I N T E R V I E W S
Another Autumn, another trek for Katatonia across the expanse of North America. For three years running, these Swedish stalwarts have spent their Septembers serenading American audiences, ushering in the grey gloom of winter. It's a perfect season for them, and this year they ride alongside Paradise Lost and Devin Townsend under the banner of 'Epic Kings & Idols'. The tour name in part makes reference to Katatonia's brand new record, 'Dead End Kings', a macabrely optimistic epithet that reflects the band's well-earned pride as well as their humility. During their last visit in 2011 I had spoken with Anders Nyström [guitar], but tonight I had the chance to dig deep with Jonas Renkse [vocals]. If the former is Katatonia's face (not least due to Jonas's window-drapes hairstyle on stage) then the latter is indisputably their voice. And that voice—crooning, delicate, but eerily resolute—has become an unlikley icon in a genre full of earthshakers and skyscrapers. Our conversation, with all appropriate interjections and tangents (i.e. the return of Bloodbath), follows.
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Maximum Metal: Välkomna till Chicago.
Jonas Renkse: Tack!
Maximum Metal: It's a pleasure to have you guys back.
Jonas Renkse: Yeah, it's good to be back.
MM: This makes it, what, three times in as many years you've been here? The headlining tour—that came to Reggie's—then with Opeth last year, and now with Paradise Lost and Devin Townsend.
Jonas: That's true, yes.
MM: So, how much time have you guys been spending on the road these past few years? Seems almost like more time than not, almost.
Jonas: (sighs) Yeah, yeah. Definitely from the release of 'Night is the New Day' on, we've been touring a lot. I think in 2010 we did more than 100 gigs. And we just kept touring after that, really. Now there's the new album out, so we're just doing everything again.
Jonas: But it's cool, you know. It's definitely a sign that you're doing something right, if you get the chance to tour as much as we do. It's good—there's an interest. So we're happy.
MM: Absolutely. The last time I talked with Anders, we spent a couple minutes talking about the new Vallenfyre project of Gregor Mackintosh, and now you guys are touring with Paradise Lost. So what is that dynamic like? And, of course, with Devin Townsend Project—it seems like three very distinct but complementary styles that are coming together.
Jonas: Yeah, absolutely. I'd say we're all class acts, if I may say so. PL, you know, they've been around for ages. They're legends in creating the whole gothic metal genre, really. And Devin has been doing interesting music for, what would it be, 25 years or something. So this whole package is just classics, and it's great to be a part of.
MM: When you're in that environment, as opposed to playing with a band like Opeth or being on your own headlining tour—in Europe after this one, right, with Junius and...
Jonas: Alcest, yeah.
MM: Right. So when you're in that kind of environment, do you find that you change the dynamic of your performance to cater a little bit more to the audience or the bands that you're with on the bill?
Jonas: No, not really, because whenever we're going on stage the mindset is the same. It's about our music, and that's it. We're trying to squeeze as much out of it as possible in the live situation. That's what I feel, at least, but I think the other guys would say the same. It's about trying to translate all the music that we have on record into a live situation. It's a lot of emotion. I mean, Devin Townsend has more of a stage show; he's more of a...circus guy.
MM: Yeah...it's true. (pauses to reflect)
Jonas: And PL, they're doing their thing. They have great songs, they have a good vibe going, so for us it's just about the power of the music. Just let it loose.
MM: And last time I sat down with you guys, you had a songwriting pool that you were drawing from, changing the set from night to night. Are you still inclined to do that?
Jonas: Not as much on this tour. We have stuck pretty much with the same set, aside from changing a couple songs from time to time. I don't' know why we did it this time. It felt more convenient because we have some new songs from the new album that we haven't played before this tour, so we wanted to focus on them. And then we have to obviously play some of the old fan favorite stuff, which is great. So this time we wanted to be more strict.
MM: Maybe, then, if you are touring in support of this record for another year you might spice things up again?
Jonas: Absolutely, absolutely. If we come back to the U.S. again we'll want to do different songs from the new album and from the back catalogue.
MM: I suppose the process is different every time, but in this first go-around do you just play the singles, so to speak? How do you choose those songs that you're going to play first from a record, especially if you might not have the chance to play other ones later?
Jonas: I think you have a couple of obvious songs that you have to play. You can already tell what songs people are into before [a tour]. Then I think it comes down to rehearsing and getting the feel of the songs. Maybe this song isn't working out in a live situation just yet, but that song feels much better to play. And now that we're doing the first tour for the new album, we just want to feel as comfortable as possible. Some of the new songs are kind of difficult to play, so maybe we leave them aside for a while and get into the other songs.
MM: That actually makes sense, too, for the audience. In listening to the music, it sometimes takes things longer to settle in and make sense.
Jonas: Oh, yes, absolutely.
MM: So, maybe as the performer, it takes time to find the dynamic that works best for you as well as the listener...?
Jonas: Yeah, it's an ongoing process I think—getting the feel of the new songs, seeing what they feel like in the live situation, or even in rehearsal. And then just take it from there. We have a limited playing time this tour; we play for an hour, so we had to get everything right, basically.
MM: When you're preparing songs, either for recording or for performance, do you spend a lot of time playing live together before you record them? Or is it really only when you're getting ready to tour that you get a sense for how the new songs you've written will sound?
Jonas: Exactly. It's only when we are going on tour that we actually play the songs together for the first time. I don't think it's the best way of working, but it's been like that for many years with us. We write the songs and we never rehearse them before going into the studio. It's mainly up to Daniel, the drummer, to figure everything out, since he can sit by the drums and play the songs with the demos in his headphones. Then we always do a lot of extra work in the studio. We can change the song whenever we want. It's not until the album is actually mixed that the songs are done, because we can still change things up until the mix. And that's why we never really want to rehearse them and say, two months before recording starts, that this song is ready. It's not how Katatonia would work, because we always want to have the possibility to change things...until the last minute. Which I think is good. It's good for spontaneous creativity.
MM: Aye. And then, too, if you're going to be playing these songs so many times over the course of years—even during a single tour—I suppose it's good to have those layers of discovery?
Jonas: Yeah, exactly. That's how we feel about it.
MM: Hm. (Notes Anders and Per 'Sodo' [Eriksson, guitar] discussing something on the couch across the dressing room.) I see Anders has the Bloodbath on his laptop now, instead of the old Katatonia one.
Jonas: Yeah, I think it fell off. (laughs)
MM: Alright, I was wondering a little bit. At the end of the last tour, in Maryland, you guys did play a few Bloodbath tunes.
Jonas: Yeah, we did a couple of songs there.
MM: I've seen footage of it that is...incredibly good.
Jonas: Yeah, yeah. (laughs)
MM: And that was the first time that Bloodbath had been experienced by American audiences, to my knowledge. How would you gauge the American response? Was it different than what you expected it to be? I know Bloodbath is a side project for you all, but—
Jonas: Well, I think it was great. I think the audience really went for it on that night. Because we did the tour with Opeth, so...
MM: Why not?
Jonas: Exactly. Obviously, everybody was there to do it, and already on earlier gigs of that tour people had been shouting for Bloodbath songs. But we decided that if we were going to do it, we were going to do it on the last gig just for the hell of it. So I think the audience went...crazy. It shows that there's a lot of interest here, too, overseas, which is good to know. Good to know.
MM: Well, I know you guys haven't released any information about what might be happening next with that, but we are all interested to hear it.
Jonas: Yeah, I know. We are also very interested. I mean, we've been talking about it quite a bit the last few months, being in the studio with Katatonia. And it's only a matter of finding the time to do, because we knew that with the new Katatonia album we were going to be super busy. Martin, the drummer, is already very busy with Opeth, obviously. So it's just a matter of finding that little week, or two weeks, to do it back in Sweden.
MM: And then, of course, there's the vocalist...?
Jonas: Yeah, we haven't really...we have a few thoughts on it, but nothing to reveal yet. So it's going to happen when it's ready.
MM: (To Anders, on the couch) Well, for my two cents, I thought your backup vocals on 'Eaten' sounded ridiculously good, so you've got my vote.
Anders Nyström: No, no, no.
Jonas: He's got a good voice.
Anders Nyström: That would never happen. You see, the thing with Bloodbath is that I'm stoked about getting a new singer in. When we sit down and record the vocals, that's just a...pleasure. So you do want to work with someone special for that. And obviously we've had one of the best vocalists in the world, so far [in Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth]—and Peter [Tägtgren, of Hypocrisy] is another of the best in the world.
MM: Yes, he would have my vote also.
Anders: Exactly. So, I don't think we're going to let anybody down. But at the same time people should be prepared that the next Bloodbath album is not going to be a nice, beautiful chapter. It's going to be the most ugly, rotten, dirty affair we've ever done.
Sodo Eriksson: Going to go old school, man. (In mock metal fan voice) Ol' school, muh-fuher!
Anders: Yeah, it's going to be a really direct, opposite answer to the last album. It's not going to take off and continue from where that one did. So, that's why, if we would reveal who the vocalist would be now and people would refer it to 'The Fathomless Mastery', it wouldn't make sense. That's the whole point. But if they would hear the material we've got going with the new album, then they would say, 'Oh, that makes sense.'
MM: Aha, I can see you've thought about this.
Anders: We'll have to wait and see. 2013--(raises fist)—The Year of the Bloodbath.
MM: That's not far away!
MM: Good! I'm ready. Alright, then back to Katatonia. The last record, from what I've read and was told by Anders, was more your product than in previous instances. Absolutely there were some major new influences, such as Daniel's new percussive input, but that on the writing side of things it was largely your product. This time around, it seems like it's bringing more new ideas into the fold. Sodo—you've got a song on that record. As soon as I heard that solo, I knew it was you.
Jonas: Yeah, yeah.
MM: And, Anders, you've gotten more involved on this one as well?
Anders: Yeah, I've got a couple of songs, and collaborated more heavily with Jonas throughout...
Jonas: Yes, I think we just found the time. It was better for us all to come together and create something, rather than just sitting separately and trying to work on it. We got a new rehearsal place and studio thing—
Anders: It's an HQ! We need to say it's an HQ so it sounds cooler.
MM: HQ, right.
Jonas: Yeah, it's an HQ, which made it much more convenient to hook up with one another and just get the music going. I was spending a lot of time down there doing songs by myself, but soon Anders and even Sodo came down and we had a lot of creative things going on.
MM: From what I've also read, you're taking a lot of the framework from 'Night...' and trying to “push” it. Are there specific aspects in which you wanted to do that? 'On this record, we want to have more piano', it sounds like, or other facets you wanted to explore more, either from yourself or the others?
Jonas: I think it comes down, as it always does, to writing better songs. New songs that are exciting for us to put together and play. So, I think we all believe that 'Night is the New Day' had a lot of good songs on it—great songs—so now the task was to do something even better. And that's where the excitement is, in being able to be able to do that. I think, with the piano thing, it came later on in the process. We already had sketches for the songs when we said to Frank [Default], the guy with the keyboards, 'Piano is such a beautiful instrument, and it's been sort of neglected by us a lot.' So we wanted some extra piano in there, more real-sounding strings. But, as I said, it all comes down to (shakes fist) fuckin'...finding the best songs possible.
Jonas: That is what we are all about.
MM: And as the music has grown, so, too, have the lyrics changed. It seems that 'Viva Emptiness' was really a big transitional piece, at least to my assessment, and you can tell me whether I'm off point...
Jonas: Yeah, yeah, I think I know what you mean.
MM: It seems like that was the transition towards more sparse phrases, more fragmented kind of pictures as opposed to complete sentences.
Jonas: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely.
MM: Was that something that you wanted to explore, or was it something that was just emerging as you wrote for the songs? It's been about three records now that, in one form or another, that style has been manifested.
Jonas: Yeah, I think it's a natural progression. I tend to always want to use fewer words. I don't know why. It just appeals to me, to be able to come across some kind of point with as few words as possible. It's difficult to explain, but I think it makes it more beautiful somehow, rather than seeing someone writing about everything that they think or see. Describing everything...it becomes too much, maybe. So I wanted to keep it sparse and beautiful. I don't know (laughs). It's just the way it's working with me right now.
MM: Doing more with less.
MM: I think the first song that really drove home this new method for me was 'Soil's Song', and its chorus. So few words, but very powerful and communicative.
Jonas: Yeah! I know, I'm still happy with it. I was thinking about it the other day, because we hadn't played it on this tour and you never know if we're going to change songs from night to night. So I usually just see if I remember lyrics, and 'Soil's Song' is one of the songs that I'm really happy with, lyrically. I think it all just fell into place there.
MM: On this record it seems that, even though there are still a lot of short phrases, they are becoming more complete. At least grammatically. Would you agree with that?
Jonas: Yeah, I think so.
MM: Do you think that is just a new facet of the same exploration or is it taking you in a different direction?
Jonas: It's hard to say. I don't overanalyze things when I'm writing the lyrics. Basically it's a mix of wanting to make something as good as possible, but at the same time I want to get it over with. Because it's kind of a hard situation, you know, to write your heart out like that. But it's also rewarding, when I feel that I'm really happy with it. So, no, I haven't really overanalyzed things.
MM: I've also noted that mountains make an appearance. I was trying to think back to the last time I heard that word, and it was 'Day and Then the Shade', from the last record. But before that do you know the last time they showed up in a lyric...?
Jonas: Ohh, my guess would be the first album.
MM: 'Velvet Thorns', yes. So that's pretty much 15 years without the word showing up. And on this record—I think the song is 'Second'—it also mentions the moon. And for as much as you talk about the sun and light in your lyrics, I hardly ever see 'moon' mentioned.
Jonas: Ah, exactly, that's true.
MM: It was interesting to see ' mountains' have this huge gap only to show up again. Was there a certain inspiration you were getting for this?
Jonas: I think for that song, 'Second', it's rather uncommon for my lyrics to describe some kind of catastrophe, like the world coming to an end. I usually go more into details about everyday life and that kind of darkness. But for this song I wanted to write something more about the bigger picture. So, mountains...they are massive, and if they fall down then something is going wrong.
Jonas: But, yeah, 'moon', that's uncommon. I usually write a lot of stuff about 'sun' because it's representing life. And life is what we're doing, you know—it's why we're here. But I question it sometimes. The sun is also going down, giving birth to night. The sun is easier for me to relate to than the moon for some reason. I don't know why. (pauses) I don't see the moon that much anymore.
MM: Ah, and why is that?
Jonas: Because I have kids; I need to sleep at night. (laughs)
MM: Alright, fair enough. The first time I heard the new record, I felt that 'The Parting' was an interesting way to open. It's a massive song, but in a completely opposite way to the way 'Forsaker' was massive.
Jonas: Yeah, yeah. I think it was a bold thing to do. 'The Parting' has a lot of different parts and emotions in it. It's definitely not as direct as 'Forsaker' was. But it gives you a feeling that this album has even more stuff to discover. If you open with that kind of song, it's like, 'What's the rest of the album going to be?' It's not the kind of song you get into at once—
MM: I admit, that is true.
Jonas: --but I think it's a rewarding song to listen to many times and discover all the layers, the meanings of it, you know. We felt it was cool, even if it is kind of difficult.
MM: And when you say 'taking some time to get into it'...when someone in the band brings an idea to the table, does it also take a fair amount of time to sink in for everybody else?
Jonas: Yeah, it happens, definitely, and especially between me and Anders. We're doing a lot of music together, but we're not the same person, of course, so we have ideas that sometimes clash. But I think that's very interesting, because it triggers some extra emotion. If he's got an idea I don't like at first, he has to tell me more about it so I can understand it. And once you get a grip on what he's thinking, then something creative happens, rather than just saying, 'That's shit, throw it away.' So we always listen to each other, even when we have different opinions. I think it's a respectful way of working. And it's also rewarding when it comes to music, because it becomes more diverse and interesting.
MM: I find it interesting, too, that in the actual vocal performance it seems that you're more comfortable doing more and broadening your palate again. In the early part of the so-to-speak 'modern' Katatonia era there was a very specific sort of style that you were becoming comfortable with over time. And it seems that you really are comfortable with it now--or at least it sounds that way—
Jonas: Yes, these days I am, definitely.
MM: But that you're also branching out and willing to push a little bit more, end vocal lines on a higher note, et cetera. Has that just become a product of singing more, or practicing? Or are there specific goals you have within the band?
Jonas: I'm definitely setting up goals, because with every album I want to improve my vocals, of course. I think most of it comes from touring because touring makes me sing every night, which I don't do at home.
MM: Do you practice much at home?
Jonas: I mean, I don't practice like, 'Now I'm going to sit here and sing for an hour,' but as I'm writing songs I'm always singing and trying to come up with vocal melodies and stuff. So I'm singing pretty much every day at home, but not like singing the full way that I do on tour. Then I have to use my voice in a much more...shitty environment, basically: there's always the struggle on stage to hear yourself properly, the sound is different for every venue. So you have to adapt and use your voice with a different character. And that's really helpful when I come back to do another album; I feel much more confident, and my voice is much more into singing and experimenting.
MM: Was there something in particular on this album that you felt you developed particularly?
Jonas: Not really, because I'm really comfortable with the style that I have. I don't want to change it too much just because I feel like I could do it. It still has to sound like Katatonia and not some R&B—
Jonas: So, I'm happy with the way I'm progressing right now. I could probably sing differently just for the sake of it, but it wouldn't have the right impact on how Katatonia should sound. It would just sound weird, I think. I like to develop with the music, because the music is getting more and more delicate with every release, and the vocals have to follow that. Experimenting with different kinds of harmonies, you know, and as you said, pushing things a little bit more. Where it's needed.
MM: When you talk about harmony...'Onwards Into Battle' has some of my favorite vocal harmonies that I've heard from Katatonia. Right at the end of the chorus, there are those two lines...
MM: So, when you're writing, do you find that there's a certain chord, voicing, or even a certain progression that you come back to? If you have a favorite, what would it be?
Jonas: I don't know. I'm not really good at musical terms. But I think that every singer has their favorite notes, which they use a lot, and I guess the same thing goes for me. But it's hard to pinpoint exactly what they would be because it's changing a little bit all the time. So it's hard to say. But I definitely know what you mean. And I really like the 'Onwards Into Battle' chorus. It's huge. Desperate, sort of. I like it.
MM: I remember the first time I heard it, I kept waiting for it to grow into something bigger. But then I eventually realized, 'No, this is plenty big—it's just big in a different way.'
Jonas: Yeah, yeah. That's a bit of the Katatonia thing—not to make things too, too big.
MM: The last question I would ask...you've talked about the significance of birds. Birds in artwork, birds in lyrics. Can you put into words what that represents for you?
Jonas: Ah, I think for Katatonia it represents death. The bird is also...freedom. Birds are, or seem to be free, and death is also freedom in a way. I just have a fascination with it, really. At least the 'Bird as Death', what do you call it—
Jonas: Yeah, I like it. It feels medieval. Not occult, but old-fashioned. If you translate that into what Katatonia's doing, while we're more modern and urban, if you keep that motif... I just like it. (laughs)
MM: Well, very good. And thank you so much for your time.
Jonas: No problem. Thank you!
MM: As a last comment: I've read some about how you've described the meaning behind the new title of 'Dead End Kings', but I think to American audiences and a lot of people around the world, you are very much alive. And we're glad to have you.
Jonas: Yeah, we're alive, because we're still the kings, you know. In our dead ends.
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ALL INTERVIEWS FOR: KATATONIA
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