Monolord’s Esben Willems: “Our Music Is Like An Unshowered Troll In a Cave”

Photo by Josefine Larsson

From what we can tell, Monolord might have been the only band ready for the pandemic. It’s not that the Swedish doom three-piece had stocked up on toilet paper and dry pasta in preparation for some sort of societal breakdown. No, Monolord did something far more daring for a working band in 2021: they booked time off. When COVID shut down the entire world, the band were already in a self-imposed break of six months, and weren’t stymied the way so many other artists were. As they began to work on this year’s Your Time to Shine, the three members found themselves refreshed and prepared — a far cry from so many of their peers, who were forced to stop in their tracks and rethink their entire lives.

“I think we would’ve lost our rhythm as well if we didn’t plan that break,” admits drummer Esben Willems. “If we’d had tours planned at that moment, we’d be like, What’s next? What do we do now? But we had nothing for six months, so we were in a weirdly good spot. We’d talked about it about a year before we decided — if we could, it’d just be nice to take one touring season off. We’ve reached a point where we could allow ourselves to do that.Being a touring musician is, financially, a challenge. It’s a constant challenge. Saying, I need to take time off to rest isn’t really an option. But it was an option for us, and when that surfaced, we thought, This is a real possibility. We’re in a place where we could do that. We’re also aware that we’re not 17, so we take care of ourselves, too. We know that people need to look after themselves to not burn out. People burn out, all the time, because you always think, Oh, just a little bit more, just one more tour, just a bit longer. And by the end, you’re fried. There are too many examples of that.”

The result makes one wonder if more bands need to plan some time off. Your Time to Shine sees Monolord at both their most aggressive and most listenable. There’s an extra level of metallic hostility and grit to the songs on this record, and yet it’s also as groovy and thoughtful as anything from 2019’s No Comfort. The album only further cements the band as one of modern doom’s most reliably awesome acts, making heavy-as-hell downer rock that crushes even as it soars.

“It does feel a little more of aggressive on this one, and I feel like bits of the process of getting there were a little more playful,” says Esben. “There was a little more flirting with old-school death metal ideas, like, Hey, this is fun, how about this really sloppy, slow double kick-drum beat? We tried out several things, and some of it just stuck and worked with what we were doing. Our process isn’t that clear — we work hard, and are devoted to what we do, but we don’t have a set way of working. And I really like that. It keeps everything open.”

How did the pandemic affect your momentum as a band and your writing process for Your Time to Shine?

We were kind of weirdly prepared, because we had decided on taking half a year off from touring just before the pandemic. We’ve been touring extensively, and recording albums between that, and it’s all been great, but you need to breathe every once in a while. So we went into the break, and all of a sudden, the pandemic happened, so the break became two years! But we were kind of in a break mode, so when we came back, we thought, What can we do now? We can’t play live. We can’t tour. Let’s start working on the next album. We had so much time working on that. That’s been a luxury. That’s been amazing. It’s hard to describe, because usually for any band in our arena, you record an album, you tour, and you repeat that cycle. And that means that you can’t really tour on the music you’re writing. So you write it, rehearse it as best you can, and try to capture it on an album as best you can. But this time, we had a chance to play so much that it almost felt like we’d been touring on it. Like, Man, my muscle memory knows these songs. I didn’t have to focus, we didn’t have to focus. We could focus on the vibe, and on what the album was. That doesn’t happen often for any band, and that really made a difference

What about that time off was most important to you?

I’m a dad, and I love my partner and our kid, and I love the family life. That’s my core, that’s the best thing I know. And I also love touring, so it was a delicate balance. But this meant two years with my family. That’s been beautiful. I know a lot of people didn’t feel that way about the pandemic — lockdowns, for one, and not being able to meet people. In Sweden, we could meet with people, but there was a time where they asked the population not to meet with anyone other than the closest family. So it has been restricted that way. But I love the family bubble, so I’ve been enjoying that part. Then again, I’m super stoked to go on tour again, I mean, [the pandemic] has been horrible, and people have died, but the weird bonuses of it are really strange.

Unlike a lot of other bands, who recorded in 2019 and were forced to sit on their release, it sounds like you guys wrote and recorded this all under COVID.

Yes and no, because we always work on stuff. It’s not like every album process is separate from the previous one. It’s new and ongoing. We try a lot of different ideas. Thomas [Jäger, guitar and vocals] writes a lot of material, and we finalize it and arrange it together. There’s a lot of cut-and-paste with ideas, of changing back and forth and moving between songs. And the way we work is usually that when we decide to make an album, we work with what we have and condense it into what makes an album. We rearrange, move it around, until we have this feeling of a unity. And then we start working with that material as an album. Some of the material is new, some is old, some is new with old bits and pieces. It’s a really vague answer, but that’s kind of the way we work! 

Was there a song on the new album where you play it and think, Damn, that part is OLD, I first wrote that in 2013?

Oh yeah. I royally suck at dates, and my perception of time is like, Was this last year or 1998? I’m an idiot with that. Bit I’m sure there is. There must be several pieces here and there. It’s not that this particular chorus was from an old song, but this drum beat, or this vibe or idea, was from that album. But it didn’t work in that instant, so I scrambled it in the back of my head and came back up. It’s not intertwined. Which also means that if you look at my studio computer, it’s like mayhem! It’s crazy, everything’s like ‘New_Idea_3.’ We need ten interns at the studio!

It seems like this album has a slightly more aggressive tone than No Comfort. Did you go into the record with that as a goal?

We don’t do that, ever — and I don’t think it’s bad to do that, it’s just not the way we work. Speaking of the process, we usually just let the process guide us until it feels like an album. It’s kind of a constant feeling of losing control. But when you get used to that, and get the control back in another sense, because we play so much together that we trust that this will also be an album. This will be a good tour. I know it’s going to be all right in the end. So we try to keep our minds and ears open at all times when we make music, so we don’t have a predefined process or a predefined idea of a theme or a vibe on the album. 

That must be tough — lots of metal bands are all about control and regimentation, and here you are saying, The chaos is where the good stuff comes out!

It is! That’s a T-shirt! But yeah, exactly — chaos is good! Embrace it!

It’s especially interesting to hear that from a drummer, who is traditionally supposed to be the keeper of order in a band.

I am the cliche, I am. All three of us are — we’re control freaks, to say the least. You can only imagine the sparks between us — I like this idea! No you don’t, we like this one better! I won! That being said, I also think we find a rhythm and a dynamic where we can embrace the chaos. Embrace the ideas and keep it open, not to be too controlled. A pretty clear example of that is that we never record to click tracks, unless there’s a sample of programmed keyboard that needs to be very static. But otherwise, we just play. We don’t sound-replace the drums, and we don’t correct the pitch on the vocals. And again, it’s not wrong to do that, that’s the business standard. Many metal albums are extremely, extremely precise, because it’s fixed along a predefined grid. And some metal genres are like that, and should be like that. Ours is more like an unshowered troll in a cave, so that wouldn’t fit at all with our production and method of working. Just listen to Mika [Häkki]’s bass sound. 

Finally, I have to ask you about the album cover. The colors and the bunny is so startling, especially for a doom record. What inspired you guys to go with this image?

That’s exactly it! It’s like, Whoa, that’s unexpected! That’s a big part of it.  The way we usually choose artwork is searching everywhere until we find something all three of us like — and that’s a really important core of Monolord, that all three of us should stand behind what we do. We don’t record a song that only two of us like. We don’t choose artwork that not all of us like. But what that means for artwork is that you have three different interpretations of the album. For me, it was the contrast — the unexpected elements of it. It’s atypical for the kind of music we play, and I like the contrast of the very bright, beautiful colors, and the cute bunny — which is dead, when you get up close to it. It’s really sad image, but the beautiful colors around it and composition of the photo, I think it’s beautiful. I actually didn’t like it at first, I didn’t think it connected to the music. But it lingered and grew on me more, and I thought, This is great. This is perfect. That was why we chose not to have the [band] name on the cover. It speaks for itself.

Monolord’s Your Time to Shine drops October 29th via Relapse Records, and is available for preorder.

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Words by Chris Krovatin