My earliest memory of ABBA and their music was during the house parties my parents threw in the late 1970s and early 80s in Mumbai (Then known as Bombay). I remember my uncles and aunts in bell bottoms, midis and platform heels tapping their feet and grooving to Dancing Queen, Voulez Vous and Happy New Year that played on LP. Thirty five years later, meeting ABBA member Bjorn Ulvaeus was in many ways a surreal experience. In a freewheeling interview Bjorn opened up about the meteoric rise of ABBA, the reason behind the sudden breakup, his love for Bollywood and what lies ahead for one of the most popular groups ever in the music industry.
Q: Did you know you were so popular in India?
A: Oh I didn't know that! Not in the seventies at least. Much later I heard that our songs had been played a lot in your country. And I thought that is great news. It is fantastic isn't it. People ask me why is it that your songs have endured so long. I don't know the answer. I just know that it is amazing, yet it is an enigma. 'Didn't think we would win Eurovision & become so popular. It is a miracle'
Q: Everyone talks about the Eurovision 1974 which your band won. It has been quoted as your own 'unique Waterloo moment'. Did you ever think that ABBA and its kind of music would become so popular all over the world?
A: I didn't think that. I thought we will end up at number 6 or 7 or something like that. But I knew we had to look as outrageous as possible, and that is why we had those outfits. [Laughs] I thought, we have a strange song, which was not a typical Eurovision song, we have strange outfits, so people are going to remember us even if we end up at number 5 or 6 or even 7. So that was the strategy. I never thought we would win. It was fantastic. You know, it was one of those overnight things. I remember waking up early next morning thinking, 'My God! What is this? What just happened! You know, just yesterday we were this group from Scandinavia, and today we are everywhere. All over the globe'. And this happened overnight. It was a fantastic feeling. I will never forget that.
Q: But there must have been a journey to reach that peak that ABBA did. Clearly you did not want to be a one song wonder. How do four creative people collaborate and form an identity?
A: To be absolutely honest, we had not yet found our identity at that point. We were still fumbling around. Were we a glam rock group? But that did not work for us. Though once we recorded Mamma Mia and SoS, which turned out to be big hits, then we knew for sure, 'Ah we are a pop group. That's what we are. A pure pop group'. And from then onwards, there was no question about who or what we were.
'We were inspired by the Beatles. Gave 100% to each song'
Q: I understand you began with folk music and then hooked up with the Hep Stars before forming ABBA. So what were your musical influences while growing up?
A:Back then Swedish radio had one channel. That was the one main source apart from records (LPs) of the music that I heard. And Swedish radio played everything. Sometimes they even played Indian music. They also played German, Italian, ballads, English, folk music, American rock. I heard every thing, and so did Benny. So we grew up with a little bit of everything. But of course as teenagers we were very influenced by what was happening in America, with Elvis and the rock era 1956 onwards. And then we were influenced by pop music, the Beatles primarily. So they were, I could say, my biggest influence.
Q: Did the songs come to Benny and you instantly, in one session, or was it days of work writing each and every song and putting in the melody?
A: Before we won the Eurovision contest we were constantly in a hurry to write a song, get it finished, so that we could go out there and do gigs. We were doing all sorts of things just so that we could pay the rent. Then we said to ourselves, what are we doing? We should concentrate on songwriting. So we wrote away constantly. We would throw away ninety percent of what we wrote so that just the best remained. And what we got were really good songs. We would write so that each song told its own story. And because we spent so much time writing we toured very little. Which is why I think we have so many songs that are of such high quality. We gave 100% to each song, never giving up or stopping at 95% percent. We would not stop till we felt, 'Yes, this is it'.
Q: ABBA came into the music scene when rock and roll was on a high and stayed popular through the years despite punk, rap, trance and hip hop. What accounts for ABBA's freshness even today?
A: It's a miracle, it is a miracle isn't it! I really don't know why and how our songs are still popular today.
You know, we were just doing the best we could. Honestly our time perspective was limited. We had thought we might last one year or two years (after splitting), and then be forgotten. But the popularity has been incredible. I don't know why it has been the way it has, that people know our songs where ever you go. And like you said, even the young people know the songs and the words. Isn't that strange!
Q: Did you know in India and elsewhere in the world, young girls and boys used to role-play ABBA members while growing up, with a tennis racket as a guitar or a skipping rope in hand as a mic? Then there are bands that copy you and dress like you. Have you seen any of these?
A: I have seen photographs, but I have never seen a tribute band live. That would be kind of weird to have someone playing you live in front of you.
Q: 'Dancing Queen' has been written about as the most perfect song ever. But which is your favourite ABBA number?
A: Oh well, there have been several from various periods. I see it as three periods of creativity in our nine years together. In the first period we were sounding much younger, like we were writing for teenagers. The middle period is slightly more mature and the end period is quite mature. We tried to emulate the Beatles because from album to album they would always change, they would always develop. We wanted to do that as well.
Q: Personally, I have a strong affinity for the song 'The Winner Takes it All'. You wrote it during a tough personal time. With you writing the song and Agnetha singing it, was it a catharsis of sorts?
A: It was. Although the lyrics is fiction, there is of course something of what happened to me and Agnetha in it. I think definitely (it was a catharsis). I will never forget that day. It was so emotional. That morning when I came to the studio, I had the lyrics with me. We had already recorded the backing track like we always do. And that morning we did the vocals. It was very emotional. But we were quite professional about it. It was an amicable divorce. It was like, okay let us call it a day. It was almost like that. But I loved writing the ending. Happy endings are boring. There was a sort of melancholy in this one. A Nordic melancholy. Not quite Bollywood [Laughs]
Q: Aha. So you have watched Bollywood films?
A: Oh yes I have. I think they have got something so special. That is why they are so popular I guess. They are so vivacious, so happy. Doesn't Bollywood carry the soul of India, in some part at least.
Q: Well in some parts, yes. Back to ABBA. You spoke about three phases. How did you know when to evolve and more importantly when not to change?
A: We took our music very seriously. The rest of what was around us was just fun. But musically we constantly had our ear to the ground on what is happening. What are people listening to. We would try and identify new sounds and say, 'ah that is a new sound. We have to get that'. And that is the nature of pop music – to embrace, emulate and get inspired. Certainly not steal, but get inspired by what others were doing. And we did.
Q: The same goes for your costumes from Kimonos to catsuits. I visited the ABBA museum earlier this week and saw the costumes very closely. A lot of attention was paid to the clothes. Were they fashionable 40 years ago?
A: I don't know if I could call that fashion. But we always used to end up with something that was fun. We were never image conscious in that respect. I always used to admire groups like Roxy Music band. There were so serious about what they look like and what they should look like. They were so slick. While ABBA was the poor country cousin (Laughs).
Q: On stage you looked like you were having such a lot of fun and throughly enjoying yourselves.
A: We did. We really did. Because we were sharing something with the world, which we ourselves were so proud of. We always had that feeling.
Q: The group had such fun creating music. But cracks were emerging within. When you announced your split, did your last recording and gave your last interview together, how did it feel the next day after ABBA didn't exist as a group?
A: It wasn't that dramatic. It was never like we said that we would never get together again. We actually said let us take a break. Because Benny and I wanted to do something and the ladies wanted to do their separate solo albums. We kind of felt that the energy was running out, which very often happens to groups. We felt we were not quite the same anymore in the studio. We were not having as much fun as we used to. We were not laughing as much as we used to. So we felt we should take a break.
Q: Coming back to the present. You have used technology a lot at the ABBA Museum, including the remote piano, the virtual stage, in which incidentally I tried performing as a fifth band member as well. So tell me about the whole concept?
A: Oh yeah you did? (Laughs). Right now we are in the middle of a very exciting project into virtual reality. The ABBA group is pioneering into virtual reality.
Q: We would love to hear the details. There has been a lot of buzz about ABBA coming together for a music tour in 2019?
A: Well yes. We were approached by Simon Fuller who is a global entrepreneur. He wanted to do something with our music. So now we are getting transformed into zeros and ones. We are making ourselves digital. Eventually the idea is to do a live show built on our music and make ourselves live, virtually, using holograms. So that is happening right now. They are actually putting our face muscles into libraries and converting them into zeros and ones. They will make every little muscle do whatever they want.
Q: Including adding grove and dance movements to your performance?
Bjorn: Yeah yeah. So that is going to happen in the spring of 2019. The 'digital' four of us are going to perform together. It involves people from the film industry, people from IT working together somewhere in San Francisco in front of screens right now. They are making sure they have everything, our faces and the movements. We have had helmets and we have been spaced by a thousand cameras capturing every little thing. So all our muscle movements are being stored in digital language.
Q: So have the four of you Agneta, Frida, Benny and you actually come together for the 2019 event?
A: Oh yeah, yeah. When we meet & jam it is just like old times.
Q: So the ABBA group has reunited?
A: (Laughs) We have been working together for this project. You are absolutely right.
Q: That is news! Are you rehearsing together like old times?
A: Yes we have been working together. And I must say here that we are the best of friends. We continue to be really good friends. And it is really strange because when we sit together, the four of us in a room, and it just takes a minute before we are back where we ended as a group. It is quite a feeling.
Q: Do you also jam together?
A: [Laughs]. We did, we did. We did some of that too.
Q: So where will this concert be held?
A: We are still discussing this. You never know, it could be Europe, it could be Australia or even Asia.
Q: Will the group be coming to India?
A: Of course, of course we will. I don't know exactly when but we will be coming. Or let's say 'they' will be coming.
Q: And are you also making a sequel to the movie Mamma Mia?
A: Oh yes, Mamma Mia 2 is being filmed right now. It is called 'Here We Go Again'. It is almost a Bollywood film. You know Mamma Mia has a kind of Bollywood feel to it. This will be a new story. Two stories actually. It is being filmed right now in London and the film is going to be released on 25th July next year (2018) globally.
Q: You talk about Bollywood so passionately. Have you visited India?
A: I have only spent two hours in Mumbai airport. It is a shame I haven't yet travelled in India. Where do you think I should go to?
Q: On a completely unrelated note. You have an interesting story about how you become one of the biggest advocates of the anti-cash movement or the digitisation of money? This is particularly relevant for us in India as we are caught up in a debate about cash versus digital currency in India.
Bjorn: Well I don't think bitcoins are the future, because there is too much shady business and too many possibilities for criminals. But I think cash will gradually be phased out. If you look at several countries, say South Africa, they have bypassed several traditional methods and they use the mobile phone for financial transactions. There is no reason why the rest of the world shouldn't follow. People are used to having bits of paper with them (cash) but it is really old fashioned. Come to think of it, it is actually strange to have pieces of paper physically changing hands. I don't think we need that. I am very interested to see which country does it (goes cashless) first. It could be Sweden or Norway. I am also interested to see what it does to criminals and tax evaders. I also think going digital is very important for the empowerment of women. So that payments go straight to a woman, bypassing the husband.
Q: It is very interesting you say this, because India is looking at digital very closely, where subsidies go directly to the person it is intended for, including women, so that they are economically empowered.
A: I am a strong advocate of the empowerment of women because I think it is the single most important thing to make ours a better world. There is nothing better you can do that to empower women to erase poverty and so much more. Its helps in everything. So I am going to work very much for that. And I think Agneta and Frida are two very strong symbols. They are independent, strong Swedish women. They can be an example for a lot of others.
Q: Finally, any message for your India fans?
A: I am so glad to have done this interview because I feel that I really need to go to India. I really do. I will come soon. So that you for giving me that [opportunity].
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