Hja! interview: José González

Over a decade ago, a song called Heartbeats was enjoying huge exposure worldwide. The artist in question was The Knife, a sibling duo from Gothenburg, Sweden, whose synth-pop hit from their Deep Cuts album was etched into indie-electronic history.

Another Gothenburg musician covered Heartbeats soon after the original release in the early two-thousands and enjoyed relative success with his acoustic version. José González was part of an explosion of artists from the Swedish city, releasing his debut album, Veneer, in 2003. The cover (the only cover on Veneer) was complimentary of the original, offering a softer alternative to its electronic sister. It has since been played on Spotify more than 80 million times, overshadowing its predecessor.

Today, Heartbeats is probably González’s most recognised track among his beautiful, folk-inspired work from his later albums, In Our Nature (2007) and Vestiges and Claws (2015). The Knife disbanded only last year, but González, whose family fled from Argentina in the ‘70s, continues to tour around the world with his band Junip.

Richard Ashton & Tom Lenartowicz from Hja! met him after his set at last month’s Piknik i Parken in Oslo, and asked about his up-bringing, studying bio-chemistry and why he plays covers…

Written by Tom Lenartowicz
Portrait photo by Richard Ashton

José Gonzaléz by Richard Ashton for Hja!

José Gonzaléz / Photo: Richard Ashton

Also: Listen to the podcast version

Gothenburg & family roots

My parents are from Argentina but I was born in Gothenburg. There’s almost a million people there now but, y’know, the city centre is still small. There’s the other side of the island which is starting to get more and more interesting, but back in the days it was different.

My family moved from Argentina due to the military dictatorship in ’76. So they were in university, and especially my father was in a political group. There were some affiliations to some of the more extreme groups, so everyone who was slightly left were the aim of the military. Many of my parents’ friends went to jail or were tortured. So [my family] fled to Brazil first, and from Brazil they got help from the Swedish embassy.

Historically [Sweden has] always been helping refugees. Through Amnesty, they’ve been helping out refugees from Chile, Argentina, Uruguay […]. So for [my parents], they didn’t search out Sweden, they just went from embassy to embassy. I think Belgium was the first to offer them asylum. But they went to Sweden; both my parents and my sister who was two years old at the time. My brother and I were born later in Gothenburg.

Home is definitely Gothenburg – I’ve lived there all my life. But with all the travelling I do, I feel at home in many, many places. But there’s a difference in feeling comfortable somewhere and having lots of friends somewhere. So Gothenburg is where I have family and friends. And Swedish is my first language.

The city has really grown a lot. I feel like the whole of my life, there’s always been somewhere they’ve been digging and building new houses. And for me, it’s changed on another aspect… until the age of seven I was living in the suburb, then we moved into the city. Switching from going to school to university and to play music, to me the city has really changed shape just because I’ve been hanging out in different areas and with different people.

But I don’t play in Gothenburg often. In Scandinavia I haven’t been playing that much lately. I treat it a bit like anywhere else in Europe, so I go there, like, once a year. I haven’t yet played there with my new album… I last played there with Junip in 2013, I think.

Crowds & Argentine pride

I don’t get much of a home-crowd feeling [in Gothenburg]. I mean it is a home-crowd in the sense that a lot of people I know are in the crowd [laughs] but it’s not like they’re cheering or dancing more. It’s quite the opposite actually. Many times I feel like my best crowds are a bit more in the south of Europe, Eastern Europe, or the States or Canada. And of course the times I’ve been playing in Latin America, that’s also great. But in Sweden it’s a bit difficult – I don’t feel like they get my style. They like Heartbeats and Crosses, and to hear more of the percussive stuff, especially with the band I tour with now. But yeah, I don’t feel the love [in Sweden].

I meet a lot of Swedish people abroad who come up and say hi. And also people from Argentina – they feel like they have a connection to me because of my heritage. So yeah, there’s definitely [that appreciation and pride]. But in Sweden, I’m not a big artist – I’m still, like, underground. Maybe a name that a lot of people recognise but might not know, because I’m not in the media that much.

I’ve played in Argentina a couple of times, it’s cool. The last time I played was in a planetarium in Buenos Aires – that was one of my best shows ever! They had a projection on the ceiling of animated nature stuff while I played in the centre with just my guitar, and vocals. So that was really really cool. And I’ve done a club show and a festival show. It depends on the type of show, but generally, in South America, they’re all very excited about me going there.

Musical background

There was a slight musicality in my family. My dad used to sing in a teenage band [who played] Argentinian folk. They were quite successful, playing at weddings, and on some radio and TV. He only sang and didn’t play guitar. So I grew up with music at home, but not that much. There was some Argentinian folk, some Brazilian music, some classical. I tried flute and Casio piano when I was super young, and guitar for a while. But it wasn’t until I was fourteen when I really picked up the guitar and bass. I would spend all my hours learning different chords and playing bass, and I started playing in a band.

In the 9th year of – what do you call it? – the first school years. That last year, we used to borrow the music hall in between lectures and play drums or guitar. [We played] everything from NOFX to The Beatles and Swedish rockabilly [laughs]. So that’s where I started.

With the bass, I started playing in a Misfits, Black Flag-inspired punk band. It was pretty mixed, but it was mainly trying to imitate Misfits and Dead Kennedys – that sort of stuff. But with my guitar, I started learning bossa nova, Beatles, and classical guitar. So I had these two channels. That first band I only played with for a year, then we started a hardcore band which we did for five years or something. So yeah, mainly hardcore and classical guitar.

Also growing up, Jazz på svenska by Jan Johansson – Swedish tunes that are played on piano, and double bass and drums – is one of the albums [I’ve been inspired by]. And Bob Hund is one of the bands I’ve really loved.

Whenever I compare myself to other musicians, I feel pretty stuck. Like, I know the basic guitar chords and I have my style of playing, but after that I’m not that good with drums or with piano… or flute! I wouldn’t mind becoming good, but I don’t know if I want to spend the time trying to become good, even though it’s fun to learn. Keyboard is the next thing, because I know how helpful it is when you’re producing, to know basic things.

Also: Listen to the podcast version

Bio-chemistry & TED Talks

It was pretty easy [to quit my studies as a bio-chemistry student] because my research group were pretty helpful. The professor knew all along that I was into music, that I was making all these demos and always taking breaks to go and play. There was a moment when I was recording and the cell cultures were dying because I was off on a short tour. When I asked, ‘I’m going to release an album, can I take some time off?’ they gave me a half-year break. So I could have gone back if I wanted to, but to me it was pretty obvious that I wouldn’t. So it was easy – I didn’t need to make any big sacrifices. Then it took off so quickly in Sweden – the summer in 2003 – that I noticed I could pay the rent easily on only a couple of shows a month.

If I rewind and didn’t have any success at all with music, I’d probably continue to play music as a hobby. But I really enjoyed being in the bio-chemistry lab, studying proteins, DNA structures and those type of studies. I still think that’s super interesting. It’s almost a hobby for me… I spend a lot of time listening to lectures; everything from TED Talks to lecture series, which is different from being in a lab and actually doing the research but I think I can say that’s my hobby, to continue learning about what’s happening in science and philosophy.

I’ve been invited many many times to [do a TED Talk], and I’ve always said, ‘no, maybe next year!’ But it would probably be something about the philosophy of aesthetics and music, and what makes us tick… I could probably say something interesting for the world [laughs].

Playing covers & collaborating

At first I was a slow writer, so when I had my first shows I only had twenty minutes of music. They would ask for more, so I did covers. There was this one time I was playing with Junip at the Gothenburg Film Festival. Each day for five days we played two shows, so to fill it up we picked out loads of covers. So it was for practical reasons at first. Also we noticed that people react to stuff they recognise – I’ve been using that as a trick to make the evening more fun [laughs]. And also to fill out the albums, so with Heartbeats on Veneer and Teardrop on In Our Nature.

I haven’t been collaborating much lately, but I have in the past with Zero 7, Ane Brun and most recently with Barborossa on his latest album.

Some collaborations are really quick – the music is already done, so I just put on my vocals. It’s nice but I don’t think about it too much. I grow by just listening to what other people are doing. But usually I don’t sit down and write with people, so I’m more like a loner.

I don’t think I’ve actually ever contacted anyone [to collaborate]. It’s great but it just takes a lot of time for me. The tours we had with Zero 7 were really good times. The collaboration with James [Barborossa], we’re usually playing his songs in our sets. But yeah, I usually try to avoid [collaborations] – it takes too much time.

Rituals, mottos & drinking

I don’t really perform any rituals before going onstage. I like drinking two beers, two glasses of wine… not that much more, not less. It’s a confidence thing, but also about how to enjoy a certain moment. I don’t feel like an alcoholic at all, but I know what happens when I drink or when the other guys drink – at least one beer. It really switches things, just a tiny bit. But I don’t think it’s fun when people are too drunk – they play bad.

But I’ve definitely been envious of people who talk a lot at shows. Cat Power used to do that a lot – she was drinking whole bottles. I was touring with her sound engineer who was telling me how she would talk and drink, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna do that tonight!’ There was one show in Minnesota where I had one and a half bottles of wine before the show. It was only me on the stage with my guitar, and I wasn’t able to play properly. The crowd were super sober, so at that point I thought that it’s not necessarily better to drink more. That was a hard moment.

I used to say, ‘Do you what you do but do it good,’ which is a bit career-oriented, and I think I’ve slowed down a little bit. I’m still doing that but trying to feel good too – and be nice. I’m not the slogan type of guy, but my girlfriend likes slogans. So the refrigerator has lots… like by Bill Murray; ‘You’re awesome!’ But I pronounce it, ‘Awesom-eh!’

Junip & future plans

The main reason [I haven’t released a solo album for eight years] is I wanted to switch from solo work to Junip. We did one album first, and, with writing, recording and touring, it took about three years. By the end of that cycle we were talking about doing the next one instead of them waiting for me to go solo. So we decided to do another Junip album. With my pace, we’re releasing albums every third year. I haven’t really stopped at any moment.

I have plans for next year with yMusic – a great ensemble from New York who release on their own name. They also play with Ben Folds Five and many other bands. They’re like the go-to ensemble in New York. We did one show together which was really great.

Then we also have plans with The Gothenburg String Theory – it’s like a spin-off from The Berlin String Theory – a 20-piece band. We’re probably going to tour late 2016. So there’s still a lot to do in my pipeline.

Oslo

I’ve been [to Oslo] many times, but it’s always been pretty short. So I know it relatively well, but not enough to know the culture. My brother lived here for a year and I used to visit once in a while. He was one of the many tens-of-thousands of Swedish youngsters working. He used to live in Grünerløkka, which I guess is still the nicer, alternative area. But I don’t know Oslo that well to know where the fun stuff is happening.

Also: Listen to the podcast version

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Tom is Co-Founder, Editorial & Brand Director at Hja! Originally from the Lake District, England, he moved to Oslo in 2010. Tom works as a freelance graphic designer at Brenneriveien and is co-creator of Fresh off the Hill. He loves to snowboard and speaks really terrible Norwegian. Follow him on Twitter @thrilly and his Instagram.