Interview and Live photos by Anya Svirskaya
Antihero Magazine‘s Anya Svirskaya had the opportunity to chat with Dark Tranquillity frontman, Mikael Stanne, about the latest album, Atoma, during his visit to New York prior to kicking off the band’s North American tour.
Atoma is set to be released this Friday, which is also the kick-off of the tour. How does it feel now that the record is ready to be released?
It feels great. The process of making this album was like, the longest and some of the hardest stuff we’ve done. The recording and the writing it just doesn’t get easier, you know, with time apparently. (chuckles)
But just finishing the album, it seemed like an impossible task for a while, because it’s kind of overwhelming; we had wanted to record 14 songs, we were sitting and thinking what to do, and we were in the studio for 2 months. It was in the middle of Summer, in a studio with no windows. It was pretty rough, you know. (chuckles)
But I think the reason it came out the way it did was because, we were dealing with a lot stuff in the band, we were trying to make sense of what was going on with the world at the same time, and just doing, and trying to make an album. It was weird. But I’m so relieved, you know, and so happy with the way it came out. And that we’re done, now finally I get to be on stage, scream about all these things that I’ve been so angry about. (laughs)
I heard you had 20 songs completed but it got narrowed down to 12. What happened to the other 8 tracks?
It was just basic ideas, simple and basic structures and stuff. It wasn’t really any finalized songs like that. But sure, we’re going to leave those ideas, and we still have some of the demos that hopefully will get used in the future. It’s good you can have material to get inspired by and maybe work with.
So, I take it the writing process compared to the last record, was more difficult?
Yeah, I think so. It’s not like, even though it will be, just put together all the cool riffs that we have done and mix some melodies and call it an album. That would be simple, but, you know, you always try to top yourself in a way. You always say “Oh, it has to be like last time, only twice as good.”
Did you feel any pressure?
Of course, Incredible pressure, but not from fans or anyone else. It’s just the kind of pressure we put on each other and ourselves, like it must be amazing. Anders, when he started writing, he was like, “Well, let’s make an album that is the opposite of Dark Tranquillity like let’s just try to get as far away from our own sound as we possibly can.”
At first I was like, “What do you mean? That’s never going to work.” He said, “Let’s try.” And that kind of opened possibilities, and a place for new ideas. But then, of course, you take two steps forward, but then you take two steps back. Because it’s still going to be like Dark Tranquillity. And so even though someone had a very ‘out there’ idea, you’re going to eventually, you know, pass through all of our filters, and everybody kind of applies their thing to it.
It’s a collective process.
Yes, it is. Even though one guy can write the initial song, but we all kind of work on it and add our stuff to it, then what comes out is usually something that we can all agree on.
Which song was the hardest one to work on for you?
Maybe, like the first song that we worked on, I think it was “The Pitiless.” It was probably one of the first songs we wrote, or at least that I finished. But it’s always hard to kind of get started, because you set the tone for the rest of the album in a way. I wrote the lyrics to “The Pitiless” back in January or something like that. But then I kept going back so it became the last song that I finished before the studio. So, it’s just some of the things that I do. You end up planning on going back and reevaluating the songs that you write. It’s like, “Umm, but it doesn’t fit into theme of the album, or fit in together with the other songs, maybe that would be weird.” So, you just kind of write an album, in its entirety, in a way like that.
When I think of the album title, Atoma, atoms and creation come to mind. Like the process in which people and things go through. Is that one way to look at it, am I right?
You kind of nailed it, because for me it’s always really hard to come up with a title. Even titles to songs I really struggle with, because you have this idea and want to put it into words, but then suddenly you have to name that song. It’s weird I always have a hard time doing that. So, I always kind of talk to Niklas about it and he can sum it up.
We talked about the cover of the album because he was anxious to get started on the artwork. He needed the title of the album to work from. I sent him all the lyrics and he was like, “This is like what is the foundations of who we are. Like who we are as people, individuals, and why we do the things we do.”
And we talked about how things have changed in our personal lives. We grew up together, we were 5 years old when we met. And now we have children and are kind of losing our power into old age. That kind of stuff. I mean, we’ve gone through so much. Something ends and a new thing begins. And mostly, we talked about how Martin left the band in January. And he had been with us, of course, since the beginning. It was hard to kind of wrap your head around. We try to always remain positive about things, and see the good things… Even though you feel shitty sometimes.
Things always end up working themselves out and you must make do with what you have, make the best of it.
Exactly. So, the album name… it’s like a new beginning that we talked about. Niklas had this idea to call it Atoma. It’s a word that kind of speaks your mind. And it’s a Greek word, that means “Undividable.” Unity in a way makes sense, but what also springs to my mind are atoms. The beginning or the nucleus of an idea, if you will.
You mentioned earlier about trying new things in the writing process and with what the band went through with the lineup change. This is perhaps a fresh start of a new direction and that the band is now more united with a new and positive energy.
Yeah, maybe. Something new can come of it. That’s what I am hoping. You always try to move forward.
Did the lineup change effect the writing process and the recording?
Not that much. Martin always been a huge part of writing and recording. But the last couple of years, he realized that we kind of felt that he wasn’t really into it that much. He said his creativity is not there. He is the guy that takes care of everything; all the tours, equipment, merch. But when it comes to recording and writing, he kind of lost his interest in that and he wanted to focus on the material side. He is basically the manager. He has always been there for the band in that capacity. He has grown so much over the years and it’s a full-time job for him. He said even when it he is on stage he is thinking about what kind of bus we are going to have on the next tour, or booking flights for the next show. He is in a different mind space. So, when he told me, I said that I get it. Of course, you shouldn’t be on stage if you are not feeling it. If you don’t love it, then you shouldn’t do it.
I am okay with it even though I really miss him. We are still in contact every day, and he books everything, and he is still the manager of the band. Does all the stuff that I find boring. (laughs)
But yeah, for Construct he didn’t write that much either. But it was more emotionally different now, not having him around. But reinforced our unity as a band, everybody had to reevaluate their role. And increase their role. Niklas had to record all the guitars which was a challenge, but a cool thing. And I guess we reevaluated our own positions. When someone leaves, who had been with us for such a long-time, you should ask yourself, “Why do I stay? What is it about this that I love? How come I don’t feel the same as he does?”
Were you feeding those emotions and was that your thought process during that time?
Yes! Yeah, sure. But at the end of the day this is something that we love to do. This is the greatest thing, and it’s such a privilege to be able to do this for a living. And we have so much fun. And creatively we have so much we want to explore. It reinforced my enthusiasm in a way, after getting over the initial shock.
Things do work out for the better. Now you have Anders Iwers in the band. How does it feel to be playing alongside him, and also in the studio?
It’s awesome. He is one of my oldest friends we met when I was 14 or 15. We started playing music together. He had a band called Desecrator with Oscar from Hammerfall which changed into Ceremonial Oath. We always kind of did stuff together, played shows, and of course, I know his brother equally well. And then he joined Tiamat, and played with them for years. And we crossed paths a lot. But it’s so great, and he moved outside the city a couple of years ago, so I didn’t get to see him that often. So I said, “come join us for a while,” and it turned out perfectly. He is the best, and an amazing bass player.
And we got to introduce our audience to him. It’s different crowds. Tiamat is totally different thing, goth metal or whatever. And he is happy he can do what he wants in this band. There is a positive atmosphere on stage. He never toured America and I look forward to showing him around.
You mentioned by way of Tiamat the different genre that this music has. Dark Tranquillity are considered to be the pioneers of melodic death metal. Does that label set expectations for you? Or put limits as to what you feel you can do musically?
I guess, but we try not to think of it that much. I remember it was silly when we were called the Gothenburg sound, or whatever. When I first heard that, in like, ’96, I think it freaked me out. It’s like what? We are considered part of a sound? I thought we were original. You know the only reason I started the band was to be different from anything else. Not to sound like you’re lumped together, and like “Oh, you kind of sound the same as the other band from Gothenburg.” It’s like NO! It’s not like that at all!”
But now we are proud of the fact that it worked. When our first album came out in ’93, people were taken aback. Like, “What’s going on here? How come they are using, clean vocals, female vocals, acoustic guitars, and keyboards.” And it is melody-driven. “I thought you guys were playing death metal.” But it was fun and we love experimenting we want to incorporate different music genres into something we like and appreciate. We would get these comments and from close friends even, and it reinforced the fact that, hey it is different and weird but we never meant for it to be anything else.
My personal view was always that melodic death metal, or experimental whatever you call it, was never afraid to push boundaries creatively, instead of staying in this bubble where everything sounds and looks the same.
Yes. And I felt that this is what we want to do, see if it works. And if the 5 or 6 of us love it, eventually someone else will get it.
And you have succeeded at it. Going back to the record. What is your personal favorite track?
I don’t know. I really loved “The Pitiless” just because it’s a traditional Dark Tranquillity song. But then I really love how the “Absolute” came out.
No growls on that one. (laughs)
No! Nothing like that. And totally different recording process. (laughs)
It was so much fun to do. We’ve been playing at the studio for 2 months. Recording the way we’ve always done by ourselves, no producer. We had 2 songs left so we thought why not? Let’s try something different and bring in a producer. He was like a retro vintage analogue kind of guy. Someone who records stuff from the 60’s and 70’s. So, we brought him in and he transformed the studio into like a museum of lost equipment (laughs).
That took out responsibility and we figured if it ends up being shitty we blame him and never release it. Or, if it’s good we take all the credit and release it (laughs).
Looking back on that, did it feel natural and organic or was it a little getting used to?
It was so much easier to do to record like that. With no expectations.
About your video for “Forward Momentum.” The little girl, is she your daughter? And the people in it are they members of your family?
No! It’s Finnish actors. We shot in Abisko. Which is way up North of Sweden. It’s up close to the border between Norway and Finland and Sweden. Beautiful place. The director, Vesa Ranta, who is the drummer for the late, great band Sentenced. I’ve known him for years and we toured together many times. He is a great photographer and he wanted to do the video. He brought in some friends and actors.
Did you have input for the concept of the video?
Yes, we talked about it, and I talked about what I felt the song was about. Vesa, he is a great nature photographer, so I knew that would work. We wanted to do something outdoorsy. And I felt there should be some type of speed. So, I pitched the concept of having like, a cool sports car. (laughs)
I take it that didn’t work out. (laughs)
No, he said it’s more like a somber feel. And then had this idea of the world falling apart and that we need to leave it. So, we pitched ideas back and forth. It was his idea but I added bits and pieces. It was fun.
Your upcoming tour which kicks off this Friday, what can we expect?
Wow. It’s a really long set. We decided rather than pick too many songs, let’s just play all of them. And I hope we can get away with playing a lot of our newer stuff. You know, even though the album comes out the day after tomorrow, I think the surprise will be just how good it sounds with the new line up.
I feel better than ever right now, like when we’ve been rehearsing the last couple of weeks, it’s been like, “holy shit, this sounds better than we’ve ever sounded. It feels great.” (laughs)
Twenty years in, how hard is it to come up with a setlist?
It’s impossible. It’s one thing to play the stuff we always do because we know it works. But then you have to throw in some odd selections. Songs that will hopefully surprise a lot of people. And then you want to play new stuff, but not too much.
That sounds exhausting trying to balance all that.
Yeah, it’s a nightmare, it really is.
When you’re working on a setlist, is there a particular song that makes you say “I don’t want to play this.”
No, I never really had that. I mean, sometimes a certain song can be a bit more difficult, too much singing that it just doesn’t give me any time to breathe. But it’s rare, I always try to find a reason to get into it no matter what.
I think it’s harder for the other guys in the band. Certain songs are super-fast. Maybe some drum or guitar parts might be too difficult. But for me it’s never been like “Oh, this again?” Even with the same songs we had played for the last ten years.
And can we expect to hear songs that you haven’t played in a while, or maybe something that was only performed overseas but not in the States?
Yeah, there are few that we haven’t played here before so that should come as a surprise. Sometimes we go back and look at our older setlist and go, “Wow, we actually play these songs now and then, and then cut them out of the set.”
Touring-wise, what is the difference touring Europe and touring the States?
It’s a huge difference the way this country is laid out, it means a lot more driving. But at the same time the buses here are way better. It’s a totally different scene when you go to Holland or to Spain, for instance, or to France. Countries that are far apart, it’s interesting, people are super different. And here everything looks the same, it’s the same stores, same shops, and everything like that.
But at the same time this is, for me, still new. You know, even though it’s our twelfth album or something like that, I still look forward to it; there’s always something new to find.
What about venues?
Some of the venues here in the States are the best in the world. And then some nights we play at super, super weird, tiny buildings (laughs). Some places you see cool venues, but everything else is crap. It differs so much. I think when we toured here the first time, I expected something totally different, so I was kind of disappointed. I was like, “Aw man, what the hell is this.” (laughs)
But then I realized that there is some really cool stuff here.
And tomorrow you’re doing a meet and greet/listening party at Duff’s in Brooklyn?
Yeah, the other guys are flying in tomorrow, they’ll be arriving at the airport tomorrow night and going straight to Duff’s. They will be nice and drunk already from the flight brew (laughs).
Yeah, I wanted to go but Meshuggah is playing tomorrow.
Yeah, that’s right. I heard that before. I talked to someone and she said, “Aw man, I have to see Meshuggah!” And I was like, “I want to see Meshuggah too!” (laughs)
Job obligations, what can you do?
Yeah, and there’s a new Rush documentary that premieres tomorrow at like, a Fathom event, I think. I really wanted to see it. But yeah!
Decisions, decisions. Work comes first though.
Yeah, we’re tourists.
I’ve noticed in the last few years when bands tour America, or in their respected countries, many of them play out acoustically. For example, when Ghost toured here they played several acoustic shows. Would Dark Tranquillity consider doing something like this? Release acoustic material or play a few shows in some capacity.
I don’t know. We talked about it and people have suggested it to us. I am not sure if the guitar players would want to do that. Maybe think it’s too weird. But maybe it could be done, we just haven’t done it yet.
Any final thoughts to your fans?
I’m just incredibly happy and proud of the fact that we get to do this still. (laughs) And people are still coming to the show and it’s awesome. And buying records and all that. It’s amazing and I am very grateful for all the support that we get here on the other side of the world. It really is amazing and I hope people buy the album, come to the show, and scream along with me.
That too! That’d be nice. That’s really important, actually.
Well, thank you very much for your time and all the best to you.