Dark Tranquillity – Vitality and Experimentation

Sunday, 1st October 2017

What else really needs to be said about Dark Tranquillity at this point? One of the most famous of the ‘Gothenburg’ era bands, they have crafted a career out of blending melody into heaviness. They are also a band that has always made some alterations with their sound. They’ve taken some risks along the way, toying with their formula, but never in a way that was detrimental to the band. In doing so, developed constructs that would aid them further down the line, and solidify their status as forerunners of the scene.

The band is currently on their second US run in support of last year’s Atoma. Hitting some different sites along the way and rallying more support to their cause. We sat down with vocalist Mikael Stanne outside The Chance in Poughkeepsie, NY before the band’s show to talk about their interactions with Hurricane Irma, the early Gothenburg days, Projector and Haven changes, as well as craft beer.

Dead Rhetoric: There was kind of a rough patch at the beginning [Hurricane Irma], but are things kind of settling in at this point in the tour?

Mikael Stanne: Yes – going steady now. It’s been amazing. It was rough – we did one show and then three shows cancelled. We were heading out of Florida, stuck in traffic for three whole days. We were going through Jacksonville [Florida]. We didn’t see anything apart from the traffic and overcrowded gas stations. It was kind of eerie; we’ve never been close to anything like that. Of course, we were super-fortunate. We were in a nice tour bus with showers and water, food, beer, TV, Internet, and all that stuff. But everywhere – the roads were filled with everyone just leaving, stuck in their cars. We probably drove like 14 hours every day. We didn’t get that far in 14 hours. We got to Atlanta the day after the storm and it was still weird – everything was still shut down and parts of the city were without power. It was weird to see the aftermath of it. But things are going back to normal now.

Dead Rhetoric: So you are about a year past Atoma at this point, how has it been going in terms of how the album has been received?

Stanne: It’s been incredible. We toured here when the album first came out and since then we’ve done European tours, festivals, and South America. It seems like people are really digging the album. We can get away with playing a lot of new songs. We changed a lot of the setlist this time around, and it’s a lot of other new songs. They seem to be pretty well accepted too – it’s been amazing. Sales have been great; we couldn’t be happier with it. This is going to be a long tour for sure.

Dead Rhetoric: You’ve been out on the road a lot, especially over here in North America. Are you pushing to really make more inroads here?

Stanne: Yeah – we wanted to do at least 2 tours within the first year of the album release. This is kind of a different routing – we are hitting some new cities, new venues, and new places this time. Some familiar ones but mostly new ones. It’s great – we love touring here. We can definitely see a growth with every tour we do here. In Europe we are kind of sad – we know the venues; we have a steady fanbase. Here we can see it grow, which is exciting.

Dead Rhetoric: You mentioned the setlist. Does it get tougher since you have so many albums, and obviously you want to cover the newest one, but there’s so much in the catalog at this point?

Stanne: I guess we just try to play a long set – squeeze in as much as possible. It is tough, especially now – we have two [session] guitar players [Johan Reinholdz and Chris Amott] for this tour, who have to learn a lot of new songs in a very short amount of time. It’s difficult. It’s a nightmare [to choose songs], but I think we came up with something that’s a good combination of some obscure songs and obvious ones. A lot of new stuff, some old stuff.

Dead Rhetoric: Do you ever feel like you are looking through the songs and are trying to figure it out and say, “whoa, we haven’t played this song in forever!” or any songs that you would like to play but you know at this point that it’s such a hit or miss thing because they are so old?

Stanne: For sure. I’m always the guy advocating, “Hey, let’s try something super old and obscure” but then again, you play it and people don’t even recognize it perhaps. There’s just four guys in the bar that are like, “Fuck yeah! I love that song!” and that’s it. It’s a weird thing to do. So sometimes we’ll have one or two songs like that. But it’s a lot of effort to go through rehearsing to relearn a song that you wrote fifteen years ago. We are also doing the video projection, so you have to make sure it’s all put together. Then you realize that the song is not working [and it’s there]. So we take all those things into consideration in advance of when we play.

Dead Rhetoric: I’m one of those guys that are super into Projector/Haven era stuff just as much as newer material – what was it like signing to Century Media right before Projector? Was there any questions about veering off into a new direction when signing with a major label?

Stanne: It wasn’t really like that. We recorded the album while we were with Osmose Records. It was supposed to be released on Osmose. They didn’t hear it, and we didn’t have a contract with them. We were so psyched about doing something different. The Projector songs, in their early stages, were very different than anything else we had done. We were trying hard to get away from ourselves and our own sound. Just to be different; to prove we could do something else. We were getting tired of the whole Gothenburg death metal thing that was everywhere all of a sudden. When we recorded the album we realized that Osmose was not going to do this justice. It was a very underground and black metal focused label. So we started shopping around and seeing if there were other labels we could talk to and went with Century Media. So everything was already done by the time we signed with them.

In terms of the album, we just wanted to be different and not just a part of the whole Gothenburg thing. We felt it was so limiting, and kind of like an insult to the creativity we had put into the music – all of a sudden people were saying “Oh, all of this is the same. All the bands sound the same.” That was the opposite of what we wanted people to think. So once we got that out of our system, with Projector and Haven, we kind of felt comfortable with what we had originally set out to do. But of course, we learned a lot with those two album, and how to integrate those things into more heavy material.

Dead Rhetoric: Looking back, there were a lot of people that both loved and hated those albums. Do you feel that they were a little ahead of the curve? You can listen to your newer stuff and hear where some of those roots stem from.

Stanne: For sure. When Projector came out it was like, “What the fuck? Are you going to leave death metal altogether?” Of course now, people seem to dig it as much as the other albums. I get that – I know exactly how that feels. When I hear one of my favorite bands release a totally different album, I go “Oh wow, is this the direction they are going to go now?” But it doesn’t mean it is, it’s just experimentation.

Dead Rhetoric: Do you feel that sort of experimentation has kept you more vital over the years?

Stanne: It makes the whole thing fun. You want to have that same feeling that you had when you start a band. You start writing songs and you go, “This is amazing!” or “This is so new and ground-breaking and different!” You want that revelation when you write, something that is like, “Wow, this is incredible – we pulled this off.” Nowadays –we know how to write songs and it’s rare that you actually feel that. You have to experiment even more, and take even bigger steps to in order to really [stay vital].

Dead Rhetoric: A lot of bands have been doing the whole ‘anniversary tour’ for certain albums. Do you think that there’s one album that you feel you could do, or would even consider?

Stanne: We have been asked to do The Gallery a few times. Of course that would be fun, and I think in some territories it would work, but that album wasn’t really like a big thing. At the same time, we are not really that kind of band. We don’t really want to celebrate the past. We would rather always look forward. We have done a few shows where we have played way more older material – like festival shows and stuff like that. That’s fun, but at the same time, maybe if we announce it and people know exactly what to expect then maybe it’s a different thing. But when we just put in some really old stuff, people don’t really seem to get it.

We’ve been fortunate enough to have fans that have been following us, and not just focusing on those old albums, and not caring about the new ones. It seems like people are digging the new stuff as much as they are the old stuff. I don’t really feel the need to do something like that. Who knows – maybe we will one day. I think it would be fun – I like the idea of it…revisiting the old stuff and getting into the headspace of “What the fuck were we thinking when we wrote that song?” and “Where was my mind at? What was going through my mind when I wrote those lyrics?” It is interesting. We’ll see…when the time is right, maybe we’ll do it.

Dead Rhetoric: Do you have any songs that have kind of stuck with you over time, even if it’s something not in the set that you normally play – any songs that feel extra special?

Stanne: It’s changed over the years. I think one of the songs we used to play the most was “Punish My Heaven” from The Gallery. We played it at absolutely every show from 1995 until a couple of years ago. I still love that song. It was always great to play. But now we realized that it’s okay to retire it for a while and maybe put it back into the set. Now “Misery’s Crown” is that song that we play every show. “Wonders at Your Feet” we play every night as well. Songs that we love playing but we feel like people expect, and might be disappointed if we didn’t do. But it’s tough.

You never really know what people want. You realize that simple songs – people get crazy and they sing a lot and clap or whatever. That’s awesome. Some songs have more participation and interaction. It’s tough to figure out what works and what doesn’t. But I think we try out more songs than what we are going to put into the set. We change at the beginning of a tour – we figure out which songs work and we cut them and add others. By the middle of the tour, we usually have a perfect set that comes together really nice.

Dead Rhetoric: You were trying to push away from the Gothenburg scene at one point as we talked about. What were your thoughts on it as it was just starting – before it got huge?

Stanne: That’s what we grew up in – all the bands were our friends before we started writing and playing guitar or whatever. So I never really saw it as a scene. It was just a bunch of friends who were all in bands – that was it. I didn’t consider it a scene. I didn’t know what that meant. That was just something you read in a magazine. You see “The Bay Area Thrash Scene” and you have an idea of what that is. But of course, there’s nothing even close to the truth. You build it up in your head. All of a sudden, people started calling it “The Gothenburg Scene” and it was like, “No, it’s just a bunch of bands.” But of course, that’s what a scene is…but it didn’t really feel like that.

I never really thought about it, but everyone started talking about it and questioning us about it. Like “How come the sound is so similar? You record in the same studio…it’s all melodic death metal.” I hadn’t thought about it that way – the whole idea was to make original and new music that no one else was doing. To be creative and original – and to hear we all sounded the same. What the hell? It was insulting in a way. But then I realized that it was just a beginning – for a year or two that it was like that. Then I kind of embraced the whole thing and I’m really proud of it.

I’m super proud of my friends and of us – we persevered and pushed through and managed to make this into a thing that seemed to matter to people. Obviously when we started out, we had no idea of where we were going or what we wanted to do, except for the fact that we just wanted to be a different kind of band. We wanted to be a part of the death metal scene but didn’t want to be cliché about it. We were steering away from everything that we considered to be normal, death metal sounding. We wanted to incorporate stuff that we felt no one else was kind of doing. It’s the same with At the Gates, for instance. They wanted to be more technical and they had a totally different set of aspirations and influences. But they were super open-minded when it came to writing songs. Anything goes – if you want to do something super weird, technical – it may be inspired by like King Crimson. That’s fine. Or if you want a melodic thing like Thin Lizzy, that’s fine too.

I think that’s one of the keys to the success of the bands I think. It’s always been open to anything. It doesn’t matter – don’t put yourself in a genre and sit there. Just do what you want – focus on quality, melody, passion, and communication. But the scene now – it’s still incredible in Gothenburg. There’s so many amazing bands, not just in the death metal genre, but in any genre. When I think about it, I want to look through my playlist of the bands that I love and the music that I listen to, some of my favorite bands in every genre are from Gothenburg, or Sweden. It’s ridiculous. We have some of the best doom metal bands, the best progressive rock bands, some of the best power metal bands. I love it. I’m really really proud of it. It’s something that we always talk about, but I’m still amazed by how great it is.

Dead Rhetoric: I see you are drinking Bells Two-Hearted [beer]. Do you have any breweries that you are really excited to get to when you are in the States?

Stanne: Oh yes. I have tons of stuff – I’m trying to drink new beers that I haven’t had before. Of course, you can’t get this in Sweden [Bells] but it’s a classic. I’m really excited every time I get to drink this one. But every day I’m out scouting breweries and new stuff to drink. One of my hobbies – I love brewing. I’m a beer connoisseur. I looked up that there was a brewery close to here where I’m going to eat dinner and try some of their stuff [Mill House Brewing Company]. It’s really exciting. The beer scene is incredible. I go on a mission every day. It’s fun.

Dead Rhetoric: You home-brew yourself?

Stanne: Yes. I’ve been doing it for a couple years. We have a Dark Tranquilllity beer [Atoma] that we just put out, it’s available in Sweden right now. It’s an imperial stout – it’s super dark and complex, much like our music. It’s really amazing – I worked together with a brewery in Gothenburg. We brew it there. It’s really cool to have a beer on the shelves, I couldn’t be happier with it. It’s very cool. I’m going to be brewing together with Peter and Daniel from In Flames. They have brewery called Odd Island. I’m going to brew something together with them and I can’t wait. So it’s something I’m really heavily into. A lot of people bring me home brews and cool beers on tour, it’s really exciting. It’s one of the highlights of touring here, except the show.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s next at this point – are you even considering next album or are you just too busy with touring?

Stanne: The touring takes up all our time basically. We are going to do a couple more tours into the upcoming year. Maybe after next summer it will be time to [get into it]. I know that Anders, Martin, and Niklas will be writing some stuff and getting some ideas. But we’ll take some time off to get home and finally get into it, but it’s going to be fun.

Dark Tranquillity official website