By David E. Gehlke
KATATONIA frontman Jonas Renkse hides his face behind an impenetrable mob of black hair while on stage. It's a suitable look for a man unwillingly thrust into the role of lead singer — Renkse was a drummer who also happened to write lyrics, after all. His actions in the live arena mirror his songwriting: measured but assured. Renkse and his longtime partner Anders Nyström (guitar) are responsible for treating the metal scene to some of the darkest moments committed to tape. However, darkness is only part of the equation. Exploration and progression remain the tenants that push KATATONIA forward, no matter the legend behind studio opuses "Brave Murder Day" and "The Great Cold Distance".
The band's new effort, "Sky Void Of Stars", again pivots KATATONIA's sound. Whereas 2020's "City Burials" shuttled back the guitars and aggression in favor of texture, "Sky Void Of Stars" charges forward with edgy guitar riffing and broad, memorable choruses, a KATATONIA staple that has gotten better with time. And, so, it seems, has Renkse's songwriting. The frontman shouldered the full song load on "Sky Void Of Stars", but as the ultra-polite Renkse would tell BLABBERMOUTH.NET, it's a welcome happening and challenge he enjoys, all in the name of progression.
Blabbermouth: You have assumed the full songwriting load for the last few KATATONIA albums. Was it a natural happening? Or, something you and Anders worked out?
Jonas: "It wasn't really decided. Anders stepped down from songwriting since he had writer's block, but then did some songs again, some very good stuff. He has a lot of good ideas all the time when he's writing music. He's also more into the production bit, the managing bit, he's doing the layout, so he's into some other parts of the band. I do hope he contributes in the future."
Blabbermouth: Do you mind this arrangement?
Jonas: "Not really. I write music all the time. It's not like I have to sit down and say, 'Okay, I have to write KATATONIA songs now.' It's something I do continuously. I really like when we can do it together or bounce ideas back and forth. But I don't mind it. I just think it's better when Anders is contributing. I do send my ideas to everyone in the band. I usually send them to Anders first to see what he says. I'm always very open to changing stuff if someone comes up with an idea that's better than mine. It's a very democratic process."
Blabbermouth: You can take the band in any direction now. You are no longer bound to a particular sound or style anymore.
Jonas: "I think we don't have any more limits if we ever had them. Maybe some years back, we were still stuck in a 'metal' label or tag like Gothic metal. Now, we have the whole universe to play with. We've been around for such a long time. People can't accuse us of doing something weird. We have all the right in the world to do something different. We've done our part in the past. As you go along, you grow as a songwriter. By touring, you get experience. Every time we do an album cycle and when it's over, I feel I've gained so much experience as a musician and songwriter. These days we can do what we want."
Blabbermouth: People have long clamored for more music in the vein of "Brave Murder Day" or "Discouraged Ones", but where's the challenge?
Jonas: "We've always been about moving forward, but as cliché as it might sound, without forgetting our past. The difference is huge if you compare the first two albums to what we're doing now. It's natural. We started with a foundation on the first couple of albums we were still building from. We set out to make dark music with contrasts and challenging parts, with different musical styles intertwined into what we're doing. We're still doing the same, but it sounds different. It's been 30 years since the first album [1993's 'Dance Of December Souls']. I think we've stayed true to what we've set out to do."
Blabbermouth: You and Anders were never shy about your PARADISE LOST influence on "Dance Of December Souls", but you are right. The difference between then and now is staggering.
Jonas: "It's a lot of time. [Laughs] If we had come to visit our younger selves, the ones rehearsing to do the first album and showed them the new album, we would have said, 'What's this shit you're showing us?' [Laughs] It's a natural progression. We're getting older and this is the way we sound today. I'm really happy where we are."
Blabbermouth: "City Burials" needed a lot of time and investment before it sunk in. "Sky Void Of Stars" is more immediate. Was that intentional?
Jonas: "'City Burials' is very film-like and takes some time to digest. I also think because we weren't able to play live for a long period of time because of the pandemic shit, it inspired me to write songs I wanted to play live. I wanted more guitars. A little bit more tempo, up-tempo. A little bit more snappy songs. It comes from missing being onstage and wanting to play what we were doing, but even more of it." [Laughs]
Blabbermouth: Where are you coming from in relation to melodies these days? You've always had the dissonant angle to your writing, which has opened up your sound.
Jonas: "I've always considered myself more of a rhythmic guy than a melodic guy. I have to write melodies when composing music because the vocals need to have melodies. I think they're more based on rhythm than trying to find a soaring melody. I think I can write kind of good hooks, but it's not my natural habit. I'm really into more of the rhythm stuff, even with the vocals. [Laughs] I always want to write a big chorus that sticks and becomes an earworm. I'm trying to do it but at my own pace. Sometimes the music is complex and leaves less room for melodies. You have to come up with something else, which is interesting. That's where I also try to put more focus on the lyrics. If you have a beautiful melody, you can sing anything and it will still sound good. If you have a part where it's hard to find the melody, then I try to emphasize the lyrics to make it sound important. Like, this part is not just some instrumental wanking or some shit vocals on top. It's a balance. You have to find a balance. It's about, 'Where should I sing the shit lyrics and where should I sing the good lyrics?'" [Laughs]
Blabbermouth: You sing across the riffs if that's a way of looking at it.
Jonas: "Yeah. It comes from the fact that I started as a drummer. I love drums. I love rhythms. Sometimes I see the vocals as percussive. That's probably why the vocals go back and forth into different rhythms and go across. It's a nice way to create a flow that's not obvious. It's still nice to listen to but maybe some food for thought. I do listen a lot to Paul Simon. He's one of my favorite singers and songwriters. I think he has such good phrasing and the way he works with the rhythm of the vocals is so good. I take inspiration from him as well."
Blabbermouth: There are some similarities between you and Paul in that neither of you over sing.
Jonas: "Sometimes you can feel like, 'Oh, I have this grand idea I want to do.' All of a sudden, I feel like I'm overdoing it and there are too many vocals. I have to back off. Paul Simon is an expert on keeping to whatever the song needs and executing it perfectly. That's where I want to be as well."
Blabbermouth: Can you delve into "Opaline"? It's sure to raise some eyebrows based on its intro with the keyboards and handclaps that are very different for KATATONIA.
Jonas: "The beginning of the song is something I've had lying around for some time. It wasn't until late in the writing process that I listened to some old ideas. It's daring to do something like this, especially with the handclaps. I wanted to try to write a song from that intro and see what I could do. It's probably my favorite song on the album. It's very strong. It's got the hooks we were talking about, but a Swedish band, KENT, inspired the intro. They've had a nice journey from being a guitar-based, indie rock band singing in Swedish. They quit a few years ago, but their last albums were electronic. It was that style I wanted to find with the intro. The whole song turned into something between an electronic and a rock song. I'm really happy with the final result. It's very evocative and emotional, but still has the pulse of something resembling rock and roll."
Blabbermouth: We talked about the past and what it means to you. "Atrium" and "Birds" have subtle nods to your early days. Have you accumulated a lot of those ideas over the years?
Jonas: "The main riff, the intro riff on 'Birds' is something I also found on one of my hard drives of older ideas. It's not from the '90s but at least five or six years old. When I listened to the idea, I thought, 'Wow, this is good.' Then I remembered why I didn't use it before. I thought it sounded too much like PARADISE LOST."
Blabbermouth: That's not a bad thing!
Jonas: "Exactly! The riff is so nice. Paying tribute to one of the bands that got us started back in the day, it's not so bad. I thought, 'What the hell? Let's do a song that resembles PARADISE LOST.'"
Blabbermouth: Do you think the term "melancholy" still applies to KATATONIA? I think you've outgrown it in place of becoming more cinematic.
Jonas: "I think you're right because it's a tag people throw at us. It's something we've been connected with for such a long time. Of course, it's still there. The dark vibe, the lyrics. There's something else to it now. It's maybe more musical. It's more of a craft. We don't depend on melancholy to make music anymore. We have something else that's a driving force. We know where the roots are and we're not going to change. The more cinematic style, that's what we're comfortable doing."
Blabbermouth: Plus, it's a little hard to get more depressing than "Saw You Drown" and "Quiet Room". Those cannot be topped.
Jonas: "Probably not. [Laughs] We shouldn't even try. There's a lot of good stuff on the older albums. The melancholy was more raw back then. It's more refined these days."
Blabbermouth: How do you view yourself as a frontman these days, knowing that it was not your first choice of position within KATATONIA?
Jonas: "I would say I've gotten better. It's still a journey. I don't feel I'm a natural frontman. I can't do the dancing or joke with the audience. I'm still trying. I've come a long way since I started. I came from being a drummer. I had no aspiration of being a frontman. I wanted to play drums, but I was the lyricist and had to step up and do the vocals. [Laughs] It's a journey, but I've come a long way. I enjoy it more now than when we started."
Blabbermouth: There's a DVD you shot in Poland in the early 2000s (as part of 2005's "The Black Sessions"). You could see how anxious you were.
Jonas: "Oh yeah. It's bad enough to be fronting a band, but having cameras getting in your face — if you're not the kind of person, you get anxious."
Blabbermouth: The band took a hiatus in 2018. How do you view it today with two albums under your belt after reformation?
Jonas: "We needed a little bit of time to re-evaluate. Our guitar player, Roger [Öjersson], had an accident where he hurt his back. He wasn't going to come back to the stage anytime soon. We thought to cancel the remainder of our gigs and go on a hiatus to see if this was still what we wanted to do. We were a little burnt out. We ended the world tour for 'The Fall Of Hearts'. We had been touring for two years. Not constantly, but there were a lot of gigs and traveling. Sometimes you get tired of it. We concluded later on that we still wanted to do it. I'm happy we made that decision. There's still plenty of good music to come. We may have a few more albums in us as well. It feels good to be doing the band again, especially after the pandemic. We're trying to stay busy now and enjoy the ride. Having a new album is always a treat. It's a very exciting time. We have more touring lined up. It's where we want to be."
Blabbermouth: And you have a new label in Napalm. It's weird not seeing the Peaceville Records name next to a KATATONIA release, though.
Jonas: "It's the same for us. We signed with Peaceville in 1998. We released all of our music with them except the first three albums. Sometimes it's time to try something new. You don't have to see it; we have to change our world. We're changing the label to see if we could reach a little further with our music. Napalm Records has the muscle to make sure our music is available. They have offices in North America and Japan, which Peaceville doesn't have. We're trying. We're seeing what will come out of it and hopefully, it's helpful for us."
Blabbermouth: Does the band still make sense economically? You said a few times around "City Burials" that you weren't sure if you could do KATATONIA full-time any longer.
Jonas: "It does right now, yeah. We made ends meet. We made it through the pandemic barely. Now that gigs are starting to happen again, we're trying to play as much as possible. Having a new album helps a lot in terms of getting tours and gigs and trying to make things happen. We didn't get one hundred percent [broke], but we were heading there."