“I guess people adapted to what we were doing and got an idea of how we were thinking at the time. So I think a lot of people came back to Katatonia.”
There are an infinite number of doom metal bands that could point to Sweden’s Katatonia as a formative influence. From the death-doom stylings of Brave Murder Day to the contemporary dark rock of Night is the New Day, the band has stood head and shoulders above the scene they helped to birth. While many may think of their recent direction as a weaker sound in comparison to their earlier death-influenced work, it’s hard to agree with such a statement after seeing them in a live setting. While they might not sound as heavy as the earlier recordings, there’s even more emotional power than before.
I was lucky enough to meet with Jonas Renkse, lead vocalist of Katatonia, before their performance at Irving Plaza in New York City along with Stolen Babies, Paradise Lost, and The Devin Townsend Project. After hiking up to the roof of the building and taking in the view of Union Square, we spoke about the band’s past and future, their recent artistic direction, and their…sort-of cameo in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim in the interview below.
Metal Blast: Despite being legends of doom metal and practically an institution at this point, most people outside of the metal scene haven’t heard of you guys before. How would you describe Katatonia’s music to someone who’s unfamiliar with the band?
Jonas Renkse: I would say these days, we play some kind of contemporary dark metal. Dark metal, rock, I dunno. [laughter] We use a lot of atmosphere and it’s kind of bleak music, but that’s the way it is.
MB: Is there any experience you can point to that originally influenced you to start performing music?
JR: When we grew up, it was when death metal grew up and came along. We were so hooked on that and really wanted to be in our own band, so we started the band without even knowing how to play our instruments or anything. But actually, when we started listening to Paradise Lost, who we’re touring with now, that gave us that extra spark we needed to actually get a grip and start composing real songs. So I would say death metal on the ground, along with having a favorite band in Paradise Lost.
MB: Can you remember the first metal album you ever bought?
JR: Yeah, definitely. My first metal album was also my first very own LP that I got from my dad on Christmas when I was like eight years old, I think. It was Iron Maiden’s Piece of Mind. I had seen older guys in school with heavy metal T-shirts and thought it looked so good. I was familiar with bands like Led Zeppelin and stuff like that that my dad listened to, but I liked the “monster” images. So I got the Maiden album and it just clicked with me immediately.
MB: And it’s just been downhill ever since.
JR: [laughter] Exactly.
MB: So around Discouraged Ones, you dropped a lot of the death-doom elements that seemed to really put you on the map. Did you just get tired of the style, or was it something that evolved naturally?
JR: I think it’s a combination, actually. I wasn’t really comfortable doing the death metal vocals anymore, because I have some throat problems, and that’s why we used our friend Mikael [Åkerfeldt] from Opeth. He sang on the second album, just because I couldn’t do it. So when it was time for our third album, Discouraged Ones, we said “Let’s just skip the growling thing, and go for a more normal singing voice.” I wasn’t really comfortable doing it in the beginning, but I really liked the idea of it, so I sort of adapted to it and did my best and I think I’ve been evolving ever since. For us it was an important step to take, because you could start fooling around with different song structures and give more depth to the music.
MB: What was the reception like when the album first came out?
JR: I think a lot of people got disappointed at first, because they would expect us to do another doom metal album with screaming vocals and all that. That reaction was fine, I could see it coming, but I guess people adapted to what we were doing and got an idea of how we were thinking at the time. So I think a lot of people came back to Katatonia, even though they despised it at first.
MB: Do you still perform songs from Brave Murder Day and Dance of December Souls?
JR: Yeah, we have done that, like last year. Not since we started touring for the new album, which was just a month ago. So we occasionally do it. I don’t know what it’ll be like in the future, but it’s not like we’re saying “definitely no” to it. It’s just that it’s a bit more difficult for my voice to actually do it, but it’s fine once in a while.
MB: So when I was listening to Dead End Kings, I noticed it had a lot less hooks and was way more of a “slow burner.” Was it a stated goal at the beginning to make it less hooky and more atmospheric, or was that just the way it turned out?
JR: I think it’s just the way it turned out. I don’t think we ever said we need to get more hooks and stuff, it just comes naturally. And sometimes it’s not the immediate stuff that you come up with, but something that’s boiling in the background and it’s going to explode on you later on. And you can say something like “wow, this is a huge chorus!” when in the beginning maybe you thought it was just tons of layers. But as you say, “slow burner,” I love those records myself that take some time to get into and not wear you out all at once.
MB: Oh yeah, a lot of my favorite albums of all time took me at least three or four listens to really appreciate.
JR: Yeah, yeah, exactly! That’s how it should be.
MB: How have the new guys in the lineup been doing?
JR: It’s good. There’s no problem, really. They’ve also been doing this for almost three years now, since we started touring for the previous album, Night is the New Day. We know the guys very well, very good players, and now they also got the chance to participate on the new album as well, which they didn’t do on the previous one. So I think they’re a lot more interested now that they’re playing their own stuff. [laughter]
MB: What’s it been like touring with Devin and Paradise Lost?
JR: It’s great! This tour is one of the most convenient and easy-going tours I’ve ever been on. It’s smooth when it comes to personal chemistry between the bands; no fights, nothing. [laughter]
MB: How’s reception been on this North American tour?
JR: Great. I would say better than ever, probably. We’ve done some touring here in the past, but I think people are really picking up on Katatonia now, and the reception’s been fucking amazing. Which is just how it should be! [laughter]
MB: If you could construct a dream lineup to tour with, what would it look like?
JR: With ourselves in it? I would love to tour with a band like Tool, because I think they are…first of all, they are a big band. We’d get the chance to play to more people. And for me, their music is like a universe. There’s always something in there that you can pick up on later on. I would love also to tour with, um…I was about to say Paradise Lost! [laughter] Yeah, we’re already doing it. But I’d love to tour with Tool; they’re a great band.
MB: So, let’s talk about Skyrim…How did you find out you were in the game?
JR: I saw it on our Facebook page and I had no idea what people were talking about, until I actually checked it out. At first I thought it was like a small game, like something you could buy as an app for your iPhone, but then I realized it was this huge, for real thing for diehard players.
MB: Can the folks at Bethesda expect any free CDs or anything?
JR: Yeah, yeah! Of course. I think Anders [Nyström], our guitar player, is already in touch with them because he was so honored by this. And he’s a gamer himself, so for him it was a huge thing. I think he’s already setting them up, hopefully.
MB: So what’s next on your plate? Where are you headed after this stop?
JR: We’re gonna be home for three weeks. The last show here is tomorrow, and then we’re going on an extensive European tour which kicks off in Sweden, and then I think we have something like 48 gigs throughout Europe. It’s going to be massive. We’ll go back home, have a little bit of rest, and then get on it again.
MB: And I know it’s way too early to ask since Dead End Kings just came out in August, but do you have any plans for a new record in the works?
JR: Not really plans, but of course it’s always in the back of our heads. Music is what we love to do, so I’m always thinking about it and trying to be a step ahead. But we haven’t really had the time to sit down and see where it’s gonna land. That’s probably gonna be a future thing. It’s…kind of a mess right now. [laughter]
MB: Do you have any last words for your fans?
JR: As always, thanks for the support! It’s the most important thing. I think this North American run has been great, it’s always a pleasure to be here, so I hope we will come back sooner rather than later!