This interview has been published on Radio Metal the 07/11/2018.
“Of bodies chang’d to various forms, I sing”
Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book I, lines 1-2
The last twelve months have been busy for Jonathan Hultén. The Swedish musician released his first EP as a solo artist, The Dark Night of the Soul, a couple of months later, the album Down Below with his band Tribulation, and toured extensively in the meantime. Chants from Another Place sounding as delicate and minimalistic than Tribulation sounds wide and heavy, Hultén proves that his talent is multifaceted and that his creativity knows no boundaries.
To get some kind of counterpoint to the interview I had with Adam Zaars, his fellow guitar player in Tribulation, I reached out to Jonathan to have his own approach to Down Below. It has also been the occasion to talk about Chants from Another Place, its common features and its contrasts with Tribulation’s ambitious death metal. At the roots of both of these projects, Jonathan Hultén turns out to be an artist that creates as he breathes, looking for exploration, transformation, and ultimately, metamorphosis. Thoughtful and generous, he talked about life and darkness, doubts and convictions, creation of course, and introspection.
You’ve been touring a lot with Tribulation. How did it go?
We spent the first half of the year touring. First, in January and February, with Arch Enemy, then one month later with Insomnium, and later we went to South America, to some other places as well, we played some shows in Sweden… With a few festivals this summer on top of that, we played a lot, yes! And the next step in this album cycle will be to tour the United States with Pallbearer.
You’re touring with very different bands, in all kinds of line-ups. Does it affect the way you approach a gig?
The conditions and the circumstances are different each time, on each tour, but we do our own thing regardless, to the greatest extent possible. Sometimes, we have the circumstances against us—it can be a crowd that doesn’t necessarily like what we’re doing, for instance—but we can’t really worry about that. We just have to concentrate on what we want to do and what we want to express.
You were already touring a lot between Children of the Night and Down Below. Where did you find the time for Chants from Another Place, your solo project?
[Laughs] That’s a good question! Ironically, that’s when we started to tour a lot that I got more serious about getting this solo project done. The reason for that I think is that I started to feel like I needed to do it before my life had passed by. I would have done so many other things but not this, not that one thing that I really wanted to do. That would have been weird and not very satisfying. I felt like I had to do it. Maybe that was a wake-up call as well. We started to tour a lot and I thought: “Hey, I wanna do this with this project as well! I need to start working on it, it’s very important to me.” I just made time for it, I think. You have to prioritize what’s important to you and not be lazy about it. I think that’s the biggest threshold you have to step over and overcome yourself: to act out on your passion and really make sure it gets done. It’s so easy to just not do it and do something that’s more comfortable instead. I had to really work for it to happen.
Do you think that playing with Tribulation about every evening at that time helped you? Did it keep you in some kind of creative loop, or did you have to work extra hard because of that?
I think everything concerning Tribulation has helped me a lot in many ways when it comes to the solo project and making it a reality. I’ve learned how to tour, how to have confidence on stage, how to explore different artistic expressions, how to run a company, how to handle promoters… Being in Tribulation has basically been a huge learning process, like being at school, in a crash-course of being in a band [chuckles]. That really helped, and it’s still very helpful.
The Dark Night of the Soul has been inspired by Nick Drake for instance, but also by medieval choir music, which is maybe not as obvious. How?
When it comes to medieval choir music, what inspired me the most is how it uses triads. It’s a chord that you create with three notes, and then by just shifting the position of these notes, you can create different chords and even full songs. When I learned about this in school, I found it so fascinating that I started writing songs based on that concept. I found that a lot in medieval choir music, but also in contemporary folk music—basically, in everything that contains harmony.
The fact that you studied Japanese and the aesthetics of your music videos and your stage setting make me think that Japanese theater could be an influence of yours. Is it the case?
Kabuki? Yes, it is, a lot! I’m very influenced by how it looks and by Japanese culture in general: the folklore, the art, and some cultural phenomena like kabuki theater. There are other things as well that inspired me for these things but that’s definitely one of them indeed.
Adam [Zaars] told me that for Tribulation, you tend to write on your own. Is composing songs for your solo project a similar process, then?
It depends on the song. It can be very similar sometimes. Especially the process of writing the lyrics: sometimes, it’s only the context that makes it a song for the solo project or Tribulation. And sometimes it’s not; sometimes it’s clearly a Tribulation song with clearly Tribulation lyrics. The first, initial stage of being inspired and wanting to create something, this creative feeling is very similar; it’s basically the same thing. Then, it can go either way: it can turn into some kind of Tribulation inspiration frenzy just like it can turn into Chants inspiration frenzy. Or into potentially anything I guess!
Actually, it’s the other way around! I wrote “Nightly Sun” and then thought that the message of the song could really work in a death metal context as well, so I actually took its lyrics and put it into a Stench song. That’s an example where the meaning of the song and of the lyrics adapts. It fits in a metal context as well because it’s so adventurous and kind of dark… But I felt like I needed to make the “Nightly Sun” version a reality as well, that’s why I resurrected it.
How do extreme metal and folk music compare in terms of expression? Is it only a matter of intensity?
Some forms of expression lend themselves more easily to certain emotions, for sure. When you’re playing death metal or even metal live, it’s a matter of expressing yourself aggressively, violently, widely. This is a part of the art form itself. Standing alone on stage with a guitar is more a matter of subtleness. But at the same time, I would definitely say there’s not only darkness in Tribulation and subtleness in Chants from Another Place… It’s just two different forms that can contain many things. At first glance, they may appear in a certain way. But there’s room for more varied emotions in both camps: there can be aggression in the solo project as well, it just comes out differently. It’s not so blatantly in-your-face. Both forms of expression contain everything.
You wrote “Anguished Are The Young” when you were really young yourself, about ten years ago. How are you feeling about singing that song now, in a completely different context?
It’s still relevant, at least in a certain way; that’s why I brought it up again. I was feeling especially lost and confused when I was re-working it; I was thinking: “OK, I need to put this song out there because it’s resonating a lot with me right now.” But I probably felt lost in a different way ten years ago; the circumstances were different, I was a different person in a way, my life was different. What I have in common with this person is that feeling of being confused, of standing between different choices; a lack of immediate meaning, and a yearning for this meaning. It means something else for me today but the feeling, the emotion is still very much the same.
It feels that this EP as a whole is about transformation. Would you agree with that?
Oh yes. Spot on! That’s the word I would use myself to describe this EP or even this whole project. It’s about exploration and transformation.
Why did you choose this name, “Chants from Another Place”? At first, it made me think about the man from Another Place in Twin Peaks…
Yeah! [Laughs] That’s actually partially from there, “from Another Place”; there’s a small Twin Peaks reference here indeed.
This idea of the Other is something that you find a lot in Tribulation as well. What is it, according to you? Is it night? Darkness? Is it death, ultimately?
It’s a conceptual realm. You could put it under the banner of everything that is not the everyday life, everything that isn’t material, everything that isn’t familiar. To use a metaphor, it’s night, when your everyday life is day. It’s the inner world; the subconscious versus the conscious. It’s the things about yourself that you can’t explain, emotions rather than logic.
How does the Other fit in the transformation process we were talking about?
Based on how the idea of the Other was just formulated, you could say that it’s everything that you are currently not, or that you potentially could be. To transform then would be to merge yourself with some parts of the Other and thus becoming something else. I think it can happen on many levels, first and foremost mentally, but also emotionally and even physically, to some degree—you decide upon something and then you transform your body according to that idea, determination, motivation, or goal.
In another way, we are also constantly changing as human beings as we are aging, as we are exposed to new ideas, and just generally as we live in the society we are living in. We are bound to become something that we weren’t in the past. Our life experiences are constantly changing us. But I don’t think that’s the type of change I’m referring to when I say the project is about transformation. What I’m talking about is a transformation into something that either you want to become or that you feel you could be. Maybe you don’t exactly know what it is, what it will be, but you’re searching for it. I’m searching for it. I’m opening myself up for possibilities of change and then see what happens. I’m actively searching for it—whereas the transformation process I mentioned earlier is more passive. The one I’m looking for is definitely active.
It feels like your costumes and makeup are an important part of how you express yourself as an artist. Should we see it as you embodying different characters or personas?
I’m seeing it as me bringing my fantasies to life. I’m bringing things that I’m carrying in my head or in my heart up to the surface. In that sense, it’s a physical exploration of my inner self. Actually, it could be a definition of what the artist is doing: as an archetype, the artist is bringing out what he or she has in his or her imagination to the physical realm. It’s important because it changes yourself and it can change others as well. It’s the change that’s interesting, the possibility to become something else.
In Chants from Another Place and in Tribulation, darkness and death appear under feminine traits. Why? The French language is gendered so in French, death and darkness are feminine words, which may explain why it’s been mostly embodied in women through art history. It’s not the case of the English language though, nor Swedish if I’m not mistaken…
Swedish isn’t gendered indeed, not like the Latin languages. I studied Spanish for a while so I’m a bit acquainted with how it works. It’s very interesting to see why things are masculine or feminine and how it came to be that way. There is a long history for how languages developed the way they did. To a certain extent, in our case I think it could have to do with the artistic tradition you mention, although there must be psychological reasons for that, I’m sure. Femininity and darkness have been recurring themes in Tribulation for many years already. I could try and theorize on why certain imagery and certain lyrical content come to be about the darkness portrayed as feminine, but it almost immediately becomes a very personal question as well. I think it’s very psychological.
From a male perspective, the feminine could be perceived as the Other, for instance…
Exactly. I could also see that being a part of what we discussed earlier; the transformation process. There’s a search for balance there, a will to explore, to become a part of, and to bring up to the surface the female aspects of your self; in Jungian terms, the anima.
Does it come to play in the androgyny you may display? Is it a way of “wearing” your anima?
Yeah, on a personal level now, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the thing that I have to discover and that, I feel, is right behind the corner, could be the manifestation of the anima. I used to really think about it in those terms. I have many different theories about why I’m doing what I’m doing on stage—I don’t want to generalize. To me, it’s been very important to embrace the feminine on stage, specifically. It’s always been a part of where I want to go, but it really got formulated when we toured with Deafheaven in 2015. I saw how George [Clarke] dared to be very emotional on stage, how he wasn’t afraid to look effeminate, moving and posing, and I found it very liberating. Here’s a guy who can embrace his more feminine sides. I found it inspiring.
I found inspiring things in almost all the bands we toured with; I’ve learned a lot from all of the members of those bands. For example, when we toured with Watain in the United States for the first time, I learned from Erik [Danielsson] how to take space on stage, and act as if to say: “Here I am! I’m not afraid of showing that I’m here, I’m showing myself to the world!” Something similar happened with Nergal from Behemoth when we toured with them in 2015 as well. He taught me how to engage, to interact with the crowd, and to play around with the audience. That was really inspiring as well. It’s been really helpful to tour with different bands and see how they’re doing it. I think there’s something to be learned from everyone.
There’s a sense of freedom in all the projects you’re working on. Is it part of the transformation process? Could it be its goal?
Maybe you could see it as the motivation. But that wouldn’t be the only thing; it’s not a very well defined term, it can be many things to many people. To me, it’s not the goal, but the motivation to get somewhere, to change, because I think that more than freedom, the change itself might be the goal. Maybe it’s the same thing: you’re longing for something else and you transform in order to achieve that. The yearning that is a part of freedom is a part of it. Let’s say it’s a very important ingredient.
Let’s go back to Tribulation’s Down Below: in the press release, your music is described as “Jugendstil death metal,” which I think is actually quite spot-on: aesthetically, you borrow a lot from art and literature from the turn of the 19th-20th centuries. What draws you to that era?
Actually, a lot of our imagery comes from Jugend itself, a German magazine from that era; the cover of Formulas of Death is a reinterpretation of an illustration that we found in that magazine. I really appreciate illustrators from that era in general and I’m not completely sure what it is that appeals to us and to me so much about it… Maybe it’s the mythical, mythological feel these illustrations have. It’s not naturalistic or realistic, it’s very appealing aesthetically and very thought-through. It can be very simple as well. There’s a feeling of timelessness to it, it looks like everything comes from a fairy tale or some very old myth. These images often make me think about folklore. It’s romanticism, basically.
I was at her concert in 2016, we met afterward at the merch table and I asked her if she would be interested in doing something together someday. That’s how we first met. I contacted her later on and asked if she would be interested in contributing to the record. She was up for it, so we had some email conversations about it, then she interpreted the song, came up with her take on it, and it worked out really well! We didn’t actually meet to record it, we did it over email, but we’re really happy about how it turned out. We’re using this song live, in between tracks, because it really sets an atmosphere.
You’re a visual artist as well, you create artworks for your projects. You also often choose artworks by other people to go with your music (I’m thinking about the leaflet coming with Formulas of Death for instance or Chants from Another Place’s first music videos). Is it important for you to have imagery connected to your music?
Yeah, it was very important to us from the start. The aesthetic part of the band is an important part of its foundation and of how the music is being perceived. There are different components that make up an expression. We put a lot of emphasis on the visual part. If you are oblivious or don’t care about how your music is being presented, then you’re just leaving it to others to do. It can be an aesthetic as well, but that’s not how we want to do it. We want to present it exactly how we envision it.
In an interview in which the journalist asked you what is art for you, you answered that it’s life. Could you elaborate on that?
I had a conversation with a journalist about a week ago and we were getting close to the same topic. I think that whatever I’m talking about, it all comes down to basically that very question: what’s the meaning of your life, how can you find meaning in your life? What will be the meaning and the reason for your life, its theme, the thing around which everything else will revolve? For me, I chose art, and by art, I mean everything that’s related to it—music, images, painting, dancing, everything. I think that’s a very direct way for me to feel that life is meaningful. I can’t fully explain why, but that’s the main ingredient, the main focus of my life. I feel like everything makes sense when I’m deeply involved with creation. I also came to that conclusion when I started really working for the first time in my life when I was 20 or 21. I was working at a warehouse. It was very different from everything I’d ever done before. It was a rude awakening, a rough wake-up call, and I thought: “OK, this is not how life is supposed to be. I need to do something radically different as soon as possible. This is not something I should spend any of my time on.” Not to say it’s not good to work at the warehouse, maybe it is for some people, but I felt that, as Bob Dylan said in an interview in Sweden from a long time ago that’s on YouTube: “I must sing and dance, man!” [laughs]. I think he said it in some kind of humoristic manner, but it’s so true, I can relate to that so much!
As you said, it’s not just about music: you are singing, you’re a visual artist as well, your stage persona is a form of art as well. Is that why you feel like you have to make everything yourself or to be artistically involved in many ways?
It’s always been very important for the band that we do everything ourselves. It was like that from the start; we drew our first album covers. I think there was an idea of making a shortcut between the vision and the feeling that we wanted to convey to the actual outcome instead of having to explain to someone else what we’re thinking. Then, they interpret what you’re saying, interpret your music, and it doesn’t quite come out as you had imagined. We wanted to cut that part away and make everything exactly as we had envisioned it. Artistic control is one of the reasons, but it also feels more genuine to me when you have been involved in every stage of creating an album. Then, you feel more grounded, like it’s actually something that comes from within you rather than some kind of compromise.
Yeah! I find this super fun and very rewarding as well. It’s a new medium I can express myself through, in a different manner, in a way that is more all-inclusive: it’s image but it’s moving image, it’s music but coordinated with images… You can tell a story through these images. There are so many aspects that are not there in a still image. In a way, it’s almost as ultimate an art form as playing live. It’s similar: you are the medium for the music, you embody it, everything you do is visual, and you perceive the music with all your senses. Performing music is the ultimate form of art.
Did you ever think about exhibiting your artworks?
I have no time for that [laughs]! I wish, actually. I was more into that earlier in my life, when I hadn’t really decided what I wanted to do although I was already in Tribulation and working on a lot of other projects as well. I thought about becoming an artist more than a musician and just concentrate on that, but I reached the conclusion that I needed to do this; I needed to do Tribulation, to prioritize music and let the art complement the music rather than the other way around.
Why? Do you think you express yourself better with music?
I’m more emotionally attached to music. To me, it’s more direct expression.
What’s next for you?
I have a solo tour coming after the US Tribulation, in October. I’m working on a new album as well, that’s what I’ve been doing the whole day actually, working on new material, recording… I’m keeping busy to make things happen in the future.