The orchestrated adventure of José González: Interview

J.N. October 27, 2018

One of Sweden’s biggest music exports and the man whose solo guitar work originally brought him to the spotlight with “Crosses”, is on a major concert hall tour together with the Swedish/German ensemble The String Theory and plays completely sold-out shows at famous venues across the world such as at the Royal Albert Hall.

When González brought the show to Hamburg, Messed!Up sat down with him ahead of his set at Laeiszhalle to chat about his career, a new solo album and growing up on the hardcore scene in Gothenburg.


José González has wooed his fans and drawn accolades from music critics with his melancholic strumming over the years, gaining a loyal following worldwide, and has since his breakthrough in 2003 branched out to make two records with Junip and then go on to do the soundtrack for the major motion picture “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”.

After the split with the band Only If You Call Me Jonathan, Gonzáles released his first solo single, the seven-inch “Deadweight On Velveteen/Hints” in 2001, but it went under the music radar. Instead González focused on his PhD studies in biochemistry and accepted his faith having music as a hobby. However, his career was about to suddenly change in 2003.

ZTV, Sweden’s equivalent to MTV, picked up the title song of his new EP “Crosses” on their “Weekly Hit Song” list just after it was released in 2003. A few weeks later Swedish radio started to play the song endlessly, and González were booked for a national tour even before he’d released his debut album, and he decided to have a break from his research studies.

Two years later, in 2005, he had a major international breakthrough with the cover of The Knife’s “Heartbeats”, boosted by being picked up by Sony BRAVIA’s well-known TV campaign seeing 250 000 bouncy balls shot down the steep streets of San Francisco.

The campaign was broadcasted on prime time and José González’ international career took off with the same bouncing intensity as the commercial. And since that moment, he has been a rising star on the music scene for his unique signature sound entailing nylon-stringed guitars, meaningful songs, careful lyrics and a soothing voice.

Fifteen years later José González is spinning around the world with The String Theory and plays arenas far from the venues he grew up with on the hardcore scene in Gothenburg.

“I was lucky with my genes”

If you consider the whole career so far and how quick everything happened between being in Only If You Call Me Jonathan and your breakthrough as a solo artist with the “Crosses” EP, did you ever had the goal set for where you are today on the scene, fifteen years later?
I don’t think I had the faintest idea back then, but what I had was my teenage dreams and the ambition to play in a band and have music as my job. When the band split up [Only If You Call Me Jonathan] I accepted that music was only going to be a hobby next to my studies in biochemistry.

Later, when I got much attention for my solo stuff, I didn’t had any ambition to reach any higher goal at all because everything was big enough at that point; I sold a lot of records, my music reached out to people around the world and I did some of my biggest shows already back then, such as a sold-out Hammersmith Apollo gig in London with 3 500 in the crowd. It already felt like I’d peaked (laughs), and I never ever had the ambition to get there.

As the years have passed I’ve had other goals along the way. This year I played Sydney Opera House on my own, I did Red Rocks [Amphi theatre in Denver, Colorado] with the band, The Brite Lites, and now I’m on this tour with The String Theory. And I can actually see how this setup, with The String Theory, could be the future for me with these kind of venues, especially after we have released the live album and people will come to the concerts because of the orchestra, not that they only know me and “Heartbeats” (laughs).

But have you ever thought of it like something happening by chance or just blind luck? I remember how the hype around you started when ZTV [Swedish MTV kind of channel in the nineties] picked “Crosses” as their “Weekly Hit Song” earning you quite a following in Sweden, and the cover of The Knife’s “Heartbeats” ended up in that famous commercial broadcasted on prime time during a Champion’s League game.
As a student I studied virus’s and I understand how important it is to make things go viral online, but you can also talk about some sort of luck way before that, the luck of my genes (laughs). My dad has a great voice while my brother and sister don’t have it at all (laughs) meaning I was lucky with my genes.

In terms of music style you can talk about luck in the context of those friends I hanged out with, who brought me into alternative music which I could combine with my classical style and aesthetic, and my ambition to find something unique. While other musicians just try to do good music I had friends who pushed me to do something special both in terms of music and artistry.

But how quick did you realize ”I can live off my music and don’t need to study biochemistry anymore”?
It was around May or June in 2003 when ZTV listed ”Crosses” as a hit song and after that P3 [major Swedish radio channel] picked up the song and put it on their rotation list meaning it was played a lot. Those things together made me realise “Ok, I’ll have a break from my biochemistry studies but I probably won’t come back” and I was allowed to have a break for six months. I even talked to my superviso about it and together we realized that I probably didn’t need this in the future (laughs).

It’s quite a difference to do four or five shows every month, paying for the rent, compared to be in the lab nine to five almost every day of the month (laugh). Since I got half-a-year off I thought that I could at least try it out and when I was at the end of that period it was even more clear that I wouldn’t go back to my studies when the album went straight into second place on the Swedish chart and I also had started to build a career in London. And it becomes clearer for every year that pass.

And considering the role of the Gothenburg scene in your development; how was it for you to grow your career in Gothenburg?
I really have a lot of good things to say about that, especially to find studio spaces – and I’ve had quite many – where you could get access for almost no money, and then you also got to borrow drums and amplifiers as well, you didn’t need to buy anything. But even after I had some success Gothenburg was a good support for a musician. Just compare to other countries where it’s quite difficult to get your own rehearsal space if you don’t have a lot of money or a house with a garage. If you consider this, Sweden and Gothenburg were perfect.

And we had, and still have, these music competitions which allow young people to get stage time and do their first shows in front of a crowd. There’s for instance “Unga kontraster” and “Musik Direkt”. All these things together helping young people with money and gear are important.

One thing that struck me is that you always stayed in Gothenburg. Most artists leave for a bigger music city after they had a breakthrough just to make it easier with collaborations and many other things in music. Why did you stay?
I’ve had different reasons for every period in my life (laughs). Quite often I’ve been in a relationship, just like with Yukimi [Nagano] who actually moved to Gothenburg from Stockholm and started Little Dragon, and since they had Gothenburg as their home base I just stayed.

When we broke up I was free to move a bit more, did quite many shows but stayed in Gothenburg. After a while I met Hannele who works at Monki, the clothing brand, and they have their head office in Gothenburg and I stayed again. And now when we have our daughter I feel like “Gothenburg is great for kids” and I will stay again (laughs).

I’ve had many different reasons for staying in Gothenburg, and I have always stayed. But I never felt any stress of moving.

But how is to be an artist with a family, going on tours quite often and continuously change between different roles in life? I’ve met a few artists this year who pointed out that it can emotionally tear you apart. What’s your experience of this?
That’s something you really need to work on, to keep those different lives apart and accept that you need to go between two roles. Before I had a family it was more difficult but when you have a child at home, these different roles become clearer, at least to me.

A trick is not to come home after a tour with a hangover, to feel good (laughs). It’s easy to end up like that, especially when you go around the world with an orchestra and someone puts on music after a gig and you have a few beers, but I have cut down on it much although it’s still fun to go on tour and at times get completely wasted (laughs).

At the same time, I don’t do that many tours anymore. I cut down on it already even before I started a family, just to get a more balanced life. And it’s important; take that as an advice to all those joining the circus. I’m thinking of artists as Avicii and the pressure to always do what everybody else say and always be part of the circus because you think you will get kicked out otherwise, but it’s not true at all. The major problem is that your job is your hobby and then it might be hard to turn down something you love, to play music but also the party that comes with it.

A fourth solo album in 2019?

It’s been a moment since his last solo record “Vestiges & Claws” came out in February 2015 but this time Gonzélez has been busy. Previously he has pointed out that he gives meticulous attention to detail in his music thus the work process is slow but during the last four years he’s been touring the “Vestiges & Claws” album, preparing a live album with The String Theory, planning the concert hall world tour with The String Theory and embarked on the tour, and since last year he’s a father to a daughter.

Considering such a hectic four-year period traveling across the world to perform and back home to change diapers, it’s impressive that González even found time to spend a few days in the French village of Grèz to write the first songs for the upcoming fourth solo album.

I know that you have a background on the hardcore scene in Sweden. When you released ”Crosses” in 2003 I thought your name was familiar and after some crate digging I found an old 7-inch by Renascence, a hardcore act you had with Elias in the nineties. How much of hardcore and punk do you have in your record collection today?
(laughs) There hasn’t hardly been any record collection but I have a few 12-inches and 7-inches, and sometimes I sit down with my deck and listen. Some of those songs are still really good (laughs).

But you haven’t ever toyed with the idea to start something similar, just for fun?
I’ve been thinking about it but it never happened, instead we started Junip in ‘98. The Renascence era was in ’94-’95 something, when we were really, really young (laughs).

Renascence changed name later to Sweet Little Sister and we recorded stuff but didn’t release anything and it all fizzled out. The hardcore scene in Gothenburg wasn’t that big back then.

It’s almost four years since your latest solo album, ”Vestiges & Claws”,  was released and the rumor says that you are working on your fourth album at the moment and will finish it after you released The String Theory record.
You’re right! I received a grant to write a new album and was in France to compose and put together a blueprint but because I also became a dad I spent much time to just be a dad, and to prepare for The String Theory tour; I have done some solo shows, a few shows with my band and now it’s this which is kind of big.

My ambition is to continue to write on the album and release it next year, or maybe the year after that. Let’s see what I have time for between tours with The String Theory but a few hours every week shouldn’t be a problem.

I can’t have too high ambitions though because I want to spend time with my daughter and take over the parenting role from my girlfriend for a while. When she’s old enough for kindergarten, it’s a different situation but at the moment I will spend more time at home. But a few hours every week is enough to get the project started, finish the songs I already have and record them.

If we consider the upcoming album; ”Vestiges & Claws” was partly inspired by West African music in songs as ”Stories We Build” and ”Afterglow”. Are you following this path on the new album as well or will it be something completely different?
I’m most definitely still inspired by that and feel that it has become part of my live sound, and there’s three or four songs with that kind of influence this time as well. The variation of the Paul Simon kind of songs and Nick Drake influences combined with more rhythm based songs is great fun to deal with.

You have done a lot of covers previously of, for instance, Massive Attack, Kylie Minogue and The Knife but also some collaborations such as the Zero 7 EP. Is there anything of this on the album as well?
On this tour we always do Massive Attack’s ”Teardrop” and The Knife’s ”Heartbeat” but there will be no covers on the next solo album. We stopped doing it with Junip and then I cut it out as well for some reason. But I still love to play covers live, especially those older songs that people think of together with me.

And there will not be any collaboration either. I like the idea of doing it simple on record and then bring in a band or the orchestra on stage.

About Zero 7; I just happened to meet them in London and they asked me about a collaboration, and I really liked it. And they’re active again and have asked me about a new collaboration but they also want to involve Sia again, but since her career is running really well it will probably be difficult to get her into the project.

At this point you have released three solo albums. Is it different every time you restart the creative process or have you found a method that works out for you?
At this point I’ve actually made five albums, three solo albums and two with my band [Junip], alongside quite many side projects, and I have a similar way of working every time I restart the process.

Usually I start collecting ideas, just guitar pieces and vocal melodies, and when I start with the record I just sit down and sort things out and put together those ten to twelve ideas that are good enough and work on those intensively until I have a kind of framework, just guitar and vocal melodies, and then I start to write the lyrics. Of course I find a few words on the way but usually it’s a different process. And this is where I am at the moment; I have frameworks for ten songs, some of them already done but with lyrics left to do.

Writing lyrics is the second phase and that also comes with a completely different emotional state; pen and paper and writing down words that will become sentences. Quite often I record demos with the kind of recorder you use [pointing at my Zoom H4n], and go for a walk or a jog, and process the ideas during these trips.

But how different is it to sit down on your own and put together ideas to your solo project from bringing together an orchestra like The String Theory? When you find yourself in a rehearsal mood you can’t just phone everyone and say “Hey, I want to rehearse a bit, can you come down?”.
It is a huge project and requires long-term planning. At this point it’s also about these huge venues such as Royal Albert Hall, and since we have to book those kind of venues very early you build tours around these special places.

But we’re a good set of people with different roles; there’s people taking care of getting the right musicians into the orchestra, and the Germans [The Berlin String Theory] arrange the songs. Sure, it’s not easy at all but I don’t find it that hard, you just plan things far in advance.

And you’re not that kind of person that finds it disturbing that someone else re-arrange your songs? I mean someone is changing what you have done.
It has most definitely been like that with some songs but initially they are free to do what they want and then I change their arrangements a bit. I really try to give them the freedom to make their artistic imprint on the songs but at times I need to nag a bit about it (laughs). Today I feel that I’m totally behind everything we do together but it’s part of the adventure – every band have to compromise.

The orchestra is a band in itself; those arranging the songs have their different roles, the director has a vision and each and every musician in the orchestra have their different styles, and to consider all these different inputs of ideas is fun.

Future: Parental leave, then solo album

What’s next on the José González schedule after The String Theory-tour? It’s all about the solo album?
Yes, but first my daughter and then hopefully a few hours every week to finish writing the songs to the album.

And the album will come together with a solo tour?
Most definitely. The problem at the moment is that the live album with The String Theory is postponed, it was expected to be released well in advance of the tour, and because it’s late it may be that it requires a bit more attention and will be followed by more touring than we have in our plans at the moment.

Let’s wait and see in which order everything will happen, with the live album, writing the solo album and releasing the solo album, and tour. Solo tours are however the core of what I do, that’s what I really want to keep alive and everything else can be done as side projects.

It’s still great to play on my own and to make the guitar sound as much as possible. I always loved when Chet Baker and similar artists did their solo shows and made it very simple with just one instrument and vocals. That’s what I want to do, just out of respect for that kind of style, and that has always been my goal.

I always looked up to those artists starting out very simple before they put on many layers of music and became more mainstream, and I feel that as long as I don’t leave my solo career it’s ok to do any other kind of project.

Photographer: ©Teresa Enhiak Nanni
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The interview is also published in our Swedish partner magazine Drefvet (in Swedish)

José González pages

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About The Author

Music researcher with an unhealthy passion for music and music festivals. Former studio owner, semi-functional drummer and with a fairly good collection of old analogue synthesizers from the 70's. Indie rock, post rock, electronic/industrial and drum & bass (kind of a mix, yeah?) are usual stuff in my playlists but everything that sounds good will fit in.