Swedish metal purveyors, DARK TRANQUILLITY, are old veterans in a scene dominated by young upstarts. Character, their seventh album, thunders with artistic ingenuity that many of today’s bands strive for but may never reach. This can only be attributed to the band’s continued focus and sense of perspective that allows them to produce high caliber metal without extraneous interference. The new album, blast beats, Korea, and kindergarten: the always charismatic frontman, Mikael Stanne, broke it all down for APESHIT.
APESHIT: The new album, Character, picks up where Damage Done left off in terms of straight ahead aggression, but ups the ante with some more technicality and complex arrangements. DARK TRANQUILLITY has covered quite a variety of sounds throughout the years, but what was the band’s vision when heading into the writing process for the new album?
Mikael: After we wrote about two or three songs, we realized “OK, this is the direction.” And pretty early on we knew we didn’t want to make 16 or 17 songs and choose the best 10 or 12 or whatever for the album. So we decided to do 11 songs, because we had already done “the leftovers album” [Exposures] thing already. It would have been so easy to do another Damage Done, make it more simple, bring more people into the fold, so to speak, but we didn’t want to do that. We decided to make sure that this was an album that will last longer, not something that we will listen to for a week and forget [about] it. I feel like that there are a lot of albums that like right now. I just get so tired after a week and it’s not fun [to listen to] anymore.
APESHIT: What is Character all about lyrically? Would you call it a concept album? Can you set it up for us?
Mikael: I wouldn’t say “concept,” but it has an overall theme or at least a kind of starting point. When I started writing [lyrics] for it, I wanted to have it be [about] different kind of behavioral patterns–kinds of characteristics that people…kind of a focus point for why people do things in the first place. People need to question their motives and be sure [they’re doing things for the right reasons. I see that all the time, everywhere. People do a lot of really stupid things for the wrong reasons. They believe that they’re doing something right but it’s not. There’s different ways to view the world and take it in or how you feel with everyday [stuff].
I guess it all comes down to all my insecurities and my failings and stuff that I hate about myself. It’s about having a sense of direction, something that people need to have…a good foundation which they base their actions, their opinions, and everything on and not just take in what people tell them, what the current trend, or what their friends are doing. I get really frustrated seeing how easily people turn to the most obvious thing or to the lowest common denominator. I just really hate that. I don’t think it’s a good direction. To me, the world just gets crazier and weirder, harder to get each year. It’s more so than ever–what to do, what to think. It’s so easy to turn a blind eye. It frustrates me to no end. It gives me something to scream about everyday down in the rehearsal room.
APESHIT: Because your lyrics are a reflection of your personal feelings, frustrations, and struggles, do you find it awkward to bear your soul in a live situation?
Mikael: A little bit perhaps but not that much. I try to be a little obscure about things and not be too obvious. There are some of the older songs that are more revealing in a way. But then again, it’s easier because that’s behind me now, and I go, “woah, that was a pain, something horrible that I hated at the time, but now I’m fine with it.” That’s what makes it a whole lot better. Now I can also go back into that moment and capture that when I’m singing so that it will still feel good. I wouldn’t say awkward. It could be but I try not to be that obvious and revealing because I really don’t want that. I write about the stuff that I don’t really feel comfortable talking about, you know.
APESHIT: Character kicks off with the blistering track, “The New Build,” which starts off with a fantastic flurry of blast beats! But why did the blasts begin and pretty much end with that song? It was a bit of tease don’t you think?
Mikael: That song was actually one of the last ones that we wrote, and it just felt right to take things a little bit further. I guess it [Character] was all about taking things to extremes–electronics, technicalities, speed, aggression, and all that–with the whole album. We figured, “let’s do some blast beats.” So it was an easy decision. It kind of opens your ears a little bit to the [rest of the] album.
APESHIT: DARK TRANQUILLITY seems to be a band that takes a lot of pride in being artists. You guys always try to set high standards for yourselves. How do you view the band as a creative outlet for yourselves?
Mikael: What’s most important when we started out was to be together, first and foremost, and [create] something original and new and interesting. And I think that still holds true. I think that’s what we’ve learned throughout the whole thing…to take material down to the rehearsal room, close the doors tightly, and then work on it. And eventually come up with something that all six members are totally satisfied with…that’s what we really love about it. Anything that comes out of that, releases, tours, and whatnot, is a great bonus. We love it but it’s just extra. It’s all about getting into writing mode and challenging each other to be better at everything, making sure that we make something fulfilling, and amazing to us.
We’re lucky to not really have pressure…it’s not like we have to sell records to be able to pay for our homes or whatever. We don’t have a record company that will breathe down our necks going, “We need a record right now.” If it takes two years to write an album, we can do that, and we love it. It’s really, really cool for us to have that freedom and opportunity to do this. All of us are really devoted to making sure that we have a perfect understanding and a pure kind of experience when we write…to try hard not to think about what other people are going to think about it…how anyone’s reaction will be to it. We just make sure that we make the best album possible that we can make right now.
APESHIT: That’s very interesting given the fact that you guys write for yourselves. When Projector came out [in 1999] there were people complaining about your clean vocals. Now that the clean vocals are gone, people are complaining about their absence.
Mikael: Yeah, there you go. Some people are never pleased. With that, that would never work. It would be so easy to just do a couple of clean vocal lines and some choruses here and there. But it would just be for the wrong reasons. It’s so obvious and everybody seems to be doing it right now. It’s gonna take the fun out of it. We’ve done it already. It’s cool…perhaps we’ll do it again but not right now, you know what I mean?
APESHIT: I think that Martin Brandstrom (electronics) is really the unsung hero of the band. Since his recruitment in 1999, DARK TRANQUILLITY’s sound has really expanded to a new level. How has his presence affected the way you guys write your songs?
Mikael: Yeah, he has because he comes from a different background. He’s not really a metal guy. He has since become one because we’ve forced him to. He’s totally into electronic music and pop stuff. Also, he’s studied music so he knows what he’s talking about. We have no idea [though], we’re all self-taught. When we’re composing a song, he will come up with something totally different from where we’re at…he has a different view on things. Some of it’s totally weird and sometimes amazing. It takes a little bit more time to make the music happen, but we love it actually. He’s not about flashy [stuff]. He loves the composition stuff and musical kind of sounds, background, things like that. He’s spends a lot of time in his little studio making sure he knows when to shine in the songs and when to be in the background and build things up. It’s been amazing. I mean, he worked his ass off day and night in the end for this album. It’s a good balance between total electronics and all out screaming guitars.
APESHIT: The last three albums were solid albums that really displayed a sense of command (in terms of songwriting), but it’s safe to say there haven’t been any huge surprises since Projector. It may be a little premature to ask, but do you guys ever see yourselves taking a sideways shift in sound again?
Mikael: I don’t know, I guess. It depends on what we will feel at that time. Right now, this feels great. But perhaps after touring–because we’re pretty much going to be touring the whole year–we’ll be totally fed up with extreme metal and whatever and want to do something totally different. That is the reason why we did Projector…because we were so fed up with the whole “Gothenburg sound” because everybody was just saying that we’re this “melodic death metal band from Gothenburg and sound exactly like all these other bands.” We heard that all the time and it was getting so old that we wanted to prove to ourselves and everybody else that we can do something else. If we do that again, perhaps there will be a time for it. It has to be natural. We don’t like to force things like that… “We need to do an album like that so let’s get into that.”
APESHIT: I heard the show you guys did at the Busan Rock Festival in Korea last summer went down really well. Tell us about that experience.
Mikael: It’s hard because there was a beautiful beach in a beautiful city, but it was hotter than anything that I’ve ever experienced. You couldn’t even be outdoors for more than five minutes without collapsing. Fortunately, we played at midnight so it was alright. It was 35,000 people. Crazy as hell. Biggest fireworks that I’ve ever seen during our show. It was just amazing, just amazing. On the digipak version of the album [Character], there are three songs from that show. I just got the album. I haven’t even had time to check it out. It was just amazing. You travel across to the other side of the planet, and it’s so unbelievable to have these Korean fans show up. Surreal…surreal is the right word for it. It was the biggest show that we’ve ever done.
APESHIT: You guys were able to tour the States twice for Damage Done. How do you guys feel about the progress that you’ve made in America?
Mikael: We really had no idea what to expect. We heard it’s all about touring. We started selling albums when we came over for tours. We realized that that was true. A lot of things started happening since our first tour in two weeks. Suddenly, a lot of things happened and now we’re two or three American tours [deep] for this album, much longer ones at that. I think it’s gonna be amazing. It’s great to see progress immediately. When you tour Germany or most of Europe, it’s pretty much the same. We’re playing to the same people but it’s a bit more each time obviously but it’s pretty much the same. In America, you can really get through to so many people and so many new people. It’s amazing so I’m dying to get back. Two months away and I’m looking forward to it. Every single show that we’ve done in America has been amazing for us so now we’re coming back with our friends from SOILWORK and HYPOCRISY. I think it’s gonna be really really good. I’m really dying for it.
APESHIT: Skydancer was reissued in the US in 2000 and The Gallery and The Mind’s I are finally due for release here this year. What took so long?
Mikael: I really don’t know. I think Century Media actually wanted to buy them, like really get the rights for them. But that kind of dragged out for some reason. I don’t know. All of the sudden, Osmose Productions [who owns the rights] kind of came around and said, “well, alright…we’ll release them” through some deal between where Osmose will make them and Century Media will distributed them. They said “well, they’re in the printing factory right now.” And so Century Media was like, “oh, cool.” I don’t think that there’s an official release date, but I think they have been manufactured. So I really don’t know. Osmose is a great company but they’re very unpredictable. But I’m really happy that they’re finally coming out. It’s about time. A lot of people have been asking about it for many, many years. “I don’t want to pay a huge amount of money just for imports and stuff like that.” They’ll be out with the proper packaging, some extras on there, and it should be good.
APESHIT: Looking back, The Gallery and The Mind’s I received a lot of critical acclaim and many people hold those albums in very high regard. How do you feel about those albums nowadays?
Mikael: I love them. I really feel strongly about all the albums. I see them as time capsules, recordings of exactly what we were doing at the time. It doesn’t make sense for me to go, “all the old albums are crap…the new one is the best one.” You do the best you can at that given time. Especially some of the really older stuff, I just don’t get it how we actually played. I cannot get into that mindframe. What we were thinking? What was going through our heads when we wrote this? I just don’t get it…even the really good stuff and the bad stuff. I don’t get it. I don’t quite remember it. But I really like them, especially when we were doing the Exposures album last year putting all that older stuff together. We went back through and went, “fuck!” We had no idea.
APESHIT: I know that you played guitar in DARK TRANQUILLITY early on. When was the last time you picked up the guitar?
Mikael: This morning actually for my daughter. But I’m a crap guitar player. I just played so I have something to sing to. I haven’t played electric guitar in years. I used to play in a cover band for fun but that was it. I’m a crappy guitar player. I’m so happy I quit. (Laughs)
APESHIT: You guys have known each other for a very long time and have had a long and successful career together, but how did you guys originally meet and start DARK TRANQUILLITY?
Mikael: Well, me and [guitarists] Niklas [Sundin] and Martin [Henriksson] went to kindergarten together when we were six years old. We all lived on the same street, all of us…like the same area. So when we started the band it was basically me and Niklas sitting around listening to music all day long going, “woah, we got to start a band. This is so boring. We got to do something.” So we said, “Anders [Jivarp], he’s a pretty muscular guy, he can play drums. And Anders [Friden] can sing. And Martin, he can play bass.” Me and Niklas bought guitars and that was it. We just said, “let’s go.” Pretty simple. We all started from knowing absolutely nothing about our instruments at all.
APESHIT: How does it feel that you guys were just a bunch of kids wanting to make music, and it’s turned into this big thing?
Mikael: It feels pretty good, but it kind of feels the same. We’re still a bunch of kids playing music because we love it. The whole idea of starting a band was to create original music on the kinds of bands that we loved. To mix the most aggressive stuff with the most melodic stuff, with everything that we loved, and that’s still true. Some things have changed obviously, but that aspect is still the same. That’s what I love about it. That’s why we can still keep doing it because it’s a lot of fun. We love getting together and writing music. Without that, there is no point in doing this at all.
Of course we get a lot of recognition for sticking around for a long time and writing music that is still interesting, hopefully. [But] it doesn’t really change things. It’s like “woah, thank you for the compliment!” But we’re still going to do it. That’s all we know, and it’s easy, in perspective, to go, “wow! Things must’ve changed so much.” But it really hasn’t because it’s kind of been a gradual improvement all the time. We sell more records, and [go on] bigger tours, and better things. It just keeps on getting better all the time, and that’s what we love about it.
APESHIT: Yeah, things are definitely continuing to move in a good direction.
Mikael: Yeah! For this album already, there has been such an amazing response. It’s just not funny anymore. I go, “please!” I see all these reviews from magazines here in Europe, and they’re unbelievable. I just don’t get it. The album’s already sold more than Damage Done and it’s not even out yet.
APESHIT: That’s awesome.
Mikael: It’s just weird. I really think that Century Media are pushing themselves to the limit with this promotional campaign that they’ve put together. I’ve been doing more interviews than I ever have combined. But I’m just dying to get on the road and play these songs. Enough of the talk! Let’s hit the road and start playing these songs now.