When Prog last had a chat with Rikard Sjöblom, frontman and chief songwriter with Sweden’s very splendid Beardfish, his band had just received some of the worst news imaginable. Thanks to calamitous financial circumstances at SPV, then the parent company of the Swedes’ label InsideOut, Sjöblom and his colleagues’ plans to participate in Mike Portnoy’s arena-filling Progressive Nation tour in the US had been scrapped, with a lack of cash in the kitty cited as the main reason. With an excellent album to promote, the gloriously diverse and vibrant Destined Solitaire, Beardfish would doubtless have benefited hugely from being involved in the tour and their inability to take part clearly still rankles today.
“I think it was a real letdown for us, of course!” muses Sjöblom. “We had planned everything around that tour, so when that fell through it actually took quite some time before we started rehearsing again or writing new material. It wasn’t a great time. But we had a little hiatus, took some time off and licked our wounds and tried to get back on the horse again.”
What doesn’t kill you, as the cliché goes, can often make you stronger and the evidence of this band’s rejuvenation is writ large all over Mammoth, the sixth full-length Beardfish album and one that is being widely heralded as their finest work to date. Bigger, bolder, noticeably heavier and yet somehow more accessible too, it’s a boisterous return from a band that clearly have no shortage of ideas or smart, stylish ways in which to express them. The most significant difference between Mammoth and its predecessors, however, is that this is a very focused piece of work that eschews the band’s tendency to hedge their genre bets in favour of a more robustly rocking core sound that suits them down to the ground. In-keeping with his endearingly laidback demeanour, Sjöblom cheerfully states that the whole thing has been a happy accident.
“We never really have a plan for anything!” he laughs. “We started rehearsing and I had a couple of new tracks when we began, and we said ‘Okay, this feels like it’s going in a bit of a new direction…’ Something like [Mammoth’s opening track] The Platform is a bit more heavy and a bit more hard rock, so that was kind of cool and it energised the whole process. All four of us come from that rock and metal background and we listened to all that stuff when we were younger, so it was great to be playing a riff for a while instead of playing lots of complicated melodies all the time. That felt really good.”
The strongest evidence for elevated enthusiasm levels in the Beardfish camp comes on Mammoth’s longest and most unashamedly indulgent track, the 15-minute And The Stone Said: If I Could Speak. Considering that Sjöblom has never been particularly eager to nail his band’s colours to the prog rock mast, the song seems a particularly unapologetic attempt to write a bona fide prog epic, replete with lyrics that edge perilously close to quasi-spiritual hippie philosophy. Fortunately, Sjöblom is quite happy to plead guilty on all charges.
“When I wrote the first part of the song and played it to the other guys, I said ‘You’re gonna hate me for this, but we’re gonna do a standard prog epic!’ and they all groaned,” he recalls. “But luckily they liked it! We thought the opening melody sounded a bit like Camel, so it’s definitely prog! Then the guy who made the artwork for the album said that my lyrics were like some kind of Buddhist thinking and I guess he has a point! It’s asking ‘What would happen if the stones could speak? What if they had a mind and how would they feel about all the stuff they’ve seen through the years?’ I’m not a spiritual person or religious or anything, but at the same time I get these ideas and I couldn’t help myself! It’s funny, because I can shout all day about how I don’t believe in ghosts but then I’ll sit and watch Twin Peaks and say that it’s the coolest thing ever, you know?”
Of course, before fans start to panic that Sjöblom has taken to wearing a cape and shoving large knives into his electric piano, it needs stating that Mammoth remains a highly distinctive and contemporary record that only makes occasional detours into the kind of knowingly retro territory that so much supposedly modern prog relies upon as a cosy but stagnant comfort zone. As they audibly warm to the notion of embracing their heavier, more overtly metallic influences, even daring to sneak in a quick burst of sacrilegious death metal growling on And The Stone Said…, Beardfish seem to be taking cues from fellow countrymen Opeth; opening the creative door to anything that works, rather than just the few things that prog die-hards will readily accept. For Rikard Sjöblom, Mammoth is simply another step along the road that started way back in his days as a teenage metalhead in suburban Sweden.
“When I was at school, my music teacher loved Frank Zappa but I wasn’t interested at all,” he states. “I listened to Pantera and thought that prog was crap. But then I discovered that my girlfriend’s father had this amazing record collection. He had a record by Sir Lord Baltimore and it had a 70s feel like Deep Purple and it was produced by Eddie Kramer too, which was cool. Then a good friend of mine lent me In The Court Of The Crimson King and said ‘You must listen to this album and only this album for one week!’ I took it home and listened to it and at first I didn’t really like it at all, but after a while I was thinking that it was one of the greatest things I’d ever heard! I was blown away by the fact that you could make that kind of music and that you could extend a song to 10 minutes. My friend sadly passed away a few years ago, but whenever I think of In The Court… I think of him.”
Optimism restored and a fine new album in the can, Beardfish must surely capitalise on all their hard work and creative achievements this year. With tour dates planned for later in the year, starting at France’s Crescendo Festival in August, the band have moved on from past disappointments and are ready to get to work once more. With numerous other projects on the go, ranging from the soulful pop of Gungfly to the experimental organ ‘n’ drums art rock of Bootcut, it’s hard to imagine Sjöblom ever having a day off again…
“I do write a lot of music and I play music all the time, but I still have a lot of time to sit around!” he says, reassuringly. “I get quite irritated with myself because I actually I think I sit around too much! I should be out there promoting our music and getting live shows, but I’m not that type of person. It’s good that we have a manager and people helping us with that, because we’re all very lazy actually! Ha ha ha!”
This article appeared in issue 16 of Prog Magazine.