Niklas Karlsson first encountered death when he was 18 years old. The young musician had recently moved 600 miles north from his family's home in Eksjö, Sweden, to study music production at a "folk high school" in Storuman. He was excited to branch out on his own and advance his craft — but that feeling soon turned to abject terror when two of his classmates hung themselves in the dorms.
"Thoughts and feelings just poured everywhere," he recalls of his mindset after the loss of his friends. "I laid in my bed and had the thought: What if I fall asleep, and just roll out this window. … I couldn't sleep all night. Those suicides … ignited the fear of death in me."
For six months Karlsson suffered in silence — plagued by extreme anxiety and intrusive thoughts of self-harm. His physical symptoms grew so intense that he went to the doctor to get his heart checked. He was frightened, far from home and had no idea what was happening to him. Utterly exhausted, he called his father and told him everything.
"He was like, 'Dude, you have to calm down — I've had that shit for 30 years,'" Karlsson says today, laughing, of his dad's matter-of-fact revelation. The call was a turning point: It broke his isolation and he felt immediate relief. Inspired by the connection, he sought out online support communities filled with people dealing with the same mental health issues, which he now identifies as "harm OCD."
"It's basically anxiety, but random thoughts will pop up," he explains. "Like if you're holding a knife: What if I do that, or that. It just paralyzes the shit out of you. … But it's nice to talk, because as soon as the words come out of your mouth … everyone laughs at it because it's so out of this world."
In addition to his support network, Karlsson, who's now 26, says music is an essential tool in his recovery. Orbit Culture — his atmospheric extreme-metal quartet that evokes Metallica's massive hooks and Gojira's technical grooves — is the outlet for his expression. Since forming in 2013, Orbit Culture have been propelled by Karlsson's desire for creative connection and his driving DIY spirit. They've independently released a couple EPs and full-lengths, and last year landed their first tour ever, supporting River of Nihil's 2019 U.K./European run. But it's with their third and latest record, Nija — their first for L.A.-based label Seek and Strike — that Karlsson and Co. are poised to connect with a whole lot more people.
Nija is a sonic and emotional powerhouse that showcases the singer-guitarist's most personal lyrics yet on the topic of harm OCD. Karlsson's especially proud of the record's epic three-song finale: "Nensha," "Rebirth" and "The Shadowing." Orbit Culture unveiled the songs via a trilogy of gripping music videos. The stunning scenes — filmed in the Swedish forest and following a narrative about a witch who is killed and resurrected — are Karlsson's attempt to "go over the issues of anxiety and depression in a very metaphorical and, hopefully, creative manner … so [people] can interpret the lyrics into their own lives and situations."
In talking about the band's development, Karlsson jokes that Orbit Culture is his "little baby" — which makes total sense when you consider the DNA of its evolving sound and rich imagery can be traced directly back to his life. That life began in the peaceful Swedish countryside: a beautiful yet foreboding place where the young boy's imagination was fueled by tales of lurking trolls, demonic possessions and masked slashers.
Karlsson grew up in the "very small village" of Askeryd in southern Sweden. The rural area, roughly between Gothenburg and Stockholm, is filled with farms and churches — and its fair share of local folklore to keep the children in line. "I guess there was a witch roaming the woods here, and it's always been trolls — everywhere, hiding behind stones," he says. "That's the tales we've been told: You shouldn't wander too far into the woods by yourself!"
His father was a butcher and took care of the wildlife in the community. His mother was "a badass" who drove a truck during the week, and spent her downtime painting and creating visual art. Karlsson's folks were also permissive with his pop-culture passions and allowed their son to indulge his appetite for horror movies, which are still a huge source of inspiration for him today.
"Other parents would hate my parents [because] they allowed me to watch shit like Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Texas Chainsaw Massacre," he says. "At, like, seven, I had this VHS tape with The Exorcist on it … and Anaconda." He laughs. "It was quite the mix. And every time I went home from school I put it on."
The television also introduced Karlsson to his other lifelong passion: rock & roll. He remembers the exact show that changed everything: a Swedish program in which children dressed up like KISS and performed to a playback track. He formed his first band, Shallow Chain, when he was in 7th grade. "We were like, 'Hey, we have to play 'Enter Sandman,'" he recalls. "We played one show, in, like, a bus-stop thing. It was very weird."
Karlsson's musical aspirations leveled up when he was 16, and his family moved 12 miles south to Eksjö. It was there that he formed Orbit Culture, with Metallica, Gojira and Aussie metalcore act Parkway Drive ("Winston McCall's vocals just touched me in a way I couldn't explain," he recalls of Parkway's singer) serving as inspiration. Karlsson may claim he had "no vision at all" when Orbit Culture first started, but over the years, he's figured out how to channel his influences into something distinct and powerful.
Addressing and accepting his own humanity — warts and all — is a key component in Karlsson's art, as well. While recovery from harm OCD is an ongoing challenge, he's found that the process has given him a far greater capacity for empathy towards others: "I'm much more understanding towards people," he says, "especially with people going through similar things." But Karlsson's empathy isn't just useful when connecting with other people dealing with harm OCD. It's also essential in his day job caring for an autistic boy ("He loves music, but just not what I write," he says, laughing) and is the linchpin in Orbit Culture's message of hope. "When I try to write lyrics … guessing what others have been through, it just falls flat, dishonest and un-engaging," he says. "Once I started to write about my own issues and stuff that's real for me, everything [becomes] more natural. … That's where I hope the connection happens."