Peter, Bjorn and John: how we made Young Folks

‘We performed it with Kanye West at a festival, but his DJ pitched the whistling too high. Kanye made a joke about me not being able to whistle’

Björn Yttling, bassist, producer and whistler

Writer’s Block was our third album – we’d been doing the rounds for about five years, trying to get a good slot at some weird festival in Stockholm, building the stage on our own, playing Chinese restaurants and as the opening act on tours for different bands. We probably would have quit if Young Folks hadn’t become the hit that it did.

I had the idea for the tune on the piano and at first thought it was going to be a jazz song, because it sounded like a Duke Ellington track. Then I played it on a guitar and it sounded more like a pop song. I whistled a placeholder for the melody just so we could remember it, intending to replace it with an instrument later, maybe an organ or something. Then we put the whistle through a tape delay machine. We couldn’t afford to record on tape, so we recorded everything with a delay effect. Then it was like: “Oh, it sounds good, let’s keep it.”

Watch the video for Peter, Björn and John’s Young Folks

At some point we talked about making it a duet. We thought it would be cool – like David Bowie and Bing Crosby or Fairytale of New York – to make it like a conversation and give it a filmic feel. We started writing the lyric into that perspective. Then we talked about who was going to sing apart from Peter. We had other voices on the table before Victoria Bergsman from the Concretes. But her almost childlike voice combined with Peter’s more Beatles-type voice creates a lot of the magic of the song.

It was Midsummer’s Eve, a really hot summer evening when Victoria and I recorded her vocals. We did it in maybe an hour. We recorded at my studio, which was a room in my apartment. We had a couple of mics and a drum kit we had bought on Craigslist. This was not gear for making a hit record, but that’s our sound I guess.

We didn’t have a record contract: we took it to some labels here in Sweden who passed on it. Things changed when Wichita put it out in the UK and Europe. It came out later in the US, but I think we got on the charts there on import only. Going platinum in multiple countries and fucking our shit up for a decade – that was not on our radar.

We don’t even know how many copies it sold. On MySpace it was played over 100m times. We haven’t got rich off it, but it’s been good for business. It kickstarted my production career. In Rolling Stone recently there was a list of the best songs of the century so far, and it’s Beyoncé at No 1 and then like 80 other songs, and then Young Folks. You can be proud of that for sure.

Peter Morén, vocalist and guitarist

We weren’t young folks at the time – we were all hitting 30 or 31 rather than 18 or 19. The song is about people feeling a bit burned out on relationships, and then you meet someone new in a bar, say, and think, “Maybe this could be something.”

Not librarians … Peter Bjorn and John today
Not librarians … Peter Bjorn and John today Photograph: PR Company Handout

It was Björn who performed the whistle on the track, but I do it live. After touring I got to be really good at whistling, but at the beginning I was terrible. Especially if I had a slight cold or a hangover, which happened at a lot of those gigs in the early days. People were like, “This band sucks – they can’t whistle.” Also the whistling was pitched up on the recording, which made it harder to do.

Kanye West sampled it on a mixtape. We performed with him once at a festival in Gothenburg. His DJ, A-Trak, had pitched the whistling up even further. We’d had a gig earlier the same day, so I was already a bit hoarse and it was terrible. I was totally struggling. Kanye made a joke on stage about me, the whistling guy, not being able to whistle.

At that point Young Folks really stood out from other sounds on the radio. It was kind of a forebear of things that came later, and it was a time – mid-2000s – when hip-hoppers started getting interested in indie bands. It’s a strange and melancholy and happy-sad kind of song. It’s sort of like a club song, but not like a big club song, not like a macho club song. It’s a club song for dorks.

I sort of hated Young Folks briefly. But now it’s many years in the past, and it’s wonderful to have been a part of an evergreen thing. We can still continue to make a living out of music because of that song. In the early years of the band, I was studying to become a librarian. I still haven’t had to become a librarian, so that’s a good thing.

• Peter Bjorn and John’s new album, Darker Days, is out on 19 October.


Interviews by Malcolm Jack

The GuardianTramp

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