25th May 2017
Where Free meets Janis Joplin: why you need Blues Pills in your life
Sweden is the dark horse of Europe when it comes to rock’n’roll. The Scandinavian country might not have produced as many famous names as Britain or America, but it’s thrown up its share of world-class bands, from hard rock kingpins Europe, power metal overlords Hammerfall and sleaze-rock heroes Backyard Babies through to such modern day heroes as Graveyard, Opeth and Ghost.
You can add Blues Pills to the last, even though we’re cheating a little – only singer Elin Larsson and drummer André Kvarnström are Swedes (bassist Zack Anderson is American and guitar prodigy Dorian Sorriaux hails from French). But their stellar rise since releasing their debut EP, Bliss, in 2012 is indisputable.
As the name suggests, Blues Pills proudly blend 70s rock with twists of psychedelia, while in Larsson they have a true powerhouse vocalistwho evokes the likes of Janis Joplin and 60s-era Tina Turner. The band’s second album, Lady In Gold, steps things up even further, weaving soulful balladry (Feel A Change) and obscure covers (Tony Joe White’s Elements And Things) into their vivid tapestry.
Ahead of their appearance on Ramblin’ Man’s Main Stage, Elin Larsson reveals all about the band’s multi-national background, why old music is better than new and her sneaking admiration for one of the world’s biggest pop stars…
How did two Swedes, an American and a Frenchman end up in a band together?
It’s a long story, but I met our former drummer, Cory, in California when I was traveling. He was playing in another band with our bassist, Zack Anderson. They’d seen Dorian playing France when he was about 14 or something. We stayed in touch and when we decided to form a band, we went for it.
How did you end up in America?
I always wanted to go to California, and that was my ‘finding myself’ trip. I had a good job, but they sacked me. In Sweden, you can’t just sack people, so I got some extra money because they did it in a bad way. I had a great apartment in the town I was living in, so I rented it out. I went to America by myself. I was very naïve and young. I probably wouldn’t do it now.
What drew you there?
The music and the culture. I was always fascinated by America. I’m from up north in Sweden, where we have no social skills at all. In Sweden, the thinking is that everybody is equal – you shouldn’t think more of yourself, you shouldn’t think you can do something better than anyone else. If you do, people think you’re a snob: ‘Why are you doing that.’ It’s difficult if you’re a musician. So for me, America was eye opening – seeing how social people were.
Your guitarist Dorian was 14 when you first met him. That’s ridiculously young.
Well, he was 16 when he moved to Sweden. We didn’t exactly pick him up from school! But it was probably hard for him. In France, they don’t speak such good English, and we had a few communication breakdowns in the beginning – we didn’t understand each other. But luckily, I’m fairly responsible so I tried to help.
Are you the responsible one in the band?
Yes, I’d say so. I took care of things at the beginning. I had three jobs as well as the band. If the shit was going to hit the fan, I was the one stopping it. It was hard, but it was worth it.
Who was the first singer that made you want to sing?
The first record I ever bought was Joe Cocker’s Unchain My Heart. I was maybe six or seven. I saved up my weekly allowance that I got from my dad, then I went in and brought that record. I was just so fascinated by his voice. I had his record for a long time – when you’re six and seven, you don’t have much money. The second one I got was Spice Girls, so that was a bit different.
Did you sing in bands before Blues Pills?
I did. I played in a lot of different bands. One of the first ones I played in was a disco metal band. It was a gimmick band, me and people from my school. We played Abba, but we made it metal. We covered ourselves in glitter and shit, and took these pop songs and made them metal. We had a tribute band to Black Sabbath that I played in at my school, and we had a stoner rock band too – we were all girls. I also sang classical music and jazz – I’ve done everything.
Who are your inspirations when it comes to performing live?
Aretha Franklin. She’s the Queen. The moment she walks on the stage, she’s just //there//. That’s what I aim for. That’s what I get from Jay Buchanan from Rival Sons as well – he can stand there and you can feel that he is very present.
One person that people are gonna be, like, ‘What?’ is Beyoncé. She’s fucking awesome. She has a good voice, but she’s not an amazing singer. But when she’s doing her shit onstage, it’s incredible – the way she dances and sings like she does. I don’t love the music she does, but she has something special when she’s performing.
Your very first gig in the UK was at Dingwalls in London, opening for Scorpion Child and Orchid. You seemed a little nervous onstage.
That was our first professional tour. I think I was scared of being onstage in the beginning, but I’m not now. We matured as a band. I’m definitely not scared of being onstage now. I remember that first tour, because usually as a band you lose money – you have to see it as an investment. But we made money. It was incredible.
What was your secret?
I don’t know! I was selling merch, and I was giving away copies of the first EP we had: “You don’t have any money? Here, have one!” They sell on eBay for thousands now.
Blues Pills’ artwork is very striking and distinct. How important is that to what you do?
Oh, it’s really important. The artwork represents the record – it’s the first thing you see. Especially vinyl – it’s a physical piece of art, and you associate the image the cover. [Dutch artist] Marijke Koger-Dunham, the who has done the artwork for our two albums, is fantastic.
Marijke designed covers for The Hollies and underground psychedelic bands like The Fool in the late 60s. How did you come to use her?
It‘s funny, when we were making the EPs, we sent pictures of Marijke’s work as references for the cover art. And eventually Zack said, ‘Maybe I can contact Marijke.’ I was, like, ‘Yeah, try it…’ And he did it – he got in contact with her, and now she’s let us use her artwork on three covers.
You’ve covered Chubby Checker’s psychedelic soul classic Gypsy and singer-songwriter Tony Joe White’s Elements And Things on your albums. Is it a case of the more obscure the better when it comes to covers?
Ha! No, those are just songs we just jammed on sometimes when were soundchecking. Early on, we didn’t really have enough songs so we’d have to extend our set, and we started playing them. We were, like, ‘Let’s just do this.’ Now we’re also covering Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody To Love.
What is it about old music that’s better?
It’s not like I hate all new music. There are some very good modern bands – Alabama Shakes, The Black Keys, The White Stripes, Rival Sons. They’re all great bands. But it feels like a lot of things are so fake and so shallow these days. People aren’t interested in music – they make a record because their dad is rich, or maybe someone has invested money in them because they look good. It’s not real. It’s not like they worked on the songs together as a band or wrote the songs themselves. A lot of modern acts don’t even sing at their own shows – they have Autotune, so they can fuck things up and not worry. That’s what I hate – it’s not about the art any more, it’s not about the feeling. The realness of it – that’s what I miss in new music.
Sweden has produced some great rock bands over the years, from Europe through the Hellacopters and up to yourselves. Is there something in the water?
I don’t really know why it is. When you’re a kid, you’d go out and see these show bands that are very talented, and you get inspired by that. But the government helps bands with their rent and stuff too – their studios, places you can go practice. When I was a kid, there were free schools where you could go to take music lessons and all that stuff.
So who is the greatest Swedish band of them all?
November. They’re a band from the 60s and 70s – they’re kind of like the Swedish Black Sabbath, but a bit more progressive, and they sing in Swedish. They’ve made some excellent albums. You should check them out.
I thought you were going to say Abba.
Hey, Abba are great too!
Blues Pills play the Planet Rock Main Stage on Sunday July 30. Buy your tickets to see them here