Stefan Gunnarsson from Childhood Protégé to One of Sweden's Best

Stefan Gunnarsson Photo One


Meet Sweden’s pinball wizard Stefan Gunnarsson, who has forty-five pinball machines in his personal collection. That would be a fascinating story on its own, but this is not the story of a man who relaxes in the far northern town of Boden, Sweden, by playing pinball, but instead it is about the musical journey of a man who is an incredibly gifted artist and who as a childhood protégé was playing with adult aged bands. Stefan Gunnarsson has gained a stellar reputation as a multi-instrumentalist, a composer, a television personality and as a producer.

Stefan Gunnarsson’s journey began in the same town he now lives in, Boden, on the coastline of the Baltic Sea and approximately a ten hour drive by car, north of Sweden’s largest city Stockholm.

Gunnarsson says, “Boden is a pretty small town way up north. There are about 25,000 or 30,000 people living here.  It is pretty close to the Polar circle and it is very cold in the wintertime, with lots of snow. It is also a military town, with a big military tradition. My father was a trumpet player in a military orchestra. It became like an institution and it turned into things other than just a military orchestra. They had a big band and they played a lot of different music (instead of) just military music. As a four, five and six year old I loved sitting during rehearsals with the big band and listening to the music and checking out the drummer. The drums were my first love.  I started (playing drums) when I was four or five years old.

The first memories that I have from that time period were of me sitting next to the drums during big band rehearsals and checking out everything that the drummer would do. When the rehearsal ended I would sit at the drum kit trying to emulate everything that I heard them do.

I come from a small family and I am an only child. I always got to do what I really wanted to do, which is to play music. I always had chances to play on a good drum kit or a piano and other musical instruments were all around me from a very young age. Stefan Gunnarsson Photo Two

I was about ten years old when I picked up the guitar and the bass pretty much came with it. I had only learned a couple of chords on the guitar when I found out, hmm this is a bass and oh ya’ it has the same notes and strings as the four lowest on the guitar only an octave deeper. I didn’t take a lot of lessons I just explored a lot of instruments by myself.”

There are things that you quickly learn about Stefan Gunnarsson such as, he has a great sense of humor, he loves to laugh and that he takes his time to express himself thoughtfully and not because English is not his first language, because like most Swedes his English is impeccable. He just weighs his answers carefully, well most of the time until this writer surprised him by asking about the musical duo he formed with Hans Dahlen in 1977.

“Oh God damn (He starts laughing) where does this information come from? That’s fantastic. (He repeats it again it again for effect.) That’s fantastic. Has that been written anywhere?

We were nine years old. (He is still laughing) I can’t believe how you came up with that information.  We were classmates and Hans was the only guy in my class who played music on the same level that I did. I was sitting on my drum kit between lessons in school. This was in third grade or fourth grade. He just went by the room where my drums were and he said can I sit in on the piano and I said sure. We started playing and I thought the way that nine year olds do that we should form a band and we should become celebrities (He is really laughing now). I can’t believe you got that information. I can’t remember ever talking to anybody about it. That’s fantastic,” he says.

By age ten Gunnarsson was playing in Danse bands, which he describes as being similar to wedding bands that played Country music…well not quite according to Stefan Gunnarsson.

“I would call it neutered Country music. It is like you take American Country music and you just make it plain and boring (He lets the words plain and boring drag out for emphasis). You take some of the temperament out of it.

I was playing with them basically to keep active and to keep playing with other musicians a lot. I can’t say that I felt great passion for the music that we played. 

I was ten and the other guys were twenty-five or something like that. When I auditioned for them they looked at me in disbelief.  My dad helped to hook me up with them. When we came there (you can hear the smile in his voice) (They said) we understood that he was young, but this young! After a couple of songs they said great, you’re in. I was playing drums.

(After the Danse band) I started playing with a local Rock band. I guess when I was sick and tired of the neutered Country music I went over to the Rock band. That was when I was twelve. The other members of the band were older than I was. I think they were around twenty years old.

I think we did some pretty good stuff.  One fun fact about that is the guitar player in that band and I started writing songs together and it worked really, really well. He doesn’t have a degree or anything. He’s not a schooled musician. He doesn’t know a lot about harmonies and advanced harmonic structure, but he has a very good talent for writing hooky choruses.”

That prompted us to ask about Stefan Gunnarsson’s own musical training.

“I don’t like to be taught things, I like to try and learn them myself and I have been very lucky to have people to ask when I couldn’t figure out something by myself. Mainly I learned from asking my father, some of his colleagues and other qualified people around me. I went to school at Musikaliska Akademien (Musical Academy) in Stockholm, as a drummer when I was nineteen I think. It is the highest level of musical education that you can get in Sweden,” he says.

There was a brief misunderstanding in our conversation that dissolved into laughter when this writer asked, ‘When you came out of there what was next and Gunnarsson replied, ‘I didn’t come out of there.’ To which your correspondent joked, ‘You are still there?’ We both started laughing.

Stefan Gunnarsson continues, “I went there for one semester in the fall of ’88 and pretty soon I was getting so many good gigs that I couldn’t turn them down. I had to take them, so I couldn’t really attend school to the level that I was supposed to. After only six months I had to quit,” he says.  

In 1995 a couple of things happened in Stefan Gunnarsson’s life, he joined a KISS tribute band for the next six years and he also recorded some songs. Stefan Gunnarsson Photo Three

“I recorded a couple of songs in late August of ’95 I remember finishing a couple of songs with the intention that these were the first two or three that later would turn into an album. It didn’t happen. I think we finished “Reflections,” and that is on my album (released in 2010), but it is a new recording of it. This is the song that I wrote (when I was thirteen years old).

I am kind of bummed out by the fact that I haven’t really written anything since then that is substantially better,” he says laughing.

The song “Reflections,” is a meandering and romantic song on which Gunnarsson both sings and plays an emotive and beautiful trumpet. It boggles the mind that a thirteen year old could have written this song and it is truly amazing how many instruments Stefan Gunnarsson plays so well.

“Reflections,” is not about someone blurting out the words I love you nor is it a song of longing, but it is an intimate confession of love, a confession one suspects that has not yet been shared with the girl mentioned in the song. One envisions low lights, a candle on a table, as he reaches for her hand and leads her into a slow dance and whispers in her ear the words that he has been waiting to say.

Stefan Gunnarsson accompanies himself on keyboards and his playing is elegant.

All of the songs on Stefan Gunnarsson’s self-titled album were either written or co-written by him, with the exception of “Bring Me Down.”

About his songwriting he says, “I couldn’t say that I have a formula, it is different each time. Sometimes it starts out with a melody and sometimes it starts out with a groove. I find a groove that I like and sometimes just in my head. I might just sit in the car and go (at this juncture he does an excellent imitation of playing a beat on the drums) and I think that I should really try to write a song in this groove. Sometimes it might come out as a fragment of a melody or something right there, so I pick up my phone and I record it. I work with it later.”

 “As You Go Along,” is an upbeat, mid-temp song that encourages listeners to realize their own potential by focusing on what they enjoy doing and doing it their way instead of trying to live up to the expectations of others.

“I had tried to make an album about ten or fifteen years before (this one) and I lost steam in the middle of it. I think that I was very determined back in 2007 that now it was going to happen. This time it was going to be an album and I wasn’t going to quit until I was done.

In the summer of 2007 I met this girl Anna Alerstedt who is a terrific writer, lyricist and composer. She’s fantastic and immediately I thought okay, this girl is going to help me finish my album. I think my idea was that half of the songs that I needed were already written, but I needed to write some more. I said to her come up to my studio for a week and we will just kill it and we will write everything. I also got the impression that she was very productive and very effective when she started working. The first time that I met her I played for her one of my songs and she put lyrics to it in a heartbeat. Ten minutes later it was finished and it was perfect.

She came up to Boden to my studio and we just sat there and we worked for a week. I think that we wrote nine songs in one week and one of them is “As You Go Along.”

“As You Go Along,” got played on radio stations. It got some attention.

Before we wrote these songs, we talked about what we wanted to say with the next song. Mostly I wrote the music and Anna wrote the lyric. She had lots of input into the music as well and I had some input into the lyrics.

I had input on all of the songs, because on some songs she wrote things that I didn’t feel comfortable with and then I said no, not like that. (Sometimes) I just told her that is not something that I am comfortable with and she changed it.

We worked the same way on each song and we sat down and talked about each subject that I felt passionate about it. Then she took what we talked about and she turned it into a lyric.

The album did pretty well in Sweden. Outside of Sweden it seems like mostly the people who are passionate about west coast music know about this record. The best responses outside of Sweden have been from Japan and Germany. One of the possible explanations for that is one of my songs “Gotta Find It,” is also on a west coast record. Do you know about Peter Friestedt? Actually, David Carlson is responsible for bringing Peter Friestedt and me together. I will never forgive him for that (said tongue in cheek). I am just kidding. Peter Friestedt called me in probably the late ‘90s, maybe 2000 and asked me if he could use my song “Gotta Find It.” He had heard this song performed by Enorma Groove (a band that Gunnarsson was part of during the mid eighties) on a live recording on the radio in Sweden and he really liked the song. He wanted to use it for his first Peter Friestedt’s L.A. Project album. I asked who was going to sing it. He said I am not sure, maybe Bill Champlin or possibly Joseph Williams. I said yes! Please feel free to use it. That might be one of the best explanations about the west coast sound connection.  A lot of people who are into this (type of) music have listened to Peter Friestedt’s L.A. Project, have heard that song, seen my name and then made the connection at some point,” he says.

Stefan Gunnarson Photo FourOn June 1st and 2nd, 2010 Stefan Gunnarsson was part of an all-star cast of musicians and singers as they performed at the popular Stockholm nightclub Fasching. On stage that night were Swedes, Gunnarsson, Viktoria Tolstoy, Peter Friestedt and Rasmus Kihlberg, as well as America’s Bill Champlin, Tamara Champlin and Joseph Williams. In the spring of 2016, Gunnarsson will once again by joining Bill and Tamara Champlin, Joseph Williams and Peter Friestedt on a European tour encompassing several countries.

The song “All Of My Might,” is just one of several songs on the album that boasts a great horn section, comprised of Bo Strandberg (trumpet), Dan Johansson (trumpet), Trombonist Peter Dahlgren and playing the saxophone was Sigurd Löf. Hans Hjortek created the horn arrangements. Once again demonstrating his mastery over several instruments, Stefan Gunnarsson serves up a sublime guitar solo. This is a song whose message is I love you and I want you to know that. I promise to stay right beside you. It is you that I want.

From 2006 to 2010 Stefan Gunnarsson was on the popular Swedish television show Så ska det låta, which he explains means, “That’s how it should sound. It is also a Swedish figure of speech. It is pretty much like, ah that’s my boy! You might say that as soon as somebody does something that you like.

It is based on an Irish TV show called The Lyrics Board. That’s the original title for the show.  Swedish television thought about using it, but before they started using it they reworked it a bit. I think they collaborated with the original owners of the program concept or whatever (he adds to make it suitable for the Swedish culture).  It started in ’97 in Sweden and I got the call to do an audition for this program. I said yes I will be happy to do an audition, but if I get the gig when is it going to be? They said January ’97, so I said okay, but I am booked in January of ’97 and I can’t do anything. I have contracts during that period. They said ya’, but this is television and you surely could cancel those other things. I said no, no, I don’t work that way.  They didn’t like to hear that at all, so they never called me back after that.

One of the piano players who was on the program before me, he was there between ’97 and 2005, Robert Wells, I think they had some sort of struggle with him that was along those lines, about contractual obligations and things like that. They got to taste their own medicine in a way.

After that show had been cast for a couple of years in Sweden I realized oh man, did I really blow this. This could have been a really good thing to have been a part of.  I was very happy when they called me in 2005 and they invited me for an audition for the new Så ska det låta. They invited out twenty piano players and sure enough I got it.

The show is like a contest, but it’s really playful and it is not too serious. The contest part of it is entertainment. (Editor’s Note: Two teams try to guess the name of the songs)

Throughout the history of this program it has changed a lot. In the beginning, the first years of the program there were not a lot of clues. They have made it safer and safer. I think they have gone too far with that. People will not be as alert when they know stuff beforehand. It is very evident that the artist and the pianist don’t have the same presence when they know what is going to happen. You are so much more alert and so much more (present) when you are waiting for what the next word is going to be. It loses some of its vitality in a way I think when they rig it too hard.

It was fabulously fun. It was very hard work and we did two programs in a day, so we did the whole season, twelve programs in six days. It was fun all of the way and there never was a dull moment.

One would think that being on a very popular Swedish television show would lead to Gunnarsson’s being sought out by autograph seekers and it is often difficult to tell where his modesty starts and stops and where his sense of humor kicks in.

He says, “Not really, but it happened a couple of times. I got mobbed by young school classes and stuff like that. Little kids were going that’s the guy from TV (he laughs).  It was never a problem (being mobbed by adult or teenage fans).

Regretablly for music fans, Stefan Gunnarsson has only released one album, depsite his ability to create and perform at a high level Jazz to Rock to Funk and everything in between. He is very entertaining live performer and even though his album was released in 2010 it remains golden and timeless. In fact, it that album was re-released it would likely find an entirely new audience.

There is an audience out there Mr. Gunnarsson that has not yet heard your songs the ones already recorded and the ones that are still inside of you. “As You Go Along,” has a powerful message, perhaps you can show some of us the way with some new great music.

Please visit the website for Stefan Gunnarsson.   You can also listen to a live performance of Stefan Gunnarsson's "Words Are Not Enough" here  and of "Gotta Find It" here.                       Return to our Front Page

This interview by Joe Montague  published March 6th,  2016 is protected by copyright and is the property of Riveting Riffs Magazine © All Rights Reserved. All photos courtesy of Stefan Gunnarsson and are protected by copyright ©, All Rights Reserved. This inteview may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine, All Rights Reserved