Interview: Jonas Renkse (Katatonia)
Swedish gothic metal outfit Katatonia began as innovators before refining their sound. They blended the melancholy of post punk with the crunch fury of death metal, then delivered it as a depressive pace. Historically-minded listeners could think of them as a kindred spirit to the “Peaceville Three”: Anathema, Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride. Like each of those bands, Katatonia eventually shed most of their harsh sonic elements. These days, singer Jonas Renkse and co-founder Anders Nystrom keep their band a sleek gothic rock machine, something like a spiritual successor to the Sisters of Mercy.
The last Katatonia album, though, revisits a few of the elements of their earliest work. Last year’s The Fall of Hearts sports a few songs that could inspire mosh pits as well as bedroom poetry.
Renske took some time away from the band’s current US tour to confirm his interest in the band’s past, and divulge where he looks for melancholy as a family man in his 40s.
Fall of Hearts struck me as pretty immediately to be a little bit more aggressive and a little bit more dynamic than some previous albums. There’s some more double bass rolls. The lead guitar is a little punched up in the mix. What’s your take on the record?
Well, I think you mentioned a couple of things that’s part of the identity of it. It’s written to be a little bit more happening and adventurous in a way. So when we started writing the songs, we said to ourselves that we weren’t gonna have any boundaries in the songwriting and to just let things go their own ways, so I think they did, in a very nice way for this album. I wouldn’t say that we have been limiting ourselves before, but we have been sticking pretty much to a formula that we always thought was the Katatonia formula. I wouldn’t say we were influenced by our really early material, but we’ve been going back to our older records and seeing what we did when we were young. We didn’t put any limits on the arrangements and the ideas for the songs. We wanted to get back to that feeling.
This formula you’re talking about, the Katatonia formula, where did that notion come from?
I think it came around the release or the writing for our third album, Discouraged Ones. That’s when we started doing the clean vocals. We really wanted to have a very hypnotic sound, streamlined songwriting, sort of monotonous, depressive arrangements. We liked that so much that we stuck with it for a long time. And I still like it, you know. But for The Fall of Hearts, we wanted to break out a little bit from that old frame and do something a little bit different. Not too different. We weren’t gonna reinvent our wheel with this album but we wanted to do something a little bit different.
In Europe, but not America, you’ve revisited whole older albums of yours live. You did Last Fair Deal Gone Down, isn’t that right?
Yeah, that’s true. I think it was a celebration of the band turning 20 years. And the Last Fair Deal album turned 10, so we went out on like a second celebration tour for that and we played the whole Last Fair Deal Gone Down as it was released. That was a really nice experience. It was the first time we ever did that and we have done it a couple times after that as well. We played the Viva Emptiness album in full. And, actually, last year we played the whole The Great Cold Distance on a couple of shows. I believe it’s a pretty popular thing to do these days. I was a little bit against it at first but now, I do see actually the idea behind it. It’s nice for the fans. I mean, if there is a certain album you really like and you get the chance to experience the whole album live including a lot of songs that we usually don’t play in our live repertoire.
Is there any particular Katatonia record that you have an attachment to?
I think I have a different attachment to each and every one of them. Night is the New Day is a very special album for me because I wrote pretty much all of the album myself as Anders had a kind of a writer’s block at the time. It was really, really stressful for me to take on that role as the main songwriter because we used to split it up before. When the album was actually finished, I felt I had managed to pull it off and therefore, the album is very special to me. But as I said, every album has grown big places in my heart.
I think there’s a sort of a mood similarity between Night is the New Day and The Fall of Hearts. They both kind of come out swinging
Yes I agree. But I think The Fall of Hearts is much more varied because Anders is back into the songwriting game. It’s been some time and we always try to up our game when it comes to songwriting, getting new ideas and influences all the time, so the records will be different. But I agree, they have some similarities to them.
So when you guys are writing a song, how do you begin? Is it an acoustic guitar, electric guitar, piano? Like, how do you begin to compose a Katatonia song?
It’s very different from time to time for me. I can start programming a dark drum beat that I find interesting and then I pick up the guitar and work something out. Sometimes, it’s an acoustic idea, or humming a vocal melody that sticks. I would say,most of the time it’s electric guitar. Just trying to come up with some basic arrangements and spice them up along the way. Sometimes coming up with the piano parts can be a beginning of a song. It’s always different, which is nice, because I think if I had to use just one of those instruments it would get kind of boring after a while.
It’s very common for bands to write much more material than they actually record. So how much material do you think you need to go through before you get a Katatonia record?
We go through a lot of material. Speaking for myself, I do throw away a lot of stuff in the process, which I think is healthy because I don’t really wanna settle with something that [only] sounds good or okay. So I do throw away a lot of shit rifts.
How did you come to the decision to re-mix Dead End Kings as Dethroned and Uncrowned?
It happened by chance when we were recording the Dead End Kings album. It has a lot of keyboards, and textures, and atmospherics going on in the background, that all have their place on the album but they tend to sometimes get a little bit buried in the mix because we have the loud metal drums and guitars. We just thought it would be a nice thing to take away the drums and the heavy guitars, and let all the atmospheric textures be the forefront thing. So we just took away the drums and the guitars and we added some acoustic guitars instead, and let all the keyboards do their thing. And all of a sudden, it became a totally different album. It was really just an experiment, it’s not something we’re going to do with every album.
Are there any songs that you think were dramatically changed or even improved by the toning down of the metal element?
Some of the songs, were enhanced by being stripped down. But some off the songs sound totally better in the original. But to me it’s not about the one version versus the other being the better or the worse album. To me it’s just two versions of the same album. Sometimes I would prefer listening to one of them and sometimes the other one. And I think that goes also for the fans. Because also I think our fans are very open minded. It’s not like if Manowar did the same thing, it wouldn’t work out probably with their kind of fans. But the Katatonia fans are kind of open minded. So it’s a suitable thing for us to do.
Well, that’s a thing you’ve sort of pursued in your career and mentioned in interviews before, this sort of sense of open-mindedness in your fanbase that I’ve always appreciated.
I think it’s because we see ourselves as open minded people as well. I think you get the kind of following that you deserve if you say that. If I like something and I try to portray it in Katatonia and another person likes it, then we have something in common. I think we have the perfect fanbase because they’re probably like us in one way or another.
This idea of open-mindedness as something you wanted to pursue, where did that come from?
I think it came pretty early on. When we started a band back in ’91, we were, of course, very influenced by the death metal wave. The big thing at the time was that we loved every kind of death metal. But, also, we listened to bands like The Cure and Fields of the Nephilim, more atmospheric bands, which I think it influenced us in a way that we didn’t really even realize back then. We just it took it, obviously, as an influence. As time went on, we sort of refined all of those kind of influences and kept on being open minded. So any music we like will make a print in our songwriting, even if you can’t exactly tell where the influence come from.
I mean, the reason I ask is I pay a lot of attention to the things that my readers say in my comment sections, and the emails I get, and the discussions I get in with other music fans, which are always very spirited. Sometimes, it does seem to be that there’s sort of two camps when it comes to people who feel passionate about heavy music. You’ve got like the one camp that relatively enjoys the blending of genres or enjoys bands that play in the middle of things. And then, there’s also people who very much…how do I want to put it. Peas and carrots stay separate on their plates, right? They don’t like mixing their food together. I don’t necessarily think that one is better than the other but I always find things that play more interesting. Why is it that some people like things mixed and some people don’t?
I don’t know. It’s a good question and it’s quite hard to answer. I guess I’m just one of the… well, maybe I’m not. As I said, I love death metal and I really don’t like when death metal gets too mixed up with other genres. So in that case, I can actually sort myself to the other end, being more of a conservative. But for the music that we make in Katatonia, I’m all for mixing up stuff because it makes it more interesting, more challenging to write, probably more challenging to listen to. I think a lot of people like to have a challenge, musically, and have music that makes them think and start drifting off in their own little worlds. But a band like ACDC or a band Motörhead, they are not bands that should experiment. They have their sound. The audience wants that sound and that’s it. I wouldn’t want to hear an ACDC album that sounds like an opera or something. That just doesn’t work. So it’s hard to answer your question. It’s a good question.
At the same time, while I would say that Katatonia is relatively challenging, especially to people who really, really enjoy their heavy music very heavy. But Past “Brave Murder Day,” everything’s been pretty much a refinement and slight experiment on this one sort of aesthetic or do you disagree?
I totally agree. And I think it’s because we kind of early on were very comfortable with the sound we had crafted. And, of course, we want to take it further and progress as a band and as songwriters. But we don’t wanna take it too far because then it’s probably not Katatonia anymore and it shouldn’t have our name on it. So we’re not gonna do a folk album but we do like some folk. As long as we can put it in the right Katatonia context, I think we’re fine. But it’s not stretch too far into some other territory because then it’s something else.
At the same time, I mean, one of the things that sort of defines the band is the pleasantly depressed nature of the lyrics. You’ve managed to stay pretty consistent with that as life gets older. But like you don’t seem to have a terrible life going on. You’ve managed to make a name for yourself as a touring musician. So where is the fuel for that depression coming from then? How do you keep tapping into it that is authentic and real?
Well, as you say, I have a pretty good life. But I think I’ve always been, like many of us, a little bit introverted and I’m a person who likes to think and sometimes I overthink stuff. So these days, I mean, I have my days when I’m having a bad day, like everyone else and then probably that’s when I collect some of the stuff that will end up as lyrics. So I’m not writing Katatonia lyrics every day because I don’t feel inspired every day to do that, luckily. But, I try to collect some of my thoughts and I try to expand when I do song lyrics. Also, I would say experience. Even if I’m not depressed every day, but I know what it’s like to be. And then, I just try to recall certain moments and certain feelings that I’ve had in the past. I also try to expand on the lyrics as well. I just don’t want to write the same thing over and over, so it’s not always the same topics and I try to broaden it a little bit. But it’s hard to do when you’re in this little genre that we have, being as you said,depressed, whatever kind of style. But I try to make it as interesting as possible, if you can make such a topic interesting, you know. But in a good way, in a way that goes hand in hand with music. So yeah, that’s how I see it at least.
Well, so that’s where the depression comes from, here’s a flip side. When in life are you happiest? What are the happiest things you can think of that have happened to you?
I’m pretty happy when I’m in my home just having a feeling of connection to the people I have around me that I love. You know, very simple stuff. Being with my family, that makes me happy. At the same time, I’m also happy when we go on tour these days. When we started touring, I didn’t like it very much. But nowadays, I do. I really enjoy traveling with my friends that I have in the band. So I think I’m happy with very simple things but very basic things that makes probably most people happy.