Interview: Pelle Åhman of In Solitude
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In Solitude vocalist Pelle Åhman is only 22, but he is an old soul. While many of his peers are minding their Instagram accounts and sending incessant Twitter messages, he spends much of his time off the road in an old family cabin in northern Sweden. It’s the same place he’s gone to escape since he was a child.
Åhman’s world-weariness is evident on the band’s third album, Sister, which was far deeper and more soulful than their early albums. The band hinted that they could be headed in a different direction when they covered Samhain’s “Mother Of Mercy” as part of the Decibel Flexi series, but Sister felt like the work of a different, and older, band. Åhman’s voice was richer and more nuanced, dispelling the Mercyful Fate comparisons that circulated with The World. The Flesh. The Devil. Sister cracked the top five of many metal “best of” lists and was recently repressed in a limited vinyl run. Åhman talked to us about the power of being alone and the primal calling.
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Could you tell me about where you grew up?
Four of us come from Uppsala. (Watch a video tour with the band.) It’s 30 minutes from Stockholm — it’s about the fourth biggest city in Sweden. It’s a university town and has a lot of cultural and historical significance. It’s a beautiful place. It’s also quite the ordinary Swedish town. The four of us still live here.
Like a lot of small cities, if you are into music that’s not the general taste, you sort of find each other eventually. Our drummer is one of my childhood friends. Our parents knew each other before we were born. Somehow, we all met up again after many years and seem to have a similar vocation in life. We’ve been playing in various constellations since we were like 14 or 15.
Now that the band is successful and you’ve been touring all over the world, would you say those bonds have helped the band become a better unit and taken away a lot of the personality conflicts?
Well, being in the band has forced us to get to know each other again. When you get to know someone at 15, a lot of things change. But it probably helps and people don’t feel like they need to stand their ground. It takes away a lot of the bullshit other bands have to go through.
I also imagine if something happened you’d just run into each other on the street.
Yes, it’s a very different place than the big cities in America and you would find a way to see each other. I do think it’s helped to know each other so well.
You do a lot of hiking around your home, correct?
We have a cabin up north. My family all comes from the north of Sweden. All of my childhood memories are from there. It lets me forget about everything in the city. It’s where I had some of the strongest experiences of my life. There’s a pattern in nature that resonates deeply with me and changes me. It’s a transformative force. There’s also the solitude. I appreciate and need it. I think everyone does.
We’ve lost a sense of that...the ability to be alone and draw on the insights you get there.
The problem is that modern man in the West has made introspection a secondary thing. They are scared of it. If you look at yourself you can be frightened. But it has to happen or you’ll die very unhappy. With introspection you can see things in a new light, which is important. That’s getting lost, especially in times where we are getting more schizophrenic. Social media is painting this picture that sort of leaves you confused. Facebook, for example: it’s a self-portrait you are trying to create and it feels very destructive.
When you spend time in the cabin, is it tough to go back to the bustle of being in a band?
It’s not the people that are the problem. I choose to be around my friends. The thing about the place I go to is that it’s a place that forgives me and I don’t find that in the civilized, urban world. And it’s also a place I communicate with and I don’t find that in the city. All clocks seem to die when I get to the cabin. If it wasn’t for musical projects or collaborating with people here I’d probably go up and stay. And I probably still will when I’m done.
Is there a phone up there or any connections?
If you go up to the road you could probably make a call but there is just a fireplace. You can’t check your email. That’s a huge gift.
I bet some people would panic without cell phone bars.
With some people, interesting things happen when they go to a desolate place. They don’t have any choice but to deal with the fact that you only have yourself and you have to improvise to make something valuable out of your day.
What do you make of all the attention and critical praise for Sister? You were on many of the year-end lists.
It feels good. In a lot of ways it feels like everything we’ve done has sort of led up to this and were like demos. We feel like the record is a powerful and beautiful thing. So, I’m flattered. We do things very distinct on this record, whether it’s visually or with the music. We worked with just a few details that have a lot of potential. We worked with very few colors to make a powerful picture, if that makes sense. It’s not simple; it’s more about making things to the point. I think [the success] has something to do with that. I think we’ve also refined ourselves when it comes to writing songs. We don’t plan that much. We just do what we feel is urgent. There is a focus on this record that I don’t feel on the old records. In a way it’s more about getting to know each other better and learning our way around songs. Part of it might also be getting a little older, too.
Did you anticipate the success?
When we got to release a seven-inch we thought that was a big reward. We were satisfied with that and just went along with things. We never had ideas of getting big. I probably never thought when we did the seven-inch that I’d be doing this at 22. I don’t think I ever thought In Solitude would be this band that would be together for years. We never thought about where we wanted to be. Once things got bigger we just went with it, in a way.
Do you like the traveling?
It’s a bit of both. If the bands and people are inspiring, it’s great to see foreign places and make new impressions. But there are tours where you just go on planes every other day and see airports. That gets really tiresome. Touring in general is both good and bad, at least for me. When the circumstances are inspiring like they were on our tour with Watain and The Devil’s Blood it’s worth every second. I am inspired every second of the day, though. I find inspiration in everything. Things can be tiresome and inspiring. It’s not like I’m very creative on tour although I write a bit. We wrote some minor parts of songs on tour but we’ve never been a band to write a lot.
Elements of your voice were evident on earlier records, but on Sister you have a real sense of how you want to deliver your music.
It’s all about finding your voice. It’s not about singing anymore as much as expression. I’m focusing more on feeling. I learned that from playing live a lot. That’s where I got to know the voice and find a way to use that inner tone that’s so important. We also have a project called No Future that probably polished my voice a bit. I went into this with the mindset to make it not as much about singing but more about voice and tone. I’m really not a singer (laughs).
Do you practice?
I only sing when we play live or record. I think a lot of singers are a person in the group of friends who ends up there because their place was taken. I played drums when I was younger. I’m no singer in any sense of the word. I just learned from playing with these people.
Were there any vocalists that you studied?
I’d say Nick Cave, especially the Birthday Party stuff. He’s not a singer, either. He’s just very present. I saw something in him that resonated with how I tried to do things. There are not a lot of metal singers I appreciate.
How about Tom Waits?
I like his singing but it’s hasn’t affected me, it’s more his work with strange instruments [laughs].
One of the songs people haven’t talked about too much is the album opener “He Comes.” It’s unusual and powerful.
We considered it for just a few minutes because it felt so natural. There was something about the earthiness of the guitar and the voice. We wanted to have a Leadbelly sound to it. There was something very beautiful and haunting about keeping it so simple. It’s one of my favorites on the record. The song feels very much like us. It has something hypnotic about it. The repetition is strong.
When you write something do you think of how it might resonate?
I try to think of when I had those experiences listening. It’s powerful when it happens. People do come up and tell you about their perceptions of the record. It might be very different than your own. Once a piece of art is out of the artist’s hands it’s up to the listener. A lot of art is created out of the artist’s hands because people view things very differently. It might mean something completely different to someone else than it does to me.
You mentioned Leadbelly. Do you listen to blues music?
Definitely. I’m a huge fan of Delta blues. I’m looking at my record collection right now and it’s a lot of Charley Patton and Howlin’ Wolf. That simplicity of one person with an instrument and what he has in his heart — I appreciate it. By today’s standards, some of the old blues is some of the most haunting and horrifying music that I’ve heard, especially Skip James and Leadbelly. It’s deeper than most black metal.
One of the things about those artists is that many contemporary artists have to imagine suffering and those artists lived in a world of segregation, racism and poverty.
It’s the primal calling that I really appreciate. There’s a Gospel song I like — “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed.” I’m not sure he’s addressing the Jesus you think he’s addressing. There’s something very primal about Gospel songs that don’t have to do with Christianity.
I got a mix tape from a friend about 10 years ago. It’s an old John Lee Hooker mix he inherited from his father. We went fishing and the only music we had was that cassette. I think it was called like 16 Great Hits. It’s an old collection of songs; there were songs like “Dimples” that are very peculiar.
Is Sister a bluesy record?
To some degree. Not that much musically, but certainly there is a primal calling there I was talking about. It’s an important part of our music.
Did you ever think one of your records would end up in someone’s hands and have the same effect as those albums?
The big reason I do things is for my own sake. I do remember finding out about alternative culture or reading authors I thought were amazing. If I’m able to at least make an impression on one person, then I’m satisfied. When you make something you often feel like it did something to you, so it could make something happen for others, too.
A lot of people are only getting started at an age where you’ve established yourself.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot and it’s actually very hard. It’s hard to get a picture of where we’re going. Since the album was such an accomplishment it is hard to think about where the next album could be going. We won’t think ahead too much — that’s not very healthy in a group of creative people. You need to look at what you have in your hands.