Cult of Luna Unleashes ‘A Raging River’ On Their New Label: Johannes Persson Talks Learning Curves and Creative Experimentation (INTERVIEW)

Swedish Post-Metal band Cult of Luna are releasing a new EP, A Raging River, on February 5th via Red Creek Recordings, with distribution in the USA by Metal Blade and in Europe by Season of Mist. There are a number of things that are special about this EP in the context of the history of the band, firstly that it forms a kind of creative continuum with their experimental approach to their previous LP, A Dawn to Fear, and secondly, that it marks their first major release on their newly founded label. 

A Dawn to Fear was a big departure from previous albums like Mariner, Vertikal I and Vertikal II because it wasn’t a concept-driven project but emerged from the process of more personal songwriting on the part of Johannes Persson, who is a guitarist and vocalist. This more unfettered approach led to a rush of creativity for the band, and not all of the songs created during the era of A Dawn to Fear were completed or released. When the band worked on A Raging River last August, some songs from that earlier period were completed and others were newly written for the album. 

But according to Johannes Persson, that doesn’t close the book on this continuum of musical creation, since whatever comes next from the band will also be part of the same ongoing process. I spoke with Persson about the practical realities of setting up Cult of Luna’s record label, Red Creek Recordings, about the ways in which touring does and doesn’t factor into keeping the band financially secure, and about this new process of songwriting that we will continue to find expressed on The Raging River and beyond. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: I understand that your new EP is being released through your label, Red Creek Recordings. Is this the first release for the label?

Johannes Persson: Yes. In the past, we had the idea of creating our own label and we did a couple of half-assed attempts before, like a 7 inch in 2007 and a book in 2009, but it was never more than that. The number of hours that have to be put in, if you’re going to do it for real, was something no one was ready for. Now our manager and I are doing the heavy-lifting and I had no idea how much work it would be. I know nothing about these things, since I know how to be on a label, but not how to be a label. It’s been a learning experience, for sure. 

HMS: Does the work now include things like manufacturing, shipping, and setting up a web store?

JP: Everything, yes. All those kinds of things. It’s stuff that I didn’t know that you had to do, like report to various organizations and prepay all the mechanical royalties. From a label perspective, we’re happy that we have a band like Cult of Luna for our first release, because we were able to do preorders which provided us with enough money to be able to do stuff, like pay people in advance. I can’t imagine how much effort it must be to start a label with totally unknown bands and that bigger risk. I have a lot of respect for people who do this without a known band.

HMS: Having built these roads to do this first release, will it be easier on the second release, and the third release?

JP: Yes, for sure. It’s a pretty steep learning curve. I know I’m going to make mistakes and learn along the way, but certain things you only have to do once, like setting up a web shop. You don’t want to have a fuck up when the preorder starts, but we did, and we had to go back and fix it. But you only have to do stuff like that once. 

HMS: What are you thinking in terms of other releases on the label?

JP: In the short term, we are going to release things that are pretty safe. There are two more releases that we are planning on right now that people are probably going to want to get. That will help us to be able to take risks in the future. Then we are going to have money to spend on other artists that might not be as well known. I’ve come to a point in my life where I’d love to be able to help and push artists who are ready to be recognized on a larger level. There are a lot of artists who deserve to be recognized a whole lot more than they are due to the quality of their work. There are people who have less quality in their work but maybe get an unfair amount of recognition and it would be good to balance that. We can’t do much, but at least we can do something.

HMS: That’s a really great sentiment and purpose. Considering the difficulties of setting everything up for the label, I was impressed that you chose to do vinyl for the new EP, since that can be a long process. And the first impression is already sold out, with a new impression available, I see, which is great. What made you want to do vinyl this time?

JP: When it comes to vinyl, first of all, I’m a fan myself. That’s important. But also, to be quite honest, when it comes to bands and our ability to make ends meet financially, we have to keep in mind that the record business has changed a lot in the last 20 years. We need to find ways of maximizing income. I know I sound like any businessman here, but we try to make sure that we have enough income to keep it from being a business that loses money. In the long term, that means we can maintain our ability and motivation to do this. 

I don’t blame any band who sticks their name on a coffee brand, or anything else that they try to sell, though I don’t think we’d ever do that. But bands at our level need to be able to close the gap between losing money and not losing money, and there is a big vinyl community. That’s the simple truth. Vinyl is a big income and can make the difference between us being able to do this, as a record label, and as a band, and maybe not being able to do this. That’s the most honest answer I can give.

HMS: I’m happy to hear that vinyl can make enough money to make a difference for you. As a vinyl collector myself, I know that physical products can really make or break a band and help offset the expense of touring. I know that Cult of Luna has resisted touring excessively, and has kept a limit on that, so it sounds like another source of income is good.

JP: Exactly. I’m very happy with the level we’re at in terms of touring. At the end of every tour, right now, we don’t lose money from having been away from other jobs, which is good. But we’re not getting rich, of course. We just don’t lose income. I can’t imagine how it must be for bands who are dependent on the band’s income to make ends meet on a personal level. I do lo touring, and as much as I love it, it’s very hard work. It’s basically waiting for 21 hours a day, so it’s not like doing construction work, but it’s mentally very draining. All respect to my friends to have a big touring schedule, but I could not do that. I don’t want it to feel like work. I want it to feel like a special event. For me, if I toured for nine months, it would feel like another day in the office, punching in and punching out. 

HMS: For the most part, the audience can tell and reacts to the energy of the band, so I’m sure what’s good for you is good for them. Was the decision to set up Red Creek Records and do all of this hard work influenced by the global situation in 2020 and 2021?

JP: Yes. It just gave us more time to set things up. If the situation hadn’t come about, we probably would have been doing other things. We had a lot of festivals set up for the summer and touring in the autumn. It also gave us some time to finish up the songs on the EP and go into the studio to focus on that. We could do that instead of relearning all the songs for touring.

HMS: I understand that there’s a close relationship between your previous album, A Dawn to Fear, and this new EP. Is that more in terms of sound, or in terms of ideas, or both?

JP: Those two aspects go hand-in-hand. Ever since the second album, we had worked on all the albums with a very clear narrative to tell. It would be a start and stop scenario with sessions, going through the story we wanted to tell with artwork, production, arrangement, and a clear vision for it. Ever since Mariner, and ever since we started writing toward what became A Dawn to Fear, I had the idea that I wanted to see what happened if I just wrote without any idea of what I wanted to write. 

What would happen if I just sat down with a guitar? What happens if I just write the first sentence that pops into my head, then a second one, then a third one? Then, after the lyrics were done, I could take a step back. I believe, that when it comes to creativity, nothing comes from nothing. It comes from someone’s brain and that brain is in a state of where that person is at that moment. It’s been very interesting to see what came up. It really made sense in retrospect to see what I wrote. 

The consequence of that was that we wrote a lot of music. When we entered the studio, we had a lot of music that didn’t end up on the album [A Dawn to Fear] for many different reasons. Maybe some songs were good, but not completely finished, or maybe some songs were good, but the songs didn’t work on the album. A Dawn to Fear was exactly as long as you can fit onto an album, so there wasn’t a lot more room. We had a lot more material than that. Some of that we reworked, and we also continued to write. We went back to the studio in August and completed a few songs and recorded a few new ones. It’s a continuous process. Some albums were clearly defined spaces of time, limited to a session, like the session we did for Mariner. But this is ongoing now. Whatever comes after this may include some things that are already written.

HMS: So some of the songs from A Raging River come from the same creative ground, so to speak, as Dawn to Fear?

JP: Yes. 

HMS: After working in this more instinct-driven way, do you have views on the subconscious and the way that it works with creativity? 

JP: I’m not really a fan of explaining too much. It’s not that these are just abstract ideas or gibberish, but I think it can take away some of the magic of art to give clear answers about what a song is about. It kind of kills any further discussion of a work. I like that a work might be alive through the observer’s point of view in different ways.

Then, of course, if someone comes up with a stupid interpretation, I can tell them, “No. It’s not about National Socialism at all. Fuck you!” But you understand what I mean.

HMS: Does it make it more interesting to you, creatively, to not have everything planned out and not be sure what’s going to happen when you’re writing music?

JP: Yes, but in retrospect I do know that things are about. To be honest, I don’t think that I’ve ever written about more concrete subject matter than on these albums. But it could also be that the lyrics are very personal right now, and not part of a bigger narrative the way that they were on earlier records.

HMS: It could be, then, that these records are speaking more directly to human experience.

JP: Definitely. 

HMS: When you’re working with songs that are each so different from each other, how do you decide arrangement on an album? 

JP: When it comes to song order, it’s an artistic decision based on the perspective of musical dynamics. For instance, what songs work after each other to make sure the album is not boring? We have more freedom now, though, compared to earlier albums, to do pretty much anything we like. 

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