Letters from the Colony – Counting Down to TerminusSunday, 4th February 2018
Many bands dream of hitting the metal ‘big time’ – signing with a major metal label and getting to go out and tour the world. But the number of new bands that get snagged quickly by the larger labels have shrunk, somewhat due to the shifts within the industry. Those that do get a quick signing can sometimes be looked at as ‘safe bets’ with a big name musician involved or ‘trend-followers’ who simply are playing along to whatever happens to be hip in the underground. But Letters from the Colony are neither of those things.
Previously only releasing two independent EPs, Letters from the Colony jumped onto everyone’s radar by signing with Nuclear Blast, and for good reason. A thoroughly well-mixed combination of progressive, djent, atmosphere, and more – their upcoming album Vignette takes some familiar pieces and rearranges them in a fresh and interesting way. We had a chat one afternoon with vocalist Alexander Backlund (who also produced/mixed the album) to talk some more details about the quickly rising act – from influences, goals, touring, recording, and yes, signing with Nuclear Blast.
Dead Rhetoric: Given the tendency for people to associate new bands with more veteran acts, how do you distinguish yourselves from your influences like Meshuggah and Gojira?
Alexander Backlund: That was actually a huge debate within the band. We don’t really want to be associated with any other band in any way. We don’t want to be known as mini-Meshuggah or Gojira Jr [laughs]. As the reviews have started coming in, you see that – just for reference. People are actually saying that we are sort of punching in the same weight-class as them. Now it’s more flattering, because we love Meshuggah. So if someone hears our record and think we sound like Meshuggah, it’s a compliment. We have to learn to see it that way. We still have a long way to go until we have an equally impressive legacy that those bands have. But it’s a good start with Vignette…we’ll see.
Dead Rhetoric: What would you say is the band’s mission statement?
Backlund: We have very few standpoints – some bands are very set in doing this or that. They want to say certain things and make statements, but we are the opposite. All we want to do is make an album that is the album that we want to do. We are never going to do anything to fit into a genre – we aren’t afraid to put “whatever” on an album because someone will say, “This isn’t djent anymore” or something. If we like it, we are going to do it. That’s something we aren’t going to change.
Dead Rhetoric: This is your first album, so by having that openness from the start, it’s better than if you lock yourself in and then in three albums you decide differently and half of the Internet is mad at you.
Backlund: [Laughs] Exactly! We try to avoid labeling ourselves. We want that to be a matter of discussion, because people are so set in their ways. Some guy might only listen to black metal. As long as the album says, black metal on the back or wherever, he’ll listen to it. But we want people to hear it and decide for themselves if they like it or not.
Dead Rhetoric: The trailers that you have released are hysterical – is it important that you portray ‘the real band’ when you do these?
Backlund: It’s definitely ‘us,’ [laughs]. Things get very serious when you play in a metal band, so we wanted to do something that was the complete opposite. But we have a very dark sense of humor and it’s very childish I guess. We were kind of afraid of losing potential fans, but it goes back to what I said earlier – we are going to do whatever we want to do. That goes for videos as well. If we want Sebastian [Svalland] sitting on a toilet going on Nuclear Blast’s YouTube channel, which as 1.6 million subscribers, then it’s happening.
Dead Rhetoric: By doing it that way, I think it puts you more in your own space. There’s so many of those videos – they are almost tedious to watch. It’s ‘Band X in the recording studio.’ I thought that it was cool that you brought your own flavor to it and made it more interesting.
Backlund: We actually had something more elaborate planned. We actually went out and filmed some action scenes with my car and bought outfits and shit, but we couldn’t pull it together in time. This was sort of a Plan B thing. But it was alright. I agree with you on that fact – a lot of bands, they are pretty boring. They are musicians, and we are musicians as well. We could sit in the studio and talk about the guitar pedals we used for 4 minutes…that’s easy. We could talk for hours about that. But it might not be what the fans want to see.
Dead Rhetoric: There’s always part of the fan base that’s super into that and would listen to 3 hours of pedal talk…
Backlund: Exactly – we are probably going to have that eventually anyways.
Dead Rhetoric: Having your own studio and with your expertise, did it aid in truly getting the sound that you wanted to achieve for Vignette?
Backlund: It’s been helpful to be in complete control of everything. I have had to swallow my pride a few times, because it’s probably my name on there for the producer role…I mixed it as well. It’s something that a lot of producers and audio engineers strive for – to have an album that is sonically pleasing in every way. That means using pretty much the same guitar tones and drum sounds as every other band. We have always wanted to do something that was unique, even if it meant something like a guitar sound being heavy on the mid-range, but it’s our own. We went for it.
Something I’ve started to realize lately, is when I look back on the albums that I have really loved, is that none of them are sonically pleasing to listen to. In fact, a lot of them sound like shit. But if you put on a Meshuggah record from 1994, it’s going to take you half a second to realize that it’s Meshuggah. They have their own signature thing going on, and we wanted that too.
Dead Rhetoric: But is there also a dark side to owning your studio and being able to re-do things at your own leisure, in terms of wanting it to be ‘too perfect?’
Backlund: Yeah, it’s actually something I would have to dial down. We are all notoriously perfectionists, so we had to leave mistakes on there to make it sound human. The drums aren’t edited perfectly – we know how to do it, but it’s going to be boring. ‘If a symbol is a little off…keep it that way.’ We also tried to record everything in as large a chunk as possible. So the guitar riffs aren’t recorded note by note. The vocal takes aren’t punched in word by word. It’s pretty much the whole song being played by us.
Dead Rhetoric: It was mentioned that you wrote the lyrics in less than a week?
Backlund: Yeah, it was a little over a week actually. I had a schedule that I sort of kept. I would go down to the studio and open up a blank Word document and pull up the song in Pro Tools. I said to myself, “Ok, I’m going to put vocals on one song.” That was my goal for the day. Sometimes it took 6 hours, sometimes it took 16 hours. It was all pretty much done in one day [each], except for a few songs. I guess it’s just that I wanted to find whatever pissed me off the most in that moment. I wanted some emotion behind my screams. It’s very hard to sound the way I do if you are singing about kittens and rainbows [laughs]. So I tried to think of stuff that grinds my gears, and make it a little bit pretty in the end [laughs].
Dead Rhetoric: So did that kind of approach make if feel more heartfelt than if you had gone in with an idea and said, “This is exactly what I’m going to do?”
Backlund: I’m a master of overthinking everything. If I want to get something done, I have to do it then and there. If I have a lyric that I’m working on, within a week it will not be the same lyric anymore. I would have replaced every word with something else, because I want to rework and improve it. But it’s no use really.
Dead Rhetoric: How much of a focus is there on art – there’s been some fantastic pieces released in addition to the album cover itself.
Backlund: All of the artwork is based around the song “Vignette.” We used some artwork from the booklet for the singles that we have released on the digital platforms. That song is about nature taking over. I’ve talked about this before, but nature is just something that keeps coming back in everything we do. I don’t know if it’s because we live where we live, but it’s just something to tie together very well with what we are doing.
All of the videos we are doing are based around nature, and the thing about the main cover – the deer. The deer is supposed to symbolize something quiet and majestic. If you’ve heard the song, a few minutes in there is a deer mating call, which is probably just something that Sebastian got from watching a National Geographic documentary stoned one day five years ago. “Oh shit, deer sound nice! I want that on my album!” Then we spent days searching for the perfect recording of a deer. We put that on there when we were working on the guitars. That was the seed from which this whole entire thing grew from with the graphics and the lyrics.
Dead Rhetoric: On the same subject, the video for “Erasing Contrast” – could you talk about the concept for it?
Backlund: It’s sort of a portion of the lyrics that ended up being the theme for the video. But the song itself…it’s called “Erasing Contrast,” and the contrast part is how you view yourself. What you put yourself in contrast to. It’s easy to see yourself as a failure because you could have done so many great things with your life. It’s something that everybody feels in certain ways. Along come companies, advertising, and religious groups trying to lure you in to their cults or whatever – pretty much like the US Army…”Be all you can be.” These promises are golden – so it was like “Oh gold. Let’s make something with gold.” So it’s this lady dancer pulling the strings from far away and it’s consuming this person in a different place. There’s no running from it – it’s an inherent flaw in our way of thinking that is going to be exploited forever.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you, as a band that has only released two EPs, join up with Nuclear Blast for their debut?
Backlund: We recently published our website, and I thought it would be a cool thing to include our discography…which is just the two EPs that we released ourselves. Then suddenly, it’s like boom – Nuclear Blast. What the fuck is up with that? It’s a pretty big leap I guess you could say. I joined [the band] pretty late, and it’s like all those years before now, it’s like they never happened. Now we are becoming a band and doing something real, almost. I guess all those years meant a lot because that was when all the guys developed their skills.
But the whole Nuclear Blast thing, it was pretty much all Sebastian. Most people are pretty humble in general, when you finish making your debut album – you think that maybe it would be nice to have a record label, any label. You never dream of something like this happening. It’s so far off into the future [laughs]. But I guess he never saw it that way. He grew up in a small village in the middle of nowhere around here, next door to a guy named Peter Tagtgren, of Pain and Hypocrisy. They were neighbors and good friends growing up – he had a recording studio so he would have bands over there all the time. He was good friends with bands like Opeth, who would come over to drink some booze and record things at night. I guess in Sebastian’s mind, it was “Shit, Nuclear Blast. That’s the label you have to be on if you want to be cool.” So that’s been his dream label forever. It was his first proposal after we finished the album. It was like, “Nuclear Blast!” We thought we would never get that, and told him to stop it.
We were in touch with some smaller labels, but we are a musical wildcard I guess. It’s hard to label us, and smaller record labels are very niche – you have a black metal label or a deathcore label. We are somewhere in between a lot of labels. For a label like Nuclear Blast, it’s an investment for sure, but they can take the risk [laughs], if you think of it in terms of pure economics. I was very flattered when they got the stuff through Peter [Tagtgren] – he sent them our album. They wrote back to us that they loved it, and we were like, “What the fuck? These Germans, they only listen to power metal all day! Why would they like this progressive, crazy thing?” But they did, and that spun a little hope in us – and then it happened [signing with Nuclear Blast].
Dead Rhetoric: With the long process of getting the album created and now released, are you already at work on new material? Or are you lingering for a bit and letting things settle?
Backlund: We had sort of a plan. Nuclear Blast first said to us that they would love to release it, but 2017 was already packed and we couldn’t fit us into the schedule. So we thought we would use that time to work on our next album. But we are pretty new to this, and learning as we go. None of us saw the sheer amount of work to get an album out there, on this level. It’s a lot of work. There’s a million things that you have to piece together, and that’s been taking a lot of time. We are definitely working on new stuff, but we haven’t really come as far as we’d hoped to.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s next for the band? Any upcoming plans?
Backlund: Going on tours. That’s been a dream for us. We have all been on tours before, but never together. That’s the thing about Letters from the Colony – we are really good friends. We thought it would be amazing if we could hit the road together, so that’s our hope for this year. We just got in touch with a booking agency through Nuclear Blast so some pretty big names have been dropped. Something big is going to happen, tour-wise, this year. Hopefully in the autumn sometime. We are trying to get booked on as many festivals as possible too.