In July 2016, the news broke that Swedish prog maestros Beardfish were splitting up after 15 years and eight albums. Now, Beardfish’s former frontman re-emerges with Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly. The Gungfly concept has assumed many guises over the years – its current form is a six-piece keyboard-heavy prog band, but it’s occasionally appeared as a power trio and was first conceived in 2007 as an outlet for Sjöblom’s musical ideas that didn’t necessarily fall under the prog umbrella.
“If you compare Beardfish and Gungfly back in the day when both bands existed at the same time, I usually left stuff that wasn’t really in the prog rock style for Gungfly and then of course sometimes a prog song or two would slip through the radar,” says Sjöblom. “I’d record something and you’d see the Beardfish members going, ‘Oh wait, what was that? We should have had that song!’ But now all of the prog-related material goes to Gungfly. Gungfly is changing.”
Gungfly’s marvellous, cosmos-spanning new album, On Her Journey To The Sun, contains songs intended for Beardfish before the band’s split, as well as music conceived for Sjöblom’s solo career. “For instance, the opening track Of The Orb, that was meant to go on my last album, The Unbendable Sleep,” he says. “But then Robert [Hansen] and Magnus [Östgren] of Beardfish heard it and they were like, ‘Oh, we’ll take that one!’ So I lost that one to Beardfish but then I got it back. And there’s this song called Polymixia, it’s an instrumental that was meant for Beardfish. We rehearsed it but never recorded it.”
Beardfish’s creativity was rooted in the mindset of the garage band, where the members would get together and develop material by jamming. It was the difficulty of maintaining that working method in the face of changing life circumstances that contributed to the group’s demise. Gungfly marks a departure from that grease, oil and sweat school of music-making.
“This is an album I’ve been doing on my own,” says Sjöblom, who plays most of the instruments on the record himself. The six-piece line-up – Sjöblom, Petter and Rasmus Diamant on drums and bass respectively, keys players Sverker Magnuson and Martin Borgh, and ex-Beardfish guitarist David Zackrisson – is the onstage version of Gungfly.
“The band is going to be recording stuff together in the future,” says Sjöblom, “but on the album, I think we only play two or three songs with all the members on them. That’s basically the live band.”
Even the live version of the band has had different manifestations. For some shows, it’s been a stripped-down power trio. “That was actually out of convenience,” says Sjöblom. “Basically Petter, Rasmus and myself have been playing a whole lot of trio stuff together through the years. When I was invited to do Progtoberfest in Chicago, it was a case of, ‘Let’s make this convenient – we’ll just fly over the three of us and we’ll play stuff from all over the place.’ Most of the stuff was from the older Gungfly albums but we also did a couple of songs from the new album. It’s always fun to mix it up a little bit. That’s why it’s called Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly these days instead of just Gungfly, because I might be mixing it up and doing different setups with the band.”
While it might be Sjöblom’s name on the marquee, he’s keen to point out that the new moniker doesn’t mean he’s become a prog diva. “It’s not a big ego trip,” he says. “Gungfly isn’t the best-known band in the universe but I still want to continue using that name. I’ve released albums as Rikard Sjöblom as well as Gungfly; those two things have always been more or less the same anyway so why not bring them together?”
Likewise, having the ability to alter the roster to fit the occasion creates new possibilities for arranging the material. “For a trio setting, you basically get to play a whole lot more,” explains Sjöblom, “because there are quite a lot of instruments on the recordings but in a live setting there is a different energy and a different vibe.
“I always enjoyed that myself, seeing some of my favourite bands like Frank Zappa or King Crimson. I think the only band that was really super consistent was Gentle Giant because they were all on the stage every time, but taking King Crimson for instance, sometimes there were just three people on stage doing the same songs but different versions of them. I really like that.”
One major change in Sjöblom’s life over the last few years has been becoming a parent and trying to balance his music career with his family.
“Being on the road, doing music in general, it fucks up all the routines,” he says. “You never really know, oh, I’m going to be working this Thursday from four in the afternoon till 10 in the evening. Balancing that with day care or kindergarten, just generally being around, can be tricky. You have to work together with the one you created the kids with, I guess, and have a pretty good relationship, so there is a giving and taking situation.
“I had a more difficult time getting into making an album, for instance, or writing songs, but once I’m there, it’s like I never left or never had kids. I’ve just got to be able to get into that realm of writing and creating because it can be tricky, but it’s doable. It’s a few years of no sleep. I go around looking like a zombie.”
For most musicians, being on tour is a marathon in sleep deprivation but, with kids at home, it’s the opposite for Sjöblom. “When I go out of town and I stay in a hotel, I sleep my ass off,” he says. “It’s one of the perks.”
On Her Journey To The Sun is drenched in wonderful sounds. While the album may not have been made by a group of musicians jamming in a garage, it sounds organic and alive, which may be thanks in part to Sjöblom’s love of vintage keyboards. Case in point, the track Polymixia features a Clavinet.
“It’s a real Clavinet, the old Stevie Wonder, Superstition keyboard and I ran it through a whole bunch of guitar effects” says Sjöblom. “I had a field day when I recorded that!
“I’ve always been a big fan of vintage keyboards. I have a couple of Hammond organs, I’ve got a Fender Rhodes piano, some synthesisers from an old ARP Pro Soloist, the one that Tony Banks used on the old Genesis recordings. You find all these old keyboards and go bankrupt every time you purchase one, but it’s a lot of fun. There is so much energy and warmth that comes from using real instruments that you lose if you only use Virtual Instrument plug-ins.”
When inspiration strikes, Sjöblom prefers to start with a melody, rather than a lyric. “I can have a melody nagging me for days before I do anything about it,” he says. “Sometimes that melody can be inspired by just a line or something that I’ve scribbled down on a piece of paper but most of the time it’s melodies or chord progressions that do it for me.”
Once he has a musical idea, that can suggest a lyric or a theme. “It’s usually a feeling. Something in the mood of the music speaks to me and gets me going lyrically,” he says. “Then sometimes it can change as well. You start writing something and then you don’t feel it’s right and you have to go back and revisit the lyrics. That happened a few times on this album. The last real song on the album, The River Of Sadness, that changed a couple of times throughout the writing process. At first it dealt with two lovers and then it ended up being more about losing friends.”
Where Beardfish used to rehearse at length and then record, with Gungfly it’s a case of recording then rehearsing the band to perform the studio creations. Sjöblom is keen to take On Her Journey… on the road, although he does have concerns. “I’m a worrying person,” he says. “I’m not afraid that everyone is going to be able to play everything. It’s more that I always have a feeling like, ‘Is there enough time to learn everything? How do we get the Hammond organ from the trailer to the venue?’ I worry about small stuff all the time but I never show it so I go around twitching.
“I’m just looking forward to getting out there and trying it out. It’s always nice to see a song come to life that way because recording is one thing, you witness a song come to life there as well, but it’s a different beast when you bring it out on the road.”
On Her Journey… is out now on InsideOut. For more details, see www.rikardsjoblom.com.