Current Big Big Train member Rikard Sjoblom formed Gungfly as a more introsperive and solo venture away from the enigmatic Beardfish. By the time of 2018's fourth Gungfly album Friendship, Beardfish were no more and Prog sat down with Sjoblom to talk about an album deeply inspired by his childhood.
You never know what a good rummage will unearth. Being the helpful soul that he is, Rikard Sjöblom was assisting his parents with a house move when he stumbled upon a stack of old photos. Among them was one particular snap that immediately triggered a flood of childhood memories in the Gungfly man’s mind. You can see the photo on the cover of Sjöblom’s new album, Friendship there he is, the young Swede, perched on top of a perilous-looking treehouse, peering down and surveying the world below.
“My uncle took the picture. I actually remember staring down at him from that angle,” he notes. “The treehouse was in the woods behind my parents’ place, where I grew up. I was actually on top of the goddamn thing! I can’t believe they even let us build it because it was pretty high up in the trees. We built like four or five treehouses and that was one of the bigger ones, or one of the higher ones at least. It was probably seven or eight metres up in the air. You were standing without a railing or anything so it was kind of insane!”
The way he describes it, Sjöblom’s childhood was idyllic. Growing up in a small village just outside the also fairly small town of Gävle in Sweden, his formative years were a blur of long summers spent outdoors and a real sense of freedom. Most importantly, Sjöblom had numerous close friends of a similar age and spent countless hours in their company. On discovering the aforementioned photo, his first thought was to wonder how, as the decades drifted by, those incredibly close friendships had eventually faded away.
“Where we lived, it was just a small village and I think there were three or four families that had kids the same age, so we’d all hang out every day and get up to no good, as kids do,” Sjöblom recalls. “I started thinking about all these friends that you grow up with and all of a sudden you lose touch with them, which has always been a weird thing to me. You’re the best of friends and then the next day, you’re gone from each other’s lives. You know everything about each other and then suddenly there is nothing there anymore. It’s very strange.”
As with most of the records Sjöblom has released over the years, both as a solo artist and formerly with the much-missed Beardfish, there is a strong air of both melancholy and optimism written through Friendship, Sjöblom’s new full-length endeavour. The melancholy seems to come from that gentle sense of loss, when once closely linked lives split apart and cherished childhood allies vanish into the ether.
“For my own part, I don’t think I felt that way at the time that it happened. It’s more about looking back at it. People go somewhere else and you don’t keep track of each other anymore. Of course, Facebook helps with stuff like that these days, but you still lose that special connection that you had with that person, even though it’s always gonna be there in a strange kind of way. It’s a weird sensation. Thinking about that spawned several songs, even before this record. I guess I’m stuck in the past!”
One of the new album’s most affecting and succinct moments, They Fade is the closest that Sjöblom comes to directly addressing the feelings conjured by that photographic glimpse of times long gone.
“It’s the first song that I wrote for the album,” he explains. “It was more inspired by the photo than any of the other songs. I started thinking about this friend that
I built the treehouse with, and then for some reason I started thinking about two other friends too, who weren’t even involved with it. Basically, there were some really important events in life that happened to me, with these three friends, so I wrote the song about the three of them, even though they didn’t have anything to do with each other. One of my close friends from when I was young, he died after we lost touch. He drowned, actually, when he was only 13 years old, which was a really tough thing for me. Up until that point I had this feeling that I was kind of immortal, you know? That’s how you feel as a kid. Then suddenly, one of my closest friends drowns, so it was a really weird thing to go through. That song has been waiting to be written for quite some time, I guess.”
If you’ve followed Sjöblom’s career for any length of time, you’ll have noticed
that he is one of those musicians that seems pathologically unable to stop
making music. Beardfish fans barely had a moment to mourn the demise of their favourite band when their leader came hurtling out of the traps with On Her Journey To The Sun: technically, the third Gungfly album, but arguably the first to present the whole thing as something more than an eclectic side project. Friendship is undoubtedly the next step in that evolutionary stroll and sounds even more like the work of a living, breathing prog rock band than its melodically rich and intricate predecessor.
“I know what you mean and I guess that’s a good thing!” Sjöblom laughs. “I think that Gungfly is always a solo project, really, no matter how I try to turn it around in different variations. It’s always been that way but there’s still this really good connection within the live band, as we call it. I’ve known Petter [Diamant, drums] and Rasmus [Diamant, bass] for many years, since we went to music school, and we’ve been playing together for so long now. They don’t mind it being this way, or at least that’s what they tell me! It’s just that Gungfly has always been my getaway, to do exactly what I want. Then I have the fortunate situation where there are musicians that like to play this music together with me, in a live situation.”
Do you ever miss the slightly more intense band camaraderie that you had in Beardfish?
“Well, I do sometimes regret that this is not a band in that sense, even though I like this situation, too! But sure, I do miss the style we had with Beardfish and how we did things. Even though I wrote all of the songs there as well, there was still that garage band feeling. That’s been kind of lost these days, but I don’t think it would work, to start a new band like that for me right now.”
In contrast with the first few Gungfly records, which were pointedly less prog-inclined than the music Sjöblom was making with Beardfish at the same time, Friendship exuberantly goes the whole prog hog. Epics like the multi-faceted, Floyd-tinged title track and the gorgeous, expansive If You Fall, Pt. 2 (as you might imagine, the sequel to If You Fall, Pt. 1 from On Her Journey To The Sun) showcase a refined updating of Sjöblom’s trademark blend of traditional and esoteric prog tropes. You may also detect the occasional nod to Big Big Train, the now-legendary UK proggers that Sjöblom joined in 2014. The two projects have plenty of clear musical water between them, of course, but the Swede eagerly sings his British bandmates’ praises and acknowledges the effect their music has had on his own.
“Oh, absolutely,” Sjöblom nods. “One thing that influenced me quite a bit is that I love how Greg [Spawton] and Dave [Longdon] are able to portray a situation really well. I love their storytelling. It’s just remarkable, and that’s the thing that caught me when I was learning the songs, the first time I went over to play with them. I think it was Summoned By Bells from English Electric that really caught me. Also, I think they made me find a way to lay back a little in the music. I think they influenced me in that way, because I can be a little in-your-face with my songwriting! I’m not holding back too much, but I’ve learned I can back away every now and then.”
The best part of 30 years have passed since Rikard Sjöblom stood on top of that treehouse, but he’s still enjoying a life full of experiences, friendship and freedom. As he excitedly notes, 2019 looks like it will be one of his busiest years yet, with tentative plans for a full European Gungfly tour and, just maybe, a surprise performance at one of the UK’s biggest historical tourist attractions.
“Since I have this connection with Big Big Train, I really do want to include England on every tour I do because I love being there,” he concludes. “And not just in London! We went there with Beardfish a few times, but I’ve really grown to appreciate the countryside in England. I love travelling around. It’s a beautiful landscape. Maybe we could play a show at Stonehenge? That would be very cool.”