Interview: Penny Century
It's been almost three years since we've heard from Penny Century, the Östersund-by-way-of-Stockholm northern soul sextet that first caught our ears in 2004 with their self-produced demos. Finally emerging from hibernation, the band brings us "Friends and family", an 11-song, melodic-pop meditation on the nature of relationships.
Singer Julia Hanberg and instrumentalist Jimmy Halvarsson chatted with It's a Trap! about the state of the arts in Sweden, surprise late-night calls, and what it takes to make a record about relationships without driving a band off the rails.
It's been awhile since we've heard from Penny Century. How long has the new album been in the making?
Julia Hanberg: Awhile. Well, we didn't really decide when to release it. Once we finished recording it, everyone was just like "ahh..." and let go of it.
Jimmy Halvarsson: Yeah. Making the album was so intense for us on a personal level. A lot of tension in the group. So once the album was finished, and I guess once our last tour was finished—we were in England I think—after that tour we were kind of sick of each other. So we haven't really wanted to touch the album. But I guess we pulled ourselves together and started finding ways to get it out there.
Hanberg:Yeah. I think during that period as well, it was so tense, everything, both with the tension within the group, and as well, everyone just needed a break, just to be able to breathe again, just to see other people and think of other stuff.
Halvarsson: See other bands! Julia's been in The Bear Quartet.
Hanberg: Yeah, last summer. I played a couple of gigs with them, as an additional musician, additional vocalist. That was fun.
I know they've been quite an influence on you. That must been incredible.
Hanberg: Yeah, they're my favorite. Like my all-time favorite band. So that was kind of weird when they rang me up in the middle of the night, asking me if I wanted to tour with them.
Did you have that moment of being a bit star struck, or wondering if it was really happening?
Hanberg: At first, when they rang me. But once you meet people and get to know them, they're more human. So I can't attach the humans with the musicians that I've been listening to since I was like 15 or 16. It's really hard to see that it's actually them who wrote the songs.
Are you going to be playing more with them or recording with them in the future?
Hanberg: I don't know. You never know with that band. You never know what's going to happen. You never know when they're going to release something or if they're going to release something. They don't hang out, really, they don't live in the same city. I don't think they hang out during their free time either. So, I don't know. They might just ring me up in the middle of the night again. At this point it's unknown. Hopefully!
I think the middle of the night is a nice touch to the story. It sounds very mysterious.
Hanberg: Yeah. I thought they were joking when they rang me. I was like, "Whaaat?" I couldn't sleep after that!
Halvarsson: It's 3am and the phone rings...who's going to pick it up?!
With your new album, how would you compare this project to your last EP?
Hanberg: I think with the EP, we didn't put that much effort into it as we did with the album. With this record, we thought of it as an album as well, with the building up of it, and where to put the songs and how everything should be attached to each other, and how to have the same sound through it all. Not just put ten songs on a CD.
Did you find there were themes you kept coming back to?
Halvarsson: Definitely with this album. It wasn't intentional either. Once we decided on 11 songs, I started going through the lyrics to see if I could find a common theme. The whole album is about relationships: between friends and among family members. So that's where the album title comes from. It's really about broken relationships. Once song is about a conversation with an uncle who committed suicide way before I was born. Not so much romantic relationships, but more like friendships and family ties and the complexities of those kinds of relationships. So that was the common theme, although it wasn't really intentional, it just turned out that way.
The sound of the album, I would describe it as darker than the last one. Although I had an e-mail exchange with Avi [editor at It's a Trap!], and he said, "Well it sounds basically the same I guess, there's a few more keyboards on there!" (laughs) I was like, "What?"
Halvarsson: It's dark!
Hanberg: Yeah, it was just like Erik said, we have to get new friends now, because we can't write any more songs about the ones we have.
You mentioned writing about your uncle. Do you specific pull a lot from your own life when you write?
Halvarsson: Well, I can only speak for myself because on this album there are 5 or 6 people that have contributed lyrics in total. But, yeah, definitely. Who wrote the most lyrics, was that Kim?
Hanberg: I don't know. I think, it was equal.
Halvarsson: I wrote three. I think. One with you, and then I wrote two myself. It's really a group effort. Both song writing and arranging. I guess Kim's the principal songwriter. But as far as arranging goes it's really all of us.
It's interesting it's a group effort, because it feels like such a cohesive point of view.
Halvarsson: I guess so. The process of making the album, what we did first—and I think it was kind of a mistake—we made 25 acoustic demos which we sent out to different people to get their opinions on it. A few people responded, and then we ended up ignoring their views and selected songs we wanted to work on.
Hanberg: Basically that was to give old songs a new chance. But I'm not sure if we did that.
Halvarsson: Two only songs are on the album, but the rest are new. In the end, you don't want people outside the band to influence your decisions too much.
Hanberg: No, and still it's six people's opinions within the band as well. Six very strong opinions.
Halvarsson: Yeah, we have enough opinions as it is. I don't know whose idea it was to send out those demos. But once we selected the songs we started arranging a smaller batch of those 25 songs. Like 20 or 18 I guess. We started making arrangement.
Hanberg: Full band demos.
Halvarsson: Yeah, with the entire band. From that point on everything went really really smoothly. Everything just fell into place and it was really very natural. Arranging the songs, and writing the lyrics, that came so naturally. It was over very quickly. The hard part started when we got into the studio. That took some time.
A lot of reviews I've read of your music calls it nostalgic. How do you feel about that label?
Halvarsson: I can relate to that. I'm a nostalgic person.
Hanberg: I think we all are.
Halvarsson: There's a lot of childhood memories in this. I don't know where that comes from.
Hanberg: I think it has to do with, most of us; we have a history of being friends for a very long time. We often talk about what's happened before, like when they were younger and when they were in secondary school, or in college or whatever. When we hang out together, we talk about that quite a lot.
Halvarsson: And we're all 24-year-olds.
Do you feel like still being in your early 20s and coming from a smaller town and having all come together, has influenced the way you think about music?
Hanberg: Yeah, I think so. We had our rehearsal room in a house in the area. We could rehearse 24/7 if we wanted to. I think it made things easier having that when moving to Stockholm, since you have to travel to get to your rehearsal room, and you have to plan a lot more. I think it was good for Penny Century when we started off to be able to hang out, and play, and rehearse with each other for as long as we wanted and not having any jobs or anything.
Once you got to Stockholm did you find that it's a city that's welcoming to younger bands or bands that are still trying to find their footing?
Hanberg: I think that band are still trying to find their footing in Sweden everywhere. We moved for the band, we do everything for Penny Century basically. I think with Stockholm, it takes awhile to get into the scene, if you can ever get into it. I don't know if it's welcoming. We got our rehearsal studio which is nice and all that, but it's very hard to get gigs there.
Halvarsson: It's not a very welcoming place. Sweden is pretty special that way, because it's all centered around Stockholm. It's not the same in Norway where you can basically live anywhere and do anything. I think this is a huge problem, that you basically have to live in Stockholm if you want to have a career. You need to be here at least to get your career started. But if you want to play music and hang out with creative people that support you, there are other cities that are a lot better. But it's really hard to start a career there.
Hanberg: I think if you ever get a breakthrough in Sweden you get really well treated. If you get gigs—lots of gigs—or if you go on a tour, you get proper money for it and everything sorted. But then you have to have a booking agency and stuff like that. But compared to other countries that might have more venues—it might be easier to play in Germany or the U.K. -- but you don't get treated as well. I'd like to have something combined. It's really easy, almost every pub has got a stage, there's a lot more venues, it's easier to get gigs. There's more live music there, I think.
It seems like Sweden does a lot to really encourage the arts. It's interesting that there wouldn't be more changes to play live as well.
Halvarsson: Pitchfork had an article on the Swedish arts council about a year ago. It's true; the government does throw a lot of money at the arts. But it's still kind of elitist. Yeah sure, The Knife gets a lot of money to have a string quartet play on their album, or whatever. We've applied for money from the arts council and we didn't get it. We had pretty good reasons to apply as well. So it's kind of hard. But yeah, the government does support the arts. Which is a good thing. But it's a little elitist.
So once your album is out, do you have any goals for touring?
Halvarsson: Well, no. (laughs) Sure we do! Like I said before, we've been sort of sick of each other. But we've started patching things up. The ambition was to try to put a tour together again. It's been hard, since Julia lives in London, and Erik [Persson] has moved back to Östersund, and so on. It's logistically hard right now. But yeah, we have ambitions to start rehearsing again sometime soon and try to get out any play sometime towards the end of the summer.
Interview by Laura Studarus