As some of the pioneers of melodic death metal, Swedish masters DARK TRANQUILLITY look back on a career of more than 30 years. Having just released their twelvth album „Moment“, we talked to vocalist and founding member Mikael Stanne about the songwriting process, his singing but also about the current situation during the corona crisis.
Congratulations on the release of your twelfth album “Moment”. Did you think DARK TRANQUILLITY would still exist as a band after 30 years when you started back then?
(laughs) No, of course not. It was just a fun thing. And I didn’t imagine it five or ten years in either. It’s one of those things where you just continue because you like it so much and you’re having a great time. It’s still interesting and it’s still fun. But, of course, when we started out, we just thought: “It would be cool if we could record something one day. Like a 7-inch EP or an album or whatever.”. Then it spiraled out of control eventually. It’s good like that. I liked that kind of start. There was never a plan to do this eventually at one point. At the time it just seemed like an impossible dream.
Your long-time guitarists Martin Henriksson and Niklas Sundin recently left the band. Both were active since the first album and main contributors to the songwriting, leaving you and Anders Jivarp the only remaining members from that time. Was there ever the thought of breaking up the band?
There was never any thought of that. Of course, everybody has had very different roles throughout the life of the band. You start out being the main songwriter, then someone else takes over and you become some kind of “partner in crime”, so to speak, where you help each other out. It has all been changing very much like that. Niklas was the main songwriter in the beginning, then Martin took that over. Then, when he felt he had done so much he doesn’t know what else to contribute, Anders took over. Martin eventually decided he’s going to be a manager for the band and really doesn’t want to go out on the road anymore. It made sense and we understood it and said “OK, we’ll find a way to move forward”, as we always do, no matter what. It was difficult and it was kind of unexpected. But at the same time, thinking about it, it seemed to be the best option. And it was the same with Niklas. He already said before “Atoma” that he didn’t want to get away from home. He wanted to be with his family and spending time in the studio. Spending time on the road just wasn’t his thing anymore. That made perfect sense, too. So, no, there was never any doubt that we’re going to continue. It was just a matter of finding the right people. Of course, at certain points we asked ourselves who the hell we want. We know a lot of musicians everywhere. But it had to be someone who fits. Someone who lives close, you can hang out with but is also incredibly skilled. That was hard in the beginning, finding people who we’re comfortable with.
With Niklas and Martin being gone and Anders now being the main songwriter, how does your approach to writing songs for the band look like nowadays?
Anders always starts out with a lot of ideas that he writes. Martin Brändström also writes a few songs for every album and now for “Moment”, Johan Reinholdz wrote a few songs that we managed to get on the album as well. As soon as we established how we were going to work on this album, Johan said he actually has some stuff that might work. Then we steered that into the right direction, so it becomes more “DARK TRANQUILLITY” and fits on the album. But that was a great challenge.
As a drummer being the main songwriter: Does Anders Jivarp have a theoretical or even practical musical knowledge for melodic instruments?
He has always been playing a little bit of the guitar, but mostly the piano. It has been like that for a very long time. Anders would write out melodies and chords. Simple stuff that sounds good or like it’s going to have an emotional impact. Then Martin Henriksson would take those things and turn it into something super heavy and fast. And I think Anders perfected that a little bit more. He can put together full songs and arrange them. He has always contributed melodies and such things since the beginning. It hasn’t changed that much.
You were the rhythm guitarist on your debut album “Skydancer”. Have you ever considered taking part again in the songwriting after Niklas and Martin had left?
(laughs) Oooh no, no, no, no, no. I was a horrible guitar player, really. I wasn’t comfortable with it and I never really felt I could do it properly. I’m really happy not playing guitar.
“Moment” is a lot more mellow and atmospheric than earlier work, following the trend since “Construct”. Is this change in style attributed to Niklas and Martin withdrawing from songwriting or were these changes still pushed by them?
I think a lot of it comes from the foundation of what Anders writes and Martin does. So, maybe it did change a little. Especially before “Atoma” because at that point we decided on a new way of working that gave a lot of room to some of the ideas Anders had. But again: I think it’s cool that responsibilities shift like that. Someone else comes in and takes a bigger role. It was kind of the same thing when Daniel [Antonsson] came in after “Fiction”. He wrote some songs and then Martin wrote some songs and then Anders wrote some songs. And you can really hear the differences between them. And on “Moment” it’s similar. Anders’ songs, Martin[ Brändström]’s songs and Johan’s songs are very different and I really like that. But at the same time Martin, in the role of a producer this time, made sure it all fits. That it has unifying sounds and makes sense as an entire album, not just individual songs. Giving more room to someone and having confidence that it’s going to be cool is a great idea to fuel creativity. Because it’s easy to say “Yeah, that’s going to be fine eventually.”, but it’s better to encourage that and say “Yeah, this is awesome. You start working on it and just give us whatever you got.”. In the past, maybe we have been tough on everyone who has been writing music for the band. We have been very critical and analytical. Whereas now we say: “Bring it on! Whatever we have, we’re going to make something out of it eventually.”.
Would you think it’s possible to return to a faster, more aggressive death-metal driven style again or is this style definitely behind you and you want to follow the calmer path of “Atoma” and “Moment” – or will you even try something entirely new?
I don’t know. I love that, too. Whatever feels right at the moment is what we do. We don’t plan too much ahead what the next album is going to be like. For instance, in the beginning of last year when we started with “Moment”, we had a lot of bare-bone material. We knew the vibe of it. The feeling we get from it, melodically. And then we do something out of it. At one point it was very heavy and some of the songs were super-fast and we thought that was cool. But at the same time it didn’t fit where we are right now. Those things happen, where things shift drastically. The whole idea once we started recording earlier this year was focusing on the songs that had a more mellow vibe because it just felt right. All of the sudden we were not going to tour anytime soon and all festivals were cancelled, so we stayed in the studio. Then the tours got cancelled and we stayed in the studio a while longer. That really affected how we viewed it and how we wanted it to sound like eventually.
Do you enjoy this type of singing over guttural vocals these days?
I don’t need to choose, which is good. (laughs) I can do both and I like it. It depends on the song of course. If it feels good and suits the song, if the music can benefit emotionally and melodically from it, and if it makes sense, then: let’s do it! It always comes down to the way it feels. And it has always been like that. When we started talking about this album and we had some of the songs, we tried out very different approaches. I did one version with a clean verse and a super-heavy chorus. Then I changed it and did the opposite and made a few versions out of every song. Then we decided which is cool and which path we are going to continue. Everybody had a say and we had early demos of everything. Normally, that’s not the case. We used to construct and build the songs instrumentally. Then I would start writing lyrics in the last couple of months and in the last two weeks I would present them to the other guys and they would just say “yeah, fine!”. But here, we had the entire year. It makes it easier to adapt the songs to it. We can have a cool vocal melody and make the most out of it. I really appreciated that. It was great working like that.
Are you a self-taught singer or have you had lessons for clean and/or guttural vocals?
No, I just sing along with my favorite records, basically. It has always been like that. I definitely should take vocal lessons and learn how to sing properly, but I just haven’t. The screaming and growling was trial and error. A lot of error. (laughs) And a lot of trial. But also a lot of rehearsal. We spent so many years rehearsing many days a week to find what works and what feels good. So, yeah: A lot of practice.
Rob Halford recently said in an interview he’s sad that he can’t sing his songs anymore like many years ago with his voice tiring. Did you experience similar issues that things, which were possible vocally 20-30 years ago you can’t do anymore today?
No, I think it’s… well not the opposite, but I feel better now than I did ten or even fifteen years ago. I think I kind of perfected a technique, or at least made sure that it works for me. So, it’s going into the right direction. Of course, this is different. Screaming and singing the way I do is easy. I don’t have the power/heavy metal voice like that. It’s not the way I sing, so I don’t expect too much of an issue with that. For me it feels way better now than it used to do. Of course, I had a different stamina when I was 25, but that is obvious.
Let’s talk about the lyrics. It seems you repeatedly draw inspiration, themes and terms from philosophy and also psychology. Is this a field of special interest for you? Do you have a theoretical background knowledge?
No, but I find it fascinating. Philosophical issues are interesting. I just try to figure out what the meanings of things are, how we differ from each other and for what reason. When it comes to philosophy, I just try to somehow understand. When it comes to psychology, I meet a lot of people all over the world, all the time. I’m trying to figure out how much we differ. I see how the world is steering into weird directions I’m not okay with – and I wonder why. How did you end up becoming that guy supporting this philosophy, this political party or this religion. How did that happen? Where does that come from? What is it about our way of thinking that makes these logical fallacies, that we actually believe in things rather than knowing. We are we so curious? Or why aren’t we curious anymore and rather have the safety of believing something – and you’re fine with that, without questioning. Without wondering what is really behind things. And you just blindly follow something, because it’s easy. Because you don’t have to question, you don’t have to learn. You can just blindly accept something because that makes you feel better. And that’s fine, it’s a human condition we are all guilty of in some way or another. But sometimes that means we end up in trouble. All of the great calamities of the world have been caused by things like religion or philosophical and fundamental differences between people that we honestly really don’t have. These causes for all the conflict I’m just trying to figure out. I read a lot about it, I listen to a lot of books and essays about all that. It makes me feel at least like I get it and I try hard not to make the same mistakes. It’s a way for me to get rid of the frustrations that I have about where the world is heading or what’s going on. Just in my circle of friends and what have you. But I’m not preaching, I’m not telling anyone what to do. I don’t feel like I need to explain anything either. This is just how I feel about things. Do with it what you will. If you’re into it, if you feel the same – awesome! That makes me feel good. But if you don’t, it doesn’t really matter. I know that not everybody reads the lyrics or cares about it. For me it’s enough that I can scream and write about it.
Due to the corona crisis, your release show was pre-recorded and streamed. How was that like?
It was weird of course. The good thing was that we had all of our crew there that we haven’t seen in a year; some great people, like the camera crew, photographers and directors who are awesome. Close friends were there as well and that was it. We kind of performed for them, so, it felt like recording a music video were you kind of fake it. But this was real, so, we had to remember all the songs and play correctly. We shot it a few days before we streamed it just to make sure that everything works. I was nervous. We all were. We had practiced a lot, we had rehearsed enough but, still: Playing twelve totally new songs we had never played together for the first time in front of cameras, that was grueling. But at the same time, knowing that people would sit and home and watch this – like I do every time there is a cool streaming show – have a beer and try to enjoy it the way I enjoy an awesome music DVD or a live concert: that felt good. You had to somehow focus on that and imagine that happening, all over the world. I was really pleased the way it came out. It was awesome to see all the people who dug it, got into it and bought tickets. It was amazing and I’m really, really happy that we did it, even though it was a lot of hard work. But it was very, very cool and I hope we can do something like that again if touring doesn’t come back anytime soon. We’ll see.
Do you consider this kind of concert streaming an alternative even after corona, like for special album shows or anniversary shows?
This really opens up the possibility to do that. And that’s really cool. I think a lot of bands will use this as a possibility to do something special. Or stream it to a country or an area in the world where you just cannot tour. Make sure that it’s available only there and you play a special show just for that area or do cool things like that. Because now the technology is there. People know how it works. So, yes, absolutely. As a bonus for proper tours I think it is a good idea. And then, of course, recording and streaming live from an actual venue full of people is also a very cool thing. I think this is going to change things.
Being financially affected by the crisis, is the future of the band endangered?
It’s not endangered, but 90% of our income is from touring. We cancelled 65-70 shows this year already. For next year we had a lot of plans as well. So, of course that’s rough. That means that we cannot pay our crew and musicians. I will survive it. I can go back to work if I want to. And I will probably. But for now, it’s been super busy with the album. I’ll be okay for a while, but it’s not easy for anyone, of course. It costs a lot of money to drive this business every day. There is no income at all. But when you’re doing something like a stream show, then you get some income. You make the most out of it and it’s super expensive to make, but you get some back and that actually helps a little bit. Doing stuff like that and of course selling T-shirts and other merch. Because people still make money and so do I. I spent a lot of money on albums, T-shirts and stuff that I know matters to bands. That really helps to keep going. But we’ll see. We have plans for touring, but it’s not anytime soon at all. If we don’t make any money, then we’ll go back to work for a while and then we’ll head out whenever we can.
Let’s do our traditional brainstorming game at the end of the interview. I’ll give you a term or a question and you just say the first thing that pops into your head.
Swedens special corona strategy: Undetermined.
US election results: I’m very happy about it. Very, very happy. Ecstatically.
Moments or time spans? Time spans.
Favourite and least favourite DARK TRANQUILLITY album? Least favourite maybe “Haven”. Favourite probably “Moment” – for now.
That’s interesting. Niklas also once said that “Haven” is his least favourite. I think there was a lot of conflict. It doesn’t mean it’s bad and I love to listen to it, but there was something when we wrote it that was all over the place. We had different ideas. But I still like it.
DARK TRANQUILLITY in 10 years? Doing the same thing. Our 14th album probably. 15th even, we’ll see. (laughs)
Thank you for your time! Do you have any final words for our readers?
I’m just happy the album is out and we did this streaming concert. That was our plan for this year. Now we’re going to take some time off and just relax a little bit. Try to see what else we can do in order to keep the momentum of this and still keep in contact with people and fans. I’m just hoping that people are OK, feeling alright, even though you are locked at home. At least, we have music, right? That helps. That goes a long way for me.