As a bonus feature for you readers today, I thought I would share you guys an old unreleased interview I’ve had archived in my folders, an article that unfortunately fell through and was left unpublished after having been on standby for publication for months. However, with 2016 drawing to its end and Cult of Luna’s collaborative record Mariner with Julie Christmas still holding up as one of the years’ best releases, I figured it would be a shame to let this article gather virtual dust on my desktop. Having been done shortly after the records’ release, it is interesting to note that the band had as of yet no plans to play Mariner live whereas 7 month later the band would hit the stage alongside Julie Christmas for a handful of sold-out dates dedicated to the records’ live rendition. With that in mind, I invite you to enjoy this interview all the while bearing its date in mind.
With the announcement of their collaborative record alongside Julie Christmas, Cult of Luna have marked 2016 with a resounding comeback, topping things off with a 10th year anniversary tour for Somewhere Along the Highway. Being at the crossroads of this tour dedicated to one of the bands’ most celebrated albums and the release of a mind blowing record already contending as one of the best records of the year, the moment felt right to catch up with frontman Johannes Persson to discuss the bands’ history.
Right now, you’re on tour for the 10th anniversary of Somewhere along the Highway. In retrospect, how do you regard this particular era or “chapter for the band”?
Well the time of the release isn’t that important, the important part is the way we wrote it. The album before, Salvation was when we started to get our own voice but I think that Somewhere along the Highway is just “us”. What we do now was basically spring boarded from that era. The thing is that we wrote that album really quick. We wrote it in 3 months and recorded it in one week. We didn’t have time to think much of it, we just wrote and whatever happened… happened, basically. We took some chances on that, or rather we DIDN’T take any chances, since that would have been a conscious thought. We didn’t ask ourselves “should we do this?”, we just did it. We wrote what we thought was good.
It was this spontaneity that solidified the basis of your sound.
Exactly. We were just like “Ok, this is cool”. Songs like And with Her Came the Birds wouldn’t have been possible on the other albums. Also, the recording was very special because on the other albums we had pretty much locked ourselves into the studio and worked hours and hours. But that time we just took all of the recording equipment and took it to a small cottage in the middle of nowhere and worked our asses off for one week, with the emphasis of trying to record live as much as possible. And with Her Came the Birds, which was basically recorded live during the middle of the night. It had snowed but it was starting to get warm again so the snow was melting, so Magnus had put a mic outside of the cottage and you can actually hear melting water on the track in the beginning.
I’ve also heard of some weird occurrences happening during the recording process.
Yeah, there was this woman that came out of the forrest, it was weird. The location is called Norrfors, it’s a small village outside of Umeå. It’s not in the middle of nowhere, it’s just a little bit out of the city, but the cottage is quite secluded. We were sleeping there and living there, and this one time this woman emerged from the forrest and started dancing outside. We were just trying to keep quiet because it would be really weird if she had seen us looking at her. There’s a lot of free spirits out there. She did her free dance and then she walked off into the forrest again. It was probably some hippie.
Being on tour celebrating one of your earlier records while at the same time having freshly released your latest album Mariner, what would you say is the biggest evolution and/or change for the band in these 10 years separating both releases?
There’s a lot that happened in 10 years for the band. I mean, who were YOU ten years ago? I guess that’s an easier question for you to answer than for us when it comes to the music part at least. Of course, with age comes something close to self-confidence, though it’s more about not giving a shit anymore (laughs). There’s not as much anxiety as there used to be, but you don’t have that advantage of knowing what’s good or not. Also, going back and playing songs that we wrote over 10 years ago surprised me on certain things. The songs were really really good, and they were more technical than we are today, at least for my parts. I could not have written this today, it would be impossible. I’m a different person, and that album, even though we are the same people that recorded that album, it wouldn’t have sounded the same today. We would have taken different positions and done it completely different.
Do you think this is the result of a different approach to songwriting? Or has it remained the same?
I don’t think I would have been as “open” to a few things we did back then. This might sound a bit contradictory to what I said earlier, but I’m thinking of different parts that are maybe a bit too “simple”, where we would have gone “Okay, we need to do something different here”. A song like Dim would not have sounded like it does today, not a chance. When it comes to a song like Thirtyfour, which is a very complicated song to play, we alternate between 3’s and 4’s in the time signatures in the same song, we would not have done that. And of course there’s a lot of things that have changed with us personally, of course.
I just think that we are more aware of the group dynamic, it’s much “safer” now. We haven’t had a proper fight for years. We used to have some really really bad fighting back then. We haven’t had a fight in about 6 or 7 years, which kind of sucks though (smiles). Me and Andreas used to go at each other a lot.
For creative matters?
No, for everything, just stuff that annoyed us. Once we got into this huge fight over a hotel room and it ended up with us both trying to guilt-trip each other to sleep in the van. There only needed to be one person sleeping in the van and we were both saying “I’m going to do it! No, I’m going to do it! Fuck you, I’m going to do it!”, so we both slept in the van and I got this badass pneumonia afterwards for weeks. It was horrible (laughs). So we don’t fight at all.
You just released your collaborative album with Julie Christmas, Mariner. Could you tell us a bit about the themes and subject matter touched upon on the album?
Well well after we did Somewhere along the Highway, we did Eternal Kingdom, which was very much inspired by the rural environnement we grew up with. After we returned from taking a couple of years off, we wrote Vertikal. We wanted to do something completely different, so we wanted to make a futuristic album WITHOUT falling into the trap of doing a Blade Runner soundtrack. We had this idea of doing the sound of a mechanical city, which was more inspired by german expression expressionism in the 1930s’ and Italian Futurism in the 1920s’ . At that time, we also knew where we were going after that, that’s why the album is called Vertikal; we were looking up. There’s a song called In Awe Of on the album that deals with the admiration of Space. We also did this EP called Vertikal II. The artwork was inspired by the city spotlights going into the clouds at night. So when we decided to do the album with Julie I told her that we had an idea to make a Space travel from earth, travelling faster than the speed of light and crossing the outer-space. We told her that this was what we were going to do musically, and that she could do whatever she wanted. We didn’t put any pressure on that. So the music was inspired by both a concrete journey through space and also treading new ground, whether we’re talking about the old mariners sailing into the horizon to see what’s on the other side or musically and artistically leaving your safe space and going out to see what’s going to happen. So that’s both the inner and outer theme of the album.
The band and Julie were never in the same studio during the tracking. How did the collaborative process go? Was there a lot of demoing involved?
What happened was that we curated this festival, and I happened to love Julie’s stuff from her band and especially her solo album The Bad Wife. We wanted her to play that festival but she couldn’t, so I got her contact from her agent but she couldn’t make it. We continued talking and I explained my admiration of her work. I also knew that we were going to cut down on touring but I didn’t want to cut down on writing, so I told her “Look, if we’re not going to do any touring, why don’t we do an album that is impossible to tour on?”. We didn’t decide then and there, we were just making some drafts at first and sending them over. We were like “If it works out, we can do an album. If not, we can scrap it and leave it there.” So we basically started out with me writing everything on the computer and her trying the song out, and it worked out perfectly, at least from our perspective. So we started to send over rough demos. She had some ideas of changes, and we used some of them, some of them we didn’t do and we also modified a few of them. So that’s how the collaboration went. When it comes down to it, we had no control over her vocals, which was quite scary. But once we had the album in had, it turns out that there was no reason to be worried.
Were there any aspects that came across that you had originally not planned or expected?
Not really. I’m just guessing, but I think that it was hard for her in the beginning to understand how we write songs and our band dynamic. When we start writing songs, we write very monotone stuff, and if you’re not used to how we work I can imagine how people think “How is this going to be a song? It’s just the same riff all over again”. But that’s when we start layering stuff : vocals, guitars, keyboards … and all of the sudden the same part that sounded the same for 4 minutes turn into different parts. I think it was hard for her to understand how we work because it was just demos and we were like “Look, on this part we’re going to do this”. We met her in New York last fall and she saw us and after that she said “Now I understand what you’re about, let’s get to work.” That’s when she started delivering magic.
This question might come very early, but I’ve read that you’ve started writing on your next effort already. Are there any concrete leads you can disclose as of right now ?
It’s way too early. I write all the time, but whether that’s going to end up on the album? I have no idea. I can tell you it’s not going to come out in one year, but I don’t know if it’s going to take two, three, five or ten years. We’re doing this tour, then four shows in may, but after that we have nothing planned. Everyone has different lives, so we will see. We like heading out, we like writing music but we’re not going to rush anything.
Could you name one of your favorite albums, movies and books?
The problem with all art is that it depends on which genre. I love Apocalypse Now but I also love Cannibal! The Musical.
Radiohead Ok Computer is one of the really few masterpieces out there.
Movies… I work in this field so it’s hard for me. Naming a recent film is probably better. I really enjoyed The Danish Girl. It was fucking amazing. The guy who played Lili was freaking amazing. I was wondering why he didn’t get the oscar but apparently he won one last year. I flew to L.A two weeks ago and I saw the film about Steve Jobs with Michael Fassbender. I knew before I even wrote the credits who had written that script. That level of craft … The film takes places in the span of four launch meetings and it’s able to tell so much story. There aren’t many characters at all.
Books… I really started getting into the First World War. I didn’t really understand what kind of hell it was. The first book that got me into that is All Quiet on the Western Front, which is really interesting and great. I think I need to re-read it because I now have more knowledge about how bad it was in the front. You had all of those soldiers that just got thrown into the meat-grinder. You’d see the first line go and get totally decimated by the barrage of artillery, then it would be your turn.
One really great novel, one of the most intelligent ones I actually read is The Count of Monte-Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. I fucking love it. The guy spends 10 years in prison just planning his revenge. It would be too easy to kill everyone that wronged you, so the guy started this hellish plot that took 13 years to drive one of the guys that framed him to madness. It’s just beautiful, I love it.
Another one of my favorite films is also A Tale of Two Sisters. I have a thing for Asian Horror Films.
Interview by Robin Ono
Live Photos by Rémy Barbe
A huge thank you goes out the band and to the staff at HiM Media for making this interview possible and for allowing me to re-use this interview for publication.
Cult of Luna