Back in November, I caught up with José Gonzalez before his band Junip’s show at Lee’s Palace in Toronto. Coming in from Montreal that day, we sat down to chat while the band took a break from sound-checking and rehearsals to grab burritos in the Annex. During our conversation, we discussed working with Junip compared to solo work, the progressive politics of Sweden and their impact on the arts, how good the band is at air guitar, and a bevy of other topics.
The delicate and comfortable sensation of his music transferred to their live show, which I caught following our interview and featured an all-Junip setlist encompassing their Fields album as well as an assortment of unreleased material.
Sal: Where are you coming into town from?
José Gonzalez: We just came from Montreal, started in Philadelphia and went up north. It was a smaller venue. We had troubles at the border, so we arrived late. But it all turned out alright.
Sal: Swedish bands are usually at the top of our suspicion list at borders. How long have you been on the road now with Junip?
José: We did a tour for a month in Europe and just started this 25-day Canada/US tour.
Sal: Have you been touring North America much in the past few years?
José: Solo, yes. I’ve been here many times. Since 2008 we’ve mostly been working on this new Junip album. I’ve been doing very few shows. I did have some shows lined up in Canada that we had to cancel.
Sal: What was the process like working on this record given that you’ve known Tobias and Elias for so long, and started playing together 11 years ago? I hear some of the material has been in the works for a while.
José: Well, it’s more like the band has been around for about 12 years, but the music is all new. We started setting up recording gear in a rehearsal place and recorded hours and hours of jamming.
Sal: Very improvised?
José: At first. Then we picked out the stuff we liked and did it over and over again, and slowly the songs were getting together. I wrote the lyrics at the very last minute. We write the music together as a trio, and live we’ve added two more musicians, so we’re 5 now.
Sal: You’ve said that when working on your solo stuff you really like quiet and isolation. How was this very obviously different process for you by comparison?
José: It was fine. It’s more about having your own time and not feeling the pressure from someone else. So the part about being alone usually has to do with feeling like you’re in a room where nobody is hurrying you to do something, or that you don’t have a deadline to keep. And it’s the same with Junip. That’s why we wanted to record it on our own. So we just set up the computer over there, and recorded everything into it and later transferred it to tape and mixed it analog. But when we were recording, we could spend as much time there as we wanted to.
Sal: Your family is from Argentina and you grew up in Sweden, but you write primarily in English, and you’ve continued to with the Junip album. Why is that?
José: It’s very common for Swedish musicians and kids to sing in English. It started without me thinking about it too much. A lot of the music I was listening to was in English. It’s my third language and yet I feel like it’s easier for me in English than Spanish. It’s something I started with a long time ago and now it feels natural. Finding words is just as difficult in Swedish actually, because sometimes it’s more about what you’re trying to say than the language you say it in.
Sal: I’m curious about the Swedish music scene. I know you’ve spent a lot of time in Gothenburg, and I find it amazing looking at the list of artists that are from there, especially in the past decade, that have gotten a significant international stage. From a town with a population of 500,000 it’s really an amazing phenomenon. Do all children in Gothenburg grow up like the Von Traps? What role has the community played in your creative process and in your career?
José: It’s difficult to say. Growing up for me and many of my friends, it was very easy to have a rehearsal place. There’s plenty of youth houses which are government subsidized. Rooms with drums and amplifiers. When you’re young, you can just sign up and be there a couple hours a week. You don’t really have to have rich parents to play music. Apart from that, there’s plenty of small clubs where unreleased and unsigned bands can play. It’s a good atmosphere for music in general.
Sal: I understand the Swedish government heavily funds the music and arts scene. Some 300 million SKE were allocated to artists by the Swedish Arts Council in 2010.
José: They used to. I’m not sure what’s happening now with the new right-wing government.
Sal: After Reinfeldt got elected a lot people were concerned the funding to the arts would change. Have you noticed a difference?
José: I don’t know too much about the details, so we’ll see.
Sal: Have any of your projects ever benefited from the state funding?
José: Yeah, definitely. There was a tour that wasn’t looking that great economically, but we got a grant for it. Apart from that we’ve had one or two other grants. The Knife, they released their first album with a grant from the state – it’s very common. So for touring, labels, recording it’s pretty common and easy, as long as you know how to write a letter and make plans, because usually you need to send these things in a half a year in advance.
Sal: Speaking of the Knife, a big cross-over moment for indie music was when your cover of their song ‘Heartbeats’ was used in the Sony Bravia commercial. Do you think these types of commercials offer a promising new channel for bands to access mainstream audiences?
José: Yeah, of course. I think the difference is that advertisers started to use indie songs. It was pretty uncommon before. Of course it’s very powerful because it’s reaching out to huge amounts of people. It’s something that I don’t always find very charming, depending on the product and depending on the advertisement. I know a lot of artists that feel that of course they would like the money so that they could pay their rent and buy mics and stuff, but they usually don’t do it because they love the commercial.
Sal: What was your motivation at the time when you gave ‘Heartbeats’ to Sony?
José: Well they showed me the idea for the advertisement after doing some pilot filming, and it looked really good. I thought it was tasteful. And the money was pretty good. I’ve never been that strict – it’s been more of a case by case thing.
Sal: Back in the ’80s, the Norwegian government introduced a fairly unique tax on the sale of blank audio cassettes. The idea was that if people were recording and sharing artist’s music through blank cassettes, then artists should be rewarded in some way. The tax went to fund a grant program accessible to Norwegian artists. Do you think taxation and grants programs are young indie artists’ best hope of getting financial support in the new reality of the music industry?
José: I don’t know if it should be a tax, or if it’s just more revenue from people’s downloads going back to those who create in some way. I don’t know what’s best, as long as it’s fair and there’s sharing. We’re in a transition phase. It’s going away from CDs, but there’s more music than ever. Everybody’s owning more music than ever. People have huge libraries on their computers, which is amazing in a way. I’m using Spotify quite a lot and it’s good for consumers. I think that form of music listening will become standard. More people will use it, and it will generate more money for artists. In the long run it will be a good system. Right now it’s not that good for labels or artists.
Sal: Have you experimented at all with different methods to release your music to the public?
José: Not that much. We released our EP in May for free. That was mainly because we were such an unknown band and we wanted people to get to know it before we went on tour. It’s nice to spread the music. It wasn’t in the labels interest to get it out in a hurry. So sometimes it’s just a way to reach people.
Sal: A lot people know your name. What was the motivation to go behind the Junip name and not yours?
José: Usually we say that it’s ok to use my name as long as it’s not like “Jose’s band”.
Sal: Like the Jose Trio?
José: [Laughs] Yeah, so people don’t come to the show and expect me to play ‘Heartbeats’ or ‘Crosses’. That’s the main thing. We did the music together. It’s a band where we’ve done everything together. I noticed there weren’t any posters around today, which I found a bit weird. But usually I say it’s ok that they use my name on them, because I know that people who listen to my music have an interest in knowing what I’m doing. We’re not trying to be too stubborn. Just trying to make the point that it’s a band and I’m in it.
Sal: So you won’t be playing any of your solo material at all in your shows?
José: No. We actually have so many Junip songs that we’re leaving some out. So we would rather add more Junip songs than add my solo songs. That would’ve been weird for the other guys.
Sal: I watched the video for ‘Always’ recently, directed by Andreas Nilsson. You’ve worked with him before – what draws you back to work with him?
José: He’s a very creative person, and always comes up with amazing ideas. He’s a friend, and we asked him, and he came up with this crazy idea of going to the world championship of air guitar in Finland. At first we felt like we were going to make fools out of ourselves. But after a while he started talking about how he wanted to do it, and it sounded so weird and fun that we decided we had to do it. So we had two really surreal days in Northern Finland, hanging out with these crazy people from all around the world, who go there to just do their air guitar things [Laughs].
Sal: That’s interesting, because I wasn’t sure if it was an actual tournament or not. I might have read into the video wrong, but I saw it as a satire on the state of live music these days, commenting on the theatrics that bands focus on over music. Do you actually play your instruments live, and do you believe in lip-synching for the benefit of your dance moves on stage?
José: [Laughs] I don’t think we or Andreas had any deep thoughts. It was more like we go to this place, and this magician takes away our guitars, changes our clothes, and teaches us how to play air guitar. No deep meaning.
Sal: So were you guys actually playing air guitar? I couldn’t tell if the images were the product of some computer magic or not?
José: We sat down with guitars, and then tried to stay as still as possible as they took our guitars from us and continued filming.
Sal: Your hands didn’t move at all, they were in the same position the whole time!
José: Yeah, we’re pretty good air guitar-ers.
Sal: Well, despite the fact that I read this video all wrong, what are your thoughts on live music? Do you like what you’re seeing?
José: Major Lazer is fun: crazy, party stuff. What else? I’ve seen Robyn a couple of times recently. She’s really good. Also other styles of music. Sharon Van Etten is amazing. She’s on the same tour as us right now. Of course Little Dragon is really cool.
Sal: A question about videos. You’ve mentioned that your song writing is always tied closely to visual images. Would you ever consider getting behind the camera and directing?
José: Not really. I think it’s nice to let other people do that. You know, people that are good at it.
Sal: Do you follow the Canadian music scene?
José: Yesterday I had the opportunity to be at the Hotel 2 Tango Studio at the Constellation Records office in Montreal, where Arcade Fire recorded a bunch of stuff. Back in the ’90s I listened to a lot of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Do Make Say Think. They were some big influences of mine.
Sal: Does Canadian music get a lot of exposure in Sweden? Because over here we love Swedish music.
José: [Laughs] Yeah, I think it’s one of those countries that stands out. Often we assume a band is from the States, but when we look into it we realize they’re from Canada. That’s nice.
Sal: What new bands have you been following from Gothenburg?
José: I haven’t really been following new bands too closely. I’ve mostly been listening to my friends. Like Little Dragon.
Sal: In terms of Junip, what’s next after touring? You mentioned there’s more songs that you don’t have the time to play. Any plans for those?
José: Yeah. We have a couple of new songs we wrote before this tour. We’re trying to write as much as possible, so that we don’t have to wait more than a year or two before the next album.
Sal: Any plans for your own stuff?
José: Yes, I’m writing for my solo stuff too. And, we’ll see who finishes first. [Laughs]