JJ's Having a Sad but Fun Party in the Middle of Nowhere
The Swedish duo's Elin Kastlander gives an unusually open interview about the heartbreak and T-Pain songs that went into making their latest album, 'V.'
Photo by Antonia Sehlstedt
Five years ago, Swedish duo JJ arrived on American shores buffeted by the winds of hype, offering a dreamy fusion of the Balearic synth pop that was dominating the indie rock world and the Auto-Tuned hip-hop and R&B that ruled radio. With the slight disconnect of communicating in a second language and an aesthetic that didn’t put the two members’ faces front and center, they earned a reputation—according to them, a not totally deserved one—for mystery. Their reimaginations and interpolations of hip-hop songs anticipated a wave of bedroom producers doing similar work. In many ways, they were ahead of their time.
But if time has caught up with JJ to some extent, it’s only revealed what an oddly idiosyncratic thing their music does offer, and their latest album, V, is both a retrenchment into and an expansion of the duo’s slightly bizarre universe. It takes hip-hop, new age, and indie pop influences and places them way outside of their original context. It doesn’t always work—we were probably okay without screwed down vocals making their way to Sweden—but just about every song has its moments. Pitched up vocal tracks flutter in, guitar solos explode out of nowhere, and Auto-Tune bends familiar phrases in new ways.
Recorded over the last seven years, partly alongside JJ’s other releases, V rehashes a lot of the duo’s tricks: songs that build in slow, methodical arpeggios; stretched-out, pitched-up vocals; interpolations of rap lyrics—including an interpolation of Drake interpolating Leslie Gore’s “It’s My Party,” which is a good indicator of how far down the rabbit hole of disorientation this album goes. It also finds ways to stun, and there’s a sense of fullness that hasn’t been on past JJ releases, which could feel almost as though they were suspended in motion, reveling in pretty ideas. V is a completion of sorts, according to JJ’s Elin Kastlander, whom I spoke to over Skype recently.
Pronounced like the letter, V is, from what I gathered, the clearest expression of the duo yet—the V, incidentally, stands for not only the number five (this is their fifth numbered project) but also vegetarian and Vallentuna, the small town outside of Stockholm where she and collaborator Joakim Benon grew up and recently returned to. Elin and I talked about the influence of listening to T-Pain in a more rural setting, growing older, and processing heartbreak—all themes that are explored on V.
Were there specific experiences you’ve had in the last few years that gave the album its tone?
Broken hearts is always a start. Maybe it’s the feeling that like you’re not getting happier by the years. [Laughs] I don’t know. It just when everything is amazing, and I really like it. And [when] everything is sad, you get very sad.
How did JJ begin?
I guess that we understood that we were supposed to work together, and we heard each other all the time in this town. I mean, there are not a lot of people playing music [here].
We just started to work together. [There was] a youth center. They had rehearsal spaces and a studio. So, I don’t know. We just started hanging there and, like, recording and trying different things.
Did you have an idea from the beginning that you wanted your music to sound like?
It just happened, I guess, but I think Joakim is the one with ambitions. I think it was mostly because we played in like punk bands before that, so we just wanted to do something new I guess.
How much American pop music were you exposed to? How did you start working on these covers of that kind of music?
I have always been a fan of making covers. But I don’t know. Joakim showed me songs and stuff like that, and I just thought it was a nice song. And we just started doing that, I guess. Joakim showed me some kind of hip-hop music ,and I didn’t listen to that before then, so I guess I got really inspired by it all.
What about it was inspiring to you?
[It was] just like some kind of new form of punk, I guess. There was just stuff in their expression that sort of reflected the music.
Do you remember if there was a specific song or artist that made you feel that way?
I’m a big fan of Akon and T-Pain. I totally love them. They just sound like super free, but I guess it was Biggie with his song “Suicidal Thoughts.”
A lot of people like hip-hop because it’s party music, but you’re more drawn to this sad side of it.
Yeah, I guess so. I never even thought about it. I guess it just depends on when you listen to the song and your state of mind. But T-Pain or something like that, I can cry to this music because I feel like it’s the most sad thing I’ve ever heard. And then after I can go and listen to it when I DJ or something, and then it’s super fun. I don’t know what it’s about really.
Are there any particular songs on V that you feel like really have those two sides to them ?
I have to say that song “All Ways, Always.” I guess I party through whatever, and so I guess I’d say all songs, but the new single, I think it’s like that. I can dance to it and I can cry to it, so it’s perfect.
I think some of the music that inspires you, like T-Pain and stuff, is not seen by a lot of audiences here as having that kind of honesty or openness, so I think it’s cool that you guys are maybe able to recognize the emotional core of some of that music.
A lot of people don’t see musicians as people and that’s very, very stupid because they are. We are—if you call us musicians—so I guess people are not really that interested. They just want to have something to say. Yeah. It’s like, I don’t know if you’ve heard Yung Lean and Sad Boys.
It’s like the same thing there with their kind of music. I just totally love it. It’s amazing and I really don’t know why. They’re really just using their expression and lyrics and everything like that, so I guess that’s why.
When you say that a lot of the songs are inspired by love and heartbreak, are there specific people that some of these songs are about?
Well, it’s been one person. I mean, it’s been a person for Joakim as well, but it’s got a lot to do with friendships and stuff like that. But I guess it’s my ex.
When you say it has a lot to do with friendships, I would imagine was you grow older, as we all grow older, our attitudes or our relationships with our friends and our attitudes towards friendships change. What kind of changes have you experienced during that period?
No, it’s mostly like everyone moves around and I can’t talk to them in the same way as before. It’s just like this constant fear—not fear, but feeling of loneliness. I guess it’s just trying to not feel that lonely? [Laughs] But there’s a lot of love on the record. I guess it’s just based on love. Then you go from there.
Do you feel like being in a smaller town is helpful to you creatively?
I have a problem with cities overall. I can get very anxious, but it’s fun to be there sometimes. But it’s always nice to go home from the city. I like the woods better.
I think normally when people think of the woods or a smaller town, they think more of like acoustic guitar music or something, and that’s not really what you guys do.
Yeah, that’s true. I guess I don’t see it like that. It’s just like a lot of music is like—if it’s good it fits everywhere. So, I mean when I walk in the woods, I like to listen to “All I Do Is Win” with T-Pain, and it feels like it belongs there. That may be weird, but I don’t know. It feels very natural.
Kyle Kramer could use a walk in the woods listening to T-Pain. He's on Twitter - @KyleKramer