Of pandemics and City Burials: an interview with Katatonia

Of pandemics and City Burials: an interview with Katatonia

Band: Katatonia

  • Jonas Renkse – vocals
  • Anders Nyström – guitar
  • Niklas Sandin – bass
  • Daniel Moilanen – drums
  • Roger Öjersson – guitar
Photo Credit: Ester Segarra

It’s been almost a decade since the last time we managed to speak with Katatonia and many things have changed since then. Due to the current state of things related to the Coronavirus pandemic, I’ve had the chance to speak with Niklas Sandin, the band’s bass player since Dead End Kings came out, and that’s what we started from, right after the greetings.

How’s your quarantine-time going?

It’s a little bit boring, but I shouldn’t being complaining because we’re having lighter measures here in Sweden than in most countries, so we can still move outside. I’m actually spending this period by recording a new LIK album, which is the other band I’m playing in. So, yeah, we’re in the studio from time to time, when we’re able to do it.

This kind of situation is quite strange to me because here in Italy we have stricter rules, we’re not allowed to walk by the street and to go out. How do you feel about the answer Sweden is giving to people about this virus-spread? Is it ok in your opinion, seeing what other countries are living like?

I think it’s like this freedom-under-your-own-responsibility kind of thing, that Sweden is implementing. Since we were one of the most self-distancing countries in the world already before, I think we are able to sustain that in a way that we don’t have to have like really strict rules. But of course, I’ve been seeing people taking liberties and maybe doing stuff they shouldn’t, like going on skiing trips and stuff like that, going on as usual. But you can definitely see that people are also choosing to stay at home and work from home and just take time off because there’s hardly anyone on the subways and commuter trains and buses. We’re seeing that effect even though it’s not implemented as an order from the government as well.

Coronavirus spread stopped tons of bands’ project, with tours and album release dates postponed or even cancelled. This made me think of one of City Burials tracks’ lyrics: «The plans you make for the perpetual tomorrow / Will be collapsing still» [from “Rein”, Ed.]. How’s Katatonia living these days?

It’s of course frustrating, because we had lots of things planned and booked and we were in a mindset to play lots of shows — shows that are not happening, now, that needs to be either cancelled or postponed. So it’s very sad that we can’t do it all, because we’re very much a live band, where we want to give like go out and play shows for people. It’s a very difficult time: we are kind of having our hands tied behind our backs, but we’re trying to do our best out of it.

Speaking of your booked live shows, you’d have had the Prognosis Live Festival next week, am I right?

Yes, that’s true. I think it should have already happened, it was supposed to be one week after the Mexican show that was also cancelled. We’re very sorry because it was a fan voted setlist that we were rehearsing for, with songs that many of us in the band haven’t been playing before, so it was lots of preparations and lots of anticipation, looking forward to play there, to play the setlist. So it was very sad, when it wasn’t able to happen.

But today I’ve seen on Prognosis Festival’s Instagram page that the date has been rescheduled for November and you should play there with Anathema and Enslaved.

Oh, yeah! I think it’s in September already. It’s very nice and of course we will honour the fan-voted setlist and do it there as well. I’m just hoping that this crisis will blow over so that we will be able to make that one.

You know, yesterday we’ve hosted a live watching party on Facebook to enjoy Enslaved’s performance at the Verftet Online Music Festival with our readers. I know some of the tour dates tour dates you planned were cancelled: would you consider any such performance, in case things won’t change soon on the short distance, or do you think Katatonia needs the live atmosphere and the public, like when you recorded the Sanctitude DVD?

Absolutely, I think that would work, to do a live stream, to do it like that. I mean, you have to adjust according to the situation, but now you’re able to do that, as we live in a digital society. Of course you should try to embrace that, but I think that is definitely a possibility. You just have to imagine people being there and see beyond the walls you are watching, imagine that people are there in the room with you and try to make it as if it would be on a real live location.

I think that should be difficult, you know? I imagine musicians take energy from people as they enjoy them playing.

Yeah, exactly. But actually when we’re rehearsing tracks we gain energy from each other and that goes a long way. It’s like the band isn’t isolated from ourselves, so we’re taking energy from one another.

You know, last time we managed to interview the band was back in 2012, as we spoke with Anders [Nyström, guitar player and founding member, Ed.] during the Dead End Kings tour. How’s the band overall doing, after almost ten years, some line-up changes and a short hiatus?

I think it’s doing good! We still have lots of energy, I think maybe even more, because of the hiatus we’ve decided to take. It’s been going on for so long, it’s almost going on before the Bible was written [laughs], so it was in due time and now that we’re back and Jonas [Renkse, singer and founding member, Ed.] and Anders, who have been doing that for so long without a stop, have properly charged their and everyone’s batteries are properly energized. We’re back stronger than ever and we’ve very motivated.

Okay. Now let’s geto to City Burials. You’re releasing another album, which is going to lead to a tour, I suppose, but in another interview Jonas did I’ve read that one of the reasons you took your recent hiatus was due to some uncertainty regarding the so called «album release/tour cycle» routine. How do you feel to release another album, now? What’s changed, what gave you the energy to do that once again?

I think coming back from the break, basically. When you’re doing that, like when you’re kind of in the wheel, the energy is coming straight from the tour cycle, which of course is something that fuels and charges you as a band, as well. I would compare it to, you know, if you’re driving the car you’re recharging the battery at the same time, but if you’re not driving the car then it kind of drains the battery out of its power. So, it’s something that fuels you as a band, when you’re up playing, because you’re getting so much energy back from fans and audience and to see that is so well received, it fuels and sparks your motivation of making a new record and the process starts again. It’s just when it’s been going on for so long and there’s no real break, there’s no real weekend without focusing on it: that is what makes it tiring. But now, as we had a break and we could focus on other stuff, it’s something we all want to do. We all want to make a long touring cycle for this record and try to cover as many areas and markets as possible to reach everyone that wants to see a Katatonia show.

Let’s see what’s going to come out of it, then! What about City Burials, then: what should your fans expect from it? How would you describe it in a nutshell?

I would describe it, in a nutshell, as more direct and with less ups and downs as you heard on The Fall Of Hearts, but it’s truly a Katatonia record. It has the same vibe as earlier records. It’s bleak, it’s depressive, melancholic, but maybe, in some ways, more direct. It’s more like song-driven, maybe. I don’t know how to explain that, but something like that.

Yeah, I see your point. We actually got an info sheet that stated that «the thematic red line that runs from “Heart Set To Divide” through to “Untrodden” speaks of the intensity of fragile emotions unsettled by the passing of time». I must admit some moments really moved me. I think it’s a really romantic and yet Katatonia-trademark melancholic record, as you said. What’s your favourite songs? And why.

Oh, it’s hard, because none of the tracks has really matured to be a true favourite. I think “Untrodden” is a really really strong track as so is “Behind The Blood”, but I think that for me City Burials is something you can see in a package with all the songs, as a whole, rather than being separated entities. So, for me, I see it more like a whole record than single tracks.

I see your point, definitely. It’s some kind of perspective you get when you’re into music in an old fashioned way. You know, when you play an LP you’re going to listen to it from start to end, you’re not going on Spotify and selecting a single track.

Exactly. There’s no shuffle or random playing. It’s a songs in order as it should be, as it was thought out from the beginning.

Yeah. Regarding the freshly released two singles off the album, “Lacquer” and “Behind the Blood”, I felt at first like they didn’t represent your let’s say usual style but then, as I listened to the whole record, it all made sense. How do you like them and how did you choose which ones to use as singles?

I think it was basically that we wanted to have really strong single songs, like something that would hit the listener, and both of them are very strong tracks. I think it’s more interesting if you don’t give away what the main thing about the album is already from the beginning, in order to build anticipation and give something of maybe a surprise for the listener. At least, I think in today’s society you get handed everything very safely and securely and you don’t have to expect the unexpected, you know? I think it was a good move to release “Lacquer” as our first single, otherwise I think it would be a little like Hollywood theatrical trailers for films, that are four or five minutes long and then they show everything that is cool and interesting about the movie and then you don’t even have to watch it, you know. If you already know what you’re going to be handed, it’s a bit like if you would be able to taste and smell all the dishes on the menu before you ordered it: there’s nothing to surprise you anymore. I think that was a cool treat and trade with doing “Lacquer” as the first single. It was kind of like easing people with what they can’t expect but not giving them the whole picture.

You know, that’s really interesting, because Jonas recently stated about “Lacquer” that he knew it would have had some people think «Oh, this band has gone way too soft». Do you think the band’s gone soft?

No, I don’t think so. It’s an element that has been there for ages and it’s been there longer than many bands have even existed, so I think it’s nothing new and we haven’t gone soft at all. We still need our distortion pedals [laughs], so we haven’t sold those yet. It’s definitely not a thing. People don’t have to worry about leaving their long hair at home.

Don’t worry, now that you’ve explained that, people won’t worry.

Yeah. There will be live moments to headbang to, don’t have to worry about that.

Now, allow me to daydream just for a second. We all know the band — and especially Jonas — is close to Mikael [Åkerfeldt] from Opeth. He did take part to some of your older works but your style has changed a lot, as we said. Actually, over the years, his style has changed as well. Could we hope for some more collaboration with him in the future? Have you ever talked about it?

Oh, I don’t know, it’s never been up on the table or discussed, I guess, as far as I know! But yeah, that might be cool, you never know. We’ve been touring with them, years back when they released Heritage record, and that was a really fun experience and I think it would be a cool thing. But yeah, they’re really good buddies and really good friends, and they’re kind of very eager to hear what the other ones think about their new coming releases and it was nothing different this time either.

It just came to my mind that a couple of months ago I’ve met Fredrik Norrman during October Tide’s show with Swallow The Sun in Rome and he told me that the Swedish live music situation is not that good: clubs shutting down, fewer live shows… When we spoke with Anders eight years ago, he told us that your local scene was quite active, on the other hand, in comparison with the Italian situation. Do you think Fredrik’s consideration was right? What’s been changing in Sweden?

He is unfortunately very much right, because at least in Stockholm venues and clubs are shutting down by the minute and it’s actually not because of the loss of interest. Either it’s something that has to do with the building being too old or that they have to remodel it or demolish it, like they’re doing with one venue called Kraken. We played the last show in there last December, so they’re tearing the building down to make a park instead. Also one old very successful venue, called Debaser Medis, they shut it down years ago because they wanted to turn it into a kids’ library, but then the money ran out for that project so it’s been just standing empty for like three or four years, which is really a bummer. It was one of the most successful venues in Stockholm. It’s either circumstances that are like beyond control for both politicians or the club owners or it’s just stupid politicians’ decisions that force clubs and venues to shut down. Especially the Debaser Medis, you instantly knew if there was a show going on because it was located at a big square, and the square was just surrounded by a long queue every time there was a show and it was quite cool to see that. The interest for music, whatever music it was, was so high and so big and was very good and fruitful for the city, but then it’s just the minds of politicians that want to do something else and just pretend that they have done something during their term. It fucks it up for music lovers.

That’s really sad, for me, because I’ve been hearing from Finland that they’ve been shutting down venues there, too, like the Nosturi. Because here in Italy that’s been going on for five or six years already, but I thought of Sweden and Finland like places where music still was free, in a way. It’s a bummer…

Yeah, it’s a real bummer. Speaking of the Nosturi in Helsinki, it was one of the first club metal shows I’ve ever seen. I’ve been there when I was really young, I went there with the love boat, as we call it, from Stockholm to Helsinki, and I watched an early Children Of Bodom show. They were playing together with Norther and Omnium Gatherum. So, it was one of the first metal shows that I saw and it’s just been there like… it’s been as natural for me, in Helsinki, that Nosturi is there as the pyramids in Egypt.

Like a monument.

Yes, and now they’re going to demolish it [and they eventually did, in January, Ed.]. And it was the house and the home of so many bands, as well, because it was not just a venue, it was a rehearsal place as well. And I think so many bands have been starting there and helping each other, so it became like a small community. But that’s nothing worth in the eyes of politicians and people who want to make quick and fast money, you know. That’s very very sad, and it will make an impact on you producing good music. And the politicians don’t really look at it as they’re losing potential export value, because Finnish metal music is quite big in the world. They’re shooting themselves in the foot by building luxurious apartments for wealthy people.

I’m not even sure people are going to be able to rent or buy them, I don’t know why they’re tearing Nosturi down.

Yeah, exactly.

City Burials is also Roger [Öjersson, Ed.]’s first actual record as an official member of the band, isn’t it?

That’s true. It was featured in The Fall Of Hearts, he came in right at the end putting some solo stuff down on that record, but now he’s been involved in the whole recording process.

How did it feel to have once again a second guitarist? How did his presence influence City Burials?

I think it influenced in the way that he is a really skilled musician, and he is maybe one of Sweden’s best guitar players, we’re not exaggerating. Of course, it makes it easy to have someone playing, so I think it made the whole process very very smooth and painless. Of course, I mean, you can hear it on the solos as well: he’s definitely a step up.

Did he write any particular song? The info sheet didn’t mention it.

No, it’s been Jonas writing all the songs. I was actually not present when he was recording his guitars down on the record, because I was doing other stuff at the moment, I wasn’t available to be there. But I can imagine he had his things and corks put down as well, that he has come with some good things there, some nice elements to the record.

I’ve been thinking about the band’s sound evolution, because Jonas said that your latest records came as a reaction to another and I’ve been feeling like your style has been evolving since the Night Is The New Day/Dead End Kings-era towards a more electronic-ambient style. How do you feel about that?

Yeah, it could be. I think that all Katatonia records are spawned by what Jonas and Anders are feeling of writing at the moment and I don’t think there is any special concept or thought behind, like some progression, but yeah, there’s lots of ambient elements in the music. I think that the red thread and the core of Katatonia is still there.

Speaking one last time of your quarantine-time, I suppose you’re spending some listening to some good music.

Yes, of course!

Well, then, would you recommend a couple of bands or records our readers should discover/listen to during these days?

I’ve recently started to listen to a death metal band called Sentient Horror, can’t really remember the album’s name on the top of my head, but the readers can definitely check that band out. Other than that, I’ve been listening to some Vulfpeck: it’s an American band, very much in the style of funk and groove, and the bass player Joe Dart is a real killer in the low-end sections. I don’t think that I have a specific album that they should listen to, there: everything is great. Now, while being in this passive kind of situation with the COVID and everything, I’m actually going to try to learn “Dean Town” by Vulfpeck and I urge all bass players down there to try that song, it’s really fun to play!

You know, it’s a really nice change of pace. Most people still think of metalheads listening only to heavy metal, it’s really wonderful hearing you talk about funk music, experimenting and listening to other stuff.

Oh, yeah. I think the world is too rich and music is too rich to just be diminished to listen only to metal music, very very boring. It would be like eating Margherita pizza or just eating one kind of pasta for your whole life. There’s other things there on the menu, you have to just open your eyes and I think that’s something that everybody should do once in a while. You know, just to challenge yourself a little bit, don’t be too safe when it comes to listening to music.

I do agree, and I actually think every Italian should taste the pineapple pizza just to understand what’s happening in the world, once.

Yeah, and I’m eating some pizza here back at home that Italians, if they had the death penalty, would throw me in straight away without a doubt [laughs].

Okay, then, let’s avoid you prison and death penalty…

Yes! [laughs]

What’s your hopes and dreams for Katatonia‘s future?

Oh, to be able to go out and play as many shows, for this whole situation to stop and get better so that we will be able to go forward with all the touring plan and to play in as many places as possible, because that’s what we like as a band. We’re not that kind of band that releases a record and wants to sit home and put ourselves in quarantine. We want to go out, travel and play for as many people as we possibly can, and for everybody who wants to have us on stage.

What’s the first thing you’re going to do as soon as you get out of an actual quarantine?

Oh, good question. We don’t have that strict measures like now in Sweden, but I will probably travel somewhere. Travel somewhere and perform a show, hopefully. Yeah, that’s the first thing I’m going to do: hop on a plane, have some gin and tonics, land, go to the stage and perform a classic rock show.

Katatonia will release their new studio album, City Burials, via Peaceville Records on April 24th. Make sure not to miss that!