This interview has been published on Radio Metal the 25/01/2018.
Down there (Là-Bas) is a novel written by French decadent author J.-K. Huysmans in 1891 culminating in one of the most striking black masses of the history of literature. Tribulation naming their last record Down Below might be a discreet, knowing nod more than a full-blown homage to the book, the record still shares its fascination for the Underworld, its esoteric obsessions, its threatening feminine figures, and a melancholic longing for something else—the Other. I got the chance to hear what guitar player Adam Zaars had to say about these topics at the end of last year, a few weeks before the release of Down Below.
The record picks up where The Children Of The Night, arguably the band’s breakthrough album, stopped, in a unique blend of proggy death metal and death rock. Since their thrashy death metal beginnings, the Swedes have come a long way, and yet the initial drive seems to remain the same: from the gruesome lyrics of The Horror to the gothic atmosphere of Down Below, they’re still exploring all the formulas of Death. Thoughtful and precise, Zaars expended on his way of working, his inspirations, and the band’s aspirations.
When he left the band in 2017, your former drummer Jakob [Ljungberg] said: “These last years have been among the best in my life, but they wore me out.” Do you relate to that? Have these past years been that hard on the band?
Yeah, they have been. In a way, doing what we do isn’t that easy, I understand why he was exhausted. We did a lot of touring, and touring, of course, means being away from your family and not really cashing in. It’s a lot of work for, basically, no money. It’s something you really have to dedicate yourself to—and he did. I don’t think he left just because he was tired of touring all the time, I think that he wanted to do something else with his life. That’s what he’s doing now. He wanted to get an education, and he’s studying now, but he’s still playing music. He’s got his own band, Second Sun, where he sings and plays guitar, and he still plays with Robert Pehrsson’s Humbucker, so he’s keeping busy, and we’re still very good friends. He came by the studio several times, actually. It’s all good on that part.
Between The Children of the Night and Down Below, Tribulation toured extensively indeed—almost 170 shows. Did that have any consequences on Down Below?
I’m not sure it actually affected the new album. It probably did to a certain extent; everything that you do stays with you and comes out in some way. What’s interesting to me about touring, musically speaking, is the fact that the old songs that you play constantly evolve, and it gives you the sense that a song is never really finished. I guess then the songs work more like they did in the past—to the best of my knowledge at least—, when a song wasn’t something trademarked, something that you could only record once, everything else being just a version of this only official recording. In the past, songs were just songs, you’d play them, not record them. In a sense, that’s still the way, a song is just a song, even though growing up as a metalhead—and I’m sure it’s true for any other kind of music as well—that one recording on the album is so important… It’s the definite version of that song in a way, and then, only after you’ve heard it, you can say: “I like the demo version better”, “I like the song better live” and so on. You always compare it to the album version. We’ll probably do that in the future with the new songs or any song that we play live, but my point is that the songs keep on changing when you play them live, and especially when you play them live as much as we did. You get to know them and they just move in the ways that they want.
You talked about the fact that, maybe because of that, there are elements from all of your previous records in this one. Indeed, there is no drastic change of style this time. So could it be that you found your sound? When we interviewed you a few years ago, you were wishing you never would!
Yeah, and I still hope so, but I realize that there isn’t really a limit, but a space in which we can work. We can bring in certain elements from the outside of that space but we can’t really step outside of it because then it would be too much of a change. Tribulation will always be Tribulation, we can’t go to any other place. But I still stick to what I said back then: I hope we never find our sound.
After The Children Of The Night, you released a cover single, Waiting For The Death Blow, with covers of “One Hundred Year” by The Cure and “Pay The Man” by The Offspring. The Cure is a band that is very close to what you do in terms of feeling and aesthetics; the Offspring, on the other hand, not at all. How did you pick these songs?
The idea of covering “One Hundred Years” actually came from a friend of ours, Andrés Furukawa, who’s got a brewery called Macken that me and Jonathan [Hultén] work with as well. He had this idea, and we liked it. We like The Cure and the song is very, very good, I think. It had everything that is required for us to make a cover of it. It’s difficult for us to cover death metal songs, usually, possibly some black metal songs work better. We have to find songs that have clean vocals and redo them. That can be difficult, sometimes it just doesn’t work. But this one works very well, I think, I’m really pleased with how it turned out. “Pay The Man” is a song that we’ve been listening to since we were maybe ten years old. It’s something that Jonathan and Johannes [Andersson] have been playing in rehearsal because it’s got this The Doors kind of sounding intro. We felt like it was connected to us in some way, especially after The Formulas Of Death; it felt like it had a little bit of a Tribulation sound. Jonathan had the vision that it would actually work in the end, and I think it did! It’s a weird choice for a cover song; when people hear it, they understand, but when you say that you’ve made a cover of The Offspring, first people find it kind of strange. That would probably be the only song that we could’ve have covered from that band though.
About the songwriting of Down Below, you said: “Often you feel it even before you try it out and you have to tell everyone else to bear with you until you reach the point where your idea has manifested in the way that you first saw or heard it.” Is translating musically your source idea in the purest form, avoiding any deviation, the main challenge when you write?
That’s something I happens to me with any creative endeavor that I’m on: I work as a graphic designer as well and it’s the same thing; you have an idea of what something will look like or, in the case of Tribulation, will sound like, but if you just present a sketch, maybe people will like it, but maybe they won’t, although they would actually love the finished product. I think that’s something any creative person can relate to. It happens, or has happened in the past, quite a lot in Tribulation: me or anyone else in the band comes up with an idea, at first the other guys aren’t that enthusiastic about it, so you kind of have to say: “Please, trust me and you’ll see!” [chuckles]. That’s something that happens often and it works out very well in the end.
While Jonathan wrote on his own, you worked more closely with Johannes and Oscar [Leander] this time. Why and how did you get them more involved in your own songwriting process? And how do you work with Jonathan if he does his thing on his side?
These last years, Jonathan has always been demoing songs at home, so he can always present not exactly a finished product, but something that’s very close to the finished product. This is, of course, an advantage: whereas we were talking about the sketch that just presents a fragment of an idea, he can present something more. If we don’t have anything to say about his songs, we don’t say anything, we just say it’s perfectly fine; if we don’t like anything or if we want to tweak something or whatever, we give him feedback, he works on that and then he sends another version, and then we give him some more feedback, so forth and so on. For me, I guess I used to work like bands always did in the past: you have melodies, riffs or ideas of whatever kind, you show them to the other guys in the rehearsal room, and then you play the song. But it takes a lot of time. I can spend a year or more finishing a song, and there we just couldn’t do that. So we had to, not take a shortcut, but take another route. Luckily Oscar, our new drummer, knows a lot more about musical software than I do, so he could actually help me become a studio technician, in a way. The good thing about having Oscar and Johannes there was that they could immediately have their take on it and give their input. Since they’re actually both drummers, that was an advantage, because I’m not a drummer at all. I could just leave that to them, basically. It was very nice, actually, and very difficult as well since it was a new experience for me.
You say that “it’s all a matter of balancing on the edge and not falling,” whether it be into cheesiness, pretentiousness or else. Do you see yourselves as musical tightrope walkers?
Yes, in a way, absolutely. Somehow, I think that’s what we’re doing. We’re pushing things in a lot of different directions. Like I said earlier: we can take things into this space that we’re creating but we can’t completely step outside of it. That’s in line with the idea of balance, and that although we push things, we don’t want the things that we’re pushing to fall over. But yeah, I think that’s what we are doing in a lot of ways. I mean, we include folk melodies, we write about vampires sometimes. If I heard of a band that used folk melodies and vampire themes, I would probably not listen to them [laughs], but there is something there that I hold very dear, both in vampire lore and in folk music; it’s something that’s very dear to all of us, I think. We take on pretty difficult subjects and we try to treat them with as much respect as we can. Hopefully, it works! It’s about taking things slowly and balancing on a knife-edge. You’ve got to treat all of these things with respect, otherwise, you’ll get cut or you’ll fall over.
Why are these things so dear to you even though you might sound ambivalent about it?
The folk thing, it’s probably because it’s been with me all my life. I spent a lot of time in the village where my father grew up, in that part of Sweden that people from the South call the North—although it’s not really the North at all. It’s in the countryside, in the forest, and this is a place where the tradition is still very much alive. Some of my favorite Swedish folk songs were composed there; one of Sweden’s most famous folk tune (it was even played at the wedding of Princess Victoria!) is from this village for instance. I spent a lot of time there, and this music has always been a part of that in one way or another. It’s in my blood. There’s something in the music, in its melancholy, in its somber melodies, that connects with me very strongly. I think that’s true for all of us in the band.
My interest in vampire lore, on the other hand, is like my interest in anything. We started out playing death metal in the early years and still I get asked why death metal, who are my favorite death metal bands, and what’s so special about that subgenre. I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about it, but a few bands caught my attention—Morbid Angel would be the first to come to mind. But I like a few black metal or even thrash metal bands as well; I don’t necessarily like death metal as a thing. And the same goes for vampires. All of us in the band connected to the movies and music of Nosferatu, especially, both Murnau’s and Herzog’s. They contain something that we want to convey in Tribulation as well. My interest in vampires is actually bigger than that as well but I think that’s where it comes from in the first place. I really like Bram Stoker’s Dracula as well. It laid the foundation for everything else, I guess. This being said, usually, when people do something with a vampire theme, I tend to not like it very much. I’m not interested in all these new vampire television series, for example, because that’s not why I like the figure of the vampire. I don’t really know what it is that I like, but that’s not it, at least.
“Gothic” is a word that is often used to describe either your music or your aesthetics. What do you think about that? Do you think this is relevant?
Both yes and no. It’s a thing that we always considered positive ever since we were kids because we had one of the biggest synth/industrial/goth festival of Europe in our hometown [Arvika]. Every year, the entire city would get flooded by all these interesting, weird people [chuckles]. So the term “goth” in itself isn’t bad but I kind of shrug a bit when I hear the term gothic metal. I think about something that isn’t Tribulation at all when I hear that. But I don’t know, maybe we are, maybe I should accept it [laughs]. I’m ambivalent about the term. “Gothic” in the romantic, 19th-century sense, is absolutely relevant to what we do, and so is “gothic” as in “gothic architecture” for instance. So it’s both positive and negative, I think.
You use an interesting comparison to talk about your records: The Formulas Of Death is a forest record, The Children Of The Night is a city one, and despite its urban artwork, Down Below would be somewhere in between. What do you mean by that?
You can’t touch music, it’s something ethereal, hence it can be quite difficult to describe at times, I think, especially the subtleties of it. We often talk in pictures, in colors, in visual things when we write the music. The Formulas Of Death felt like a very foresty album; we recorded in our small hometown in the west of Sweden, close to the Norwegian borders, very much in nature. The Children Of The Night, on the other hand, was written and recorded in Stockholm, so it just had that vibe for us. With the last one, Down Below, we wanted to reach outside of a city, in a way, and in parts, I think we did, although we are still in some kind of a city. A journalist told me earlier that the artwork reminded her of Paris. The Gargoyle is not really the one from Notre-Dame but it could be, that’s where the inspiration comes from. What you see down there isn’t Paris, that’s actually Stockholm, but when I made the sketch for the album cover—Johnathan made the album cover, he drew it, but I had the idea—I was first thinking about Paris. Not Paris as it is now; it was my idea of Paris in the 19th century. It’s a city but it’s not a modern one; it’s closer to nature I think.
Why did you name the album Down Below?
At first, it was the working title for one of the songs. Eventually, it didn’t really do it, it didn’t really fit the song, which became “Lacrimosa”. Then it jumped over to “Subterranea” where you can actually hear Johannes singing the words “down below” in the chorus. But we found out we didn’t really want to name the song “Down Below” either, for whatever reason. I can tell you this since you’re French: the idea of naming it “Down Below” came from a French book, Là-Bas. I’ve read a couple of times, it’s one of my favorite books, to be honest. “Subterranea” was inspired by it, in a way, but it’s not about it. The album isn’t about the book either but that’s where the idea comes from. It didn’t really feel like any of the songs should be called “Down Below”, so we kind of set this title aside. You always have to name an album of course, and in the past, this hasn’t been a problem, the title more or less just appeared, and it was always one of the easiest choices on the entire album. We expected that to happen this time as well but it didn’t, it never came! At some point we started to worry because we had the entire album recorded, the cover finished, but not the title. We made a list of different ideas, maybe twenty-five of them, and nothing worked. But when we put “Down Below” on the cover to try it out, it clicked, and we realized that of course, it was the title. It works well with the album cover and some of the lyrics that have a subterranean feel to them. So, Down Below, that was it. It named itself too eventually.
What’s to be found below?
Good question. I don’t know! First, there’s the classic concept of the underworld were initiatory experiences happen. It doesn’t necessarily mean Hell—it can be, obviously, but the title itself and our idea of the underworld aren’t that specific. It can mean many things, but what we mean with it mostly is that we have the feeling that this is where the inspiration for the music and for the lyrics comes from. I can’t explain that very well, it’s not like we have a method for conjuring up this inspiration from this place… We see this album as a piece of art—we always do—and that’s the glasses we have when we are doing all of these things. That’s why I usually say that it doesn’t necessarily matter what we mean with the lyrics, the title, or anything. We make a piece of art, we hang it up in the gallery, and it’s up to the people experiencing it to find its meaning.
Your next single, “Lady Death”, will be released soon. Your music is full of menacing feminine figures—The Formulas Of Death opened with “Vagina Dentata” [“toothed vagina”], to pick just another example. Is it coincidental or does it have a philosophical or spiritual meaning?
No, it’s not a coincidence. It’s something that’s been with us almost from the very start. Personally, I’m always drawn towards feminine divine figures rather than male ones. I think that’s just a matter of personal taste, what you require to feel comfortable in a spiritual endeavor, in this case. So it’s not coincidental and it’s been a recurring theme. But it’s not just me; “Lady Death” is one of Jonathan’s songs, but I wasn’t surprised when he told us its title.
Because we love Angelo Badalamenti’s music, first of all, and also because we’ve been fans of the first two seasons of the Twin Peaks series for a lot of years. But you’re very right, there it is again, Laura Palmer obviously isn’t any kind of deity but still, it’s a feminine touch and it’s just something that has come and felt very natural to us to do, as a kind of balance maybe because obviously none of us are female. I guess that’s why, it’s a matter of balance again.
I also remember an interview were Jonathan was talking about grace and poetry about your music that is still essentially death metal. Is it a goal for you as a band, as in many spiritual traditions, to reunite opposites and find a sense of unity?
That depends on how far you want to take that, and what kind of lens you are looking through. It is the ultimate goal of some spiritual practices and traditions in the world indeed. Tantra, for example, is probably the most specific system I come to think about, which, to put it shortly, aims to unite what has been named as a feminine energy with a male energy. The male energy is Shiva. The female energy is called various things but in Tantra, mostly Kundalini. The goal is to unite them both. I could go on about it but to keep it simple, you have to unite them, and then shed your personality in favor of a divine one. There are a lot of ways to do this, you can really go about with any method you or more preferably whoever is guiding you gives you. Some people feel very comfortable with the idea one male God, for instance, especially here in the West, with all the Abrahamic religions. This being said, in Christianity, there’s a feminine figure as well. But in Hinduism, you can really kind of chose whether you want to see this reality as a male figure if that’s comfortable for you, or as a lover, maybe, or as a mother, or… whatever feels comfortable for you or whoever guides you in what you’re aiming at. I think that we are expressing this through art. This isn’t a spiritual process for us but it’s most likely the artistic output of, at least, a spiritual and religious interest. I would take it that far, in the context of Tribulation.
One of the characteristics of the band is these long, atmospheric instrumental parts that give your music some cinematic quality. You started heavily inspired by horror movies; do you envision or approach your music as a soundtrack in a way?
Yeah, definitely. It’s part of our inspiration. And this ties together with what I was saying earlier I think because we aren’t necessarily inspired by horror movies in general, but by a few, and especially their feeling and their music. We don’t really have lyrics about horror movies, but yes, we definitely see our music as cinematic. We don’t really think about it that much nowadays because it has just become a part of the sound, but that’s absolutely right.
You started making music videos for your songs. Is it another way for you to relate your music to movies?
In a way, yeah, possibly. The music video is an interesting art form and a difficult one because I don’t think that a lot of music videos turn out that well, but when they do, it’s really great. We were very hesitant early on about doing some but we started out with “Strange Gateways Beckon” from The Children Of The Night and we really liked what we were doing. Then Jonathan made a video for “Melancholia” and he’s got really into that. When we started planning on doing this for the new record, Robert Piel, who made the video for “The Lament”, approached us, and we were really excited because we really want to explore this area more. I’m sure we will.