Nothing new (for die-hard fans) is covered in this interview Benny gave by telephone to freelancer Gary Graff – but another nice one for the records.
In 1974, Abba included a song called Dance (While the Music Still Goes On) on its album Waterloo, and Goran Bror “Benny” Andersson, the band’s co-founder and composer, is still dancing.
In the 28 years since the group disbanded, Andersson and longtime lyricist Bjorn Ulvaeus have created the musicals Chess (1984), Kristina from Duvemala (1995) and, of course, the Abba musical Mamma Mia! (1999), which is still running in London and on Broadway, and in 2008 was made into a hit film with Andersson as an executive producer.
Since 2001 he has led Benny Andersson’s Orkester, a 16-piece ensemble that has released three albums in his native Sweden and Story of a Heart, which compiles songs from the three earlier albums and was released in the United States earlier this year.
At 63, in short, music is still Andersson’s life, much to his satisfaction.
“I come here every day and try to deal with the muse,” Andersson says, speaking by telephone from his studio in Stockholm.
“I can do exactly what I wish to do. I don’t have to bother about making a living and all that, so I can aim for what I feel is important to do. And, as you can hear on that record with my band, I can just do whatever I feel like.
“That’s a great privilege that comes with having been a member of Abba.”
Benny Andersson’s Orkester represents a musical path Andersson trod well before Abba formed in 1972, quickly became a worldwide sensation and sold 375 million records to date.
As heard on Story of a Heart, the band takes him back to the Swedish folk music, polkas, waltzes and big-band arrangements that he heard growing up, played at home by his parents.
His father and grandfather — both “hobby musicians,” Andersson says – introduced him to the accordion, which he began playing at 6.
“We have a great music tradition in Sweden,” Andersson says, “which is actually based more on the fiddle rather than accordion. But that’s how I sort of started to come into the world of Swedish folk, and it’s been with me through all the years, actually. I feel very close to it.”
As a youth growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, however, Andersson began being exposed to other music.
“It was a little different being here, though,” says the musician, whose first records were Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock (1957) and Italian singer Caterina Valente’s Du Bist Musik (1956).
“All the influences that came to Sweden came from Italy, from Germany, from France, German schlager stuff as well as Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and the Beatles and all that. Being brought up in a European tradition is a little different, I think, if you compare it to most Anglo-Saxon bands.”
Andersson soon found himself in a rock band, the Hep Stars, and was inspired by the Beatles to begin writing his own music.
“Before that, nobody knew who wrote the songs,” he recalls. “They just thought, ‘This is an Elvis song’ or ‘This is a Cliff Richard song.’ Then all of a sudden you realise, ‘Wow, these guys write their own music. Maybe I should have a go at it … ’
“My first song wasn’t so good,” Andersson admits with a laugh. “My second, it’s a song called Sunny Girl, was quite good as a melody.
After some modest early success, Abba’s breakthrough came at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, won by their song Waterloo, which subsequently topped charts in Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom, as well as reaching No. 6 in the United States.
Andersson and his cohorts never looked back.
The group’s eight albums yielded 13 American Top 40 hits, including enduring favourites such as SOS (1975), Mamma Mia (1976), Take a Chance on Me (1977) and the chart-topping Dancing Queen (1976).
Abba’s catalogue continues to sell three million records a year, which still surprises Andersson.
“When we quit Abba in 1983, I think we all said, ‘Well, there might be some records out there that people will buy maybe for a year. Maybe we’ll have a year or two with some money sort of drizzling in for the old records and that will be out,” he says. “So it’s a surprise to all of us that there’s still life in what we did in the ‘70s.”
Abba’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this past March was another surprise, Andersson says, especially since even he doesn’t really think of the band’s music as rock.
“I take it as a true honour,” says Andersson, who attended the ceremony with Lyngstad and played keyboards while Faith Hill sang the group’s songs. ‘“We are and were sort of a solid pop band, and there is a difference between pop music and rock-’n’-roll music. Being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame wasn’t on the map, really, for us.
“On the other hand, there are a lot of pop acts already inducted, so I don’t mind,” he says. “I’m not the one who inducted myself, you know?”
Andersson and Ulvaeus involved themselves in musicals and concept pieces after Abba’s demise – Chess, a collaboration with Tim Rice, was a concept album three years before it was staged – and also went into production, starting with the brother-sister act of Anders and Karin Glenmark.
Andersson released a solo album, Klinga Mina Klockor (Chime My Bells)” in 1987, and later put together Benny Andersson’s Orkester, starting with five fiddlers and subsequently recruiting singers such as Tommy Korberg from Chess and Helen Sjoholm, who had been part of Kristina from Duvemala.
The band started recording with a self-titled album in 2001, with Ulvaeus writing lyrics, and Andersson says that he tries to keep the group as busy as he can.
“The problem with this band is that they’re all having their own careers,” he says, “so getting them all in the same spot at the same time is the tricky bit. But it’s a good (project) for me because, if I’m not in a project, which is very rare, I can always write stuff for my band.”
The group comes together for seven or eight shows a year, usually outdoor dates in Sweden with a dance floor on the grounds and performances that go on for several hours.
“People dance and listen to the music,” Andersson says, “and it’s great fun.”
“In the old days with Abba we were sitting together, ganging along on guitar and piano, but it hasn’t been like that since Chess,” Andersson says.
“I write the music nowadays and send it to him, and, if he feels there’s a lyric to it, he’ll write that.”