Machine Music's Albums of the Decade: An Interview with Cult of Luna
[This is the 19th installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]
Artist: Cult of Luna
Label: Indie Recordings
Favorite Song: "Vicarious Redemption"
The Bare Bones: Vertikal is Cult of Luna's sixth full-length album, and their first following their departure from Earache Records. A concept album focused on urbanity and city life, Vertikal was also a response to the growing role the urban landscape had in band members' lives, as they gradually moved away from rural Sweden to cities like Gothenburg and Stockholm.
The Beating Heart: If city-centered films such as Blade Runner or Metropolis had a metal band playing in some noir bar, then that band would be Cult of Luna, and the album they would be playing is Vertikal. The sense of an almost claustrophobic space, one that is far from synonymous with the soundscape-rich aesthetic of post-metal, is one of the most dominant features of the album, whether through the eerie use of the keyboard, the almost mechanical feel to the production, Vertikal is an album both trapped and seemingly always on the run. And within the wider vista of contemporary post-metal, that metal subgenre most influenced by hardcore, post-hardcore, and post-rock, Vertikal is the anomaly that marks CoL as the anomaly. Having reached the artistic heights they had with their first five albums the band effectively reinvented itself without losing any of its essence, turning the wide expanse of atmosphere and riffage already there in previous efforts, and launching it into a completely different and disorienting setting, both emotionally and aesthetically. On a personal note, while there are other bands and albums celebrated for breaking new ground, whether in post-metal or elsewhere, there are very few albums as listenable and as audibly satisfying as Vertikal. Which, I guess, is why it's probably the album I listened to the most since it came out in 2013.
As always, before proceeding to my conversation with CoL frontman and guitarist Johannes Persson I would like to encourage any who are interested to read the rest of this ongoing project, which will probably be running until the end of the year (and probably spilling into the beginning of 2020), with a lot more exciting conversations to be published. You can follow us on any one of our social media outlets (Facebook, Instagram, Spotify) and also, if so inclined, support us on Patreon. My aim has been to use whatever support we can get to produce interviews like these, focusing on the art and life of that art, as well as other projects supporting our local scene, such as the newly launched music compilation MILIM KASHOT VOL. 1 of amazing local, post-metal, hardcore, noise, and more. Thank you all for being here, and enjoy.
So I want to begin with the same question I begin all my interviews, which is to ask if you remember a time when you were younger kid or a teenager, and you heard a song or an album or saw an album or for the first time, and it was just like a watershed moment in your life, as if music felt different afterwards.
I mean, there's loads of those moments, well not loads, but a few of them. I’m trying to think of the first experience I had, it's hard to say. Because when you're a kid, like a kid kid, everything is magic [laughs]. Like listening to the Running Wild song “Under Jolly Roger.” I can’t even remember how old I was, but hearing pirates – I think there's a pirate pub in the intro – it was magical. It's like you're in Pirates of the Caribbean before that was even a thing.
I grew up listening to heavy metal and hard rock, just like everybody else – Kiss, Motley Crue, Poison, all the hair bands, Guns N’ Roses, and all that. But I remember when, I must have been 11 or 12… I had records before that, but the first one I bought with my own hard-earned money. I actually wanted to buy Metallica’s Kill Em All, but my parents wouldn’t allow me because of the violent cover [laughs]. But, ironically, they let me buy Sepultura’s Arise. It didn’t have a very violent cover, and they didn’t know anything about the music, but that was something that I had never heard before. I mean I heard some local punk demos and all that, but this was something completely different.
Did you hear anything that was on the album before you bought it?
No, no. It was the cover, I bought it just because of the cool cover. I guess the best way to describe it would be something like biomechanical castle. And after that, and this is going to sound really cheesy, but if you’re 13 or 14 and just getting into hardcore and all…. I mean, now that we’re talking about it I need to mention Rage Against the Machine, Cypress Hill. There were so many bands. When you’re a teenager and you’re discovering music, real music, like that Black Sunday album by Cypress Hill, and the first Rage Against the Machine album, the Earth crisis first demo. That was the harshest, heaviest stuff that I heard when I got into hardcore. But say we skip those and get to the important stuff, then it’s Unbroken’s Life, Love, Regret. That album completely changed everything. I don't think I've listened to an album in such a religious way, before or after that. We also did an Unbroken cover for a 7” a few years ago.
What was it about that album?
That album is probably one of the darkest pieces of music ever put to tape. It has teen anxiety written all over it. And it was perfect. At the time when I got into the music, all the teenage anxiety that I could relate with, and dealing with world problems with a teenage mind. And also dealing with mental health issues, and with probably the heaviest piece of music that can still be labeled as hardcore. It was perfect for me.
You were attracted to these songs because they were abrasive, or heavy?
They were heavy, they were heavier than anything that I've heard before in the hardcore scene, which I was involved in back then. It was heavy, fast and honest, and one of the most sloppily recorded albums ever [laughs]. No, I wouldn't say that, because there's a lot of sloppy records out there. But it was so honest and genuine, which was definitely something that attracted me at that point. And it felt like the lyrics and music that were written straight from the heart.
And is that something you still look for? I mean, even in the bands you like to listen to now, that sense of honesty?
Yeah, but, I mean, I think most music that’s made could be described as being honest. It’s an abstract term, it can mean anything.
So I guess I can ask you what it means to you.
I don't know, it's hard to explain when you're just relating to a feeling. It's something that I can relate to. Whether or not I interpret the record correctly, but it's basically a gut feeling. Which you could say can be boiled down to whether I think it's good or not. But for me there are certain elements I'm attracted to when it comes to music. Like, I heard a song yesterday, can’t remember which, somebody posted it online. I really loved it so dirty and super dark, and it felt like it was recorded in a in a basement with shit equipment.
Sorry [laughs], I can't remember the artist or the song, just that I really, really liked it. And it was the first time in a while that I actually liked new music. I mean, I like a lot of music, but it was something that really related to me in a way. Not many bands do.
So I have a general interest that I would like to discuss, if we can. It seems like there’s a weird connection between people who used to be into hardcore or punk who then grow into musicians who make the kind of music that is not necessarily associated with punk and hardcore, so it's not quick, violent songs, but more like explorations of sound. And there’s a lot of hardcore in the background of Cult of Luna, there's hardcore in the background of Neurosis and ISIS, and there's famously hardcore in Slint. So a lot of these bands that begin writing these powerful, short, angry, sometimes funny songs, sometimes glide into these longer explorations of dynamics and all these things. So I guess I wanted to ask you: What was the reason you felt like you had to move from one way of making music to a different way?
Well, the first thing I think I have to say that there’s a very easy explanation to why people start in punk or hardcore, which is that it’s easy to learn. I started to play the guitar when I was 15, I tried to learn to play the guitar before that, taking proper lessons. But like, it was so boring, just playing boring songs that I couldn’t relate to at all. And then I started hanging out with a friend that was, and still is, a really good guitar player. He taught me to play music that I listened to, and they were pretty easy songs to learn, and that’s how I got interested in the instrument. So, punk and hardcore are an easy way of learning your instrument and getting interested in your instrument.
And also in the environment where I'm from, I would say that we have kind of a healthy cultural atmosphere within the punk and hardcore scene. Because everybody tried to experiment in completely different ways, and everybody was encouraging each other to do that. I mean, I'm from the same scene as Refused, The (International) Noise Conspiracy, the Meshuggah guys are a bit older than I am, but they’re still from the same scene in the same area, and then we have other pop bands that are pretty big here in Sweden that originated from the same scene, because all the bands that started off encouraged each other to try out new stuff. But there were other scenes, which were very conservative and, and those environments were much less productive.
I don't know. It's hard to explain why I gravitated towards, or where I ended up now with my writing. I think it comes from a bunch of different aspects, and probably better described by people who know me more than I know myself. Because everything I do is most of the time unconscious, just stuff I do because I like it.
I mean, I don't have an answer either, which is why I'm asking the question, I guess. And I can't your answer, because I'm not you. But it seems to me like a lot of people who, like you said, like, found an easy way into music with hardcore punk. The songs are short, the emotions are quite raw. So I wouldn't say it’s emotionally simple, but it can be emotionally one note, right?
And I think that maybe at some point you want to take that apart and try to see what makes it work the way it does, you're interested in the mechanics of it, and that sometimes, a study of the mechanics of the short, simple song can become a long, complicated song.
That's exactly right, you're exactly right. One thing that I've actually studied for…. I mean I learned to play the guitar when I was 15, and between 16 and 18, I'm not saying that I was inside with the guitar all the time, but most of the time, for various reasons. My teenage years were quite hard, quite tough. So I played a lot of music, and I listened to a lot of music. And when I like something, I try to break it down. Why does it work? in what order do they construct the riffs? How are the riffs combined into the dynamics of the song? And I came up with a bunch of modes. Like, I can do an ABCBA riff, or a kind of different combinations, like ABCABC, and so on. That doesn’t make for a good song, but if I know how to structure a song, and I know that this structure works, all I have to do is to fill it with good content and you have a good song. So it actually took me a couple of years to figure out the different structures that I work with. And that was how I learned to write songs. But now it's more of a process that I don't think about as much.
Yeah, but it is interesting that it starts from a kind of breaking down of something, that the exploration into the basic components of something is a music that people looking from the outside would say sounds like more complicated music or more brainy, or more cerebral, there's all these words, but when, when in reality, all you're doing is studying structure. It’s kind of like Modernist painting. People would look, say Mondrian’s squares, and say that this doesn't mean anything, or this isn't art, right? But really what he's doing and he's studying proportion, and color
And so he's breaking down. I mean, maybe at one point Mondrian was a figurative painter and painted people in bushes, I don't know. But at some point he may have gotten interested in figuring out the basic structure of things. And I think that, that that's how sometimes Cult of Luna’s music comes off to me as kind of trying to figure out the most economical, direct way to create a dynamic that works on the listener. Or on you, I guess.
But also, that was just me and my writing. Coming to the band, that's a different story. I think that we through the years, and now we have kind of kept the same lineup for quite a while now, we've learned how to work with dynamics in an instinctive way. So that’s a question that I can’t answer because it's all a product of us working together. But sometimes when I get questions like: “How can you write such complicated songs?” I say: “Look, they’re so easy and simple and not complicated at all” [laughs]. I wish those people would hear how [those songs] start off. It’s so monotone and boring. And the we color it, and then we color it more and more, and Thomas [Hedlund] the drummer does things and adds different structures, and then Fredrik [Kihlberg] or myself throw in guitar or bass or keyboards or different things. And all of a sudden something that started off with a simple skeleton and super easy actually sounds very complicated. We have one song on the new record that I would guess will get that kind of reaction, but it’s really kind of simple. Or that song on Vertikal, “Vicarious Redemption” which is about how long?
Yeah, and it’s got, I can’t remember how many, but not that many riffs. They're just broken down and played in different ways. I mean, the main riff is probably played 13 minutes out of the 18, you just don’t hear it because it’s masked in different ways [laughs].
Yeah, but i think that i think that part of the reason people interpret certain songs as complicated and or as simple has to do not necessarily with tempo, but time, right? There's a certain concept of time and music that people, I think, interpret as entertainment. Right?
Yeah, there is.
And there’s another concept of time that people can people interpret not as entertainment. And so I think, when they perceive it not as not-entertainment in that simple sense they perceive it to be complicated, in a kind of weird way. I don't know if that makes sense. But like, if, when a pop song uses time in a certain economical way then your brain kind of goes with it. But if suddenly, you're using your riff, and then you're kind of stalling it, and you're bringing it back different than that is a different type of development. And I think people interpret that as complexity.
Yeah, I think you have a point. But it also depends on cultural reference points, of course. I can talk about this for hours, but for me when it comes down to it's just things that happen by themselves.
That happen with you, when you write, or things that have happened within the band?
Both. But the thing is that I know that I can bring very simple stuff to the table. And once my friends and I have processed it's gonna sound in a completely different way, and it’s always going to sound better.
So I guess it's a double question. But we'll, we'll get to it later. I know, you're very much into movies and you work in movies, basically. And I saw one of those video interviews of you a couple of years back about movies that inspired you. And there was a recurring theme there. The A lot of them were horror movies. And there was a comment you made there that I found very interesting that I think is relevant to what we're talking about right now, which was a comment about the effect of the threat of violence as opposed to showing violence.
And so what the threat of violence creates, I think, is suspense, right?
Yes. Suspense is your most valuable tool when you’re making a movie, especially a horror movie. But I mean even if we were talking about a romantic movie if the couple gets together in the first scene, then the movie is over, right? It's the same thing. But, I see where you’re going here. Yeah, it’s the same thing with us, with us writing music. It's about trying to tease as much as possible, until you need to move forward before it gets boring. That's the hard part about writing monotonic music. I love monotonic songs, but for me, sooner or later, you need to take me somewhere. That’s just my preference.
I mean, this is just my personal opinion, but I think in the general grouping in which Cult of Luna, for the most part, would be a part of, which is what a lot of people call post metal, but it doesn’t have to be called that.
Yeah, but we know what we’re talking about.
So, within that general aesthetic that we're talking about right now, for me, at least as a listener, it's quite clear the Cult of Luna is one of the more, how should I put this, narratively progressive of that group. Meaning that the story in Cult of Luna is a much clearer story. And that the story that's being teased, if you will, is a much clearer story than a lot of other bands. So as monotonic as you keep portraying your music to be it doesn't come off as monotonic. It comes off as very uplifting and very, how should I say, forward driven. There are a lot of bands who work with a similar aesthetic that are not as interested in narrative or in what we're calling now narrative, I guess, as Cult of Luna is. So you do tease quite a bit, 18 minutes for a song, that’s a lot of teasing.
But, there is a sense that you're going somewhere.
Yeah, that's one thing that I can sometimes feel that other bands lack. If things are just…. You know, you just said something, or we just talked about it, but, within the band I’ll describe our music as being monotonic. And I remember writing Vertikal we started talking about let's dare to be more monotonic. Let's just be more boring. But, it's not monotonic at all. Something is always happening, some guitar melody or the keyboards. It’s something we just talked about. And I think that's going to continue on this album too [A Dawn to Fear]. And I've thought about it why that is, and I think it has something to do with my restless personality. I'm very hyperactive and I've always been that way. I was diagnosed with ADHD pretty late in life and all that, so I think that's one of the reasons why I want something to happen all the time, to keep it from getting boring.
I think it's interesting that we got to talking about Vertikal, interesting for two reasons. One is that Vertikal is, I think, out of all your albums is one of the most concept-oriented. The intro are those dramatic keyboards doing almost like a Blade Runner theme, and it begins like an exposition to to a story to a movie.
I see what you’re talking about but I would say like the album was also very thematically driven, from the first to last note, basically. So, from the sense of storyline and all that, I would say they’re both equally conceptual.
Okay, that's fair. But I think that what makes Vertikal interesting to me, the kind of narrative that we're talking about, the attempt to make it even more flat, right, even more monotonic. And I think that accentuates that forward movement. It's almost as if it's like a drawing of a city with a pencil, that you just you see the basic structure more clearly. And I also think that it's – this may be besides the point – but i i think it's worth talking about how listenable that album is, just in terms of how easy it is on the ears. And not just because you know, the music is great, but the production, there's something about it that’s very sleek. I don't know what the word I'm looking for. But it's a very easy album to listen to.
We had a very clear idea of how we wanted it to sound like and what we wanted to tell with the album. We tried everything from the production to the way we were playing. As far as I remember, Eric, Fredrik and myself, we only played down strokes on the guitar because it would sound more inorganic. And then they'll also when it came to the production, we tried different sounds, rounder, and actually sometimes just harsher and weirder and inorganic sounds, so to speak.
I'm trying to think what it means about me that the album I like the best is the least human.
Yeah, we tried to take the human out of the music.
But I should say unsuccessfully.
It's not a value statement. Even if you think it sounds completely different from what we tried to create, if you liked it, it was good, right?
Yeah, I think it's great. But I think it sounds very human. But I guess it's different, a different human. There's this kind of like 20th century famous Big Shot philosopher type guy, who was one of the people who defined what postmodern is. And one of the things he talks about is a lack of depth. Which means that in the modern world, there was a perceived gap between how you felt and how what you expressed. So if you were a sensitive person, for example, right, and you felt everything and you had pain with everything, but the outside world was apathetic to your pain, that created a gap. And that gap gave a perception of depth and you felt the struggle to try to kind of bridge that gap and express yourself. And the example he gives that is Munch’s The Scream, because his inside and his outside are so apart that he has to like shout to get through. And so I think that some of the earlier Cult of Luna stuff is human that way. It's human because something needs to come out and you're forcing it out. And I think Vertikal is human differently. It's human, not because something is gushing out but because something is just there. I don't know if that's a good explanation.
Yeah. If you're over complicating stuff.
When it when it comes down to it, you can use different models to explain, but sometimes it's just the guys doing stuff with a very clear idea in mind. Right?
All I knew at that point was that I wanted to do something challenging. And I'm a strong believer in limiting creativity. When everything is free, when everything is possible, nothing is possible. If you limit yourself it forces you to make decisions that you wouldn't have made if you would have been totally free. You can tell yourself: “Okay, I have 15 minutes to write a song.” That's 15 minutes, not 15 minutes and one second, 15 minutes. That forces me to create something that I would never have written otherwise. And in the same sense, we started talking before writing that album: “Okay, we've gone from the inside to the outside, and now we’d like to go from a rural environment to a kind of futuristic city. But, what kind of futuristic city?” Well, we weren't going to make it easy, and we're inspired by all those Italian futurists and Art Deco things, and all of a sudden we created our own world. I remember Eric [Olofsson], for example, bringing some color samples to the practice space, like: “Look, these are the colors we're gonna work with this time,” even before we wrote a single note. Which is quite interesting.
Yeah. It is, but that’s not necessarily a description of guys just "doing stuff." And I want to press that point, because I want to ask whether or not that was always the process before starting an album? Did you always have a conversation about concept colors, limitations, or was this one different?
So, the first album was the first album. The second album, we actually had a theme, but that kind of developed over time, because the idea of telling stories has always been a part of this band. And I would say the first time that we actually started talking a lot before we even started recording was probably Salvation. And that kept on being our method. Very much so for A lot for Somewhere Along The Highway and even more so with Eternal Kingdom. And then we wanted to do something completely different. But the method was the same.
So I have a question about the method. You said that once upon a time, you were breaking down riffs. And then you're thinking about structures and movements. And then at some point that became second nature to you, and you started doing things differently. So I guess my question would be about those preliminary conversations: Did you get better at them, as a band?
Yeah, absolutely. I think we have become better and better at communicating within the band, more so from Vertikal session until now. Because Vertikal came out after a period when we had kind of taken a couple of years off of the band. And I remember that it was actually a very hard process. When we signed to Earache, I think we signed for five albums, which sounds impossible. And we just shut off the machinery. And then we realized how hard it is to start again. With Earache we had a machine that was going, we're touring, we were writing music, we were basically releasing a record every two years or 18 months, which is an insane tempo, when you think of it. So after we finished our obligations with them, it was exhausting. So when we finally arrived at the end of that engagement we just figured now we don't have to do anything. And then we said “Okay, look, now it's time to start writing again” it was tough. I moved to Stockholm, which kind of limited our ability to find time, we had to find a new method of just writing. And on top of everything Anders Teglund, our keyboard player at the time, lived in Gothenburg, so it was just very hard. And we didn't have a record label. Like everything was tough. And it wasn't 100% clear that we actually would continue. So I wouldn’t say we had to start from zero, but starting from a point where we weren't sure about anything, which was hard. It was a special time. The first song I wrote was probably “Vicarious Redemption,” using a tuning that we hadn’t used before, just to try out new stuff.
You mentioned communication, and you mentioned the fact that communication got better from the Vertikal sessions to the present. So does that mean that the effort that was required to get your shit back together, either communicating with each other or writing with each other, was such that when you finally did manage to get over that hump, your communication was better between you?
I think so. The method was better, but if it’s good or not depends on the individual efforts. For example, one thing that happened when we were recording was that all of a sudden Andres just quit the band, out of nowhere. From being a guy that actually was the first guy to say that this is an eternity project, that we would never quit, and then he quits like a year later. So that’s not a good example of good communication. I mean, we had a good system of communication – he communicated that he quit. But obviously there was something going on that we weren't aware of. So, I don't know. But I think, in general, we kind of were…and we're older also. Like, now we never fight. I honestly can’t remember when we last fought and we used to fight quite a lot. I think people just got more mature.
It's interesting, because I just recently interviewed Aaron Turner. And that interview was about why ISIS broke up. It was actually the first time he was willing to talk about it, I guess having to do with the fact that’s it’s been a while now….
Let me guess: lack of communication.
Exactly. But it's even more than that. It's not just a lack of communication. He said that, basically, they were all kids when they were starting the band, who were drawn to aggressive music, each as a result of his life circumstances. And so that's what brought them together, their love for aggression and expressive music. But they never learned how to talk. They never learned how to express themselves to other people. And he also mentioned the fact that you think that young men aren't necessarily taught that skill of, you know, talking about their feelings and what they don't like and so they never talked about anything. Until they reach the point where they just couldn't stand each other anymore.
I can see how that could happen to a group of men. However, one thing that is very interesting when it comes to our band is how unconventional the people in the band are. I mean, when we started off, we were kids. I don't even know when the starting point of this band was, I played in another band that kind of seamlessly broke into this band. But let's say 20 years, about 20 years since we recorded the first demo. The people in that band were a very strange mix of people from Umea, where I’m from, from Sollefteå, which is where Eric and Magnus [Lindberg] were from, just completely different backgrounds. Heroin addicts and just regular people with a normal upbringing. After that the band kind of evolved and the lineup changed to include people that aren't necessarily from heavy music, that have completely different points of reference when it comes to basically everything. And I would say that most of those people are very good at communicating their weaknesses, and when they're weak. And we were very open when…
Do you think that's the main thing? Talking about when you're weak?
That was a bad choice of word, I meant when they're fragile, when they're vulnerable. “Weak” is too much of a judgment. Actually, while we’re at it [laughs] I’m probably one of the few guys in the band that is not 100% open about my innermost feelings, but most of the guys are. We talk about it, and when someone needs support we support him. And I also think that there have been so many people involved in the band that that has actually worked to our advantage. Because at the point when we had conflict, there was always somebody that we could turn to. I mean, when we're out and touring, we don't all hang out together all the time. It’s not like there are separate groups within the band, we all work well together. But if you're tired of one person there are a lot of other people you can hang out with, and that has been working to our advantage. That, together with our ability to actually talk about our feelings, most of the time. At least I hope so.
So, I noticed that you said in the past that there was a conscious decision at some point of the band's history that the band will never be your job, right?
And so my first question is: When was that decision made? And why was it made?
I think that that was probably after the tour that goes by the name of “The Tour of Hell” [laughs]. We toured, I think, for seven or eight weeks in Europe during the winter, in a van. I enjoy touring all that, but it was such a heavy…. It wasn’t enjoyable. I love touring, I mean, playing live is the reason why I'm into music. I'm not sure I would still continue to write and play if I weren't able to play live. I love music and I love playing live, but touring that much, it just pulled the passion out of it. And I'm so impressed by, say, friends that really tour all the time, and I see their tour schedule. I can’t imagine myself doing that. Not that I couldn't play the shows physically, more like how could I work up the passion every night, every single night when you go out for three months. That would be totally emotionally exhausting for me, if I was able to pull it off, which I don't think I would. That's the reason it killed the fun out of doing music.
Do you think that the fact that the band is not your day job, does that relieve some of the pressure in communicating within the band? Because if this was everything, if everything was riding on every decision you were making in the band, I would assume that would be a lot more stressful?
Oh, yes. Actually, I haven't thought about it in those terms until you so eloquently put it, but, yeah, that's probably right. I mean, imagine just having your income and having the pressure putting food on the table, especially now when we all basically all have kids. That would create such a tension. And also what that would do to the pressure of dealing with the people we work with and all that. I can’t even imagine. Sometimes I fantasize about the stuff I would do once the kids are older. Like: “What if we just gave it two years, and did just this? To see how it felt?” Not as a long-term thing, I just like new experiences and challenges, and just to see what would happen in two years. Like: “Let's just do this.” And we could probably do it if we could make seven people pull it in the same direction [laughs]. I mean we’re five in the band, but we have Christian [Augustine] and Kristoffer [Jankaris] that play with us live. They're basically there with us all the time. And then they would have to be able to do it too. So yeah, I sometimes fantasize about that. But, yeah, that’s never happening [laughs].
That seems to be another version of what you said about limiting creativity. Maybe the fact that Cult of Luna has a hard limit, when it comes to your personal life, maybe that's another form of limiting creativity too?
Maybe, but I just look at it in a practical way of keeping the band together and not totally losing the passion of what I love to do. That would be just horrible. Imagine not liking to do what I love to do. That could be quite scary.
Especially when it's very important for you.
Yeah. If I, with my own effort, would kill my passion, that would be totally ironic. Like some kind of sad passion suicide [laughs], in a sense.
I think happens all the time. But that's why I think your band is an anomaly. I think Cult of Luna going for such a long time is an anomaly. I think most bands get to that point where they either go on for the money, or they lose direction artistically and they're just fumbling through it. I think it's a testament to the fact that your system is working. That Cult of Luna has not really encountered that. I mean, not to my eyes.
And also basically being forced to write. I mean, writing music is really, really hard. And especially when you've been doing it for such a long time, at least if you have the ambition to to evolve. I’m not determining that fact, that we are evolving with every album, because I leave that to listeners to decide. But that at least is our intention. As long as I feel like we’re evolving and not doing the same thing over and over again then I'm happy. As long as I can find new ways to do the same thing, when it comes to motivation and stories to tell. But imagine having to do that instead whatever frequency we’re releasing records now to do that every second or every third year. That would be exhausting, and it would kill everything that I love.
So we're not technically talking about the new album, A Dawn to Fear, but what are the new things that you were trying out? What what are the things that you can say were conscious attempts at doing something differently?
This is going to sound very strange, because what we decided after Vertikal and Mariner, which was also a very concept-driven album…. I mean, for years I've started to see subtle changes in my attitude toward a lot of things. Like, for example, and this is a very concrete example, I started to look at my body and all the tattoos I was getting and what I was putting on my body, and then everything I had done for the last five or six years, and I suddenly realized it was all somehow connected to where I’m from. I live in Stockholm now, but my heart is in northern Sweden. That's where home is always going to be. That's where I'm from, that's where I'm going to get buried. I live in Stockholm now, but doesn't matter if I'm gonna live 20 or 30 more years, that's always be my home. I kind of realized that what I'm doing here is to anchor myself to where home is. Like all the tattoos and all that, like, who am I trying to convince? And then I realized that was going on, and I wondered what other things are going on, on a subconscious level?
So instead of having a concrete concept, as we did in the past, Fredrik and I started talking, and I said: “What I am going to do now is that I am going to write with nothing. I'm trying to try and just write both music and lyrics without any idea of how it's going to end up, without any conceptual idea at all. And then, when everything is done, we’ll take a step back and see if I can see patterns, if I can see what the hell is going on.” Like doing a painting with a blindfold on, and then take your blindfold off, and ask: “Okay, what does this picture mean?” And it's been an amazing experience, I can tell you, it's been mindblowing for me, the way it ended up.
It's interesting, because it sounds almost like the complete opposite of what you described at the beginning of you being in control of these structures, and kind of knowing your way around them and knowing that if you put this after that, and so on. it's like the opposite of that.
Yeah, it's not exactly equivalent to this idea of painting blind…
Yeah, I guess you are still the person you are.
Exactly. And writing music, it's not like it’s completely up to chance, what happens, and the structures of songs and all that, those are still valid. That will not disappear, and you need songs to work. But despite that it feels like it's a complete improvisation, just sitting down writing stuff that popped up in your head, without any concept and all of a sudden go: “Oh, now I see where my mind went!” That was very rewarding and I might just continue doing that for a while.
Yeah, on a personal note, I write, I guess you could say, and that's kind of how I write. It's not a complete free fall, I still have a general idea of where, how I see, say, certain characters or how I feel about them, but then I just write and see what feels interesting to say about them. And then that turns into very unexpected things that I would never be able to guess if I just started that way from the get to.
That’s the thing, I write too. And I've realized, whether writing music, or writing stories, or writing anything, that even though the thing you’re writing sucks, because most of the stuff I do doesn’t meet the standard that I set for myself, so I kind of throw away 95% of everything I do. But just writing is the equivalent of pulling a rope. And if you stop writing, well then you stop pulling. Even if it's bad, keep writing, keep writing. Throw away what you don't like, as long as you’re pulling that rope. Pull that rope. Sucks? Okay, throw it away, and continue pulling the rope. Sooner or later you’re going to get to the end of it.
I'd even go further and say there is no end of it. You pull, and then something sucks, but it has one interesting thing in it. So you keep that one interesting thing and you keep pulling. Right? So you collect interesting things along the way. And that process creates, you know, interesting things for you, which you hope are interesting for other people as well, obviously.
Yeah, and we’re talking about writing, say writing stories, and about limiting your creativity. You can write something and then go: “Oh, now you screwed up your storyline” or you’ve limited your story. And then you have to continue, and all of a sudden the story that you started off with is something completely different. Your character has certain traits? It limits you even more, and it takes a life of its own. Like, I have so many stories on my computer, and I realized that it doesn't matter if I never finish them, it doesn't matter if nothing comes out of them. The process has been so rewarding. And mostly I write horror stories. There’s no way I believe in the spiritual world or something non physical, but still, I can give myself the creeps just writing weird, weird stuff [laughs]. Sometimes just writing it scares me. Like: “How the hell did I come up with this horrible idea? Not horrible as in band, but horrible as in a sick mind. And also when you’re starting to look behind your back when you’re writing, that’s a good sign.
Yeah, that’s weird [laughs]. But I'll give an example from a non-scary story, that's just a small example. And then we'll be done. So, I have this thing where I like to write about my family, in a way in which time works very strangely. So I can be my father, I can be my grandfather, my grandfather can be my baby. All these things are always changing. And one of the things that resulted in real life is that I began to look at my parents like babies. And it's not all the time, but I can do it, I can sit in the room and feel like I'm their parent. And that’s a very strange thing to do. And sometimes I act on it, and it's very rewarding. Surprisingly, so. Like, one time I saw my parents, and I was like, my parents can be my children, because we're all this, you know, weird mess. And then I told them how much I was proud of them. And they started crying. Because a parent isn't used to their child telling them that he is proud of them. So I kind of flipped time in my stories, and then went ahead in real life and use that flipped time and it was great.
Yeah, maybe this is not the same, but one of the most important lessons for me was understanding that adults are just grown kids. And that thing you talked about earlier, the watershed moment. So that was a non-musical watershed moment, when I realized that adults are just kids that are a little bit bigger. I couldn't go back after that. And now I know it's true, because apparently I’m an adult, but I’m still a kid.
Has that realization change how you act, or the way you write music? Does it change how you treat your life? What happened to you since you discovered that?
I started the question the authority of being a grown up more. Like: “Who are you to tell me anything? You're a kid just like me.” I mean, there’s a lot of life experience that comes with being an adult, I wasn't stupid, I understood that. I still understand that. But the adult world kind of lost my respect, in a sense. For instance, me and my girlfriend of 13 years, our oldest kid was, I guess you don’t call it graduating because she’s six years old, but she had her last day in school. And me and her were sitting in the back of the room with all the other kids and the parents. And I asked my girlfriend like: “Do you see what I see? A bunch of parents. I can’t relate to these people. They're different.” I mean, I know I'm a parent, a good parent, I hope. But I’m not one of them, I’m not.
I guess what you're saying is that you're not a part of a group that identifies its merit in the very fact that they are adult. Right?
Because those people exist.
I see that they’re kids playing adults. Kids acting like parents. But I’m boring you going into a different subject [laughs].
No, no, it's all good. It's all the same subject, as everything is in life. But I just want to say that a few years ago…. So I had a period in my life that I stopped listening to metal music. I think a lot of people who listen to metal music have those kinds of periods.
And when I came back a lot of my stuff was gone. I didn’t have my shirts, I didn't have whatever, and I was like: “Okay, I'm an adult, I don't need my band shirts.” And then at some point, not long after my daughter was born, I discovered it had a very interesting effect when I started wearing all these gory t shirts to her kindergarten, you know, to come to pick her up and drop her off. The kids looked at me weird, and the parents and look at me weird, and I like that. I like the fact that I stick out in a kind of immature way. Now the problem is that half my closet is band shirt, but that's a whole other issue.
This is so weird. I mean, I think I've learned something about myself just talking to you, because that's exactly what happened to me.
[Laughs] The same thing?
Exactly the same thing. I mean, you can probably analyze that and come down to its being a midlife crisis or whatever. But it doesn't feel like it’s life crisis, I enjoy every minute of it. I'm a late bloomer when it comes to vinyl – he said while packing vinyls as we speak –
But I’ve never thought of when it started, and the starting point was when we first became parents, and how it continued . When I was on parental leave with my second kid I started writing hardcore songs, I started a hardcore band [band] while he was asleep. And, yeah, I only wear band shirts now.
Yeah, me too. I mean, I have moments where I look at myself in the mirror and say: “Ron, what did you devolve into? What is this? You're being more of a teenager than when you were an actual teenager!” But I think most of the time I enjoy it. And you know what, to an extent the very fact that we’re talking now….. So I didn't describe to you the setting of our conversation, I'm sitting in my car parked outside my house because it's late, and the kids are asleep.
And you can only imagine if I interview mostly American musicians, then it's usually this time of night, wandering into my car when everyone's asleep, sitting in my car, yelling about, whatever, dynamics, and shit, and there was a period where it felt quite stupid. Because it felt amateurish, and a real person has a fucking studio and whatever, and it felt like I was just making it up as I went along. But now it has become my hardcore band, if you will.
Yeah, yeah. I can totally relate.
It’s what I do.
Yeah. Anything that comes from passion and that comes from the simplest instinct, doing something you enjoy, is good. I mean, that’s what it comes down to. And about being “professional” [laughs], I left that behind a long time ago. I just try to do stuff that I want to do.
I'm still struggling with my end of the professional aspect. Of what I’m doing. But, fuck it, maybe I'll figure it out one day.
And regarding being the parent. My kids are going to a posh school. I can tell you there's no parents that look even similar to me, not even close to similar. ButI love it. I love it. It surely feels like I'm in high school again, wearing baggy pants, being a loudmouth, or skateboarding. Which I don’t! Anyone who tries skateboarding again when they’re 40…
Ends up breaking their legs [laughs].
So I’m not doing that, just trying to teach my daughter to skateboard.
That's pretty cool.
Yeah, she's amazing.
Well, Johannes, I cannot thank you enough. That's pretty much it, I can't thank you enough. thank you for your time.
Thanks so much for this conversation. I think I learned myself.