Within the next few weeks Katatonia will be touring Australia for the first time since their last tour of Australia.
I was afforded the opportunity to speak to Niklas Sandin manly about things related to performing live.
Tickets to Katatonia’s Australian shows are available here.
Ez: Katatonia’s a band that’s been around for quite a while. At this point, how has what the name “Katatonia” represents changed, at least since you’ve joined?
Niklas: I think what Katatonia is about haven’t changed since I joined. I think it’s still a band that. foremost, writes music for ourselves. To write music that we like and we can represent to 100%, and we always try to accomplish something that’s better than the previous album.
Also, when we go out playing live, we also want to step up our game and be more present, and offer a better live show for the audience. So I think what it’s always represented is something of good integrity and something that we can 100% stand for, ourselves. That we haven’t sold out and that we’re very happy with the craft that we’re going out in the world with.
Ez: And how do you feel that your playing bass fits into that?
Niklas: I think it fits in in a way where… of course it’s nice to be audible and do your own things and have your own stuff happening in the music, and have your bass lines present, but I think it’s more important to support the song and know that you’re having a good foundation for not only the guitars, but [for] the vocals to rest on, and something that contributes and fills in the gaps of the music.
And also doing good outlines of the chords. I saw someone online – I can’t remember who it was – that hit the nail on the head; that it’s not mainly about being the glue between the drums and the guitars, but outlining the chords and having good foundation. So it’s something that makes a good foundation and base for the music. It’s a non-egocentric kind of view and I’m not there to shine and be very “pushed centre” in the mix or anything. I like to be someone who supports the music and make it sound better in a subtle and also discreet way.
Ez: My understanding is Katatonia is about to undergo a tour of Australia. This is mostly in support of the album that was released last year, of which the name eludes me. Something about a starless sky?
Niklas: Oh yeah. Sky Void of Stars *laughs*
Ez: Sky Void of Stars. I am sorry if you and the rest of the band has explained this before, but what does that mean to you?
Niklas: It doesn’t have a hard meaning, but one of the meanings it could have is that going through life and going through the hardships, it’s kind of like a sky void of stars because that’s how you navigated and that’s how you knew you were on the right course back in the day with ships and everything. So when it’s a sky void of stars it’s hard to navigate and that is something that we all struggle with.
That’s at least what it means to me, and that’s the thing with lots of the lyrics and titles and whatnot, with Katatonia; It’s very open to interpretation, and I know that some songs out there have vastly different meanings for the audience than maybe what it means for you and us, and that’s totally okay because that’s the meaning as well. Everyone reads in their own experience and their own emotions into titles and lyrics, and the meanings of the songs.
Ez: I thought, looking at the artwork and whatnot, it might have something to do with in part, a lamenting of light pollution affects how we see the sky. But obviously, when it comes to personal interpretation that’s always important.
Niklas: That’s an interesting take on it, actually.
Niklas: And it would most probably [have] been that way if we were Gojira *laughs* because they’re singing about the environment, and destruction mankind has upon it and mother earth, which is horrible, so I think it’s a very good lyrical theme and good cause that they’re doing. Going out and kind of enlightening people about what we’re actually doing and what’s causing the burning of our own home that we’re sharing.
But yeah, I think that was a good take, with the pollution of the city and that you can’t really see the night sky. Wasn’t [it] something that happened during the pandemic? [That] pollution eased up so all over the world people hadn’t really seen the stars or mountains that were quite close to where they were living, and all of a sudden they had a clear view.
Ez: When everything was forced to shut down a lot of that continual pumping into systems, because that did stop, it certainly helped with that visibility. It’s a bit of a shame that it’s had to continue really.
Niklas: It’s a horrible trade-off.
Ez: You hope with more information and education and outreach, and with successive generations we move towards something much more environmentally viable.
Niklas: Yeah, I hope so too. More sustainable. And that’s why we’re flying all the way to Australia *laughs* to play rock and roll.
Ez: It’s always something to think about. Because Katatonia is a successful band but Katatonia still has to be a touring band, right?.
Niklas: Oh yeah, definitely.
Ez: And I’m going to go out on a limb here and just assume that the band may have their own quandaries about the ethics of touring and how that does have an impact on the environment.
Niklas: Oh yeah. Absolutely. That’s something you think about, with all the flights and whatnot. But also it’s kind of… I don’t know. It’s also easy to see things in a bigger scale. There’s other things that affect the environment at a larger scale, like the meat industry, which I’m a part of. I’m a meat eater. I do enjoy meat once in a while.
And also, I know in Sweden people were being very environmentally cautious and staying home, watching Netflix, and then the servers went so hot, all the server parts were almost reaching the same pollution levels as the flight industry.
It’s hard to balance everything. I think at least when we go out and we fly, and we do these trips, we do it for something that has a good worth; not just for ourselves, but for our audience. That we can connect with so many people on another, more personal level because we’re in the same room, enjoying music together. So I think it’s still worth it.
If we just fly around and eat very nice local cuisine it would be a little bit questionable *laughs*, but we’re flying, having a purpose, so it’s something not just needed for us but for our listeners.
Ez: Let’s take it to something a little bit less doom and gloom then.
Niklas: Yes! *laughs*
Ez: What with the ensuing tour, you’ve been playing these new songs for over a year now in a live setting. Do you feel that they work well with the other songs on a setlist?
Niklas: Yeah. I think that they’ve been very well-received, and they fit into the setlists. It’s like always with Katatonia; it changes slightly, but it’s not like a new, different band. We haven’t really incorporated any saxophone, yet, or any weird stuff, or crazy elements or go in a totally different route, so I think they all fit in very nicely.
I remember one year ago, when we released the record, it was the same day as we embarked on the first tour for the record; The European tour. It just took five, six days in and people were singing the lyrics of the songs that were just released. Not even a week, so it was very well received.
They still work very well, and we’re very excited to play them because they still feel very fresh. I can’t really believe that it’s been a year since the album was released. It feels like just a few months, but I think that’s the thing, right? When you release something good, or something good happens and you have a great successful year with gigs and it kind of just flies by.
Ez: It probably also helps that Katatonia has been around for as long as they have, in that you’ve been able to prove yourselves as a live act, and you’ve been able to prove yourselves as song writers and composers as well, so there’s probably a bit more confidence there in that knowing, regardless of how the songs turn out you’re going to be able to perform them and get people on your side.
Niklas: Yeah, but it’s also very nerve-wracking, because you never know how the audience will react. As I’ve said before, it’s never been about playing it safe and writing music that we think that people will like, and this should be something people like even better than the previous one. It’s mainly writing music that the band thinks is better than the previous record, but who knows? Maybe the audience thinks it’s utter crap, and then you’re kind of like “Okay, well…” but still, you have written the best album possible at that time because it should be writing with integrity and writing for yourself rather than making a product.
When I think you start writing music for someone else to like, you’re sculpting a product and something that isn’t art anymore, because then you could have, I don’t know, a panel or something to come into the studio. [You’d say] “What do you think about this riff?” and then they can score it one to ten, or something. But it’s not like making a movie or a TV series, or pilots; it’s about keeping the art and the integrity of the band, and just hope that people like it, and people think it’s something worth to buy and listen to live.
So it’s always nerve-wrecking, and it’s something that always keeps this excitement, because of course you want the fans to like it, and maybe even attract new ones.
Ez: I suppose that nervousness is a good thing [as] it also sounds like you guys aren’t willing to… I’m sure you have a comfort zone of sorts but you’re not willing to be comfortable, so to speak.
Niklas: Yeah, exactly. I think that if we were to release the same album all the time and then if we were to start to write down and take notes on which songs people like live the most, and then try to sculpt an album out of that, and play it super safe, then I think that would be very boring. it would be kind of like…
There’s this really good movie that I enjoy, called Chef, with the guy who made Mandalorian (Jon Favreau) but that is about integrity and about this chef who really wants to put together his own menu and do something that he’s passionate but he gets denied that. The owner of the restaurant wants to play it safe [with] the menu that always worked and is utterly boring, but it draws people to the restaurant. It’s nothing that excites or is testing the waters.
I think that’s the same with Katatonia.
If, for example, a label [came] in and were like “We want you to do The Great Cold Distance again because that was a highly successful album and people like it”, then I think that would never work because I think it needs to be total freedom to use the ingredients as Jonas (Renkse) likes and needs so it can become this magical album, which is always the case with Katatonia. I’m always blown away and I’m always excited when he presents new music, especially when we listen to the album in our pre-listening sessions, when everything is mixed and ready, and it needs to be something we all feel is magical and something that we’re very proud of.
Ez: Just moving a little bit back to the new songs being performed live; when you started performing them, did they translate well in a live setting, or was there some tweaking you had to do to get them to work?
Niklas: I think they translated well right from the get-go, and I think that’s also a product of us working so hard in rehearsals. To rehearse for several weeks, several days in a week, long sessions. Then since we’re playing with in-ear, you hear everything [on] an analytical level, so if there’s something that we feel like doesn’t really work, we already pick up on that and we tweak it and we kind of make it different at rehearsals.
But [what] people experience live is something that’s curated through many many hours. So it’s not like that we are having one or two sessions meeting up and just playing the songs through and then hit the road. We’re very keen on having things down and [sounding] the best. Some of the old songs even have a little bit differently orchestrated and arranged things going on in the background than what you hear on the record. It’s like a constant evolution of the sound with some of the older material.
I think that’s fun as well; not to stagnate and not conform into what’s been, but also kind of testing and exploring some new elements through the songs. So it’s basically not just lifting the background ambient tracks from the record and just putting [them] on tape and taking it with us to the road, but it’s very well-constructed and curated within the band, and Jonas creates all of these things at home.
Ez: Also with the songs from Sky Void of Stars, what do you feel – other than presence – are the largest differences between the songs against them on an album?
Niklas: I think it’s kind of a standard answer and probably everybody says it as a musician, but it comes alive. It gets more energy in a live situation, and sometimes even me and (Daniel) Moilanen can do something differently in the spur of the moment. I would say that there’s lots more energy to it, and you’re keeping yourself on edge, especially in the beginning. Even though you’ve been rehearsing for weeks, once you’re on stage that kind of disappears in one way because you’re getting so nervous before a gig and that kind of makes things put on edge, and you’re not that sure about your playing abilities, but I think that’s good because that keeps you on your toes and makes things magical.
If it would just be like going to another day at the office it would be kind of bleak and I think you can see that in bands that feel that way. I think that transcribes very well and on stage. But it’s very far from what’s happening in the Katatonia camp. We’re very excited and eager to come out and play live and do it on a regular basis.
So that I think is the most prominent difference between an album version and the live setting; that there’s lot of edge and anticipation and energy, and you wait for the whole day for that moment where you go on stage and you’re full of energy and it’s like this explosion of it. In a corny-packaged answer *laughs* that’s the way it is.
Ez: If you’ve got no other way to answer it, you just go for what’s honest, right?
Niklas: Yep. I think so *laughs*
Ez: Having been performing for as long as Katatonia has, being a recording unit for as long as Katatonia has, and what you’ve already told me thus far, it tells me that the band still has a restlessness to it. When you’ve seen so many bands over time kind of fall by the wayside, or just kind of lose that drive or passion, what is it that you feel that has allowed Katatonia – other than having a dedicated audience – to be as restless and hungry for as long as you guys have?
Niklas: I think it comes down to we all are passionate about music and making good music and playing live. This is what we want to do. We might not be the most successful band and we might not be the band that travels in luxury, but it’s still what we want to do. We can’t really see ourselves doing anything different.
We love going out touring, playing for the fans. Love to put out new music, and you know, we know that we’re doing it with the best possible music with us, so I think that’s also the key element. It feels like I return to that thing in this interview, but, you know, keeping the music really good for yourself and you won’t really get bored or feel unmotivated doing this.
It’s the same thing with people who don’t go out from their garage to play live. They never get any gigs, but they still rehearse every week because they get to play the music they believe in and what they think is really good. I think it’s a matter of just playing the music that you’re passionate about and then everything comes in hand after that.