Interview: Teddybears

With a quarter of a century of history to their name, Teddybears are a band who have been there and seen it all. Founding member Jocke Åhlund looks back on the recording of the latest album from a band who refuse to play by the rules.

What began as a hardcore punk band at the start of the ‘90s didn’t take long to evolve into something more. Never ones to take an orthodox approach, the group transitioned from their raw and heavy origins, delving further into dance, hip-hop, reggae, and beyond. Taking on a wild persona from behind giant bear heads with electric red eyes, untamed and unrestrained, the outfit take the reckless and the wayward in their every stride.

“When we started out, we were trying to rip off Public Enemy, but we didn’t have the know-how,” Åhlund laughs. “The only instruments that we had were a guitar, drums, and bass, so it ended up sounding like something completely different. Back then, Patrik [Arve] didn’t know how to rap, and he didn’t know how to sing, so it turned out to be more like some kind of shouting,” he chuckles towards his bandmate. “Things like punk, rock, and hardcore were more of a natural direction for us to go.”

Familiarising themselves with sequencers, synthesisers, and incorporating a drum machine (eventually scrapping the use of a drum kit entirely), Teddybears began to make the styles of music they’d always geared themselves towards. “We started collaborating with other rappers and singers that we liked, and that broadened out possibilities for making different types of music,” Åhlund recalls. This direction has led the Swedish trio to where they are today.

Continuing to work with some of the most favoured artists and the freshest acts, Teddybears are at the top of their game. Seventh studio album Rock On, released last month, was recorded in sessions everywhere from Kingston, though Atlanta, past London, to their home city of Stockholm, and features collaborations born out of the most unique encounters.

One such collaboration was with Jamaican DJ and dancehall legend Desmond Ballentine, better known as Ninjaman. The artist had, up until only a few days before he started working with the band, been in jail. “I heard that he was in for some kind of violence related thing. Someone said manslaughter,” Åhlund hesitantly considers, “but I don’t know if that’s true, because it sounds a little weird that you would be released.” Ballentine is, in fact, out on bail awaiting trial on a murder charge. The group chalk up the experience as one of the most surreal they’ve encountered.

“He’d been in jail for two or three years, and he’d just been released when we worked with him,” Åhlund recollects. “We’re huge fans of his. He’s a fantastic vocalist, rapper, and singer. We really love his music. But he had a very weird energy.” Having been making music for over thirty years, there’s no ignoring the artist’s credentials, but the group’s description of the collaborative experience sounds something akin to the opening chapter of a horror story.

“He had a huge scar on his neck. He looked like he’d been cut with a machete or something,” Åhlund says. “He had really long, claw-like fingernails, and he never took his sunglasses off once during the whole time we spent with him. He didn’t speak much, besides singing in the microphone. He was just making gestures with his hands and grunting, pretty much. He was a little bit frightening. We were slightly intimidated, to be honest. But I really love the track that we made with him.”

The surreal nature of the whole experience only served to add to the thrill of it. “We were in Kingston. It was the middle of the summer. It was really, really hot, and we were in this weird studio with this guy who’d just got out of jail. It was a really weird atmosphere,” Åhlund summarises. “It is kind of terrifying, but it’s also a lot of fun. I kind of like that. It’s everything but the normal doldrums of everyday life. It’s why we wanted to be in a rock and roll band to begin with.”

Throwing themselves into the unknown is how Teddybears work best. “I like it when you put yourself in strange and weird situations,” Åhlund enthuses. “When you get away from that situation and you have gold in the form of a magical recording, that’s kind of cool. You kind of feel like you’re a treasure hunter or something. A bit of adventure, you know? We do seek those kinds of situations. We’re always open to try stuff out. And when something unexpected and weird happens, I see that as a positive thing.”

Recording all over the world, a sense of adventure is certainly something the Stockholm three-piece have no shortage of, actively rolling with every opportunity as it presents itself. Take their time in Atlanta, for example, where an advert for home-grown vegetables led to the creation of recent single “Best You Ever Had”. “We didn’t plan to work with Gorilla Zoe. We didn’t even know it was him when we got in touch,” the band enthuse. “Of course, when we found out it was him we wanted to see if we could do some kind of musical collaboration, and it turned out to be one of the tracks on the album.”

Devoted to a musical development broader than their own, Teddybears are ever keen to scope out the next bright talents to share their platform with. Most recently, that included Baby Trish, an Jamaican artist still yet to hit her teens. “We were really keen to work with a young MC,” Åhlund buzzes. “It’s a tradition that’s existed in Jamaica for quite some time, and we thought it’d be really cool. I think she was ten years old when we did the recording with her. She came into the studio and just melted the microphone with her vocal.”

Incorporating so many different voices into their music, Teddybears have mastered the art of forging a sound that remains uniquely and characteristically their own. “We are who we are, and we have our kind of expression,” Åhlund says, nonchalantly. “It’s like some kind of funnel that everything has to go through, and in the end it just ends up sounding like us somehow. I’m not really sure how that happens.”

“I’m kind of reckless. I have kind of a short attention span,” he continues. “I like to have a bit of a mix of different things, I think that’s a good thing. We’re not trying to sound like anybody else too much any more. It’s because it’s the three of us that are making the music, and making the decisions, so we have our sound somehow. I think that’s cool and a good thing.”

Maintaining that distinctive sound comes from the band’s ceaseless productivity. “We’re constantly recording and working on stuff,” the band state. “The whole process has changed quite a lot for us since we were recording punk music in the beginning. Then it was more like we were rehearsing on our instruments, and when we had enough songs we went into the studio and recorded it pretty much the way it sounded. Now it’s more like we’re in the studio constantly, working on beats. Then we do vocals and collaborations with a lot of other people.”

Even when they’re on tour, Teddybears continue to work with new artists. “We have this thing that we’re going to do now whilst we’re touring in Sweden,” Åhlund starts. “For each city, we’re trying to bring one local singer or rapper from the town that we’re in that day. And we travel with guests as well. It’s not always the same people that are on the record, necessarily, so it’s a little bit of a different thing, but it works well live.”

Touring to support the release of Rock On, the group are thrilled with the response they’re receiving. “It’s doing really well here in Sweden,” Åhlund gushes. “My main concern really is the people that I like and admire. So when I get reactions from maybe my twenty closest friends or something, those are the people I care the most about. And they have been really appreciative, so I’m really happy with that.”

“It sounds like it would be a weird mix, maybe, all the different stuff and the different influences that we’ve tried to cram together,” he expands. “But people seem to appreciate what we’re trying to do. It seems like it’s not hard to understand, it’s accessible and people can get into it.” With a number of the band’s tour dates selling out before the group even hit the road, the support surrounding Teddybears is impossible to dispute. And the acclaim extends far beyond their home country.

“We’d been in Kingston just a couple of days, and people had heard of us,” Åhlund fondly remembers. “We were shooting a lot of film material. We were walking around town with our big bear heads on, and we started to attract quite a lot of attention. We were on Jamaican television, and we were interviewed in the biggest Jamaican newspapers. We talked to a lot of people and got to know some people, and that led to even more collaborations.”

After a slight legal hold up, Teddybears are back on track, doing what they do best. “There was some kind of problem with clearing one of the vocals,” Åhlund tries to explain. “So there was some kind of process in the Kingston court. I wasn’t personally involved in it. It wasn’t any big deal – they agreed on something, then it was cool – I just found it funny that they were talking about Teddybears music in a court in Kingston.”

With Rock On now finally released and accruing praise-laden reviews, the band are powering forward with a dexterous drive that marks them out as the best in their field. The adventures that will follow as of yet remain a mystery, but it seems certain that they’ll be unpredictably colourful. You can be sure that this is one set of paw prints that are worth tracking.

Rock On is out now via Universal.

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