Interview: Cult of Luna’s Johannes Persson on New LP, ‘The Long Road North’

The Swedish post-metal group Cult of Luna have captured a staggering statement of purpose on their thunderous new album, The Long Road North, available this February from Metal Blade Records. 

It crashes through hypnotically captivating, sky-scraping rhythms of incredible magnitude. A searing intensity rushes through the whole trek, like blasts of fire suddenly filling up some maze of forested passageways in a beautifully devastating blaze. You feel overtaken by the onslaught, but the grandiosity is presented so powerfully as to feel welcome right from the get-go.  

At times, the music across The Long Road North proceeds without lyrics for noticeable stretches of time, and the compositional weight here is impressive. 

The sometimes-tumultuous record is expansive, and the ground can suddenly seem to shift with every walloping hit. The cold—it reaches within. It’s consuming. The record reflects a feeling of standing with every fiber on edge and each cell on display, as though vulnerable out in the natural world but in a moment of peace. Texturally, there’s a lot that goes on here—when quieter moments break in, it’s like arriving at a stunning expanse of shimmering beauty, such as a frozen over lake.  

The occasionally earthy-sounding record seems geared towards building up and amplifying the intensity until the force becomes a reverie. It’s ominous but riveting, suggesting a sudden rush like that of taking in big bursts of the night air. It’s broad and exhilaratingly intense, and it reflects a band getting to a point of renewed-sounding artistic security. 

Below, check out what guitarist and vocalist Johannes Persson has to say about The Long Road North, from the role of the Swedish countryside in inspiring it to the surprise in considering the scope of attention that the band have garnered. 

Cult of Luna have a substantial history behind the project. How do you balance the length of time that you’ve been a band with the creative process in the here-and-now? 
This is not something I think about like that—like, that well-defined. Me and Magnus [Lindberg] have been doing this since day one. And the lineup we have now has been solid since 2004, basically. I mean, we’ve had some changes, but that’s when we actually turned into a real band. I mean, that’s where things started getting real interesting, I think, with what we do.  

I think the history has a big importance to at least me. I can’t answer for the other guys, but I think they would probably agree. Two years ago, the last time we were playing festivals, we were just about to start playing at this pretty, pretty massive-status festival. And we’re standing behind stage, like: when did this happen? I mean, it was as many people as you could see. It was dark, but still, it never ended.  

Like I remember our first Spanish festival in 2002 or 2003, I can tell you that that was a handful of people. Even though it was almost 20 years apart, like, when did this happen? And when did it become such a normal thing to just walk on stage in front of thousands and thousands and tens of thousands of people? I don’t know. And I’m constantly getting back to that this “success” did not come overnight. It’s been a gradual process that you really don’t notice until you’re standing behind the stage at this massive festival, and you realize, what the fuck, this is crazy.  

Because I’m still the same. In my mind, I’m still—just a couple of weeks ago, our first album turned 20. I listened through it, actually, which was quite interesting. First of all, realizing that this kind of music came from a bunch of—I mean, I was older than 20. But the other guys were younger than me, just teenagers creating that kind of music. I was kind of impressed by my own songwriting at that point. Like, I was so immature when it comes to it, a beginner basically when it comes to songwriting, and that I managed to write that kind of stuff was quite impressive. I was impressed by that 20-year-old guy, actually.  

And it’s more of a humbling experience. I realized, in our wildest imagination, we couldn’t even think of being in a place where we are right now. Because we thought the stuff we did was so on the fringe of metal, in the metal genre or with punk. I came from the punk/hardcore background, and that’s the scene where we belonged to—I mean, we didn’t belong anywhere.  

But as time progressed, and the wheels were moving faster and faster and faster, and we experienced small, small steps, but a gradual bigger following and stuff like that, I think I had a lot of pressure—we didn’t write hits, of course. We’re not the kind of band that will become really, really big. But I think we put pressure on us to not fail, always. 

There was a lot more invested. And right now, I don’t have anything invested at all. In the present right now, when we write, all that pressure is gone. If the band would stop tomorrow, I mean, I wouldn’t be more happy of what I’ve experienced, and you know, stuff like that. It’s such an amazing thing that I’ve been having almost half my life—if not more, yeah actually, more than half my life. So now everything is a bonus. So, everything we do, now, we can do with—I mean, there’s no pressure at all. We don’t have a record label pushing us in any direction. We do anything we want, and for the right reasons. 

So, for this new record specifically—which can be emotionally intense—were there particular emotional themes that you wanted to capture or explore?
Ever since we started to write music for what would become [2019’s] A Dawn to Fear, we’ve been riding this wave of continuous creativity. And I view everything we’ve done since then, like A Dawn to Fear, and the EP released this year, The Raging River, and this album: it’s the same, it’s the result of the same process, a very intuitive process where we just write. Whatever we are in, in what kind of emotional state we are in, it will definitely bleed on to the music.  

I mean, you have songs on the EP that we started writing, and actually started recording at the A Dawn to Fear session in Norway in 2018. And also, you have songs that we started writing and recording at that point on this album too. They all blend together.  

With that said, I think the subject matter that I’ve used when writing lyrics has very much been influenced by the environment where I am at the moment. Like one and a half years ago, we took the decision to move the family from Stockholm back to Umeå, where we are from, where the band—well, most of us, are situated. Last summer, when the borders were closed to pretty much everywhere … we couldn’t go anywhere.  

Me and my family, we did this road trip, inland through the mountains and the forests region of the north of Sweden after we spent time looking for things to do in Switzerland. I was so intrigued by it—I hadn’t been in those places since I was a little kid. And so, I think I wanted to paint those experiences with the mediums that I use, the pen, and the guitar. I try to paint those experiences with words and music. 

It doesn’t have to translate to you directly to understand it. I mean, it doesn’t really matter —it’s very simple, really. It’s like, OK, do I enjoy this or not? OK, I enjoy it. I mean, that’s what it comes down to. And it doesn’t really matter what my inspiration was; the only thing that matters is that it moves something in you, and that it means something to you. And it can mean something completely different. And I’m totally OK with that. I mean, as long as it gives meaning to people, it doesn’t really matter from where the inspiration is taken.  

On the subject of the emotional intensity of the new album, do you feel like things end up in a cathartic place?
I don’t know. We talked about this—we were practicing today and talked about how things turned out, and I definitely think that it’s our best record to date. But, like, the way it sounds—I mean, it sounds big; it sounds cinematic. But sometimes, it’s hard to think. I mean, you want to connect music and art in general to a conscious thought that this was the meaning, and this is how it turned out, and this is what our thoughts behind it are. Sometimes things just happen. 

 When it comes to a guy like David Lynch, for example, and how people overanalyze his stuff—maybe he just liked doing it that way. But why the smiling bag and blah, blah, blah: you saw a bag and smiling and just put it in the story.  

I mean, that’s a concrete example. We wrote music, and we worked on the songs until we thought they were as good as possibly could be. When you write such long albums, like we do, the dynamic within the album is very important. So, in that sense, we put a lot of thought into that, but that was after the songs were a fact, the songs were pretty much done, but we did change a lot when it comes to both the arrangements of the songs and actually the structural order of the songs on the album very late in the process, like very late.  

It wasn’t really comfortable to do it. Because very often, you want to map out the album and then listen to it. And then, with your perspective of a few days or a week, you can decide whether or not it’s good. But we were in a situation when we had our record done, and we had a deadline to when we were going to be ready for the master. And we realized that the record that we had had some serious problems.  

So, we changed it, very close to the final mastering. It was so close that we didn’t have that safety barrier of having a week, or something like that, when you actually could listen to the other alternative, and then weigh the pros and cons with two different versions against each other. But we had to go with one of them, and we decided to change it up. And now I know we did the right decision for sure. 

But at that point, it was quite scary that what we thought would be the album for a couple weeks, all of a sudden, we just changed it. Also, we changed a few things in the arrangement within the songs and stuff like that. I mean, of course the result that you are hearing is the sum of all the conscious decisions and unconscious decisions that have been made from writing ‘til mastering. But it’s not very often that well-defined. Like we started, if you like the music, then it’s good enough. And that’s when it comes to writing too—if you like it, it’s good.  

(As opposed to the process for certain previous songs), the kind of a free thing that we do now is much harder because everything is on the table. Anything can be good. So, I think, there can be a good thing coming from limitations too, but this is just the process we have right now. It’s just a bunch of what looks like random decisions, which are made by us, and it turns out to be a record. 

Watch the official visualizer video for “Into The Night” here:

For more from Cult of Luna, find them on Facebook, Instagram, and their official website.

Photo courtesy of Cult of Luna and Silvia Grav

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