It is a Saturday night in Glasgow and I’m meeting fellow writer for (((o))) Phil for the first time during the soundcheck of Cult of Luna. After seeing the amazing Leeds band Humanfly kick off the night with an excellent set, we get the opportunity to interview Cult of Luna frontman Johannes Persson in their tour bus. We talked about the new album “Vertikal” and lots of other things.
(((o))): Thanks a lot for taking the time and talking to us. We’ve been listening to the album and we’re very impressed. It’s so good to have Cult of Luna back! Let’s just start by welcoming you back to Scotland. How long has it been since you were here last?
Thank you. It’s been 4 years I think.
(((o))): There’s an air of anticipation about tonight’s gig.
What does that mean?
(((o))): Well, there are a lot of people here tonight who are very excited to see Cult of Luna again and they all came down early to make sure they weren’t going to miss anything.
Ah, ok. No pressure then! (laughs). Well, this is only the third show of the tour, and it always takes 4 or 5 shows to get the set going well and get everything back. Look, from 2000 to 2008 we have released 5 albums, which is more than 1 album every second year and that is a very fast pace. We have done a lot of touring and the guys in the band just have a lot of other things going on. This band was never intended to be our dayjob and after we finished our obligation with Earache Records (Eternal Kingdom released in 2008), we thought it was a good time to do something else.
(((o))): Ah, so that’s basically the reason for the long gap between the new record and the previous one?
Yes exactly. Fredrik, Thomas and myself have recorded an album for our side project Khoma and we wrote music for different projects and did a lot of other things. Then 2,5 years ago we decided that if are doing another Cult of Luna album that we needed to start working again, and it took quite a bit longer than we thought. Having a record label can be good and bad, because when you have a label, you have somebody breathing down your neck. But I think we could have sped up the process a little bit, maybe by 6 months or a year even.
(((o))): Well, again the album is pretty amazing. It feels a lot colder though compared to some of the other albums, especially listening to the drums. And the increase in electronic elements almost gives it more of an industrial, more mechanised and repetitive feeling.
Yes. Well, we all live in different cities in Sweden and when we decided to record another album we kept talking over email and we said to each other that we need a direction. Both “Somewhere Along the Highway” and “Eternal Kingdom” were very rural, almost country-esque in its approach. They were very inspired by where we’re from in the North of Sweden. So we decided that if we’re going to do another album we’re going to turn 180 degrees and do something completely different. So, we needed to find some kind of narrative, a kind of a roadmap. We talked about going into the city and what constitutes a city. Because very often when you’re a writer, when you do anything artistic you get stuck in these arbitrary terms. We really needed something concrete. How do we create music which sounds like the city we wanted to create?
So, what constitutes a city? It’s human presence. It’s unbiological angles, more straight angles. You don’t find those in nature. Hence we named the album “Vertikal”. There is also industry with mechanised sounds. And there was a lot of talk about the movie Metropolis, which was a big influence. “Vertikal” is not a theme album in that sense, but it certainly sent a picture back and forth and we wanted the album to sound like how this looked to us. So, this kind of harsh roadmap went through the whole process, from how we play it, like using more downstrokes to how we recorded the drums and how we used different forms of metal to create these kind of beats. When it comes to the keyboards and the synthesisers, these came more natural as we were all much more involved in the writing process. Previously with Anders living in Gothenburg we always kind of knew what electronics to put in, but this time it was an integral part of the writing process. So, we could try things on the spot and which I think you can clearly hear.
(((o))): Yes, it translates well. When you listen to “Vertikal” you have this almost soundtrack feel to it. The passages of the keyboards throughout the album keeps it all in line. Even though it’s not a concept album per se, there is definitely a feeling of it as a whole.
Not many people have noticed this, but there is a theme going through the album. The first part you hear (‘The One’) is also the last part you hear (‘Passing Through’), and the same kind of melody goes through 4 different songs. I was surprised more people didn’t pick up on this. Here, let me give you a sample.
(Johannes gets his iPhone out and gives us a detailed illustration of the repeating melody)
(((o))): Yes, that’s very clear now. It actually has a kind of Bladerunner soundtrack feeling to it.
I love that soundtrack by the way.
(((o))): I’ve listened to the album a couple of times and even though these melodies which keep coming back weren’t initially that obvious to me, I always had the feeling that there was a red line going through the album. But when I listen to music I never analyse it so deeply, I’m always looking for emotions it creates in me.
That’s the RIGHT way of listening to it!
(((o))): But it is clear the album works as a whole and should be listened to as a whole. It’s not a case of “let’s have a couple of slow-paced songs and a couple of fast-paced songs”. But you can still pick any song of “Vertikal” and listen to it on its own and it will still stand on its own.
They are all individual songs and you can listen to them individually.
(((o))): Have you ever played a whole Cult of Luna album from first track to last track as it is?
No we haven’t, as that’s not possible. Well, perhaps “Eternal Kingdom” is the only album that we could play in its entirety. Hmm, actually maybe not! (laughs)
(((o))): Earlier you mentioned you all live in a different part of Sweden, but you are all originally from Umeå isn’t it?
We started in Umeå 15 years ago, but all our members are from different places on the East coast of Sweden.
(((o))): What I think is very interesting is that Umeå is like the 12th biggest city in Sweden, has around 100.000 inhabitants and bands like Meshuggah, Refused, Cult of Luna and many others all originate from there. Is there something specific about the area that inspires people?
It’s hard to talk about this while having an inside perspective, but yes, it is striking that a small group of very successful people, playing different kinds of music come from there. But there are many successful artists in Sweden, not only in the metal genre, but from various genres. But, regarding to where I’m from, it all started with a group of around 15 people in the early 90s, we all played a very conservative form of hardcore, all sounding pretty much the same. But people moved away and started developing into other genres. I went down a heavier route, but others took more of a Beatles approach. We are all friends still and help each other out whenever we can. Like the guy who taught me how to play the guitar plays in a completely different band now, but I love the things he does. There is also a geographical isolation being in the Northern part of Sweden. But also, Umeå is an university city, we always do everything ourselves. Basically, there is a will to experiment with genres, which are very conservative and we help each other out a lot.
Yes, we realised that we have been doing the same vocals for the last 15 years or so and to keep things interesting and less boring we felt we needed to try to find ways to work within the boundaries.
(((o))): That’s one of the things people love about Cult of Luna. All albums are very heavy, but do have different elements going through them. “Eternal Kingdom” was probably a lot heavier than “Somewhere Along the Highway”.
“Eternal Kingdom” was our way of trying to do a metal album! (laughs) We’re getting away with a lot really. From “Somewhere Along the Highway” onwards we have been doing all sorts of things, from very aggressive electronical parts to taking influences from different stuff. I think you can lose people when you experiment too much out of the boundaries, but music has not progressed because of the people who have been scared of experimenting. The people who have progressed music were the people who weren’t scared of new things. And sometimes you fail and sometimes you don’t.
(((o))): It’s better to try than to stay safe?
To experiment is not by itself always a good thing. Like let’s try and use this bongo or something. But I am quite surprised when people say that they don’t like this “dub-step” bit in ‘Vicarious Redemption’. First of all, so? We’re just writing music and we’re like let’s add this part and add that part.
(((o))): I think in the context of the song, which is quite a lot longer than usually, it really works at that stage in the song. A lot of people make really long songs just for the sake of making really long songs. And then they get really long and either get really drone or repetitive, whereas ‘Vicarious Redemption’ is a really long song, but it has a start and a finish and it definitely goes somewhere. I think that so-called “dub-step” bit is just another way of kicking the track on.
Yes but to use “that term” as something negative just in itself is just stupid. If you take that argument further, say ok it’s “dub-step” and I don’t listen to that kind of music. But that doesn’t matter at all. People who are saying that experimenting with certain music are not open to experimentation, which basically makes you a conservative loser.
(((o))): Yes that’s just narrow-minded really. Anyway, something else I wanted to ask you is that we get a lot of music submitted and a lot of the heavier bands cite Cult of Luna as a big influence. What do you make of that?
Journalists ask me this from time to time and I get letters from bands who tell me this, but I never really notice it and I think it’s quite weird! To be honest, I have been the same person since I was 16 and I remember when I was learning to play the guitar that I had my own personal heroes, and then I met some of them at some point and I thought that was quite scary, and now I’m on the other side of the picture.
(((o))): I always have to remind myself that musicians are just human people like everybody else. How do you feel when someone just comes up to you and gives you lots of compliments and praise?
Ha ha ha, well I learned to deal with that very easily, I just say thanks. No seriously, in Sweden there is this unofficial law, which is called Jante law, and it basically means, “don’t think you’re anything”, and that’s imprinted as early as in children. It contrasts the American attitude where people get told they’re brilliant and emphasises you’re a successful musician.
Anyway, do you guys want beers?
(((o))): I wouldn’t mind a beer!
(Johannes opens beers, which happen to be Luxembourg beers as they played there the day before)
(((o))): How is the tour going so far? As it’s been a while, how is the mood in the band? Is it a case of having to shake off the cobwebs?
Yesterday was actually really good, but the first show was very bad and is actually in my top 10 of worst shows ever played. Tonight cannot be bad, cannot be good, it’s going to be fun, because this venue is only a small space. There was actually a moment when we walked in where I thought that we had to cancel this gig as this stage is way too small! I mean, I have to use a different amp today, and we have the 2 drum kits, which take up a lot of space. It definitely is going to be fun tonight, but the funniest show we have ever done was in Copenhagen. When we were on our way to Copenhagen our tour driver asked us if we had seen the specs of the venue. He then said that he hadn’t mentioned it before as he thinks we aren’t able to play there. And I saw the specs of the stage, which said something like 1 by 2 meters and I thought it was some kind of misprint. It was the sickest show. I mean, it wasn’t even a stage; it was just a space on the floor. I remember the mic stand falling over a couple of times, and in the end this guy in the crowd just held it up for me for a whole hour, with his girlfriend standing next to him. It was one of the best and most fun shows we have ever done.
(((o))): When you play in Sweden do you play for huge crowds, like thousands of people?
We have to wait and see, as we haven’t played in Sweden for a very long time. We’re playing in Stockholm soon and that place as a capacity of around 800, but I don’t know how many people would show up, I really have no idea. I think we’re more known then I actually think we are, but we’re not that kind of rock band that attracts big crowds.
(((o))): Are there any big places in your current tour you’re looking forward to go back to or to visit again?
Honestly, there aren’t many unexplored territories for us anymore, so I’m not specifically excited about going back to a certain place, but I did realise the other day we’re going to Romania for the first time, and I’m very excited about that.
(((o))): Do you see much of all the different places you go to when you’re on tour?
You see very little of very much. I’ve been to New York, and people get excited like wow you’ve been to New York, what have you seen, and I’m like I’ve seen the Statue of Liberty from far away when we drove passed it. So, technically I’ve been to New York, but I’ve not really been there yet. I remember that we’ve been to London for 6 or 7 times before we actually saw Big Ben for the first time. That was a funny time as our driver had been a driver for tourists before and he gave us the whole guided tour of London, which was pretty amazing! We’ve been to Paris 10 times before I finally saw the Eiffel Tower. That was after the show where we said to each other, this is getting silly, we really need to see this Eiffel Tower now, so we went back after the show to see it. But we now have this big tour bus and you just wake up in different cities, which is a bit weird. But the most fun tour I’ve ever done, was the very first tour where we drove around Europe in a van by ourselves, setting up shows in squats and sleeping on people’s floors. This tour as we’re doing it now is much more convenient, but I think it’s really good to do that kind of first tour, because it makes you realise how privileged you are when you get to this stage with the big tour bus and big venues. But I tell you, most fun I’ve had was during those first tours. I made some really good friends during those tours.
(((o))): Yes, the best bands are the bands who have done those tours, as they’ve worked for it and aren’t overnight sensations. It comes down to the experience it has on them.
There are many young bands out there who can’t wait to get that rock n roll myth!
(At this point Johannes’ received his 3rd SMS on his phone from his tour manager telling him that the stage change over is in 5 minutes)
I’m far past that point where I bought my first CD and got inspired. Now I just pick up the guitar and play. I try to write songs you can play as much on an acoustic guitar as on an electric guitar. So, there is not a lot of riffing going on.
(((o))): You’re coming more from a song-writer approach rather than making just something heavy for the sake of it.
It just happens. By all means, people need to understand that songwriting is hard, it’s not something easy. I get very impressed by grindcore bands who write like 19 songs, I’m like how the hell do you write 19 songs? You can write too many songs. When it comes to songwriting, I need to find the song’s individual groove. And I hope with the songs we have on the album that they are not interchangeable. You hear a lot of metal band and it’s basically all just the same, and you can switch the tracks, pretty much every song has the same riff. I’m not judging this, as it’s one approach to making music, but that’s not the approach that I have. The secret of every song is within the pauses and the riffs. I think at least, but I’m still learning as well!
(((o))): Ok Johannes, we absolutely appreciate that you took the time to have this chat with us so shortly before your show, so thank you very much for talking to us. And thanks for the beer!
It was my pleasure.
Thanks to Simon from iLikePress for organising the interview.