Onboard the Swedish trains: Punk! Pop! Per!
EDITOR’S NOTE – When, a few weeks ago, we contacted the Swedish State Railways for permission to reprint this interview, we had yet to read it. We had no idea that it would be just as as interesting as the exclusive interview we conducted with Per at the very beginning of this recent promotional period. Having now translated the article, we’re delighted to be able to share Mr. Lundmark’s engaging interview with our readers.
STOCKHOLM – Pop addict, father, multi-millionaire, hotel owner, Ferrari fanatic, art collector. You can describe Per Gessle in many different ways. But above all else he’s a songwriter (did you know, by the way, that “Listen To Your Heart” was written to be a parody?). Something you definitely notice now when Roxette collect their hits on not one, but two greatest hits collections.
The first concert I ever saw was Gyllene Tider. The place was Skellefteå’s Folk Park, the year was 1982, and Per Gessle was my idol (well, I guess one can say that Per Gessle was everyone’s idol back then).
When Per Gessle almost exactly 20 years later walks into the office at Capitol Records toting his mobile phone it still feels pretty huge (even if my role nowadays is the critic/reporter, not the 10-year-old sitting on his dad’s shoulders…).
To many, Per Gessle is still an idol – you only need to do a quick Internet search to realize it; there are tons of sites like “Pearls of Per,” “Gessletronic” and “The Daily Roxette” (the latter is Per Gessle’s own start page).
“The other day it just struck me that I’ve been doing this for a quarter century, for 25 years! It’s nuts!” says Per Gessle as he plops down in the comfortable chair in front of me.
“We’re outrageously old (about Roxette), we’re over 40 years,” he laughs.
Per Gessle was ready to “work his ass off” this fall. Among other things, there was a two-month long tour planned called “Night of the Proms,” where Roxette were to perform with a symphony orchestra in Germany, Belgium and Holland. This didn’t happen because of Marie Fredriksson’s brain tumor. Per Gessle says that they for now take one thing at a time and that Marie is “as good as one may expect”. The thought is that Roxette, in this case Per, is to keep working as usual though, “then we’ll see what happens.” And carrying on as usual means, among other things, giving interviews.
“But I can’t lip sync on a German TV-show without Marie, even if it is I who sings on the new single,” Per states with a smile.
The new single is called “A Thing About You,” and is one of two newly written songs (“Breathe” is the other) on the brand new collection “The Ballad Hits” (and indirectly the reason for Per Gessle and I to sit and talk). This spring it will be followed by another collection named “The Pop Hits,” even if Per Gessle is wondering if it instead should be named “The Powerpop Hits”.
“Why two collections instead of one?”
“We’ve released 41 or 42 singles and could’ve released a double CD, but that would’ve felt a bit boring. Besides it’s kind of fun to split it into two sides, Marie and I have two different sides too, maybe it’s mostly the ballads that differentiate us.
“What do you do best?”
“It’s harder to write a fast song than a ballad, writing a ‘Joyride’ or ‘The Look’ takes much longer to do. It’s about a simpleness that can’t go wrong, a simpleness that must be smart. Three-chord pop should sound smart.”
“When I was younger, I never listened to ballads. When I was 20, I listened to T-Rex and punk rock. Maybe it’s an age thing.”
Gessle picks up speed now.
“People listened a lot more to music before, pop music meant more. I remember when I saw David Bowie on TV, they showed maybe 20 seconds of ‘Life on Mars.’ It was magical, I had never seen anything like it before,” says Per and compares it to the TV flood of today.
“When I was small it was a big thing to watch Donald Duck on Christmas Eve. Today there’s the Cartoon Network on 24-hours-a-day.
©2002 SJ. Reprinted with the kind permission of Statens Järnvägar, the Swedish Railway System, and Kupé Magazine. Written by Mårten Lundmark, with translation by TDR News Editor Thomas Evensson. Photos courtesy EMI Sweden.
- SJ – Statens Järnvägar (Swedish State Railways)
Roxette was formed in 1986 and has today sold over 40 million albums and 15 million singles all over the world. No less than four times has the group been #1 on the American Billboard chart. “The Look” went #1 in April 1989. After that “Listen To Your Heart”, “It Must Have Been Love” and “Joyride” followed in order.
“We were among the three most played acts in the USA three years in a row. One year it was us and Phil Collins and the next us and Madonna,” Per says. “When I heard for the first time that American radio stations were playing our music, I was totally certain it was ‘Dressed For Success,’ which had become a hit in Sweden.”
“I was in shock when I heard it was ‘The Look,’ a song I sang! One of the reasons for starting Roxette was that I wouldn’t need to sing,” he laughs.
Pop craftsman Gessle continues to tell me about Roxette’s second USA #1.
“We wrote ‘Listen To Your Heart’ a little bit like a parody. MP and I (Mats Persson from Gyllene Tider, and co-writer [my note]) thought ‘let’s make it American, nobody does that.’ But it reached no. 1! The radio stations took us seriously.”
The stations did take them seriously, but not without certain modifications.
“Some radio stations, the ‘adult contemporary’ ones, couldn’t play ‘Listen To Your Heart’ due to the guitar solo, so they added a saxophone solo instead! Same thing with ‘Dangerous.’ The version played on American radio was a remix,” Gessle says and lets me understand that’s how it works abroad.
“But that damn sax version of ‘Listen To Your Heart’ is hopefully lost,” he laughs.
This period is getting a bit old though. Per Gessle calls it the band’s “heyday.” After releasing a Greatest Hits album in 1995, nothing much has happened “over there.” Self chosen according to Gessle.
“Let’s leave this, my stomach is full,” he smiles. “We had worked for seven years, between 1988 and 1995, longer than the life span of the Beatles. Marie had a child and I did the Återtåget tour with Gyllene Tider.”
One of the highlights during the heyday was the South American tour in 1992. In Buenos Aires, Roxette played before 120,000 fans, split into two concerts. In São Paulo, in front of 80,000. Per Gessle feels that they didn’t get the attention they deserved in connection with this back in Sweden.
“We were quite upset with this for a while, we never got any credit for it. No Swedish papers wrote about it,” he says.
“When Swedish media mentions bands that have made it abroad they compare us with Robyn and the Cardigans. But that’s like comparing apples and oranges. We have, after all, sold 55 million records…”
Per Gessle stresses that he has nothing at all against either the Cardigans or Robyn, he’s just trying to compare numbers.
“I get a little crankily Swedish when I’m in Sweden. ‘Why don’t they write about us…?’,” he smiles and is convinced that there will be a Roxette revival in 10 years; “there always is.”
Another thing that makes Per Gessle if not cranky then at least tired, is the subject of money.
“Everybody knows everything about me and wants to talk about nothing but money and Hotell Tylösand” (Gessle is one of the owners [my note]). Just look at all the articles about me, the Dagens Industri articles. Fine, write about that, but let me talk about music too, let me be like Håkan Hellström. I’m always the ‘rich, happy-go-lucky-Pelle’,” he says.
“Aftonbladet did a survey of you and your income. Does that bother you?”
“I think it’s not so good when they don’t connect it to my music, they write about a lot of the branches of the tree but never about the trunk. The reason that I’m doing so good is that I’ve written all these songs. Just look at my song book, anything from ‘Sommartider’ to, well you know what I’ve written.”
“You never read ‘Aftonbladet Reviews Benny Andersson’, he’s a folk musician (laughs). And besides, Sweden’s best songwriter together with Björn Ulvaeus.”
“What’s the reason for this?”
“I don’t think it’s envy, I think it’s just damn Swedish. Nobody questions Mick Jagger. But I don’t feel misunderstood or misquoted, I’ve always had an open relationship with the media. The kind of journalism I don’t like much is the one that isn’t about music; financial reporters that don’t know how much you need to sell to reach gold for instance.”
“But your life must’ve changed in parity with Roxette’s success?”
“When we broke through abroad my life changed totally, my world changed totally. I think it was a good thing that we were around 30 when we broke, and I had already gone through it with Gyllene Tider. When we (Roxette) ran the gauntlet in New Zealand, I had already run it in Växjö, I had to help Marie with that a little.”
“But I haven’t changed my friends, I don’t know anyone on Strandvägen…”
“Why do you live on Strandvägen?”
“There was a financial crisis in Sweden in 1992 and there was a damn lot [of property] for sale, so we went and looked. I wasn’t really interested to live on Strandvägen, I thought it was a little ridiculous to live there, but it was really nice.
“But I don’t belong to any richie clubs that have Östermalm meetings once a week” (laughs).
Per Gessle has, as we all know, been a pop star in two different bands – first in Gyllene Tider and now in Roxette. The thing that the bands have in common is that neither band has ever been trendy, at least not according to their common denominator Gessle.
“Roxette has never been in, we’ve never been cool. We keep doing our thing. Same thing with Gyllene Tider, suddenly we were pop stars and were fighting with Noice, Magnum Bonum and Freestyle. We thought all that was rubbish. I saw us as five ugly guys from Halmstad and Harplinge that loved Tom Petty” he says and laughs hard.
OK, so Roxette has never been seen as trendy, but when Per Gessle played his favorite records in a radio show he introduced one of the songs (OK then, “Whatever Happened To My Rock’n’ Roll” by the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) with the words “I play this to increase my credibility.” Even if Per Gessle was joking, he meant it with a bit of seriousness.
“I’ve always done my thing and I feel a good song is a good song even if it’s Svenne Hedlund or Black Rebel who has written it,” he explains. “Most often you think that a band gets too much credibility for certain things.
“Music journalists in general place my solo pop things at the top, while Roxette is considered a kind of ‘Bingolotto-thingie’,” he continues. “At the same time they like Marie’s solo stuff. I don’t see the logic, to me it’s the same thing. I think that the best things I ever have done are the songs Marie sings.”
Last spring a tribute album to The Ramones was released, “The Song Ramones The Same.” Per Gessle recorded a version of “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.” The song was raised to the skies and Per Gessle got the appreciation he feels he doesn’t get. But this “credibility” thing isn’t always easy.
“I’ve been in this game for so long, and yet there were people that didn’t realize I like The Ramones… me who almost went to the Sex Pistols concert at Östra Station…” he smiles.
“But it’s obvious that Dregen [guitarist in Backyard Babies] likes The Ramones…”
Per Gessle has always been famous for being a huge music lover, a pop nerd (he wrote, by the way, a research paper on David Bowie in high school). He still is, even though it’s a bit calmer these days.
“I gave up a few years ago, I can’t pretend that I’m as active as when I was 23”, he says. “The energy I put into reading magazines like ‘Q’ and ‘Melody Maker’ I don’t have anymore, I get a good enough dose from what I have around me these days, some MTV here, some ZTV there.”
He hasn’t totally lost touch though.
“I know that Tom Petty has a new album out soon, I am as a matter of fact a member of his fan club and received an e-mail about it,” he laughs.
The Gessle family (that also includes wife Åsa and son Gabriel) lives in Stockholm and in Halmstad. The split is usually Halmstad during the summer and Stockholm during the winter, but in the future Stockholm will probably be more permanent, mostly due to the fact that Gabriel starts school next year.
“In Halmstad I have social bits like friends and Mom, and also my fun cars. Halmstad is relax time and write time. I don’t think I’ve ever been there more than this summer. It’s been damn great” he says.
Living in two places usually means you have two sets of everything, I therefore have to ask if that goes for the record collection as well.
“I have many records in four copies,” Gessle reveals rather unexpectedly.
“One copy each in Stockholm and Halmstad, and in two cars.”
“Crystal clear. But which records require you to own four copies?”
“Tom Petty’s ‘Greatest Hits,’ the Beatles ‘White album’ and ‘Coltrane for Lovers’ are albums I have all over,” Gessle says and laughs.
What the future has to bring for Gessle regarding his music he doesn’t know really. Apart from the two collections there are no plans for a new Roxette album. But the duo has no plans to call it a day either.
“It’s damned fun to work with Marie, she is one of my best friends, like a sister. We have a history together, a song book people like,” says Per Gessle and reveals that he feels ready for something in Swedish.
“I have so many songs that knock and want to come out… don’t know if it will be me solo or Gyllene Tider. I’m not inclined to either. I’m not used working in a band anymore though. In Roxette it’s me and Marie that rule all,” he laughs.
Name: Per Håkan Gessle.
Age: 43 (Born January 12, 1959).
Family: Wife Åsa and son Gabriel Titus, age 5. Mom Elisabeth, brother Bengt, and sister Gunilla.
Lives: In an apartment on Strandvägen in Stockholm and in a villa in Halmstad.
Albums, a selection: Gyllene Tider: “Gyllene Tider” (1980), “Moderna Tider”
(1981), “Puls” (1982), “The Heartland Café (1983). Solo: “Per Gessle”
(1983), “Scener” (1985), “The World According To Gessle” (1997). Roxette:
“Pearls Of Passion (1986), “Look Sharp!” (1988), “Joyride” (1991), “Tourism”
(1992), “Crash!Boom!Bang! (1994), “Have A Nice Day” (1999), “Room Service”
Vehicles: Ferrari 456 GT ’96, Ferrari 550 Barchetta Pininfarina, Mercedes
Benz SL55 AMG, Mercedes Benz E420 T ’97, Mercedes Benz S500 ’00. Two Harley
Davidson motorcycles and an Indian Big Chief ’47.
Favorite instruments: Piano and cello.
Interests: Art, records, F1, movies, guitar playing.
Describe yourself in five words: “Slightly grayed but very happy”.
What’s new: The Roxette collection “The Ballad Hits”. The sister album, “The
Pop Hits,” is out next spring.
Cool link: http://www2.dailyroxette.com
Technical errors may occur.
December 4th, 2002
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