This extensive 8-part interview consists of various Katatonia features, written by Paul Kearns, Frank Bøkseth, Sauli Vuoti and Roy Kristensen. Enjoy!
A band that changes but still maintains to keep its identity, is a band that demands respect. Katatonia is such a band and Imhotep's Roy Kristensen went to Stockholm to confront Jonas Renkse and Anders Nyström with this, that and whatnot, in three parts. The first is a run through the albums, the second is one for the enthusiasts while the last is not the dead end one could expect from these kings of Sweden.
How do you view sound and identity versus stagnation? I mean, if something is expected of you and you then do something else, it's difficult for the fans... Anders agrees.
"That's the whole challenge, isn't it? It's the beauty of being in a band. This is what you have to try to make happen naturally. The more you analyse it, the harder it will be to overcome it. I think the best thing you can do when you're at the point when you have to write a new album, especially when you have eight albums in your bag like we do, is to follow your gut feeling and your instincts. Try to be spontaneous and try to let things come as natural as it can out of you. Within the band, you should always sit down and discuss things to make sure you're on the same radio wave, so that nobody is thinking differently before you start to make a new album. If you're not on the same page, you will end up with a lot of discussions and arguments later in the process. So, the discussions should be held first, which we tend to do. Me and Jonas are the founding members and we simply need to talk, we need to sit down and talk about what we're going to do. It's not like we're bringing pen and paper and writing down our masterplan, it's more vague, more like what do we see about the new album? How does it feel, what vibe does it have? You always have to refer to the last album and see it as a stepping stone. So, are you pleased with it, is there something you'd like to change, would you like to continue in the same vein? All these things were discussed. And on this album, "Dead End Kings", we agreed that we were not done with what we did on "Night Is The New Day". We wanted to do more of the same. We didn't want to take a rapid step and do something different. Actually, we didn't want to do something different. With "Night..." we are still very pleased with it, sound-wise, atmosphere, lyrics, and the songs. So, we thought about what we could do with the new album? We thought that we could write even better songs within the same concept."
"11 new songs, and I think it's inspirational enough, challenging enough for a new album. We didn't have to reinvent the wheel, we didn't have to invent a new musical style just because we were doing another album. As long as we don't stagnate, or feel tired, feel like old timers... You know, it's a new album and it's gonna be exciting. As long as we are having our hearts in it", adds Jonas before Anders talks about honesty.
"You have to be totally honest to yourself. Should you listen to the people's voice or your inner voice? (We listen to our) inner voice first and then the people's voice."
Do you think of the fans when you write your music? I mean, if you experiment some people would hate it, but if you did part 2 others would hate it? Anders says that this is an on-going dilemma for a band.
"I see it daily. It's something you have to cope with, I guess. I mean, we wouldn't be in a band if we didn't listen to ourselves first. Then we have to give it out and see what the people think. If we did ask ourselves when we wrote the album about the direction, if the songs are good enough for the fans, if we consider what others would think it would simply confuse us and put obstacles in the way of the writing. It would slow us down and make us confused. We would ask ourselves who are we? Aren't we capable of listening to ourselves first? I enjoy the process, it's magic."
"Like Anders said, if we are happy with the songs I think that will shine through on the album. I think people would hear quickly if we tried to satisfy other people rather than ourselves. So, be honest and write the songs you wanna hear yourself. I'm sure people would hear that we're enjoying ourselves and I also think that's the foundation of a good album."
Anders agrees with Jonas.
"It's also an important thing to add, that if people think that the new album does not show enough progression or is a part 2, I will tell them to wait. There will be a time when we're going to change again very, very majorly. When we come to a point where we feel that we are done, we will change, totally. We just felt that we aren't ready to change with this new album, we have more to do within this style before we abandon it and go somewhere else in another direction again. I don't like the sound of "Night Is The New Day part 2", I like "Dead End Kings" and it shows the current honesty of Katatonia. The next album..., who knows?"
Do you trust yourself so much that you know what you do is good enough? Anders does.
"We have to do that! We've been around for 20 years now, so we have to keep faith in what we've done. We owe it to ourselves. If we let expectations overwhelm us... I mean, nobody expected anything from us in the past, so why should we let things be any different for us now? Of course there's pressure involved in the picture, but for me this pressure is from me towards me. And that's the pressure I deal with."
"On the other hand", begins Jonas, "of course we could do an album that is not good enough. We trust ourselves, and sometimes when you trust yourself you're not right in the eyes of the audience. This kind of criticism would be something we'd face in that case. But right now we're so happy with what we've done, and the initial response from people has been overwhelming. Right now we're super happy with the album. Next time, if we try to squeeze something out of this again it might not be as good, but I think we'd rather change direction instead of that. But to what you said if we can trust our own opinions, of course we can do something that is right in our opinion but so wrong in people's opinion and then we have to face that..."
Anders has witnessed such a scenario earlier.
"What is a proven fact about that scenario is that they come along later. With all the changes in Katatonia over the years, they always come up one, two, even three years later and say that now they get it, that they understand and are on our page now. I would respond with that I love to hear that but where were they when we needed them more, if you see what I mean."
Come "Brave Murder Day" and "Tonight's Decision". Anders continues.
"There's always been the transition where we have to deal with people that are too slow for our progression sometimes. I mean, we're not even a progressive band."
Where do Anders and Jonas find inspiration these days to continue writing more music, more lyrics, new puzzles to piece, new concepts? Do they perhaps inspire themselves more than anything else? Anders looks upon their back catalogue as inspiration.
"I think the albums we've made definitely work as a source for what you want to do with the next album. It's like an answer to it. Sometimes the answer can be very definite, like when we know we have to go the opposite way. But it can also be that we feel, like with the new album, that we're not done and therefore were desperate to go in there and do more of the same until we worked so much with it that there's nothing left to say. It's fortunate that our own album [speaking of "Night..." - ED] worked as a direct reference to our new album. We're lucky to quote our previous album as an influence. It's actually strange to say this. And it's probably the first time I say something like this. It feels weird", Anders laughs.
Jonas continues on the theme.
"When you read interviews with artists having new albums out, they usually bash the old albums. I don't like that because every album you release is like a picture of yourself at the time it happened. And you can't bash pictures of yourself. I mean, even the first album... We were 18 when we did it and it sounds, sometimes, horrible to me. Magic but still horrible, but I will always stand behind it. It was me, it was Anders, it was our vision back then."
Nostalgic, yet genuine. Not my words but Anders'.
"Coming back to the bashing of albums, like I see other bands do- I would like to ask these bands if they're not going to play these songs live anymore? Is it not good enough live anymore, when they bash their own material? Don't bash your former album(s) to highlight the new one. That's not right. I see this too often."
"Oh, you have a family. And you got a new kid. So, then bashing your old(er) kid(s)? Nah, don't think so," adds Jonas. Let's hope them artists take the point!
"Dead End Kings" is in my opinion Katatonia's most beautiful album. Yes, now is the time to reveal my opinion about it and Anders and Jonas are all ears. I think it's varied, even the most varied album you've done thus far. It is reminiscent of the former album, no doubt, and again there are these details in the production. Even today, right before this chat, I noticed a piano piece I haven't noticed before. On the surface the songs may seem easy in a way, but below the surface there's much going on. So, how do you work in the studio? Do you like have a picture of the totality when you get in there, knowing that you also have many details that need close attention? Anders says that there's nothing that they spend more time on than the layering of the songs.
"It takes months. And it's very very difficult. This involves a lot of deleted material actually. We are deleting so much material that the stuff that is finally there finds its right place. Otherwise it gets too crowded and you bring everything down with it, it would turn into an avalanche where everything just disappeared. This is a difficult process and I think we're getting better and better with it every time we make an album now. The experience helps us as producers and makes it easier..., I wouldn't say we're a headphone band but I think people would discover the album in a different way if they at least listened to the album a couple of times with the use of headphones. There are details you wouldn't hear otherwise, and those details mean a lot. So, the layering is deliberately done and it takes a long time to do this. But that's the beauty of the album, it will grow on you. I'm determined that people who listen to the album once and think it is a so-so album, I would ask them to please give it ten more listens and we can talk about it then and see. I would not judge a person who says he's still of the same opinion, but I'm confident he would say that he found more music in there. It will click after a while."
Jonas thinks that before one cares about the details one needs to have a strong foundation of the song.
"We do demo versions with guitars, drums and some vocal ideas. These demos have to be interesting enough to work further on before you can start to do the layering and all that. But even before we begin the layering we throw away a lot of stuff. You know, material that is OK but not good enough. So, there's a filtering process even before we start with the real production. As Anders said, it's a long process but it's well worth it in the end."
When I say that I think the production has air, Anders agrees and mention the aspect of making things not too crowded.
"If you hear too much stuff, you must also be able to digest stuff. It should breathe. We have always talked about our productions, and we think there has to be some organic stuff in there. What helps in our case is the diversity of the album. We have moments where less is more, it could be Jonas and a few notes which explodes into this busy sound picture where things are coming from everywhere. Then more is more."
Anders and Jonas have been watching Yngwie Malmsteen being interviewed lately. We laugh and Jonas comments that they do the Kataonia dynamic and the Yngwie dynamic at the same time on the same album and adds that it is after all their sound. Speaking on dynamics, what impresses me most with Katatonia, even from "Last Fair Deal...", is that all of the albums are dynamic. I'm old-school in that sense and love albums more than this song, that song. When I listen to Katatonia's "Dead End Kings", it's like a walk but not a straight one. You go there but you also look behind the trees, you look under the stone, you cut your way through the mud to see what's going on there...
"We've actually talked about that", begins Jonas and Anders continues: "Those words are exactly like what we think of our music."
I suggest that I can be in the band from now on. Anders asks me what instrument I want, and I suggest I can do some vocals. He continues: "That's really interesting. When we make an album we always think of the album as a piece, from the first song to the last one. I want, in an ideal world, that all our listeners treated our music via albums, and listen to them from start to finish. It doesn't feel right to download one song and that's it. It's not the way we intended it to be. We've put down a lot of effort into the track list so that the flow should make sense for this journey we've created."
Is this the same when you include bonus tracks on the album? I mean, all fine as a CD2, but not within or even after the album... [Though, I must admit that I like it when some bands alter the track list on the vinyl version versus the CD version, or if it is Morbid Angel's "Altars Of Madness" on CD, but no rule without exceptions]. Anders is clear and present.
"We always treat the standard album as the original album. What happens after that is often based on compromises. Sometimes we don't know exactly what to do with the bonus track(s). I mean, like on "Night Is The New Day" we had our last song for the album "Departer", so we put the bonus track "Ashen" as song 11 and moved "Departer" to track 12."
Jonas thinks that "Departer" is such a complete final song.
"When the label wanted to add a bonus track on a certain edition, our only remark was that they must not put it as the last song as it would ruin the whole feeling. I think it's disrespectful to the album format. And if we have to include bonus tracks for whatever label reasons, we don't want it to be the last song. Period!"
Anders does speak a bit harshly regarding label people.
"This is a typical scenario of label people who are not 100 % understanding of the artist's vision. And honestly, I don't think they care, if you know what I mean. But stand up for it and say that our work is not done if we're not in control. You [the label] can do your work when we give you the album. Just don't threaten me!"
"Dead End Kings" begins with a rough opening after the short piano piece. The last track "Dead Letters" is a rough ending and one track in the middle of the album, "Buildings", is also kind of rough. Aside from these tracks you have you-know-what from Katatonia.
"The album has three poles and we build the whole album around them. This is the concept we had on the track list. We wanted to have strong foundations so to speak on the album and I'm really happy with it."
Anders should be happy with it. It is a great album. Jonas starts to build, ahem..., buildings.
"It's like architecture. You place the pillars to make the foundation and in between that you can put the beautiful stuff."
We've talked earlier about that the new album is a kind of continuation of the former one. And we've mentioned the former album's closer "Departure". In my opinion a closing track is very important, especially since I am used to listen to whole albums. And with "Night..." it ended in an introvert, more silent way while with "Dead Letters" the new album ends more like with a fist. Jonas explains.
"With "Departer" I guess people expected us to end the new album likewise, with a dreamy, huge piece with electronics and what not. So, this time we thought "why not put the fucking hardest song as an ending?".
Andreas continues the explanation.
"It's one of our heaviest and most progressive songs which is also very demanding to you, instead of putting a song there where you can just sit comfortably back and listen. If you still are able to pay attention..., well, if you don't pay attention it will knock you out of your chair."
I like the way Katatonia have released "Dead Letters" as a preview of the album (this interview is online after the album's release though), because it doesn't give away the album at all... Anders agrees completely.
"Exactly! That was exactly the plan here. We wanted to shock people to make them think if this is what Katatonia sounds like now. Well, you never know. There are ten more songs to choose from if you just wait a little bit. And I can already tell from the feedback..., in general the response is really good but some people are like "if this is the album, what have they done? I don't know Katatonia anymore". And I love it! It's lovely to get such feedback based on the preview. Be my guest, you're able to leave. We were probably not one of their faves anyways. It's a very typical syndrome of today's generation, how they jump the gun like that."
I'm Norwegian, so obviously we have to touch upon the subject of guest singer on the album. Silje Wergeland from Bergen, Norway, singing in The Gathering, guests on "The One You Are Looking For Is Not Here". I tell the guys that the first time I listened to it I found it quite boring. A silent "ok" from the Swedes here. I mean, after the harsh opener comes these different tracks. But now, after some 15 spins I must say that I really love the song. It's not like the beauty and the beast effect here, but more like beauty and the beauty but like two kinds of beauties melting into one. Now I cannot imagine the song without her voice. So, how did this collaboration come about? Anders begins by saying that the way I describe things is like I was there at their rehearsal phrase.
"The whole plan was never to say 'Katatonia featuring Silje Wergeland' or anything. We wanted to integrate her exactly on the same level with Jonas' vocals, and you picked it up beautifully there."
"It is supposed to be very subtle, not taking over. And I don't wanna take over either. We thought that if we were going to do this, it should be an integration of vocals in the most beautiful way we could do it. We didn't want to do some operatic stuff just because she's a female vocalist. That wouldn't make any sense. We've been going for 20 years and we've never had any female vocals before. We felt that now was the time to do it. We met Silje a few times over the years, like playing festivals with The Gathering, and she's Norwegian so it feels natural to have a chat when we see each other. The last time we met was when we played a gig in Holland, she was there working with The Gathering. We drank some wine and started to talk loosely about maybe singing together some time, you know, like you do when you drink some wine and all. So, when we did the song both me and Anders thought that we could add something here. There was still room for more. The song was already great, but there was room for more."
Anders comments that there was some choir parts in the chorus that needed to be in hand with Jonas' vocals. And they both thought of Silje. I guess I'm getting older, but the first few times I heard the album I pondered a bit about her contribution. I noticed the "la-la-la" thing but somehow the verse and the chorus didn't come to me in an instant. Wasn't she supposed to sing on the album, you know. Anders thinks they succeeded with what they had in mind and Jonas adds that they didn't want to overdo things just because it was the first time they included female vocals.
"What it comes down to, is that it was always about the song. It was never about her or anything else. It was just the song and what we felt it needed, what the song sounded like. It was never about showing off or anything. It would've been so easy to put her in front and make it all loud and let Jonas stumble in the background."
Anders is clear on this and I'm glad they choose the more level way of doing this song. Being on vocals, I guess we have to talk a little bit about Jonas' vocals. I dryly comment that "they're pretty OK". Jonas agrees and Anders laughs. So I ask Jonas; "so you think they're pretty OK?". "Yeah, they're OK". Guess we're not going down in history with the best conversation ever here. I continue; "they're OK but not your best work, eh?". "They're my best work", Jonas replies. Ah, now we're back on track. I've never heard him sing so well, so clear and confident.
"For me it mainly has to do with all the touring that we've done. It makes me feel so much more secure as a vocalist and it makes me believe in what I can do with my voice (more) than before. My advice to singers is to play live, that's when you really have to work with your vocals. Usually playing live can be a shitty situation for the vocalist, shitty sound, you can't always hear your own voice... So, you have to work a lot with your voice to make it count. When you return to the studio it's much easier to find your personal voice and expression. I don't know, I think it's a matter of me singing a lot lately."
One song can have fragile parts but also louder sections, if you see what I mean. Does Jonas have to record things in small sections, or...?
"It's actually different from song to song. Most of the time I take every part separately in order to get the right feeling in every part. But it does happen that I sing one whole song in one take when I get the feeling."
"When he gets the feeling we just leave the rec-button be and push Jonas to sing it all. You can never really copy a feeling again. You can hit the notes but if you failed to record when the feeling was 100 %, you're fucked. We try to record the feeling as much as we simply can. Jonas usually does a lot of takes, so that we have something to choose from. Like, there's more emotion on that take... Emotions come first and the other things afterwards. It has always been like this in Katatonia. Even with "Discourages Ones", it suffers from at times horrible vocal performance, but the honesty and devotion has never been stronger than on that album. It's so honest, so real and this is what you can't fool people with. They're hearing this."
Jonas gives us an example.
"If I do a verse on the new album, I do maybe four takes of it. Then we choose the take which is the best. And usually it is the same take in every part of the song. And then the mixer guy says that all selections were the same take."
The better you get, the more you probably demand of yourself. Is it harder to arrange the vocals these days, since you're better and more confident now?
"I think these things come more naturally than ever before. I feel comfortable doing vocals. I don't try to overdo things even though I'm better than before. I want to make the lyrics just, I want to give the songs justice, I don't want to take over because there's so much stuff going anyways in our music. There's always the balance in trying to keep the formula of a great Katatonia song. Sometimes the vocal can give the song a little extra, other times it can be the guitars..."
Sometimes Anders writes vocal lines.
"This can be a bit of a challenge for Jonas, because it might not be what he has in mind. It can be the same with the guitars. I usually let him play the lead guitars that he writes since I can never get the exact same feeling. He knows what he was trying to go for and even though I know every note it still doesn't sound the same."
I'm sure this is something that only the artists involved are able to notice.
"Maybe, but it's good to push each other because you grow a little bit every time. I love to hear stuff where I think to myself that I would never think like that. I love it and that's how you grow as well."
Growing, yes. Have you grown so much that you can't do any solos now, Anders?
"There is one real solo on the album, on the song "Lethean". It's a real shred solo so to speak and it's actually done by the other guitar player, Per "Sodomizer" Eriksson. He's more from that school while I'm more of the slow, feeling, vibrato thing. This is also something that we're able to do now, like if we feel there's a need for doing something like that... I was first like wow, what are people gonna think about a shredding solo in Katatonia? This is not something that comes every day. But I love it, I love how it feels and it comes at the right place. We would've removed that one if it was just something that was there to show off. But we all like this solo. Usually we make more use of the lead guitars than regular solos, and at least to us this makes a difference. When people think about Katatonia they think a lot about the weeping guitars and the themes, as well as the vocals. I think we kept the formula pretty basic on the guitars, there's still a lot of riff based things going on, but I have managed to step out of my role as a guitar player more now and feel that I'm more of a musician. I want to see the whole picture. Me and Jonas are producing so we need to see the whole picture. My guitars aren't as important as I think they were when I was young. But now it's more like what does this part need? Vocals, guitars, piano, drums... I'm a horrible guitar player nowadays anyway."
You don't rehearse anymore? Anders laughs and says that they do rehearse when they are going to play live. He should probably rehearse more, he laughs. Jonas is very happy with everybody's performance on the album nonetheless.
"I think everybody stepped up a notch, even Anders. We are all very passionate. That's the word."
Sometimes I feel that the power has been full on, with the result that the dynamic aspects of the band have suffered a bit. On the new album, as well as with "Night..." the guitar sound feels more powerful than ever, especially on the rougher songs like "Dead Letters". How did you work to make the guitars so heavy without them taking over the whole picture, Anders?
"This has a lot to do with the amps you use. We have always been about balancing different amps, experimenting with them to get a wider sound. If you use only one amp it might sound great and all, but you may miss some frequencies that you may find with another amp. We try to get the best out of both worlds here, and we found the two amps we've used on the new album, Laboga from Poland and Diezel which I think is made out of Germany, they balanced each other so well that we got this juicy, fat sound. This is as tough as it gets and if someone found a way to make these two amps into one, that would be the perfect amp. Fortunately we could blend them together in the studio environment. The guitars are what most often will feel in your face, so to speak. If you listen to the riffs, and the sound is not heavy they will not grip you. So, you have to find a way to make them fit the sound picture so that they grip you in an effective way, of course without taking over as we already have talked about. We just worked a lot with this, trying to avoid past scenarios where things didn't work. The worst thing that could happen to me was if someone heard the new album and told me that the guitar sound is flat. It's a delicate thing. I think the guitars are very, very important. It's what drives the music forward. If you're at a festival and the guitars are low and thin, you won't get a good impression of the music. They need to be right there in your face when they are delivering the riffs. I think we have succeeded with the new album, and we're very happy with the sound. We must also pay credit to David Castillo here, our mixer guy. He's a part of the team, he knows what we're about and he's easy to work with."
There are lyrics on "Dead End Kings" as well. We don't need to dive deep into this but in general they're not about happiness and joy this time either. What wrong with this life, Jonas?
"I usually write the lyrics after the songs are finished. I want them to go hand in hand with the music, and the music is basically atmospheric, dark stuff. So then I just want to write some words on darker subject. It all comes from me, so it is reflections of myself and my inner self. It can also be observations of what I see around me. They're not written as storylines per se, they can be reflections, abstract most of the time but there's still are core in there, at least to me. People will of course interpret them in their own ways, as always, so... darkness."
You see he's getting nervous about this, Anders?
"Yeah, he is. It's private."
"I feel naked", says Jonas.
"We're undressing him", laughs Anders
We should see the words of "Dead Letters" as a whole, but there is this one line that made me go huh! "Only once Could I see clear", what was it that you saw, Jonas, if we're a bit literal here?
"To me..., well, that actual line made sense when I wrote it. I felt it was striking in all its negativity. I guess there are those who could feel attached to it. You know, there may be just one moment in life where you're able to feel that you're 100 % happy or something like that. You had one true love but you fucked up! Only once you could see clear."
Anders sees this song and its lyric in his own way.
"I think every line in that song can be seen as a metaphor for how wrong stuff has gone [to you]. Things just get harder and harder, your dreams just get darker and darker. It's a downwards spiral, but it just fits the song and it describes this journey well. It feels like a nightmare, but it's a nightmare you can try to or even still enjoy."
"Call of the bird Songs that make the hours go" is the final line in that song and the final lines on the album. Ah, life...
"If we didn't have Katatonia around we definitely wouldn't be speaking at all. For me everything I do is dealing with Katatonia, and if you take that away from me you're taking everything away from me. Let's not do that. The lyrics are all personal, but they are not necessarily autobiographic. Not everything has to be lived, but you can still have the same opinions and feelings on the subject, which also can be private and personal. A lot of people say about Jonas' life that it has to be really shit, the worst they ever could imagine, but is it really? As I said, not everything has been experienced but it could be something close or reflections on situations we describe in our songs."
Jonas said that his words are inspired by the music, so this time it's Anders' fault [since he's written most of the album]. Anders closes this up.
"I am responsible for his miseries."
"Always been", adds Jonas.
"I give up", admits Anders.
"I am just a slave", ends Jonas.
We can blame everything on Mikael [Åkerfeldt], since he was living in the same house as Jonas a few years ago. Anders concurs.
"Yeah, let's put the blame on him. That's easier!"
Black & white live photos by Trine Lindh Justad!
Composed by Roy Kristensen