Singer Mikael Stanne still very passionate about his music
Swedish melodic death metal band Dark Tranquillity is one of the frontrunners of the so called Gothenburg sound. An extreme kind of metal mixed with death influences. They just released their eleventh album ‘Atoma’ and started an American tour immediately after that. HeadBangers LifeStyle talked with singer Mikael Stanne about the past, the present, the future and life besides the band.
Mikael, ‘Atoma’ is Dark Tranquillity’s eleventh album. What have you done different compared to previous albums?
,,We decided early on to have a different kind of focus. We used loose material and ideas from Anders Jivarp’s demo’s as blueprints and developed from there. We focused on what the reason is that we are part of the metal scene. We felt we should focus on emotional, impactful songs. The essence of what we are and what we want to do. We cut out unnecessary parts of the songs and got to the point real soon which was powerful. We recorded in the same studio as always but a different feeling affected the album. We used another guy for the mix (David Castillo) and he had a different look on what we should sound like which was interesting.’’
This is also the first album without founding member bassist/guitarist Martin Henriksson. He left because he said he lost the passion for playing music. Did you see that coming?
,,I guess I did in hindsight. I could tell he didn’t have the same inspiration anymore. He didn’t write music in the last couple of years. He’s been focusing on the financial site, the management site; he takes care of everything besides the music. He books flights, tours, and he loves that and is great in that but it took all of his time. So when on stage in his mind he was already busy with the next show and book flights for that so that was not a good situation. He felt he lost the part of enjoying being on stage, so now he is the fulltime manager and takes care of all that stuff. It’s sad he isn’t playing and travelling with us so I miss him every day but I talk to him almost every day and we make great plans together. It made us question what we do but we are also more determined to keep going. This is what we are passionate about. At the same time it made us focus even more on the songs we were writing. We are not looking for a new steady member in the band yet, we will try out a few people. It is interesting to work with other people; we’ve never done that before. I look at it positive.’’
Were you in the middle of recording this album already?
,,No, we were in the middle of writing. We had 10-15 songs planned out and Martin didn’t feel he had anything to contribute and that’s when he decided to stop.’’
Does this all mean it was a difficult album to make?
,,Absolutely. Not only because of that, but it doesn’t get any easier anyway. You would think that after all this time writing songs would be second nature to us, instead it keeps getting harder because you don’t want to repeat yourself. It’s hard to come up with something that feels fresh and new. I guess in the process, when you become tired and stressed, you start questioning everything. You need to overcome that and getting something out of that is a huge challenge. The relief and satisfaction when it’s finished is fantastic, the road there and the struggles during recording were pretty intense.’’
Is there something like an overall theme?
,,I guess there is. It started out watching the news and trying to understand what is going on in the world, it’s been a crazy couple of years. Horrible things have happened and I try to figure out what’s behind that. How come we live in a time where values and motivations seem to come from 2000 years ago. We should move forward and better ourselves and be smarter about everything but at the same time certain forces are holding us back. It frustrates me to no end and it makes me angry and sad. The fear rhetoric is so dangerous and brings out the worst in people. We should realize that if we look at the world as a whole we wouldn’t be that territorial. People are afraid for changes but change is good. Most songs are about how we deal as species with each other, what makes us do these things to each other. I question believe and faith which I think unnecessary.’’
‘Atoma’ is marketed as a 2CD album release but on the second CD there are only two tracks. What’s the idea behind that?
,,Well, it’s basically just bonus tracks that are so different from the songs on the album, they shouldn’t be on the same album. It is something we recorded in a set room session and is a cool bonus for people who still buy cd’s and especially deluxe editions. It was the first time we used a producer in a proper sense. We always produced everything ourselves but these two songs we felt very strongly about but didn’t really know what to do with it. It didn’t really fit the rest of the material but that’s when the idea came up: bonus tracks. We started talking to a guy who was working in the studio next to us, an old school retro guy. His studio was full of synthesizers, tape recorders, seventies analog, so a really cool studio. We asked him to try out and test some of our songs. He never worked with metal before and he had a unique take on the songs so he moved into our studio and changed it into a seventies retro museum and in two days we recorded those songs. They are amazing songs and they sound so different and were so much fun to do after struggling with 12 songs for 2 months. It was such a relief to leave the responsibility to somebody else. I hope people will fall off their chairs when they hear it.’’
Dark Tranquillity is from Gothenburg. What makes the Gothenburg scene so special and also such a close community with musicians going back and forth between Dark Tranquillity, In Flames, Hammerfall, Tiamat, At The Gates. Is it because everybody knows each other for so long?
,,I guess. We all grew up in the same area outside the town. We grew up with the same music, went to the same shows, had the same ideas about how music should be and everybody is very supportive about each other and super friendly. It’s something that for me is natural but when I hear how things are in other cities then perhaps what we have in Gothenburg is unique. Friends I grew up with are now in some of the coolest bands in the world.’’
The first album ‘Skydancer’ is from 1993. What was the plan back then?
,,Do you think we had a plan? The plan was to record an album. We never took anything for granted, we figured we wanted to make music, hang out together, rehearse and write. We had some kinda plan about what kind of music we wanted to make, what kind of lyrics we wanted to write but making an album was an unreachable goal the first years. The death metal scene was not that big back then, not many bands had released two albums. These were the first struggling years of the genre so we started recording a 7” so we could prove to ourselves we were a band. We were so curious to have something to show for and to play to our parents and friends. No one took us seriously, we didn’t even take ourselves serious so when we talked with Spinefarm we had no idea who they were. They just started and they just released Sentenced and we were blown away by it so we wanted to be on the same label as them. We were 18, inexperienced and rehearsed like crazy. Studio guys laughed about our ideas on how to record a proper album. We had no idea. It was a wakeup call but a lot of fun. Once the album came out the reaction was interesting. We did something else than other death metal bands, we also used clean vocals, acoustic guitars, female vocals. We wanted to prove that this genre was more than heavy riffing and screams and we used keyboards. Traditional death metal fans didn’t really understand it but for us it was important and it was something we wanted to do. It inspired us to move forward and after a changed line up we found our way. We could play and write. ‘Skydancer’ was more of a test run. ‘The Gallery’ was the first proper album where we could say, now we are a band.’’
What do you consider Dark Tranquillity’s biggest achievement so far?
,,The longevity. The fact that, what we decided to do in 1993, kinda challenge the idea what death metal is, use influences from amazing bands but not as brutal. We wanted to incorporate melodic elements into something that was aggressive and intense and we stuck to that because it was something we were very passionate about, we love this kind of music. We figured that if the five of us can dig it, although we have different tastes in music, if we can reach a consensus that this is awesome, maybe eventually people will get that and come and appreciate what we are doing. I am proud of the fact that we stuck with that and move on with that mentality and that direction even though at the time no one understood. We started at age sixteen and it became everything in our lives. Music was everything to us, it became a lifestyle and I’m proud it paid off in the end.’’
You’ve done a lot of touring in support of the previous album ‘Construct’, you will continue doing that for ‘Atoma’. Is that the way to survive nowadays?
,,It is. Album sales are not great. You have to get out and play. I am not complaining because I love that. Communicating with an audience is the best thing in the world. You feel there is a connection. It is working hard, hassle, making long days but very rewarding. We try to tour as sufficient as possible because there also is a life outside the band. Working is something we love doing.’’
Is there a special item you always have to bring with you on tour?
,,No, I am not superstitious like that. Touring nowadays is so much easier. We have computers and distance doesn’t feel as bad. I have video conferences with my family, it is my connection with home. Knowing that you are a text or video away from home keeps you grounded. That is so different from the mid-90’s where you had to send a postcard.’’
Do you have a certain ritual before you go on stage?
,,I’m always pretty nervous and anxious. I do a lot of warm up techniques to calm myself down. I’m usually doing those exercises for a half hour, a couple of times during the day. Before the show I try to get in a good mood, a social party mood. Ninety-eight percent of the day is waiting, so sometimes I’m doing interviews to get the social aspects going.’’
What would you’ve become if not a musician?
,,I honestly don’t know. I thought about that many times but I don’t know. I was into art and graphic design, maybe I should do that more. I love cooking so I might work in a restaurant. Over the years I worked in the healthcare system, I worked with kids, elderly people, people with disabilities and I really love doing that. Helping out and making someone’s live better. So maybe I would do that full time if I wouldn’t do this. Help people who can’t do the things I take for granted.’’
The things you mentioned like helping people is that also to keep your sanity, to keep you grounded? Always and only busy with music can make you narrow sighted?
,,Absolutely, it is kinda dangerous because when you’re on tour everything is taken care of, you only have to go on stage, scream your heart out and that’s it. Basically, because we have a fantastic crew that takes care of everything it’s a bit like kindergarten. Someone tells you now you eat, now you have to do interviews, now you go on stage. It’s like being in school and someone tells you to do anything. It’s great but it removes all responsibility from everything but the show. It drives you a bit nuts. I like being responsible for somebody else, not only my family but also at work. Now I work with a guy in a wheelchair and I try to let him do as much as he can. It keeps me grounded. I’m afraid of what I sometimes see from other people because they just have their music and don’t have a solid basis.’’
If a young kid comes up to you and says he wants to become a musician as well, what advice would you give him?
,,Rehearse, keep practicing, until your fingers bleed, your throat hurts and your hands are numb. You need that foundation of proper playing. I see a lot of young bands that just want to release an album and go out there, put videos online. No! Give it time, wait until you find your own sound. I think that’s the biggest mistake a lot of young bands make, they just go out too soon. Find your own style or genre. Waiting pays off in the end.’’
Visit the Official Dark Tranquillity website and their Official Facebook page