Long Read: We spoke to Cult Of Luna’s Johannes Persson and let him reveal the secrets behinds the band’s quiet determination

As a musical entity, Cult Of Luna have never been the most outspoken. They’ve never been at the forefront of a movement, never been ‘scene’ figureheads, whatever they are, and they’ve hardly been the most outspoken or controversial figures, but what that has lent them in the past has been a quiet power and the ability to create works which can continue to challenge and strike awe and wonder years down the line. With their 20th anniversary just past, they are continuing to push the limits of their sound and in A Dawn To Fear, they have raised the bar even further with possibly their grandest and most emotionally wrought record yet. We spoke to Johannes Persson and let him reveal the secrets behinds the band’s quiet determination.

I‘ll confess that I’ve only listened through it twice and I’m still trying to take it in – it’s just colossal! Are you expecting that this is an album that people will have to take time with to let it sink in?
I never think of it in those terms, that’s the honest answer. When we construct albums and pick song orders, stuff like that, it’s from our perspective of how we think we can best present this narrative and structure, the story of the album. I don’t think much about how other people will perceive it. Maybe we do it unconsciously, but it’s based round our own tastes and perceptions.

Am I right in thinking that this album was constructed quite differently from the past few records in that you just got together and hashed it out?
The writing process wasn’t that much different. It is what it is. We don’t meet that often so we pretty much have to prepare in advance before we even start. We were pretty well prepared but we didn’t practice that much and things just kind of happened on those very few occasions that we met. I think we were pretty well-prepared when we went into the studio. That was the biggest change because ever since we recorded Eternal Kingdom, the recording process has been that we are up for a couple of days just to record the basic structures and then we split up. Everyone goes home and records in other studios, or at least does some alternative takes, but this time we went to the studio in Norway and hung out as a collective for almost two weeks. It was a very nice time, to have recording stations where people could work simultaneously. If somebody had a question or an idea, we could discuss it there and then and if we had a problem we could solve it as a collective instead of having to go through emails to make changes, or telephone calls. It was more on-hand. It was perfect. We changed stuff, discussed stuff there and then and that was important. I really believe it made a huge impact on the end product, which was the album.

You described A Dawn To Fear as being the antithesis of past records. Is that in terms of how the album was constructed, or was it in a deeper sense?
I think that ‘antithesis’ is too much of a strong word. Usually, we work around concepts and have been doing that since the second album. The first album, you get somebody to want to make music, you record everything that you have written up until that point, and it has been done without any deadline or goal that you wanted to achieve. We just
made it for the fun of it, the writing process is fun but on the second album we were working with more-or-less concrete themes, even before we started writing. We talked about what kind of narrative, what story we wanted to tell and discuss how we could tell it in terms of music, production, arrangements, artwork – every aspect is part and has to be consistent with the theme of the album. With this writing session that we felt that we wanted to try something new. I use the analogy that in the past, we had gone into albums with a picture already made and then we worked on each individual piece of the jigsaw puzzle to make it match perfectly what we wanted to create. This time we started the other way around. I wanted to just write, let the subconscious write and see what came out of it; instead of starting with the picture, we started with pieces and then after we had written a lot of music, we took a step back and looked to see what it was. “What is this? What is this story about, this arch – the narrative?” It was quite interesting to analyse your own thoughts and creative output.

To have been able to look at your output in that way after decades working in one particular mode must have been eye-opening, no?
You’re a writer, right? Imagine just sitting down at your computer, without any intentions, and writing down the first sentence that comes into your head, whatever it is. That’s pretty much how I wrote what I did on this album, both lyrics – most of the lyrics, I should say – and music; without any idea of what would come out or having touched a guitar. I don’t know if ‘eye-opening’ is the right word but it was certainly an interesting way of working.

The first video for “The Silent Man” is out and the new one is nearly out. Given that the first one functions as a short movie, are these two videos tying in with the themes of the album itself or should they be viewed separately?
No, they are very much tied together. I think you’ll understand the narrative much more once the second video as the two pretty much tie seamlessly together. It’s written as one story with two arcs and one overarching theme that ties the two together, so they both work for themselves but are both linked to the theme of each song, but are also linked to things that we have done in the past. Hopefully people will notice but if not, I hope that they can just enjoy the story for what it is. There are a lot of references to stuff we’ve done in the past.

Just before this record you had a major retrospective period. The …Highway 10th anniversary shows, a whole bunch of live stuff – Roadburn recordings, Mariner live, the Paris show… did that put you in the right frame of mind to take stock of what you had worked on in the past when moving onto this new record?
I think it’s inevitable when you have been doing something for 20 years to look back, especially when you have passed the 20 year mark like us. We have a friend who likes the stuff that we’ve done and we were talking to him about the songs that meant a lot to him. He was playing some of our old records and I thought, “I can’t believe I wrote that song when I was 19 years old!” It’s too good to be written by a teenager. I’m saying that as a 40-plus year old person but some of the things we wrote, I don’t know how we did it. Especially a record like Somewhere Along The Highway, which we wrote in about three months, seems quite impressive in retrospect. I know I’m talking about me and my friends but still, it’s so long ago I might as well be talking about people we don’t know.

“I can’t stress how important it was to learn the discipline of do-it-yourself. For me, ideas, politics and music are tied together and that’s due to my musical upbringing. I was raised in the hardcore and punk scene. Those colours don’t run, they never fade away.”

You came from a hardcore background before starting Cult Of Luna. How well do you think that prepared you for your life these days?
I can’t stress how important it was to learn the discipline of do-it-yourself. For me, ideas, politics and music are tied together and that’s due to my musical upbringing. I was raised in the hardcore and punk scene. Those colours don’t run, they never fade away. Even though my body’s 40 years old, my mind is still 16. No-one is going to do anything for you, you might as well do it yourself. Being proactive has been a very fruitful lesson in life for me. I’m not waiting for anything to happen. If I want something done, I’ll do it myself and I’ll do it right away. I don’t have time to wait.

It’s early days just now but there have been the announcements of your work at Roadburn next year with Julie Christmas and James Kent (Perturbator). How did the idea of those collabs come along and how’s it coming along?
The only real collaboration is with James. We’re going to write an hour of music – apparently! I need to find time but I can’t wait, I’m a big fan. I saw him in Stockholm last time and it was one of the most powerful live shows I’ve seen. It’s quite strange, it was quite a small stage with just him and a drummer but it was just massive. I could easily have stayed for another hour. I don’t know what I can do to add to his talent but we’ll see. When it comes to Julie, I’m just going to be playing guitar. As far as I know, we’re going to be playing stuff from her discography and it will be another interesting experience to play other people’s songs. I’m not used to that. I’m learning songs just now and I never realised how hard it is to learn other people’s music because when I write I know from the start how it ebbs and flows and what motivates them. That’s the thing, every song I’ve ever written, I still know; I could probably walk on stage and play songs that we haven’t played in 15 years but learning other people’s songs is completely different, it’s almost like I need to think about it mathematically just to understand how they are written, but I am getting there. It’s a long time to Roadburn so I’m sure that when we’re on stage it will be as natural as playing our own music.

The Perturbator remix that was done off the back of Mariner – who approached who about that?
It’s a boring answer but that was management talking to management. That was before I knew James personally. I was a fan of his. It was our manager that introduced me to him and ever since then I listen to his music when I write, when I work, when I work out…

You used less in the way of keyboards for the new album and were focussing more on organ and organic sounds. Was that done as a comedown from Vertikal and Mariner?
I talked about earlier how we started how we were working in a different way from usual so once we had a couple of songs written we started talking about what story these songs were telling. We came to a conclusion and after that we asked ourselves the best way to present these in terms of instrumentation and production. It was very obvious from the start that we would have to work with a more organic sound palette and organ felt very natural. We still used analogue keyboards and there were a lot of keys, it’s just that you don’t really hear them. They were in the background to give the songs some atmosphere. But there is a lot of organ, old stuff, old techniques and stuff like that. That’s the kind of sound that I feel very much at home with right now when it comes to where I want our sound to be.

The band have changed so much over the years and you must have as well. You can hear that in some of your guitarwork, but do you feel that you’ve grown as a guitarist?
No. I’ve been doing this for so long that it’s the only thing I can do. There’s not much thought that goes into the writing of that, I’m never going to be a great guitar player technically and I’m never going to be too advanced in my technical skills. One thing that has happened in the last couple of years is that I’ve had an easier time writing better riffs, I don’t need to work as hard. I’ve been in some kind of creative tsunami and I’ve written a lot of music, a lot of things that I think are good but haven’t transformed into whole songs yet but there’s a lot of stuff that has flowed through my fingers in the past couple of years and I hope that will continue. Let’s just say, I haven’t had writer’s block at all.

“We talked about what kind of narrative, what story we wanted to tell and discuss how we could tell it in terms of music, production, arrangements, artwork – every aspect is part and has to be consistent with the theme of the album.”

Did having that break before Vertikal helped to give you space?
It’s hard to answer those kind of questions because there’s no thought process that goes through that for me, like I’m consciously aware of it. Look at it from my perspective – I just write and I think how your writing progresses is… stuff just happens. I don’t analyse it. Apparently, for some reason, I’m able to write more stuff that I’m proud of – maybe that’s because I’ve unconsciously lowered my standards! I still throw away most of the stuff I write but I throw away less.

Are you constantly writing? For example, are you working on anything now or are you just operating in ‘tour prep’ mode?
No, I write all the time. Since we don’t live in the same city, I have to write drafts on the computer and I haven’t done that in a while, but I’m preparing stuff. I’m very close to getting all my stuff in order to start tracking. I still write, I’m just not recording and there’s a lot of stuff that I’ve been writing for a while. Whatever it turns out to be in the end, I don’t know but we’ll see.

Do you write everything with Cult Of Luna in mind or have you been tempted to release anything on your own?
Tempted? Yes. My life is basically a struggle to find time to do stuff. I have too much on my mind and I can’t afford to invest time in other stuff. I don’t have the motivation to play with any other people and I would rather work with them, but who knows what will happen in the future.

I understand you’re a record collector, so what was your last purchase?
This probably isn’t as sexy an answer as you wanted to hear but …And Justice For All – Tallica. I’m not a huge fan but it’s a staple in heavy metal, so I got that in two days ago.

You’ve done a few interesting covers, like Amebix and Smashing Pumpkins. Anything else you’d like to try?
Not at the moment. I can’t really tell you why we’ve done all these covers. We did a cover of Joy Division over a decade ago in some live session for Swedish radio that was quite good. I love the cover we did of Unbroken for a 7”. We recorded it during Somewhere Along The Highway and we changed that quite a lot. Also, the Amebix cover was interesting. Sometimes I just get stupid ideas. It’s not planned, sometimes I just think, “Hey guys, we’re heading to the studio, let’s try this song or that song.” No cover is planned right now.

What Joy Division song was it?
“24 Hours”. I think even before we released the first album, we’re talking in ’99, we did a cover of “Transmission”. This was literally 20 years ago. I know we didn’t record it and maybe that was for the best. We were reaching, just trying to find our sound back then.

Did you do anything special for your 20th anniversary?
No. Magnus and I, along with the people who were involved even before we had a solid line-up, started practicing in ’98 but when we recorded that demo on January 5th and 6th of ‘99 is where I start counting from. We uploaded that demo and that’s basically it. We did a 10 year anniversary for Somewhere Along The Highway and that’s it for anniversaries now. I might sound like a hypocrite because even though I talked about how it’s inevitable to look back at what you’ve done, you have to keep looking ahead and feel that your best material is still ahead of you. Otherwise, it’s going to be very depressing.

Words: David Bowes // Photos: Silvia Grav – A Dawn To Fear is out now on Metal Blade.

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed