Founded around the start of the 90s in Gothenburg, alongside the likes of In Flames and At the Gates, Dark Tranquillity are still going strong. The Swedish melodic death metal pioneers are releasing their 11th opus, Atoma, on the 4th of November, so we called up frontman Mikael Stanne to chat about the new album, line-up changes, the current state of the world, as well as his passion for progressive rock.
First of all, congratulations on your new album, Atoma.
Hey, cool, thank you. Thank you.
I think it’s your best since Fiction, actually.
Holy shit, wow, all right. That means a lot, man. Thank you!
So, let’s talk about the lyrics.
On Construct you wrote about themes like the irrationality of religion. What kinds of topics did you want to tackle this time around?
Well, there’s a little bit of that here too, I would say [laughs].
It’s a timeless topic.
Definitely, definitely. Until we get rid of it. Not anytime soon, I guess. But there’s a lot of other things. For me, I wanted to tackle some of the stuff that I’ve been seeing lately, like in the world and especially here in Sweden, like how everyday, normal people have – because of what’s going on in the world and how we actually need to respond to it all of a sudden – resorted to some kind of fear. Fear of other cultures, fear of other kinds of people, this kind of… I don’t know, like this big fear of having something change, just a little bit. Because, I guess you know… are you Finnish?
So you know the kind of immigration crisis and all of that.
That’s been going on. It is an issue, definitely, all over Europe. But it’s not really about that. I mean, for me, what fascinated me… as much as you try to help out and feel for people who need our help, what fascinated me and what really scared me was how people react to it, how they deal with it. All of a sudden, people really, really need help. They need your empathy and sympathy and they need a helping hand in order to get them through a crisis like nothing we could ever even imagine in our lives, because obviously we haven’t seen anything like this. Nothing even close to this here. So all of a sudden, this comes close. All this stuff that we’ve only seen on TV and it’s on the other side of the screen, it’s on the other side of the world, it’s not our problem, let them solve it, that kind of thing. All of a sudden, it’s getting closer. People just freak out about it.
Immediately, you started seeing these right-wing weird thoughts and movements rise and without at all resorting to any kind of politics, I just figured, what’s going on? What’s going on in the minds of people who cannot walk around with this suppressed hate, but maybe they never say anything but all of a sudden just start voting a certain way or start expressing themselves, maybe online, maybe in a closed-off forum or something like that. You put some comment on Twitter. Whatever. What’s going on there? Where is all this hatred coming from and where is all this fear coming from?
I guess we’re just basically very territorial and this kind of tribal instinct that it’s us against them, it’s always ‘we are the good ones and the other guys on the other side of the road are weird.’ Or the other side of the city is weird, or the other side of the border, those are the bad guys and we are the good guys. That kind of thing. Why are we still like that? It seems like a very archaic kind of behavior. We don’t need that anymore. The world is so open, it’s so free, we have everything we need, and we have more than we’ll ever need, so we can help out. We can support our fellow man, whatever [laughs]. You’re just like, oh, all of a sudden, you go like, “Maybe I don’t want to share. Maybe I don’t want to help out, because maybe that will change a bit of my mundane existence. I want…” That kind of thing. That was something that really frustrated me and made me super angry and just… I don’t know, you just want to… you lose hope for humanity, when you see that kind of thing. Obviously, you see the other side as well, where people are doing incredible stuff just to help people, but that wasn’t really my focus.
So stuff like that has fueled my frustration as I started writing and putting together material for the album, so that was one part of it. Also, how do we deal with what’s going on in the world? How do we explain that to our kids? How do we make sense of it? Is there a way to make sense of it and how come we don’t really understand what’s going on fundamentally, and then all of a sudden we’re back to religion, I guess, and conviction and belief systems.
Yeah, I’ve noticed those same things going on in Finland as well.
Oh yeah, I know about that too. Really, really strange. It’s just… I don’t know, maybe very human in a way? I guess what I’m looking for is that we should be bigger and better than that? We should see past all our little… all the worst sides of humanity. We should go like, “Okay, I realize how I sometimes feel, but that’s not how I should act. Maybe that’s how I feel fundamentally, but let’s change that in order to be a better person and be a better human being, instead of embracing that fear and hatred and intolerance.” It’s kind of sad. It’s a strange world we’re living in. Of course I realize that. I’m not going to change shit. I’m not going to do anything about it. But the only thing that I know will make me feel a little bit better is to write and scream about it.
It’s great that you can express your feelings that way.
Yeah, it’s insignificant and it’s kind of pointless in the grand scheme of things, but what can I do?
Martin Henriksson dropped quite the bomb when he quit the band suddenly. What was it like to work without him for the first time? And on the other hand, what did Anders Iwers bring to the table as a new member?
It was weird not having Martin around. I guess, looking back at it, it already started on Construct. He felt like he didn’t really have anything to contribute and he was kind of frustrated and he wanted to write but he just couldn’t; there was something blocking him and he just didn’t feel good about it. So Anders Jivarp [drums] picked up the slack and started writing way more than he normally does, which was great. So in terms of the actual songwriting, it didn’t change much from Construct.
So when Martin told us that he wanted to leave, we already had more than the songs for the album, actually – we had like fifteen songs already or something like that – and I guess he just felt frustrated. He was like, “I’m not into it. I don’t feel like I can contribute anything.” It didn’t feel creative, because his mind was already somewhere else. That somewhere else is actually just everything else that has to do with the band. He is the manager, he is the guy who controls all the income and outcome, and travel arrangements, and all that stuff. That’s what he wants to do. That’s what he’s so great at. I guess he just lost focus on playing guitar and just focused on being the best manager he can be and now that would be all he’s doing. He’s really happy with that and I guess we’re still trying to figure out where to go next, but it was weird.
It didn’t change anything, when it comes to the music on the album. Niklas [Sundin, guitar] recorded all the guitars, even for Construct, so this was kind of like the same process, but it of course, we felt it. Like, emotionally and in terms of the mood of the recording and all that stuff, obviously. Just having him leave really put us in a different spirit and I guess we second-guessed ourselves and we tried to figure out what the hell is wrong and how come he doesn’t feel it, maybe I’m not feeling it, that kind of thing. But in the end, I think it motivated us as well. It made us really make sure that this album should be everything that we are and more. Of course, it did help having Anders Iwers in the band. He’s such a creative and great force and such a cool guy and an old good friend of ours. Just having him around made it so much easier to deal with as well. So that really did help.
It must be cool to have Martin around, even though he’s not in the band anymore.
Oh yeah. I mean, we are in contact every single day, just figuring things out and booking shows and stuff.
You released “The Pitiless” as the first single, the title track as the second, and I’ve heard that “Forward Momentum” will be the third. Who chose these singles? Is it the label or did you have any effect on it?
No, we talk with the label about all those things and come up with something that we’re all satisfied with. I think it was said that maybe “The Pitiless” is a good first song because it’s reminiscent of what we’re known for, I guess. It has all the elements of a traditional Dark Tranquillity song, so to speak. Then “Atoma” is just a song that we felt really strongly about. We were so happy with the way that it came out. It’s such a straightforward song with such a carved-out melody and all that kind of stuff. So we were really happy about that. Then once we decided on a video, we wanted a totally different video and something that had a different vibe, so we felt like “Forward Momentum” was a great song for that, so that video is coming out the day after tomorrow, on Friday [ed: the interview was conducted on 19.10.2016; the video can be viewed here]. We just finished it. It was made by Vesa Ranta, the old drummer from Sentenced. He shot and edited it, so I met up with him up in way, way north of Sweden, up in Abisko, which is a beautiful, beautiful place. We shot there for a couple days with an all-Finnish crew, all from Oulu, and it was really, really cool. It looks fantastic, and it’s a really different video; something that we certainly haven’t done before, and it required a lot of things that I’ve never seen in a video, so it’s really, really cool.
Yeah, I saw some of the photos from the video shoot and they looked pretty cool.
I think you’ll like it! It’s a really cool video. I’m really, really proud of it and happy that we did something, we managed to put together something that is… just totally outside of the normal metal norm, I think.
“Clearing Skies” is one of the most interesting songs on the album, in my opinion. It’s not a very typical Dark Tranquillity song, so what’s the story behind it and who wrote it?
Most of the stuff, I think, is Anders, and I think Martin Brändström wrote some parts of it too. I’m not really sure. I mix that up all the time. It was a song that we worked on a lot. Like, it’s one of those that we knew had some great riffs in there, we had a great hook-line, I knew the chorus… I was really happy with it, and we had a totally different idea in the mind at first and then we changed it as the studio session went on. I think emotionally it’s a very powerful song and lyrically it’s basically about being afraid of the fact that you need to tell the people around you, people you care for and people you love, what is actually going on. Dropping an information bomb somehow. It could either be telling your kids the realities of life or it’s telling someone you care about that you need to leave, or something like that. Or you just get out of someone’s life or move on or stuff like that. Big decisions like that. Just… information dumps. I think that was something that formed that song and I think it became really great. I love it. One of my favorite songs.
I’m also intrigued by the title of “Merciless Fate” – is that an intentional tribute to Mercyful Fate?
Of course [laughs]. I couldn’t help myself. I was writing the song and normally what I do is I record an early demo of a song. As soon as I hear the song for the first time, I immediately record a rough vocal demo of it. Just my instincts, just record whatever feels right on that first listen-through or I listen to the song first and then I go like, “Okay, got it, I know the basic structure of the song,” and then I record whatever feels right. Sometimes you make up words, sometimes you just sing a bullshit lyric, and sometimes some words stick in there and ‘merciless fate’ was one of those things. It’s just something that I maybe used before in lyrics or something similar, and it just felt right and I stuck with it and I guess it’s about the inevitable nature of things.
We have this tendency as human beings to see patterns in everything. If something happens and something else happens, you always say, “Oh, there has to be a correlation between one of those, because I always get a little bit cold just before I have to travel somewhere.” That kind of thing. Just because it happens once, it doesn’t meant it’s a pattern. All that kind of stuff. But it’s confirmation bias and it’s something that’s just fundamentally human but it’s also something that we should aspire to get away from, because it’s not helping at all. It’s just bordering on pseudoscience. Of course, this goes back to the old tried and true formula of talking about how religion destroys everything and as much as you like to believe that there’s something after your time is over here on the planet earth, well, there is nothing else. How can we have such a hard time dealing with facts? How come the truth is so much harder than fiction? That kind of thing. No matter how hard you try, ehhh, you’ll eventually end up in the same place as everyone else.
That’s a grand topic, for sure.
Yeah, and I’m totally fine with that. I like that. I was talking to an American journalist yesterday, and he was stunned. He was like, “Whoa, what do you mean? Are you saying you’re an atheist or something like that?” I was like, “Yeah, that’s what I’m saying.” [laughs] But he was like, “Don’t you think that there’s something else out there?” I said, “No, I don’t.” “Then what’s the point?” “It’s what you make of it. That’s the point. You do your best, you try to figure your own path out, not have some 3000-year-old book tell you what to do.” “But the rules are rules!” He was very frustrated. I didn’t have the heart to go at him. I was just trying to be nice. I said, “This is the way I’m brought up. I’m Scandinavian, excuse me,” that kind of thing. It was strange. I basically told him, I’m totally happy with this. I’m fine with that. I don’t actually understand why anyone needs the comfort of a fairytale to make them feel easier about themselves.
The bonus tracks are also pretty interesting. Have you ever thought about starting a side project where you only sing with clean vocals, as you certainly have the voice for that?
Well thanks, but no, I really have… not seriously, anyway. I kind of love doing these things, and we all love doing these really different songs, just because we can and we feel that it’s a challenge, but it’s also a creative outlet, to do something that is far from what we normally do, you know? With these songs, we realized early on when we were writing that, okay, these are pretty special songs and I recorded some of the vocal lines early on for demos and we thought, okay, these are good, strong songs, but maybe not something that is a part of the album. Early this year, we decided on what songs out of these twenty or something that we had were going to end up on the album. We said, these are the twelve songs, let’s go for it. That’s there. Then we had these two songs that we were like, okay, if we have time, if the album recording goes well, everything is done by the deadline, then we might have some more time to just record these two songs as well, just as a bonus track if someone needs it, and normally there are certain territories like Japan and whatever that need some extra tracks just to fight global imports, that kind of stuff.
Most of the album was done and we were totally exhausted and burnt out. We figured, okay, let’s record these songs, but let’s try something else. There’s no way we can just keep doing the same thing. That would be boring. So we asked a guy who works right next door to us. Martin Brändström [keyboards] has a studio here in town, but it’s a complex of studios – there are four or five studios under the same roof, so to speak – and one of the guys is just a fascinating dude. He’s this really retro-loving, crazy, mad-scientist kind of guy, so whenever I look into his studio, there are just stacks of old tape recorders and analogue reverbs and delay effects and tape reverbs, things like that. All this analogue equipment that’s so fascinating. Stuff that I remember from childhood, stuff that I’ve only seen in documentaries, things like that. It’s really, really cool. He’s just like a mad dude, and we asked him, “Do you want to produce two songs for us?” and he was like, “I’ve never done metal before. I’ve only done synth and indie rock and stuff like that, but I’ll give it a go.” We said, “Okay, let’s do it! No pressure, do your worst, do your best,” and we said to each other, “Hey, if it works out, fine, if it doesn’t, we blame him and we don’t release it,” [laughs] and he was fine with that too.
So this was just an experiment and for people who know the band, we have never used a producer in any proper sense before. All the albums we made have always been recorded by us. We’ve always had the final say on everything when it comes to the recording and what goes into it and what ends up on tape, but then we’ve always had someone else handle the mix, because that’s the one part that we cannot do, not good enough. This was the first time where we left the decision-making to someone else that we barely knew. Just some cool guy that we could have a beer with sometime. It was great! All of a sudden we could relax and for 2 days, we transformed our studio into some kind of retro museum of old equipment and we started recording and since there was no pressure at all, we just wanted to make the best songs possible, but other than that we were like, “We’ll leave it in your hands. If you feel it’s good, then it’s good. Fine.” It was so liberating! It made for a really, really cool recording experience, actually. Something we have kind of been dreading all these years, and now it turned out – especially for songs like this – it was a blast! I think they sound incredibly cool. I love the sounds of it. You can tell there’s a Leslie piano that Martin plays that runs through a distortion pedal and goes through a cool reverb effect. Just some crazy stuff that sounds so different from anything else that we’ve done and again, we had a blast.
We also realized that these two songs are not really what the Atoma album is about, so therefore we kind of joked that they are so different that they need a different piece of plastic when it comes to packaging. So therefore those two songs will only be available on the deluxe version of the CD. It’s only there that you can get those two songs, actually. So for collectors and people who love physical products, and of course the deluxe edition also includes some of the coolest artwork that Niklas had done… it’s a beautiful, huge box with all the lyrics and tons of extra artwork that represent all the different songs and shit. Of course, my dream is always that people listen to it that way, the old way, where you sit down and open up the lyric sheet and you read through it as you listen to the album and you look at all the artwork and all that stuff. I know I’m just an old man dreaming, but that would be nice.
Before we have to call it a day, I want to ask you about the recent Instagram post that you made. You said you were going to see King Crimson for the first time live – what was that like?
Oh fuck, it was fantastic! It was an absolute dream come true for me. It’s one of my favorite bands and I’ve never seen them, so I bought tickets… what was it, 8 months ago or something like that? Just ridiculous! It was the day of the release, and then of course they announced 1 month later that they would actually play Sweden too, but I had to go to Copenhagen. Which was not bad – it’s pretty close and fantastic. It was beautiful. Almost 3.5 hours of incredible musicianship and amazing songs. It was super inspiring, so it was great. So many people from Sweden were there. I was there with Anders and Jonas Björler from At the Gates and Daniel Ekeroth, who writes metal books and plays, and then our old guitar player, Fredrik, who played on The Gallery and The Mind’s I and Projector. I went with him, and I remember I was with him when he got a tattoo, like in ’85, of the Discipline album cover, so he’s a hardcore fan as well. It was cool. One of the highlights of the concert year for me, for sure.
You also seemed to be excited about the new Marillion and Kansas albums – what are your thoughts on those?
I am, too! Kansas was pretty good, I thought. It’s fun to hear and it’s been one of those classic progressive rock bands that I really love. I love the old albums and actually maybe we’ll be able to see them when we go to the US in the next couple of weeks, because they’re going to be touring. They’re going to do the whole Leftoverture album, so hey-o! That’s awesome, so maybe I’ll get to see them.
Marillion has been my favorite band forever and I always follow them and I’ve been a true supporter, always paying for their albums a month in advance and I try to go to see them whenever I can. They’re also on tour in America but I figured out there’s no way I get to see them. They’re playing like 2 days before I arrive in New York, aww fuck.
Yeah, but they’re coming here. I know they always do, so it’s going to be amazing. And the new album is, oh, fucking phenomenal. I think they’re in a new era of their music. I think with Sounds That Can’t Be Made and this… they’re better than ever, in my opinion.
Are you coming to Finland next year, maybe?
Without a doubt. We’re already planning it. It’s going to happen. I think it’s going to be late January, early February, something like that. That’s when it’s going to happen.
All right! I hope to see you there.
Absolutely! Cheers, man!
Photos: Musicalypse; Century Media promo photo by Dirk Behlau