By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
The distance between whistling and beat-boxing shrank considerably once Kanye West got involved.
When West sampled Peter, Bjorn and John’s whistle-based sensation “Young Folks” for his mixtape, he not only united the worlds of indie rock and hip-hop, he also awakened Peter, Bjorn and John’s burgeoning love of urban music.
“When I first heard his version I thought it was a joke,” drummer John Eriksson said. “I didn’t think it’s strange, though, because a lot of hip-hop artists are trying to get more rock with a lot of electric guitars and the rest.”
West proved his indie rock cred when he asked the Swedish trio to perform the mashup during his set at the 2007 Way Out West festival. The collaboration helped open the band’s ears to new ways of presenting its music. The commercial follow-up to “Young Folks” was this year’s “Living Thing,” which disposed of guitars and traditional drumming and embraced icy synthesizers, spare arrangements and altered percussion.
“Many people think the drums on ‘Living Thing’ are programmed, but it’s not,” said Eriksson, whose band performs Friday night at the Granada in Lawrence. “Eighty percent of the sounds are acoustic but turned to make it sound like a drum machine or given a spaced-out, futuristic sound.”
Hip-hop wasn’t much of an influence when the band formed in 1999, but at the end of the “Living Thing” sessions, singer Peter Moren tried what would have been unthinkable 10 years ago and rapped an entire song.
“I didn’t think it was good enough (to make the album), so we tried to get someone else to do the vocals,” Eriksson said. “That’s how we met Mick Boogie, who helped us come up with the idea of having other people rap over all of our songs.”
The resulting remix album was dubbed “Re-Living Thing” and features original rhymes by GZA, Talib Kweli, Three 6 Mafia, Bun B and Rhymefest, with production from Jazzy Jeff, 6th Sense and Apple Juice Kid.
“I’ve only heard three versions so far. Jazzy Jeff did a fantastic job on his track, and I can’t wait to hear the others,” Eriksson said. “Knowing GZA from Wu Tang is on there makes me want to cry, almost. It seems surreal he’s doing something with one of our songs. I don’t know how Mick convinced him to take part. Maybe they played chess and Mick won.”
After the band released an online- and vinyl-only instrumental album last year and commissioned friends to make different arrangements of past singles for vinyl release, Eriksson feels like Peter, Bjorn and John fans should be up for anything.
“I think our fans are used to us doing weird, surprising stuff. A couple tracks on last year’s instrumental album have a Swedish narrative in the old dialect,” Eriksson said. “After five albums, by now people should be open to who we are. Maybe our next album will be trash-metal mixed with Stockhausen.”
Hesitant or curious fans won’t have to part with much to hear the results. “Re-Living Thing” will be released online today for free.
“That’s just how it works these days. Music is free,” Eriksson said. “When you make music, you don’t think about how to make money. Usually other people do that.”
Eriksson said most of the band’s money comes from licensing songs like “Young Folks” to TV shows and commercials. The corporate funds pay for the band’s creative ventures, like jazz and hip-hop remixes.
“When people ask us if they can use songs in commercials, we think about what the commercial is for. We won’t say yes to banks, McDonald’s and things we don’t agree with,” Eriksson said. “When it’s something we like — like TV shows, beer, maybe ice cream, stuff people need — we have no problem. It’s the only way we can make money. I wish we could sell albums, but most of our money is from that.”
Peter, Bjorn and John perform Friday night at the Granada, 1020 Massachusetts in Lawrence. Cowboy Indian Bear opens at 9 p.m. Tickets to the all-ages show are $15. Visit www.thegranada.com.