Nine Questions w/ Smile’s Jocke Åhlund on Technology, Collabing w/ Robyn + Just Being a Gloomy Guy

Sometimes it almost seems as if nothing actually happens in the Swedish indie scene unless somehow someone from Peter Bjorn and John is involved. Last March, just as global lockdowns were going into effect, they even managed to gather a veritable who’s who for a 36-hour livestreamed music “festival” in Stockholm.

They also have really cool side projects, though one of them has sat dormant for nearly a decade. Indeed, the band’s bassist/songwriter Björn Yttling had teamed up with Joakim “Jocke” Åhlund of Teddybears for a project working under the curiously blithe banner Smile, releasing the album Flash in the Night (how prophetic) in 2012, then going silent for a very long time. It should be noted that both gentlemen are always exceedingly busy, Yttling as producer for Chrissie Hynde, Primal Scream and producer/songwriter for Lykke Li, and Åhlund as songwriter/producer for pop phenomenons Robyn and Charli XCX.

Grounded in the Swedish capital for an extended period due to the coronavirus crisis, though, the pair used the time to resurrect Smile – and the result is the adventurous new album Phantom Island, to be released November 19 via Chimp Limbs / INGRID. The mostly instrumental project is meant to allow them to indulge their wildest prog / Krautrock inclinations – and to be sure, the deeply evocative ‘Different Kind of Fog’ veritably evokes a sort of misty Teutonic landscape. But then ‘Troll-holk’ almost sounds like Kraftwerk if they had gone psychedelic. Yet all the while, their deft pop sensibilities can’t help but show through, to utterly singular effect.

To wit, ‘Call My Name,’ the captivating collab with Robyn, which strikes a particularly poignant chord at such a time as this, with its lyrics about loneliness and true friendship. Another track, ‘Eon,’ features a winsomely wistful guest vocal by rising songstress Freja the Dragon.

As release date approached, we engaged Åhlund on just how it all managed to come together.

Why did it take nine years to bring back Smile?

We’ve been busy.

Did the lockdowns inspire a new burst of creativity? A lot of people did use the time to finish uncompleted projects.

Actually yes. We were both in Stockholm for such a long time without interruption that it gave us a lot of time to do this – when perhaps normally we would have been traveling, etc.

The album seems to have a kind of emotional narrative. Was there a particular feeling you were trying to capture and convey?

No, I think it’s just that we are a couple of pretty gloomy guys, really. We’re capturing us, ourselves and how we feel. I mean, we’re not always depressed, but I think both me and Björn have a bit of a melancholy side, and we also like a melancholy vibe in music.

How did Robyn come to be involved?

Robyn is an old friend, and I’ve worked with her on some of her albums in the past. We thought the song ‘Call My Name’ would fit her, so we asked and she loved it and said yes.

On that song she sings, “This world might seem like a lonely place / Anything you need, call my name.” Do you think there is a lot more loneliness and isolation in the world right now, especially due to the global lockdowns and quarantines? 

Very likely, yes. We have all this technology to keep us updated in exactly what’s going on in other peoples lives every second of the day. Yet still people are far away from each other, lonesome and detached.

But our song has a positive message though – it’s telling the subject that you will be there for them, no matter what.

What exactly is a “katten”? 

Katten means ”The cat” – so Kattens Pyjamas means The Cat’s Pyjamas.

It’s an unapologetic prog/krautrock song. Is it fun being completely unbeholden to musical trends?

We do precisely whatever we feel like in this project, and that is very rewarding indeed. It’s like work becomes a holiday. Smile is a great opportunity for us to express our love for different genres and styles and artists that have inspired us. We play around and experiment and have fun, in a most serious kind of way.

‘Eon’ is such a beautifully melancholy song, and Freja the Dragon’s vocal performance captures that mood so perfectly. Can you tell us about working with her?

Freja is a Björn collaborator and partner in crime since a few years now; they work together and write and produce. We just thought she would be perfect for the female part of this song. She came in to lay down her vocal and the key was very low for her voice. But that actually turned out great because when her voice was kind of cracking up or fading out, it gave the song the exactly right melancholy emotion.

What do you get to do with Smile that you can’t do with your other gigs?

For me, it’s great, because it gives me a reason to hang out with Björn, and to work with one of the most talented guys I know.

Latest in ARTS & CULTURE

ARTS & CULTURE

First Trailer: New Doc ‘The Velvet Queen’ Follows the Trail of the Fabled Snow Leopard

ARTS & CULTURE

On Repeat: FKA twigs + Central Cee’s ‘Measure of a Man’ Wants to Bridge the Gender Divide

ARTS & CULTURE

Cinematic Candy: Why Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Licorice Pizza’ Will Sweeten Your Season

ARTS & CULTURE

Seven Questions w/ Rising South African Songstress Kaien Cruz

ARTS & CULTURE

Interview: Director Nathalie Biancheri on Her Dysphoric New Film ‘Wolf’

ARTS & CULTURE

Interview: Jamaican Songstress Ammoye on Consciousness, Rebirth & Being a ‘Soul Rebel’

ARTS & CULTURE

BlackBook Premiere: Dreamy New AJ Lambert Single + Video ‘Kimmi in a Rice Field’

ARTS & CULTURE

Mandy El-Sayegh’s Provocative ‘Figure One’ Exhibition Opens at Thaddaeus Ropac Paris Marais