Sweden’s three-piece Barrens craft /post-rockpost-metal that seems to be always airborne, with even its heaviest moments propelled skyward through interwoven synth sounds and pristine instrumentation preserving its floaty, swirling atmosphere.
With their roots in bands like Scraps of Tape, Logh, and Cult of Luna, Johan, Kenta and Markku joined forces after a Scraps of Tape tour on which Markku temporarily stepped in as the drummer. During the China leg of the tour, the spark was lit that later would ignite the Barrens project through a newfound friendship, and when Scraps of Tape later went on hiatus Barrens was born.
At the height of the pandemic, Barrens released their debut album Penumbra on renowned post-rock/post-metal label Pelagic Records, and despite being locked out from the live music scene for almost two years, they’ve sold more albums than in any project ever before.
When Barrens stopped over in Hamburg on their tour with God Is An Astronaut, we sat down with Johan, Kenta and Markku and chat about taking Penumbra live two years after its release, combining band life and family life, and being supported by Pelagic Records. And they reveal that they just started to work on their sophomore album.
How it started: The China legacy
I remember from our interview with Johan in Gothenburg last year that the idea of Barrens started growing during a Scraps of Tape tour when Markku temporarily joined the band.
Kenta: Yeah, we met the first time when we toured with Scraps in Europe and China, and during the China leg of the tour we became really good friends.
Markku: Hey there, didn’t we meet long before that? The first time was when you toured with Scraps of Tape and I was on tour with Logh, in 2009 if I remember right.
Kenta: I guess you’re right (laugh). It was at Logh’s last gig, so far [editor’s note: Logh hasn’t split up, they’re on an extended break].
When we recorded our second album with Scraps of Tape, the bassist of Logh, Mathias Oldén, was our studio engineer and through him, we met Markku, and when the first drummer of Scraps left the band we thought “Who’s an awesome drummer in Malmö? It’s Markku and he loves to play live”. I sent him a mail and asked if he wanted to fill the gap in Scraps but he had just started a family and it didn’t work at the time. Playing in a touring band and starting a family isn’t a perfect combination, and on top of that Logh wasn’t officially on a break. It was just too much being in two bands and having a family.
Fredrik [Gillhagen] joined Scraps instead but a few years later, right after we recorded our latest album, he said “Guys, I just became a dad and can’t go out on tour with you”. I had to go through all my contacts to find another drummer and realized “It’s only Markku left” (laugh). Logh didn’t tour anymore and I thought he may want to join us this time – and he did. And then we toured for two weeks in Europe and two in China.
When you tour China you’re in a bubble. Everything is very different and you stick to the people around you because you feel kind of alienated in this really strange and very different culture. As it turned out, we became really good friends and from that point, the idea of Barrens started to grow. At first, we talked about having two drummers in Scraps and keeping Markku in the band alongside the ordinary drummer, but then the rest of Scraps didn’t want to continue, at least not at the time. But Johan and I wanted to write new music and do it together with Markku.
Johan and I have worked together for more than twenty years and we’re a really tight-knit team, both as friends and musicians, and now we have a third person with the same dedication and passion for music and someone who shares our ideas. On the back of that, Barrens was just bound to happen.
Everyone knows what sacrifices you have to do to be in a band and in Barrens, no one shies away from it. We just share the same type of dedication.
You’ve released quite many albums with your other bands and projects, but on smaller labels. With Barrens, you released the debut album on a bigger label, and that comes with lots of support and opportunities to tour with bigger bands. Is Barrens the most important band for you at the moment?
Johan: Most definitely. I’m on a break from my solo project right now after the re-release of an older album, and nothing happens in my other bands at the moment.
It’s different to start a band at this point in life when you’re older and not in your twenties anymore. We get amazing support from our label but we don’t have much money to chip into the band because we have responsibilities to our families and that means we can’t take many risks. But at the same time, here we are on tour and don’t earn anything at all. I’m not sure what I’m talking about (laugh).
But you also gained quite a lot of experience over the years in your former bands and know how to avoid some of the worst pitfalls.
Johan: Exactly, and that’s reassuring. We know how hard it is to be on tour and how much work we have to put in. This tour has been really successful for us although it’s a lot smaller than it was supposed to have been [the tour was postponed due to the pandemic]. It’s our third round of touring with God Is An Astronaut and the reception has been awesome, and we’ve played in front of quite large crowds the whole tour.
Markku: That’s also new to us, we haven’t played support slots on this level before. We’ve done other support tours containing a few bigger shows, but not like this. GIAA has pulled in a lot of people to all the shows.
It’s also lots of trial and error for us because it’s the first time we got a chance to try it all out live, to get the technology to work out with backtracks and sync it with everything else. We really had to work hard on how to pull it off on our own because we don’t have our own technician with us, we can’t afford it, but it has worked out so far. What I really hope for is that all the attention we got on this tour will pay off next time we’re out touring and get us another step up the ladder.
Reworking “Penumbra” live
Their debut album Penumbra was released on the renowned German post-metal/post-rock label Pelagic Records and with that comes the exposure and marketing of a professional label. But the album was released at the worst possible time, just a month after the pandemic outbreak in 2020. However, with the support of Pelagic and some great album reviews, and the attention hauled in by playing major support slots, record sales are way beyond expectations and Barrens have their third pressing of Penumbra out on the market.
But being off stage for two years due to the live scene lockdown comes with challenges. Being new to doing live shows with lots of technology but no time to test it, Barrens had to face these technological challenges as they were playing their first shows on tour with God Is An Astronaut. And they found out that they’re louder and noisier live than on record – because they’re not good enough musicians.
Your debut album Penumbra was released almost two years ago on Pelagic Records. What does it mean to be supported by a label like Pelagic if you compare it to what you’re used to in other bands?
Johan: You get a lot more attention being on Pelagic, and as a band, you become visible in a completely different way than I’m used to. Some people start to listen to us just because we’re a Pelagic band. You know, they swing by the merch stand at shows to have a look at our stuff and find the Pelagic logo on the record cover and say something like “Oh, you’re on Pelagic”, and then they buy the record. It’s like having a kind of quality mark on your records.
Kenta: Part of their business model is a subscription service where the subscriber gets a number of new releases every month. For a small band like us, that’s awesome because we will get a hundred albums out directly to their regular customers, their subscribers. If this would have been any other label nothing would have happened.
Johan: And that was crucial for us if you consider when the album was released, just a month after the pandemic outbreak.
Markku: Yeah, we had so much planned, and then it was all canceled. But Pelagic sold a lot of albums and we’re on our third pressing at the moment.
Kenta: I’m not sure if I’ve ever been in a band that has sold as many albums as we’ve done of our debut album. Having the pandemic in mind and how few gigs we have played, it’s amazing that we’re on our third pressing. That’s all about Pelagic’s effort to pull attention.
As you say, the tour with GIAA had to wait almost two years, but how did the almost two-year-long lockdown affect the songs on the album? You’re often under a lot of stress when you record an album and not all songs come out as you wanted, but two years of reflection and rehearsals may have changed how they sound today.
Johan: Quite much is different, especially how they’re played live. We realized already after a few shows that something has to change, and the songs were speeded up a bit. They were too slow and it didn’t work out live. That’s also how we see ourselves as a band, an identity built on experimenting.
But we’re still at a point where we try to find out what the band is about. Of course, we have a vision and know what we want, you have that in all bands, but a lot is new to us this time. Just take the idea of us using lots of synthesizers and having more electronic layers in the music; I haven’t worked with it before. But it was intentional, to explore and see what could come out of it.
Kenta: The post-rock genre is used to these big synth layers but we use synthesizers differently, to create melodies and not only as layers to fill a space in the music.
Markku: But what really changed since we released the album and did our first gigs is that we have a louder and noisier sound live. On record it’s a slim production, live it sounds a lot, it’s gritty and raw, I play harder, and it’s all because we’re not good enough musicians (laugh). It’s a lot more noise on stage.
What’s also new is that we play with clicktracks and we haven’t done it before, and we still work hard on getting a good flow. It’s a lot of backtracks and stuff that needs to be synchronized and we’re only three people to make it work out on stage. That’s a lot to deal with and we don’t know yet how to do it in the future. Are we going to continue like this? Or will we play it live? And if we decide to play it live, is it possible to do it? Johan didn’t play it when we recorded the songs, it’s all programmed. Maybe we have to change it all if we decide to play it live in the future.
That’s what we discuss at the moment at a point when we started to write on our second album. This tour is almost over and we’re heading back home to work on the next album, and that’s when we need to start thinking about how to deal with the problems we have encountered with the Penumbra songs live.
But was it something you wanted to explore from the beginning, using more synthesizers on the songs, or did it just happen as the songwriting unfolded?
Johan: It just happened when I started to write new songs, I didn’t write the songs on guitar this time. The point is that I used electronic sounds that emulated guitar sounds because I thought we would change them later. But when we were done we didn’t want to change anything, it sounded a lot better with all those synthesizers on there.
But I can’t promise we’ll continue doing it on the next album. There are lots of things we want to change and I don’t know how much of the setup we’ll use from the first album. You have to wait and see (laugh).
I was about to ask about new music. Rumors say that you try out new songs on this tour already.
Johan: Yeah, we have played a few new songs to try it out on the audience. They’re not done in any way, it’s like demo versions, but it’s awesome to play them live and get feedback because you know from the start what you need to change before you record them later. Testing it live is all about finding the character of the songs, and that’s how you write good songs, to see how the audience responds to them.
You know, we could have been just a studio project, it would have been perfect with families and all, but we want to play live as much as we can. Songs are brought alive on stage, not in the studio.
When we supported LLNN in Berlin last year, Robin [Robin Staps, the labelman of Pelagic Records] popped by to watch and he was amazed about how good it was. “Guys, I didn’t think it would work out to combine you and LLNN, I thought they would blow you off stage and I certainly didn’t expect you to be that noisy and heavy” (laugh).
We have never talked about taking the music in a noisy direction, it just happened naturally. Again, we’re not good enough, and then it sounds like this (laugh).
The headliner, God Is An Astronaut, celebrate 20 years since the release of their debut album on this tour but you have been around equally long although in different bands. What makes them different from you?
Kenta: Impressive, isn’t it? But the big difference is that they went all the way and have tried hard to do it full-time, their dedication to the band is at a completely different level. I don’t think they’re full-time musicians but it’s not far off. Our bands, like Scraps of Tape, are built on the DIY hardcore legacy and not doing music for money. Refused made some money but most bands in the scene haven’t, that’s what shaped us.
Johan: And we followed that path a long time until Markku joined the band and popped the question “Why don’t you do it smarter and earn some money while doing it?”.
Do you mean that coming out of the DIY hardcore scene limits how you think about money and music?
Johan: It sounds bad when you say it like that, but to some part it does. We all have regular jobs and we have families and have to juggle all that with the band. I don’t regret for a second how we’ve done things, I’m quite happy how it all turned out in life and I’m curious about where Barrens will take us, but it would be great to get something back for all the work you put into the band.
But I also understand I’m not in a position to make the same decisions I did twenty years ago, we can’t leave home for a seven week-long tour because we have other responsibilities today.
Markku: Yeah, touring for seven weeks isn’t in the cards. I got two kids during the pandemic and have other priorities at the moment. Twenty years ago I could have toured forever, there was no limit because I didn’t have anything else in life.
I don’t want to stop touring but I want to do it differently this time. All those years you played for nothing just to get that one chance to play one big venue or a big support slot are over. I don’t want to restart and do it all from the beginning again. Signing to Pelagic gave us a chance to level up quite quickly and we didn’t need to restart from zero. But it’s also easier to do this with Barrens, we’re only three in the band and share the same ideas. Imagine to be in a band with six other band members and everyone has a different opinion.
We don’t get much paid on this tour but we’re trying hard to save up for the next album. With the support from Pelagic and these types of tours, we have a good chance to do something even bigger and better next time – bigger tours and better paid – and not like we did before and get stuck in a routine where nothing really happens. It’s so easy to end up there.
Johan: We’ve also talked much about how the band affects other people in our lives because we live some sort of similar lives with families and stuff. That’s something we didn’t have to reflect on twenty years ago. Today, we have the tour discussion at home before we decide to set things in motion; twenty years ago you would have said “By the way, I’m off for a three-week tour in a few hours”. That type of asshole behavior is gone (laugh).
And that’s what I love about this band, we talk about things that happen outside the band because they are important to us today. I like that feeling, to grow together as a bigger family.