Katatonia / Jonas Renkse: I want to believe in ghosts

Katatonia’s vocalist Jonas is a rare luxury to have for a face to face interview, just as rarely his band is performing live nowadays. Nevertheless, for over a decade Katatonia remains one of the most significant dark metal acts of contemporary metal culture, yet it is still surrounded by some mysterious mist… what is going on there after all? What is in this music that balances us on the edge of being one foot in dreamland and one food in our tough reality? There is plenty of information on Mr Renkse’s musical engagements, yet who is Jonas actually and what kind of character does it take to create what we hear as Katatonia?

Just two hours before their long awaited show in Moscow, I came in for the interview, still not knowing which of the band members I will talk to. For a big surprise, Jonas was one and that made me nervous at first. Yet even though he appears as rather untalkative and introverted man, he still somehow transmits this very reassuring sense of peace and harmony, that content feeling of stability, that’s all in all somehow disarming and naive even, given what harsh industry he belongs to. So then, who is this Jonas?…

Hi, how’re you?
Good, good…

You look so serious and concentrated…
Really? No… We’ve done the soundcheck, had dinner, now we’re just chilling, waiting for the gig.

How’s Russia for you?
Ahmmm… We were here in ’05, I think and it was very good experience, a lot of people, very rewarding great audience. We’ve been looking forward to come back and finally we’re here again.

You were supposed to play here in January this year, what happened?
Oh, we didn’t get the visas in time, so it was only because of the paperwork.

So then what has been going on with the band lately? You’ve been rather quiet…
Yeah, we’ve been kind of quiet, we’ve played a few gigs, but mostly we’ve been writing music for the new album. That’s the main focus right now. So what we’re doing now is playing a few gigs here and there, but the rest of the time we’ve just trying to put the songs together and see if we can make the new album as good as the previous one.

And how far along are you with the new material?
It’s difficult to say, because we don’t have like whole 10 new songs ready, but we have material for the whole album probably, just trying to put everything together in the most perfect way for Katatonia music.

So time-wise, how’s it looking?
Ah, I would hope to be at the studio during the summer and have the album released in fall.

And can you already say if it’ll be more along the lines of the previous album, or are you experimenting with something new?
I would say it’s a… It’s like… [takes a pause] It’s kind of similar to the previous album, especially the Great Cold Distance, but we are using more textures, atmospheres; like not adding so much synth elements but, but still keeping the heavy edge to everything. I just hope that we will have a set of songs that are as good as the last ones, or better.

Can it be a conceptual album?
No. Not more than the other albums. It’s conceptual anyway, as it revolves around the same kind of subjects as always, because that’s the style that we have, that does not have a storyline.

What sort of state of mind when you’re writing?
I try to write music all the time, so it doesn’t really matter, but I prefer to be really relaxed. I like writing at nights, but when having a family this is kind of difficult, but if I could choose, I would write my music at night, no destractions, just being creative, sensitive towards the kind of vibrations I get when thinking about… Well, it’s the whole mood of being awake at night, on my own.

You have children?
Yes, I have 2 children, which makes it very difficult (laughs), they wake all night. But I think we’ve had this band for such a long time, so I know how to write music even if I’m doing it in the middle of the day, so I know what it takes to get a new Katatonia song, so I don’t get very destracted because I know I’ve to focus and just turn the lights out, burn a candle…

Do you think becoming a father changed something in your approach to music?
Not really. I was thinking about it when I first got children, but music is such an isolated thing for me, so I don’t think it would matter if I had one or ten or no kids at all, because music is what I do when I need to do it, and when I get the time, there’s nothing else I think about, except for music.

What were you like as a kid?
I think pretty normal, maybe a bit more shy than most kids. I liked to draw and that was my biggest interest, reading and drawing, going to school… I had a good childhood, you know?..

Do you think the kind of childhood you had and the way your parents were with you, have an influence on the kind of father you are now to your kids?
Yeah, I think so. My parents have been very supportive to my music, which I started pretty early, when I was 13-14, and I wanted to play drums, and they were helping me getting drumming lessons. And then when we started then band, my dad was driving me with his car and our equipment, and stuff like that. Of course my kids aren’t in that age yet, but I can see myself being as supportive as my parents were, with whatever my children will choose to do. It doesn’t have to be music, can be sports, or whatever. I think it’s important to encourage them with whatever interests them and give them freedom.

Is there a specific person whom your lyrics go to, or is it based on more general life experiences?
Pretty much general. I think earlier, some years back, I was having specific persons in mind, but these days I tend to write about different feelings and something those feelings are personified by someone that I direct them into the lyrics, but not always, you know… It’s different from time to time, it’s difficult to say if it’s about a specific person or an isolated event. It’s a mix of everything. Because when it’s eventually time to write lyrics, I just need to get as much down as possible, and then separate things from each other, see what works with the music, then I’ve to look for a certain rhyme, so it doesn’t really matter whom it’s about.

My favourite song is “July” and I was wondering, how did you write it?
I was thinking back on a certain event that happened to me some years before, and trying to compress them into a song, into a lyric, it’s difficult, to make it work in a musical kind of way, but still giving that kind of story that I wanted, so I think that one is about something that happened years back, but I brought up when I was looking for inspiration to write something that would go hand in hand with music. When I was listening to the music, I needed some kind of subject that would have the same kind of vibe as the music, so I just had to go down that memory lane and see what would work.

And especially that line, “…how come you invited me too?” – it’s so simple, just like if you’d be talking like this, nothing veiled. There’s nothing so twisted, metaphorical and overly poetic that you need a dictionary or Wikipedia to decode it, you write just how it is!
I think I’ve been trying continuously to make my lyrics more simple every time. Because back in the day when we started the band, 20 years ago, or something, I was trying to write difficult lyrics, using difficult words, that I didn’t even know what they were about, but with every album now I try to make it more simple and more direct, so the line that you’ve mentioned is pretty much a result of it. Like if you would be interested in a certain person and you have hopes and you think that this person might be interested in you too, and you’re invited… You know what I mean? And then it turns out that there wasn’t any, well… and so, “how come you invited me too?” It’s simple but powerful.

Also, there are a few of very influential bands, from ‘70s and ‘80s, still performing and recording, like for example the Sisters of Mercy are touring now, but most of their current shows are just sad… And Katatonia is a very influential band in modern alternative music history, so how do you see it some 25 years from now?
Anders was at the Sisters of Mercy concert in Stockholm the other week, and he was also extremely disappointed, so I guess that’s a good sign for us too. We don’t want to become a band that just goes on stage to get the money or whatever they are doing, so as long as we feel that we have something to give to the audience, I guess that’ll keep us playing live. I don’t want to see us doing what Anders was telling me about that concert. I mean, I don’t want people to think about Katatonia as some old grumpy men just doing it for the money, or whatever, so yeah, keep the fire.

What’s the last concert you’ve been to?
I don’t go to a lot of concerts, I was at… I was watching Opeth in Stockholm, and before that… I don’t know, maybe the band Muse from England, that was a great concert. But that was some 6 months ago, so…

Opeth guys are good friends of yours, so can you still be objective towards their music and tell them honestly, like “tonight it just sucked!…”
They are such a great band that you don’t have to get disappointed, you know? I know the guys very well, but it’s different from if maybe we would be on tour with them and we would watched them from stage every night, that’s something different, but for this concert I was just watching them like anyone else in the audience and that’s a different thing. At least with Opeth I get very blown away with such a good band they are, everyone in the band knows what they are doing and all together they have become… So I was more or less watching them as a fan, because when you see the band standing on the side of the stage, you can sort of enjoy it, but it’s always like – “hey, cheers guys!” [does a corresponding gesture with his beer can] – so it’s not the same thing. But yeah, I don’t go to concerts that much, I don’t know, it’s just there’re too many people around or something… (laughs)

So you don’t like those big sold-out shows?
No, I mean, I was… Yes, too many people.

Talking about touring, you’ve done some collaboration with Finnish Swallow the Sun, what’s your impression from their music?
I think it’s a good stuff and I think it resembles to what we were doing some years back, they have the same kind of idea what we had back then, and they are doing it very well. And we’ve been playing with them in Finland and got to know the guys a little, they just asked me if I could do some guest vocals and it was fun challenge for me to do something like that.

And you’ve also toured with them in the US…
Yes, and then we went on tour together. That was fun as well. We had a good time, those guys are drinking a lot! And they were running out of beers all the time and I guess we got more booze on the rider, and they were touring in the van and we had this nightliner bus, and every night I had the vocalist Mikko calling my cellphone asking “hey, can we buy booze from you?” and we were like, “no problem, just have some” and there was another Finnish band on the bill, Insomnium. They were not really my style, but they were doing it well. They were more fast melodic stuff, more like In Flames style… But all in all, great Finnish guys.

Have you heard the new My Dying Bride album?
No, I haven’t. I’m looking forward to it because I’ve heard a lot of good things about it, so I hope I’ll get a copy soon.

Then how’s your relationship with the record label, because nowadays many artists are struggling with obviously unfair deals…
Yeah… I actually think that we have a pretty good relation with our record label. They seem to be kind of honest. We’ve had other record labels and with other bands as well, where we have seen more of the whole greed thing, when it shines through much more. But with the Peaceville that we have now, I think it’s an honest label that’s pretty upfront with the business reasons and so… But you never know, I mean I’m not an expert, I don’t see all the moves that they make, if they’re doing things which we are not aware of, because we’re just musicians, we are not like lawyers, or businesspeople.

What do you think then distinguishes business and art?
I think art is handled by people that have a genuine interest in art and business is handled by people that realise that art is generating money, and they want to get piece of the pie. But because in a creative sense, it doesn’t make any sense for me to think about money when I’m creating music, it’s not like I’m sitting down, trying to write a song that will generate money, because all I can do is try to make a song that sounds like it’s my song and the way I wanted to sing it. I think in a more general picture art and business are very far from each other, it’s pretty much bad luck that they are being tied up so close, because people want to make money out of art. Of course we want to make some money out of art as well, but we’re not thinking about it all the time, it’s not why we are here.

Can I ask you for some comments on your band members? Like, for example, what is the weirdest thing about Mattias?
Oh… The weirdest thing about him is his house, because it’s haunted!

Really?! He should bring some tourists…
Yeah. He was telling me stories an hour ago about the doors being open and a lot of stuff going on in his house. He’s got two kids as well and the wife, and they’re experiencing very weird stuff. That’s the thing about him… (laughs)

Do you believe in ghosts?
No, but I want to believe, so I’m trying to get people to prove to me that there are ghosts.

What is the funniest thing about Daniel?
Too much to mention! He’s… the crazy guy in the band, he never sleeps, he’s always doing pranks and stuff… So what could weird be? I think there’s just too much to mention.

What is the cutest thing about Fredrik?
The cutest?! He’s a good father. When he’s on the phone, I can hear him talk to his daughters and he’s being pretty cute with them. Yeah, I think that’s the cutest thing. I mean, not that it’s cute to be a good father, but he seems to have fun with it.

What’s the most annoying thing about you?
I think the other guys will say that they tell me I should be an actor instead of playing in a band, because I always do these small theatre things, like impersonating all the time, and they get very annoyed because I talk with different voices and pretending to be other different kinds of people all the time, which is annoying for me as well, but I can’t stop it. (laughs)

…because the voices in your head tell you to!
Yes. I send them emails all the time, from different kinds of people’s personas. (laughs)

Have you ever thought to pursue this acting thing?
NO! No. I don’t think I’m… but maybe, if the band’s falling apart, maybe I would do something. I was doing some kind of theatre stuff when I was a kid, which I thought was excellent, but I think I was a bit too shy to make it work all the way, now I have more experience being on stage, so maybe…

And then, something romantic thing about Anders?
Emmm… I think he’s a very romantic person, I think he’s doing romantic stuff, let’s see… He’s more romantic than me, that’s for sure. He’s buying gifts to his girlfriend, which I would never come up with, you know?

For the last question, I’m wondering… what is the meaning of life?
(laughs) I think… That’s a question for the smart people. Satan is the meaning of life. (laughs)

Marina Sidyakina

GastmitarbeiterInnen / guest contributions

Regular guest contributors e.g. Melanie Kircher, Tatjana Tattis Murschel, Grit Kabiersch, Marina Minkler, Jasmine Frey, Maria Levin, Elvira Visser, Nina Ratavaara, John Wisniewski