Monday, September 19, 2011

Interview: Jacob Holm-Lupo (White Willow, The Opium Cartel)

Sylvia Skjellestad, Jacob Holm-Lupo, Ellen Andrea Wang, Ketil Vestrum Einarsen, Lars Fredrik Frøislie and Mattias Olsson (Photography by Dagfinn Hobæk)

Norwegian progressive rock band White Willow releases its 6th album, Terminal Twilight, in October through Termo Records. A review of the album is forthcoming (but let me tell you now, it's one hell of an album).

Main man Jacob Holm-Lupo has graciously and patiently answered all my annoying questions. 

Interview after the Jump

1. a) White Willow went on hiatus in 2007. What was the motive for that and why the return now?

There were a few different reasons why we hung it up for a while. Some had to do with band politics, a bit of unrest in the ranks. But for me personally I was at a point where I was getting a bit impatient with «prog rock» as a genre and as a a musical identity for what I was doing. On «Signal to Noise», which was our last album before the break, I had struggled with my impulse to break out of the prog mold, and the result was an album that was maybe a bit schizophrenic. I realized that I would have to do something outside of White Willow if I was going to satisfy those non-prog impulses. So I started recording what was to become The Opium Cartel's first album, «Night Blooms». That was a very liberating experience for me, both because I got to delve into my other passions, like indie-pop, folk-rock and post-rock. But also because I saw that I didn't need a big fancy studio or a regular band to realize my visions. And once I was done with that album I was hungry for time changes and moog solos again, so I decided to get back in the saddle with White Willow, but I wanted to do it the «Opium Cartel» way – in the comfort of my home with a laptop and everything and the kitchen sink.


b) There was a change in direction between Storm Season, Signal To Noise and now Terminal Twilight, which returns to the familiar grounds of Sacrament and Storm Season (but goes beyond them and breaks new grounds for White Willow, at least to my ears). What happened there?

Well observed. With «Storm Season» we made a bit of a break with our past, eschewing some of the gentler elements in favour of a darker, denser and heavier sound. When we had done that I felt that it was time to move on again, so «Signal to Noise» went one step further, keeping some of the goth-y touches and the more electric sound, but adding a very slick production and more contemporary and even pop elements. That was what I wanted to do at the time, and although it might seem an odd stylistic choice, I actually wanted to fuse the White Willow sound (there is always a White Willow sound) with a very polished, almost West Coast production. We did, I dug it, but I know a lot of people thought it was a puzzling album. But I like to puzzle people... But anyway – after the long break I realized that I had maybe chucked the baby out with the bathwater in my eagerness to renew White Willow. In the period where I wrote the songs for «Terminal Twilight» I revisited a lot of classic prog that I had listened to growing up – the kind of music that formed the initial impulse to start White Willow. Mid-70s Genesis, Italian prog like Le Orme, Wetton-era Crimson, Univers Zero. It rekindled my passion for «proper» prog, and the result was that I was really all fired up going into the writing process for this album. But as you say there's a lot of new elements also. Some of that comes more from the musicians than the music. We are all a lot more secure as musicians, and the line-up is also the strongest we have ever had, with people like Mattias Olsson and our new bass player Ellen Andrea Wang. The strength of the players opened up for a more playful and relaxed approach, and that really comes through in the music, which has a looser, more spontaneous approach than we have ever had.

2. a) You have a sublime lineup currently, not to mention the guest musicians appearing on the album. Since you are the main writer (correct me if I’m wrong), how much freedom is given to each musician to create and form his or her part? How do you write and arrange your songs?

It depends. I tend to write things very detailed. Guitar, bass and keyboard parts are mostly written out. But everyone adds a lot as well. Lars might rephrase or revoice things I've done, or add completely new elements. And he always does things sonically that are completely leftfield of what I am able to imagine. So he has a lot of input. And Mattias has absolutely free reins. The reason – well, one reason – why I love to work with him is that he seems to have an instinctual understanding for what kind of grooves my songs need, unlike any other drummer I've worked with. So he makes all his own parts. He also adds tons of weirdness on keyboards and effects, and puts his indelible Roth Händle stamp on the production. But in the end everyone brings something to the table. It's my favorite part of music-making, seeing how my idea mutates and gets a life of its own when people start putting their mark on it.


b) Tell us about how you got in touch with the guest musicians and get them to contribute to the album? 

David Lundberg (Gösta Berlings Saga) was in Mattias' studio while we were recording some drum parts, and since I am a big GBS fan we decided to ask him to contribute some parts. He was lovely to work with – great player and great guy. Tim Bowness and I worked together on The Opium Cartel, and decided to continue the collaboration. The song «Kansas Regrets» on the album is co-written by Tim and myself, and it's a song I'm very proud of. Tim has the best voice in the business! And finally Michael S. Judge, of Sinthome and The Nerve Institute, is a guy I've been in touch with for many years, and he is just an immense talent. I contributed a bit on his Sinthome album, and he graciously returned the favour for White Willow!


3. The album sounds less “polished”, more alive and “organic” than previous releases (I mean that in a good way in case it didn’t come out that way).
a) Is this a deliberate choice?

Absolutely. As I said, I wanted to record this album in the same way that I did The Opium Cartel, because it was such a pleasant experience. So it's all done with basically a few microphones, a pre-amp and a laptop. No fancy equipment, not a professional studio in sight. I also deliberately kept the rough edges and the «live» vibe from the recordings. There is hardly a single edit on the album, it's all the way it was played. There is also a lot of room ambience, instead of that dry, clinical studio sound. I personally think all those elements worked to the music's advantage.

b) Despite that, your compositions and arrangements on Terminal Twilight sound more ambitious, adventurous and progressive than ever. Was that deliberate as well or you just got carried away while composing?

That was probably more a case of me getting carried away! Partly, the musicians all added a flair to the album that is quite particular. And partly the compositions are as you say a bit more adventurous than our previous efforts, and that combined with me having all the time in the world in my little home studio meant that I played around with things more than I usually do. We had fun, quite simply!


4. Terminal Twilight, much like Storm Season and Sacrament, has a somber vibe and dark ambiance and atmosphere filling out the album. The world seems to end continually in your music (and lyrics) . a) Is this view of things (which I would personally call realistic and not pessimistic), the drive for your music and lyrics?

Ah, a difficult question. I am not a pessimist, or a dark person. I actually tend to take an optimistic and humourous view on things. But on the other hand I see that the world is a bit of a train wreck, and I am kind of fascinated with how we all go about our lives in usual fashion while Western Civilization is basically crumbling around us. There is something simultaneously sinister and entertaining about it. So that's what I'm adressing, for instance in a song like «Floor 67». Is it a drive for my music... Maybe, in part. My worldview always shapes my music. I've kind of gone from wide-eyed romantic in the beginning of our career, via black-eyed goth-progger to whatever I am now... An amused cynic, maybe?

b) Why the name Terminal Twilight? It’s very bleak (I like it, don’t get me wrong). Do you think the world is coming to an end? What are you trying to convey with this album and songs?

«Terminal Twilight» is a name I've had in my head for a long time for this album. It just seems appropriate. We're in a state in this world now where it's not exactly the end-times or anything that drastic. But we are also way past our prime as a civilization – it's the twilight years, and they seem to go on for a long time – hence – terminal twilight.
Do I think the world is coming to an end? No. I am entertained by apocalyptic fantasies – love movies like «The Day After Tomorrow» and «2012». But I absolutely do not think the world is coming to an end. But people always think it will end, and always see signs of impending doom. I find that fascinating.
With this album I am trying to convey a romantic sense of decay and collapse. That's basically what the album is about. Things might be falling apart, the centre might not hold, but there is beauty in entropy. I often think about that band that they say played on while Titanic was sinking: Let the last dance be the one that counts!

5. The bombing and shooting terrorist attack in Norway on July 22nd, 2011 occurred while you were mixing the album. What were your thoughts and reactions at that point? Did it affect your production of the album in a way? Did it make affect your determination to release it?

As everyone else I was shocked and dismayed. Not because we don't have right-wing extremists here, but because of the scale and viscousness of the attack. It was just so damned evil. This happened during my last two weeks of mixing the album, and for a while I was in doubt as to whether I should release the album. Romanticizing disaster didn't seem very appropriate. But in the end I realized that working on this music was a kind of therapy for me in all the horribleness, and that maybe a cycle of sad, dark songs might actually be a kind of comfort in dark, sad times. And I am glad I stuck with the decision to release the album. Art is very important during hard times.


6. I’m always curious about musicians who take part in more than one band/project as most if not your entire current lineup does. In your case, you have The Opium Cartel, which are quite different from White Willow. Do you get into a different writing mode when writing for each, or is it something that comes naturally for you? Could you work one day on White Willow music and the next on Opium Cartel’s? Do you intend on expanding your musical output to other styles or are you content with what you do?

I can absolutely not work on two projects simultaneously. I am not a multi-tasker, it's one of my weaknesses. I need to know where to put my energies. With The Opium Cartel I focus on conciseness of structure and strength of atmosphere. With White Willow I am looking for more of a conceptual context, and wide-angle arrangements. But that said, the songs always spring from some kind of spontaneous inspiration, and how they develop depends on what project I am working on. If a song that is clearly a White Willow song pops into my head while I am working on another project, I'll put it on hold. But some songs are more amorphous and can go in different directions. «Beach House» on The Opium Cartel album might as well have become a White Willow song if I was working on a White Willow album at the time, and likewise «Snowswept» on this album could have worked as an Opium Cartel tune as well.

I am pretty content with what I do in these two projects, but I will also be working on a new project with Tim Bowness this year, so we'll see where that brings us.


7. Will White Willow perform live? If so, where and when?

As of right now I don't know. There are some tentative plans, but it is too early to say anything for sure. I hope so!

8. The cover artwork is gorgeous. Can you tell us about it and the artist who created it?

The cover painting is by a New York artist named Rene Lynch. I just happened across it, and the second I saw it I just knew that THIS is the White Willow cover. But she is quite renowned, and I am quite broke, so I didn't think there was much chance. Thankfully she dug the music and was happy to help out, so here we are. Rene is a sort of neo-romantic painter, I guess, and in this picture she references the Russian fairy-tale illustrator Bilibin, who I happen to love. And the twilight colors and the dark woods set a perfect ambience for the music. And then there's chicks, and we always have girls on our covers – the Bryan Ferrys of prog!

9. I ask this as a stupid foreigner who knows nothing about your band’s status in Norway:
a) Is White Willow known in Norway? Are you mentioned in the local media (TV, newspapers, magazines, Norwegian music websites)? Do you try to get recognition from the media; Do you advertise and promote yourself in the local scene? Where are your album sold the most in the world, if you know that and are willing to share?

We are not well known in Norway. We've been going for a long time, so among musicians there's some recognition, but very little in the mainstream media. Prog gets zero coverage here. That said, we did get some reviews for our previous album in the mainstream newspapers, so there's always some hope. Do we try to get recognition? Not in Norway, not anymore. It's a futile fight. We'd much rather focus on the areas of the world where people really seem to get our music. I don't have exact statistics, but from experience we seem to do well in the North East USA (of course...), Canada, Latin America, Continental Europe (Germany, the Low Countries, France, Spain) and Japan. With the last album («Signal to Noise») we also made some headways into the UK, which is traditionally a bastion of neo-prog, so that was a surprise.

b) Any Norwegian bands/musicians you’re into (not necessarily progressive) and would/can recommend us?

My favorite stuff comes from people I know, so I'll start with that: Lars' two bands Wobbler and In Lingua Mortua are both amazing, and he also has an electronica project called Fred Froi which might be the best stuff he does – hope that sees the light of day one day. Our flautist Ketil is working on an album that will amaze, please and surprise. Our bass player has several projects: SynKoke is avant-rock, highly recommended, and Pixel is some kind of contemporary jazz, but very leftfield and wonderful.
Apart from that I have deep respect for singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfør – everyone owes it to themselves to check out her album «The Brothel». And finally I can't wait to hear Panzerpappa's new album, which I think will be awesome!

10. I’m just throwing the idea out there; I think that a collaboration between yourself and Kavus Torabi would be great; Your two distinct styles combined could lead to some brilliant music. No need to reply, unless you want to comment on the idea.
Now, continuing on that notion, is there anyone (else) you’d like to collaborate with on a musical project? Is there any musician (or band) whose sound and style captivates you enough to want to collaborate with?

Working with Torabi would be awesome. I think we have several touching points beyond progressive rock – 80's art-pop/post-punk as well as folk-rock. So I'm available :-)

This might sound jaded, but the two people I have really wanted to work with, Rachel Haden and Tim Bowness, I have already collaborated with. I hope to continue to work with both of them. Beyond that I am not quite sure. I think I would probably have liked to record an album of Blue Öyster Cult covers with my fellow BÖC fan David Tibet!

11. Past achievements:
a) Looking back upon your previous White Willow releases, what are your feelings and views on them from your current vantage point? Do you have a particular favourite one or one you feel you’ve outdone yourself with?

I always find it difficult to look back. It's 16 years now since our debut album, and I was such a different person then. There's a lot of what I did then that I have a hard time relating to. That said, I do appreciate many aspects of our previous albums. The first, «Ignis Fatuus», has charm and magic and hubris. First albums are special – they come from a place you can never revisit. «Ex Tenebris», the second, was experimental in all ways. It was the first album where White Willow was really just my own baby, and a very spiritual and personal album. A very primitive recording but it has a unique quality. By the third, «Sacrament», I feel that we were becoming what we were meant to be – the time of fumbling in the darkness was over. I am still suprised by the sophistication in some of the arrangements. «Storm Season» was in some ways a return to the sort of spiritual darkness of «Ex Tenebris», but also a great leap forwards in terms of upping the rock ante with an extra guitarist and a gutsier sound. It is also the album with the strongest lyrics up to that point. «Signal to Noise» was to me a sort of culmination of a period, it fused ideas from the two previous albums and candywrapped them in sweet, glossy sound. I might have been trying to reach too wide, stylistically, but I think that album has some great songs. But as always, my favorite is the latest. In my ears, «Terminal Twilight» takes a quantum leap forward in performance and efficient compositions. But I guess I'm biased ;-) Of the older albums, if I had to pick a favorite it would probably be «Storm Season», because it was quite successful at capturing a particular atmosphere I wanted to convey.

b) Several bands have been re-recording previous songs of theirs as of late, some completely re-interpreting them, among them are Amorphis (Magic & Mayhem), My Dying Bride (Evinta) and Anathema (Falling Deeper). What are your thoughts on going back to your earlier output and giving it a second life? Would you consider re-recording Ignis Fatuus or Sacrament songs or do you believe in letting the past achievements remain as they are?

No. I have no interest in that. I don't really enjoy revisiting past material – even live I prefer to do as few old songs as I can get away with. On the other hand Termo Records will probably re-release the WW back catalog, so we might at least remaster the albums.

12. On consumption of music in various forms:
a) Are you surprised that Ignis Fatuus is so highly regarded and its vinyl edition was so coveted? Will you release more vinyl reissues of your previous albums?

I hope we will. They look good on my shelf... The fact that «Ignis Fatuus» has achieved a semi-legendary status is very flattering and surprising. The one thing I think I can say that I am a little proud of with that album, is that it sort of pre-dated the whole folk-rock revival. Now the combination of psychey/proggy folk and Wicker Man-imagery is very popular, but back then I think we were the only ones doing it.

b) Do you see vinyl as a major source of income for your band and label? Do vinyl sales represent a significant portion of sales and of income?

Not yet. I am not sure how it will be. Some people think that vinyl will be THE format of the future, but I don't really see that. Vinyl is more like a vanity project, like framing your favorite snapshot and giving it pride of place on the mantelpiece. Our revenue comes from cds and digital sales exclusively. So far there's no profit for us in vinyl – we just love the look and the sound.
c) Do you see yourself keeping on releasing CDs in the future? While Termo Records seems to be doing well, don’t you think that is a niche effect, meaning this is more due to the supposed nature of progressive rock fans and their need for a physical product? (while I’m on the subject, would you open a Bandcamp page to stream your releases?)

I do think that part of Termo Records' relative success is related to the niche we're in. Generally, progressive rock and hard rock/metal seem to be the genres that are the least affected by the decline in CD sales. Whether prog fans will keep buying cds or whether the decline is just delayed in our genre, I don't know. But the good news is that digital sales are drastically on the rise, and the systems of renumeration for digital sales are improving. So I think we will survive just fine. All we really care about is making enough money to release the next album we're working on.

I'm not all that familiar with Bandcamp – I think we're on there but I lost the password...

d) I saw that White Willow is on Spotify, as well as other Termo bands such as Wobbler, In Lingua Mortua and Opium Cartel. What are your thoughts on streaming services like Spotify? Do you think this trend will catch up and expand even further to become the main way most people consume and discover music?

I think that Spotify and streaming subscriptions in general are the future. The convenience and immediate availability is something people love, and it will become indispensable. A lot of labels have been skeptical of Spotify because of the ridiculous rates they pay, but we've stuck with it because we know that it's just a matter of time until they sort their payment system out. And it is already happening – revenues from Spotify are increasing and the rates are going up.

13. Any news you can share about upcoming releases on Termo Records, including White Willow and The Opium Cartel?

My next project is probably the second The Opium Cartel album and also my collaboration with Tim Bowness. But I am also eager to get to work on a new White Willow album quite soon. Apart from that, I think the next two releases from Termo will be Rhys Marsh's 3rd album, which I personally think is his best yet, as well as Wobbler/White Willow flautist Ketil Einarsen's debut solo album, which as a project is yet unnamed. That will be an incredible album, mixing prog, psychedelic pop and more contemporary sounds.

I'd like to thank Jacob for the time he took to answer all my questions at length.

You can buy the new White Willow album at Termo Records or through Laser's Edge if you're in the Americas (it isn't there yet, but it will be).

White Willow on Spotify

White Willow on Facebook
White Willow Official website


  1. Great interview! I will have to get myself moving and review the White Willow album too... This is not a very favourable period for me, but I will try to soldier on.

    Anyway, thanks for mentioning my blog on PE! It seems most of the people there are unaware of it, and I don't feel like joining in order to plug my product. At present, I am happy enough with the visits I get, and of course people can always read my stuff on DPRP and ProgSphere too!

  2. Thanks Raffaella!

    Usually, I'm not interested in meeting the musicians I listen to, but Jacob is one of those I would be happy to meet and have a chat and perhaps a beer with (along with Mike Judge, Dan Britton, Don Anderson and a few others).

    I'll be reviewing White Willow's album as well, and I can already see it'll be a very favourable review (love the album). It's been a crappy last 2 years for me (to put it mildly) and it doesn't seem to improve (though I'm grateful for what I do have and am in a better place than other less fortunate people), and that's why I'm not churning out reviews like before (here in HS, I resorted to recommending and featuring bands and albums, and only "properly" reviewing promotional albums I receive). I have several more cd's and digital albums in my to-review-queue that I have little time to get to and listen properly and given my mood, that makes it even harder. But I'll go on, just slowly.

    About your blog, well, it's one of the best written ones I know of and read. Your reviews are well written, organized and a joy to read; honestly, some of the best reviews I've read.
    And while most PE folks might be unaware of your blog, you do get some people from there (I saw their comments on your blog) and some musicians as well, so that's good (and you have the other websites as well like you said). I'm mostly writing this here for myself, as a venting out outlet, and also sharing the music I love, whether it is old favourites or newly found albums I like.

    Not really related, but funnily enough, I've read some impressions of my blog and several people got varied impressions of it: someone said it's mostly avant, another said there's a lot of metal, and one thought I do mostly prog. But if you look at all the music I cover, it's a mix of all those. This is not a prog blog, neither a metal nor an avant one. It's all of those and more (like the ambient focus I have going on and chamber rock/music and post-rock and electronic etc.); it's what I listen to, or rather, part of what I listen to (since I don't feature here too much, or any, jazz and classical). Then again, this variety seems to work against this blog being more "popular" since it is too "unfocused".

    Wow, I've digressed... sorry about that.


Any comments?