Do I even need to write a paragraph or two about Cult of Luna? It’s a metal band from Sweden, I mean does bad music come out of that part of the world? My obsession with post-metal such as Neurosis, ISIS, Deafheaven doesn’t seem to be fading anytime soon and Cult of Luna has been a huge part of that obsession.
Getting the opportunity to speak with Johannes Persson, off the back of the release of their latest album The Long Road North, about the creation of their mind-blowing music, is a little surreal. He shared some very valuable information and with each passing interview, I always seem to learn something new. This is no exception. I hope you get as much out of it as I did.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. I’m a huge Cult of Luna fan. I’m a bit of a guitar player myself so getting to pick your brain about how you play and write music is awesome.
I was actually thinking, what guitar is over your right shoulder there?
Oh it’s a Squier Jazzmaster.
Are those P90 pickups?
No this is the J Mascis Signature and has Jazzmaster pickups, but they are different. I forget what they are. I have this one that has P90s and I really like it. It’s an Epiphone Casino and it’s really thin which is partially why I got it.
That’s a nice one. I have a Gretsch hollow body. They don’t have the cut out like yours, but they are thin and amazing. They have a distinct sound, it’s very soft, round, and warm sounding. Sooner or later I’m getting myself a 335 or a Silver Falcon. I have too many guitars but there’s always a reason to get one more [laughs].
Isn’t that the truth. I have a few and I bounce around using them depending on my mood.
Yeah, right now I’ve been using my Dunable guitar and I’m getting one more. They are crafted in such an amazing way and sound very thick and easy to play. Have you heard of that brand?
Yes, since doing these interviews I have heard of them quite often. A lot of guitarists use his guitars.
Sacha made me one for the previous record and now I’m getting another for a different tuning. We toured with Intronaut years ago and he mentioned making guitars and said he’d make me one. I forgot about it after touring and someone mentioned Dunable guitars to me years later. I had the chance to play it and it was an amazing guitar. I didn’t connect the dots right away because I forgot Sacha’s last name [laughs]. My friend said I can connect you with Sacha. I said the Intronaut guy? [laughs]. We have been in touch ever since.
Is that your go to guitar now?
Well, I only have one [laughs] and it was built for lower tunings. We alternate tuning often so I need a few guitars and it depends on the song what guitar I will play. For some songs, I need the warmer sound and I need a Bigsby sound, so I will use my Gretsch for them. Usually, live I alternate between three guitars, it’s been so long since we played live, and I have so many guitars I don’t remember the third guitar [laughs].
I have my Sunn Model T Reissue and I know people hate me for this, but I honestly think it sounds better than the original…
It has been rough without live music for so long. When recording vs Live what amps do you typically use?
Let’s see, I alternate amps as well [laughs]. I have my Sunn Model T Reissue and I know people hate me for this, but I honestly think it sounds better than the original. It all depends on the sound I’m after. When we first started getting serious, I had some inheritance money, and I began throwing it on different amps I wanted. I bought a Peavey 5150 which sounded horrible [laughs]. I bought a Marshall anniversary amp which I kept for a year or so and then I finally bought the amp, which I thought, would end my search. It was a Mesa Boogie Rectifier because everyone had one. I didn’t really like it and it was super expensive.
We recorded The Beyond, which was the heaviest guitar sound we ever were able to summon [laughs]. That’s because we used every amp available and throwing guitars at Magnus Lindberg who recorded it. In the studio, we found this old Canadian Traynor Mark III amp, and with a combination of a distortion pedal called Gollmer The Blues it was a eureka moment, nothing sounds like it. I have two now, they’re not built that well and break often. I think the builder is dead now too so if it breaks, I have to fix it myself.
When we play live it’s very hard to get a Sunn amp especially when flying. To be able to have some consistency and make it easy for the front of house, I usually use an Orange Rockerverb which is amazing. I bought one and it should be here in a week or so. It will be good to have, so we can practice with it before live shows. Hopefully, it will be on the next recording as well.
What’s on the rest of the pedalboard? Do you have a lot of pedals?
I have tons and tons of pedals. As soon as I think I have found my sound, I throw that away and try and find something new. I have one pedal that I was suggested by AA Williams who we toured with. She showed me the Eventide Space which I love. I also have a Leslie Vibe, Flanger, and The Blues.
At the beginning of my guitar career, which I started pretty late, I tried to compensate technical ability by finding other ways of using the instrument. I am a huge Rage Against the Machine fan and Tom Morello is amazing. I wouldn’t say I was trying to copy him, but I would try and get different sounds out of the guitar. One example is I used to use the volume knob until I realized you can get a volume pedal to do that too [laughs]. If you use that with a delay pedal while camouflaging the attack of the strings, it creates a wave of sound. I figured that out early on. The volume pedal I have is also a Wah and it was around $30.
That’s amazing. I like doing those volume swells and I’m looking for a volume pedal myself.
Yeah, it’s fun to do. That’s the thing. I’m not a good guitar player. I’m a pretty good songwriter but not a good technical player. I use my ability to my advantage to write stupid riffs [laughs]. It’s true though a good riff should be on the borderline of being stupid because it’s catchy. I picked up the guitar when I was 14-15 and for the first 2-3 years, I was practicing scales and technique. I was quite good then [laughs] but now I never practice. When we started the band, we were touring with amazing musicians, and I took guitar lessons and had the ambition to learn to shred. Shortly after, I realized I’m not going to put in the hours required to solo like that. I believe that has worked to my advantage.
with technically good musicians, it almost limits you when being creative, the music sometimes will be an avenue to show off skills, I don’t necessarily think that makes a good song…
One problem I could see with technically good musicians, it almost limits you when being creative, the music sometimes will be an avenue to show off skills, I don’t necessarily think that makes a good song. To me a good song is hooks. I love Meshuggah and have been listening to them a lot lately. I’m not a solo guy so when they start going crazy soloing I’m out, but having said that, what differs Meshuggah from other very technical bands is that even though it gets technically advanced, there is still groove to it and it’s still simple if you break it down. It doesn’t border stupid like we do [laughs]. He does things so simple that it’s easy to keep track of the beat. Their drummer is a huge asset to the band and if he was all over the place as well, it would be hard to find the rhythm and that’s the key. You feel the rhythm and you have the hooks and your pretty much done.
That’s how I write songs. As soon as I feel the song has an identifiable rhythm, even if it’s just one riff, I know I will have a song. It may take me a day, or a few years, to write it, but it will be a song. You know, as a songwriter you write tons of stuff that doesn’t go anywhere. As soon as it has an identifiable rhythm then I know I’ve got something.
That is very interesting. I do have hundreds of riffs and ideas on my phone but 99% are terrible and I can never connect any to make it into some sort of song. What is your song writing process like once you have that simple identifiable rhythm?
The songwriters in the band will construct a skeleton. It’s basically a road map where we have mapped out the intensity layers of the song. When I write a song, I very often just write a draft. It’s very very rough. I don’t want to write too much because I don’t want the guys to feel too limited. I then take that to the guys and the rough draft will explain enough of the song’s progression and intensity levels. I’m fortunate enough to play with geniuses, I don’t have to worry that things aren’t going to work out.
I know two things when I bring a song idea to the guys. One, I know the song will not sound anything like I originally thought and two, it’s going to sound better. If there is any talent that I have, it’s the ability to surround myself with people that are going to make me look good. People that are incredibly talented. When you play with great musicians it becomes like a self-playing piano where you push each other, and the entity that is you is constantly being pushed.
I’m fortunate enough to play with geniuses, I don’t have to worry that things aren’t going to work out…
I’ve played in other bands besides Cult of Luna that sound nothing like us either. In one band, I learned how to play different chords that I have never thought of, and we ended up using these melodic chord shapes on our first album. With this band, I can put the music in the hands of my friends, and they will push the songs farther than I could by myself.
I feel every band needs to have a captain of the boat. If we were ever close to quitting, it was before we recorded Eternal Kingdom. We wanted to try and write democratically and jam on songs, but it did not work out very well. Democracy is a great idea, but not when it comes to music or art. You need to have a captain with an idea. With that said, it doesn’t mean that person is a dictator, the person needs to be able to fulfil their idea, which is the skeleton of the song, before people start tampering with it.
I have heard that democracy in a band does not work out well.
I don’t believe in compromises in artistic choices. Compromises in a relationship is great, for example, should we go on a vacation or purchase something now. Maybe we can find a middle ground, and everyone will still be happy. If you have two choices in music, the middle ground is not automatically better, it’s two sides losing. Everyone who works with me knows how I work, and I can dismiss an idea very fast because I need time to digest it. Maybe its pride, which isn’t flattering but it’s true. If I’m working on an idea for many months and someone says ‘no, let’s do this,’ I’d say ‘no, I know this trust me.’ We will work with it and maybe in a day or so, the feeling of pride fades away and their idea was better, but sometimes you need to stick with what you believe in.
What about off days?
I don’t know if I really have off days on tour. That’s because we have a lot of fun and being on tour is more of an excuse to play music with my friends for a few weeks. When recording, we have families and jobs and we have adjusted our recording style to fit our lives. Very rarely do we spend a designated amount of time in a studio to record. We do it over time. Drums usually need to be recorded in 3-4 days, but everything else we will do a day or two here and there over a long period of time. There is a lot less pressure that way too.
Little by little I have become sloppy in my playing. I don’t want to create the perfect record. A perfect record will sound the same today, tomorrow, or even ten years from now. I want the songs to have an identity and capture the moment. I only do two takes on each track. If I’m totally off, then they can cut between the takes, but the little mistakes I like. Major mistakes are not good, but the little mistakes give it that identity I want. I can listen to the song Owlwood for example, the ending you can hear the guitar fading in and out. That’s actually Erik Olofsson’s Roland Space Echo dying. He used it for years and that was the last time he used it. You can hear the last dying breath of the Space Echo, something like that you cannot create digitally. I’m not against digital effects but the Space Echo dying created a unique sound.
You can hear the last dying breath of the Space Echo, something like that you cannot create digitally…
I’m currently obsessed with An Offering To The Wild off your new album The Long Road North. Is there a song or part of a song you’re proud of?
It’s a little too early for the new stuff because I haven’t distanced myself enough from it. I am still listening as a writer and trying to figure out how we can play everything live [laughs]. I was listening to Spotify the other week and after the song I was listening to, they put on similar music in a playlist an old song off Vertikal II and I thought how did we write that? Its three different tuned guitars playing these weird fucked up parts that’s totally insane. I was thinking did I write this? (Laughs). It’s been 8 years since we wrote it so I can listen to it in a different way. So that was a cool experience.
This record, The Long Road North, I’m very proud of because we took a lot of chances. We did a lot of things very late in the process, just before we had to deliver the master. It was a chance at the time, but now I know we made the right decisions. We changed a lot within the songs. Not only the arrangements but how we constructed the album. I was confident we were making the right decisions and I am very happy with the end results.
What are you currently listening to for enjoyment?
I mentioned earlier Meshuggah. I am listening to them quite a bit. I’m trying to catch up on the new Wovenhand album. I’ve been into them a lot lately. David Eugene Edwards is behind that band and used to be in a band called 16 Horsepower before forming Wovenhand. Of course, Sabbath is on my list and Killing Joke is one of my absolute favourites. That’s a few from the list. I’ve been listening to a lot of old punk records too. Dead Kennedys is one of my favourites. I’ve never been into Black Flag too much.
Same here, I’ve never been into Black Flag too much either, except the album My War. The B side on that album is basically doom metal.
Yes, that album was good. Bolt Thrower is another band I really like, I overlooked them too and recently got into them. I’ve always known about them, I just never realised how amazing they are. Now I’m obsessed and Metal Blade Records was kind enough to send me three of their albums so now I believe I own them all [laughs).
I love that about music where you may know of a band for a long time but one day something clicks, and you cannot get enough of all their music. Cult of Luna is that for me. I’m obsessed and have been for some time. The arrangements, textures, whatever you got going on is amazing and I can’t get enough.
Thank you. I get a lot of questions about why we do certain things and the thought process when creating music. As if there is some major plot behind it, like every decision we make is taken with super care. It’s not, however, most of the time it’s a spur of the moment decision when writing, such as ‘let’s try reverb on this guitar.’ We will turn some knobs and see what we get. It comes down to taste, decisions made on the fly and the end result is our record.
most of the time it’s a spur of the moment decision when writing…
For example, The Long Road North sounded very big and cinematic, and hearing that, spawned new ideas. How can we enhance this, should we ask Colin Stetson if he wants to work on it? You mentioned An Offering To The Wild, that’s one song he put a lot of effort in. We were recording this part on Blood Upon Stone with a special rhythm and it sounded like a Phoenix part. We said should we ask the Phoenix guys if they want to add to it ‘yeah, why not’ and that’s how the process went with impulses on the fly.
That’s really cool. You feel the music and make decisions in the moment. It definitely translates through the music.
One of the reasons it works well is because we’ve played music together for a very long time. Our drummer, Thomas Hedlund, and I have been playing together for 25 years. When we play live, we don’t even have to look at each other to communicate, that’s something you cannot learn. It comes down to friendship and musicianship. I think that’s the most important thing to have in a band. Basically, I’m happy to play music with my best friends.
Well, if that’s not the perfect ending I don’t know what is. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. It was a lot of fun.
Thank you for this nice talk.
Cult of Luna’s latest album The Long Road North is out now via Metal Blade Records in conjunction with the band’s own Red Creek Recordings.
Interviewed by: Josh Schneider