DATE OF INTERVIEW:
1st November 2013
JONAS RENKSE; NIKLAS SANDIN
A decade has passed since Katatonia unleashed 'Viva Emptiness', an album that would transpire to be a pivotal release in their ever evolving sonic journey, and one that bridges the gap between the band's earlier material and their sound of today. With a large contingent of their devoted fanbase considering the album a masterpiece within their richly diverse and genuinely progressive canon of work, it's been something of a surprise to learn that Katatonia themselves have remained unsatisfied with its overall sound since its creation. Thus, they've used the milestone of its ten year anniversary to revamp, remix and remaster 'Viva Emptiness' - cue an instrumental track that now has vocals (as originally intended); a bonus song from the original sessions; some new keyboard arrangements and sounds; plus cunning new cover art that develops the original concept. This is in no small way your average reissue. This is, according to the band, 'Viva Emptiness' as it was originally meant to be. So why the dissatisfaction for so many years? Metal Discovery met up with frontman Jonas Renkse in Manchester on the third date of Paradise Lost's 25th anniversary tour to learn more about their motivation behind the revamped reissue. And bassist Niklas Sandin, with the band since 2009, offers his more objective opinions on 'Viva Emptiness' 2003 vs. 'Viva Emptiness' 2013...
METAL DISCOVERY: You’re playing ‘Viva Emptiness’ in its entirety on this tour to celebrate its 10th anniversary and reissue – does it feel like a whole decade ago when you look back now? Has time flown really quickly?
JONAS: I think time flies; it doesn’t feel like it’s a whole ten years because I still have the whole writing process and the recording process as a fresh memory. So it’s just more proof that time does fly!
(Jonas Renkse on the revamped, remixed, remastered and recently reissued 'Viva Emptiness')
"...now we’ve done the remix and rehearsing the songs for these shows, we all look at each other and say, “there are some great songs on this album.” But it’s been a bit hidden beneath the other albums."
Jonas Renkse and Niklas Sandin backstage at The Ritz, Manchester, UK, 1st November 2013
Photograph copyright © 2013 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
Interview & Photography by Mark Holmes
MD: Indeed. It doesn’t feel like ten years ago that I first heard it!
JONAS: Exactly, yeah.
MD: What are your memories now from the original recording sessions? Was it quite an easy album to make?
JONAS: I think it was a little bit difficult because we made a weird decision to record the album by ourselves, something we’d never done before. So we hired a really, really fancy studio in Stockholm; we just had a guy coming in there and sorting the mics and drums and stuff, and then we just started recording everything ourselves. And when it was time to mix it, we didn’t have the time to because the studio time was up. We had to go to another studio with Jens Bogren and I think it was his first, real album mix. These days, he’s one of the…
MD: …one of the top guys.
JONAS: Yeah, exactly, yeah. Back then, he was just trying to get his name out so, when he got the chance to do ‘Viva…’, I think he was grateful for that, and he was doing good work.
MD: It’s been reissued in a revamped form and you’ve been quoted as saying it’s “shamelessly all for our selfish desire and peace of mind.” What did you mean by that exactly?
JONAS: The thing is, the final mix, I think, came out alright but there were a few things… like the drum sound wasn’t good at all. And since it was made in quite a rush back then, it’s always been something we’ve wanted to redo. It’s something we’ve talked about even since the album came out. It’s like, the snare sound is just horrible. So, now that we’ve got the chance to do it with the ten year anniversary, we wanted to do it like it should’ve sounded from the beginning. So we just updated the keyboard sounds, basically, and remade some of them. The rest is just the same album but it’s been remixed – a better sound; more contemporary.
MD: I personally believe the original album has stood the test of time and sounds as strong and relevant now as it did in 2003, and many people talk about that Katatonia album as being a masterpiece, so were you apprehensive about adding new keyboard sounds and arrangements? You know, you’re dabbling with a masterpiece!
JONAS: Yeah, exactly, we didn’t want to do too much. We didn’t re-record any of the guitars, any of the vocals or anything like that. It’s just, like, updating the sounds because some of them, when we listen to them separately, they were kind of cheesy sounding. You know, it’s ten years ago. Nowadays, it’s easier for us to find the kind of sounds we want. I don’t think we’re unfaithful to the original; we just helped it up a little bit.
MD: [To Nikals] What’s your opinion of the original album compared to how it sounds now?
NIKLAS: I guess the songs transpire more on the new version. It’s more open and more transparent, and you can grasp the songs easier. For me, it was like cleaning a window or something. And I actually discovered I play some parts wrong on the bass because that pops even more on the new version. So it was like, “ah, this is how it’s played.” So it makes more sense.
MD: So you can hear everything a lot clearer in the new mix?
NIKLAS: Yeah, exactly.
MD: Was it a fairly natural process adding new keyboard arrangements or did it take a lot of effort to really think what you could add to the songs to make them better?
JONAS: It’s mainly Anders who’s done this, but I think he had pretty much in mind what he wanted to do because he was the one doing the original parts anyway. Because we’ve played a few songs live from ‘Viva Emptiness’ over the last few years, and we’ve added some stuff to them, like back-tracks for the live situation, like ‘Omerta’ and ‘Wait Outside’. So we just used those tracks on the album as well to spice it up a little bit because it sounds more like what the songs are sounding today because we still play them live. It’s just a natural progression, basically.
MD: So are you actually a hundred per cent happy with how it sounds now? Like, you don’t need to revisit the album again… this is the final, definitive ‘Viva Emptiness’?
JONAS: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s not a super, big deal. The album itself sounded good already but, as I said earlier, just for our own peace of mind. So now I’m happy; I can let go of it.
MD: Now you can look back at other albums and think, actually, when it’s the twentieth anniversary of that one, then…!
JONAS: No, I think this is the only album where we felt that it could’ve been done better.
MD: And it was a very pivotal album for Katatonia as well.
JONAS: Exactly. And, for some reason, the album itself had been a little bit overlooked by me, at least, because of my initial feelings on the mix. So, when people come up to me and say, “’Viva Emptiness’ is the best album”, I think, how could you…? But now we’ve done the remix and rehearsing the songs for these shows, we all look at each other and say, “there are some great songs on this album.” But it’s been a bit hidden beneath the other albums.
MD: So with hindsight then… a bit of a renaissance almost where you’ve learnt to love it again for what it is.
JONAS: Yeah, yeah.
MD: It is an amazing album. How do you personally rate ‘Viva Emptiness’ 2003 and 2013 against all your other work? Do you think it stands up as one of the best in your own opinion?
JONAS: Yeah, I think so. It was a transition album from what we did on the album before, ‘Last Fair Deal Gone Down’, because that was a little bit more, I would say, pop-oriented in the song structures. But, with ‘Viva Emptiness’, we went back a little bit to the metal thing, adding some double bass drums again, and things we hadn’t used for a long time. So, what we’re doing now, I think, is built on the foundation of what ‘Viva Emptiness’ did, as well as all the earlier stuff we’ve done - we still have that but ‘Viva Emptiness’ was a transition to the present Katatonia.
MD: [To Niklas] And how do you rate ‘Viva Emptiness’ amongst other Katatonia albums? Is it up there as one of your favourites?
NIKLAS: My favourite is ‘The Great Cold Distance’ because all the songs and how the production is, it really merges on that record. And I think ‘Viva Emptiness’ has grown on me, like after I heard it with this remastering. And now I’ve been fed all these songs for a couple of months, that also has an effect, I guess. But I think it’s up there amongst the top albums.
MD: What songs are you most proud of now, ten years on, on the album? Any favourites where you look back now and go, “that was actually a really, really good song.”? You can say the entire album if you like!
JONAS: Songs that I didn’t even listen to for a long time like ‘One Year from Now’, when I listen to it now, both on the new album and now when we’re doing it live, I think it’s a great track. It was a bit overlooked when we first did the album because it was kind of different. It’s like this waltz thing, and…
MD: …and it’s very, very melancholic. Even more melancholic than the usual melancholy in your music!
JONAS: Yeah, yeah.
MD: I think that track and ‘Omerta’ are the two that really stand out on the album.
JONAS: Yeah. So that one I’m super proud of right now. And, of course, I have to mention the consistent songs like ‘Evidence’, which we’ve been playing live for years and years, and it’s a song people shout for.
MD: ‘Criminals’ as well, and ‘Ghost of the Sun’ seem to be big favourites.
MD: ‘Wealth’ has always been one of my favourites with then gentle melodies set against the heavier parts. I think that contrast is amazing.
JONAS: Yeah, that’s good dynamics in that one. So, yeah, it’s full of great songs!
MD: So who actually remixed and remastered the album?
JONAS: It was made by David Castillo. He’s the guy that we’ve been using on the last few albums. He used to be working with Jens… and, I guess, their styles aren’t super different from each other. But, since we’ve been doing stuff with David for a long time now, he knows our sound, he knows what we like and what we don’t like.
MD: Did you oversee the remix and remaster.
JONAS: Oh yeah, yeah.
MD: Did you have suggestions as to how exactly you wanted the album to sound?
JONAS: Yeah, exactly, we had to monitor everything. When we do stuff, we pay a lot of attention to detail but maybe the sound guy does not think of it in the same terms as we do. We have to, like, “that little echo has to come up.” So we always need to be very involved in mixing.
MD: To bring out the nuances in your sound.
JONAS: Yeah, but I think he likes it as well. It’s always a good time to sit there and discuss the smallest details.
MD: I gather ‘Inside the City of Glass’ now has vocals?
MD: And I gather it was originally intended to have vocals?
JONAS: It was, yes.
MD: Why did it end up as an instrumental on the original?
JONAS: Purely because of the time pressure that we had in the studio. The mix was approaching and we love the song… on this version, it’s actually longer; it’s the original length for the song. When we understood we didn’t have the time to add the vocals, we just shortened it down to have it as an instrumental closer. But now we’ve had the time to do the vocals, it had to come back to its original length. So it’s much longer and it’s very dark and broody.
MD: It works really well as an instrumental too, though.
MD: [To Niklas] What’s your preference; do you think vocals work on this track now?
NIKLAS: Sure it does. It’s the missing element, I guess. It makes the song complete. And even though it’s pretty much the same riff going over and over, just with some variation, it really works. It creates a dark mood that kind of gets to your bones.
MD: The cover art’s rather cunning – I presume that’s supposed to be the same girl but ten years older?
JONAS: It is, yes.
MD: What’s the general concept supposed to be behind that?
JONAS: Well, the concept is pretty much that ten years have passed and this girl that was walking towards something on the first version is now reaching the destination on the new one. You can see it in front of her, which is pretty much nothingness; emptiness.
MD: She’s been walking down that road a long time!
JONAS: Yeah, poor lady! It’s fun because it’s Travis’ daughter and I think she was four years old on the first cover. When we discussed the option of doing a bit of an altered artwork, we came up with the idea that if the girl’s going to be back, it has to be his daughter again. We said, “ten years have passed in her life as well, she will look different, so let’s just do it.” And he was like, “wow, what a great idea.”
MD: I gather you’re playing the album in reverse order on this tour?
MD: What led to that decision?
JONAS: Just to fuck with people’s conceptions!
JONAS: They expect us to play ‘Ghost of the Sun’ first, so…
MD: It’s a good song to finish with, though.
JONAS: It is, yeah.
MD: When Metallica played the ‘Black Album’ at shows last year, they played that in reverse because I think they wanted to end with ‘Sad But True’ and ‘Enter Sandman’. So I guess that’s a similar kind of thing.
JONAS: Oh yeah.
MD: [To Niklas] What’s your take on playing it in reverse?
NIKLAS: I think it works and, as you mentioned, ‘Ghost of the Sun’ is a good closer. And, yeah, I think it works better that way, in a live situation. On the CD, obviously, it works in the order as it is but, in a live situation, I think it makes sense to end with the opening hits. End strong instead of, as it is on the CD, taking it down and ending with something more mellow. Yeah, I think it works better.
MD: You weren’t tempted to reverse the order for the reissue then?
JONAS: No, no, it should be as it is.
MD: How was the experience of working through the songs at rehearsals? Did you have to study the songs to relearn any of the parts or did it all come flooding back? Well, you said that there’s a lot more clarity in the mix now and found a different way of playing some parts…
NIKLAS: Yeah and, actually, there are some songs that I’d never touched before on the album, so I had to learn it from scratch. Old songs that we’ve played a lot during the years like ‘Evidence’, ‘Ghost of the Sun’ and ‘Criminals’, like small things in the bass, like variations, made it easier to hear it and learn it.
MD: [To Jonas] And were your lyrics ingrained in your mind already or was there a lot of relearning to do there?
JONAS: No, I think most of them were… except for the songs that we’ve never played live before like ‘A Premonition’, ‘One Year from Now’ and the new ‘Inside the City of Glass’… but that, I did the vocals not too long ago so I could remember that. Other than that, I think most of it was, you know, in the back of my head somewhere. And it worked out during rehearsal… I had to look in the booklet a few times but…
MD: Once you started, it came flooding back… it’s all in there somewhere!
JONAS: Yeah, yeah.