s what I know, you know? It’s been a while since I wrote stuff about it. I did some stuff with Beardfish, like for the last album we had, we had a song called Ode To The Rock N’ Roller which was also about playing music and doing all the shit you need to do to survive. You have to play in cover bands and stuff like that, which can be fun, but still, you’re like a human jukebox basically. It’s also a tribute to all the great bands I’ve listened to that inspired me quite a lot.
VT: And this time, not just a musical tribute to Zappa, which has been apparent in your music all along, but even a lyrical one. And I like that you even snuck in the words ‘absolutely free’.
RS: Good catch! There’s also a little Easter egg in the slower part that comes later, where I’m singing about The Twelve Archetypes, which is the painting King Crimson used for In The Wake Of Poseidon.
VT: Aha! I didn’t catch that one!
RS: Yep, there you go! Here I’m telling you all about it. (Laughing)
VT: Zappa fanatics will definitely relate to the way you talk about him in the lyrics of that song. When I first really ‘got’ his music, it became my life, practically – for a really long time.
RS: Same here, man.
VT: Do you think he started influencing your music right from the word go?
RS: I found Zappa when I was about… well, I’d heard the really popular stuff, you know, Bobby Brown and maybe Peaches En Regalia, stuff like that. But then I really got into him when I was in tenth or eleventh grade maybe, so I was a bit older. So I think he influenced me in segments, basically. Because I found that when I started listening to the early stuff, I got really influenced by quite a lot of those instrumental parts, like the Lumpy Gravy album for instance, that influenced me a whole lot, and also Weasels Ripped My Flesh. And then later on, Just Another Band From L.A. influenced A Love Story for Beardfish. So yeah, segments, and going all through his catalogue influenced me quite a lot. And also the great musicians he had in his bands. I mean, take George Duke for instance, or Napoleon Murphy Brock, who is one of my all time favourite singers.
VT: So the new album has a couple of bonus tracks too?
RS: Yeah, the only reason they’re bonus tracks is that I didn’t want to make the album too long. They could have been on the album, I’m really happy with those songs, they are two instrumental tracks and they’re quite cool actually! But I wanted to keep the album a single LP, basically. So around 50 minutes was the max length for that. That’s just a personal preference for me, because when I listen to music myself… I’m not a big fan of double albums. And still, most of my albums with Beardfish and Gungfly have been double albums. I think the only one with Beardfish that isn’t is Mammoth. And The Unbendable Sleep, my solo album. Those are the only two, the rest of them are double LPs.
VT: You mentioned The Unbendable Sleep, that makes a good segue. I’d like to run five of your own older song titles by you and see what you have to say about them.
VT: Just a warning, sometimes people have been stumped on their own music, so…
RS: (Laughing) Really? Oh, I think I know mine.
VT: First song is Rhyme And Reason.
RS: Oh, right! Well, Rhyme And Reason was a song I wrote about all the racist stuff that was brewing in Europe around that time, it was just so depressing and I got really bummed out about it, because it was 2014 or whatever, and people were voting for these parties like history didn’t mean anything, you know? And instead of just digging myself into a hole in the ground, I decided to say ‘fuck off’ basically, and write a song about it, and that’s what I did!
VT: That album (The Unbendable Sleep) is my favourite that you’ve ever made. How do you look back on it now?
RS: Well, I was really happy with it, because I had a bunch of songs and I was really inspired when I was writing, I had a lot of fun recording it. I recorded most of it myself, and it was just a case of locking myself in the studio and having a great time. And it had been a while since I had, so it was like coming back to some kind of roots or something.
VT: Okay, song #2, and I’ll give you the English translation since I can’t pronounce the original: Miss Nutcracker and the Pest Harness.
RS: (Laughing) Oh really man, cool! From Cyklonmannen, or The Cyclone Man. It’s kind of funny that you pick those two albums, because those are the two albums where I had complete creative freedom. I was taking a music class, basically because I didn’t want to work (laughing) so I took a student loan and I went for this class, which had a special project where you could decide whatever you wanted to do. So I decided to do an interpretation of a novel, and I chose The Cyclone Man by Sture Dahlström because it was one of my favourite books. It’s a really wild book about this author/inventor that goes to the States, he escapes Sweden basically and he has this invention called the Pest Harness, which is like a full body condom that you can’t really see. And you don’t really feel it either, because he is trying to prevent sexual diseases. Yeah, it’s a really wild novel! It was a fun album to make.
VT: Next up, my favourite Beardfish track: Note.
RS: Ahh! From The Void. It’s a song that I… yeah, it was a really depressing song. My girlfriend at the time, the mother of my children, went through a pregnancy that ended with twin boys who were born too early, they were stillborn. And the whole Void album was a reaction to that, basically. It was a pretty dark time for me. I’ve never been a suicidal person, but I put myself in that place and wrote a song about it. I think I’d just seen something on TV about a young local guy who killed himself and I got inspired by it. And it was easy to take in those emotions because I was in a pretty depressed state myself.
VT: Wow. As a listener I don’t always know what prompted these songs, so it’s easy for me to say ‘Oh I love that song, it’s so cool!’ and meanwhile it carries such different feelings for you.
RS: Yeah, but still, I put it out there, so it’s open to interpretation for people. It’s all good, it’s a thing of the past now. Whenever I hear Note, I really like that song too. I wish we could play it live one time again. Maybe we will, you never know!
VT: Okay, song #4: Phase Down.
RS: Oh! You’re talkin’ Bootcut here.
VT: I love the Bootcut albums, they remind me of Trace and sometimes even Deep Purple. But when I mention them to people, they’ve never heard of them! Which is a shame.
RS: Yeah I know. We had some good times with Bootcut. It’s one of those bands – well, it’s a duo really – where we only play when we have gigs, and that doesn’t happen a lot, unfortunately. It’s a shame, because it’s a really fun thing to do. Especially when you’re just two, you can go down these adventurous trails together. And we know each other really well, Petter and I, we’ve played together since we were… let’s see, I must have been 19 when I started playing with him. He’s one of my first fellow musicians that I still play with. Phase Down was a fun track, it was kind of this rhythmic riff we were kind of jamming along to, and the track grew from that. Nice digging!
RS: Nice digging… you know, in the crates. You picked a lot of stuff that people won’t talk about from the catalogue, it’s fun!
VT: Okay, last one. I recently asked your band mate Nick D’Virgilio about this one, so I probably should pick a different Big Big Train song, but I just love it too much: Wassail.
RS: Oh yeah, Wassail is one of David’s tracks. I remember he played that for us the first time I was over in England, we were doing the rehearsals that later became the Stone And Steel blu-ray. And he played it for us in the studio and it was like ‘Yeah, this is going to be really cool’. It had this really nice Peter Gabriel vibe to it, but still very David. And then when we started recording it, it just came together and it’s a really cool thing.
VT: Do you see yourself getting more involved in a writing capacity with that band in the future?
RS: Sure! I mean, I have written stuff, but it’s always a case of balancing for me. If I write stuff for Big Big Train, I want it to be spot on, that I know it’s a song that will fit. Usually when I write, it gets very personal and it usually ends up with Gungfly. Just because… well, I don’t really know why, actually. I did write A Mead Hall In Winter together with Greg and David, and also I wrote some stuff for Meadowland, and some other stuff as well. I have been contributing, but not as much as David and Greg obviously.
VT: Do you think there’s a style of music that would surprise people to hear has been an influence on you?
RS: Maybe! I’ve been very inspired by some of the electronica pop bands. For instance, take bands like Portishead or Morcheeba, 90s stuff. Also the Argentinian tango bandoneon player Astor Piazzolla inspired melodic phrases and stuff for me quite a lot, for Beardfish especially. But also some of the shorter things I’ve made, like for The Unbendable Sleep, you had Building A Tent For Astor, it’s right in the title.
VT: I sometimes pick up singer-songwriter vibes too, and some possible Elton John influence?
RS: Oh yeah, oh yeah. I’m a big fan. A lot of the singer-songwriters, even more like Nick Drake for instance, he’s inspired me so much. And also, I don’t know if you know Judee Sill? She wrote a song The Turtles recorded. She’s written so many fantastic songs, and a great performer as well, but she never really got that popular, so her albums are super expensive if you’re trying to find them these days.
VT: Is there an album you’ve made that you wish you could re-record?
RS: Well… not really. Not re-record. I could imagine myself remixing Please Be Quiet, at least certain parts of it. But at the same time, it’s like a time capsule, isn’t it? It’s like where you were at that point in your life. Whenever I listen to older stuff that I recorded or we recorded as bands… it’s kind of nice, you know? It feels like ‘Oh yeah, that’s where we were at.’
VT: 2020 is the fifteenth anniversary of The Sane Day, which is long out of print and fans have to shell out quite a bit for it now if they want to buy it. Have you considered a reissue?
RS: I didn’t actually know it was out of print! It was reissued in 2007, I think, by Progress Records. I think I actually have a few copies at home, so maybe I should put them out there! (Laughing)
VT: Finally, what’s coming up on the horizon for you?
RS: I’ve been working so much on the Alone Together album, and right now I’ve been moving as well, moving to a new flat, all sorts of stuff. I’ve started writing some music together with this girl… we might be doing some stuff together, and also doing stuff with Big Big Train, we have some recording sessions coming up later in the fall, so it should be fun. There’s quite a lot of stuff on the horizon, but as far as live gigs go, there’s nothing happening right now – says I, and I’m playing a gig today! (Laughing) But that’s a streamed gig, so it’s not the same, is it? But I’m doing stuff all the time. I’m actually going to start working as a piano teacher as well. I’ll just continue writing music, and as soon as we can perform again, I’ll start doing that… I hope!
Traveler · Happy Somewhere In Between · Clean as a Whistle · Alone Together · From Afar · On the Shoulders of Giants · Grove Thoughts · Shoulder Variations