It's a few days before Christmas, and Adam Zaars is getting his grocery list together. "It's going to be a quiet, family gathering sort of thing," the Tribulation guitarist says of his holiday dinner plans. "But there's still a lot of details to sort out, especially the food!"
Though he's been living in Stockholm for nearly a decade now, the holidays have brought Zaars back to his hometown of Arvika, a small and picturesque municipality in west central Sweden. Arvika is where his music career began (he met fellow guitarist/songwriter Jonathan Hultén and other future members of Tribulation there while they were all still in their teens), and right now it's also serving as something of a refuge for Zaars — a place where he can relax in the warm glow of familiar surroundings following the intense and isolating process of writing and recording Down Below, Tribulation's fourth and latest full-length album, and gather the strength necessary to tour and promote the record in the new year.
But before any of that can happen, a feast must be created. And Zaars — who also works as a chef at Geronimo's FGT, a popular Stockholm restaurant and nightclub — is assembling a menu that includes "the typical Swedish Christmas dinner stuff" like meatballs, sausage, porridge, potato gratin with anchovies, egg halves stuffed with shrimp and dill, and various meat-free options. ("I'm a vegetarian," he explains.) While some might find these kinds of preparations exceedingly stressful, Zaars is actually looking forward to doing the cooking, an activity he finds wonderfully therapeutic.
"I was actually just telling my mother that it is very nice to not only have the time, but the desire to cook," he says. "I tend to cook a lot at home, but you don't always have the time and the energy to do it. And when you find the time and the energy to do it, it's very soothing, it's very creative. It forces you to be in the now, I suppose." He laughs. "And when you do it a lot, you notice what it means to cook with love. When I was a kid, I didn't really understand what it means, but when you do it a lot, you start to understand what that is. You pay attention to detail, you pay attention to everything, and if you don't, it will probably be fine, but it's not going to be as good."
Given his band's intense music and flamboyant, corpse-painted stage presence, a lovingly concocted family dinner probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Zaars and his bandmates, but the Tribulation members are far from the other- worldly demonic figures they portray onstage, and the group itself exists in something of a juggling act between their other passions, avocations and philosophies.
Still, there are definite parallels between Zaars' meticulous meal preparation and the devotion to detail that the band has been bringing to its recordings since 2006, when the group first turned heads with the ripping old-school death metal of its four-song Putrid Rebirth EP. And just as recipes tend to evolve over time, so it has been with Tribulation's music, which has broadened over the years to embrace a wider array of stylistic elements, even while remaining true to the sounds that originally inspired them.
Enter Down Below. Expansive, evocative and exceedingly dark, the album offers both rousing stadium-rock power and a seductive invitation to explore a deeply mysterious and personal underworld. The sepulchral croak of bassist/vocalist Johannes Andersson keeps songs like "Lady Death," "Cries from the Underworld" and "Lacrimosa" anchored in the band's black-metal roots, but elements of psychedelia, progressive rock, death metal, goth metal and even classic rock flow freely and fluidly throughout, making for a richly satisfying sequel to 2015's The Children of the Night. It might even be a better record than its widely acclaimed predecessor — though Zaars gently bats away such comparisons.
"We did not want to make a 'better' album, necessarily, but one at least as good," he laughs. "It's not always a matter of one being better than the other. I've had the question many times, what my favorite Iron Maiden album is. And, you know, I'm being very sincere when I say that I can't really say. There's a moment for every album, and there are times when Somewhere in Time is the best album, and a week after, maybe it's Dance of Death. I tend to see our albums, at least when we're creating them, in the same way — that they're not necessarily better, but different. Because if you look at the inspiration we had for our first album [2009's The Horror], it was basically heavy metal from Iron Maiden, to the Misfits, to Morbid Angel, to black metal like Mayhem, and then we also had the horror movie score inspiration. And if you look at what inspired us today, it's not too different — it's basically the same thing, but we are making something else out of it."
While Zaars speaks of the relationship between Down Below and the rest of the band's discography like a chef — in terms of ingredients — Jonathan Hultén, Tribulation's other main songwriter, does so like the visual artist he is.
"We have a process in which we speak in terms of colors and feelings," he says. "Our second record [2013's The Formulas of Death] is sort of a foresty, murky record with long, atmospheric, experimental parts on it. On the third record, there's stone there, and we're not in a forest anymore. And with this record, we're not very far from where we were on the third record, but it's a different thing now. It's more strong emotions, I think. It's more grief and rage. It's more dramatic."
A talented artist, Hultén has created all of the cover artwork for Tribulation's releases, including Down Below. Though the group's stature has risen steadily in the metal world since 2005, when Hultén, Zaars and Andersson first formed Tribulation, nobody's able to live particularly large yet; and while Zaars makes ends meet as a chef, Hultén supplements his income from the band by doing freelance illustration work for clients ranging from other groups, such as Gothenburg's Vampire, to Stockholm craft brewers Macken Bryggeri.
"It's working right now, but we'll see for how long this will work," he says of making a living off a combination of art and music. "Being a musician, everything is very ... you don't know how long it's going to last, but everything works out somehow. Suddenly, it's, 'Oh, here's this income!' And just a minute before that, you were standing there going, 'Oh shit, in two months I'll be dead!'"
Still, music remains his focus. Last year, he released a solo acoustic EP, The Dark Night of the Soul, and he continues to push himself as a guitarist in Tribulation. In the band's earlier days, he exulted in playing unusual, against-the-grain solos, inspired by an unusual (at least for metal guitarists) role model — Joey Santiago of Nineties alt-rock heroes the Pixies. Recently, however, Hultén has found himself gravitating towards more traditional guitar-hero territory.
"I sort of rediscovered how fun it is to play a really thought-through, very well-played solo, using a lot of effects in a very classic rock sort of way — instead of doing something that's out of place, or weird for the sake of being weird," he says. "I remembered that a guitar solo can be epic, this sense of, 'It's so big, this thing that's happening right now in my ears!' It's grand, and that's the feeling I wanted to evoke [on Down Below]."
Hultén received his first guitar at the age of 10, a gift from his father, a guitar instructor, and as he prepares to follow Zaars back home to Arvika for the holidays, he pauses to reflect upon how his father's gift set him on the path to metal glory — which was not at all what the elder Hultén had in mind when he taught his son his first E, A and D chords.
"I think he was very skeptical," he chuckles. "I remember him losing his shit once because of me wearing a shirt that was offensive to him — it had crosses turned upside down on it, or something like that. But I don't think he's regretting his actions now, I hope."
Hultén and Zaars typically work separately when penning Tribulation songs, though both men insist that their songs come out of a shared sense of purpose, rather than from any sort of rivalry. "I think we complement each other and make a good whole, together, as creative spirits," says Hultén. "I think we've found a way to do things in the same neighborhood," Zaars agrees. "By now, we know what Tribulation is, and we know what Tribulation isn't. In many ways, we are inspired by Tribulation — inspired by this thing that we've created, whatever it is. So I think our songs are bound to sound a certain way, even though there are many ways for them to take shape."
A longtime student of spirituality, particularly of ancient Hindu teachings, Zaars has often spoken in the past about the spiritual aspects of creativity. But despite the trippy other-ness of Tribulation's music, Zaars says that his spiritual interests find their way into his songs less and less these days. "The deeper I go into it, the more difficult it is for me to use it in a Tribulation context," he says. "Where I am right now, it's a lot easier to write about a grimoire, or something like that. Tribulation is very much a band with four individuals, and I wouldn't want to put my perspective on the world as a main theme in the band, because it doesn't work like that."
If anything, Zaars says, he's increasingly amused by the irony of playing Tribulation's dark brand of metal while also being someone who meditates on a daily basis. "Meditation puts you in a creative mindset, mainly because it makes you calm," he explains. "It makes you a more balanced person, but that's not always a good thing, creatively. I think you need, especially when doing extreme music, some kind of imbalance, some dirt in the system. I don't think it's easier to write a death-metal album if you've lived a very healthy, very disciplined and very spiritual life, as opposed to if you tour and take a lot of drugs. I think that's probably better, sometimes, for this."
Ultimately, he says, it's a matter of finding a balance with an imbalance, which is the sort of conundrum that even the wisest of gurus might have difficulty puzzling out. "And it is a challenge, because you can't really fully commit yourself to either way," he laughs. "But I'm quite fine with that for the time being, because Tribulation is what we're doing now, and what we want to do — I don't know for how long, but for at least awhile."