Interview: Johannes Persson (Cult of Luna)
Cult of Luna are on the march. After taking a five year break following the release of Eternal Kingdom in 2008 the Swedish post metal collective have been more productive than ever, releasing two full lengths, a b-sides collection, and most recently Years In A Day, a live album that documents their tour celebrating the 10th anniversary of Somewhere Along The Highway. Not the type to rest on their laurels, the band will hit the road this summer to perform with Julie Christmas in support of last year’s Mariner. If that wasn’t enough, they’ve already started working on their next album. It’s clear that Cult of Luna have hit a stride in the second act of their career, an incredible feat for a band that put out their first record in 2001. We spoke to guitarist and vocalist Johannes Persson about their constantly improving live performances and Somewhere Along The Highway’s legacy.
Why did you decide to do a live album?
Well, honestly, like most of these kind of special things that we do, there's always somebody else that suggested it for us. But I thought that would just be a good idea. The live album that came out now is together with a live DVD and it was the DVD thing that spawned the whole thing. Our live guy and the manager, Alexis, thought that it would be a good idea. Since we did that 10-year anniversary tour with for Somewhere Along the Highway. We did a two-hour set. I thought, you know, if it was going to happen, it might as well be done, since we were kind of going back to our back catalog that we usually didn’t do, or play songs that we usually don't. I mean, why not?
I thought we have stepped up a couple of levels at least since...well, I think we've constantly improved with the live shows during the last five, six years. The only live show that we did release was back in 2009. It wasn't really representative of the band anymore. And Alexis knew some great guys to work with in Paris, so yeah, why not? Then this live DVD project grew. And we had a couple of good, well-recorded live shows from Roadburn too, so we might as well just get everything in one package. That's the boring and the exciting story there.
What specifically has changed about the way that your live shows worked over those five years?
The most obvious reason is that the we have put more and more effort and more and more money into the live show. But I think we've constantly become more and more secure, and more and more secure on stage and know more now what we wanna do when it comes to get the live part of the band, and why not try and document it.
I think we work best as a collective now than we've done previously. But also being on stage, and I can only speak for myself, is more of a personal experience. We work as a collective, but for me, while on stage, it's basically getting into some kind of meditative state. Well, while on a good night of course. And I think now, for my part, I just feel more present than I ever before.
When you toured with TesseracT & Katatonia a few years ago in America, I was really impressed by the light show because I feel like a lot of bands that get billed at the same size rooms as Cult of Luna don't take the same care and effort into creating such specific light shows. It's a pretty big presentation. What was the intent into making that light show so much more advanced?
Keeping in mind that, since we don't do long tours in the U.S., we really cannot afford to bring our whole light show with us. So that tour was Cult of Luna light. As in half-assed, not as in light shows that you saw. For us, it's just about creating an atmosphere. When it comes to the band, we're always, and when I say always, I mean from the start of the band, we always try to be consistent when it comes to scenes and artwork. Well, everything that involves a band should have a unique thought. Why wouldn’t you have put some thought into it?
Even when we started, when we didn't have any money at all, we bought a couple of floor cans and just played backlit because of what we could afford back then. I think bringing Alexis on board, in the last eight years, he tried to create an atmosphere for us. But he has known the band since early 2000 and started off as a fan. He has been able to look at what we do, but from an outside perspective, and try and maximize the songs in the way that only he can. I mean, it's not like we are aware of everything he does. But right now, he's basically an extra member of the whole collective that Cult of Luna consists of.
That makes sense, that it's someone who is a fan first, because he catches all the details that I think a fan hears in your music. There's that one synth part in “Finland” that he syncs up with strobes. That's how that piece of music has always felt to me, as a listener.
Yeah, don't ask me how he does it, but, he knows the songs as good as we do. I know he puts a lot of thought into how to translate the song into the light space system. We are very, very lucky to have him on board.
It's not pre-programmed, is it? Because you don't play live to a click, so he's just playing along with you in real time.
Exactly. He does some really, really, really fun clips, it might be “Finland”, actually, when he needs three hands. I think he worked the strobe with one of his feet. It's really fancy.
You mentioned that a lot of this came from the tour for the 10th anniversary of Somewhere Along the Highway. When you were building the set list for the live recordings, how much were you trying to select songs that would complement Somewhere Along the Highway? Or did you want them to just stand on their own?
We didn't choose the set list with any thought on that live recording. I mean, we were actually not even convinced that we should have done that. We wanted to have the option to cancel the whole thing. So we only chose the songs that we did because there was no way around that this was going to be a set list that would draw from the back catalog. But also we'd try to mix in a few songs from the newer record. But we played "Waiting for You" from Salvation, for example, and we hadn't played that song in a long, long, long time. Since we were going back with Somewhere, we might as well add something from pretty much all the records apart from the first two. But, I mean, two hours is long enough, let's just say that.
What would you have done differently if you were writing Somewhere Along the Highway in 2017 instead of 2006?
I don't know. One thing that made that record special is that it was the only one that we were able to write together in real time, because we were living in the same city. We wrote it really, really, really fast. I think we wrote the whole album in three months, and that doesn't mean that we were sitting in the and, writing for three months. I don't know how many times we could practice each week at that point. It was like three times or two times.
But now, we have a geographical problem because we live in different cities, which means that when we present ideas to each other, they're much more complete than they used to be. With that said, when I present an idea for a song, I know that it's going to end up completely different than where I planned it.
I mean, it's so hard because, you know, and this is a cliché of course, but I'm not gonna be 26 again. So it's impossible for me to say how I would have responded to the writing. It would just go completely different, that's for sure. Yeah, yeah.
When I talk to other Cult of Luna fans, that's the one that comes up the most, and it's the one that you chose to commemorate with the tour. Why do you think that record has stuck with people 10 years later?
I don't know, but I understand it because. I think that was the album that we really found our own voice. We didn't have time to think much, we just wrote. I think also we took a couple of chances that would turn out to be successful when it comes to actually writing. I think like the artwork, everything, we just were lucky, because it wasn't this idea that we had talked about even before we started writing.
Sometimes when I read the lyrics, I can't even imagine myself writing that right now. Because as much as I know I struggle now when I write, I have a hard time understanding that those words came from me. It's really weird. And also, production-wise, I don't know if you know the whole story but instead of spending weeks in the studio like we had done before, we used one week. It was a very concentrated paradigm when we were writing, you know, trying to help each other out with material, getting back and sitting in a studio and a control room. We were trying to nail it down as much live as possible. It adds to the complete work, so to speak.
Part of the reason I think it works so well live is because that's how it sounds on record too. It sounds like it's happening in the room. It's not some sort of pieced together collage. So it translates in a live album setting because that's almost where it comes from to begin with.
I've said this in numerous occasions, one of my favorite parts of the album is that song, "And With Her Came the Birds." If you listen really, really careful at the start, we had put a mic outside of this cottage. We recorded that song in the middle of the night. It's cliché too, but I think we all had candle lights or something like that. If you listen to the first seconds, you will be able to hear melting water from outside. And that's in real time when we recorded that song, just to get the right vibes.
Since Vertikal you've put out Vertikal II, Mariner, and now the live album. It seems like you guys are on a roll again. Do you feel like the band, after that long break prior to Vertikal, has changed in any way?
Definitely. When we started talking about doing another album, after Eternal Kingdom we said, "Okay, from now on, we need to take a big step every time we do something." I mean, we really had put in some hard work into the band before that. We've done the tours, we've done six weeks in Europe in cold winter, we've done everything like that. I mean, the band will never be our livelihood, and that has been an active decision. But we want to step up on every level, musically. Like, the quality of the tours, the light show, and all that.
I think that decision helped us to become more professional within and also we ended up both being a better band, and you know, if you feel like you're doing better, you get more confident and you get incentive to keep working. But now, we have no pressure from anyone. Now we're literally doing it for the passion. I mean, the reason why we put out a record every 18 or 24 months before was that we were stuck in a record contract.
It wasn't like we had any problem with the record label or anything like that, we just wanted to get out of there. So that's why we, you know, put in all the hard work and then recorded the album, and that kind of what drives you. But now, it's only passion. And for some reason, that's why I would come to a position where it seems like we don't have to put out records to stay in the position where we are. I mean, we only want to write music and release music when we feel like it. Also we're confident that we have enough ideas to keep going. I think that's it, probably.
Speaking of some of the ideas behind the newer music, a lot of the things that people seem to be grasping onto with the Mariner is the theme of outer space or space exploration in some way, or leaving Earth. Do you feel like that's an accurate representation of the record?
Yeah, in some sense. Or course, there's no reason to deny that. It also has some deeper meaning when it comes to a very, very concrete story about leaving Earth. I mean, we wanted to simplify it. We wanted to make a space album. I mean, it sounds almost childish, but still. We had that idea even while we were writing Vertikal because we talked about it during the writing and recording, "Where are we going next?" I don't know if you've seen the cover of the EP of Vertikal II. Eric [Wilson, Cult of Luna’s art director]] was talking about, "Okay, if you're in the city and you're looking up when it's cloudy, you'll see all these spotlights," and so the record cover was inspired by spotlights while we were in the city looking up. So already at that point we kind of had that idea pretty much decided for us.
That actually answers my next question because I was going to ask whether or not you had that in mind when you brought Julie Christmas in. Obviously, she's writing her own lyrics and providing her own vocal melodies. How did you negotiate that theme that you had with her own contributions?
There wasn't much on negotiation. I mean, from the start we told her, "Look, you have totally free hands to do whatever you want. But this is what we are writing music out of, and you can take that and do whatever you want with it, but this is where we are. This is our springboard when we write music. This is where we get the inspiration from and where what we want to communicate musically." And she did what she does best, her own thing. That's what she wrote. She was like, "Yeah, sounds good. But you know what? I'm gonna do my own thing." And we were like, "Okay, cool." I mean, if you're gonna work with Julie, you better let her do her own thing, and that's how it's going to end up the best way possible.
When the album came out, people asked you about whether or not you were going to tour. And now after saying that it didn't seem likely, it looks like it's happening in America. Are there any plans to document this? Because I don't imagine that this will be a regular occurrence.
No, no, it's not. I don't think so. But then again, I've told Alexis, our manager, like, "Don't get me involved in stuff that I don't need to get involved in.” I'm just trying to save up on time folks on what's essential to me, which is writing and playing and everything. I don't need to know about all the plans they had. But I don't think so. I mean, we had some guy following us with a camera and I think he had a camera team in one of the shows we did last November. This is an honest answer, I haven't seen anything from that and I don't know what came out of it. But I haven't heard anything about any plan to document the show.
You mentioned that even when you were making Vertikal, you had the idea for Mariner or at least the idea of where to go next. Do you have ideas going even further beyond that? Have you already planned out the next record?
Absolutely. I'm writing at the moment, so I know exactly where we are going and where we are aiming. For me, it's not important that the audience think that we are moving forward or backward or whatever. For me, it's just important that I feel that we have a momentum and that we are doing stuff that we've never done before.
But yeah, I've been cracking out some ideas and we've had some loose conversations on where we are heading. And I'm thinking of having a meeting with Eric Wilson. He's done all the artwork since Salvation, and planning to have a talk with him. I've already had a conversation about where we are heading next, but I wanna get more concrete now when we accurately have stuff to work with. He brought some color samples while we were writing Vertikal, just so we knew where we were going when it comes to artwork. I also had this meeting with him two years ago, even before the recording of Mariner, and he had already started getting out some graphs of where he wanted to go artwork-wise.
I mean, the ideas he had at the time was not even close to what the album ended up to be. But you know, it's like every other creative process, you need to start somewhere to end up somewhere else. I just only have that idea of where we're going. The last couple of albums have been very concrete when it comes to what we were inspired by and all that. You know, this is not gonna be a travel to the core of the Earth. It doesn't have to be that kind of concrete idea. But, yeah. I know where I'm going at least.