“Beauty in harshness” – interview with Johannes Persson, vocalist and guitar player of Cult Of Luna.

Ladies and gentlemen adoring heavy, alternative sounds! We are proud to present to you the first interview with an artist, who will grace the stage of Asymmetry Festival 2013. The magnificent Swedes from Cult Of Luna!

Lucky coincidence is fantastic. Johannes Persson, key figure in Swedish post metal masters Cult Of Luna, is a very busy and hard-working man. And, with no doubt, very humble and interesting one. Great musician and composer, casting director for movies and television programs, was just about to leave for a European tour with his band mates. I was able to reach him several hours prior to the first show promoting new COL’s album “Vertikal”. Another lucky coincidence, two days before our conversation I’ve got “Vertikal” and could carefully listen to it. By all means it is the best music Cult Of Luna ever recorded. Harsh, dark, monumental, inhuman, magnificent, disturbing sometimes. One of the inspirations for the band was Fritz Lang’s classic movie “Metropolis”. But not the only one. Do you want to know more about inspirations behind “Vertikal”? How did the band work on it? What Johannes think is the reason that there are so many great bands from Sweden, and a couple more topics? Just read the whole transcript of the conversation. You won’t regret it!

My first question is not related to music. I know that you reside in Stockholm for some time, but I’d like to ask you about your hometown Umea. It hit the headlines when devices with therapeutic illumination replicating sunlight have been installed on bus stops to reduce effects of winter depression. Is depression serious issue in your hometown? Perhaps do you know if this installations helped citizens of Umea?

To be honest, I don’t know what to say. Actually, I don’t know if Umea or Northern Sweden is more depressive or not. I think winter Stockholm is more depressive. There is not so much snow here. I mean, we have more sunlight, but when you have more snow is much brighter.

OK, let’s switch now to your new album “Vertikal”. There’s been a five years gap between the new one and its predecessor “Eternal Kingdom”. It’s the longest gap in COL’s career. Five years is a really long time, lots of things can change within it. COL changed the record label from  Earache to Indie Recordings. Could you tell me, what stood behind your decision of choosing this particular label? Because it’s Scandinavian? Because they better can understand how to market band like Cult Of Luna?

No. It was very easy because after “Eternal Kingdom” the deal between Earache and us wasn’t valid anymore. We’ve done our part of the deal and after that we were open to suggestions. There were lot of labels interested. We choose Indie because there was a passion. We could really see passion in the works that they did. Attitude to what we are doing, to music in general, is definitely work of passion. That’s why we chose them. We also own our recordings. So we licensed our album out to Indie and since we felt like didn’t get as much work done in the US so far, we licensed our album out to Density Records. It wasn’t like a big decision. We were open for suggestions and Indie presented the best offer.

Even though there was five years break, you, Fredrik and Thomas remained pretty active musically with your other band Khoma. With this group you released albums in 2010 and 2012. Taking this into consideration, could you tell me when actually have you started working on “Vertikal”? Was it a slow and meticulous process which took a few years? Or on the contrary, you were full of great ideas and prepared the whole material pretty quickly?

No, the last is not the case (laughs). I mean, after two and a half years we felt that we have to keep the ball rolling. So we started emailing back and forth and said: “OK, we want another album. We need you to decide when to start and where are we going”. It required a couple of weeks. Then we started discussions. All of sudden we had it. Something like a blueprint of how the album is gonna sound. With the last two albums we started in kind of rural environment, very much inspired by the North of Sweden. We had a countryish kind of sound. And with this album we thought we had to do 180 degrees flip and do something completely different. So we decided we need to go to another studio, be in another environment to tell another story. It is one thing to choose that in terms of writing music. So we asked ourselves: “What is the city?”. “City is constituted of human presence”. City itself is not organic, it’s harsh, has factories, industries. And we thought, that is we should work with. When we had done that we exchanged emails back and forth with pictures that influenced us and stuff like that. We pretty much had the manifesto that we used when we were writing the whole album. It took us almost two and a half years. It’s not easy to work with limits. But I think it’s much more important and much more fun.

I’ve already had the chance to listen to “Vertikal” a couple of times and in my view this is the most emotion-filled and cinematic album of COL with a little bit increased role of great electronic spots by Anders. From what I’ve found out, you were also inspired by “Metropolis”, Fritz Lang’s classic movie, a flagship of German expressionism. Is it why “Vertikal” has so dark, gloomy, disturbing soundscapes? Did you try in some way to tell the story of the movie through sounds?

No. What we did, like I said earlier, we were sending pictures back and forth. Pictures that influenced us. One thing that we noticed was that there were lots of pictures from “Metropolis”. We were influenced by German expressionism, art deco, futurism and the spirit of the time when people were forced towards machines, when machinery has a big part in human evolution. So, I would say “Metropolis” is more like a jewel in a crown. In no way is the album directly influenced by the movie. It is more like the movie constitutes what we were after in terms of tone, color and harshness of that reality.

Can you remember where you watched “Metropolis” for the first time and what impressions had it left in you? I’m asking, because I know you have a degree in television and film direction and production so I think this artistic, visual aspect of the movie is very special to you.

It was when I was studying at film school. After that I watched parts of it. It’s been a few years now, since I last saw it (laughs). It’s an amazing movie.

I’ve read review of Fritz Lang’s movie in which it is described as metaphorical representation of totalitarian society. In this context I would like to notice one “totalitarian” association regarding Cult Of Luna – on Asymmetry Festival 2013 you are going to perform in the Centennial Hall in Wroclaw. A venue over 100 years old, in which Adolf Hitler took a speech once. Did you know about it?

No, no. Please enlighten me.

Well, as I said, venue is over 100 years old and now it belongs to UNESCO treasures. Of course it’s been renovated a couple of times. The hall has been designed by German architect. In 1933 when Adolf Hitler was about to take over the power in Germany, he travelled to Wroclaw and gave a speech in a place that is now called Centennial Hall.

That’s very interesting. We are all part of our own history. But for an outside world it may sometimes sound exotic. Actually, I think I am the one of a few people who read “Mein Kampf”. Hitler was definitely an interesting character. But after reading it I have to say this guy really needed editors (laughs). First of all, it should be cut by one third, because it’s way too long. He repeats himself over and over again. And he was clearly a megalomaniac. He thinks very highly of himself, like a prophet or messiah. Basically, the second part of it it’s just bullshit. He says things as if they were true. And they are not. But the first half is very interesting, because it is a story about himself from his own perspective.

I can recommend you a good book about Hitler, which is “Hitler: A Study In Tyranny” by British historian Alan Bullock.

Yeah, I know about it but haven’t read it yet. I think it is one of the basic books about him. I’ve got it recommended by a lot of people so I definitely have to read it.

Since I’ve mentioned the cinematic flavor of “Vertikal” I’d like to expand this movie topic, because I’m talking to a guy, who has degree in television production and direction. How would you imagine a movie in which songs from “Vertikal” could be use. What genre would it be?

I have no idea… I think music in a feature and a story has to fit the mood from start to finish. You can do pretty much anything, any music. It would be interesting if it’s used in a comedy, for example. It all depends of the theme, of course. Actually, I had the opportunity to write music to a dark comedy. Together with Kristian Karlsson. We wrote a couple of songs. It was a very interesting experience. Now writing music for a film is a completely different thing than it once was.

Can you imagine what actors and actresses would you like to have in a movie with Cult Of Luna music as a soundtrack?

Actually my day job is being a casting director. But no, I have no idea (laughs).

Are you already familiar with Oscar nominees which have been announced several hours ago?

Unfortunately not yet. I know that “Argo” is nominated.

“Lincoln” too.

Right. But I haven’t seen them yet. I also know that Swedish documentary “Searching For Sugar Man” was nominated. Everybody keeps telling me that it’s amazing and I haven’t seen it. You know, I’ve been so busy in the last several days so I’m not sure what’s going on.

When you are not on tour you do quite a lot work related to television, you also like to take care of your health. You do a lot of running. I suppose you try to watch as many films as possible and to read books. I was wondering, what is your killing-time-on-tour routine? Do you do some crazy things or just try to relax, do some sightseeing, maybe meet fans and have a loose talk?

No, I think we are a very boring band (laughs). We will see. There are a lot of things to do. I will have to work basically.

Johannes, you’ve been vegetarian for almost 20 years now, which means you care about animals. As I’ve checked on your Facebook profile you’re engaged in various actions about protection of animals. Do you think human beings of 21st century could learn anything from them?

Actually I think we can learn a lot about ourselves by studying animals. About human behavior. Animals have a social behavior which is innate in human nature, in human genes. When it comes to morals, I don’t think we have much to learn from animals. We have to cope with, that we are not the only species in the world. There was a lot of research on monkeys which proved that we are fellow creatures. I think humans have to endure other species a little deeper. Look at them from different perspective. As I can see it, we are using it way too little. We should treat our fellow creature on this planet as good as possible.

When I interview a musician from Sweden I always ask one question – how the hell is possible that you have so many great bands, representing all styles of music? Are Swedes so talented musically or there is a very well-organized musical education in your country? Or maybe government is very supportive of musicians?

I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t have any idea. It’s kind of weird that in a country with 8 million people are so many groundbreaking bands. Let’s talk about ABBA, Meshuggah and anything in between. There are lots of great successful bands coming from very small group of people. Tons of bands. And there are also lots of successful bands that are successful only in Sweden. Everybody help each other out. I think that’s the key – we help each other. Believe me, I have many, many demos and people wanting me to listen to their music. One thing I can hear, most of the time they are one step behind. There are lots of bands sounding like other bands. It’s nothing wrong with that, but I want to hear something new. If you need to do something, you need to do it a little bit different. You need to dare to try different things. Especially when you play post rock or post metal. There are so many bands trying to sound like Meshuggah or The Dillinger Escape Plan with clean vocals. I’m bored with it after three tracks. But Sweden in some way was able to have groundbreaking bands. And it used to be governmental fund which allowed you to learn to play instrument. I didn’t use it. I learned mostly by myself.

And there is one more thing that makes me wonder – how come are there so many so good crime stories writers in your home country? Some of them being good-looking women? If I’m not wrong, crime rate in Sweden is not so big…

I can’t answer that (laughs). Crime rate is really not so big. But we have a lot of great storytellers. I’ve just worked on a gangster movie “Easy Money 3″. Actually I’ve worked on all three parts of those movies. I don’t know if they are popular in Europe, but are successful in Sweden. They are rough, they are for real. I’ve cast the movies so I know all of the actors. And a lot of guys are playing themselves. They are not real actors. It really an advantage. We were looking for people who know how to talk, know how to behave in that kind of environment because is more believable.

Going back to Cult Of Luna. If I’m not wrong 2013 marks the 15th anniversary of the band. It’s quite a long time. I remember interviewing Klas Rydberg about “The Beyond” album. Back then the band was often compared to Isis or Neurosis. Today Cult Of Luna is mentioned as an inspiration by lots of bands. How do you feel about that?

I experience it only when people ask me this question (laughs). We are not that much active band. But it’s weird. It’s weird to get emails from people who tell that they are inspired by me. I’m still looking at it with the same eyes, as if I am 16 years old boy who picked up the guitar and had a hard time trying to speak to people who were my heroes. It’s a little strange that I’m in other people lives as an inspiration and someone respect me for the work done. It’s really hard to cope with. It’s unreal. But we can only do what we do. I can only write music. If people like it, that’s good. Now we got six albums out and I think we were fortunate that we were able to move, to progress. And I’m not sure if we are able to continue to be like that (laughs). I don’t know what’s gonna be next. I can honestly say that my contribution to “Vertikal” is the best thing I’ve ever done. I don’t know where did it come from, because I’m not playing that much guitar, I don’t think of music that much. But I’m happy with what I’ve done so far.

You should be. Thank you very much for your time and see you on Asymmetry Festival!

Interviewer: Leslaw Dutkowski