How José González Took Off

Swedish Argentine reflects on his quietude

Amidst a sea of synth, rap, and bass, José González employs guitar strings and soft-murmured cadences. Best known for covering the Knife’s “Heartbeats” and soundtracking The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, 2005 debut Veneer bowed his minimalist approach to music. He spoke from his home in Gothenburg, Sweden, ahead of playing the Long Center on Saturday.

Austin Chronicle: You played in punk bands growing up, so how did you transition to softer stuff?

José González: Well, in a way I was doing both for many years when I was a teenager. I played classical guitar, but I also did stuff more similar to what I’m doing today, and at the same time I was playing bass. At first it was a punk band, then I started playing in a hardcore band.

So when I was 20-25, I was studying more and more in university and started to have less time to work on my bands. That’s when I kept on going with my solo stuff and let go of the bands. Also, when I released my first album, that was the thing that people liked the most [laughs]. My solo music was the one that really took off, not my bands.

AC: So you were just like, “I’m going to run with this”?

JG: Yeah, I spent about five years at the university studying biochemistry when I released my album. After that, I let go of my Ph.D. studies and went on the road full time.

AC: Your first album is very personal, while your most recent release is more outward and hopeful. Was that a theme or do you write whatever you’re feeling?

JG: It’s different from song to song. I’m just trying to find the riffs and chord progressions that I like, then I write the lyrics for that demo. So the lyrics are dependent on the mood of each song. At the very last minute, I try to tie up the different songs into a theme.

What happened with the third one, I noticed a lot of songs were in the theme of zeitgeist-like struggles that have to do with humanity more than personal struggles. If the first album was more about personal struggles, then Vestiges & Claws sort of switches the focus to a wider lens. It’s still a mixture from song to song, like “Open Book” is still very personal.

In general, I think all the albums are pretty similar [laughs].

AC: Yeah, they all seem to follow the simple guitar and melody. Was this in response to your upbringing? Your parents were from Argentina and fled to Sweden. I’m Mexican and Chinese, then moved to the States, so there was always a sense of othering. Is that why you got into punk and your solo stuff now?

JG: I did feel like I was partly from another country, although I lived in Sweden all my life. I always felt like I had this other dimension with the Spanish at home and the looks [laughs]. People could see that I was not from Sweden. Probably from Spain or Latin America or maybe even the Middle East.

I have a pretty distinct nose similar to a lot of people in the Middle East [laughs], so that’s been something that I’ve thought about. People, when they hear my accent, they notice that I’m very fluent and I have a Gothenburg accent. When people look at you, they might make some impressions, but when they speak to you, they get others that are more regional-specific.

AC: Do you find yourself writing in Swedish, Spanish, or English?

JG: For some reason it’s always been English except for a few times. When I started, I was doing the same as my friends, who, although all Swedish, were writing in English. The years that I’ve been touring, I’ve been feeling more and more that it’s weird I don’t write in my first language [Swedish], or my second language [Spanish], but rather my third. Even though I try once in awhile, it doesn’t come out properly.

I think I’m just postponing when I start switching to other languages [laughs]. When I started playing guitar, I was pretty comfortable singing songs in Spanish or Portuguese or Swedish, but when I’m writing it’s a different mode, so maybe sometime in the future I’ll switch.

AC: How many languages do you speak?

JG: Portuguese I don’t really know, but I understand a bit. With singing, I’m just copying [laughs]. Or imitating, I mean [laughs]. But I do speak three languages. I speak German too.

AC: As for your writing process, there’s Junip and you did the Walter Mitty soundtrack. How do the three differ?

JG: I start with music, usually guitars, then usually move onto melodies, then take lyrics. Of course with Junip, it’s a collaborative process with the band. Walter Mitty was a collaboration with Teddy Shapiro and was very specific to the movie. It’s always easiest for me to start with guitar and melodies. When I’m writing for myself, it’s mainly just guitar and vocals, so I try to focus on the details of the guitar.

AC: Is there any one project you prefer over the other?

JG: As long as I vary the stuff that I do from year to year it’s fine. I get tired if I do too much of the same. Especially touring-wise, it’s good to vary the people you’re touring with and also where I’m touring.

AC: How do you translate your solo stuff into a live setting?

JG: It’s just me and my guitar. It’s been like that since I started in 2003. It’s pretty easy in a way, because my recordings are just guitar and vocals, but there are more dynamics when I’m playing live compared to on the record, so I think that’s why many people like to see me play live.

AC: Do you have a set list when you tour or do you switch it up?

JG: I switch it up a bit, but I do rehearse some songs for the tour. I leave out the songs I won’t play at all, so I have just enough songs that I can mix a bit between show to show. I’m playing songs from all three albums and some B-sides. There’s always someone who gets disappointed because they didn’t hear their favorite song [laughs].

AC: If you could choose an ideal environment for someone to listen to your music, where would it be? What would they be doing?

JG: I have so many songs and they’re all different. In a way, I like to play when there’s a good sounding PA and I don’t really mind what people are doing at the time – laying down, sitting, dancing [laughs]. Yeah, that’s what I enjoy the most: When I feel like there’s power behind the music.

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José González, Junip, the Knife, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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