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Björn Ulvaeus on one year of ABBA Voyage: ‘It’s blown my mind!’

Voulez-Vous! To mark a year since ABBA Voyage first launched in East London, Björn Ulvaeus sits down to tell Rolling Stone UK all about the journey so far.

By Nick Reilly

Bjorn Ulvaeus of ABBA (Picture: Alamy)

As ABBA celebrate the one year anniversary of their game-changing Voyage show, Björn Ulvaeus has opened up to Rolling Stone UK about the show’s huge success, and how game-changing developments in technology could allow it to evolve and adapt long into the future.

Ulvaeus and bandmates Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad were all in attendance at East London’s ABBA Arena last Saturday (May 27th), to mark a year since the show’s arrival – which was first hailed by Rolling Stone UK as a ‘jaw dropping spectacle’.

The pioneering performance sees audiences greeted by CGI representations (ABBA-tars) of the Swedish pop icons, which are based on their motion-tracked movements. They are presented to appear like a representation of the group in their ’70s pomp, with their performance backed by a live band that is present in the room every night.

The show’s huge success has now allowed fans to dream that a legion of classic bands could rise from the musical graveyard once again – even if Björn believes it’s not quite that simple.

“I am pretty sure that among my contemporaries, a lot of people are talking about it,” he tells Rolling Stone UK.

“They’re wondering if they can do something like this and so I am really curious to see who comes next and what they can come up with, because it’s just too expensive to do a copy of it. You need to do something unique and it’s going to be so exciting to see who will come next.”

You can read our full Q&A with Björn below, as he waxes lyrical on the future of Voyage, AI and 50 years of Eurovision.

Hi, Bjorn! How are things?

I feel good! The summer has come to Stockholm. As usual, we didn’t have a spring, it just turned to summer and it’s a great feeling. I feel good.

All the more reason to celebrate, given that ABBA Voyage has passed the one year milestone and played to over a million visitors. How has the last year been for you?

It’s been a success beyond, you know, everyone’s expectations and it’s had such impact too, because it’s such a technological milestone. Everybody says that the technology could change live music and I guess it certainly has done something to the image of ABBA. I think we’re in the front of trying to do new daring things and I think that’s good.

When you split back in 1982, did you ever envisage getting to the point where there’s a digital version of yourself performing to thousands every night?

Of course not! Back in 1982 I had just bought my first IBM PC and there was no internet, there was nothing. We had 64K RAM and that was about it. At that point I thought that ABBA might come back together and do a new album maybe, but that never happened. What’s happened to us now is just mind-boggling.

Where does the success of Voyage rank in all the endless highs and success that you’ve experienced with ABBA?

It’s very difficult to compare because somehow, for some reason, ABBA seems to have become and remained part of the fabric of popular culture through these years. So when this happened, it was a result of that fact. That so many people have found some kind of relation to our music. Everyone knows that we haven’t been around for 40 years, but the fact that people have kept listening to us is why we’ve been able to do this, and it makes it very emotional for people have seen it. It’s the enduring influence of it.

Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson of ABBA joined by ABBA Voyage producers Svana Gisla and Ludvig Andersson, and Director Baillie Walsh (Picture: Press)

How gratifying is it to still be held in such high regard?

It’s been amazing because people used to come up for me and ask for photos because of their mother and grandmother. Nowadays, it’s completely changed. It’s parents asking for selfies because they’re telling me that their daughters won’t believe it.

We were from an era when so many bands were around and a few of them are still relevant, it’s definitely not just us. But it’s still very humbling that it has turned out the way it is.

Eurovision mania seems to be sweeping Sweden once again after Loreen won in Liverpool earlier this month. Next year’s event will coincide with 50 years since ABBA won. Any chance you guys could appear?

It might come to Stockholm again, but I won’t say anything about us being involved. It’s a typical no comment.

Going back to ABBA Voyage, were you scared of what the public reaction might be?

When the previews started, we invited people from the area, from Stratford, who don’t necessarily have any relation to ABBA but they were invited because we really wanted to be part of the community.

So we invited a lot of them to come and have a look at the first previews and it was so reassuring because they were taken by it and they absolutely were not our fans. So that was great and that was such a relief when I saw that.

(Picture: Press)

As for the future of the show, is there the potential to change it and offer a switched-up set for people that want to come back and have a slightly different experience?

Yes, definitely. We used motion capture on more songs than what we have in the show. So that’s a possibility. Artificial intelligence, too, is taking quantum leaps right now so we’re carefully watching that and seeing whether some of that could be applied to Voyage.

As a songwriter yourself, what do you make of the argument that AI could threaten the future of the craft and theoretically put writers out of work?

In the beginning, I think it will be a tool. I can sort of think of ways of using an AI, like if I was going to write a tango for a musical, I could conceivably train an AI on the 100 best tangos in the world as a starter and then ask the AI to write a tango, having trained from that set. And it could well come up with something that’s not bad and you could tweak it yourself, so that the AI has given you the initial idea. That’s entirely OK and a bit like using our brains, really.

But that’s the first ten years of it and there will come a time when the AI itself can write conceivably original stuff and stuff that people won’t know if it’s come from an AI. That is going to happen.

The most important thing right now with democracy at stake and other things is that we need to learn between AIs and humans so that whoever sends a message, there should be a little box somewhere to differentiate between the two. If that could be achieved, it would be a big help.

So it’s all about learning to adapt and see how we can use it for good?

Yeah. Because I thought about that the other day, when I grew up the music I listened to back then created some kind of database and training set inside me that my own AI is working on and whenever I try to come up with something it is based on that training set of data that I have inside and have collected through the years.

Similarly, you can use an AI like that and some wonderful songs and other pieces might come from it!

Does that optimism almost explain how ABBA Voyage came to be? Are you always seeking out interesting innovations and technologies within music?

When we started recording albums with ABBA, the Beatles were our big idols and they always took daring steps, album by albums. They tried new things, not tech of course, but other new sounds. We wanted to be daring and take the next step, so yes, Voyage is part of that mindset that, that curiosity about what you actually can do when you challenge yourself.

The visitor numbers speak for themselves too, you recently personally greeted the one millionth visitor to Voyage. Have any other artists told you they want to do a similar thing now? one million visitors.

No, I haven’t spoken to anyone but I understand that there have been, you know, people my age, who have seen the show. I know that Barry Gibb was there, for instance, and other people have been there as well.

Mick Jagger spoke about Voyage at a concert in Stockholm recently too. So I am pretty sure that among my contemporaries, a lot of people are talking about it. They’re wondering if they can do something like this and so I am really curious to see who comes next and what they can come up with, because it’s just too expensive to do a copy of it. You need to do something unique and it’s going to be so exciting to see who will come next.

Baillie Walsh, who directed Voyage, recently said he believes it works so well because thankfully all four members of ABBA are still alive

That’s true, but I think technology is quickly making up for that. But there is another aspect of it, in that the ethics of it could affect its credibility. If you do something, you know, an avatar of someone who has been dead for a long time, then that credibility could well be in doubt.

I’m not saying necessarily that it will be, but of course it made it easier for us since we’re all still alive and everyone now knows that we are behind it.

Absolutely. Congratulations again Bjorn, here’s to the second year.

Yes! Thank you.