Interview with Tribulation guitarist Jonathan Hultén
By Robin Ono
Theatrical, eminently introspective and melancholic — the vampiric undertones of Tribulation’s musical craft have never been clearer than on Down Below, the band’s fourth full-length record, out now on Century Media Records. Ever since the band’s inception, the Swedes’ approach in capturing the grim yet emotionally poignant glow of Transylvanian anguish has been ever-shifting. The band first unveiled themselves to the world as a blackened death metal act with The Horror, a sonic blast of pure cosmic terror whose haunting ambience would further mature on their sophomore record The Formulas of Death. Leaping further than ever before, the band eventually followed the record with a left-turn decision to flip their sound on its head and allow atmosphere and gothic romanticism to occupy the centre-stage position, free to spread its dark, dark wings on The Children of the Night. With this fourth and latest album, Tribulation pick up where they’ve left off and delve deeper into the grandiosely dramatic with scarlet-red passion flowing vigorously through their veins. Rue Morgue got ahold of guitarist Jonathan Hultén after a show in Manchester to learn about the bands’ journey into the deep down below.
RM: From what I’ve read, each of your records follow certain moods and atmospheres based on colours and images. How would you define this latest record in this regard?
We have indeed been thinking about our own records in those terms. We see The Horror as a “red” record, the second album is a green one and the third has a yellow-ish shade to it. For this record, we went back to the colour red to encapsulate the intensity and severity of the record. There’s a lot more deep emotions on this record than on the two previous ones. It’s more emotionally intense. This is the second record represented by the colour red, so I guess the circle is closing, in a sense. The fourth album has a similar vibe to The Horror in that regard, but overall they both are pretty distinct from each other. It’s got another type of sound. You can visualize the return as a spiral; it’s a return, only this time it’s one level above the previous iteration.
RM: As the person behind some of the band’s artwork, how do the visual components come into play when writing the songs? Are you the only one who writes with imagery in mind?
No, we actually work on all of the components of the band together. It’s mostly me and Adam [Zaars, guitars] doing the music writing, and we all work on putting together the visuals as well. I’m more of an illustrator and a designer but our roles blend into one another. When we’re about to make a decision about which direction to go, we sit down and talk about it, throw ideas around, and things eventually things start to happen. Someone eventually comes up with an idea, someone else expands on it and before we know it we’ve got ourselves a foundation for a piece to work on. This applies to the whole album. It’s a constant play of give and take. As for the cover art, we had an idea about what we felt we wanted for the album when we first sat down to talk about it, but once we had started writing and started examining what we had, it turns out that it didn’t quite come out the way we had initially expected and visualized. In that sense, we had to sit down again and reconsider our visual direction. This happened pretty late into the whole process, actually. We sat down a few weeks before the recording session was about to end. Things were very intense at that moment because we had to finish the record and we hadn’t really figured out the visual part yet. However, we had our own feelings about the songs and eventually everything came together during the course of one meeting.
RM: Is there one moment or aspect that made you understand what this next album was going to be about, musically and conceptually?
Actually yes, I would say so. Let me just point out that, initially, we did not know what was going to happen to the album. What we expected didn’t happen, something totally unexpected came and took over, something we all had inside of ourselves but that we were not fully aware of. Just a few weeks into the recording, we started to really feel the entity the album had become, and Down Below thus became Down Below. I think that may be what happened with every record of ours, to a certain extent, only it was a lot clearer this time.
RM: Would you say these searches are distinct from album to album or rather that they are part one one continuous overarching search?
That’s a good question. Since the first album was released, I think we’ve always strived to follow things up with something new. That’s when the real search for a new way of expressing ourselves came to be one of the main focal points in our way of writing music. I think it’s been that way for a long time and it’s definitely been that way for this record, but the process takes different shapes and forms along the way. If you compare The Formulas of Death and The Children of the Night, the leap is very big, sonically speaking. The gap between The Children of the Night and Down Below is not as big, because we weren’t necessarily trying to find a new way of writing music like we were doing on the previous records. We were concentrating on the actual songwriting itself. In other words, it was more of a refining process this time. We were refining what we had created. ‘The search’ is maybe a bit more specified this time around. The process used to be broader and we’d be jumping into whole new worlds, but this time we’re in the same world, only we’re diving deeper into the world we’ve already established on the last record. I don’t know what we will find on the other side or at the bottom of that hole. I don’t know if we’ll start digging a new hole on the next record or if we’ll keep going down the same one. That’s part of the excitement, I guess. You never know where we will end up.
RM: Your bandmate Adam explained in an earlier interview that the songwriting was split into two camps for this record. On one hand there was Adam, Oscar and Johannes working as a trio and on the other hand you were working on your own. How did come to be and how did this affect the creative process and the final product?
Well, we had pushed forward the deadline for the album quite a bit, even before we had started to gather together to write new material. We didn’t have much time, even less time than we had ever had before. All of the ideas were there when we started, which was around February 2017. We then recruited a new drummer, who needed to get used to the old material as well as the new, which left us with even less time. In order to counter that, we started to work with demos, more so than ever before; we had always been more of a rehearsal type of band, we’d typically let things grow into their own. Because of the deadline, we were pushed to intensify the writing process and work twice as hard. We were very pragmatic about it and I started working from my work station at home with my home recording gear. The same goes for Oscar ; he has a studio at home. Adam and Johannes went over to his place and worked from there and we gave each other feedback to make the material into something that everyone worked on as opposed to simply one person’s idea. We wanted everyone to feel like they had contributed to the end result. Working with so little time made us concentrate even harder to bring out what he had inside of ourselves. In a way, it made the album even more emotionally intense.
RM: One of the most notable reoccurring figures in Tribulation’s art and lyrics is that of the Vampire. What do vampires evoke to you?
That is also a good question. I’ve been thinking about this throughout the last few previews. I would say that the direction we’ve wanted to take and the atmosphere wanted to create was shaped around the time we were working on The Horror, which was back when we were in our late teens. The figure of the vampire, the movie Nosferatu and certain movie soundtracks just fitted very well into that realm we wanted to create. The symbol emits a certain atmosphere, an almost romantic, dark aura and feeling. It really resonated well with the direction with the lens we were using to see the world and guide our approach into the art. It also works with certain themes which we’ve explored privately as well as in the lyrics. It’s formed the way we’ve chosen to see things, the way we portray the music through visuals. I think the vampire is very elegant yet extremely menacing and sad.
RM: I hope you don’t mind me saying this but you all seem like rather reserved individuals in the band, which makes me wonder whether the stage makeup is more than just a visual ornament. How do you regard your use of makeup onstage?
I think the makeup has a transformative quality to it. So yes, I would say that you’re right to a certain extent. Putting it on, it becomes a part of a ritual, an initiatory rite to prepare for the extreme mental discharge that is about to take place when you finally take to the stage. It helps you to get a hold of a certain energy that you have in a certain part of your body, which is otherwise hard to bring forward. You want to grab a hold of that wilderness that lives inside of you and bring it out and let it manifest in you while you’re playing. The makeup helps, it’s definitely a tool to achieve this, for sure. I agree.