Interview: Tribulation’s Jonathan Hultén on moving forward, composition and mustaches

tribulation

Those of us fortunate enough to have been fans of Tribulation over their dynamic and astounding career have been privy to a band that has quickly developed into a leader in extreme metal. On their newest album, The Children of the Night, the band blended a catchy, old-school backdrop with growled, black metal vocal work to create one of the most entertaining listens of the year. And with a solid run coming up on the summer festival circuit, not to mention support gigs for bands like Behemoth, Cannibal Corpse and Melechesh already this year, the band’s stock should only continue to rise.

I recently had the opportunity to send some questions to the Swedish powerhouses. Guitarist Jonathan Hultén took time out of his busy schedule to respond to my questions, which I can’t thank him enough for. Here’s what he had to say:

I’ve seen people say that The Children of the Night is an extension of the Tribulation vision—that it is somehow an extension of The Formulas of Death. I see the new LP as a major step forward. With the exception of “Music From the Other” I don’t really hear much of a connection to The Formulas of Death. What do you see as the links, if any, between the two albums?

As you say, I too see the new album more as a step forward. This is the third phase in our creativity and collaboration as a band. There is a clear line between the previous album and the new one, but it is still a continuation of something. In the same way as The Formulas of Death started off where The Horror ended, so is The Children of the Night beginning somewhere in between “Ultra Silvam” and “Apparitions” (the two last songs on The Formulas of Death). Although not belonging to the same era and not sharing the same expression, all the albums are indeed each other’s spiritual successors. And yes, Music From the Other is actually the exception here, as it contains riffs from as far back as 2008 and was originally written in 2012, even before our second album was recorded.

The most shocking thing to me on The Children of the Night is the guitar sound. It’s got a terrific crunch that, to me, seems reminiscent of UK rock and roll. What made you guys leans towards a crunchy, overdriven sound rather than the previous thicker, fuzzier guitar sounds? Are you still playing the same rig as you were on The Formulas of Death?

No, but we are still using a lot of the same pedals and effects. The change in guitar tone had a lot to do with the circumstances around the recording of the album: the people we were working with, what kind of equipment we had access to, etc. Also, entering a studio, you might have an abstract idea of how the soundscape should be like, more like a feeling as opposed to a concrete method. You know how it should sound, but you have no idea of how to get there.

The tricky part is for the musician to somehow convey this “feeling” to the sound engineer so that he/she can help in accomplishing the desired result. Often the outcome is a combination between how the producer thinks it should sound like and the vision of the musician. It’s a compromise that in many cases actually tends to be healthy for reaching high quality. With that said, we have [producer] Ola Ersfjord to thank for helping the crunch really come through on The Children of the Night.

One of the tracks in particular, Själaflykt, has a certain surf-rock feel, almost reminiscent of 1950s work done by bands like The Ventures. I’m wondering where that influence came from and whether that style of guitar playing is popular in Sweden.

It’s hard to tell. Backtracking your influences can sometimes be more difficult than one might think. In the end, it is all a big, chaotic jumble that is going on in your mind, and occasionally you are drawing straws out of it and making music of it.

Still, the main influence for the clean guitar sound could possibly be what we were experimenting with on “Ultra Silvam,” but here it is taking on a different form. Furthermore, our influences are not only, or even barely, metal anymore either, so in a way I guess it is not so strange that “Själaflykt” sounds the way it does. But just to mention something external: I played a lot of 50’s rock’n’roll like Chuck Berry and Elvis in my teens, so that time period in music history might indeed have left its mark on Tribulation, although more or less in a farfetched way.

The lead guitar work was subtly linked to acid rock on The Formulas of Death but on The Children of the Night the lead lines sound as if they could be plucked straight out of the 1970’s (specifically on tracks like “Strains of Horror”). You also play big hollow body guitars – so unique in extreme metal. Who are the big musical influences for you and Adam Zaars?

As for myself, I don’t really have any direct idols or role models that I want to replicate or be similar to when it comes to how I want to play in Tribulation, at least not in the last ten years or so. One thing worth mentioning, though, is that hearing Joey Santiago from The Pixies made me realize that one does not have to rely on any norms or rules when it comes to playing guitar. It is more about trying to express something that you feel, or something that accompanies and completes the song in the best of ways. Whatever you feel is right, IS right, and it can be how screwed up, skewed and strange as it can be – or it could be a blues-based hero guitar solo, as on “Strains of Horror.” It depends on the context, what the music demands out of you, and what you demand out of the guitar.

But just to continue a bit about the guitar solo on “Strains of Horror”—it came as a natural and almost necessary continuation of how the organ-part suddenly breaks off the song, so writing the lead was almost as just giving space for something that already existed, or was predestined to exist – like pulling down an idea from the Theory of Forms and providing it a place to be.

And the Epiphone I’m playing on is a jazz guitar, which in itself is a reminder of that things does not necessarily need to be the way they are. You can do what ever you want.

I read that you paint the covers of your albums and this one is just fantastic. I might be projecting, but I think the cover really matches and supports the sound on the new album. What was the artistic inspiration for it?

There is a movie called Les Vampires from 1915 by the French filmmaker Louis Feuillade, which Adam at some point found a still from and saved on his computer. When the time drew nearer to choose a motif and a direction for the next cover, we went through what we had gathered until that point, and when we stumbled over this still it felt like everything fell into place. This image really corresponded with the mood and contents of the music and the lyrics, as well as encompassed it well in a single picture. Yet it did not feel enough to use the still from the film just as it was, so in order to truly make it ours, I made an illustration of it in pencil, ink and blood.

Since The Children of the Night was such a step forward not only in sound but also in songwriting, I’m wondering if there was any material that got left off the album and why you chose the material you chose? What was the most challenging song to complete for The Children of the Night?

In the end we really did use all the material we had for the album. The question was rather if we would leave out some of the songs in order to make it shorter, but in the end we found it too hard. It is a whole. Taking something away would be like cutting of a limb off its body.

“Strange Gateways Beckon” was actually the song that was written last—very late in the process, just some weeks before we entered the studio. We had felt that there was something missing, something more straightforward—like an introduction for the rest of the songs. So after a lot of hassle and question marks it just happened, and it felt like it just kind of appeared right in front of us. As if a gift, the best you can do is to be thankful and kindly accept.

You have previously used what I believe is a tambura on your recordings; borrowing from Eastern music. On the new album, you chose to trend westward and expand on the keyboards instead, any reason for the change and what do you think the keyboards add to your sound? As a pianist myself, I must ask who is playing keys on The Children of the Night? Whoever it is has a real touch for the instrument and the music.

Martin Borg, a friend of Ola’s, came to help us out with the piano, organ, moog and mellotron parts and really made an impressive effort; in just three days he learned and nailed every detail with professional care. As for why we did not use so many “Traditional Eastern” instruments (there actually is some tambura), we just did not have enough time to record them. There were actually some plans for some parts to be enhanced by certain instruments, but the time schedule simply did not allow it. We had to do the most we could with what we had at hand.

You have come so far since your early releases. Any chance of Tribulation revisiting the roots and making another album or EP that sounds like The Horror or earlier EP’s? Do you ever miss playing more straight ahead death metal?

I will never say never, but it is most unlikely. We are not driven by nostalgia of our early days. Yet we do play some songs of The Horror live to widen the spectrum of our set, so our history is still alive and with us, breathing in our necks and giving us strength.

You just got off a very interesting tour opening for Cannibal Corpse and Behemoth. Your sound is a lot more progressive than those bands. I assume a lot of people in the crowd were hearing you for the first time. How did the crowds receive you and how did you get along with the guys in the other bands?

Judging from what one could see and hear from stage there were both very positive and negative responses. I assume that some people foremost came for the grind and the blastbeat, so obviously they would have been disappointed when we started to “jazz loose.” But some people really enjoyed it. I never would have thought I would see a mosh pit on “Ultra Silvam,” but as a matter of fact that’s exactly what happened, even multiple times!

I think people have a really difficult time labeling your sound. As music writers, there’s always a demand for us to label what we hear and you’re certainly not making it easy. How would you describe your sound as you envision it? Do you guys consciously seek to expand people’s minds and thinking about metal as a genre or are you just writing making music that you want to hear?

The more music I’ve written throughout the years, the more I have realized how important it is to make music that you would like to listen to yourself. Music needs to be an expression of your very being, and for that to happen you must be prepared to follow your intuition to the strangest places and ignore what the genres say is right or wrong. The only thing you have to listen to is your inspiration—and your bandmates of course, when it comes to making your vision our (the band’s) vision. Creatively, if I were to be stuck in a maze of rules and restrictions I would stagnate and my passion would soon fade away. Then it would not be any point in doing anything at all, unless one were to break loose from those shackles. Creating must be an expansive experience, a constant travel forward as we have a need to grow and make use of our potential.

One final serious question: I have seen a lot of chatter about people thinking that Tribulation is a band of girls or, as our more typical embarrassing American countrymen, just criticizing your overall look as femme or gay. As a guy who studied gender in college I have to ask what your reaction to that garbage is. Because many metal bands wear corpse paint and no one bats an eye, but you guys actually use makeup the way bands used to, and the way for which it was invented, and it’s apparently shocking to some people.

We’re not bothered by it. First of all it is something I’ve heard all my life, and I think it is something that everyone with long hair who comes from a small community has experienced.

Second, what I am trying to achieve is to look like I am dead, which helps me get in the proper mood to perform our music. In order to do that, I am filling my facial cavities with blackness, as if my skin had sunken in and started decomposing. It has never made sense to me to use make-up that looks unnatural, like some kind of war paint or to look like a clown (like most “corpse paint” in reality looks like). I must be myself, but I need to feel like I am halfway through to another world while on stage. It is me who is doing the traveling, not some alter ego or persona.

Third, I have always thought of artists with androgynous features as more aesthetically interesting due to the confusion they stir up and the boundaries of conformity they dissolve, so to me it would not hurt if we would belong to that category.

Your drummer, Jakob Ljungberg, has an incredible mustache. Everyone here at Nine Circles was very impressed when we saw you guys on tour. He almost looks like the King Crimson drummer—and I mean that with the highest of praise. Do you guys ever tease him about it or are you very supportive of the ‘stache?

I like it very much! I actually wish I had the capability to grow a mustache like that, but unfortunately that’s not the case. He seems to get a lot of mentions for it, actually mostly from journalists.

Finally, if you could make music with anyone, since the dawn of time, who would it be and why?

Philip Glass. His music made a huge impact on me in an important time in my life.

 

Many thanks to Jonathan for his time

2 thoughts on “Interview: Tribulation’s Jonathan Hultén on moving forward, composition and mustaches

  1. headovmetal June 16, 2015 / 12:54 pm

    BADASS!

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