Dark Tranquillity – Perpetual Forward MomentumSunday, 4th December 2016
One of the elder statesmen of the Swedish metal scene, Dark Tranquillity are now climbing towards that rare 30 year pinnacle (they are currently at 27 years FYI). They’ve also stayed true to their vision all this time while expanding their palette over the years – something many other bands of a similar age can’t claim. Other than a few who grumbled when Projector was first released, most fans would say that Dark Tranquillity have had a remarkably consistent ride that has always maintained a high quality.
That’s certainly the case for the recently released Atoma, which comes as a real treat this far into the band’s career. It feels familiar, but at the same time fresh and invigorating – also incorporating much of what has made Dark Tranquillity such an impressive force over the years. Great melodic riffs, a dark yet enticing atmosphere, and vocalist Mikael Stanne’s snarls, which seem to get better with age (and a noticeable increase in the clean vocal department). The band suffered the exit of longtime member Martin Henriksson, who chose to focus solely on the management aspect of the band prior to the release of Atoma, and just before the North American tour was ready to launch, it was also announced that guitarist Niklas Sundin would be sitting this one out. All of which made for an interesting conversation with Stanne at one of the first stops of the tour in Clifton Park, NY.
Dead Rhetoric: Martin [Henriksson] recently switched over to just doing management stuff for the band. How did that affect the feel of the band itself?
Mikael Stanne: We were shocked! Of course, in retrospect I can look back on the last couple of years and say, “Now I get it.” But I never expected it to go this far. So it was like, “Where do we go from here?” He’s been the cornerstone of this band forever – always taking care of things. He was like, “This is cool – I’m still going to take care of things, I just don’t want to be on stage and I don’t want to be on a tour bus. I just want to work and do that sort of thing.” At first I didn’t get it, but now I respect his decision. For a while I was just angry. I thought I could talk him into coming back – so it did affect us. We already had most of the songs completed [for Atoma] but it put a break on things for a while. We didn’t know how we’d come back from it. Sure, Niklas [Sundin] can play all of the guitars – we’ve done that before so it’s no problem.
But it was a matter of finding the motivation. And then you start questioning your own role in the band. It feels like it’s fine leaving – now, after 27 years…would I be able to do the same thing? After some soul-searching I realized that there’s no way [for me] – this is it, this is what I love to do. We all agreed and decided to stay strong and figured out a way to move forward. It was tough – it’s easy to find temporary members, but we needed to find someone who gets it and someone we can hang out with. Recording the album was easy – we have our own studio and stuff. But when we started thinking about touring it was like, “What do we do?” I’m so happy that we got a fantastic line-up together and it feels great. The shows have been awesome. All of that worry and fear that I’ve been having is done and over.
Dead Rhetoric: To add to it, Niklas didn’t come over for this tour – is Dark Tranquillity beginning to show its age?
Stanne: [Laughs] Of course – you have other responsibilities in life. With Niklas, his wife is really busy and he was like, “I can’t make her take time off just to stay with the kid so that I can have fun and drink on tour.” He’s done that so many times and she’s always the one staying home, and now she needs to be at work, so he wants to do it [stay at home] this time. Which makes perfect sense to me. It’s fine…but at the same time, I miss him. It’s weird to be on stage without him. But it’s cool – he’s taking care of things from home. He’s done some amazing work – all the visuals we’ve presented and everything. We managed to find a really cool and amazing replacement for him.
Dead Rhetoric: You mentioned the artwork – how much of an impact does art have on Dark Tranquillity? The new album in particular, as well as the video for “Forward Momentum,” which isn’t really the usual metal fare.
Stanne: Art has always been important. Niklas and I, when we first met when we were 5-6 years old we were drawing/doodling/painting together. From the covers to the logos – you want a visual representation of the band. I’ve always been fascinated with that. I love album art. We grew up with that stuff and it’s become very important. Niklas has done some of our videos too, and they are amazing. But this time, with “Forward Momentum” we wanted something else. Century Media suggested Vesa Ranta, Sentenced’s drummer…I’ve known him for 20 years and he’s an amazing photographer. I saw two of his videos and thought they were beautiful. So we started coming up with ideas for what to do, and I think he did an amazing job. It was a couple of weird days driving around in the north of Sweden, but I’m so happy we did it. It seems like people are taking it in and getting the story of the video, which is great.
Dead Rhetoric: In regards to your clean singing when you brought it all in for Projector, people seemed to love it or hate it. But nowadays, you don’t hear too many people complaining about it. How do you suppose that tide has shifted over the years?
Stanne: I remember when we wrote Projector, we just wanted to be as far away as possible from what people expected. We wanted to do the opposite of what people wanted, so we could prove we could be a different band. We were tired of being labeled as a “Gothenburg heavy metal band.” It just didn’t feel appropriate or fair. We were young and idealistic [laughs], and being labeled and compared…it was like, fuck that. We experimented and it was fun. I remember playing some of the songs to my friends to see what they thought about the contrasts and if it sounded okay or if it was weird [before the album was released]. They said maybe, but fuck it and go for it anyway. We had done cleans on Skydancer as well, but it was just trying to do something different [with Projector]. I remember a number of bands that were friends of ours, who started experimenting with [clean singing] once they heard Projector. It wasn’t really as common back then and now it’s all over the place. That’s why I stopped doing it for a few years because it was expected.
Dead Rhetoric: In terms of Dark Tranquillity’s legacy, have you found that there have been more people saying that the band is the reason they started a band or that you were influential to people?
Stanne: I do get to hear that a lot. It’s amazing. I know that feeling, because I’ve been there and I’m still there. I get to meet some of the bands that I grew up on and were the reason for us forming the band. So I know exactly how that feels, but at the same time it’s weird. When someone says that to me, I think “Really? I’m not that guy.” It’s hard for me to fully grasp that but of course I do understand it and it make me super proud that we created something that someone else can enjoy.
Dead Rhetoric: As a beer fan, when you go out on tour in North America at this point, do you know certain breweries as you go that you enjoy as you make your way across the country?
Stanne: Absolutely. Untapped is such a great app to find stuff. I also have a lot of beer nerd friends who bring me things and give me recommendations for bars. It’s awesome. I can’t wait to get up to Canada tomorrow – Montreal and Quebec…especially Quebec. There’s some amazing stuff that you can’t get anywhere else. I have a friend there who has been saving up beer – he has two boxes of just incredible Quebec beers that I am dying to get my hands on.
Dead Rhetoric: As Dark Tranquillity at this far in your career, do you still have goals that you’d like to shoot for?
Stanne: There’s always small goals that we have. We never really had a specific goal back when we started the band. The goal was to have fun and hang out together and write music that we loved – that had all of the elements of the bands that we grew up with and were important to us. Then we recorded an EP, then someone asked us to record an album – the main focus was always just to write and play music…just be a band. So now, after 27 years. One of the goals is to make even better songs. To make things more streamlined and convenient for ourselves – to make sure all the tours are in the right spots. Those decisions are also a fun part of it. For me, I want to play new cities and new countries and meet fans that we haven’t seen – make sure that we aren’t missing anyone. I like the trajectory that we have – every tour just keeps getting better. We never really see a decline, where an album just isn’t doing it and people stop coming to the shows. When we look at the numbers, we see things that never have happened and that feels great! We always look forward to each tour as being better than the last.
We just want to make good decisions and have as much fun as possible. We want to make sure the show is perfect. You spend the whole day doing nothing, so that 1.5 hours on stage, that’s all that matters. So it has to be perfect. It has to feel great, otherwise, what the hell are you doing on the other side of the planet?
Dead Rhetoric: In terms of your touring packages, are you getting more say in who you are going to bring out?
Stanne: We plan ahead and talk to some bands we love. Sometimes our booking agent here will give us a few suggestions as well. We say that we want to tour immediately after the album comes out, and he’ll say what bands are willing to tour at the moment. Swallow the Sun is one of my favorite Finnish bands and we have been dying to tour together so that worked out perfect. Enforcer we talk to a lot about touring together as well and they are super cool guys. Starkill is always touring and it made perfect sense. It all came together in a great way. In Europe it’s the same thing…just figuring out a cool package. The kind of metal show that I would like to go to.
Dead Rhetoric: Your release cycles have been on more of a 3 year schedule – after building up Dark Tranquillity over the years, is it nice to be able to have that extra time so that you can take a break if you are not feeling it…without having to rush things?
Stanne: Kind of, yeah. I do like that, because we don’t have to rush it. If we need some family time at home, then we can do that. These last few years have been intense – we have toured like crazy. But we also need time when we come home from a tour and start feeling ‘the itch’ to start writing again. It would be easy to just “okay, let’s do a new album…fine…done” but we don’t want to do that. If we aren’t feeling it, we can take an extra month or six months. Everyone has to have that positive feeling and creativity to start.
Dead Rhetoric: So what’s next, now that the album is out and once the North American tour is done?
Stanne: We’ll get home for Christmas, then we’ll do a few shows in Russia. We are going to do a longer European tour and summer festivals. Then we are coming back here [North America] and we’ll do another tour in Europe. Then we are back to November again! So it will be a busy year for sure, but I’m looking forward to it.