Interview: Cult of Luna
The reason to perform 'Mariner' live now was because of the way the people responded to the record. That's the reason to perform in public. You're there to meet people who you connect with over something that you made.
When Cult of Luna announced a new record earlier this year every fan got very excited as this was quite unexpected because the band had dropped many hints they would go into hiatus for the time being. When it became clear this record was going to be a collaboration of some sort with Julie Christmas from Made Out of Babies and Battle of Mice this excitement turned into huge anticipation for what might become the record of the year for many heavy music fans. When Mariner was released last April the response from the critics and the fans the world over was overwhelmingly positive. Obviously the next thing people wanted to know was whether the band and Julie were going to perform live as well, but sadly they had always stated this was never going to happen. So when there was a small tour through Europe announced after all this resulted in many ecstatic fans, yours truly one of them.
I managed to get some time to chat with Cult of Luna frontman Johannes Persson and Julie at Damnation Festival in Leeds a few weeks back and the first thing I ask them is why Mariner was never supposed to be played live and why they changed their mind. “It was no plan to do it live ever.” Julie replies. “And the reason to do it live now was because of the way the people responded to the record. That’s the reason to perform in public. You’re there to meet people who you connect with over something that you made. And luckily people have been very… responsive to the record. I would say overwhelmingly responsive to the record. So that made something like this [playing Mariner live] worthwhile.” When I ask them if they expected the reactions to Mariner to be so overly positive Julie laughs. “No Johannes thought the record sucked, right? Like this is our Lulu record, hahaha!” Johannes adds “Yes I did, hahaha! No seriously, I do love the album a lot and I was not really expecting it. When you do something yourself it is hard to give a fair judgement of your work until sometime after as you need that distance. But on this album it was not only us. So I could listen to it in a really different way. But then it became like our record. And I really liked it. It was the first record I think where I didn’t have an emotional breakdown just before going into the mix. Where I didn’t want to just throw everything in the trash and start all over again. I really love the record but I had no idea how people would react to it. I suspected that we might have done our Lulu record in the eyes of our fans but it turned out to be quite opposite.”
By the time I caught up with Johannes and Julie they had done a couple of shows live already, so I ask them how the feeling was when they finally got to play together on the live stage and if it was like what they were expecting it to be. “I don’t know if I imagined anything.” Julie says. “One thing that’s central in this whole enterprise is that you can’t tell what’s going to happen next, ever. So stepping out on stage for the first time was surprising, and also very familiar. But at the end what it comes down to is did you do right by the people who came to see you that night, and we really tried. No matter what, you know.” Julie continues “Last night I started playing a little game with myself. People were coming up after the show and I remembered exactly where they were standing. I look at people and I remember where they were. At least as far as I can see. Some of them were not particularly close. I remember there was one girl, she was standing almost halfway back, but I couldn’t see her well as I could only see her hand, she was so little. I made sure I ripped off a piece of my dress and gave it to her.”
With Cult of Luna being based in Sweden and Julie based in the United States, the logistics of writing and recording Mariner weren’t always very easy as they never spent time together as a unit before these recent string of live performances. “They’d sent me drafts, and in the beginning when we were just working on the first song and there weren’t going to be any other songs, there were no plans, they’d sent me files. And I’d listen to those, did what I could, send it back. It’s the way things are done now, whether you’re in the same city or not. So it was pretty seamless in that way.” Julie says about the whole process. For Johannes this was not a completely new process as Cult of Luna is not living in the same city in Sweden either, but Johannes adds “The difference was that Julie added the main layer, pretty much the only layer people really listen to. Julie changed the songs in a way that we don’t do with our own stuff. And that was so much more exciting as we never knew what we would be getting back.”
Coming back to all the positive reviews and feedback they’ve received on Mariner, Johannes points out that “A review should not be only pulling out the good stuff. It needs to be critical. Like it’s a good record but, …” He continues “It’s a big problem because the record labels and the metal press have a symbiotic relationship. Like the metal press needs bands to write about, and so I think they’re not as critical as they could be.” Julie interrupts saying she actually looks out for the negative and more critical reviews. “Those are the most fun, hahaha!” A couple of years ago Cult of Luna turned the press onto a fake story when they released Eternal Kingdom to which he says “The metal press has an obsessive way with labels, and I’ve been talking about that for years. There’s no real journalism, there aren’t enough critical questions. That’s the reason why we did an album in 2008 [Eternal Kingdom] based on an obvious lie. I wanted to see how far you could push a lie that was so obvious without being questioned.” Nowadays it is of course a given that anyone with Internet access and a decent computer can start a music blog or website and claim to be a music journalist. When I mention this and say that I am not a trained journalist myself, but a scientist with a big passion for music who loves meeting the people behind the music and to write about music, Johannes adds “Yes that’s true. But when you’re doing interviews people are interested in good stories, so we gave them a good story.”
We continue over conversation about Mariner and at one point the artwork for the record gets brought up. I mention that I’ve heard some people say they love the record, but they thought the artwork looks a bit cheapish, like it was done in MS Paint, Julie says “I’ve actually heard that one. You know I’ve actually found all the comments and sent them to him [looks at Johannes].” The conceptual theme of Mariner is space exploration and when I ask them how the artwork fits in with this theme, Johannes says “Yeah, ‘Let’s show a picture of space.’, that wouldn’t have been obvious! I had this discussion with a friend that suggested a trailer of the album that would just be a pictures of space, but fuck that, it would just be too simple. I mean come one, at least make an effort.” Personally I think the artwork works well especially when you consider the different colour versions and different vinyl pressings. It comes together as a complete package, not just when you look at the artwork only on your MP3 player or in your iTunes library. Johannes adds “Erik [Olofsson] puts a lot of thought and effort in his artwork. We started to talk about his ideas for the artwork way before the album was done and his idea was the warping of time and space. I think Erik is very much inspired by Peter Saville, the guy behind the Factory Records stuff. And I think it shines through.”
Back in 2014 when Cult of Luna headlined and curated the Beyond the Redshift festival in London there were some suggestions it was going to be the band’s last show before going on hiatus. However, this lasted only 4 months or so when the band started playing live shows again. “The hiatus thing didn’t come from us. What I said was we don’t have anything planned.” Johannes says. “We said that we won’t be playing as much live anymore and we didn’t have anything planned back then. If you’d ask me now, what do you have planned for the future? We’re not going to hide under a rock or anything. Whatever happens, we’ll see. This is not our career. We don’t have the pressure to do anything. We might have a new album next year, well actually not, but you know, maybe in two years, or five year, okay, I don’t know.” At Beyond the Redshift they reunited with founding member and former frontman Klas Rydberg. When I ask Johannes how his experience was to be back on stage with Klas he says “It was great but also a bit weird. As he didn’t quit on bad terms, we’re good friends. So it was more like a school reunion. I mean we’ve been pretty much growing up doing this band. I was 18/19 when we started and the other guys were younger than me, so you’ve been together so much. But he has other priorities, he has a full schedule.”
This brings us to a discussion about music as a career and with Cult of Luna being a big band it quite surprises me the band can’t live off this as professional musicians. “We could if we would have wanted it.” Johannes says. “But I’m not that person who’s going to be on the road 6 months a year. This is a decision we took back in 2004. Because we tour with bands that made it their career, and we saw first-hand that this was not the life we wanted. This is making us even more blessed, because we are able to do this on this level as a hobby. And there aren’t many people who are in this position.” Of course the band has had a long career and it has taken a lot of dedication and hard work for them to get where they are now and to be able to afford to continue the band as a hobby. “We’ve done the heavy lifting.” Johannes continues. “I’ve done the squats. Now we come back from tour much better rested, but with much less stories. I can tell you about the first squat tour we did for many, many hours.” The inevitable memories come up and when asking Julie about one of her more memorable tour memories she laughs “This is a fine memory of mine, where I came down the hallway one morning in a squat and I came in to use the bathroom and I turned my head and there was a big hole in the wall, and everybody was eating breakfast on the other side, hahaha!”
With time running out as the band’s on a tight schedule this day I managed to ask Johannes quickly about his other band projects Riwen and Khoma and if he’s still involved with those. “I do go back to them every now and then. The problem is that the day only has 24 hours and the week only has 7 days. In the end my heart is in this band [Cult of Luna], not that my heart isn’t in the others, but my priorities are there. It’s my family, my kids, my work and then it’s my band. And then if I have time I’ll do other stuff.”We end our chat with Julie thanking you to everyone who’s coming to the shows. “It’s really the response to the record and people being vocal about their feelings or whatever their experience is when they listen, and we’re very lucky.