Blues Pills: from cigars and ski-hire to heavy soul and international success
Interview: As Blues Pills' "difficult" second album tops the charts (number 1 in Germany), the band tell the story of how they got this far...
Elin Larsson remembers the day Blues Pills faced 10,000 metal fans. It was 2014, just before the release of their self-titled debut, and the four softly-spoken blues rockers were opening the main stage at Hellfest. Physically small and very nervous – not to mention much younger and far less 'metal' than their fellow acts (Black Sabbath, Megadeth, Behemoth…) – they were suddenly, abruptly out their depth. Things had moved quickly. Too quickly.
"I'd never stood on such a big stage," she remembers, doe eyes wide and framed lavishly with eyeliner. The singer has a ‘60s elegance about her, in a friendly, slightly gawky sort of way. "I just thought 'fuck'!"
"We didn't know what to expect because we were playing so early, at about 11am," adds guitarist Dorian Sorriaux, who was only 18 at the time. "And 10,000 people were there. And the stage was so huge, just crossing the stage to pick up my guitar felt like forever. We had no experience of that kind of stage, we had nobody else with us."
Larsson nods in agreement: "I think definitely when the first album came out I wasn't prepared for what was coming. I wasn't."
That was then; this is now. Two years, several Top 10 chart rankings (the band's new album is no.1 in Germany, 2 in Switzerland and 6 in Finland) and a lot of touring later, Blues Pills are a decidedly more confident prospect. Aided by more big stage experience, including support slots with the likes of Rival Sons and Kadavar, the prodigious foursome – two parts Swedish, one part American and one part French – have grown up a lot. Back in 2014 they were likeable people but shy and awkward as interviewees. Speaking to us today, Larsson and Sorriaux haven't exactly become lurid raconteurs, but something in their poise and willingness to offer opinions suggests they're not as nervous as they used to be. Zack Anderson (Iowa-born bassist) and Andre Kvarnström (Swedish drummer) are back home in Orebro, Sweden, where they’ve all lived for the last couple of years.
"We learned a lot from playing all those earlier shows," Dorian nods thoughtfully. The French component of their group is thoughtful and curiously ‘zen’ for his age. He’s been jamming and performing the blues with much older musicians since he was 14, and it shows somehow. "I think we found our balance with touring, with the the crew we have – it's all much more comfortable now."
"Now it doesn't take over, the nerves," Elin agrees. "Now I have fun every time we play, and also we improvise more…sometimes we go up onstage and we don't know what we're gonna do. And we feel it, we know where it's going…it's weird to explain it but it’s cool that it’s developing."
This maturity and experience is audible in the new record, Lady In Gold. Keen to shake off the 'retro rock' tag that's persistently followed them for the last couple of years, it captures a sound that's less 'I-love-1969' and more…well, more Blues Pills. Not that they've ditched their old school, Led Zeppelin-meets-Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac side. Lady In Gold streamlines these bluesy roots into a soul-heavy whole, drawing from the likes of The Temptations and Funkadelic.
"And we listened to [motown group] The Undisputed Truth, their record The Cosmic Truth," Sorriaux adds, "I think from '75 with Norman Whitfield production; all of us have that record on vinyl and loved it."
Indeed, despite their reservations about being dubbed ‘retro rockers’, there’s a lot about Blues Pills that’s still pretty retro. They’re massive vinyl nuts (Anderson especially). Their music tastes go well beyond the obvious and deep into obscure fields. They look like they fell out of Woodstock, or Laurel Canyon. They do a brilliant cover of [blues/swamp rocker] Tony Joe White’s Elements And Things. But they’re also still in their twenties, and understandably want to forge their own identity; without shunning their origins.
"I think on this record you can hear that we've matured," Larsson says. "There's a wider range of music, it's still blues rock but there's more to it, there's more influences."
Lyrically they drew more from fiction this time around. Larsson ingested storytelling inspiration from Kate Bush, and created new characters and (in turn) track titles like the Lady In Gold (a female rendition of the Grim Reaper) and The Little Boy Preacher – the latter of which emerged from a jam session.
"Almost the whole record we wrote together in the studio," Larsson explains, "and me and Zack write lyrics, but musically we all had input. The Change was the only song I wrote by myself, and I didn't even think it was going to make it on the album."
Recording took place in Gothenburg, Sweden, in a windowless ghetto of a studio. Don Alsterberg, who's also cut records with fellow Swedes Graveyard, returned for production duties. Written and recorded over one and a half years, between touring commitments, it was an exhausting process. A ‘difficult second album’, as far as the making of it was concerned.
“We were pretty burned out,” Larsson explains. “It was a lot of mental breakdowns in the studio; a rollercoaster, everyone felt the pressure. We passed five deadlines…"
"The record should have been out since January, at least," Dorian nods. "There would be really creative moments and the song would come to life and everything is nice, but then there would be times where we realised we should have had much more done then we've actually achieved and we'd all start to freak out thinking 'we're going on tour in two days, what can we do?' There was a bit of stress.”
"And when you're in a room for, like, three weeks and you don't' have a window it does weird things to your head," Elin adds. "We still slept on the floors, had no kitchen, no windows… Same conditions as the first album. We bought new mattresses though, for the floor, which was good. And Don also put in a shower, that helped…"
"So there was a bit of an upgrade," laughs Dorian, "and then the next one will actually be comfortable!"
If things go their way, the next record will be made in their own studio, which the band are building themselves in the rural outskirts of Orebro. Weather permitting ("in winter it’s harder to get there, 'coz of all the snow…" says Elin), return trips home have been spent building, painting walls and investigating analogue studio equipment – a particular hobby of bassist/vinyl fanatic Zack.
"Zack's the gear nerd," Elin says, "I think he bought the old mixer of ABBA, and we've been building on it. It's started to get more professional; hopefully in the future we can use it to help local bands in Orebro and use it to record our own records."
“We've been practising there, and hanging out there,” says Dorian. “It’s right in the middle of nature, by an old water mill, with a river running by… It’s a great place.”
To an extent, Blues Pills’ music harks back to their parents. Growing up in the small town of Östersund, Sweden, Elin’s father played her the Beatles, while in France Dorian’s bagpipe player dad played him ZZ Top and took him to pub gigs. Their first tastes of the blues, however, came from different sources.
“I had DVDs of guys from the 30s like Skip James and Robert Johnson and Blind Willie johnson,” Dorian tells us, “footage and documentary pieces, whatever's left. There's blind Willie Johnson in front of a church singing with his wife… So I was watching that as a kid, on top of listening to the early Status Quo stuff and ZZ Top, trying to discover as much as I could. But with these really old guys, it can get really heavy with an acoustic guitar...:”
“It is heavy,” Elin agrees. “I remember hearing a Lightnin’ Hopkins record, and it's almost 100 years old but it's crazy how heavy it is – and it's just him, playing the guitar and singing. Amazing. But I think the first record I bought was a Joe Cocker album; his voice was extraordinary for me to listen to. I was also very into how everyone was sounding, the talking voices as well as singing. And Aretha Franklin was my god!”
As a teenager Larsson spent Sundays smoking cigars and listening to Bob Marley with her sister (“cigars were easier to get hold of than cigarettes!”). During the week she kept busy with adventures in ‘disco metal’, among other things – “it was a school band I was in; I fixed my hair in this huge afro, and we covered Donna Summer, ABBA... then put metal into it”. At 16 she went to music school, honed her voice and became immersed in a big range of genres, from hard rock to classical. During this time she also ingested many battle of the bands contests, including a particularly good Led Zeppelin covers group.
“People always ask 'why are there so much good musicians from Sweden'?” she muses, “and I think it's because there's a high quality of local bands. It raises the bar from the beginning, it raises everyone's game a bit.”
Stints in a ski-hire shop and different musical line-ups followed. But it was getting fired from a waitressing job that made Larsson fly to America, where she met Zack [in 2011] and decided to form a band (initially with American drummer Cory Berry; current sticksman Kvarnström replaced him when their debut was released). Joined by Dorian, whom Anderson had met in Europe via another band, Blues Pills was complete. The non-Swedish members packed their bags and moved to Sweden, where they’re all still based today.
From here things happened quickly. They self-released a couple of EPs and singles before being signed by Nuclear Blast in 2013. Big shows and impressive European chart positions followed. But while they’ve enjoyed great support from touring buddies like Rival Sons and Kadavar, not everyone’s been as happy for them – especially in their homeland. For a long time, Sweden was the one place where they struggled to get gigs.
“It's been...interesting,” says Dorian carefully. “We hear a lot.”
“I think we are sort of the outsiders of the Sweden scene,” Larsson nods.
We ask them why they think that’s the case. Given what a hotbed of serious rock Sweden is – quite apart from its pop credentials, courtesy of ABBA – why would a successful, homegrown young act not do well there?
“I think what pisses them off is that it went so fast for us,” she says. “You could even see in some festivals we play, that people get pissed coz we have a good turnout.”
“They feel like we're just kids coming and eating from their plate, or something,” agrees Dorian.
For Elin, this slightly suspicious attitude and lack of encouragement reflects the reception to her younger musical efforts.
“I didn't get much support in my music from Östersund at all,” she says. “And we have a saying in Sweden, ‘if there's a nail sticking up in the board you have to hammer it down!’ (laughs) You're not supposed to stick out or be better than anyone else.”
They do have a Swedish booker now at least, and slots at some big Swedish festivals lined up – suggesting that their standing back home is changing for the better. But whatever happens in Sweden, you sense they’ll be alright. With the experience gained from the last few years, Blues Pills circa 2016 seem like a more assured collective – who revel in the almost spiritual escapism of live gigs, rather than fearing it.
“It is a spiritual experience, playing live,” Dorian agrees. “Everything in life actually, but live especially. I would definitely consider myself a spiritual person. Sometimes when we’re onstage, there is nothing going on in my mind, or just like this really…I don't know…”
“Something fills up in your entire body,” offers Elin. “It changes you.”
“Yes,” he nods. “Close to what people call meditation. We're all together experiencing that. Maybe that is a spiritual experience.”