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Interview:  JONAS RENSKE (Katatonia)

Rock Stars...

Jonas Renkse

Those of you who are of driving age and live in the UK know pretty well know how difficult it is to navigate around the city of Birmingham as a first time visitor.

Well, not only did I recently have to do exactly that, but also to find my way through the labyrinth of buildings and parking lots that compose the legendary city's NEC.

However, the fact that the purpose of this little adventure was to meet up with Katatonia's frontman Jonas Renkse in order to talk about the band's amazing new release "Night Is The New Day" certainly made it all worth while.

Before you is one of the most enjoyable discussions I had with an artist this year - I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did conducting it.

Jonas, it's only a couple of months before the end of 2009 and you guys have managed to come up with what I consider to be one of the best albums for 2009! Congratulations are thus in order. How does it feel to make such an achievement?

Jonas: It feels great! First of all, it feels really good to have a new album out as this was the main 'target' for us, but seeing all the positive press and the great reaction from our fans...that's just perfect. "Night Is The New Day" seems to be doing some really good press and that really makes my day!

Don't know about you, but I was quite nervous with regards the release of the new album, as I felt that topping "The Great Cold Distance" would be a difficult task, however, you seem to have achieved that with unnerving ease. What is the secret behind such a huge success?

Jonas: It's really hard to pinpoint what it was that we did differently in order to come up with the material for "Night Is The New Day". We were indeed under pressure as we knew that "The Great Cold Distance" was an album that everybody, including the members of the band, loved and were very proud of. We knew that the next album would have to be better; otherwise there wouldn't be a point of us releasing a new album. We know that people have quite high expectations, and we do as well, so...it took some time but I think that we got where we wanted. I think that the new album is...the best we've done!

It's good to know that people expect good albums from us, but creatively things are simple; what we try to do is to write good songs. If we feel that a song that we prepared is not good enough we scrap it and wait for the next composition to be 'born' - one that will hopefully be better.


Talking about expectations; when you first started thinking about recording a new album, did you feel that people's expectations could potentially influence the direction that you were to follow with "Night Is The New Day" or did you simply let your artistic instinct take over and guide you through?

Jonas: We already had the pressure that we posed to ourselves and to that was added the pressure that we had from people. I believe, however, that this is a good thing and it really is not something that would potentially force us into sounding any different.

It's good to know that people expect good albums from us, but creatively things are simple; what we try to do is to write good songs. If we feel that a song that we prepared is not good enough we scrap it and wait for the next composition to be 'born' - one that will hopefully be better.

One thing I have to say about "Night Is The New Day" is that it managed to make me feel slightly depressed while driving my car on a nice sunny day - a thing (a sunny day) which is a rare occurrence here in the UK!

Jonas: That is a good thing (laughs). That is actually a good grading for the album because I can picture people driving their cars while listening to it, but that happening during the night. Now, making a nice car trip on a sunny day and feeling melancholic while listening to our album is indeed really good (laughs).

Another of the album's strongest attributes, one that exists in every single Katatonia release, is that it works its way through you gradually. It is only really after giving it a few good spins that you begin to understand what "Night Is The New Day" is all about and every time you do so you discover something new! Is that something that you guys deliberately look to achieving in your albums?

Jonas: This is also a hard question to answer...we do of course want to make our songs sound interesting...when we create the basic 'sketches' of each song, things are not at all complex - it's all about trying to find the right hooks and what will drive the song forward.

The moment we find what each song should sound like, we start adding things to make it interesting - we need, first of all, to ensure that each of our songs are interesting enough for us to write and then the focus is to make things sound interesting for the listener.

As you said, it's all about finding new things each time you listen to the songs on offer. The process it to first make sure that each song finds its 'way', where it's leading us towards and then enrich it with interesting things/themes. That is the way we work and it's great to hear that you understand it that way.

Katatonia

We all know that your vocals are, together with Anders' guitar melodies, the trademark of Katatonia's sound. That hasn't changed in "Night Is The New Day" - what has changed slightly, however, is your approach to singing. I find you to be quite daring at times with regards your performance and that is a good thing in my agenda. Adding to that the smart and quite fitting use of keyboards and the end result is quite explosive.

Jonas: You know what; I am still learning what it is that my voice can do. I still find it very interesting to be a vocalist because eleven, twelve years ago I couldn't even do clean vocals, you know? I didn't know how to sing...

Excuse me for laughing, but I find it quite ironic for a guy with such a powerful and characteristic voice such as yours to come up with such a comment!

Jonas: Yeah, I know, but I am still learning, I am still picking things up, I still find singing to be quite an interesting thing. My plan, of course, is to be better all the time...I think that I am gradually becoming more diverse with regards my vocals and that is influenced by our activities, like doing new albums and touring.

One thing that all of the fans of Katatonia, me included, is that you guys never seem to want to rest on your laurels, sort of speak. You could have easily recorded another "The Great Cold Distance" and got away with it, still you made, as always, the extra effort to present us with something new and that not only comes across but is also quite appreciated.

Jonas: Yes, as I said earlier, what we do is both for ourselves and for our fans. We don't want to disappoint anybody. I mean, we know that not everybody is going to love the new album, but if it's good enough for us then I think that it's worth releasing because we, first and foremost, have quite high expectations from ourselves! That's basically what we stand for!

We don't simply want to do another album that sounds like the ones before - that's not going to happen! We could do an album that might end up sounding way worse, but its never going to sound exactly the same (laughs). That is the bottom line.

One we get back home, following our short UK trip, we will start rehearsing so as to manage to play many more songs from the new album and everybody's pretty fuelled up for it!


Disappointingly for many of us, tonight's set will be quite short; we know that this is the case and we hate the fact that things are like that, however there is nothing that we can do about it. Which are the songs from the new album that you are going to perform for us tonight here at the Hellfire festival?

Jonas: Unfortunately, we are only going to be playing one song from "Night Is The New Day" because we haven't had the time to rehearse the new songs.

Before we did the recent tour with Paradise Lost and at this festival slot, we were also on tour in support of Porcupine Tree so we did not have time to rehearse this complex new material.

The one song that we will be performing tonight is "Forsaker", the opening song of our new album. I think that it's the best song...it will work best live as we do not have a keyboard player with us on stage tonight.

This is the one composition that we felt will have the best live feel about it - a more rock n' roll sounding composition than the rest. One we get back home, following our short UK trip, we will start rehearsing so as to manage to play many more songs from the new album and everybody's pretty fuelled up for it! We really want to play the new songs live, first and foremost, but the situation as it is at the moment deprived us from doing so.

An unfair question that I seldom like to ask: which of the eleven compositions on offer is the one that you hold closest to your heart? I, for instance, cannot stop listening to "Idle Blood"!

Jonas: For me, right now at least, my favourite song of the new album changes all the time. I feel that the song "Onward Into Battle" is the one that I am currently closer to and the same applies for the last song of the album which is called "Departer", because it features guest vocals by Krister Linder (Enter The Hunt) who has been my favourite singer for the last fifteen years!

I knew him prior to recording this album, but to finally be able to sing in a song with him was a big thing for me. This was the perfect closing composition for this album both in terms of music and vocal performances. It's almost too good to be a closing track for an album.

When my friend Mikael (Akerfeldt; vocals) from Opeth listened to it he said "that is our last album". When I asked him why, he said "how can you ever start working on a new album after having recorded this as your last song? It's impossible, because this composition is way too good".

You know what - this is how most people felt when you released "The Great Cold Distance" and here we are today talking about a new great Katatonia release, so there you go.

Jonas: I think that the personal success with regards this album is being able to listen to people saying all those good things and reading reviews that are amazingly supportive...I am already excited about the prospect of making the next album! This will take a couple of years at least, but as long as we have this hunger to keep doing music that is classic Katatonia but also experimental in the sense of us trying new things, then I don't see why we should stop releasing new albums. I have already started thinking in terms of the next album.
 

I wouldn't say that "Night Is The New Day" conveys a lot of optimism as an album, especially while looking into the lyrics on offer, but the music is breathing - it has got a life of its own and it moves on many different levels like life itself.


Well, the fans obviously support what you do and Peaceville Records seems keen on promoting the band as much as possible. What is it, on a personal level, that motivates you as a band nowadays? Is there any specific concept that you work towards promoting through the new album?


Jonas: I think that the new album is all about contrasts. Back in the day, say fifteen years ago, I would say that I would only be interested in investing in dark themes and ideas.

I am still leaning slightly more towards this direction than Anders (Nystrom; guitars) does, as he loves the contrasts between light and dark.

We used more such contrasts on this new album and I believe that this is one way of ensuring that an album is listenable and interesting, you know? I wouldn't say that "Night Is The New Day" conveys a lot of optimism as an album, especially while looking into the lyrics on offer, but the music is breathing - it has got a life of its own and it moves on many different levels like life itself.

Is it fair to say that, with regards the way "Night Is The New Day" operates as an album, it is the lyrics that indulge in the dark side of things and the music leans towards the light?

Jonas: Yes, I really think so.

Being Greek, I cannot fail to recognise elements from ancient Greek drama here; the way a play used to take you through many emotional highs and lows before the overall experience uplifted your spirit and cleansed your soul. That is, by the way, what I experience when listening to "Night Is The New Day".

Jonas: Yes, that's how its got to be these days. I think we have grown up a little bit - we don't have to be all moody and string the same chord all the time because its dark, you know? Yeah, we're more Greek nowadays (laughs).

Jonas, after all these years, so many albums, so many tours are you happy with what you have thus far achieved as an integral member of this band? Are there still many great goals to achieve and dreams to fulfil?

Jonas: I think that if our career as a band was to end here and now, I would have been more than happy. You know, simply to come this far with Katatonia is something much, much more than I ever expected to happen.

I am happy with where we are at the moment, but of course I still have the drive to write music. I think that what we do is to take things 'one album at a time' and see what happens.

We would probably continue doing albums even if people were to stop listening to our music, but we certainly don't have any master plan like trying to be the next Metallica or whatever - its not like that at all.

I think that everybody is happy just doing this and getting to experience people's reaction...that is more than enough, even if it is a small crowd that we're talking about.

Jonas, much as I would love to chat with you for hours, I have to let you guys prepare for the show, so one last question for you: if you were asked to name two books and two albums that would allow people a small insight into what Jonas Renkse is all about, which would you mention?

Jonas: (after looking fairly troubled and taking a lot of time to think) Now, that is a hard question to answer. There is one Swedish book that in English would translate to "Third Stone From The Sun" which describes pretty much how I used to be as a person many years ago when I first read it and felt really close to it. It is about a twenty five year old guy who leads a lazy/slacker kind of life being somewhat depressed and not quite knowing what to do with himself. This does not describe where I am nowadays...I am trying to think of...

...a happy book? There are not many around these days (I laugh)!

Joans: (laughs). That's true, however I do have a book in mind! It's a kid's book that I was reading when I was very young. Its author is a French guy called Patrick Cauvin and the book is called "Monsieur Papa"! I loved that book when I was a kid. It's about a divorced father and his son. I remember reading it and thinking that, when I grow up, I would actually get to become divorced while having a song and experience the same good times with my boy as the father and son did in the book, without the mother being present (laughs).

Actually, I have two sons and one of them is with a woman that I separated from a few years ago, so I did manage to have that life after all. However, it is a very happy book and I still read it sometimes, though it's a kid's book - I like it so much.

And which would be the two albums that you would recommend for similar reasons?

Jonas: (looking equally troubled and again taking his time before answering) Well, the first one would have to be "Gothic" by Paradise Lost as it was the very album that got our band started and its for that reason really important to us.

The second one would have to be the first album that I ever bought, which is Iron Maiden's "Piece Of Mind". This is the album that got me into music, you know? I was eight years old when I got it as a Christmas gift and it has pretty much set up my life. It made me want to be a musician and got me interested into music.

Before that album, I was only listening to what my parents were listening to and that was not stuff that I really connected with. The moment I got my hands on "Piece Of Mind", I realised that this was my music and...now I am here.

Jonas, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I hope you enjoy tonight's show and I am looking forward to seeing you guys again in the UK, hopefully really soon!

Jonas: That will happen! We are setting up a tour as we speak and I think that we will play sometime in March - we are really looking forward to that.

 


Interview November 2009 John Stefanis

Album review

 


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