Horndal’s Fierce Sludge Battles the “Lake Drinker,” Championing Forgotten Towns (Interview)
Forty years ago, the devil visited the town of Horndal…
Situated in the southeast corner of Dalarna County, Sweden, amidst deep forests, valleys and lakes, lies the rusting town of Horndal. It was built around a steel mill, which employed the majority of its roughly one thousand citizens. Four decades ago, like numerous other towns in rural Sweden and across the world, Horndal was decimated when the mill closed and the town's community suddenly found a black hole in the center of their lives.
This was just the beginning of Horndal's story. A decidedly more modern devil has arisen, wreaking newfound havoc on this already devastated town — but all hope is not lost. Horndal the band have taken it upon themselves to tell the world the tale of their fallen hometown, recounting its narrative via their mode of melodic sludge metal. Their debut album Remains told of the first stage of Horndal's demise, while their newest album Lake Drinker picks up the story today, focusing on the new evil that has come for this unfortunate Swedish town.
More elaborate, detailed and all-round better crafted than its predecessor, Lake Drinker's stylistic approach immaculately conjures up a rich and full-bodied psychogeography. The steely, muscular riffs sound like they've been forged within a furnace's fire, while the chilly, spectacular atmospherics have been plucked straight from the tough beauty of the Scandinavian wilderness. In cinematic fashion, a whole world comes alive, emanating a rusting, elemental beauty across its sprawling eleven tracks.
Drummer Pontus Levahn explains to IO what happened when the devil came to Sweden...
First off, even though Lake Drinker isn't the start of your hometown's story, what happened to Horndal forty years ago?
So Horndal is a small town in Sweden that was built around a steel mill. We have tons of these towns in Sweden, similar to all over the world. One day, basically overnight, they decided to close the mill that employed almost the entire town. The population dropped from three thousand inhabitants to one thousand, meaning we grew up with empty stores, empty houses, in a weird sort of ghost town. There was a lot of despair, a lot of protests. The residents protested in Stockholm outside the government buildings, and when the prime minister went to a meeting in a nearby larger town the whole of Horndal drove there in a caravan to protest. Some local people, including mine and my brother's parents set up a theatre and performed a play, that's how you protested in the 1970's, and the whole story was about how the devil was coming to Horndal to destroy the mill and send the community to an early grave.
The part of the story about the theatre is a really potent image, is Horndal a particularly religious town?
No not at all. There is a Christian church, and one, I don't know what you call it in English; free church. But it's not very religious, no. That was just imagery that they needed at the time. It was a simple metaphor of how the evil that was happening was satan. But the whole story was also very political. Satan was an embodiment of the rich people who owned the factories who didn't give a fuck about the people who lived there or the community.
After the closure, what was life like in the town?
To me it was just normal. There used to be several stores, hairdressers, restaurants, but then there was just one food store and one pizza place. My parents were teachers so they had less and less kids coming to the school; the more workers left, the smaller the school got. But again, to me, it was just normal. It wasn't until we moved away to a bigger town that I realized "oh that place is dead!" We kept going back there, because we still have a lot of friends there, but when I discovered music I knew that's all I wanted to do. So I eventually moved to Stockholm, and that's where I started my journey.
When did you and your brother start playing music?
We've been musicians for most of our lives, but a few years ago Henrik and I realized that the whole story of Horndal is so metal! The steel mill, the devil, we realized that it's such a cool story, and it was something that was real. So we decided that we needed to form a band to tell the story. And here we are, two albums later.
So, to bring it forward to Lake Drinker, what has happened more recently in Horndal?
Since 1977, when the mill closed, nothing much has happened. But then recently, after we recorded our EP and debut album, we started hearing these rumours that Google were planning to build server facilities just outside of Horndal. Because in Sweden we have cheap and almost entirely green power, and it's often very cold, it's the perfect conditions for tech companies to build here. We went and looked at the place they were planning to build and it's the woods we used to play in. Then we heard the main plan, that they wanted to take the servers cooling water from the lake. The precious lake, where you swim and fish, it's almost a sacred lake. So Google, that has this slogan "don't be evil" is coming to Horndal and they want to take the water from the lake. If you compare it to the theatre play, it's as though the devil is back, and now he's thirsty.
What has been the reaction to your band in Horndal?
It's been super positive, they're really excited. It's such a small place, I wasn't worried, but at first I did think "what will they say?" since we're bringing up some old, bad memories. But the support has been amazing, the band is basically a tribute to the place and the people living there. When we started printing merchandise we sold so much in the town, even to the people who hated metal, they still wanted a shirt. For the first album's release show we thought "let's fuck the proper normal release party in Stockholm, let's go to Horndal to the local pizzeria/pub and play them the album and have some beers with the locals". That was great, people from all ages came out, our old neighbours, old friends, friends of our parents.
This is a big question, but do you hope to achieve anything with your music? The fact that we're talking about it now is I guess an example that you have succeeded in spreading awareness about the plight of Horndal.
Yeah, of course. These kinds of places and towns exist all around the world and their stories need to be heard. There's a frustration in Sweden, and I'm sure it's the same everywhere, about people moving to the bigger cities, which we did ourselves so we could play music, but the places like Horndal then get forgotten. It's not like we're a political band with one goal, we just want to play music, but we realized that people are intrigued by our story. No one has talked about Horndal for forty years, and if we can do that by screaming our lungs out over distorted guitars, then we'll do that.
To move on to Lake Drinker's production, I love how full-bodied it is compared to your debut. It's got these orchestral adornments, bells, glockenspiels etc. that are kind of eerie, but also give the music a sort of celebratory feel. I've no idea if that was intentional or not.
That's a nice interpretation. We felt that this album was a bit more personal, a bit more real this time. The first album was telling a story from forty years ago, and was a classic debut that's full of adrenaline and was performed live in the studio. This time, we're telling a story of something that's happening now. Also, the pandemic let us get in contact with musicians who suddenly had a lot of time on their hands, such as the guys in Sweden's National Radio Symphony Orchestra. They're amazing and when we asked them they were like "fuck yeah, I've been out of work so long, I just want to play!"
You did your first EP with Steve Albini in Chicago, right?
So we didn't actually have a band at the time. My brother and I realised that we should form a band called Horndal, about the town and what happened. Henrik is older than me and that's not his world, but I'm a huge Steve Albini fan. I'd listened to a podcast where he was talking about his musical philosophy and he mentioned "I don't care who I record, I work for the bands that come here, and I'm a fucking bargain!" So I emailed his studio and a couple of months later I got an email back that said they had two days open, so we said "fuck it, let's go". We had two months in which to write songs, it was such an stupid thing to do, because his whole thing is about recording live on tape and with no editing. It was crazy, but it made us form the band.,
What's Albini like as a person?
I was shit scared to meet him. We were all so nervous. I've watched so many documentaries and read so many interviews, but he was really nice. They were all working in their blue boiler suits, it was so amazing. He was super professional, and really funny, in a super dry way. That was an amazing week.
Can you talk about your relationship with Lake Drinker's producer Karl Daniel Lidén? His credits (Crippled Black Phoenix, Katatonia, Greenleaf) are incredible.
So after that EP, we couldn't keep going back to Chicago. I'd played and lived in Stockholm for years but wasn't totally sure who would be best to record our music. Then I got a tip that we should talk to Karl. I listened to his stuff and was blown away, he has a really organic sound which we really like. He came to one of our shows and said "I love your band, let's do this." We recorded our first album live in the studio with him, a legendary studio where they recorded everything from The Hives to Breach. We became friends, and we were blown away by what he did with the first album. So when we were writing this album we knew we didn't want to work with anyone other than him.
Without playing into any stereotypes, his work does fit what we think of Sweden to be; cold, chilly, elemental, earthy. This definitely fits with you guys' sound.
You're right. He used to be the drummer in a Swedish stoner rock band called Dozer, so he's really into that organic sound; huge drums and getting riffs to sound as big as possible. He understands melody too, we listened to a lot of ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, who make really conceptual and orchestral backed albums, I'm really into them.
Lastly, what's next for Horndal? Do you feel bound to the narrative of your hometown as you move forward?
A lot of people ask "so how many albums can you make on that story?" but it's a valid question, it's something we asked ourselves in the beginning. When we started digging into our past and the town's, we realized that Horndal is our microcosm, we look at the world through Horndal and there's so much happening in that place that's also happening around the world. People contact us and say that they really connect to us because it happened to their town in Chile or Pennsylvania or Northern England. The first album was about what happened in the past, Lake Drinker is about what is happening now, and maybe the next one is about something that's happening out there in the world. There's a universal element to our story, so perhaps we won't leave Horndal, but Horndal is something that's bigger than just one specific geographical place.
Lake Drinker released April 9th via Prosthetic Records.