Coming Home: An Interview with Cult of Luna
With a turbulent new EP called The Raging River, the Swedish band are plunging into their subconscious once again.
‘I seem to have given you more information than anybody else.’ Johannes Persson, frontman of Cult of Luna, doesn’t give anything away easily. I’ve interviewed him twice in the last couple of years: the first for 2019’s A Dawn to Fear album and now for their new EP, The Raging River. The first time we spoke he revealed that the title of A Dawn to Fear was inspired by a terrible incident in his past: ‘I remember where I was standing when I saw something that really had a big impact on my life, and then I turned around. And if you turn around where I was at that time you'll see there's a river going through Umeå
When I saw this year's EP was called The Raging River I had to ask him whether it was the same river from that day. He pauses, then answers: ‘Yes – it’s very much connected to that exact river. But there’s also a symbolism attached to it which refers to a chaotic state of mind and finding direction in that.’ He adds that the song "Three Bridges", which opens the EP, is about that river too – with its opening lyrics: ‘Out from the cold. Fear released its hold. In the distance a bridge appears/In the thaw a raging river revealed.’
With A Dawn to Fear, Persson embarked on a journey into his subconscious. He spoke of being led by his intuition. The songs were full of opaque imagery and storytelling. With The Raging River, the subject matter of the songs is much clearer to him. It seems to be about reconciliation to those fears and the chance to resolve them.
Musically speaking, The Raging River is an apposite title for this EP. The songs flow and wend their way with inescapable momentum. There are surging riffs and eddies of counter-melody. The overall impression is of an overflowing energy. For Persson, this is the outcome of ‘a lot of extreme emotions that need to be channelled in some way.’
It was during the ‘creative tsunami’ of the A Dawn to Fear session that elements of these songs were initiated, then put aside and worked on again last year. "Three Bridges" starts the EP with a stark melodic figure on the guitar, which has the same naked simplicity of the last album, before it heaves itself forward with an intensity similar to the other great practitioners of elemental metal, Neurosis.
Cult of Luna’s sound is always layered, but as they have gone on, these layers are more akin to the channels of a river, where instruments and musical motifs run in wild abandon. "Three Bridges" builds up with synths, guitars, drums, bass and Persson’s signature roar – all overlapping and vying to run through. When respite comes, it lasts for a few bars of delicacy before the drop down the next precipice.
For the EP, the band experimented with their sound. They have never cleaved to conventional song structures, but this collection (over 35 minutes of music) acts as a bridge from earlier albums, such as The Beyond (2003) – strongly recalled on the song "What I Leave Behind". On "Wave After Wave" the tide takes them somewhere new: the 12-minute closer has a simple, monotonous drumbeat, set against a wall of noise and what Persson calls ‘a thousand screaming guitars’. Persson and Cult of Luna always take their listenership on a journey. Though stuck in their own skin, he says that ‘we are not only able but we are willing to work along a very big spectrum of emotional highs and lows.’
So when we reach the emotional centre of the EP, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise to find Mark Lanegan waiting for us. "Inside of a Dream" features Lanegan’s unmistakable voice. Persson has long been a fan and puts Lanegan’s 2004 album Bubblegum in his top ten records of all time. He was obsessed with that album when the band wrote ‘And With Her Came the Birds’ for their 2006 record Somewhere Along the Highway.
Back then, Cult of Luna lacked the experience and confidence to try and contact Lanegan to contribute vocals, but nevertheless referred to "And With Her Came the Birds" as ‘The Lanegan Song’. Almost fifteen years later, the band were discussing the vocals for "Inside of a Dream" when Lanegan popped into Persson’s head. Not so young and a lot more confident, half-serious and half-jokingly he texted their manager, Alexis Sevenier, to ask whether he knew a way to contact Lanegan. Fortunately, Sevenier knew Lanegan’s manager and before long Persson was emailing Lanegan about the song and the latter agreed to do it.
After Persson sent him the instrumental and Lanegan replied that he enjoyed the song, Persson waited a week to compose a good email that asked whether Lanegan wanted to write his own lyrics or wanted them supplied; and whether he needed some guidance on the vocal approach, or was happy creating his own. Lanegan replied to say he had already recorded the vocals the day he received the track. He added that he didn’t have time for retakes as he had taken the studio down and was travelling. When Persson heard the song, he was blown away: it didn’t need retakes.
"Inside of a Dream" is a ghost of a song, filled with Lanegan’s presence. The soft, stirring chord changes and a pervasive winter chill rouse a fragility in his performance which contrasts sharply with the largely portentous contributions to Queens of the Stone Age. His protagonist is ‘Suddenly so old’, part of a life which is fading away around him: ‘One story ends another is born’.
Lanegan himself extracted something delicate and tender from this kernel of a song. He achieved in miniature something that Julie Christmas as vocalist painted broadly on the vast canvas of her collaboration with Cult of Luna, 2016's Mariner album. The results in both are extraordinary and testify to the importance of trust in this kind of musical cooperation. As Persson puts it: ‘The good thing about working with another person who you absolutely don’t know is that you don’t know what’s going to come out of it.’
There is a dichotomy in Persson. He doesn’t define himself as the band's leader but clearly steers the ship where he wants it to go. On the other hand, he lets the river take its course. He understands that when he gives a song to his bandmates two things will happen: firstly, it’s not going to sound how he originally intended and, secondly, it’s always going to sound better. He is secure enough in his own talents to know when someone else can improve his work: ‘When it comes to a person you’ve never talked to, or spoken to, or never worked with before, there’s an element of risk to it but so far with the few people we have worked with, it’s been a very positive experience.’
But there’s no getting away from the fact that Cult of Luna feels like a project expressing something deeply personal of Persson’s concerns. Take the song "I Remember" from the new EP. The last time we spoke, Persson told me the story behind the song "Lights on the Hill" from A Dawn to Fear. It concerns a Sámi shaman from the 18th century called Spå-Klemmet – the Sámi are the indigenous people of northern Sweden. The shaman was accused of sorcery and conjuring fireballs which destroyed livestock, most probably the result of real-life lightning strikes. As a result, the shaman was bullied and horribly abused by a local soldier by the name of Tiger.
"I Remember", in the form of a thundering cataclysm of a song, seems to recall this story again. In the legend, when Spå-Klemmet was murdered by Tiger’s wife, he shouted ‘This I did not remember!’ as a kind of protection charm. The song’s lyrics speak of lightning that ‘struck in another form’. The subject of the song is struck again and again by the lightning, falls down a gorge and is left alone for years: ‘Isolation with no end’. Persson had sent me a photo of a dead pine tree after our first interview, the tree of Spå-Klemmet, where the shaman used to supposedly camp out. Persson described is as ‘my home in the middle of nowhere’. It’s hard not to think of that tree when in "I Remember", Persson roars, ‘It was you/But you altered shape’, transmogrified so that ‘You are one of the eternals’.
The location of this tree? It’s in Röbäck, meaning ‘Red Creek’, where Persson grew up. The Raging River is being released on a new label called Red Creek, founded by the band and their manager. After fifteen years living in Stockholm, Persson has returned to his hometown of Umeå. The prospect of the move preoccupied him for three years. As well as fronting Cult of Luna, Persson is a successful casting director for film and television. You might think the past year’s pandemic would present a double whammy to his two careers, but Persson is disarmingly frank that the period has been positive in his circumstances because it gifted him more time to work on this music. The Raging River would not have been produced without the pandemic. His casting job has long enough lead times that it, too, has been relatively unaffected.
‘I’m pretty sure of how I work as a person and how I deal with situations, and what I value in life,’ Persson says. ‘And one thing is that I actively don’t try to overthink things. That’s a problem I think a lot of people have. Just thinking too much. I think in general when people think too much they come up with problems they didn’t know that they had.’ This might be the proclamation of a lucky man. With Cult of Luna, Persson has an outlet to wrestle with his demons and the memories that haunt him: ‘One thing that actually helps me reflect on my subconscious is writing lyrics, to see what the hell and what kind of weird things are popping up in my mind.’
The Raging River is Cult of Luna’s testament to navigating a torrid mental state, in the wistful assurance it will lead to calmer waters. In Johannes Persson’s case, it has borne him back home, a place of new possibilities and, we can hope, more beautiful and devastating music.
The Raging River from Cult of Luna arrives February 5th.
Pre-order the EP - HERE