An Interview with Katatonia Vocalist Jonas Renkse

By Charlie Steffens aka Gnarly Charlie, Writer/Photographer
Sunday, October 14, 2012 @ 4:36 PM

“I have great respect for the depressive side of things. It's not something that I just do for the sake of this band. It goes deeper than that, so I have great respect for it. I write what I feel.”

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Katatonia has just released Dead End Kings, the follow-up to the critically acclaimed Night is the New Day album. Two new members have joined the Swedish band's lineup, replacing guitarist Fredrik Norrman and bassist Mattias Norrman, who left the band in 2009. Per Erikkson (Bloodbath) is on guitar, playing alongside longtime Katatonia guitarist Anders Nystrom, while Niklas Sandin handles bass duties.

Speaking with singer Jonas Renske backstage at L.A.'s El Rey theater just before soundcheck, we discussed the new album along with a few other nuggets. That evening, Katatonia would play about a 70 minutes set before the headliner, The Devin Townsend Project while sharing the stage with touring mates Paradise Lost and Stolen Babies.

"I think we were all really looking forward to doing new songs, doing another album," says Renske. "We were super happy with Night is the New Day, the previous one, and we did a lot of touring for it. So it felt like the right time to start with new songs and we were really focused and mentally ready."

Fans may be mostly accustomed to the dark and doomy mood of Katatonia's music and stories, yet there has always been an elevating quality to the band's atmospheric brand of death metal. Dead End Kings is, predictably, a continuation of Renske's vision with musical genius unheard in his band's other works.

"We're not doing concept albums like King Diamond albums. But, of course, there's always a red thread somewhere. Sometimes it's a bit hidden but I guess it comes from I write ninety percent of the lyrics so it will be sort of sewn together in some way. But it's not like a storyline. It's just the good old miserable stuff (laughs). First of all, the music sort of wants that kind of vibe for the lyrics. It's also something I like to write about. I don't want to write about my happy moments because that's not creative, really, in that sense. I have great respect for the depressive side of things. It's not something that I just do for the sake of this band. It goes deeper than that, so I have great respect for it. I write what I feel."

"The One You Are Looking for is Not Here," is an entrancing song from Dead End Kings, featuring Silje Wergeland from The Gathering on vocals.

"We met over the years on, like, festivals and always talked about maybe someday we could sing together," recalls Renske about the origin of their duet. "And this was actually the right time to try it. I felt that this song was not like it needed something. We thought that adding something could make it magic. That was my thought. If we were going to add someone it should be Silje. She's got a beautiful voice. It's great."

Katatonia, as we know the band today, might be extinct if Renske had not lost his voice to "find his voice" back in 1996. As a seemingly kind fate would have it, Opeth singer/guitarist Mikael Akerfeldt stepped in to help on the Brave Murder Day album when Renske's singing career nearly came to a halt. At that point he was no longer able to perform in death growl mode he and Katatonia fans were accustomed to.

"He did us a favor, basically, Renske recalls before he tailored his vocal approach to clean singing. "I thought when I couldn't sing that way anymore, I decided I wanted to go for being a drummer. But when we did the next album, after the one that Mikael sang on, we didn't have a vocalist and I was still writing the lyrics. Me and Anders--we had a talk. Maybe I should give it a try with clean vocals. It's not something that I ever expected myself to do. And I was really nervous, which you can probably hear. It's on the Discouraged Ones album. But I think i pulled it off with a lot of emotion, rather than technique. When I listen to it now I have to sort of cringe became technically its not as good but it still has something in connection with the lyrics. It's fine. Miserable as hell. That was probably the way I felt because all of a sudden I had to start singing like a normal vocalist. It made me feel like shit, but I tried to pull it off, and I'm glad I did, because nowadays I like singing. I actually enjoy singing."

Like many musicians, it was heredity that made Jonas Renske a singer. More than likely, it was rock and roll that sealed the deal.

"I think it kind of started early because my dad has always been into music. He was never a musician but he was always playing records all the time. He was into a lot of blues stuff and some of the Led Zeppelin, Hendrix stuff. And I really got into it early. The rockin' music was good, I thought. Today I love the blues as well. "I remember," Renske says fondly, "when I was seven years, for Christmas I wanted heavy metal records because I had never heard the new wave of heavy metal, like Iron Maiden and stuff. I saw guys at school with Iron Maiden t-shirts and I thought that's got to be good because it had monsters and stuff on it. So when I was seven--I think it was in '83--I got two records for Christmas from my dad. Iron Maiden Piece of Mind and Motorhead. I remember putting on the Maiden record first, and it started with that drum fill on "Where Eagles Dare." It just blew my mind. That's one of my most precious memories, actually. After that I just tried to buy as many records as possible and indulge into the world of heavy metal. I still do (laughs)."

"I can enjoy a good song in any genre, Renske adds. "I think I have a real soft spot for Paul Simon records. Simon and Garfunkel is beautiful. I really love his vocals and his phrasings and everything, so that's probably a guilty pleasure because it's not metal music, but it's something I put on. Even the happy stuff, like the "Call Me Al" song. All that stuff. I like it because it's so genuine."

"Dead End Kings is about the corridors of our mind from where there is no return. Be a king or queen in your own right in these hallways, even at the dead end. Carry your burden with pride. That’s what we are doing, twenty years and counting. Kings, because we believe in what we are creating, in our own disturbing faith."

Renske elaborates on his quote above, which was taken from a recent Katatonia album bio for Dead End Kings:

"Dead End Kings is...it's us in the band, basically. We do something that, maybe it's not paying off as much as much as it should be in other people's eyes, but for us this is the world. It's our disturbing faith because we believe in our music so much. You know, relatives, parents, of course they're proud of what we're doing, but at the same time they can be, 'Maybe you should get a serious job.' I believe in this so much, but it's disturbing, maybe, to other people."

Renske and Anders Nystrom, the two founding members of Katatonia, have held on to their "disturbing faith" for over twenty years, through the good times and the bad.

"This is what we do," Renske says unapologetically. "This is all we know, basically. So even though the music industry has changed so much since we released our first album, I think the band has kept growing in a slow but steady pace, which is exactly how we want it. We don't want overnight success, anything like that. So we just try to adapt to what the industry is like today. I guess today music today is a little more like fast food. We don't try to adapt to that too much. We know that the metal fans are loyal and they will come out to your shows, they will buy your albums, they will tell you what they think about the albums. That's the way we want it. So we just try to maintain a good sort of connection to the fans and everything. That's all we can do today."


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