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Dark Tranquillity: Get Serious. Peter Atkinson's Interview with Vocalist Mikael Stanne

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Friday, March 5, 2010 @ 10:03 AM

"There was so much frustration and anxiety to get it done, but in the end, I was able to sit down, open a beer and listen to the whole thing it was one of the most satisfying things I've ever experienced."

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It’s been an adventurous past couple months for Swedish veterans Dark Tranquillity. There was a tenuous show in Tunisia that turned out triumphant and a tenuous Turkish tour that fell apart as it was just about to kick off. Now there is the band’s current tour of the states opening for Killswitch Engage and The Devil Wears Prada that they almost were not able to get to and then nearly imploded a few shows in when Killswitch frontman Howard Jones left the tour.

But with hastily recruited All That Remains frontman Phil Labonte now behind the mic with Killswitch, and the epic winter storms that bogged the tour down along the East Coast now behind them, the sailing’s a bit smoother now for Dark Tranquillity as they readied to launch their ninth album, We Are The Void, March 9.

The album is the first to feature new bassist Daniel Antonsson, ex of Soilwork and Dimension Zero, who replaced Mikael Niklasson in only the third personnel move in the band's 20-plus year history - famously, Anders Fridén left in 1992 to front In Flames and keyboardist Martin Brändström replaced Fredrik Johannson in 1998. The core of Dark Tranquillity - vocalist Mikael Stanne, guitarists Niklas Sundin and Martin Hendriksson, and drummer Anders Jivarp - have stuck to it through thick and thin since 1989.

While American audiences are still getting their heads around the band, Dark Tranquillity were at the forefront the melodic death metal scene that emerged from Gothenburg, Sweden, way back in the day. Along with In Flames and At The Gates, the band crafted a sound that has gone on to influence countless modern bands, including the aforementioned Killswitch.

On the phone from Minneapolis, Mikael Stanne offered the following on playing to new audiences, the hazards of performing in exotic locales, the secret to sticking together for two decades, the challenge of always trying to push the envelope and what it was like to be a pioneering force in metal while still a teen-ager.

KNAC.COM: So you're in Minneapolis? I guess that's like the Stockholm of the states.

STANNE: (Laughs) There are a lot of Swedes, and Norwegians, around here, from what I've heard. I know it's usually cold and snowy, too, but today it's actually pretty nice. We're actually headed out to the Mall of America, we have a day off today, so we have to find something to do. I've heard a lot about it so I'm excited to kill a few hours there.

KNAC.COM: I know you were around here [D.C.] when we were getting those big snowstorms, did they cause you any problems?

STANNE: Yes. We were in that area when the first snowstorm hit, but we only missed one show, in Norfolk, Va. We were in Atlantic City when the storm hit and we were just stuck there for a day, which wasn't too bad. There's lots of things to do in Atlantic City. The storm was severe, it was crazy.

We missed the second one and we were able to play the show in Baltimore a few days after it happened. It's like winter followed us from Sweden. It's been the toughest winter there in like 150 years, so we felt right at home.

KNAC.COM: Did you have any trouble actually getting into the states? That seems to be the tricky part for foreign bands these days.

STANNE: It was OK actually. The only difficult part was just getting all the visas and work permits and stuff like that in order. We got it just in time. That's always a hassle. We've been over here a bunch of times, this is like our six or seventh time. There should be an option to just renew, instead having to go through everything all over again.

KNAC.COM: Other from the weather and the paperwork, how has the tour gone?

STANNE: It's been really great. A whole lot of fun. Big shows. Our stuff has gone over really well with this kind of different crowd that we're seeing every day. We've been previewing a couple songs from the new album and they've been going over really well, so we're very happy so far.

KNAC.COM: Things must have been pretty weird when Howard left the tour. Having a headliner who all of a sudden have no singer can't be a good thing.

STANNE: Yeah, but so far I think it's worked out really well. Phil flew in on like a day's notice and did the show that night, it's amazing. Killswitch doesn't really seemed to have missed a beat, and the crowds seem pretty receptive to Phil, so I'd say it's probably gone better than expected.

KNAC.COM: Have the Killswitch guys told you anything about what's up with Howard, or are they keeping quiet about it?

STANNE: I talked to them the day before yesterday about it, but we really don't know what's up with Howard and they seem happy enough to just see how it goes with Phil and carrying on with the tour, because it's six weeks around the whole country and he left after three shows. It's kind of weird, for sure, but Phil is doing a really great job, so it's cool. I was a bit worried that they were going to cancel the whole thing and everyone was going to have to go home, but thankfully that didn't happen.

KNAC.COM: Are the venues on this tour the biggest places you've played here?

STANNE: Yeah. We're used to playing small clubs, a couple hundred people. But Killswitch draws a big crowd and we've been playing theaters and ballrooms and places like that. Some of the shows have been sold out, 1,000, 1,500 people. And these are two very different types of bands than we're used to playing with, so we're seeing a lot of new faces every night, which is great.

That was the appeal, to play to a whole different crowd than we're used to, and you can definitely see some of the crowd going "Huh!" There are a lot of really younger kids that don't really get our music, but some of them do, and that's pretty cool. And we can see by the traffic at our merch table that we're picking up some new fans.

KNAC.COM: You just did a show in Tunisia, of all places. How did something like that come about. That's about the last place on earth you'd expect to find a metal show?

STANNE: We had no idea there was any kind of audience for metal there, but there were these guys who were really serious and really persistent who kept calling us, "can you come over here? " So eventually we said "yeah, if you can make everything work." I did an interview with a radio station down there and asked them "Do you we actually sell any albums there? Can you buy our albums in the stores?" And they just went "No, no, no. But it's great, we just download them for free." (laughs)

Then we asked them, "How many people are you expecting? What is the capacity of the venue?" And we didn't really get a reply, so we were left thinking "what are we getting ourselves into?"

When we got there, we realized we were playing at a sports arena. It was huge, 5,500 people showed up. It was amazing. Tons of crowd control police everywhere, which was really scary. But it was really cool. One of the big TV stations there covered the whole event, because I think there has only been one or two metal shows in that country by international bands ever. It was all pretty new to them and they didn't really know what to expect. But it worked out really well and I'm hoping we can go back there again soon.

KNAC.COM: I guess if there's an upside to illegal downloading, it's that it can expand your reach out to these far-flung places?

STANNE: It's true, yeah. I still would prefer that people buy our music (laughs), but in some countries that's just not possible. And the fact that so many people in a country like Tunisia would get into us is amazing.

KNAC.COM: I know you recently had to cancel to some shows in Turkey, I guess that's the risk you take when you try to play some of these out-of-the-way places and have to deal with people who really don't know what setting up shows is all about?

STANNE: Yeah, that's always a problem. It used to be a big problem in South America, but it's gotten better. We receive a lot of offers from less serious promoters, and usually it falls apart before we do it. We were dealing with some guys in Turkey who are really cool, guys who did a festival we played at that went really well. But this time they tried to set up a proper tour for us and they just didn't know how to handle it. They promised a lot but delivered very little and the tour had to be canceled the day before we were supposed to leave, which really sucked. But at least we didn't travel there and have it all fall apart then. That would have sucked much worse (laughs).

KNAC.COM: So what comes after the Killswitch tour, when the new album's actually out?

STANNE: We're coming back here again. We'll go home and rehearse a few new songs then come back in May. Strike while the fire is hot, as it were.

KNAC.COM: You mentioned winning over some people on the Killswitch tour. Had things kind of leveled off for you here before that?

STANNE: No, it's a constant build. Every tour that we do here is better than the last. That's what like about going on tour here, being able to see that growth. Even though we've been a band for 20 years, we've only been coming to the states since 2002 and there's a lot of ground to cover here. And we're going to cover a lot of it over the next few months (laughs).

KNAC.COM: As you just mentioned, this is the 20th year for Dark Tranquillity, and four of the six members have been with the band the whole way, what's been the secret to your longevity and stability?

STANNE: Friendship, obviously. Mutual respect for each other and passion for the music. We love writing together, rehearsing together, traveling together and hanging out on tour. I think because we started when we were really young the band quickly became a huge, huge part of our lives. It became something so much greater than the individual members. It's something that has always been there, a constant in our lives. No matter what happens in our personal lives, the band is always going to be there. We just care so much for the band, that has kept us together. And the constant struggle to make better albums, stronger albums, better songs, it's been like a mission we have all rallied around.

KNAC.COM: I guess it's a feather your cap that you guys were on the forefront of the "Gothenburg sound" or melodic Swedish death metal or whatever you want to call it when you were all still a bunch of punk-ass kids?

STANNE: Looking back, yeah. But at the time, we didn't know we were on to something. It was like we had this little secret, a style of music that was nowhere to be found. It was such a tiny little scene, tiny shows. But it was so exciting, to be right in the middle of it. It was just a couple bands that started up in our area, we were all friends, we were all hanging out, going to each others shows, supporting each other, listening to the same kind of music, drinking beer.

It was a tiny little community of like-minded metal enthusiasts. It was definitely an exciting time, but nobody had any idea of what was going to happen, that this style of music would become so accepted and have such an influence. We were in it for the music and for something to do. Play music, have fun and try to create something original.

KNAC.COM: What sort of stuff were you all into at the time?

STANNE: First it was German thrash, Kreator, Sodom, Destruction. The death metal from America, Deicide, Morbid Angel, Death, Demolition Hammer, stuff like that. And some English stuff, like Sabbat, and more melodic stuff like Helloween and Blind Guardian, those were the inspirations.

KNAC.COM: Most kids your age would have been happy merely imitating their influences. What steered you to try something different?

STANNE: For us, the most important thing about writing music was to write something that no one else had done before, otherwise there didn't seem to be much of a point. If anything we wrote resembled something we believed we'd heard before we immediately threw it away. We were really, really serious about being different in every single way, from the artwork to the lyrics to the sound, that was something that was really important to us.

We loved so many different subgenres of metal, but we felt that perhaps we could combine all the good elements, the melodic side of the power metal and speed metal that we listened to, the aggressiveness and anger and frustration of the death metal and thrash we liked, and create something new out of that. And not to write about death and destruction and doom and gore, write about something more real or at least surreal.

KNAC.COM: Since this is your ninth album, has it become that much more difficult to do something different each time out?

STANNE: Yeah. It has. We have to spend way more time to try to come up with stuff nowadays. But at the same time I guess we have a better way of working, the writing process itself is more streamlined and easier, but it never gets easier to come up with original stuff. That's something we work on a lot. We spend a whole year just writing for an album, getting like 15 songs. It takes a lot of time. We spend so much time in rehearsal just throwing stuff away, discarding unoriginal and boring material, to get to the core of what the band is really all about, fine tuning the good stuff and making sure it's as good as we want it.

KNAC.COM: Was there anything in particular you were looking to accomplish on this album?

STANNE: We knew that this had to be an important album, after celebrating 20 years last year we figured this has to be the first album for the next 20 years, to mark the start of something new. Partly because with Daniel in the band we've got some new blood and because Fiction did really well and we toured like crazy for it, we felt we really needed to kick this next phase off with something special. So we were open to different ideas and tried to not be too restrictive, so I think that made the album more diverse. It has some really, really aggressive, intense stuff, but it has a lot of melancholy, melodic stuff as well. It's just all over the place.

And also we wanted to make it more serious, I think this is without a doubt the most serious album we've done. It's got a darker more serious tone. I think that came from the fact that we decided this had to be real. And I think we worked harder than we ever have on an album to do that.

There was so much frustration and anxiety to get it done, but in the end, after I'd recorded my last vocal and I was able to sit down, open a beer and listen to the whole thing it was one of the most satisfying things I've ever experienced.

KNAC.COM: By being more serious, does that mean it's more personal or just not so abstract as your earlier stuff?

STANNE: I decided in the early stages of the writing, after 20 years of avoiding the most obvious subjects, that it was the right time to make a proper death metal album. The lyrics primarily deal with death, loss and grief and how we deal with that. How we deal with mortality. And it was difficult, to make sure it was done in a way that I was happy with and not use too many clichés.

It was something I always tried to avoid like the plague, I swore I was never going to write about death. But this time I decided to do it and it felt good. There was a lot of things I needed to get out. There's a lot of personal stuff in there, but it comes from more of a Scandinavian point of view, how we deal with life and death, the inevitable. It's kind of fascinating; how we deal with it up hear in the north. There's no faith here, no one cares about the kind of stuff, it's all kind of atheistic view on things. And I like that, I identify with that. So that was the starting point.

KNAC.COM: There's a lot of almost gothy, Paradise Losty parts throughout the album, I guess if you're looking for melancholy, you can't go wrong there?

STANNE: Yeah, we've always had that influence. Early Depeche Mode, some of that stuff, has always been an influence, and I think we wanted to embrace that a little bit more this time. Especially on the last song on the album, "Iridium." We wrote that song in 1995, but we never had the courage to use it before because it is so different. And it didn't really fit on any of the previous albums, but this time around we felt right with it and it totally fit in.

KNAC.COM: To wrap things up, your new DVD, Where Death Is Most Alive, beat Michael Jackson and ABBA on the Swedish chart, which is pretty cool. A nice little "fuck you" for metal.

STANNE: (laughs) For sure, that felt pretty good. We didn't really know if people even bought DVDs anymore, but it has sold a shitload. We're incredibly proud of the DVD, the production of the live show is phenomenal, it's fantastic and it sounds really cool. I'm so happy the way it turned out and the fact that people are into it and buying it is icing on the cake. I'm usually disappointed by live DVDs, but this one is as good as it could be, if I may say so myself.

The other one we did [2003's Live Damage] was shot at a TV studio, we were like on display. This one we shot in a venue that we chose, that we had played many times, and it's amazing. It looks great, it's a cool stage, and the audience in Milan is one of the best out there, so you're getting a real show with real energy and that makes a world of difference. We definitely learned from our mistakes.

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