Katatonia Unplugged

Katatonia Unplugged
One of the first things you might hear from Katatonia's Anders Nyström is that things are very busy. It's been barely a year since the band's ninth studio album, Dead End Kings, hit the street, only months since they last toured in North America (alongside fellow Swedes Opeth) and now they have a new, rather unconventional release to promote — the semi-acoustic Dethroned and Uncrowned. In fact, there's so much going on for Katatonia right now that Nyström describes himself as "some kind of spider in the web, just trying to multitask, and get everything right."

Dethroned and Uncrowned contains all the same titles as Dead End Kings, but each song takes a different shape on the new release, offering alternate textures and atmospheres to those found on the original album. The basic structures are recognizably the same, but it's not always quickly apparent what the band did to enact these sonic transformations, however effective the result. Nyström found time to add another tendril to his web and explain the makings of Dethroned and Uncrowned and lots more that currently looms large in the Katatonia universe.

Did you develop Dethroned and Uncrowned entirely from pre-existing tracks or did you record some of the material new as part of the reworking?
There's a mix of both. Just hearing some of those tracks you can hear now on Dethroned and Uncrowned — when we muted channels while we were recording and mixing Dead End Kings, that's when we stumbled upon the idea. It was like a coincidence or even an accident. We just felt like "Wow, the songs can sound like this if we just mute stuff?" That was a very strange feeling. I actually referred to some of the songs as being written by someone else — that's how it felt. So we decided to keep the vocals. They are not re-recorded, but when we changed the instrumentation behind them, it actually feels like the vocals are remade again sometimes. All the keyboards are the same, but they've been adjusted in places — they've been added, they've been removed. The vocals are in the limelight, followed by the keyboards that create the whole ambience behind them, and then we have re-recorded entirely new guitar tracks, which we decided to do with acoustic guitars instead, so that is new. The drums are gone. The distorted rhythm guitars are gone. The bass is gone; it's also been re-recorded actually. So it's a mixture of both.

Sounds complex.
Yeah, it was kind of complex. There was no real plan. I think we just took each song individually and just looked for what it needed and did not need. So there's not been a formula that's been applied to every song in the same way. Some songs we actually kept pretty close to the original as far as all the chord progression goes, but some songs I took the liberty actually to alter it. I didn't want to push it too much, because the whole idea was to have the same songs just sounding different, and I didn't want to turn it into completely new songs that you wouldn't even recognize anymore. The agenda was just to remove the heaviness and make the entire album void of metal. So I guess it was walking a fine line between knowing what to do and not going haywire and come up with something totally bullshit.

What was each band member's role in this reworking?
Well, I was the one who kind of had to convince everyone to pursue the experiment. Jonas was into it but he needed to be persuaded that this was definitely a good thing for us to do. Once I had all the members on board, then I had to convince our management that this was a good idea, not to mention the label. But the hard thing with them was, in musical terms, I can speak with my band guys and we can be... I don't have to use many words. They know what my intention will be. But with management and label... They're different people and just me explaining what I wanted to do, that wasn't saying anything to them. It was just like, "Why remove instruments? It doesn't make sense." So I knew I was going to have to come up with a blueprint, almost like an audible proof how it was going to sound. And I knew with them not too enthusiastic, and the label not supporting it, the way out was actually to go totally independent and to fund the whole project by this pledge company.

So that's the reason that you ended up doing the pledgemusic.com campaign, that you couldn't get the management and the label on board?
Yeah, I guess so, more or less. The pledge thing is something that's new to us that I'd never done before. It had not even crossed my mind. Of course, I know that there are a lot of other bands doing it these days, and I've been monitoring a little bit what they're doing but I never thought about applying it for Katatonia. But for this experiment, it just felt perfect. That was an experiment on its own, and for another experiment, which is two combined weird experiments that just happened to end up very successful. And I was not prepared — I could never expect how fast we achieved our goal. That pledge campaign — I think it was within just a few days we were at 100 percent of the bar. So that means that our fan base — first of all, it's a very loyal one, and they also put a lot of faith and trust in the band. Because what did they know about what this was gonna be? Obviously they did figure it out before the label and management did. So our fan base is probably closer to us than what we think.

You have posted a competition of sorts, encouraging Katatonia fans to reinterpret the songs from Dead End Kings as well. How do you see this kind of competition in terms of your relationship with your fans?
Well, this competition in particular was actually an idea from our label, but I guess we approved it, more or less, because we know that we have awesome fans, and very musical fans. I mean, I just have to go on YouTube and type in "Katatonia" and see so many cover songs, and most of them are really well done. There's a lot of talent out there just sitting locked up in their parents' home. We are happy to put some of them in the light if we feel like they deserve it — totally. I think that these kinds of competitions are quite healthy for our fans. It's fun. I don't see any harm happening to anybody by doing them, so it's all cool. I look forward to picking a winner, and maybe even taking things beyond that. It might open up a door. If I see a really talented person playing an instrument — let's say, for example, the piano — I might even invite that person to guest on a future album. With that said, there's also a lot of non-talent out there — I'm not going to sit here and just put sunshine over everything, but the people who are really talented, I am happy to promote them.

Back to your own music — even before the reworkings of Dethroned and Uncrowned, and especially since Dead End Kings — Katatonia has been increasingly described as a progressive band. How do you feel about that label? What does "progressive" mean to you?
In general, I'm the one stressing "please do not tag or label or put me into any kind of genre because I'm allergic to it," but I have to be honest, progressive is a definition I have been using myself very much lately. So I don't hold any kind of negative meaning to that word. It's actually kind of describing what we are doing right now. And it's all in the eye of the beholder, because "progressive," "prog," "progression," can be so many different things. It doesn't need to be literally a metal musical style. Some people, as soon as you mention "progressive," they throw a band name at you, like Dream Theater, or something like that. I am a fan myself, of course, of progressive music, progressive metal also. But that's not what I relate to "progressive" the first second I think about it. Progressive for me means to not follow norms, and just follow your vision, and not being afraid to discover stuff out there in the unknown and bring that back into your band, and be bold and brave, dare to do stuff, dare to progress. It's a good representation of where Katatonia has come today. We are progressive.

Besides being one of your most progressive albums, Dead End Kings has been described as your most successful record to date. I gather that's in terms of album sales, but what measures do you use to judge your success in Katatonia?
These days I think we're successful if we even put out a new album. Because that album, if it comes out, has then passed our personal criteria, which is that it has to be just as good, or preferably, better than the last one. So if there are a couple of years going by and you don't see any new Katatonia record, that means we have problems, that we're still busy working on that album. I found the whole labour that we put into Dead End Kings as a very liberating experience for me, because I had writer's block when we did the Night is the New Day album, and I found I re-injected some kind of fuel that I had been looking for for many years. The whole writing was a challenge — it always is a challenge, but I actually enjoyed it this time. When we wrote Night is the New Day I just felt pressure and stress and overall a negative aura over myself. And it wasn't fun, even, to pick up a guitar. These days when I pick up the guitar it's actually something I enjoy, and I don't force it. I'm lucky I found my way back there. So, personally speaking, that's why I think Dead End Kings is such a successful album for me. And sales wise, of course it sold the best, but also critics-wise. None of our older albums actually got that much praise. We even ended up with a Grammy nomination here in Sweden for that album. So we had to have done something right. I'm very proud and happy about that.

That sounds like an awesome place to be at.
Yeah, it is. When you don't feel motivated anymore, and your ambition isn't even there either, it's lost, you don't even know who you are anymore because you're so integrated with the person who's writing all the songs. And if you lose track there, then you're astray for good, and that's a dangerous thing. The worst thing that could ever happen is that I have to step off the whole ride just because I couldn't contribute anymore. So, as I said, I'm really happy to be back on track.

And we have a really good joint effort these days. Me and Jonas, we know exactly how to... where he steps in, I can step out, and vice versa. His writing style's different from mine. We just complement each other that way, and it adds to the whole Katatonia picture. That's where the trademark comes in. That's our style. So we've got a good thing going here now. Actually, now, talking with you about it I actually feel excited already about writing a new album. It's good! Good times.

But you have some touring to do first?
First some touring. The way I look upon touring actually is it's not as liberating and, well, it's fun, but it's so much hard work to tour, and that's why we don't write while we tour. We keep those aspects separate always. We have tried to write on tour before but it never worked out. The material you come up with on tour doesn't sound like Katatonia, you know? I don't know what it sounds like, but it's not us. It's not a good setting and environment to put your heart out there.

Have you ever toured before with the bands you're headed out with now in North America: Cult of Luna, Intronaut, and TesseracT?
No, it will be the first time. I love the line-up. It's amazing. You have four bands here that are very driven, very ambitious, and I would say actually very progressive, all of them. If I was a fan I would be thrilled about this line-up because there's a lot of value for money right there. I think it's a killer tour. It's a pretty short tour but it's gonna be sweet then — it's gonna be focused, intense, go in, do it, and then it's over and out. Our little kind of surprise contribution to this tour is that we have decided to swap out our set list entirely. It's not gonna be something rehashed. I mean people coming out to see this tour are probably gonna get five or six songs that they have never heard live, because we never, ever play them live. We actually never even rehearsed them. We're digging deep into our obscure songs, or those B-side songs, and that's a good reason for coming back out.

The fans deserve that and we deserve that. We owe it to ourselves. We have so many songs in our discography that never get played. What's the reason for that? Usually you're just lazy and you go with the songs that you know work well, or the songs that you know people end up shouting for anyway. But what about those songs that once upon a time — when you wrote that song, you thought, "Wow, this is the best song," and then you just forgot about it and it ended up in obscurity on an album and never saw the light of a live show. I think it's respect for the songs as well.

What else is going on in the Katatonia camp right now?
Busy, busy, busy. We have so many releases out now at the same time, it's crazy. Dethroned and Uncrowned came out. We're actually putting out [2003's] Viva Emptiness next month, entirely remixed and remastered, as a ten year anniversary. We were never happy with the way it sounded and it's like a remedy. We just wanted to put it out and be the thing that we can remember. And we were asked to go on a tour next month again in Europe with Paradise Lost, who celebrate their 25th anniversary. As a special guest to them we thought, "Well, shouldn't we do something special as well then? Yes, we should." So we're going out and playing the album from start to finish with them on that tour. So, a lot of releases out now at the same time, and still some touring to do, and we have a DVD to wrap up too that's taking forever, so there's just so much stuff to do. Being busy is good though. Being busy means that stuff's happening.