“There was just so much circus along the way. It felt like the album was cursed”: Having kids, splitting with one member, nearly splitting with another - small wonder it took Moon Safari a decade to deliver Himlabacken Vol. 2

Moon Safari
(Image credit: Press)

It seemed like an impossible dream, but Moon Safari’s highly anticipated follow-up to Himlabacken Vol. 1 is finally out. And what an album it is. Prog caught up with vocalist/guitarist Petter Sandström and bassist Johan Westerlund to find out why it took them so long to create a slice of pure prog heaven.

While the days have largely passed when an artist might release two studio albums in quick succession, a decade has elapsed since Moon Safari issued Himlabacken Vol. 1. And while they have not usurped American businessman cum musician Dean Gitter (who took a mere 57 years to follow up 1957’s Ghost Ballads with Old Folkies Never Die), the Swedes were fast approaching the almost 12 years that elapsed between King Crimson’s Three Of A Perfect Pair and Thrak.

So, after a steady work rate that yielded the band’s first four studio albums in the period from 2005 to 2013, how on earth did it take Moon Safari so long to release the excellent Himlabacken Vol. 2? “Perhaps we can blame the kids?” says lead vocalist/acoustic guitarist Petter Sandström from his home in Stockholm. Sweden’s birth rate this millennium has dropped well below two children per woman, but Moon Safari have clearly been doing their utmost to buck the trend and expand their homeland’s population.

“When we started this recording, there were four kids among the six band members; now there are 16,” expands Umeå-based bassist/vocalist Johan Westerlund. But beyond the domestic matters and day job commitments that continually slowed the progress of making the album, there were some band issues.

“There was just so much circus along the way,” Westerlund says with a sigh, and admits there were times when Moon Safari thought that the album would never be finished. “This process has taken forever. It felt like the album was cursed. When we got the master done this summer, a big weight was lifted. Then it was onto the fun stuff – getting the artwork and everything ready for release and starting to talk to people is such a different world. It’s hard to realise that we’re done.”

In the gap between the two volumes of Himlabacken, Moon Safari experienced the trials and tribulations that so many bands go through during their careers. In 2015 with the departure of drummer Tobias Lundgren and his replacement by Mikael Israelsson, the band’s line-up changed for the first time since their debut, A Doorway To Summer, announced their arrival in fine style in 2005. The switch involved some trauma, too.

“Something had to change,” explains Westerlund. “We’d been doing Moon Safari for over 10 years at that point and had done the same kind of recording a few times in a row.” Lundgren’s exit was ultimately triggered by the band being offered the opportunity to support Yes on a European tour. With two small children, the drummer wasn’t in a position to commit to the amount of travelling it would involve.

“And with that, other storms started to brew. We had a bad fall out with Tobias and it wasn’t handled well,” Sandström admits. “The separation was ugly but we’re friends now. Tobias and I get together every couple of months and he has a great band now [Windom End].”

Israelsson had previously deputised for Lundgren in spring 2014 for Moon Safari’s first appearance on Cruise To The Edge and a preceding Mexican show. “We noticed how good it sounded,” Sandström continues. “We realised we could be on a new level with Mike, or keep on a safe steady mid-level with Tobias.”

Westerlund elaborates: “Mike has been a great addition to the band. His drumming is out of this world. As a bass player, I’ve taken steps that I wouldn’t have if he wasn’t in the band.”

Getting together for rehearsals takes valuable time which we could put into the recording and finishing the goddamn album

Petter Sandström

Beyond Lundgren’s departure, Westerlund and Sandström readily admit that, at various points in the tortuous process of making Himlabacken Vol. 2, each band member wanted to throw in the towel. Indeed, one of them actually briefly did – namely the band’s other lead vocalist and keyboardist Simon Åkesson, who spent several months outside Moon Safari in 2017.

“Simon had always been up and down, but this was on a different level,” Westerlund says. “He was really low; it wasn’t fun for him any more and he needed to change something. He had announced he would quit the band before we did a show in Japan.” Initially Åkesson was diagnosed with alcoholism, but there was some doubt over this.

“He got counselling, but then they said, ‘You’re really too young to have developed full-blown alcoholism.’” On seeking a second opinion, Åkesson’s diagnosis was revised to bipolar disorder and, with more appropriate medication prescribed, his absence from the band would prove short-lived. Former Flower Kings keyboardist and long-time Moon Safari champion Tomas Bodin had stepped in, but Åkesson would return swiftly.

After a couple of months Westerlund travelled back to the band’s hometown, Skellefteå, almost 500 miles north of Stockholm, and met Åkesson for what proved an artistically constructive and cathartic experience for them both. “We went to the studio and started reworking the song that would become Between The Devil And Me,” Westerlund recalls, speaking of the first single extracted from the new album.

“I asked Simon, ‘What’s the worst part of your experience with this sickness or disease?’ He was honest. And I wrote those lyrics from his perspective, imagining what he was going through. That lyric just came out the same day. It was a good twist to him wanting to quit the band.” Bodin was ready to fulfil the band’s obligation to perform on 2018’s Cruise To The Edge, but it wasn’t long before Åkesson felt ready to return and Bodin’s tenure was over almost before it had begun.

Although it’s taken Moon Safari a decade to release Himlabacken Vol. 2, they haven’t been sitting idly. Apart from further Cruise To The Edge shows, they’ve travelled widely and performed across Europe and in North America, including two appearances at RoSFest. Surely with all six members based in Sweden – the Åkesson brothers (Pontus, Simon and Sebastian) and Israelsson are all based in and around Skellefteå – it should be easier to record an album than tour internationally?

“We would always have the discussion, whether we should take gigs or just focus on writing and recording the album,” Sandström reveals. “Getting together for rehearsals takes valuable time which we could put into the recording and finishing the goddamn album! But we often get offered these fun gigs. ‘Does anybody want to go on holiday and play some music?’ ‘Yeah! Where are we going?’ ‘The Bahamas!’”

Or, as Westerlund pithily puts it: “Do you want to be in the studio tracking the same thing over and over again, or do you want to go to Tokyo?”

“We’re quite a well-oiled machine when it comes to playing live,” Sandström states. “We pick a setlist and everybody does their homework. When we meet for rehearsal we can chug through the songs pretty fast.”

The lengthy gestation period of Himlabacken Vol. 2, combined with a smattering of performances by the band over the last decade, means that a few of the songs on the album were aired live well in advance of the release. Indeed, the punchy Emma, Come On was performed as long ago as May 2016, when the band opened for Yes at the Royal Albert Hall in London, while an earlier version of Between The Devil And Me was debuted in 2018.

We were seeking the feeling of a Communion hymn and singing in Swedish for the first time

Petter Sandström

Some of the songs are considerably older in origin. Sandström reveals that the introduction of Forever, For You dates back as far as 2010, while Between The Devil..., the irrepressibly catchy Blood Moon and album highlight, the 20-plus-minute epic Teen Angel Meets The Apocalypse all date back to 2014/15, with some early demos recorded in early 2014.

Perhaps contrary to expectation, Sandström regards the band as fairly speedy when it comes to songwriting: “We wrote Teen Angel... in one weekend. We had the basic structure for that song down in the demo that’s structurally not really that far from the final track. There’s bells and whistles, of course, but the main structure of the song was there after three days in 2014.”

Conversely, one song – the gorgeous three-minute Epilog, which closes the album – was written in spring 2023. Epilog is the band’s first vocal in their native tongue and if, with its church organ and choir of voices, it sounds like a hymn, that’s precisely because it is. 

According to Sandström, the Swedish church authorities were soliciting submissions for an updated hymnal. With only four days available before the submissions deadline, Epilog was written, but the band ran out of time to notate it properly. Nevertheless they felt that it should bring the Himlabacken albums to a close. “We were seeking the feeling of a Communion hymn and singing in Swedish for the first time,” he explains.

Himlabacken Vol. 2 represents the epitome of Moon Safari. This isn’t the gnarliest, most challenging or innovative progressive music of 2023. It is, however, a glorious summation of everything the band have strived for since their inception: wonderful vocal harmonies and enhancing rich melodies that marry progressive rock and AOR perhaps better than any band, particularly on the prog ballad par excellence, A Lifetime To Learn How To Love. There’s both immediacy and depth to the songs throughout.

Arguably, balancing families and day jobs over the last decade – plus those forays to play various live shows overseas – has undermined any momentum that might otherwise have rendered Moon Safari a much more prominent name on the progressive scene. After all, this is a band that played a well-received 30-minute support slot for Yes in 2016.

It seems whatever the process was like, the end result gives the fans what they want… If this thing won’t fly, nothing we’ll ever do will.

Johan Westerlund

“We had a show in London the next day and something in Norway during the summer. But we didn’t have any big plans,” Westerlund explains. “And you have to remember, at the time Simon was not doing great and going back and forth about wanting to be in the band at all. It was really not the time to think about pushing for a tour. And also we were saying that when the album is finished, then we will do more stuff. We were always in between the perfect time.”

Perhaps now with stability returned to the Moon Safari universe and Himlabacken Vol. 2 finally released, the band can bask in the acclaim that the album has received so far. “Considering the early response, it seems whatever the process was like, the end result gives the fans what they want. That’s a success, whichever way you look at it,” Westerlund concludes. “If this thing won’t fly, nothing we’ll ever do will.”

Nick Shilton

Nick Shilton has written extensively for Prog since its launch in 2009 and prior to that freelanced for various music magazines including Classic Rock. Since 2019 he has also run Kingmaker Publishing, which to date has published two acclaimed biographies of Genesis as well as Marillion keyboardist Mark Kelly’s autobiography, and Kingmaker Management (looking after the careers of various bands including Big Big Train). Nick started his career as a finance lawyer in London and Paris before founding a leading international recruitment business and has previously also run a record label.