The Opium Cartel is the vast creation of Jacob Holm-Lupo, the band leader and guitarist best known for his work with the progressive rock collective White Willow. Featuring a little help from various musicians friends, Holm-Lupo and The Opium Cartel has unleashed Ardor, a sonic world filled with magic and intrigue. Based out of Norway but appreciated throughout the world, The Opium Cartel is a grand exploration of sound that should tingle the senses of all who require their music be laced with a dazzling amount of imagination. Here is an interview we conducted with Jacob Holm-Lupo to find out more about the inner workings of The Opium Cartel, the new album Ardor, their inspired Blue Öyster Cult cover, and a whole lot more! Read on…
Introduce yourself, tell me what you do in The Opium Cartel, and how long the band has been together.
I’m Jacob Holm-Lupo. My longest musical “job” has been as the band leader/guitarist of the prog rock band White Willow. White Willow has released 6 albums to date. The Opium Cartel started out as a sort of hobby project when I needed to get away from White Willow occasionally. I released the first The Opium Cartel album in 2009, it was called “Night Blooms“. Since I had so much fun making that album, and since it was well-received, I decided to make another one, which became “Ardor” which is out now. In The Opium Cartel I write the material, record, produce and mix and I play guitar, bass and synths. In addition I get amazing help from some of my musical friends, and it is really through their contributions that the magic begins. Without the fantastic singers and instrumentalists who help me out, The Opium Cartel would never have gotten off the ground.
Where are you based out of and what is your music scene like there? Are there any local bands you could recommend?
I’m in the suburbs outside of Oslo, Norway’s capital. The music scene here is good, but I have never been oriented towards the home scene here. White Willow’s core audiences have always been in Continental Europe, USA, Canada, South America and Japan. The Opium Cartel gets a bit more attention here, but I am still selling 99% of my albums abroad. But there’s lots of good Norwegian music. The biggest talents here these days are Susanne Sundfør, Pixel, Wobbler and Tusmørke.
It has to be said that while I am here, the musicians are generally all over the place. My closest collaborator in The Opium Cartel is drummer/producer Mattias Olsson, and he is in Stockholm in Sweden. I also work with British musicians like Tim Bowness, Rhys Marsh and Stephen Bennett.
Is there any story or concept behind the CD title Ardor?
Not so much of a story, but the initial idea was to pay tribute to some of the artsier pop bands I grew up with in the 80s. The 80s get a lot of flack, especially from proggers, but the era produced some truly amazing bands: Prefab Sprout, The Blue Nile, Japan/Sylvian, Talk Talk. So I wanted to bring a bit of that 80s neon magic into a more adventurous, proggy setting – without losing sight of the pop format. The first stroke of inspiration came when I got my hands on a few samples from the legendary Fairlight synthesizer – I played around with those and before I knew it I had written the song “White Wolf“. So it started from there. Lyrically I wanted a sort of darkly romantic atmosphere, with a lot of light and shade.
Select two songs from Ardor and what inspired the lyrics.
“White Wolf” is inspired by Michael Moorcock’s books about the fantasy anti-hero Elric. It’s a song about being bound to fate, and the loneliness of being on a journey only you can undertake. The White Wolf is Elric himself, the Albino Prince. He is a very tragic but inspiring figure, and I have loved Moorcock’s books since I was a teenager.
“When We Dream” tells the story of a lady who in her old age looks back on her life, remembering when she was beautiful and desired and loved. And now all she has left are the memories. It’s about having loved and lost and about the hazy half-light of memory.
“And when we dream in kodachrome
We see the shades of seasons gone
And every moment we have known
Leaves only dust when it has flown“
How did Venke Knutson become involved with the project and what was it like working with her?
I have been aware of her for a long time, since she is one of the most high profile pop singers we have. I became especially aware of her amazing vocals when I stumbled upon a concert with her a few years back. Later I wrote her and asked her if she wanted to contribute some vocals to something I was doing. At the time she was too busy, having just gotten a baby. But when I was working on the new Opium Cartel songs she wrote me and said she was ready to sing – and she really liked the material. So it turned out to be perfect timing. She was an absolute joy to work with – she is hands down the most professional singer I have ever worked with, and a very pleasant and easy-going person to be around.
How did Alexander Stenerud become involved with The Opium Cartel?
I have known Alexander for many, many years, since we have a lot of common friends. I have been a fan of his vocals ever since we were practically kids and he used to sing in parties. I have really just been waiting for the right project to use him for, and this was definitely it. I knew the second I had written that first song, “White Wolf“, that there was one singer who would be perfect for it, and that was Alexander. And he felt the same way, thankfully. Alexander is a divinely gifted singer.
What made you decide to cover Then Came The Last Days of May and has Blue Öyster Cult heard or commented on it?
Blue Öyster Cult is maybe my all time favoriite band, and Then Came… is a song that I have always wanted to cover. It is incredibly beautiful, and it also tells a real story – one of BÖC’s strengths. I was a bit afraid of covering it actually, because the original can’t be bettered. So I decided to do a very different version, stripped down, mostly acoustic and very subdued. I don’t know if the band has heard it, but I know that Bolle Gregmar, who has been leading their fan club since time immemorial and is close to the whole band, has heard it and really loves it. We’ve gotten a lot of great feedback on that song.
What could one expect from a live The Opium Cartel show?
Not much… The Opium Cartel is a studio project only. I won’t rule out some one-off acoustic appearance, but there won’t be any touring.
Would White Willow and The Opium Cartel ever want to do a show or even tour together?
We could have, but I really only work in the studio these days. I was never that comfortable on stage – like Steely Dan I feel safest and coziest in the confines of the studio. After I got a family and also started a label, Termo Records, I have decided to work exclusively in the studio, and spend the rest of my time with my kids and my other work.
If you could open up for any band either now or from the past, who would it be and why?
With The Opium Cartel it would have to be The Blue Nile. I think it must have been something really unique to see them back in their heyday. Paul Buchanan is a one of a kind singer.
What is it you’d like a listener to remember the most after hearing you music for the very first time?
Difficult question. The thing I hear very often, and that I appreciate hearing, is that there is a lot more to my music than meets the eye. The Opium Cartel’s songs appear relatively simple to begin with, but once you start scratching the surface listeners tend to discover a lot of layers. So I guess I would want the listener to feel that she or he can always come back to my songs and discover new things.
What can one expect from both The Opium Cartel and White Willow in the New Year?
We’ll start off 2014 with some White Willow re-releases – “Ex Tenebris” and “Sacrament“. In addition I will be working on White Willow’s 7th studio album. After that probably a new TOC album… time will tell.
Any final words of wisdom?
My main crusade in modern music is against brickwall limiting and excessive compression. Don’t squeeze the life out of the music – let it breathe!
Ardor by The Opium Cartel is now available from Termo Records.
(Interview by Ken Morton)
The Opium Cartel on Facebook