Chameleonic musician Kristofer Åström has certainly ruffled some feathers throughout his career. Since his days as the frontman of rock band Fireside, Åström has explored a wide gamut of genres but mostly floats in the hemisphere of Americana and folk music. And while his sound palette is diverse on the surface, everything he’s done so far has an underlying DIY ethos that unifies his body of work and encompasses what his act is all about.
On October 23rd he releases his tenth solo album “Hard Times”, sending us a signal of something going in the wrong direction. A rainy September day in Gothenburg we had the privilege of sitting down with Åström to discuss a thirty-year long career starting in the punk hardcore scene far up in the north of Sweden, the Fireside years, and writing his latest solo records in the bathtub when the family was asleep.
From neverending tours to bathtub writer
Let’s start in a retrospective outlook; you were part of the wave of musicians from the north of Sweden who introduced Sweden to a new scene, the punk hardcore scene, at the beginning of the 1990s and many bands from that scene became quite successful in the international scene, like Refused, Raised Fist and your own band Fireside. How was it to be part of that wave and do something new?
When we started at the beginning of 1990s not much happened in Luleå, where I grew up. I was something like fifteen years old when I finally realized it was possible to watch bands live. My neighbour went to Stockholm to watch Depeche Mode and I was like “Hey, I can watch my favourite bands live as well” (laugh). I didn’t really know anything at that age. And not many bands stopped by Luleå. I remember that Union Carbide Productions popped by Luleå to play at Kåren, but we were too young to get in except for our guitarist Pelle Gunnerfelt.
It was a really great time in life and everyone in the scene travelled quite much between Umeå and Luleå, the major cities where most bands came from, but Piteå was part of it as well. And the bands hanged out all the time and crossbred into new bands, side projects. But Luleå wasn’t fun for young people at the time, it was just a few clubs, playing radio hits, and if you wanted anything to happen you had to do it yourself.
We borrowed the community house from the local Christian community to organize punk shows. Ten bands and 200 in the audience, and we sold beer under the table (laugh), and things were destroyed because we were young and careless, but it was a great time and a very creative period in life. I did two shows with my old bands Apesex and Skümback that someone unfortunately recorded on video – horrible shows – and Refused did some of their first shows there as well.
But it is quite funny and a bit weird that the Swedish hardcore scene started far up in the north. If you ask me it has much to with Dennis Lyxzén [from Umeå] and everything happening around him that brought attention to the scene and what was happening in Umeå and Luleå.
I clearly remember how Fireside started. All of us were huge hardcore fans and listened to bands like Gorilla Biscuits and Youth of Today, and when the guitarist of Gorilla Biscuits started a new band called Quicksand I pre-ordered a seven-inch single. When it arrived I phoned Pelle Gunnerfelt and he biked from the other side of town to my home and we listened to it together, and the first thing we said was “We’re starting a new band and it’s gonna sound like this” (laughs). That was the decisive moment when Fireside started; Quicksand were the role models together with Fugazi.
Everyone left Luleå quite early, already in 1995, and for me that was too early. I wasn’t done with Luleå, but when the rest of the band moved I just felt I had to move with them because I wanted to continue the band.
I remember I discovered Fireside in 1995 when you released the “Do Not Tailgate” record, but I’d almost forgot about the band until quite recently when I watched High Fidelity for the first time in years, and a Fireside poster turns up in a scene where Jon Cusack and Jack Black have some sort of discussion.
That was kind of weird (laugh). I really don’t know how it happened that the poster ended up in the movie, but I guess our American label had something to do with it.
At first we were signed to American Recordings [in America] and they were about to reorganize the whole label and drop a lot of bands but wanted to keep Fireside, but they didn’t want to release the album we had recorded, and we bought ourselves out of the contract just to be able to release the album. We signed with this tiny label Crank! and they probably had some connections to the people behind the movie and got our tour poster in there.
I remember we went to the premiere in Stockholm with our Swedish label V2 and I thought it was cool to have a band poster in it, but I’m even more proud of it today. Sometimes I wish I could relive those days again and not having that sort of young cocky attitude. You were just indifferent to things that happened around you and everything was stupid and boring. Today you would have embraced and appreciated such moments in a completely different way, and be grateful for the attention.
But isn’t that quite normal? With age and experience come wisdom. Many bands and musicians tell the same type of story. What would you have done differently today if you look back on your career, especially with Fireside?
We did quite many stupid things just because we were young, and of course you regret some of them today. When we were signed to American Recordings, Rick Rubin [producer for bands like Slayer, Public Enemy and Aerosmith to mention a few] wanted to produce our next record, but we turned him down because we were twenty-two years old and thought nobody could understand our music better than us (laughs). Just imagine how it may have been today if we would have done it.
But I’m not bitter in any way, it’s also a fun thing to tell people you turned down Rick Rubin (laughs), we’re probably the only band that ever done that. It may have been a different financial situation today after a record with Rick Rubin though (laughs).
All this happened after we released ”Do Not Tailgate” on American Recordings and we toured quite much over there, a combination of a Lollapalooza tour and really crappy tours where you played seven weeks and just had three people turning up at the shows. That was a rough time, but you also understand what American bands have to go through before they may level up a bit. Touring Europe is a luxury compared to American touring conditions.
I know you said in an interview quite many years ago that touring is something you will do forever, but I guess priorities change when you start a family and you can’t be away on tour all the time.
Most definitely. The family was a huge game-changer (laughs). When our first child arrived everything changed and it’s literally impossible to be out touring as much as I used to do. My wife works full-time as well and taking care of children is quite time-consuming. I just had to start working like everyone else, it’s how life works out. You know that stupid word ‘life puzzle’? Well, it happened (laughs).
But it was really tough for me to go through that change. I was 38 when our daughter was born, and until that point in life I had basically lived like a nomad. I didn’t need to care for anything – no responsibilities. And just like that I had a family.
Writing songs was suddenly quite hard. I was used to write whenever I wanted to do it and now it wasn’t possible anymore. I just had to reinvent how to write songs, and when my daughter was young I put her in bed and had writing sessions while I was taking a bath. It was the only time of the day when everything was completely silent, and I could just lay there and write lyrics on my phone.
It’s also the idea that you can’t harness creativity, it doesn’t follow a schedule. Creativity is a spur of the moment and you need to write songs when it turns up. How does it work out for you today?
You just have to find a way to organize it because there’s no other way. Thursday is my creative day, that’s when I get time off to write music a few hours. That was how I did my latest album, in 2015.
I had these moments when I had time off to write music while my daughter was at kindergarten, and I borrowed a practice space to record demos. At night I wrote songs like crazy in the bathtub when everyone was asleep, on Thursdays I recorded the songs – just rough demos – during kindergarten hours in some sort of hyperspeed (laughs).
I forced myself to be creative, but I also worked harder with the lyrics in a way I hadn’t done before which is kind of strange because I had all the time in the world to do it before I had a family. But I spent a lot of time drinking beer with friends back then (laughs). But those moments in the bathtub at night gave me the opportunity to reflect and rewrite the lyrics, and I’ve become more meticulous about lyrics and the overall writing process today.
The hard times in life on record
Five years later on the day of the release of the 2015 record “The Story Of A Heart’s Decay”, Åström releases his tenth studio album, “Hard Times”. Inspired by the classic American folk song ”Hard Times Come Again No More” Åström tries to grasp those hard times most people go through, and finds a melancholic path already from the first song. But as he points out, it’s not an autobiographical record, life is better than ever.
The upcoming record ”Hard Times” is released at the end of October and the title tells us about a rough period in life, but we also know from the press release that it has nothing to do with what the world is going through at the moment. What’s the story on “Hard Times”?
I snatched the title from the classic song ”Hard Times Come Again No More” written in the 1800s. It’s a song that has been covered frequently by American artists, like Bob Dylan. The rumour is that the song started the country movement in America during the Great Depression in the 1930s even if it’s not a typical country song, it’s more rooted in folk music.
It’s easy to find inspiration in a song like that and what it represents; hard times in life that most people go through at some point. Just imagine the feeling you have at New Year’s Eve after a completely crappy year and you promise yourself “Next year is gonna be so much better than the shit I’ve been through this year”, and then the year start with someone beating you up and you think “Here we go again” (laugh). That’s the feeling the album represents. It’s not based on real-life events (laugh). I just love the title ”Hard Times Come Again No More” and what it represents.
All songs save for “Michelle” are about hard times in life, quite melancholic songs. But again, the songs are not autobiographical although there are always fragments of my own experiences in there, it’s way exaggerated. In the past, much of what I wrote was autobiographical but I put that behind me just to save myself a bit and not put myself out there for public scrutiny.
”Hard Times” is also your tenth studio album since the release of ”Go, Went, Gone” in 1998. Looking back at twenty years as a solo artist, what is different today music-wise?
At least I hope I have progressed in another direction and that you can hear a difference in the music (laughs).
It’s much about how I write music. I can really miss how I did it at the beginning because I didn’t know how to write a song. Fireside built everything on riffs, and my first solo record is just me combining riffs into songs (laughs), I didn’t know anything else. Many of the songs on ”Go, Went, Gone” have weird song structures, like verse-verse-outro and no chorus at all. That’s not the traditional way of writing songs with verse, bridge, chorus and stick. There is a formula for how to write music and I have learned to use it today. But at the same time it’s boring to realize you’ve ended up writing music just like everyone else.
On the other, the input to my music, the influences, has changed as well. I want to write that type of songs today, like radio rock songs that can get airtime (laughs).
Is it also that the input to what you write about has changed when life is changing, like having a family today? “Michelle” is something you wrote to your wife for instance.
Actually not. I wrote “Michelle” to our wedding, and sang it at the wedding ceremony, but it’s not a track on the album, just a bonus song. But that’s the only song that differs from what I usually write about, and it’s personal because it’s about us.
Much of my music is about being unhappy in love, but my own life is just great at the moment and I have to find situations that aren’t that good and exaggerate how I experience those situations – a lot. It’s a bit harder to do that when you’re happy (laughs).
Just like ”Inbetweener”?
Just like ”Inbetweener” but you can interpret it in another way. You can also understand it as I’ll never be your inbetweener because we will always stay together. But my wife also interprets it like you do (laughs).
But where do your Americana influences come from? All your bands before your solo career are quite different.
I grew up with country music, my parents listened to it during my childhood and it has been a huge part of my life. When I was a kid I loved Boppers and Elvis Presley, and Elvis has done some country stuff on record.
Fireside’s sound originates from my melodic and melancholic nature, among many other things that had an impact on the band of course. I wanted Fireside to be more melodic while others in the band wanted it to be harder and have more screaming vocals, and when we had our breakthrough in the 1990s very few bands at the time played hard and heavy music combined with my type of singing.
”Hard Times” will be released on October 23rd but how is the feeling about releasing an album today when the normal process is a bit strangled? You can’t tour the record at the moment.
Yeah, that’s a unique situation and the record is also a band record. The plan was to tour with a band in Sweden and, especially, in Germany, but at this point it may just be a few solo shows at best. I can’t afford to bring a band on tour when we can’t do full shows, we won’t break even, maybe if the band suddenly would say “We don’t need any money” (laughs).
But how about doing these 50-shows? You’ve done a few, recently at Partille Arena. Germany, where you have many fans, would be great for smaller shows, and it’s also allowed to do bigger shows than 50 depending on the venue.
It would have been perfect for me to do 50-shows. In the bigger German cities, I usually have lots of people coming out for my shows, and Germany has lots of bigger cities. It should work out and it would be great fun to do it. But I need to do a longer tour to make it work out financially.
It’s different in Sweden where the scene is quite small, even smaller than it used to be. Back in the 90s, Fireside would play anything that looked like a town, tiny places like Bräkne-Hoby. We even did a tour in Lappland [a northern Swedish region] in small towns like Lycksele and Vilhelmina, and played at a pizzeria in Åsele (laughs).
Just to wrap it up. I know you’re a huge fan of Luleå Hockey and contributed to the compilation “Vi är Luleå Hockey” [We Are Luleå Hockey”]. Is it your ambition that someday write their official song?
Well, I don’t like the one they have at moment, “Muskler av stål”. “Vårat gäng” that came out in the 70s just after Luleå Hockey was founded was way better, a great rock song.
But I don’t have the ambition to write anything like that. I would love to hear my song being played when they lift the trophy, on TV in slow motion because I didn’t write a rock song. If you would undertake the task to write a song like that it has to be rock music, but I’m not the person to do it. As far as I know, my song hasn’t been received that well among the fans and has never been played in the arena yet (laugh).
There’s a fun story though about me and Luleå Hockey. When I released “Northern Blues” Luleå Hockey got a few copies to have as give-ways in a lottery at their games, but after a few games no one had claimed any record. I was at a game sometime during 2001 and found out why. Suddenly the speaker voice said “And today you can win a copy of local artist Krister Åkerström’s latest album”. Who wants an album by Krister Åkerström, the local artist?
Krister Åkerström, the local artist. It’s fun and irritating at the same time (laughs).
Kristofer Åström pages