Since deciding to reinvent themselves with their third full length album ‘Discouraged Ones’ in 1998 (the band went from being a predominately doom/death metal based act before completely transforming into something more akin to what has been described as ‘suicide rock’ in recent years), Swedish act Katatonia have continued to carve a niche for themselves as a one of a kind act, with few, if any peers.
Throughout the years that have passed since, Katatonia (who in the last five years have maintained the line up of vocalist/programmer Jonas Renkse, guitarist/programmer Anders Nyström, guitarist Fredrik Norrman, bassist Mattias Norrman and drummer/backing vocalist Daniel Liljekvist) have continued to progress dramatically with their follow up releases in 1999’s ‘Tonight’s Decision’ and 2001’s ‘Last Fair Deal Gone Down’, before creating what is now considered their most varied, challenging and critically acclaimed work to date in 2003’s ‘Viva Emptiness’.
Over the last three years, Katatonia went on to tour extensively throughout Europe, release two exhaustive retrospective compilations (2004’s ‘Brave Yester Days’ and 2005’s ‘The Black Sessions’) and indulged in side projects (both Renkse and Nyström recorded and toured with Bloodbath for their second full length release ‘Nightmares Made Flesh’ in 2004, while Liljekvist played with Komotio and Mattias Norrman (as Cryptan in Subdive) before reconvening once again to start work on new music for the seventh Katatonia studio album.
A month prior to the release of their latest opus ‘The Great Cold Distance’, I had the privilege of speaking to Katatonia front man Jonas Renkse at home in Sweden to discuss the mechanics behind the making of their latest album, the band’s first venture into promotional videos, the mysterious side project Slow Train Co, touring plans and the immediate reaction from press and fans alike to the new album, all of who seem to agree is another masterpiece from the masters of melancholy.
“A masterpiece? Really? Wow. Thank you. I’m super-happy with the new album, even the way it sounds! The final version is a real killer I think. I can’t tell you what went into making this album that’s so different from the others in our past for the most part because I don’t think that we consciously thought we should stick to any proven formula. But somehow, in the back of our minds there is a formula there that seems to work for us. All we really wanted to do was top ‘Viva Emptiness’. We put a bit of pressure on ourselves to come up with something really strong, or as I always like to say, take away everything that sounds second rate. We just went with the best ideas that we could come up with at the time. I guess that’s the usual drill. But I think with this album, perhaps more than any other that we have done in the past, I feel that I’m happy with every moment. I think everything has it’s own place somehow. I guess that’s why I’m so happy with it.”
Although the above statement sounds like the standard line from an artist who’s keen to promote a new album, Renkse isn’t afraid to admit there are moments on the three releases since ‘Discouraged Ones’ where Katatonia hadn’t quite captured in the studio what was clearly heard in the mind.
“Absolutely! (Laughs) I don’t think there have been any problems in terms of the actual song writing, because I think we have always had good ideas in that respect, but I think it’s more the case that we couldn’t nail those good ideas in the studio due to a lack of time, or the lack of possibilities within the studio itself. Sometimes we didn’t take those good ideas and expand upon them like we should have done, but that’s also a good thing sometimes. It means you always know you have space to improve with the next album. It sort of gives us fuel to take revenge! (Laughs)”
Although momentum had been building up throughout the years, the overwhelming success (both commercially and critically) of 2003’s ‘Viva Emptiness’ not only took Katatonia by surprise, but also their label Peaceville Records. Success however hasn’t altered the working relationship between the two, especially given what is sure to be an even greater success with ‘The Great Cold Distance’.
“‘Viva Emptiness’ was a big success, but Peaceville Records have managed to keep their profile pretty much the same way they always have done with the band. Basically all they say to us is, ‘Do whatever it is that you want to do. We’re sure that it will be the best that you can offer’. It’s a relief to have a record label that doesn’t put pressure on us for commercial or financial reasons. In the end, I think they know what to expect. They know that we usually improve between every record. I think after hearing the finished album for the first time they actually said, ‘Well, it’s actually worth all the money!’ (Laughs) ‘The Great Cold Distance’ was quite an expensive album to make. I mean we had a large budget to work with initially, but I think they were surprised that we used just about all of that money. But then with the final result, they thought the album was well worth it. That’s good to know! (Laughs) Even though ‘Viva Emptiness’ was kind of a success to Peaceville Records and ourselves, I think we were aware and fairly sure that this album was going to be stronger. We still have to see what the sales will tell us of course in the long run, but we’re both happy with the sound of ‘The Great Cold Distance’, and that’s the most important thing.”
That expense that Renkse refers to in regards to the making of ‘The Great Cold Distance’ was largely due to the time it took for Katatonia to record the album.
“We didn’t want to let this album go too early. Initially, I think we were looking at a month’s worth of recording in the studio, but it soon blew out to three months. That’s a fairly long time for a band like us to be in the studio. Somewhere along the way, we just felt that this album needs more time to become what we want it to be. It simply wasn’t supposed to be done in a hurry. And as I said before, the letdowns that we’ve had in the past have been down to not having the time or the money. This time however, we thought that we had to give the album as much time as it needs, and only finish up in the studio when the album was done.”
Although having released singles in the past, the lead off single ‘My Twin’ is the first time Katatonia have given one of their songs a visual treatment in the promotional video sense.
“That’s right. We just saw the final results a couple of weeks ago actually. It’s our first video ever, and it was quite interesting. I don’t think we’re really the video clip type of band, but it turned out cool. The entire concept behind the video was pretty much entirely up to the director Charlie Granberg (whose previous credits include Gemini Five, Hellfuelled and Construcdead). Seeing that we had never done a video before and being total novices on that side of the music business, we just felt that we had to contact someone who had done things that we liked, and then provide him with the things that he needed and just let him do his own thing. We didn’t try to come up with too many ideas, and that’s because we didn’t know very much about making videos. We just gave him the song and the lyrics, and he came up with a script from that. We had the chance to read the script through beforehand, and we all decided that we should go for it. He basically did everything by himself with his team, along with a couple of actors. We were only called in to do the band scenes. Overall I’m pretty happy with the outcome. I’m not a real big video clip fan, and I prefer to have Katatonia’s music as music only. But if I look at ‘My Twin’, I would have to say that it looks good, and that the visuals represent the song in a good way.”
Although the opportunity to film a visual aspect to the band’s music has presented itself a few times in the past (singles such as ‘Teargas’, ‘Tonight’s Music’ and ‘Ghost Of The Sun’ are prime examples), it was simply a question of when according to Renkse.
“I think it’s something that we always thought we ought to try at some point, but we hadn’t really decided when that right time was. With ‘The Great Cold Distance’ however, Peaceville Records, influenced by the success of ‘Viva Emptiness’, wanted to improve things with Katatonia, and generally expand on what we had achieved. It was only then that we felt that it was a good time to try our hand at a video, along with a single for the sole purpose of getting airplay. I mean we’ve released singles in the past, but not for this kind of reason. It doesn’t mean that we wrote ‘My Twin’ to cater to that purpose exclusively. It was more the case of trying to squeeze as much of Katatonia essence into one song as possible, without having it run too long. I think that was the main two targets we had while thinking about the song as a potential single. I don’t think we tried to make it too commercial or anything like that. I think it might be the most accessible song on the album, but it would have been like that anyway, even if it weren’t a single. Just trying to compress all of Katatonia into one song was the only real thought we put into that song after realising the potential it had.”
‘My Twin’ is not the only track on ‘The Great Cold Distance’ to have some sort of potential as a single either, as ‘July’ is another that features all the trademark Katatonia characteristics, yet pushes the melodic aspect of the bands writing as far as the band have ever ventured before.
“Yes, you’re right. That’s something that we noticed while working on that song in the studio. It slowly progressed from just being an album track to becoming a potential single. I think that we instantly felt after listening to the first rough sketches of that song that if this album is going to have a single, this will probably be the one. But I think that a couple of other songs really stepped up to that kind of level while being worked upon in the studio. So who knows? Maybe Peaceville Records will want to release another single. If that is the case, then I think that ‘July’ is a good choice. Of course, that would also mean us having to do another video clip! (Laughs)”
In an age where the Internet readily offers fans a chance to download albums well before their official release date, Katatonia is no exception, with the promotional only voiceover (watermarked) version currently doing the rounds.
“That’s true. I think it leaked quite early. Once Peaceville Records sent out promo copies of ‘The Great Cold Distance’, it was instantly put on the Internet. I think it’s a shame, but it’s also something you have to expect today. It’s not something that you can keep a secret, especially when the label starts sending out promotional copies to a lot of people. It will eventually end up somewhere. I think it’s impossible to say whether we would sell more copies of the album if the Internet weren’t there, so I can’t really say how much it affects us directly. Once our albums are released, I absolutely don’t mind that they’re available on the Internet for download, because I think that’s a good platform for people to find new music, rather than having them buy an album because they think they might like it. If you download a couple of tracks, and you like it, then you can go out and buy it. But it bugs me a little to know that people can get the album well before it’s officially released. Those promotional copies were only supposed to be for journalists, and they’re only supposed to have a copy to write about it and fuel up anticipation for people to go buy the album. Having said that, I don’t think Katatonia is a band that has their success measured in terms of record sales. So in a sense, it’s not like the end of the world for us! (Laughs) It does bug me a little though when those same people that have downloaded it, listen to it a couple of times and then decide to slag it without giving the album a chance.”
That early negative criticism seems to be only limited to a select minority, as a groundswell of praise quickly overshadows the negative for ‘The Great Cold Distance’.
“I have read a few of the reviews that have already been published for the album, and I’ve also been doing a lot of interviews with people that have been listening a lot of the new album, and the general comments have been that they like the album. That, to me feels very rewarding. So I’m hoping to see more of the good reviews! (Laughs)”
Apart from the standard version of ‘The Great Cold Distance’, Peaceville Records are also putting together a limited edition deluxe box version of the album as well.
“That’s right. There will be a boxed version of the album. I think that’s going to be released at the same time as the normal version, but limited in quantities. It will contain the enhanced video clip for ‘My Twin’, as well as a few bonus items contained in the box, such as postcards and a poster. It might even contain a lock of my hair! (Laughs)”
Although getting somewhat off the beaten track, I managed to officially ask Renkse to clarify the current status of the often misunderstood and fabled side project Slow Train Co.
“Oh, you mean that! That was way back in 2001. That wasn’t even a real side project as such. It was basically Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth guitarist/vocalist) and myself just fooling around a few years back. We were just playing around with our home recording equipment at the time trying to write some kind of folk/country music. It was really fun, but it was absolutely nothing that we would ever consider seriously releasing. The reason behind that is because at the time it sounded horrible. There was some good stuff in there somewhere, and I think that some of the ideas that we did have ended up being used in Opeth within a couple songs. I think when they re-released ‘Blackwater Park’ there was a couple of bonus tracks thrown on. The acoustic track ‘Still Day Beneath The Sun’ is actually one of the songs that we did at the time, but with a completely different lyric.”
As the conversation draws to a close, talk turns towards Katatonia’s touring plans off the back of ‘The Great Cold Distance’, including the prospect of touring Australia.
“We absolutely plan on hitting the road soon. First of all, we’re looking at maybe two European tours. One of them will be shorter in spring, and we’ll then take a break to play as many festivals as possible. Then we’ll do a longer European tour in the fall. But that’s pretty much all we have planned at this stage. We would love to a North American tour, because we have never done that before. We would also love to do Australia too. Now that would be killer! (Laughs) We were actually offered to play the ‘Destruction Of Oz’ festival in 2003, but it turned out that the festival went bankrupt, or something like that. That was a real shame. Whenever I speak to Åkerfeldt of Opeth about all the travelling he has done, he’s always saying that his favourite country in the world is Australia. He actually spent his honeymoon in Australia. So judging from that, I have to see Australia sometime, and I would rather that be sooner than later!”
© Justin Donnelly
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