In the 25 years that Swedish band Katatonia has been together, it has evolved from an extreme metal act to one of intense melancholia and introspection. The band has finely honed its style, wrapping heady topics like abandonment, despair, sacrifice and betrayal in gloomy textures, compelling rhythms and alluring melodies that nonetheless retain a metal undercurrent. But because its music is so emotionally convincing, “some people think we are 24/7 gloomy catatonics and just sitting doing nothing but staring at the wall, but nothing could be further from the truth,” says guitarist/co-founder Anders Nystrom, speaking by phone from Stockholm.
“The thing is that, when we actually get to do Katatonia, when we get to do our darkness, that’s when we’re happy,” he continues. “So it works in a weird way. We actually embrace this melancholic side, indulge in it and just find something beautiful in it and try to be creative with it. This is something we’ve been doing for as long as I can remember, so it’s just natural for us.”
Ironically, observes Nystrom, “I would say [that if you took] Katatonia away from me, then I would have a serious issue. I would be pretty much a wreck, because this is what I hold on to, this is what I’ve been doing my whole life … as long as I keep this in sync, I’m very well balanced.”
But even the thing that keeps him balanced can be challenging. When it came time to begin working on Katatonia’s 10th album, The Fall of Hearts (released May 20 on Peaceville Records), Nystrom was “desperately looking for inspiration.”
“Before we started writing, I just didn’t see it coming together,” he admits. “It’s getting so hard to write an album where you don’t repeat yourself, so that was an extreme challenge for this album: to really have to dip into these things and dig out of them and go out to new territories and not go too far, stay within the boundaries, stay within the trademark but not repeat yourself. I think all that as a challenge in the end inspired me to step up.”
Here, Nystrom further delves into the making of The Fall of Hearts, how recent lineup changes have been good for the band, Katatonia’s first-ever concert with an orchestra that will celebrate its 25th anniversary and why he thinks 2006 landmark album The Great Cold Distance has such staying power with fans.
How would you say Katatonia’s music has evolved since its first album?
Oh, we’ve come a long, long way. When we started out, first of all, we were teenagers back then, that’s 25 years ago. That’s a really long time. Those years it was all about extreme metal. We were exploring all the subgenres and we just tried to pick out our favorite, like put all our favorite bands into one melting pot and this represents all that in one band. That journey kind of ended abruptly when [singer] Jonas [Renkse] kind of lost his ability to perform these growls … Jonas has been doing the clean vocal style now for 20 years. So it’s been an evolving process.
I think we’ve been improving on every album since. Performance-wise, musically, conceptually. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the emotional aspect. That’s the same as day one. We always had the same mission behind the band, and it’s always been emotional enjoyment.
Did he damage his vocal cords somehow?
Yeah, I think you can hear that on our debut album, Dance of December Souls. It’s just insane you can actually hear the cords taking damage, I think, on that album. I mean, it’s a good sacrifice; the album is great, the passion to put those vocals down, because it’s timeless … but we didn’t want to risk it and ruin his vocal cords for life. When he started complaining that he wasn’t really comfortable doing it—he said, “It hurts all the time and I’m not really feeling it anymore, it doesn’t feel good,”—it’s like, break up or change and do something else.
When you set out to write The Fall of Hearts did you deliberately try to make it more uptempo than Dead End Kings or did it just turn out that way?
Sometimes, at certain points, the album kind of writes itself. When you have the flow, you don’t even think about what you’re doing. You’re just ending up with songs, and it’s more afterward when you sit down and collect [it all], you’re like, “Oh, this song is going into that direction,” or “That is going into that direction” … We knew how far we could go with the whole acoustic thing since we did Dethroned and Uncrowned [which was an acoustic recasting of Dead End Kings] and also the acoustic tour that resulted in [the DVD] Sanctitude [Live at Union Chapel]. We knew we could go into that direction for a few songs, because our audience would actually be ready for that now. They know that’s part of our sound, just as well as our standard, main heavy sound. It’s just about creating that balance between both of those worlds.
One song that stands out on The Fall of Hearts is “Pale Flag.” It has a medieval, folkish sound to it. What’s the story behind that?
That was kind of a wild card. When we wrote that song, it’s like, this is taking it very, very far away from our normal sound, but still it sounds like Katatonia, and that’s a wonderful thing. We entered a new kind of genre of music but it still sounds like us. So that’s opened up the door. I don’t know how people are going to view this song. The typical song would be a ballad, but it’s so much more than that.
Katatonia has had lineup changes since the Sanctitude tour. How did that influence the album?
The new drummer [Daniel Moilanen] played a pretty big role in the album because he came into the band before we started writing the album, so we sat down with him and really analyzed, “How far can we take your drumming abilities without compromising?” We pretty much soon realized we didn’t have to compromise at all, and this is probably why the songs turned into [being] more progressive. The songs became longer, and the arrangements were a little bit out of the box. All of that was pretty much inspired by having a drummer allowing you to do that, so we owe Daniel a lot for bringing in new blood and really injecting some new energy into the band. And it’s the same thing with Roger [Ojersson], our new guitar player. He’s such a great guitar player, and he’s a very good musician overall. He’s a great singer. We’re going to be able to step up and improve the whole live performance with a lot more backing vocals now, all those harmonies that we haven’t been able to do before.
Artist Travis Smith has worked with Katatonia a long time to create your visuals and album covers. Almost all your albums feature either birds or winged imagery. What’s the meaning behind that reoccurring symbolism?
We’ve been enjoying the whole symbolism referring to birds since the start. The bird in general, for us in particular, we’re referring to the crow or the raven, which is a very common bird up here in Scandinavia. I have it all around me all the time. I feel drawn to it. I feel like it’s related to me somehow. It’s such a fascinating entity. It’s a very beautiful entity, it’s mysterious, and I don’t see another creature that can represent freedom as much as a bird. In this case it also represents of course death as well and this is a topic that we’ve been dealing with since day one, so the bird has become synonymous with Katatonia, to the point where we even had to put it into our logo.
You’re doing a show in Bulgaria in September with an orchestra to celebrate the band’s 25th anniversary.
In particular it’s celebrating the 10-year anniversary of The Great Cold Distance, which when we made a poll [of our fans], it turned out to be our most popular album, so yeah, it turned out to be a pretty good idea … We’re going to go through that whole album from start to finish with an orchestra, and it’s going to be really exciting and hopefully a very successful collaboration. If it goes down as we intend to it may result in a live album or a DVD.
What is it about The Great Cold Distance that you think makes it such a favorite?
The production is amazing still. It could have been done yesterday and it would have sounded like we wouldn’t change a thing on it. It’s just so up to date: the production, the sound and everything. The songs are really strong, and I think also at that point our fan base was really familiar with our sound. There was nobody really questioning what that album was going to sound like. Usually when we do some albums you’re going to have a part of your fan base that’s followed you over to that level, like taking a step with you, [and others] come later, two years afterward, they might have caught up with you: “Oh, now I know what you were doing or what you wanted to do.” With that album everyone was on the same page on the release date, so it was a successful album.