ASTRAKHAN: "We're trying hard to embrace the sound of our different personalities"
Even though Swedish proggers ASTRAKHAN have been around for a couple of years now, I have to admit that their music found its way to my ears just recently thanks to a friendly reco. After their new album "A Slow Ride Towards Death" (released 23rd April 2021, you can read my review here) had caught me in an amazing way, things got an own dynamic just within a few days.
So it's with great pleasure to welcome ASTRAKHAN on our musical journey. Read more about their work here:
Hey, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. How are you today?
I’m fine, thank you! Been recording some bass for an album coming later this year, working on some video material for Avatarium and just got back from the gym - that’s what I call a free Sunday!
I see :-) Could you please introduce yourself and ASTRAKHAN to our readers?
I am Per Schelander - bass player in many bands during the last 25 years. Maybe some of you have seen me with House of Shakira, Royal Hunt or Pain of Salvation?
ASTRAKHAN started as an idea between me and my brother Jörgen. We had a Christmas tradition where we met at his place and wrote a song together. Back then, in 1994-95 or something, we didn't think about genres - we just wrote out of the pure joy of being creative and make music, samba, reggae, rock etc.
After a couple of years, we started to talk about working in some kind of direction, because the writing process between us was so simple and fun compared to some other writing situations we've been in, and decided to make an album. We wrote the ten songs pretty fast, but had a hard time finding a singer who matched the songs. On top of that, we both became very busy with other bands and projects (Royal Hunt and Pain of Salvation for my own part).
In some way, Martin Larsson (drums) got to hear our demos and loved what he heard, so he convinced us that we must record these tracks. I was thrilled to have Martin wanting to play drums cause he had the chops and just the right feeling and groove for the songs. In the autumn of 2012, we booked a good studio and recorded drums, bass and keyboards. In spring of 2013 we met Alex Lycke, and with his voice everything fell in place. Alex came from a different world and had worked as a musical artist all over Europe, where he had played all the big roles in classics like Hair, Miss Saigon, Les Misérables, and of course Jesus Christ Superstar. He recorded his parts fast, and everyone felt so good about the whole thing, so we decided to make it a band.
In the beginning, Marcus Jidell handed the guitars, but when he got busy with Avatarium, I knew exactly who I wanted in the band. I called Johan Hallgren, that I got to know during my years with Pain of Salvation, and he was eager to start playing again after he quit POS.
How did you come up with your band name, and is there a deeper meaning behind “ASTRAKHAN”?
We wanted something that sounded the same in both, Swedish and English. We threw names at each other, and someone came up with “Astrakan”, which is a Swedish apple variety. We added an H to make it more special, and that was it… Until we released the first album and we got questions why we named our band after a Russian city :-) We were not aware of that. It’s a silly story, but it’s the truth.
Awesome, I like that.
You just released your third studio album “A Slow Ride Towards Death”. How do you feel about it, and how was it received so far?
The reviews have been great so far, the old fans seem to be happy, and we can see new fans coming in every day.
I’ve been living with this album for so many years now, so I lost all the feeling I had when I wrote the songs. We started to write new material pretty quick after our second release “Adrenaline Kiss” back in 2016. But then, we got the idea to do a tour playing music from “Jesus Christ Superstar”, which was one year of pretty hard work to make it happen in 2018. After that we took a break and hit the studio in 2019. I had set a tight schedule for it, so we could release something the same year.
My brother decided to leave the band when everything was recorded, which was followed by the pandemic… So my feeling for the album is quite dark and in that way - the album reflects everything of the above.
That’s the cool thing with music - you will always play what you are, and you are what you play. Your feelings will always be heard in the music, and that’s what the reviewers have reacted to and pointed out - this is an album crammed with emotions or as somebody ended the review: Prepare to feel!
That’s something I can totally relate to. It's been a while that an album connected so strong with me just on first listen, but somehow it hit me at the right moment.
Compared to the previous releases, the new record sounds indeed way darker. Musically speaking, the most striking change for me seems to be the more distorted guitar sound in combination with the amazing, full bass tone, while the great vocals remained as a well recognizable element, so it's still unmistakabely ASTRAKHAN. What makes your sound special? And could you briefly describe your writing and recording process, please?
I think what sets ASTRAKHAN apart is that we are trying hard to embrace the sound of our different personalities - we are only enhancing how every person is sounding. We also seek to find a bit complicated solutions, harmonies and so on, but at the same time it shall sound very natural and easy. Third but not the least: if we have a good riff or melody, we try to play around with just that and see how many ways we can play it or how many times we can repeat it with some kind of variation. In that way we are very minimalistic by using the same theme over and over again, but as a listener it should still sound fresh.
When it comes to the recording, we like to record together. This time, me and Martin were in the same room and we had set the sound from the beginning. The bass sound is only one miked signal, so there was not much to do in the mix. Same thing with the drums. We aimed for that with every instrument. Our goal was that it should sound so good from the start, so the mixing process was more or less just using the faders to adjust the balances between the instruments.
As the title might suggest, “A Slow Ride Towards Death” is an intense listen. Can the album be seen as one continuous ride, or are the songs connected by a red thread?
Almost all of the songs deal with loss and broken relationships, most about my relation to music. When I started to write lyrics, I pictured how it would be if I lost the ability to be a musician or if, for some reason, there were no more shows to be played… Spooky but due to the pandemic, that actually happened a year after I finished the lyrics.
The other thing is more personal, because my dad has a muscular diagnosis and maybe it runs in the family. If I have the diagnose, I will have around ten more years as a musician, then I won’t be able to play on a professional level. These ten years is my slow ride towards death…
So sorry to hear that. Let's hope this won't happen, I whish you both all the best.
Let’s take a look at the cover artwork: What can you tell us about the idea behind the graphic, and how does it reflect the album thematically?
I knew I wanted something simple and black. I took a picture of two of my tattoos and sent them to Russin (who has done all our artwork) and said something like: “come up with something cool based around these tattoos”. The result was everything I wanted, and I love the cover!
In way it also goes with the theme of the album. A circle is like a symbol for infinity, our love and relation with music. The three stripes mark our third album, but also makes the circle fade just there…
Besides three studio albums, you released “Astrakhan’s Superstar Experience” last year, which is a live recording. Not in the classical sense of a band performing their own songs, but your rockin’ interpretation of "Jesus Christ Superstar". How did you come up with this rather unusual idea, and how was this experience for you?
It was a great experience! We worked so hard for those shows and the live album, it almost killed the band. It was not by accident, but rather out of the good experience we had playing “Gethsemane” as an encore. We never considered us being a band that works in the regular “album, tour and then start all over again”- scheme. So after “Adrenaline Kiss” (2016) was released, we did some shows during a year and started to think what we want to do now.
On our way home from a short tour in Finland in 2017, we talked about the possibilities of doing more songs from JCS in a live situation. We love the music from JCS, and we also wanted to do something else than just head back to the process of writing new songs - you need inspiration and breaks to make interesting music. The idea expanded, and we pitched it to some theaters in Finland. As they also thought our ideas around the arrangement sounded very cool, we said started to work on it more seriously.
Let’s stay with ASTRAKHAN live: What was your most memorable show so far?
I have to say the first “Jesus Christ Superstar” concert in Finland. We didn’t know who was actually going to come: Would it be the rock or the musical audience? In the end I think we reached them both. But there's a funny story when it comes to this first show in Helsinki, as I am not so used to perform for a sitting audience, while Alex is. I played venues that were seaters in Russia with Royal Hunt, but this was something else.
The show was divided in two acts as it is in theaters. The first part went really well, I thought we played good and everything worked, but I didn’t feel a thing from the crowd. So in the break, I approached Alex and said something like “Everything is going really well, but they don’t seem to like it.” Then I realized that he still had his in-ear monitor stuck in, and he hadn’t heard a thing of what I said. So he picked it out, started to smile and said something like “this is going really well, they love it!” He was used to read an audience sitting down and just listening, and I wasn’t. In the end - when we got standing ovations - he was right of course! :-)
We also had fans flying in from Japan, and I really wanted them to love the show as they had travelled such a long way. What a dedication - It warms your heart!
That’s incredibly awesome! Let’s travel a bit virtually, too: Sweden is well known for being the home of many great rock and metal bands. How would you describe your music scene? And did you notice differences to other countries while being on tour?
I won’t brag, but I realized back in 1992-93 when I lived in Los Angeles, that Sweden has very good musicians. Many musicians of my generation have learned an instrument at municipal school, financed by tax money. You get to borrow the instrument of your choice and you have good teachers, so it’s accessible and possible for every kid.
I also think that Sweden is a country that has a lot of melody, both in the language and our folk music. I would describe myself as heavily influenced by the simple melodies in hymns and folk songs - that’s what I am raised on (apart from Kiss, Abba and Thin Lizzy). When I wrote “Youtopia” on the new album, I was just fooling around trying to play an old folk melody called ”när jag var på mitt adertonde år”, but couldn’t really remember it. So I took a few wrong notes and… That was the foundation to “Youtopia” - the whole song is based around that guitar melody in the beginning.
What can you tell us about your future plans?
Right now, everything is up in the air… I know we are ”booked” to an outdoor festival late this summer, but who knows if that is going to happen. We are also considered for a streamed festival arranged by a team from Brazil, but after everything that happened in 2020, I don’t expect anything to happen… until it happens. We want to do the “Superstar Experience” shows again, already had some good offers and opportunities, but then the pandemic put that on hold.
Do you have any further thoughts you’d like to share here?
I am so glad you wanted to do an interview without asking me to pay for an advertise on your site. I get 5-10 mails every week by magazines from all over the world that want to do an interview with us, but first we have to buy an ad. That is so weird, because after a record like this I am broke! My job is to produce music, their job is to write about interesting artists - whether they are paying or not!
As a musician you are so fed up with the ”pay to play”, but nowadays you also have to pay to be interviewed, so you can reach an audience who can see you pay to play at some club. It never ends... If we don’t produce new music, there won’t be anything to write about and the magazines would die in a year. So by doing this interview with me - you are the future!
You're most welcome. No ads here, only passion for great music :-) Thanks so much for your time and these insights into your work.