Inside The Dream: A conversation with Johannes Persson of Cult of Luna
I have been an avid fan of Cult of Luna ever since the release of Vertikal. Up until that point, I had only heard a couple of their songs but as soon as that monumental silver and grey record hit my eardrums, I knew I had found a new favourite band, one that I would follow for many years to come. And one of the many things that always fascinated me about Cult of Luna since then was their capacity for reinvention without forgoing their own identity – their sound has mutated over the years but it’s still incredibly distinguishable and very Cult of Luna. This reinvention continued with their latest full-length, A Dawn to Fear, and their upcoming and highly-anticipated EP, The Raging River, as the band looked into a different way of composing songs, letting go of conceptual ideas and going for a more intuitive approach. The result is nothing short of extraordinary.
With all of this in mind, we spoke with Johannes Persson, the unmistakable frontman of Cult of Luna, about the creative and recording process behind both A Dawn to Fear and The Raging River, the founding of the band’s own record label, Red Creek, and their return to Amplifest later this year as part of their upcoming European tour with Caspian and Holy Fawn.
How was the creative and recording process of A Dawn to Fear and what themes and ideas did you want to explore with this record that you hadn’t been able to in previous ones?
All the records except the first one, the process has been that we decided that we would have some kind of story or narrative, some themes that we wanted to tell and we then decided how to best translate that story into music. Everything that is included in an album process, everything from the music, production, arrangements, layouts, music video, band photos and all that, it should all stick to the story, to the basic idea. After Mariner, I wanted to try something a little more different, so instead of working out an album idea, I wanted to see what would happen if we wrote more intuitively. Pretty much let our subconscious lead the way, like, what would happen if I just sit in front of the computer and write the first thing that popped up in my mind and then just continue. Same thing with music, we just wrote without anything in mind and after a while, we kind of took a step back and tried to see what story our subconscious was telling. It was an interesting and rewarding process for us, to see how a story and a theme was created in front of us.
Also, another thing was that we had writing sessions with all these stories in mind, there was a clear start and finish. But with this way of writing there is no real finish line, we just continue on. Basically, the writing process ended up being some kind of creative explosion, so we wrote a whole lot of music that we had before we entered the studio in Giske, Norway. You can google that, by the way; Ocean Sound Recordings and see that amazing studio. It’s just by the ocean, in the east coast of Norway.
Instead of going for a concept on this record, you guys decided to go for a more natural way of writing, just going with the flow of what was going through your head at the time.
Yeah, it was and still kind of is a different way of approaching the process for us. It wasn’t like writing naturally, it was more just getting things out there without thinking too much of it, until we had all of these songs, took a step back and started to discuss what all these songs and these lyrics said about us. It was interesting, I can do an analogy like this. Previously, it was like a jigsaw puzzle and we knew the picture, and we knew all the pieces that needed to be put together. Now, we just had random pieces and put a picture together. We created a picture with all these different random pieces and it turned out they were not random at all. It’s just like how your subconscious works; even though you might feel like things are spontaneous, everything comes from your mind and things that go on in your mind can make an impact on what you do, even though you might not be aware of it at the time.
The official press release of The Raging River describes the EP as a bridge or midpoint that needed to be crossed in order for the band to finish what was started in A Dawn To Fear. What do you feel is the connecting point between both releases?
The connecting point is very obvious because most of the songs were already written when we entered the studio in Norway. Like I said, that process ended up with some kind of creative explosion, so we had a lot of music going into the studio. But it was obvious from the start that some songs didn’t really live up to their full potential, they weren’t really ready, so we left them behind. Not that we thought they were lacking quality-wise, it was just that they weren’t ready to be recorded yet. We kind of put them on the side and we knew that we would go back to them sooner or later. After we exited the studio and started touring, we continued writing and now, we had the extra time to go into the studio and start reworking these songs and record something new too. So, it’s a mix between where we were and where we are at, and it’s probably pointing to where we are going to.
“After Mariner, I wanted to try something a little more different,
so instead of working out an album idea, I wanted to see
what would happen if we wrote more intuitively.”
The song “Inside of a Dream” features the one and only Mark Lanegan on guest vocals. How does it feel having such a legendary voice in a Cult of Luna song? How did it all come about?
The idea of asking Mark started off almost 16 years ago. When we wrote Somewhere Along The Highway, I had religiously listened to his album Bubblegum for a year or so, and the song “And With Her Came The Birds”, the working title was actually called “The Lanegan Song”. But it was just a fantasy, in no shape or form did we ever even think of trying, we wouldn’t even know who to ask or where to turn to make it happen. And now, when we started to go back to the old songs and started discussing them, the thought just popped up in my head. It was almost a joke, maybe this is a song that we’re going to ask Mark to do. [laughs] And I sent our manager a text, like, “do you know anyone that knows Mark Lanegan?”, and he answered, “yeah, I know his manager really well”. And then, they started talking and all of a sudden, he answered yes and we were emailing directly, me and Mark. He sent me an email and I wanted to give him a good answer, so it took me maybe a week to answer his email and I just wrote him saying, “thank you very much, you are totally free to do whatever you want, I have some ideas, here are my ideas, you can throw them away if you want”.
And he got back to me pretty fast, within an hour or so, saying that he had already recorded the vocals the same day he got the song, that he enjoyed it and said, “if you don’t like it, you can throw that away, I just enjoyed doing the song”. He couldn’t do any retakes because they tore down the studio and he moved from his house and didn’t have any Internet, so a friend of his was going to send the song later that evening. I listened to it, and like, that man doesn’t need any retakes, he can’t do anything wrong, that’s for sure. I mean, there are a lot of great vocalists, of course, but his voice should be mentioned up there with Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, he is one of a kind. Even though, like I said, there are a lot of great vocalists, but he is blessed with a voice that is so… Yeah, one of a kind. It’s literally not even one in a million, it’s one in a couple of billions, I think.
Both records feature artwork by Erik Olofsson, former guitarist of the band. When going over the artwork for a record, do you seek to create a connection between the graphics and the music?
Always. For me, the artwork defines the whole album. It cannot be more important than the music because that’s what it is the backdrop to but it definitely has a huge impact on what kind of mood I connect with the music. If you have a shitty artwork, the music is going to suffer from it. An artwork that doesn’t fit the music, it creates a dissonance, the music and the experience suffer from that. We don’t take any chances and we have a very high-standard of what we expect of the artwork, and we’ve had some debates in the past about things we don’t like and that we don’t think represent the music.
The Raging River is the first record to be released on Red Creek, the band’s own label. What made the band want to start its own label?
It’s very connected to Cult of Luna, of course; it’s the same people working in the label and with the band, but still, I think you need to separate it a bit, the connection of the people in the company Red Creek and Cult of Luna. It’s the same people but it’s not really connected when we talk about company structure and stuff like that. But yeah, we had the idea of creating our own label almost as long as the Mark Lanegan idea because at that point, we released a 7″ and I think we released another 7″ by ourselves, we released a book… It was also more of a fantasy and more of an urge to have something of our own. I don’t think at any point we would be able to go through with it with the knowledge that we had at the time. I think one aspect of it is our manager has been really keen on getting this idea off the ground and now, when we got some extra time thanks to the Corona situation, we were able to do it. It takes a lot of time, effort and money, and I don’t think we would have been able to do it if life would be more normal.
Are there plans to sign more artists to the label or will it be used mainly for Cult of Luna releases?
In the long run, yes. Right now, we are just doing all the mistakes that we won’t do in the future; we are learning. To be quite honest, we need to put out some safer releases so we can have a buffer and afford to lose money on maybe other artists in the future. It is taking a chance, releasing a record, you never know how much it is going to sell. I think the first couple of releases that we have planned already are affiliated with the members of the band but after that, when we have a couple of miles under our feet, we are going to start working with other bands that we feel need the recognition.
Later this year, you will be going on tour with Caspian and Holy Fawn, and you will be returning to Amplifest after seven years. Do you have fond memories from the last time you performed at the festival?
Yes and no! [laughs] We have great memories of the festival and of Porto, every show we have done there has been amazing. But some of the guys were food poisoned. I didn’t suffer that much but others had a really bad time, one of the guys was actually thrown off the airplane and had to stay. Like, the captain stopped before we had a liftoff and threw him off the plane. But that was during the ebola crisis too, so I guess they didn’t want to take any chances in case he had ebola. But yeah, Amplifest is an amazing festival, I can’t wait to get back to Porto and I can’t wait to get back to the festival.
And this year, what are you most excited about?
The obvious part, the fun part: playing. Personally, I like seeing the city and most of the time you don’t have that much time to experience the city. Hopefully, now we don’t have to fly, it’s not like a one-off, where you fly in, go to the festival and fly out. We are probably going to have some more hours there.
“Amplifest is an amazing festival, I can’t wait to get back to Porto
and I can’t wait to get back to the festival.”
Interview by Filipe Silva
Photo by Silvia Grav, courtesy of Cult of Luna