On the fourth night of their headlining tour, Swedish metal band Katatonia is performing upstairs at the Palladium (located in Worcester, MA) while country/metal artist Hank Williams III is performing a separate concert downstairs at the same time. To say the least, the mix of fans outside the venue was definitely an unusual site. But in some ways, such an odd occurrence is fitting for a band as unique as Katatonia, whose doom metal roots have expanded to alternative and melodic sounds over time. At the moment, the band is on tour in support of their critically acclaimed album Night Is The New Day, released less than a year ago. I sat down with guitarist Anders Nystrom to discuss the band’s progressive sound both on and off stage, lineup changes and updates about his other project Bloodbath (heads up: guess who might be playing the next Maryland DeathFest!).
Your latest album, 2009’s Night Is The New Day, really sees the band further expanding your already unique and progressive sound. What influenced you to push yourselves and the sound further?
That’s just in our nature. All the Katatonia albums we’ve done have been striving for something new and something unknown because we find a beauty in progressing. I mean progressing can mean a lot of things. It can be just to go into unchartered territories, into the unknown, see what’s there and try to get something from those adventures and get it back to the current situation of where we are. This is how I see Katatonia really getting on and being able to make a new album because for us it wouldn’t be interesting. It wouldn’t be great and it wouldn’t be fun just to stand on the same spot and just creating the same album over and over again. So yeah, there’s nothing stopping us from going into all kinds of directions here. It’s like a 360 circle. We can just pick something from each territory or genre, or whatever, and bring it back to our little house and get something out of it that will sound Katatonia.
Well speaking about sound, for reasons also out of your control, the band has had to switch from screaming to clean vocals. Was the band ever afraid of making that switch or did it come naturally in expanding Katatonia further?
No, it hasn’t really been something we’ve been putting much emphasis on or anything like that. It’s a part of our trademark sound, because we have this really eerie, gentle vocal sound throughout over often this very heavy wall of sound, and I think that’s beautiful. It’s very difficult and a very delegate thing to create that as well. Usually it takes a lot of production effort to get that to sound good, so that the fragile stuff doesn’t get lost and drowned in the heavy stuff. I mean that’s why we’re in the studio a long time trying to get all that stuff done right. But it’s not like we have something against harder kind of vocals or anything. I’m totally fine with that. Sometimes we incorporate it just for the effect of it, more than as a vocal style. So these days I see growling vocals more as an effect type of thing for the band.
Not to get into too much gossip, but 2009 also saw a bit of a change in the lineup. Rather than having permanent replacements, you’ve opted to bring in touring session players. Is there a reason for not finding permanent members right away or did it just so happen to be?
We’ve been doing this band for since, next year will be 20 years. So that’s a long time. You just won’t let something that you’ve loved and have had in your life for a long time just go somewhere that you lose control over it. We are very, very focused on maintaining what we have built here all of these years. So we want to make sure that all the members of this band are on the same page. We won’t just bring in somebody just for the hell of it. They have to fit. They have to be on the mind frame. Everything has to fit because, as I said, it’s been an establishment since 20 years and going, and it’s our lives work. So we started out by doing the logical thing here, which is recruiting session people to be able to perform. I mean Per Eriksson [live touring guitarist] is a long time friend of the band and was also working for the band. So that was just a logical thing to do. He’s part of the family so to say. And also we recruited a bass player [Niklas Sandin]. We were just lucky to get him really, really close to the start of the tour. So it could’ve been someone else, but we were lucky to get him.
We’re touring so much right now that we’re growing together really fast as well. So we will see. We’ll talk about what’s going to happen, but it’s nothing to hurry right now. I mean, people love these guys on the stage! They add a lot to the stage show energy wise. They do a lot of headbanging and stuff like that. People love that. Not to down talk the old members, they were a part of the family as well, but they made their decision to step off and we have to accept and respect that. But at the same time I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun than when these guys are in the band.
So there is a chance that there will be more permanent members, but there is no rush for that.
Exactly, it’s not really something that we have to get confirmed right now. We’re busy touring for the album and that’s going to be probably another year to go through. We’re hoping to do as much worldwide touring for this album as possible because we think it’s worth it, basically. We just owe it to ourselves to do it, and also to the fans of course. We have to go places we haven’t been yet and I think with this lineup it works really well. So before we start thinking about getting permanent members or going back into the studio or writing and all that, we’re still going to be busy just maintaining this good vibe and making Katatonia grow as a live band.
A lot of the band members have side projects, including Bloodbath (Nystrom and singer Jonas P. Renske’s death metal project with Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt). Obviously that project is very different from the sound of Katatonia, but is the music so different for you that you can go “this is definitely a Katatonia song” or the other way around when writing music?
Oh yeah! For me it’s really easy because it’s at the stage of the riff itself. I can totally just digest everything and say “Oh that goes to Bloodbath! That goes to Katatonia!” It’s the mood in the riff. It’s easy to separate those things. It comes natural for me. I don’t think much about it. It’s just fun, and it’s also a creative process, because once you sit there jamming on stuff, if you come up with something cool then you can put it in this bag or that bag and then it grows. So it’s just a fun process. It’s easy, and it comes naturally.
Speaking of Bloodbath, I know obviously Katatonia is the main focus for the next year or so, but is there any word on what’s coming up for Bloodbath in the near future or is it on hold?
Timewise yes, but we’re going to make another album. That’s been on the agenda for a while now. We’ve been talking back and forth on how it’s going to sound, because we don’t want as well for that camp to make the same album. Even though it’s death metal, which you shouldn’t progress “too much” from that, we’re having this old school vibe going as well and stuff. So we just want to maybe experiment a little bit more with the production because we have the Sunlight sound, the Stockholm sound and the Doom sound, and maybe that’s the sound now we want to hear. I’ll just ask the guys “what’s up?” (laughing) But anyway, you have these different kind of aspects of recording, like the Gore sound, Florida sound, Sweden sound, all this kind of stuff. So there’s probably a school that we haven’t done yet. Maybe that really dirty Autopsy sound. So we’ll see about that, but we’re going to do it though don’t know time wise yet.
This summer we actually did five festivals. We did Graspop Metal Fest, Bloodstock, and stuff like that. So we’ve been really active this year actually.
See I wasn’t sure Mikael was still involved, even after returning in 2008.
Sure! He’s been at all the shows. Axe [Martin “Axe” Axenrot] the drummer has been involved as well. So we have the same lineup intact. It was a hell of a lot of fun! I think everyone felt like “Wow, this is just a metal vacation!” Everybody is just having a break from their “important” bands, and just going in for the hell of it and just having fun, blasting out stuff, and playing DEATH METAL! So probably it’s going to be more festivals next year. I also heard some rumors that the Maryland DeathFest really badly wants Bloodbath. So hopefully something will come out of that so that we don’t just treat the Europeans well and nothing for here [U.S.].
Has Bloodbath ever even played America before?
No we never did. It’s the debut and all. So it should be really cool to do it and I think a lot of people would appreciate that. I think that also might be a question of time.
Well it’s cool that you’re able to look at Bloodbath as a fun project.
Yeah, it has to be because everybody is so busy with what they’re doing. There’s always conflicting schedules that are going on. And usually we’re limited to summer. That’s when it’s the most open time of possibility to do it. So it’s really hard for Bloodbath to make a venue tour. I don’t think we’d really be able to do that. But on the other hand, it’s cool that we’re doing festivals, selected ones, because it makes it special. It’s not like we’re out there every time. It’s just like “We’re doing this once. Maybe you want to fly over, come out to one of these shows?” or something like that. I’m really happy with the whole creative balance of having Bloodbath and Katatonia.
The band live is definitely known more so for focusing on the music rather than a rockstar, charismatic type of stage performance. Was that a conscious decision or does that just so happen to be the case?
We just see it as we are here for the music, for the songs, and we want the mood of the songs to represent the whole evening. I just want the people to try to get into that, like get on the same level that we are at, sing along to the songs and just show appreciation. I mean, there’s nothing better than when I see people standing with their eyes shut and singing the lyrics. There not even looking at us onstage. They’re just there for the moment, for the experience. This is really cool with Katatonia because I think we’re able to create that kind of mood where everybody is really into it. And being able to dream away for a moment with the song, let you carry away, that’s what I try to do when I’m onstage. So even though of course we’re trying to rock out as well, I mean we can’t just stand there like businessmen with suits and all, but we don’t have pyro or bombs or anything like that. We’re not a heavy metal band like that. But we’re just a very honest and direct band like that.
So in a way you can argue that you’re trying to replicate the same experience fans have to listening to the band on CD as they do seeing you guys live.
Yeah, and it’s really hard! As I said before, the process of making our albums sound the way they do is such a delicate thing with the fragile vocals and the heavy sound. So it’s really hard, but we just try to really dig into ourselves and let the songs just carry away and float with it. As an example, last night [September 10] in New York we played a song that we never thought we were going to play. It’s the last song on the new album called “Departer,” which is a super mellow soft song which has really nothing to do with a live setting, but we did it because the guy whose guest singing on that song [Krister Linder] is from New York. So we happened to have him onstage, and I really got carried away by that. It made the whole room seem to go with the emotion. So the key is to let yourself go into it and be there in the now.
You’ve been with Peaceville Records now for a little over than a decade (since 1999). With the current state of the record industry, is there a chance that you might reach out and try something new (maybe a new label or possibly labelless) or do you really feel comfortable with the relationship you have with Peaceville?
Well, if you would have asked me that five years ago I would have just puked and threw all types of garbage on them. But they picked up so much on our last two albums, they did so much work for us, that we don’t really see a reason to leave them unless another label approaches us that has something better to offer. But we don’t want to drown on a label that has thousands of acts, well not thousands anymore, but you get the idea. Now we have the opportunity to be the big band on Peaceville. We are first priority there, which is fantastic for us because they really listen to us. Artistic freedom, if we didn’t have that then that would be the death of the band. And business wise, we don’t want to get too much involved with that because that’s just so boring. We’re musicians and artists, we want to do our own work and then we want to have a label that takes care of the promotion, the marketing and the promotion and all that.
We also have a very good management that links between us and our label. So right now we’re really happy about that, but who knows? I mean, we’re on the last album right now with them. So I won’t say it’s impossible that we show up somewhere else. It’s not impossible, but nothing has been signed or anything. No rush as well. The label industry is so weird right now that we don’t want to rush it to like, I mean I don’t want to sign a ten album deal with a label that will go to hell or what have you. We’ll see.
But it’s obvious that you guys have gained a trust with Peaceville.
Oh yeah, totally! We have the trust, we have a good collaboration going on right now. We just have to see where the industry is going. There’s also more opportunity to start taking control yourself as well. A lot of bands want to do that. Own your own stuff, sell your own self. It is possible if you have a very, very good marketing plan and all that stuff anyway. Because if it’s not only about putting the CD out in the stores anymore, then the band can do a lot themselves internet-wise and all that stuff. So let’s see how that goes. I’m really unsure how the whole industry is going anyway. I can’t predict it right now.
Well, we can’t either, and we’re a site that focuses on the industry as well! (laughing)
(laughing) Yeah exactly, but it’s an interesting issue because it’s happening. Definitely.
This past summer has been a bit of a low point for touring in the States. Being a band from overseas, are there any distinct differences or hurdles to touring in the U.S. compared to Europe?
Well, as you can see there’s no catering! (laughing) No but really, I think the Europeans are a little bit more friendly and welcoming of the bands. They take care of you in a good way. Here [in the U.S.] it’s more like “Here is your money, go take care of yourselves,” which is fine but we’re not really used to that, being more use to being taken care of. Audience-wise, I don’t think there’s a difference at all. It’s more different from city to city actually, not country to country. It just depends. It also depends on the venue, definitely, whether people are into it or not. And it depends DEFINITELY whether it’s a weekday or a weekend. That’s for sure! Luckily we had a Friday show in New York and it was sold out. Actually it was over sold out! So that was fantastic for us, but we were lucky that it was a Friday. People want to do something after work, but they don’t want to go up in the morning after having to drive home late. So this was perfect, but you can’t only tour on weekends unfortunately. But I love it here. It’s been great. I have good memories from the U.S. L.A.’s been great, Chicago, New York. It depends on where you go.
Since Katatonia is a unique band both in sound and stage presence, do you find it difficult when it comes to getting on package tours? Because it’s not exactly like you can easily go on tour with bands like Lamb Of God, for example.
We find it difficult to fit. We do, actually. But at the same time, we try to see it like, if we can invest in a little bit of their people who have an appreciation for melodic music, we might take some of them over to us, even though we might not appeal to the hardcore fans at all. They might think we’re pussies or whatever, but we’re trying to see like if everyone has a little bit of an open mind and can appreciate dark and melodic music, then they will definitely see something in us.
But it is hard to find a really good touring package for a band like us to totally fit in. I think we could fit in maybe even a few bands outside of metal and transplant into that, but we don’t want to be touring with pop bands or anything like that. That would also be very awkward for us. We have a metal background. We see ourselves as a heavy band. It also comes down to coincidences, like “Whose touring right now? Who wants to collaborate?” and stuff like that. I mean, a really good package obviously is Opeth and Katationa. That’s a good fit right there!
Yeah, I didn’t want to say that only because I’m sure you probably hear that a lot.
But it is! It’s just a great fit. Also, we were touring in Europe with Porcupine Tree. Great fit!
Do you find it difficult to fit on tours even in Europe? Because I’ve always had the impression that European audiences are more open-minded to bands. Is that the case or is it similar to audiences in the States?
They might be more open-minded. We were very appreciated by the Porcupine Tree audience. Very, very good. We could see that already in the sales of the night, from the CDs, from the merch and the feedback from the applause and everything. So I think those kinds of people into those kinds of bands, THEY are definitely open-minded. The progressive minded fan. But I think the real hardcore metal people, they’re a little bit more difficult to get over.
Even in Europe?
I feel that another big difference is with festivals. You can see pop bands share the same lineup with metal bands at a European festival, but in America you’d rarely see that.
That’s true! The European Summer festivals are very versatile. You actually can have Watain on and then there’s Aerosmith after that! But it’s good because how boring would it be if it was just the same kind of band after each other like that. So I find that amazing. Something for everybody, and at the end of the day it’s about good or bad music. Not what genre. I mean hey, good or bad, that’s what I think about. Either you’re good or you’re bad.