If you aren't familiar with Swedish supergroup Astropol, you just may know more than you think about the killer indie-pop band. The talented trio includes established artists Bebban Stenborg of the Shout Out Louds (and currently the lead vocalist of Astropol), producer Bjorn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John, and Smash.
Astropol's excellent songwriting experience, accomplished artists, and undeniable charisma create the perfect recipe for brilliant music. The band's debut album, The Spin We're In, was released Dec. 4, receiving excellent reviews all-around. Lucky for us, the record is being released on vinyl today.
The record was released via the Swedish Artist Collective INGRID. Founded by 13 musicians, including Lykke Li, Miike Snow and Peter Bjorn & John, the collective become a fertile ground for inter-label collaborations. The trio clicked, formed Astropol, and released their first single, "The Sound of a Heart That Breaks," just nine months ago.
Read on as the band talks group dynamics, "black magic" nights, and Stenborg's thoughts on the complexities of being a melancholy female singer.
You released “The Sound of a Heart Breaks” just nine months ago, and recently released your ten-song debut album, The Spin We’re In. What was the creative process like for all of you, both individually and as a team? How did it differ from what you may have expected?
Bebban Stenborg (lead vocalist): I didn't have any real expectations on the timeline for this when we started, but I think we would all agree that it was a very unstressed process, to say the least. A turning point was when we got Thom Monahan involved for a few days in Stockholm last winter and decided to go to Los Angeles to do some work with him there come spring. Things moved faster after that which was definitely a good thing.
Smash: The creative process was very focused at first while working on the songs. The recording process was more confusing to me. Bjorn wanted to have a lot of different stuff recorded that he could tweak into something brilliant. Recording things without knowing if they were any good or even recording things that I thought were good but turned out to be the opposite was quite puzzling. Bjorn isn't the type of producer that will sit you down and go through the different steps of the process. Good thing that Bjorn knew what he was doing.
Stenborg — You stated in Billboard,
“I once saw a woman singing loudly to herself on the subway, and I could tell she was just about to stop having fun. It was like I was watching the ending of some kind of a sad respite from "real life.” I wanted to take her home, tuck her in, and tell her no one was judging her. But I didn't, and we all were. I think The Spin We're In is an offering to that old black magic time of night when you remember that there will be a tomorrow, whether that's a good thing or not.”
I thought that was a beautiful quote. Are these the kind of moments that inspire most of your songs or do you mostly draw from personal experience?
Stenborg: I have been thinking a lot about where my lyrics come from especially after I realized that I have given different answers every time I've been asked that question. The truth is that every single thing I write is either about someone I have loved, something I have lived or something I have witnessed and felt the need to figure out for myself. I don't think I could write about anything else and still feel alright singing it. If I fake something, or just attempt to describe something I don't know very well to make lyrics prettier or more interesting I feel very anxious, nauseous almost. So my lyrics are much more literal than they might look I guess.
Aside from the aforementioned quote, have there been any intense emotional experiences that have either affected any of you deeply or provided motivation for a song?
Stenborg: Excuse the most emo answer ever but yes, at least one for each song. Every song on this album is drenched in other people's voices and faces for me.
Stenborg — Your voice is often ethereal and haunting (i.e., “Just Before Our Love Got Lost”). Do you label yourself a “melancholy” kind of artist, or do you think you are more of a chameleon than sometimes portrayed?
I find it interesting how differently “melancholy” or “bittersweet” vibes can come across throughout different songs. For instance, take Meg Myers. She’s labeled herself a melancholy artist, and yes, many of her songs are sad. But they are also angry, occasionally positive, and some, perhaps, upbeat.
In essence, what kind of artist do you see yourself as, how do you think others portray you, and what kind of artist do you aspire to be? Do all of these align? Do you want them to?
Stenborg: Unfortunately I would definitely label myself a melancholy person, and in my case I'm pretty sure the person and the artist are exactly one and the same. In the early Shout Out Louds days, I was always described as "the token girl," "tiny," "elfin," or "waify,'— all kinds of diminutive feminine adjectives. It might have been a female-twee-band-member-trope type thing, and/or something about my being Scandinavian — I had a strong accent and weak looking arms. I'm still often described as frail, whispering, trembling, and things like that but I'm ok with it now, because I realize that it's not untrue and because now that I'm more of a front person, I assume it at least mostly has to do with the way I sing.
Also, recently someone made a comparison between me and the typically powerful and assertive female artist of today and as much as I love what is becoming a much more open playing field for women in music I'm more than ok with representing a less outgoing type of female artist. I may be melancholy and uneasy and my voice may tremble but I will still never back down to any form of oppressive expectations of women. I really won't and I think that's an important point to make. Unsure doesn't mean weak, and introverted doesn't mean submissive.
The whole chameleon thing is interesting to me because, regardless of artistic aspirations, I feel like most people have at least ten different personalities or ways to present themselves to the world depending on the circumstances. At least I know I do, and they're actually all equally genuine parts of me, which is something that has taken me a long time to grasp.
But when I do any kind of creative work I have a hard time finding a place for anything but my most melancholy side, probably because it's also the most sensitive and open-hearted side of me. I find less room for a colourful persona in that context than at some party or in any social context where I have to sort of find my function within a larger group of people.
I have some stage fright too though, it would probably be liberating to be able step outside of myself and turn into someone grander for the stage, but unfortunately I just think that would make me super confused.
Has your experience in being a part of Astropol differed much from your experience in the Shout Out Louds? If so, how?
Stenborg: It sounds boring but I think I'm able to be more of a professional in Astropol. In Shout Out Louds, we're such old friends we're all almost like siblings, for good and bad. We've watched each other grow up, so whenever someone tries to step out of line or try on a different role we will all do our best to drag one another back into some kind of a communal comfort zone.
In Astropol, I'm not behaving like anybody's sister. I was asked to join because Bjorn thought I was good at what I do so I'm going to stick to doing it for as long as I can, and I am learning an awful lot that I will make use of in Shout Out Louds and every other areas of my life from the experience.
Bjorn Yttling — Similar question. How has your experience in Astropol differed with your experience in Peter Bjorn and John? How so?
Yttling: Not a huge difference actually — in both bands I'm working on songs with friends. The main thing is Astropol hasn't played live and we are lucky to be a debut band. Which is fun because no one knows what to expect musically, least of all ourselves.
You belong to the Swedish label and “artist collective,” Ingrid (founded by 13 musicians, including Lykke Li, Miike Snow and Peter Bjorn & John) which became a "fertile ground for inter-label collaborations."
I found this quote to be an amusing summary of Astropol and how you came to be:
“The three found themselves in agreement over an unnecessary sparseness of electric guitars in contemporary musical landscapes and an equally puzzling scarceness of female singers labeled crooners throughout rock history. Staring at pictures of Suicide and Willy De Ville the trio wrote a body of traditional love songs orbiting round and around Stenborg’s obsession with the concept of a weaker sex, Smash’s delectable knack for dumbed down ditties and Yttling’s infamously harsh approach to all things lovely. The result is an album of passion nullified, northern comfort and the devastating banality of being lonesome.”
Any thoughts on that quote? Do you see this as an accurate portrayal of how the band formed?
Stenborg: I think it's a very accurate summary.
Yttling — You’ve been described as “one of the most prolific and important producers in the world” who’s been on records with the Shout Out Louds in addition to work on your own records with Peter Bjorn and John. You’ve also worked with Lykke Li, The Caesars, Camera Obscura and more.
To quote a recent flattering endorsement of your work:
“It has become a rule of thumb that usually when you see Bjorn Yttling's name on a record, it’s going to be a pretty amazing piece of work.”
Does this motivate you or make you feel extra pressure?
Yttling: Nice words. Now when I have read this I'm probably gonna choke big time.
Do you see yourself as a perfectionist? If so, does this help or hinder you in your work?
Yttling: I do not, I just listen to the songs and when there's nothing I feel needs to change they're done.
Smash — First of all, I'll go for the obvious. Who were you before “Smash” and how did you become “Smash”? Overall, how has your experience been performing with Astropol? What is your previous experience in the industry and how has it helped you? What were your initial thoughts upon joining Astropol and how did it come to be?
Smash: Before Smash I was groundstrokes for many years and found that to be a bit boring. So when we started Astropol I felt the need to step up my game and reinvent myself and therefore became Smash. It's not to be mysterious or secretive or anything — it's just a way of starting fresh.
My initial thoughts on Astropol were that apart from hanging out with Bjorn and Bebban, which is always cool, there was a ten percent chance that we would actually create something useful. From my previous experience of the industry, or more correctly, from working outside the industry, I have learned that persistence is perhaps the most useful quality.
What was the most difficult part in making this album? Why?
Smash: Working out the group dynamics. The key was to keep an open mind and not to get to hung up on your ego.
Overall, what idea, concept, or theme would you most like people to walk away with after listening to your new album?
Stenborg: I would like for someone to walk away feeling better than they did before. And for someone to feel like they've just heard something that was genuine, simple and really pretty all in one. It's not every day anymore, I think.
Smash: With reflective teardrops and a smile on their face...
To learn more about Astropol, check out their official website or Facebook page. 'The Spin We're In' is available for purchase digitally on iTunes, as is the vinyl edition, out today. Many thanks to Astropol, INGRID, and Stunt Company for the opportunity.