Interview with Astrakhan

Interview with Per Schelander – Bass

Interview by Lee Carter

Hey and thank you for your time. Please state your name and position in the band.

Per Schelander – Founder, bass player and I also write the majority of the music/lyrics.

It may surprise readers to know that the band toured and performed the musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ back in 2018 – what inspired the band to go on such a tour?

Yeah, that is maybe a left turn for a band that only has released two studio albums. It is actually an old idea that our singer Alexander Lycke had for years. You see, he performed JCS many times all over Europe since he’s a musical artist. He’s been doing all the leading roles in JCS but he had always missed the rock element that is so present in the original recording. Around when we did our first show as Astrakhan, Alex was about to play Jesus in JCS for half a year in Finland. We started to play “Gethsemane” as an encore back then and in 2017, when we were on our way home after some shows in Finland, we sat down and discussed the idea of playing more songs from JCS. That discussion evolved into the idea of doing a full show. We pitched the idea to some theatres and they all gave two thumbs up so we we said “lets do it”!

How did it compare with your more regular live shows?

In a way it’s the same thing but… Now we’ve played big theatres and concert halls instead of sweaty rock clubs. Instead of having a standing and headbanging crowd, the audience was sitting down. Alex is used to that but I’m not. I have played seaters in Russia with Royal Hunt but this was different… In the middle of the first show in Helsinki I went over to Alex and said something like, “they don’t seem to like it”. He just shook his head and said – they love it! He was right and we had standing ovations and three encores on every show.

What was the response by fans of the band? Were they quite receptive to it from the off, was it more of a slow-burn?

I think they were up to it! We even had fans flying in from Japan to see the shows in Finland so I guess everyone was happy.

Do any of those songs still feature in Astrakhan live sets? Or is it solely cuts from your own catalogue?

We haven’t played live since summer 2018. After JCS we were all were pretty tired – especially me, Jörgen and Alex since we were also the producers, tour managers and everything else in this pretty big project. Then, during 2019, we started to work on the new album and then Corona hit the world – meaning no live shows.

Considering such a tour could be considered something of a curveball, the band is clearly not afraid to go its own path – has this always been the case from its inception?

Yes, we have never played it safe and have always been guided by our visions rather than the obstacles. We’ve been in this game for such a long time so we know what we want. It is actually a kind of “mission impossible” for a fairly unknown band to pull such a project like JCS off – but we did and we had sold-out shows. We have always done things for real – recorded our albums in big studios, not taking any shortcuts by any means. I see too many bands that are trying to save money and doing half-assed stuff. To me, it’s more like no one would like to hear your excuses why your album doesn’t sound as good as the big bands do. Even if you are a small band that have ambitious you are “competing” with the million dollar acts.

For those that haven’t had the privilege, what makes an Astrakhan live show?

We are an intense band ’cause everyone is at the top of their game. We focus on emotion and energy and we like to put on a show. From the start, we have used projections whenever the venue has allowed that. We have performed on big stages with full production as well as small unplugged shows. We can do both and we also know how take on different kind of audiences and situations/events.

How did the band start out back in 2013?

It’s a pretty long story. Astrakhan started as an idea between me and my brother. 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, direction or anything – we just wrote whatever out of the pure joy of being creative and write music. We wrote samba, reggae, rock etc. After a couple of years we started to talk about writing in some kind of direction because the writing process between us was so simple and fun, compared some other writing situations we’ve been in. We decided to write 10 songs and make an album. We wrote the 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. In the autumn of 2012 we booked a good studio and recorded drums, bass and keyboards. In the spring of 2013 we met Alex Lycke and, with his voice, everything fell in place. He recorded his parts fast and everyone felt so good about the whole thing we decided to make it a band.

The band name is shared with a city in Russia, but what is behind the name? What drew you to it?

This is kind of stupid but we didn’t know about the Russian city. We wanted a name that sounded as good in Swedish as in English. So someone said Astrakan, which is an apple variety that I think is Swedish. We thought it sounded right and just added an “H”. Nothing more complicated, but as soon as we started to do interviews everyone asked us about the Russian city 🙂

In the ensuing years, and beyond line-up changes, how have things changed for the band, both in terms of music and the wider world it exists in?

Everything is in constant change. When we started, it was just me and Jörgen, writing everything and had a vision. Then we shared the vision with Martin and Alex and it took off. Marcus Jidell was never a part of the band even though he played guitar, produced and mixed the first two albums. We did some shows with Marcus but pretty soon he got busy with Avatarium and the obvious choice of guitar player was Johan Hallgren who I shared many stages with during the years with Pain Of Salvation. On the last album we worked even more as a band and many of the songs are based around ideas and arrangements that Johan had. To me it’s great that the world gets to hear music from Johan and also a new side as a guitar player – he is such a talented guy!

How, if at all, has the writing process changed for Astrakhan since your debut record in 2013?

Now everyone is contributing. Even if I have been the one pushing this process forward. I think the best moments on the album are the ones when everyone is involved in the writing process – and it just happened. The secret to the sound of Astrakhan is that we usually build a whole song around one simple idea – but then we twist and make small adjustments to the same idea, so in the end you might hear it as many different parts. A good example of that is the song “Youtopia”. The chorus melody is always the same but we change everything beneath it so you may hear it as a new chorus every time.

The first writing session was a weekend at Johan’s studio. We came there with no ideas and when we left we had written a solid foundation for five songs! The first song we wrote was “Lonesome Cry” and from the moment Johan started to play the main riff, the room just exploded with creativity! We interrupted each other a lot because there were so many ideas flying around. For me it was one of the best moments in the bands career since I just love when you’re in contact with creativity – and now we were five guys that were in perfect harmony and connected with creativity. It was electric.

Can you describe the band’s process? Is it a collaborative effort, or is there one of you who takes charge?

I’ve been in charge during the last years. But I really need the other guys’ input on everything – it makes everything more fun. But I was the one who set up the recording schedule and took care of the business.

‘A Slow Ride Towards Death’ marks the band’s third album and the completion of a process that began in 2019 – how did you find the writing and recording process?

The writing process was pretty long since we decided to do JCS in the middle of everything. I set up a tight recording schedule and everything went very smooth and we had a lot of fun. When almost everything was recorded it all changed when Jörgen all of a sudden wasn’t happy with the sound and songs. We argued for some time and the whole recording process went from a good vibe to a very sad situation. During a creative process there will always be a time when you start to doubt the material. During that time you need to remember how it felt when you wrote the song. Of course you need to be hard to yourself and kill your darlings and everything but this was something else. You will probably get a different story if you ask him but I was not ready to throw everything we had achieved together as band just because he had a dip. Then he decided to leave, and to me it was very disrespectful to the band’s history.

Jörgen Schelander notably left the band after the recording process finished for the album – as it is a body of work “filled with emotions around the pain of broken relationships, broken dreams and an endless love and passion to music”, would you say that there were events leading up to his departure that inspired some of the content on the album?

This is a very dark album. I wrote most of the lyrics around the thought of how it would be if I, for some reason, lost music in my life. The thing is that my dad has a muscular diagnosis and it maybe runs in the family, and eventually I will get it too. That means that I may only have ten more years being a musician – that’s my slow ride towards death. Jörgen thought it was too dark and depressive, but I can only write about things that are real to me – I need to be honest. Then the pandemic happened and every musician felt the loss of playing music. So in retrospect, the dark theme of the album became more true and in time than when I wrote the songs/lyrics. And it was a heavy feeling in the band too after JCS – and of course the music will reflect that vibe. Even more after the sad fact that Jörgen decided to leave. As a kid I was heavily inspired by Steve Van and he said that ”you play what you are, and you play what you are” and that is still very true.

How did you find working with Marcus Jidell for the album’s production?

I love working with Marcus, all the way from our years in Royal Hunt up ’til now. His skills as a guitarist are well-documented but as a producer he is so cool. For this album we set up the sound we wanted and recorded that – not leaving that much to do in the mix. For example we recorded, the bass with only one mic’d signal, meaning that there was not much to do in the mix if I got the feeling during one take to stomp on the flanger pedal – there was no way we could remove that flanger in the mix. So this album is very real with not much editing in the mix – this is how it sounded in the studio!

Did he have any influence on the album at all, or did he just facilitate the band doing what it does best?

When you have such a musical guy in the room, he will of course influence us all. We worked out the soundscape together and he contributed to some arrangements, advised on how to play different parts – just like a producer should do. He is also a great producer when it comes too vocals and he and Alex works very well together, bringing out the best of each other.

As professional musicians of 25 years, do you ever feel anxious when releasing new music, or are you simply excited to get new work out there for people to listen to?

This release has me a bit anxious because of all the struggle with my brother. If someone you trust all of a sudden doubts you, it affects you. But somewhere I’ve been dead-sure that these songs are great and the reviews we received so far proves just that – I was right. But this album has cost me a lot of money, a lot of grief and worries so it needed to come out right.

How have you found the reaction to ‘A Slow Ride Towards Death’?

Very good so far. The lowest review I’ve seen so far is 8/10 and the best one is 10/10, so I must say that I am very happy so far!

Of course, the album began its journey in 2019 – how did the events of 2020 affect it?

My goal was to release it preferably during 2019, maybe 2020. After all, I am very pleased that it didn’t happen. The theme of the album suits 2021 so much better and during 2020 we could release the live album ‘Astrakhan’s Superstar Experience’. We are so glad that MelodicPassion Records decided to release that album. That gave me the energy to complete the artwork and everything needed for a proper release of ‘A Slow Ride Towards Death’. I must mention Russin here, the guy that made the artwork. He’s been so supportive from start to finish – a great guy!

How did the band cope during the lockdown? Was there a degree of productivity at all?

I constantly write music and riffs. I was lucky enough to have some gigs with other bands until summer 2020. During the autumn we got some good offers to put up JCS again and we started to make plans. After two weeks of planning we got very hard restrictions here in Sweden and we had to put all those ideas aside.

How did it affect you personally? What kept you sane throughout? Any recommendations to our readers?

I don’t know if I’ve kept sane. I miss music so much. But for a couple of months I practiced more than I’ve done in years. I was lucky enough to be invited to play bass on Christian Liljegren’s solo album that was released a month ago. But during a crisis, it’s important to keep routines. It may seem like a boring answer but even if doesn’t feel right we need to keep doing stuff that we know are good for us – like continuing doing music for the sake of music. A funny thing that happened during 2020 was that me and three other bass players started a YouTube channel called Lowenders. We meet other bass players and go thought their gear, their philosophy or just have a good chat. That whole thing started out because we suddenly had the time to do something and that we were bored.

Looking to the future, what has Astrakhan got planned for 2021? Are there any plans to get out and play live again?

We have some shows booked in late August but right now it is impossible to know if that is going to happen.

Additionally, can we expect any new music from the band in the near future, or are you going to enjoy the ride for ‘A Slow Ride Towards Death’?

Right now I don’t know. We are a band that don’t work on the ordinary routine album/tour, new album/tour and then start over again. We are maybe more like a collective that do good music together and right now with the situation in the music business it’s hard to tell. I would love to make more music together and get back to that electric creative vibe – that’s the best thing I know!

Thank you for your time, is there anything you’d like to say to our readers?

This is a special album and like all of our albums it’ll take a few spins before you pay attention to all the details that are hidden in the songs. I have never felt such a relief with a release because I’ve fought and invested a lot in this album – you won’t get disappointed!