“We would not like to see ourselves as a replica of the sixties": Interview with Björn Lohmander, guitarist of The Crystal Caravan

írta Tomka | 2013.01.02.

Although not getting the attention they deserve, the rock press’ interest in the “Swedish retro rock” shed some light on the Caravan’s two energetic, but melody-driven and bluesy rock albums. The band right now is busy with preparing an EP for a March release, so we contacted guitarist Björn Lohmander to question him about the past and future releases of Crystal Caravan and also about the “Swedish retro rock scene”. Apart from ‘Against The Rising Tide’ and CC’s experiments on the new EP, the interview covers some thoughts about the term “retro”, the apparently non-existing “retro rock scene” and being influenced by the giants of the 60s and 70s like The Doors and Led Zeppelin.

Hard Rock Magazine: While standard classic rock bands got usually four members, you’ve got seven. What are the main advantages and drawbacks of this line-up?

Björn Lohmander: We’re actually “just” a six piece band at the moment. But yes, I know what you mean. We’ve always loved the sound and the dynamic benefits of a big band. With many instruments we can elaborate with arrangements a whole lot more than if we were fewer. From start there were no organs or percussion, but it came natural to us after some time. The drawbacks would be the fact that there are a lot of wills and it takes a rather big tour van to carry us and the backline. But in most cases it’s just fun.

HRM: At the center of Crystal Caravan, you’ve got a two-guitar line-up. How does your guitar-playing style complement Stefan’s?

Björn: We started an early form of this band way back, after school. We’ve must have jammed together for more than ten years now. So we know pretty well how one another will play and do the accord progressions. Therefore I think we complement each other in many ways without even thinking about it. But we do have a slightly different approach on riffs as well, which comes in really handy while writing songs. I don’t know how many times it happened that some of us get stuck with an idea and the other one of us just grabbed the guitars and without a blink, got it and followed the idea through. Technically we have pretty much the same roots. Ritchie Blackmore, Jimi Hendrix, Scott Gorham, but also a latent touch of death-, speed-, thrash metal and all of that we listened to in our teens. We actually did a cover live of Hit the Lights once… and Raining Blood another time… but don’t tell anyone!

HRM: How does the songwriting process look like in a band with so many members? Judging from your music I assume you jam a lot and go with the old ways instead of composing through the Internet.

Björn: How we write songs differ very much from time to time and song to song. Sometimes we jam altogether, sometimes we get together in smaller groups and sometimes one of us presents a more or less finished song. But in general I’d say it’s a lot of jamming and in the end a very democratic process.

HRM: I think ‘Against the Rising Tide’ is very strong album, which stands out from the current “Swedish retro rock scene”. Could you lend us some insights on the making of this album, and tell us what do you think what are the virtues of the record?

Björn: First off, thanks! With ‘ATRT’ we tried something new to us. We isolated ourselves for two weeks, way out on the countryside. We brought along all the recording equipment we needed and set up a studio in an old chapel. We recorded this album live in this great, five meters to ceiling, hall. Before leaving to the country side to record, we kept the songs pretty sketchy so we could jam and decide how the tracks should be while recording. This resulted in many of the takes being pretty different to the other. Recording ‘ATRT’ was a very creative time and since it was a live recording, it kept us on our toes instrumentally.

HRM: ‘ATRT’ got a more atmospheric, old school cover art, than your debut album. How was it born?

Björn: We tried out a few covers before this one and had a discussion with the artist making it. We came up with the idea of trying out something in the style of Art Nouveau artist Alfons Mucha mixed with classic movie posters like Chinatown.

HRM: The music of Crystal Caravan is fast and energetic, but I think it’s really melodic – like the leading stars of the “Swedish retro scene”, Graveyard and Witchcraft. Still, you are not as famous as those bands. What do you think, what’s the reason behind it?

Björn: Well, what to say? People haven’t heard of us enough... yet! (laughs) It might sound simple, but I really do think that’s one of our major issues – to reach out to a broader mass. Maybe it’s due to the fact we live too up north in Sweden, maybe the promotion has been lacking or maybe we haven’t caught the attention of enough magazines.

With that said I also like to say that I don’t think we sound so much like those bands you’ve mentioned either. In fact I really don’t know if there’s such a thing as a “retro scene”, or maybe there is and we’re just not a part of it. We’ve never gigged or even meet those guys. We’ve done some shows with the progressive act Black Bonzo, but I think that’s more cause the fact we know each other and live nearby, rather than we belong to one and the same scene.

HRM: You’re in the middle of recording an EP scheduled to be released in March. Musically what will be the main differences between the new EP and the first two studio albums?

Björn: Our first album was produced by Dennis Lyxzén (Refused/The International Noise Conspiracy), so a lot of the arrangements were run through his head as well as ours. We worked together for three months and came up with ten tracks, sounding as heavy as tight and clean. It was great fun and we were really happy with the result. It sounds very much like a “studio album”, if you know what I mean. Therefore, for our second album, we wanted to try something else. We recorded the whole thing on our own, live. I think that made the album sound a lot more living than our first one. On the downside, since it was live, there was little we could do with arrangements after recording. Once we got the tracks down, we said – OK, done… move on! So, musically ‘ATRT’ is what we sound like live.

This new EP has a bit of both. The best of both I’d say. This time me and Stefan is recording, producing and mixing the EP. No one but the band is involved in the process, and this is new for us. We worked a lot with live pre-productions, so that we could take home, listen and think of arrangements, parts and riffs. Therefore, when we started to record, everybody more or less knew what to do and how we wanted it to sound. In other words, the jam sessions were done before the recording. On top of that we’re currently experimenting a lot with analog synthesizers and Mellotrons. Don’t expect Hawkwind or ELP, but there are some pretty nasty noises sawing its way through our studio speakers as we speak. Without a blink I’d say this is the best set of tracks we’ve done so far and a hint of what our future of the caravan will sound like.

HRM: Why do you release an EP instead of a full-length album?

Björn: Time is the main reason. After releasing ‘ATRT’ and the following tour we were pretty tired. We had released two full length albums and did two tours in less than three years. And in the middle of that we were kicked out of our old studio. This was because the house was to be rebuilt to a snow mobile shop or something like that. So that took a lot of time, finding a new place, setting up a good sounding studio room, control room and all of that. It’s all fun but it sure takes time. We wanted something out in the beginning of 2013, so we thought – Ok, let’s record what we got. In fact we ditched a few tracks that could have resulted in this being a full length album. But we only kept the ones we really liked. In other words no fillers, just the good stuff!

HRM: You did an extensive German tour in November. Are you more famous in Germany than in your home country?

Björn: The caravan likes Germany! We have a great team in Berlin working for us, “Rock This Town”. They’ve helped us a lot with promotion and setting up tours. We’ve done some airtime with live songs and interviews, got great feedback from the rock magazines and people seem to attend our shows, so I guess we’re hitting if off with the rock crowd in Germany. Saying we’re big in Germany would be a big overstatement, but we do get a lot of positive feedback from the fans there. Also it’s hard to compare the German rock scene with the Swedish. In Germany you can play a full house on a Monday. That will not happen in the most parts of Sweden, unless you’re a big international band. I think that mentality, going to a rock show I the middle of the week, also affects their way to approach us a band. After a playing show in Sweden people might nod and shake your hand after buying some merchandise, but in Germany they’re directly full on super buddies with you. The fans really do cred and approach on a whole different level. So, back to the question. We’re defiantly more known in Sweden than in Germany, but sometimes it feels the other way around.

HRM: Let’s speak about the “Swedish retro rock scene”. In what sense can we talk about a scene? Are the bands aware of it and help each other, or is it just a musical trend, which will be over soon?

Björn: Okay, here’s a long one! I have a bit of an issue with the term. Retro, from my point of view, is when looking backwards rather than being in the present. Therefore the term “retro”, except for being a strictly aesthetic streaming, has somewhat of a negative touch. Also the “retro” in “retro rock” has somehow stagnated in the late sixties/early seventies. Why shouldn’t bands that are influenced by W.A.S.P. (currently announcing their 30th anniversary tour) be called retro rock? All that modern sleaze rock has some pretty old influences as well. Or why not pop acts like Lady Gaga, more or less doing what Madonna did some thirty years ago, called retro pop?

I know it’s a classic that bands don’t like to label themselves, but we really don’t try to replicate or do what bands done in the past. We like the old sounds, amps and instruments, but we’re most definitely not an old band, doing what we can to write old songs. Sure, there are some bands out there that do try so in every way copy the first five Sabbath albums, but we’re not one of them. At least we don’t try to be. And in my opinion, neither do Graveyard and maybe especially, Witchcraft on their latest album. That’s about as modern a rock album can sound I think.

Like I said earlier, I don’t know if there is such a thing as a “retro rock scene”. And as I also mention, maybe there is such a thing but we’re just not a part of it. Or maybe we are, but we just don’t know it. But to be a part of a scene I think you have to know the people in it and we don’t.

Anyway, with the whole term “retro” already considered the trend of sixties/seventies influenced bands always have been a part of our Swedish tradition. Let’s just say twelve years ago we had The Hellacopters at their prime (but already being around and influenced a whole set of bands for a long time) and BigElf released their super album ‘Money Machine’. I remember it was a big deal and the magazines wrote a lot about the retro scene back then.

Same thing happened now, just the other year, when Ghost released their debut album. And again with Graveyard’s Hisingen Blues. And now again with Witchcraft. From my point of view, “these bands of the retro scene” has been around for a long time and gradually stepped up a notch and finally made it to the major press channels and outside the borders. In short, I really don’t think there has been some kind of boom of retro bands at all, so speaking of a trend is a bit off I’d say. We in the caravan have done this for quite some time and most of these mentioned retro bands have done just the same. But it’s of course great fun to see good music stepping out of the shadows and reaching a broader audience!

HRM: I heard that one of the reasons behind the analog sound of recent retro rock albums is that Swedish studios are old and got that kind of equipment, which was used in the 60s.

Björn: Haha, what!? Naaaw, I think that’s all wrong. Sorry. I’m taking a wild guess here. I’d say Sweden has the most modern, top notch studios per capita in the world. That’s a wild guess, but I like to keep that thought for a while. I think it’s a tradition in Swedish entertainment production to be on top of the latest technology. This urge, to have the latest stuff, was no way less back in the sixties. Therefore it might be so that we have a whole lot of old equipment, because there were a lot of top modern studios back in the sixties. Just a thought.

But with that said I also think that the studio equipment is a bit overrated, when it comes to make songs sound old. You just can’t take your old seventies mix console, buy the guitar amp they recommend at your local music store and expect the outcome to sound like Jimi Hendrix. The spirit of the music is so much more in the instruments, amps, effect pedals, drum tuning and size of the room, rather than in the actual recording hardware. You can do a fairly hardcore thrash metal mix in a sixties studio, if you got the right setup of amps and right tuned drums.

HRM: And what do you think, why should people listen to Graveyard, Witchcraft or The Crystal Caravan, when they can listen to those bands, which are clearly an influence on the these bands, like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath or The Doors?

Björn: I’m glad you asked, because this is my point exactly! With the term “retro” comes a set of prejudgments that we should be just a copy of the old dinosaurs. They are all great bands and I love them all. They are great influences, but they are also not originals, not at all. Why listen to Zep, when you got Small Faces? Just for fun, compare “Whole Lotta Love” with “You Need Loving”! Black Sabbath wasn’t first with their thing nor was the Doors. They just made it biggest.

HRM: Do you think that you can create something original in this “retro” music?

Björn: Yes and no. By being retro I think you per definition look backwards. I mean, I love sixties rock and the modern bands I like do have many of their influences from that era. With that I got no problem, the problem for me is when bands narrow down just to sound old and retro and when people assume a bands to sound a certain way just because they’re labeled retro.

We in the caravan, as I’m sure the other bands would agree with, would not like to see ourselves as some sort “era cover band”, replica of the sixties. And I guess it all comes down to the intention of being one thing or another. Some bands would die to have their albums released some forty years ago and will go to any length to reproduce the sound and all the aesthetic touches that would perfect that illusion. If that’s what’s up I much, much rather listen to the originals. But if your intention as a band is to create something new and something for your own time I can appreciate it on a whole new level, old influences or not.

HRM: What do you think, what’s the future of this “scene”?

Björn: Calling it retro or not, let’s hope for the best – more rock n roll to the people!