Swedish rocker talksto FBPO about coming to America, the BIT experience and the gigs with Quiet Riot and Yngwie Malmsteen!
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
August 2, 2010
Born in Vaxjo, Sweden, Bjorn Englen became a rock fan at age 5, after discovering the band Kiss. As he grew up, Bjorn found himself gravitating toward the bass and eventually became established in the southern Swedish music scene, playing in clubs, theaters and festivals.
In 1993, Englen moved to Los Angeles and enrolled at the Bass Institute of Technology, where he studied under bass heavyweights Tim Bogert, Putter Smith, Steve Bailey and Alexis Sklarevski. The education he received at BIT, as well as his new L.A. surroundings, catapulted Bjorn’s career. To date, he has played over 1,500 live shows and recorded on over 30 albums. Bjorn has played bass with Quiet Riot, Robin McAuley and many other established artists. He currently performs and tours with his own group, Soul Sign, as well as guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen. Englen also conducts bass clinics and master classes worldwide.
FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing.
BE: I don’t really come from a musically active family. My brothers played a little guitar and keyboards and so did my mom, but that’s it. I was mainly influenced by the music I listened to and by what my friends were into. I did a lot of mandatory singing in school, which helped me develop a melodic sense early on.
I started out on drums when I was 12. My parents got me a small drum kit, but I soon realized that the neighbors hated it [laughs], so I switched to bass. It was a natural choice, as I had already been thinking about picking up the bass for a while. None of my friends played bass, but I really dug watching and listening to the bass players and figured someone was going to need a bass player. I quickly developed a vision of playing with famous bands on big stages. Eventually, I realized that vision is vital in order to make big things happen.
FBPO: Growing up in Sweden, who were your musical influences? I’m guessing ABBA was not among them. Am I right?
BE: Yes, for the most part. My aunt listened to them a lot but I wasn’t a big fan then. I do appreciate them very much now. There is some mean bass playing on those records and the tunes are great! I would say my biggest influences at first were Kiss – from age 5! – then later on Judas Priest, Deep Purple, Van Halen… bands that have continued to influence me to this day! Some of my childhood idols were Whitesnake, Dio, Iron Maiden, Mr. Big and Yngwie Malmsteen. Just before I moved to the U.S., I started listening to a lot of fusion jazz, funk and pop, as well.
FBPO: How far were you able to take your career while in Sweden? What kinds of gigs were you doing?
BE: I played with the best rock players back home but none of them seemed to have the same ambitions that I had. I learned a lot, though, and except for my very first gig, I always got paid to play original music. We played all over southern Sweden at clubs, theaters and festivals. I moved straight from my small hometown of 50,000 people to L.A. I have to say that playing in Sweden was in many ways much healthier than gigging in L.A.!
FBPO: Tell me about your experience at BIT. You sure had some heavyweight teachers, like Steve Bailey, Tim Bogert and Alexis Sklarevski!
BE: Yes, they were my favorites. In fact almost all my BIT instructors were great and really cool. MI (Musicians Institute) was a wonderful experience. I had the opportunity – actually, I was forced! – to play a huge variety of styles, which was fantastic! I just as much loved the social factor of having classmates from all over the world! The only downside was that by studying so much new stuff I almost forgot about who I was as a player and forgot to work on those strengths. A great thing was that I was asked to join a band made up of all instructors and we played at all the big clubs in town. That was a great opportunity for me.
FBPO: It looks like being in that environment in L.A. really got your career kick-started. Tell me about some of the work you began getting as a bass player.
BE: My very first gig after my year at MI was with Quiet Riot. It was a bit intimidating at times as they were almost twice my age. I played 22 shows in the U.S. with the band that included Carlos Cavazo, Kevin DuBrow and Frankie Banali.
Immediately after that I formed my own group, but quickly went on to tour with various bands throughout the U.S. and Canada. One group was with Foreigner vocalist Kelly Hansen and members of Dio and Sweet. From 2004 until 2006 I played with Survivor/MSG vocalist Robin McAuley. I have played on numerous albums and done about 1,500 live shows.
For a while I was taking on all sorts of gigs playing everything from pop, R&B, reggae, metal and smooth jazz just to pay my bills. I have later realized that playing a variety of styles helped me become a much better and more versatile player and how important it is to broaden yourself, no matter what type of player you are.
FBPO: Tell me about Yngwie Malmsteen. How did you get that gig and what’s it been like?
BE: I had been friends with his drummer, Patrick Johansson, for years and we had done numerous gigs together. They needed a bass player to play a show with no rehearsal at NAMM, so they asked me. I guess they thought I nailed it so they asked me to join. It has been great ever since. I’ve always had a lot of respect for Yngwie, so it was a great opportunity and I will always be very grateful for it. Working with Yngwie is always great. He’s very straightforward and has a great sense of humor as well. Musically, the material is pretty demanding, which makes it challenging, although I’m lucky that I’ve been familiar with his style since I was a kid. Yngwie knows how to appreciate the right player and shows me more respect than most of the Yngwie wannabes I’ve worked with through the years.
FBPO: What else is keeping you busy these days?
BE: The tour schedule hasn’t been too intense with Yngwie lately, which has allowed me more time for my own group, Soul Sign. We’re looking for a label right now to release our debut album. I love doing sessions too, so I always keep myself open for that, as well as clinics and teaching.
FBPO: You’ve already accomplished a lot in your career, yet you’re still pretty young. What else would you like to do that you haven’t already done?
BE: First of all, I would like to take Soul Sign on a world tour and keep it that way for decades. I have also wanted to release a solo album for a while. It will be almost just bass, so pretty raw and naked. That way the bass can really breathe. Carvin built me an amazing fretless bass that I can’t wait to record!
FBPO: What do you like to do that’s not necessarily musically oriented?
I love traveling and I also love doing things outdoors, like hiking and hanging out on the beach – one of the main reasons I live in Southern California. To be honest, I often seem to get a bit too consumed with music and would love to take more breaks. I suppose moderation is key. The most important thing, no matter what you do, is to be happy.