Johannes Persson, guitarist and vocalist for Swedish metal act Cult of Luna, first met singer Julie Christmas face to face last September, when his band played a rare U.S. live date at New York City's Gramercy Theatre. The Brooklyn-based Christmas, who has made a name for herself as the elastic-voiced frontwoman for outfits like Made Out of Babies and Battle of Mice, was in attendance, and that night marked the first time the two hung out – even though they had already been recording an album, the newly released collaborative effort Mariner, together for roughly a year.
"I think we were about halfway done by that point," Christmas recalls. "But you know, the Internet changed everything. You can work with people across the world and never even see their faces." She laughs, and then takes a light dig at her new Scandinavian associates. "Or even know how to pronounce their names!"
Persson, for his part, had been keen to work with Christmas for a long time. The roots of their collaboration, in fact, stretch back several years, to when Cult of Luna were asked to curate a London-based festival called Beyond the Redshift. Persson and his band mates invited Christmas, then working as a solo artist, to appear on the bill. "She wasn't able to do the show, so I asked for her phone number, and we got to talking about doing something together," he says. "Because I just love Julie's singing. She can go from the softest melodies to the wildest screams, and everything in between. The range of her voice is incredible."
That incredible voice is all over the new Mariner, which finds Christmas adding yet another texture – or, given her vocal dexterity, many textures – to Cult of Luna's already intensely layered sound. The Swedish outfit's seventh full-length overall, Mariner, like much of Cult of Luna's catalog, is an immersive and dynamic ride, with five epic-length tracks unfolding, often quite slowly, across more than 50 minutes of music. It's an approach that has led to the band being labeled as "post-metal," something of a catchall for heavy acts (see: Neurosis; the now-defunct ISIS) that tend toward atmosphere and ambience rather than verses and choruses, sprawl and shading rather than concision and hooks. But, says Persson, "We've never considered ourselves a part of any of that. If anything, we came from the punk and hardcore scene, and that's the only one we've ever felt is ours. When we put out our first album [2001's Cult of Luna], I never knew that any 'post-whatever' scene existed. But I guess putting a label on things, people need that. It's consumer information. But it's not like we're sitting down and saying, 'Let's make a post-metal album.' We are just writing songs."
When it came to writing and recording the songs for Mariner, the band worked, per usual, in a studio near their hometown of Umea, on Sweden's eastern coast. They then sent demos and tracks to Christmas, who wrote her own lyrics and recorded her vocals with producer Andrew Schneider at his studio in Brooklyn's Coney Island. "We just figured out how to work together over the space of an ocean and the time frame of a year," Christmas says.
That long-distance partnership was predicated on putting a certain amount of trust in one another's artistic vision. For example, Cult of Luna tend to base each record on a specific concept – 2006's Somewhere Along the Highway was a "rural-sounding album inspired by our upbringings," Persson says, while 2013's acclaimed Vertikal explored urban and industrial themes, reflected not only in the lyrics but also the harsh, mechanized attack of the instruments. (2008's Eternal Kingdom, meanwhile, was initially said by the band to be based on writings found in a Swedish mental patient's unearthed diary, a fact that later turned out to be untrue. "It was an obvious lie," Persson says. "But every band lies."). When it came to Mariner, Cult of Luna turned their attention toward space – "a journey into the unknown," Persson says. "And so we told Julie, 'Look, this is what we're going to be inspired by. But what you do with the lyric is up to you.' And I'm not really sure she adapted. Or, to be honest, if she even listened to us at all. But I didn't question anything she did. I didn't want to mess with her, creatively."
Christmas confirms as much. "Johannes said, 'Do whatever you want,' " she says. "Which was perfect for me. Because they told me the concept, and then I just did what I was going to do anyway."
Despite the long creative leash, the results, at least in terms of sound, are incredibly cohesive. In some spots, in particular the corrosive "Chevron" and the more ethereal "The Wreck of the S.S. Needle," Christmas' vocals take center stage, with the singer employing an array of voices, from soft and vulnerable to ragged and rabid, to complement the continually shifting temperament of the music. In others, such as on leadoff track "A Greater Call," she appears more sparingly, her high voice floating in the background as counterpoint to Persson's coarse, amelodic roar. At still other times, meanwhile, both vocalists go full throttle, as in the final minutes of closer "Cygnus," where they bear down on overlapping phrases as the music erupts in a climactic frenzy.
"That's my favorite part of the record, and it has a lot to do with Julie's vocals," Persson says of the end of "Cygnus." Returning to the overall theme of the album, he continues, "What we were trying to put across in those last few minutes was the sound of us penetrating the outer-outer limits of space. It was inspired by the 'Star Gate' sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's how we imagine it would be to cross that final limit of the universe. Then we continue on into darkness and disappear. And that's the end of the record."
As for what comes next as far as Cult of Luna and Christmas' collaboration? Both parties say there will not be a full tour in support of Mariner. "It's hard enough to get six, seven people in their mid- to late-30s with kids and jobs to be able to go and tour in the first place," Persson explains. "Add in somebody from another continent and it's an equation that is very difficult to solve." That said, Christmas does offer that they're hoping to book a few select festival appearances for later this year. "We all want to do it," she says. "It's just a matter of working out the details and finding the right time and place."
In the meantime, Christmas will continue to pursue her own artistic path. "Every time I do one project, five new ones come to me – and then I fuck it up and they all go away!" she says with a laugh. "But right now there's some exciting stuff coming my way. We'll just have to see if I actually make any of them happen or if I destroy the whole thing."
Persson, meanwhile, reports that Cult of Luna are beginning to work on ideas for the follow-up to Mariner, and they already have a firm album concept in mind. "The last few records have been this kind of continuous journey from the forest to the sky," he says. "And I know where we're going after this."
And just where, exactly, might that be?
"That remains to be revealed," Persson says cryptically. "But we're writing now. So you'll find out ... hopefully."