Many of us can think of a fair number of "good" heavy music bands, but when the term "great" is uttered, only a few come to mind. Many would agree that bands like OPETH, TOOL, and MASTODON fall into the latter category. Unless you've missed out on the raw emotion, beautiful heaviness, doom-laden atmospheres, and passionate melodies of KATATONIA, then you'd certainly need to include the Swedish quintet in such elite company.
After seven full-length albums and a handful of EPs, the band has arrived on these shores for its first formal North American tour with DAYLIGHT DIES and MOONSPELL. That KATATONIA could follow up the phenomenal "Viva Emptiness" (2003) with an equally excellent disc in this year's "The Great Cold Distance" is a feat unto itself. Now North American audiences will get several opportunities to revel in the sweet darkness of KATATONIA, beginning on October 20 in Poughkeepsie, New York. Vocalist Jonas Renske spoke to BLABBERMOUTH.NET's Scott Alisoglu by phone from Sweden just days before the band was to leave for territories yet unconquered.
Q: The upcoming North American tour with DAYLIGHT DIES and MOONSPELL is your first ever. Are you excited and, more importantly, are you ready?
Jonas: Well, I think we're ready and everybody in the band is really excited. It's obviously a big one, the first U.S. tour. We're very much looking forward to it.
Q: Previously, you've only made two U.S. appearances, correct?
Jonas: Two festival shows. The first one was the Milwaukee Metalfest that was back in 2000. Then we played in I think 2004 in Cleveland at the Brave Words and Bloody Knuckles [Six-Pack] Festival. We also did a gig in Canada, as well a couple of dates after that one.
Q: Is the reason you've not been over or a formal tour in the past a simple matter of logistics and finances?
Jonas: So far we haven't been able to do a proper tour in the U.S. because we don't really have a label in the U.S. to finance us. But this time we've been stressing to the label that we should do a tour anyway because Peaceville is more or less just doing Europe and they're sending the records on import to the States. So there is really no financial support for this one, but we want to do it anyway because there is such a demand. And also we want to do it once and for all.
Q: As for the bands on the bill, you have toured with DAYLIGHT DIES in Europe.
Jonas: Yeah, they were supporting us in Europe for a couple of weeks at least doing one leg of the European tour that we did for "Viva Emptiness" record. So we know the guys. They're great guys and we're really looking forward to play with them again.
Q: Although their sound involves more traditional doom, there are similarities in that the creation of mood and the conveyance of raw human emotion are a core part of their style.
Jonas: Yeah, absolutely. I think the whole package is looking excellent because you have DAYLIGHT DIES, which is very quality dark music and then you have KATATONIA, which is something different but still the same kind of mood. And also MOONSPELL is a gothic metal band, a classic one. I think it's a very good package. I'm friends with both bands.
Q: Of course, MOONSPELL has been on U.S. tours in the past and DAYLIGHT DIES is a U.S. band, so you'll have some support in guiding you through this first journey across the States.
Jonas: Yeah, exactly. We're totally newbies in the U.S. I have been speaking to my friend, Mikael [Åkerfeldt] from OPETH, as he's done the U.S. many, many times. He's convinced that we will have a very good time.
Q: You've enjoyed a good deal of success in Europe, both sales-wise and from the standpoint of successful touring. It is well known that U.S. audiences can be more fickle in their support of acts touring America. What kind of stories have you been told?
Jonas: Yeah, I've heard a lot of stories, but KATATONIA has been around for so many years. I think even though America is on another continent and it's a completely different story, we have managed to gain a solid fan base anyway. Even if we're not seeing thousands and thousands of people at the shows, I think the support will be excellent from the people that are actually there. At least that's what I'm hoping for [laughs]. A lot of bands from Europe tend to think that if they're big in Europe they can just go over and play in the U.S. and make it big over night. I've heard it's just a big market. Bands like IN FLAMES, which are very big now in the U.S., they had to start touring the U.S. in a mini-van and stuff like that. That's pretty much the picture I have.
Q: You've clearly gotten a lot of correspondence from the States imploring you to make the journey across the pond.
Jonas: Yeah, all the time! Getting letters and stuff from people saying, "the new album rocks! Will you come over to the States?" That's what I care about, but I would hope we're selling more albums at least with every new record.
Q: You've made it to places like Greece, Turkey, and Eastern Europe in the past. How have you found the experience with those audiences? Not every band gets to some of those places either.
Jonas: No, but I have to say that places like Turkey and Greece are fantastic for metal music or at least the kind of metal music that we play. We get a fantastic response. And also Eastern Europe is always good to play. We've been there numerous times before we even played in Russia. It's a different atmosphere from Western Europe because in the east they are maybe not so used to having bands coming over from abroad, so it's like a big thing for them and it makes it very worthwhile to play there. In Turkey nowadays I've read that some bands have canceled upcoming shows there because there are bombings and stuff. Tourist places are getting some terrorist attacks and stuff. But we didn't want to do that because we're there to play the music and we don't feel like a main target [laughs]. I think it's good to do something like that because otherwise they're maybe not going to see some quality music for a while.
Q: Musically, a KATATONIA album is consistently strong as far as songwriting goes and you'd never find a track that would be considered "filler." Still, there are always one or two songs that make an especially big impact because of a certain hook or memorable melody. On "Viva Emptiness" it is the excellent "Ghost of the Sun" and "Criminals". On "The Great Cold Distance" the song "Twin" comes immediately to mind. The chorus of "July" always seems to get my attention on this album as well. Regardless, an album's worth of quality songs is of paramount importance to the band.
Jonas: Yeah, absolutely! And I'm very happy that you mention it. Doing music, every new song is like a challenge. It's not like we're writing songs to have fillers. There are maybe one or two really strong songs, like you said. Every new song is bound to be better than the previous one in a way. Every album is a challenge and we try to top ourselves all the time. And we throw away loads and loads of ideas that don't match the standards that we set for ourselves. We have a big pile of shit lying around as well, but we save the good stuff for the record. I'm really happy with all of the songs that we put out on the last few albums, but as you say, some of the songs are a little bit stronger in some sense, but I think it's just a matter of luck and timing, finding the right melody for the right type of music that we do on a certain song.
Q: Do you view "The Great Cold Distance" then as a progression from "Viva Emptiness"? It seems to me that if you liked "Viva Emptiness" then you'll like "The Great Cold Distance", although they are not mirror images. Was your approach to "The Great Cold Distance" different in any way?
Jonas: Well, it's not like we have master plans for a new album, but just want to come up with something that is hopefully as a exciting to the people as it is to us. The new songs have to be somewhat stronger and somewhat more interesting because the other kinds of songs we've already done. So we have to put in something extra that makes it good enough for us to play and record. But we always try to progress in the sense of making the music more interesting. Sometimes a step back can be progression if you do it in the right way. Anything that's good to our ears…
Q: What about the fan feedback for "The Great Cold Distance"?
Jonas: Actually, the feedback has been amazing to see. I didn't expect it, even though I was convinced that we had done a very, very good record. It seems it's been turning out to be a favorite for many, many people, which is good for a band that has released seven albums because there is always somebody getting stuck on the old albums. Seeing so many people hailing this as our best album to date is kind of an achievement, especially for a band that's been around for 15 years [laughs].
Q: It's difficult to keep topping your last effort.
Jonas: Yeah! But I think we still have the hunger that we had back in the days when we couldn't even play our instruments, but we were having a band anyway. That interest for music is still keeping us busy.
Q: Will you concentrate on the most recent two albums in your set list on the North American tour?
Jonas: Well, yeah, but we have limited playing time obviously. We're focusing on the new album, but we're trying to play songs from every album, except maybe the first one. We're going to play different sets something like every second night. For most of the songs in the set we have like an alternative song. It will make it more fun for us to play. I think we will have something like between 50 and 60 minutes. It's not bad, I'm very happy with that. It should be enough.
Q: I was perusing the lyrics in the booklets of the last couple of albums and noticed that not a word is wasted. You get your point across in the lyrics very concisely — these tunes are not jam-packed with lyrics. You choose your words very carefully.
Jonas: Yeah, exactly. It's excellent that you mention it. When I'm looking at lyrics myself and there is a song with very few lines it immediately gets me more interested because it's like "how are they going to pull off this song with just this short lyric?" It's got to be very to the point. I've tried with every album in the last few years to use less words all the time, trying to get to the point as much as possible, but not getting too obvious. I still like the abstract thing, but I don't want to pack the songs full of words just for the sake of it. I think that's a big problem in today's music maybe, especially in this genre that we are in. They are trying to say so much [laughs].
Q: It is more of a challenge to say more with less.
Jonas: Yeah, absolutely. I like the challenge. It's not always working, but I'm trying. And I like to also see where I'm going wrong. I'm learning from my mistakes and that's making me, hopefully, better so I can do better next time.
Q: You are the band's sole lyricist. One would think that the lyrics on a KATATONIA album are deeply personal. Has this always been the case?
Jonas: Actually, Anders [Nyström], the guitarist, has written a few lyrics over the years. Sometimes he'll say, "I made this song and I want to write a lyric for it" because he's got something on his mind. I think he's a good lyricist as well, so I don't have a problem with that. It's always interesting. But yeah, the lyrics are always personal in many different ways.
Q: Were the emotions expressed through the lyrics on "The Great Cold Distance" inspired by a vastly different set of occurrences compared to the last few albums?
Jonas: I think the lyrics on this last album are a continuation of what I tried to do on the "Viva Emptiness" album because it's the same kind of concept. I seem to have a problem with being varied in what I write about. I like it in a way because it is making me more focused on a certain style that I feel comfortable with. I'm just trying to top myself all the time with the lyrics as well.
Q: Depression and human despondency will forever be associated with KATATONIA, but are the members any more emotionally traumatized than anybody else is? Or is it more of a fascination with the darker side of human emotion?
Jonas: It is absolutely a fascination. I think we've all been through it once or twice ourselves. It's a cliché, but it's a good channel for the negativity in our lives, to get it out and let off steam. When we're around people no one would say that we're suicidal. We're like any other rock band I guess.
Q: Thinking about the band's sound, I find it amusing the number of interviews and reviews in which PINK FLOYD is thrown out as a possible influence, yet you more often point to bands like TOOL.
Jonas: Yeah. PINK FLOYD is probably what people associate with this kind of atmospheric music because they were sort of the creators of this lush musical sound. But we haven't been listening to them at all. My dad is a fan of PINK FLOYD, so I was listening to it as a kid probably. TOOL has maybe been influenced by PINK FLOYD; we're working in circles. But we listen to TOOL a lot, especially I do. I think they're a fantastic band. They have pretty much everything: great musicians, great lyrics, the whole concept is very fascinating. But we draw inspiration from all kinds of music, but not really PINK FLOYD [laughs].
Q: As a side question then, what do you think of the latest TOOL album, "10,000 Days"?
Jonas: I think it's extremely fascinating. I'm still getting into it, even though I had it when it was released. It's like with every album they've done. At least the last three albums have been so big, like a little world in itself. It's very stimulating to dig into.
Q: Have you seen a TOOL performance?
Jonas: I've never seen them. I'm not a big fan of concerts. And even when I'm seeing favorite bands I get bored after a while, even if it is super good songs that are being played. I tend to think like, "I hope this is the last song" [laughs]. But TOOL is actually one of the bands that I'd like to see because I've heard that they are really spectacular live.
Q: KATATONIA is one of those bands whose music transcends mere performance or the playing of instruments. By that I mean that so much of it has to do with capturing certain feelings and the creation of a specific atmosphere. It is the ability to express in a way that touches the listener that is much bigger than the five individual members.
Jonas: We're not interested in who is the best in the band on their instrument or anything like that. When working with different recording engineers, especially in a mix situation, they have been telling us that we're so easy to work with because we always listen to the big picture. It's not like a member in the band is saying, "I can't hear my guitar. Can you put it up?" or the vocalist is going, "I can't hear my vocals!" It's obviously very common in other bands [laughs]. We've never been trying to push the individual parts just to be heard. What's best for the record? That's what we want. The whole listening experience is what counts.
Q: Your signing to Peaceville some time ago now was a rather joyous moment in the band's career. It was a five-album deal. Are you still pleased with the support you've gotten from the label?
Jonas: Well, I think Peaceville is a very good label in many aspects and they're doing a very good job for us in Europe. The only thing I think I would want from them is an American office because that would make it much more easy for us to tour in the U.S. Like getting financial support and stuff like that. But otherwise I think they're doing good. They're nice people and never put any pressure on the band. They just put a hundred percent faith in the band. That's really important.
Q: They'll be remastering and reissuing the old albums now that they've purchased the rights from Avantgarde Music.
Jonas: Yeah, I'm pleased about it because some of the earlier albums, especially the "Brave Murder Day" album, which is considered a classic to many people, it was in desperate need of a remastering. I think it wasn't even mastered when it was put out by Avantegarde in '96, so the sound is very low output on the album. The sound is not what it should be like. But now we've remastered it and the difference is huge. I don't think that people should buy a second copy if they already have it, unless they're interested to get the remastered version with a better sound. It's not like I want to make bucks out of it [laughs]. I guess we're getting more people into our music and if they want to have a look into the back catalogue, then it would be good to get the re-issues with some bonus material and stuff like that. In that way I think it's a good thing.
Q: As for your work in BLOODBATH, will we be hearing anything from the band in the immediate future?
Jonas: Well, right now we're so occupied with KATATONIA and we still have the line-up trouble [with BLOODBATH]. And we haven't really been looking for the new vocalist either. I have no news unfortunately. I would like to have news [laughs].
Q: Well, I didn't necessarily expect any big news.
Jonas: We're talking about it pretty often, me and Anders. We're even talking about what kind of direction we're going to take it. The band is definitely still one. We just have to find the proper lineup and find the time to do it.
Q: You must enjoy the opportunity to create a totally different kind of heavy music.
Jonas: It's such a different thing. The whole KATATONIA thing is more or less a philosophy as well for us. It's such a big part of our lives. When we're doing something with KATATONIA, we have to do it a hundred percent, if not more. BLOODBATH is a totally different thing. It's just us trying to raise hell [laughs]. It's a tribute to what we were listening to when we first started KATATONIA, when we were the biggest music fans in the world, the good old days. It's a different thing, but it's still very close to our hearts.