A Conversation With Thomas Hedlund of Cult of Luna and Phoenix

On paper, playing for a venue full of riff enthusiasts should require a completely different approach than playing to a stadium full of Billboard 100 fans. But paper doesn’t add up to the raw energy of a live show. Metal or pop, bring the energy.

Over the past 20 years, Thomas Hedlund has built a genre-spanning career on the foundation of that idea. The native Swede is most famous as the drummer in post-metal icon Cult of Luna and festival headliner Phoenix.

Armed with a four-piece set up and some trigger pads, Hedlund’s thrashing and inventive style is directly responsible for much of the energy found in his band's recordings and performances.

Cult of Luna - Mariner

We recently caught up with Hedlund as he was on tour in support of Cult of Luna’s latest release, Mariner.

The conversation that followed touched on touring at age of 16, approaching drums in different genres, and that time R. Kelly played an encore with Phoenix that almost didn’t happen.

Thanks for talking to us and for setting aside the time, considering you have what, three boys? Is your family on tour with you?

Sometimes they are, but not with Cult of Luna. With Phoenix they come along from time to time. Actually, [the whole family has] spent some time in the U.S. when I've been touring with Phoenix, so we've been in New York for a while. So that's nice.

They must love it.

Yeah, they're really enjoying it. And the best feeling in the world is actually performing. I mean playing when my kids and wife are watching, so that's a real bonus.

Have your kids started playing music yet?

Yeah. They all seem to be really into drumming. I might try to move them in another direction. I don't know. Three, four drummers in the family might be a bit much, I would think. [laughs]

Yeah, that would be a pretty noisy house.

Exactly, and it's noisy as it is already. I'm thinking more - I don't know...not violin because that sounds horrible when you can't play it. [laughs]

How do you maintain that balance between family time, spending time with your sons, and then also being a large-scale musician out on the road a lot of the year?

It's funny because when I talk to my friends who have more ordinary jobs, they seem to be super stressed all the time to find time to actually be with their kids. For some reason, when I'm home, I'm really home.

It's really quality time. Me and my wife have been together since we were 16. I started touring when I was 16, so it's always been part of our life. It takes a lot of planning. It's a different way of having a family and raising kids, but so far so good. We are all enjoying it.

Also I only started drinking alcohol last year when I was 35, so I've been touring almost 20 years without drinking.

I almost live healthier when I'm on tour than when I'm at home, so the transition has always been very smooth for me. Some people go on tour and go crazy. Then when they get back home, they need a few days to sort of readjust and get into the family thing and just be a normal person again. But that's never been an issue [for me]. I'm never normal. [laughs] No, I'm kidding.

You were already a veteran of touring by the time you were in your early, mid-20s. When you were 16, who were you touring with - Cult of Luna?

No, but it [was] one of the guys in Cult of Luna, the singer Johannes [Persson]. He was playing in with me in a hardcore punk band back then, so we've been playing for a long time together. I was playing with that band and then a punk band called The Perishers. We were touring quite a lot in the U.S. at some point, too actually. We were opening for Sarah McLachlan on a long tour.

Oh wow, I didn’t know that.

Yeah, so those two bands were the first bands that I was touring with. With the punk band, it was really just getting into a van. We didn't have cell phones, just a regular map and some directions.

We just went out in Europe and played abandoned farms, places like that. It was a great way to get introduced to the world of music and just sort of the feeling that a lot of things are possible.

You've had roots with these guys for a long time. It's been three years since the last Cult of Luna recording. When did you all start playing together again?

I mean we've always been working. It's just cycles between the albums. All of us have kids now and different jobs. I've been touring a lot with Phoenix and other bands and stuff. We've actually been constantly working, but it takes time because there are a lot of logistics [like] just finding the time to rehearse. We've never sort of taken an official break or anything like that. It's just that it takes time for us to do albums.

When did you guys decide you were going to start writing material for the new album [Mariner]?

Actually, that process was unusually fast for us because we were granted some money from the Swedish government to do this thing. They had a deadline, like, “You have to present us with something before this date.” So that made us work a bit faster than we usually do, which was fine.

When you've played together for so long, you can start really trusting your intuition. We know each other's strengths and weaknesses, so sometimes it's better not to overthink it and just go with it."

It's cool because when you've played together for so long, you can start really trusting your intuition. We know each other's strengths and weaknesses, so sometimes it's better not to overthink it and just go with it. Go with emotions and a feel.

I think we did that. This project is different because of Julie’s involvement [Julie Christmas, vocalist on Mariner], so that gave us, I don't know, a sense of freedom. It was not a typical Cult of Luna album. It was something different so it was a pretty fast process.

How did you guys meet Julie Christmas and decide to work with her?

I've never met her actually. We've been sending stuff back and forth and she came out to our show in New York, and she met with Johannes. They stayed in touch the most. I think that's how it all came about.

He heard some of her music and approached her. For a long time in the writing process, I had no idea what she was doing. It was kind of scary in a way, but also very fun because we are real control freaks. We are really into every detail and we do everything ourselves. We mix, master, record and produce everything. We never use anyone else.

So it was a challenge, but it was a very inspiring thing to do. She's a really vibe-y kind of vocalist, so she just recorded her vocals and sends everything, saying something like, “This is my take on it and use what you want.” It turned out great, I mean we are super proud of it, but at some point I was kind of nervous, you know, because obviously the vocals [are] a really defining thing from an aesthetic point of view.

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Yeah that's a big leap of faith to know that you guys record and mix and master all yourself. And then to give such a centerpiece like vocals to someone who is thousands of miles away. Was this the first time that you recorded like that?

We've invited some people in to help us out with different stuff over the years, but this was really a new approach. But it's cool, that's what we want, too. We don't want to be doing the same thing over and over again, so this was a way for us to just try something different and make ourselves a bit nervous, I guess, which was invigorating.

What differences do you perceive in Mariner as opposed to past Cult of Luna work?

We always try to come up with sort of an overall theme. If it's not a real narrative, it's just something that should [be in place to guide us] because we all listen to so many different kinds of music. For instance, I almost never listen to metal music. I'm so much more of a pop guy. I listen to a lot of hip hop. I've found myself playing a lot of hard music, heavy music, but I've never been listening to it that much. So for us to sort of gather around a theme is almost a necessity.

Through all of our different visions on this theme, something comes out and it feels like “us.” This album was about space, so this was the theme for the album and our sort of interpretation of a space journey. Vertical [Cult of Luna’s sixth album] was more the city, and both of the albums before that [Somewhere Along the Highway and Eternal Kingdom] were more like a rural kind of thing that drew a lot of inspiration from the surroundings of our town in the north of Sweden. It's kind of geographical themes, I would say.

It's like you're expanding out into the universe as you go through the albums.

Yeah, we get more and more, how do you say, grandiose. So the next album, I'm not really sure where we're going, but now we are out in space so we'll see where we end up. [laughs]

It’s kind of flooring to hear that in your free time you listen to more pop and hip hop. Did that factor into joining Phoenix? How did that come about?

That came from being in a band called Deportees. We were actually on the same label as Phoenix back in 2004, so they arranged that we open for them when they did a few shows here in Scandinavia. We just had a great time and they apparently liked what they saw and heard. They approached me and asked if I would be interested in joining the band.

That was 2005, and we were touring so much in the U.S. and Canada with The Perishers that I couldn't really do it straight away. So the first thing I did with them was actually to record an album [It’s Never Been Like That]. Before that, we had never played with each other or hung out more than that short tour. It was a bit nerve-wracking to go to, and we recorded it in this huge studio complex back in east Berlin, so it was a really cool experience.

That was like the first time we actually spent a significant amount of time together. We sort of fell in love with each other from day one, so it was really cool. It's just a great marriage of aesthetics. They're my best friends, so it's been great.

How did you make that transition in style from how aggressive and punishing the drums are on Cult of Luna to that really nice upbeat pop inflection that's at the heart of Phoenix's rhythm section?

Thanks by the way, that's very kind of you. It's really—I don't know. To me, I tend to approach [the drums] like I'm playing the same kind of drums for all the groups I’m playing with.

Both Cult of Luna and Phoenix and almost all of the bands I play with, I'm surrounded with people who care a lot about rhythm. They care a lot about drums, they are really into patterns, and they all share a really fundamental interest in percussion and drums, which is great for me because I'm always sort of in an environment where people pay attention. They really want the things that I'm doing to be good, and that's how you get better, by being challenged but also encouraged.

Everyone is really into it, but I think with the Phoenix guys it was sort of the energy that I had when we played live. I've always been sort of an energetic drummer. That's how I like to play and that's how I have the most fun, like dancing and playing at the same time [laughs]. That's the feeling I want. If you can make people laugh, even if it's at a Cult of Luna concert, that's mission accomplished. That's the main goal.

Oh yeah.

That doesn't differ from [my other] bands. You want to move people in some way both emotionally but also from a physical point of view so that they feel it.

Get them shaking.

Even if it's a 20 minute long, really slow song, if you can see that they are nodding their heads and moving around, then that's the best feeling."

Yeah, I mean even if it's a 20 minute long, really slow song, if you can see that they are nodding their heads and moving around, then that's the best feeling. That's my main goal as a drummer.

I think with Cult of Luna I wouldn't say that, because I don't know many other bands in our genre, but we always try to make songs groovy, try to make them bounce. We always try to do that. I'm not saying that we succeed, but that's the intention at least. [laughs]

I'm a drummer myself but I can still remember the first time in 2009 when I was 21 years old hearing Lisztomania like, “Oh man, who is this?” It's such a distinctive sound, like those tom accents on the upbeats I really love.

Where did you draw a lot of influences from when you were developing your style as you were really starting out?

With Phoenix, you mean? Or more in general, like when I started playing?

Yeah Phoenix, specifically like those upbeat accents, those interlocking patterns. Where did you draw that influence from?

It's funny with Phoenix because I'm not a part of the basic songwriting. I come in later, although for this record I'm more involved earlier. I think they wanted it to be like that.

Since I live in Sweden and they’re in Paris, it's not as easy. They were actually programming some stuff, trying to emulate how I would have played it, which is fun. Then you come to the studio like, “Okay, so maybe I would have done something like this.” Then we sort of change it into something that feels more like me. It's fun because a lot of the patterns are played by Thomas [Mars, singer] on a synthesizer, so he's using all his fingers doing [the] patterns.

Then I come there and I'm like, “I would probably need two more arms to be able to pull this off.” [laughs] Then we take it from there and try to make it playable.

We like the same things and they also listen a lot to hip hop stuff but also a lot of French stuff that I'm not really familiar with, but that is great. And I don't know, Ethiopian music, Talking Heads. There is an endless amount of inspiration in that drumming.

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What have you been listening to lately?

Lately I've been listening to this guy from California, I think. It's called Day Wave. It's really kind of '90s pop almost. Very melodic, just nice tunes. He's actually a drummer. A Berklee jazz drummer, so he's really skilled but he decided to sort of do pop music. It's great.

I really like it and it hits something sort of nostalgic in me because it sounds like music I listened to when I was a teenager a bit. Beautiful pop songs.

And I remember you mentioning you like hip hop. Have you listened to the new Chance yet? Have you heard of Chance the Rapper?

Not that much. I mean, a few tunes, but I couldn't say. Do you like him?

Oh, I love Chance. He's the chosen son of Chicago.

Oh cool, he's from Chicago?

Yep, from Chicago.

Yeah. That's cool. We played with R. Kelly at Coachella.

Oh man, I totally forgot about that.

That was so fun, so great. We had no time to rehearse with him and up until - and I'm not kidding - up until when he was about to enter the stage. He was coming on for the encore. We didn't know if he was there or not because he was stuck in traffic. We were like, “Man, is this going to happen or not? And if not, what are we going to do?” Then I saw a stage manager doing some stuff like, “He's here!” And he came up on stage with a huge cigar, so it was great.

He took the bus because despite all the lyrics about flying, he doesn't like to fly. So he travels with a bus from Chicago to Coachella. It took him two or three days.

That's quite a drive.

Yeah and he did five or six minutes on stage or something like that, then got back in the bus and drove back. It was so cool that he did that.

Wow. Je vous remercie de parler avec nous et je vous souhaite une très bonne soirée!

[Translation: Thank you for talking with us and have a great night!]

Ah merci beaucoup! À vous aussi!

[Translation: Oh thanks a lot, you too!]


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