Four years can be a long time in the music business. In the summer of 2016, Swedish hard rockers Blues Pills released their second album, Lady In Gold, to much acclaim. It achieved impressive sales, and was backed up by triumphant festival appearances and sell-out shows across Europe, which resulted in a live album the following year. But then it all went quiet. Ominously quiet.
The band of the hour suddenly disappeared. It transpires that dropping off the radar was self-imposed – but only to a degree. What began as a welcome break from the rigours of touring and recording instead ended up as a full-blown crisis, with the band almost folding.
“We’d decided to take a year off in 2018 because we were all kind of burned out,” explains singer Elin Larsson. “We’d been working so hard, and Blues Pills was all we’d thought about. But then everything kind of fell apart. Life took over. We started asking ourselves if we should even continue.”
“Quite a lot of dramatic things happened in a short amount of time,” adds guitarist Zack Anderson, Larsson’s co-writer in Blues Pills. “Everyone in the band went through a lot of changes over the past few years – relationships, death, all kinds of things. In my mind I had no question about whether I wanted the band to continue, but it wasn’t immediately obvious how we would manage it.”
Larsson says that none of the band were happy. Since forming in the Swedish city of Örebro in 2011, they had undertaken a punishing schedule, either on the road or in the studio, with little downtime. The years had rushed by so swiftly that they got caught up in their own wheels.
“It was amazing when Blues Pills exploded on our level, but at the same time maybe it wasn’t healthy mentally,” she reflects. “We were all very young, and I think it all came back to us in the end – a lot of pressure, stress and anxiety. The whole thing takes a toll on you. During that time away there was a lot of separation and moving. I lost friends as well, people who were really close to me. And I lost my dog in an accident, which was heartbreaking.”
Another direct consequence of all this upheaval was the departure of founder member Dorian Sorriaux. The guitarist quit, in wholly amicable circumstances, at the back end of 2018.
Faced with a critical dilemma, the others – Larsson, Anderson and drummer André Kvarnström – took more time away to ponder their future, together or separately.
With the idea of life without Blues Pills being too much to bear, they eventually opted to press on as a trio. Anderson, then still the group’s bassist, switched to guitar.
“We thought about bringing in another guitar player,” he says, “but I’d already started writing new songs with Elin. It made more sense, rather than adding someone who would probably change the sound of the band more drastically. When it came time to do new demos, it almost felt like we were starting out afresh.”
These were the circumstances under which Blues Pills set to work on what became Holy Moly!, their third studio album. Anderson and Larsson were able to draw from a wealth of personal dramas for the songs.
“I’ve been through therapy as a result of the last few years,” says Larsson, the band’s lyricist. “And I’ve been working out, dealing with myself, as well as writing a lot of music. In terms of what I’ve been going through, this record was very necessary. It’s very raw and honest when it comes to emotions.”
Holy Moly! certainly doesn’t hold back. Not only does it contain some of the most searingly intense music of the band’s career thus far, it’s also the most expansive-sounding. Alongside the heavy psych-blues jams that made their name, there are detours into vintage soul, Laurel Canyon-ish folk, gospel and even a little country.
Longest Lasting Friend could be Dusty Springfield in Memphis; Wish I’d Known feels like White Album Beatles; the intro to Rhythm In The Blood flips an FM radio dial that suggests nothing is off limits. All of this is spearheaded by Larsson’s powerful, supple voice.
“We told ourselves not to be afraid to do whatever we liked,” she says of the new record. “It was a case of doing the best songs possible, and fuck whatever genre it is,” says Anderson. “We’re definitely drawing inspiration from all over the place. We’re just trying to write whatever comes to us.”
The album teems with references to loss, self-worth, regret, freedom and fortitude. One of its most directly personal moments is Proud Woman, a galloping rocker with Larsson very much at the reins.
“It’s a power anthem to all women,” she asserts. “It’s also a song that I wrote for my younger self. I would’ve loved to have heard this song when I was first starting out in music. I’ve been touring since 2012 and I’ve been a professional musician since 2014, and so often I feel like I’m being scrutinised. I’m judged on everything I do.
"Everyone seems to have an opinion on how I look, how I sing, what I say. And then I often get the blame – if something is wrong, then it must be the singer’s fault! I get it worse for being a woman. I have a stepdaughter now, and Proud Woman is her favourite song. It really is a rock anthem. It came together super-quickly in the studio, almost spontaneously.”
As if to streamline Blues Pills’ newfound sense of purpose, Holy Moly! has far fewer overdubs than their previous album. The songs are stripped back to their essentials, and are all the more persuasive for it.
“The less-is-more approach was pretty important for us,” says Anderson, who doubled up by playing bass as well as guitar on the album. “We really wanted to make it feel as live as possible this time. Things like Low Road and Dreaming My Life Away are probably the heaviest things we’ve ever done. And the vocals are all one take."
Creating the album was cathartic, with the band able to channel the frustrations of their recent past into something meaningful and potent.
“Sometimes in the studio we were super-angry, so we kind of vented it out through the music,” Larsson says. “That was an important part of this process for me, because I’m so emotional. It really helped. I think the same goes for Zack and André too. That’s when you write your best music.”
Environment was another key factor. Holy Moly! was recorded at Blues Pills’ own recently built studio, Lindbacka Sounds, formerly an old factory, tucked into the countryside. It’s now stuffed with analogue gear, largely collected by Anderson, a self-confessed tech nerd. As well a being able to rehearse and record whenever they wanted, the studio’s availability meant they could take full control.
The band’s experience with Dan Alsterberg, who produced both Lady In Gold and 2014’s self-titled debut, proved invaluable. Given their new circumstances, producing Holy Moly! themselves was another step towards autonomy.
“Working with Dan was so good for us, because we were younger,” Larsson says. “But we decided that we were going to be the commanders of this record. Both personally and as a band, we felt we needed to do it without anybody else. It really makes you grow.”
Even the album cover is deeply symbolic. Created by Ukrainian artist Daria Hlazatova, ‘The Beast’ depicts a horned devil consoled by a robed figure who represents compassion and sorrow.
“It wasn’t designed specifically for us, but the moment I saw that painting I just fell in love with it,” Anderson recalls.
“I wanted to have it as the cover, because it’s very fitting,” says Larsson. “This woman is embracing a demon or the devil. Shit happens all the fucking time, so you have to deal with it. You have to try to make peace with it.”
Since the album was completed, Blues Pills have brought in Kristoffer Schander as their full-time bassist. It marks the beginning of phase two of the band’s adventure. But the lockdown has left them – like every other band or artist in their situation – cooling their heels until it’s safe to get back out on the road. In the meantime, Holy Moly! gives advance warning of what to expect at Blues Pills’ live shows, tentatively scheduled for early next year.
For the time being they’re working on videos to accompany each song, as a visual map of the entire album, and Larsson reveals that the band have already started cooking up demos for their next album. Talking to Classic Rock, she sounds thoroughly rejuvenated.
“It feels like we’re a new band, it’s like a rebirth,” she enthuses. “We needed that break to get back on track. Right now there’s so much positive energy in Blues Pills. We’re totally ready to play."