Dark Tranquillity, a Moment interview during the pandemic

Dark Tranquillity, a Moment interview during the pandemic

2021 will mark Dark Tranquillity’s thirtieth year on the scene (thirtysecond if we take into account Septic Broiler), along which the band from Göteborg delivered twelve studio albums, two live DVDs and a number of EPs and off-track publications. Most notably, even if the band’s most innovative days may be gone, there is not a single Dark Tranquillity album which failed to impress and convince both fans and critics.

November 2020 sees the release of the new opus from the Swedish act, Moment, in circumstances which are by no means the most unpredictable any artist has had to face in a lifetime. We sat down with frontman Mikael Stanne to talk about new music and how to face the pandemic, in no particular order.

Our main focus up to this point has mainly been the album. We tried to book things, think about the future and all that stuff, but, well, nothing happened. So we said to ourselves ok, let’s just focus on what we have here and what we can actually do, and try to remain positive. Let’ try and make sure everything is perfect. Usually everything’s always done in a rush, we have to prepare for the next tour and we gotta release the thing. Now there are no tours, so we can focus on all the other things, which has been pretty interesting, kind of cool. This week our videoclip for “The Dark Unbroken” will be released. So in that way, yeah, we’re good. But I’m afraid that a month from now, when the album’s out and there will be no shows, then that emptiness is going to be here. Ugh, I don’t want to think about that.

That was about to be one of the next topics, actually: this is probably the first time in thirty years that you have an album out and that you won’t be on the road backing it. How are you planning, if you are planning, to fill that void? What will you do when the album is released?

[sighs deeply] We’re going to do a live stream show, the day after the album comes out, November 21st, and that’s the main focus right now. We will have some sort of interaction, an aftershow probably, and it’s going to be great for us to be on stage for the first time in 2020, even though there will be no one around. We wanted to make sure we can play together, we’re going to play the entire album, in a beautiful theatre here in Göteborg, and it’s going to feel like the first night of the tour for this album. We’ll have the full crew in from Portugal, it’s going to be full-production… We just don’t know when the second show is going to be [laughs bitterly]. But at least we’re preparing assets for when we’re going on tour. Even if we won’t. And it’s gonna be weird. Argh [bites his lip]. I don’t want to think about it.

Ok, ok, let’s change the subject.

No, no, the thing is: I’ve been super busy with a lot of other projects. Because of this situation, everybody is at home wanting so hard to do something, and their creativity doesn’t just stop. I’ve received a lot of offers and ideas from bands, from friends, from strangers, like “Hey can you sing on this? Can you do that? Can you join me in my new project?”, and some of them are fantastic, so I said: “Yeah sure I’m gonna do that”.

You try to keep yourself busy.

Yeah, yeah, exactly, one song’s already coming out like next week or the following one, from a new project that’s super cool, I’m working on another thing in the meantime, I’d like to do some vocal score for a videogame soundtrack, I recorded something with an Italian debuting band, Husqwarnah. Just because why not? I’m happy to say yes to the kind of things I would normally have to say no only because I’m busy and I don’t feel like I have the time or the energy to do anything. But now I’m just here, every day, all day long, screaming into this microphone recording vocals [points at the mic he’s currently talking into in his home studio].

Talking about recording and moving on to Moment: this was the first time you actually entered the studio with Chris [Amott] and Johan [Reinholdz], how did it go? From the videos you released I’d say it was fun.

It was great. Most of the songs were written in the studio by Anders, Martin and a little bit by me, and when we thought we had all the material we had Johan and Chris join us to be part of it and put their spin on it. Johan started writing lots of new stuff for the songs, really adding something. Chris on the other hand mainly worked on leads and solos, and it was super interesting just to see their take on it, how they approached the material and our music. Being a band for thirty years of course we have our way of working, Anders and Martin and I have a way of doing things, after such a long time together, whereas Chris and Johan have a very different background. So one interesting thing was just figuring out how to work it and being sure it was still very much Dark Tranquillity while using their talent and skills. Fortunately we did have a lot of time in the studio this time, we really needed that, in order to feel that we were on the same page.

Something I noticed, from the studio videos, is that you gave the impression of sharing the place in the most complete sense: ideas and thoughts, as well as of course the physical room. It may sound banal, but lately there are less and less bands doing that, favoring on the other hand a “distant” approach, working from home separately and maybe, just maybe, rehearsing a few times just before the tour.

To be fair, we did a little bit of both. In the beginning it was only Anders, Anders, Martin and I sitting in the studio, Johan worked from home, because he lives like four hours away, and Chris lives in New York, so the ideal way in the beginning was to send them stuff. Then Johan started coming over for weekends and we had 14-hour sessions in the studio, focusing a hundred percent on the music. At a certain point we reserved a hotel for Chris and Johan so that they could join us every day in the studio. We really spent weeks and weeks in there, hanging out. It was great just having the studio that close. Moreover the plan was to have the album out before the summer, so we could play some new songs at European festivals.

Yeah, except that festivals never took place.

And that meant some more time in the studio. We postponed the release until after the summer, to match the North American tour. And that didn’t happen either, so we added another couple of weeks in the studio. Eventually it worked in our favor, from a certain point of view. It took some of the stress away, because it’s always a very stressful process, recording albums. This time it was still stressful, but not in the same way. Most of it was done in pre-production and it really alleviated some of that stress and tension. At least one positive thing in all this weirdness.

So if you allow me to say it, you were lucky, in a sense, that the pandemic struck while you were working on the new album and not when you had already made arrangements for tours. You probably know what happened to Anathema, who called it quits.

Yeah, one of my favorite bands. That’s so sad.

How’s the situation in Sweden on the other hand? Are you receiving any help from the government, as a band which cannot go out there and play? Is the State helping artists in any way?

Mmh. You can apply for some help, there is something, but is mainly dedicated to bands that perform in Sweden. If you have an income from abroad, then you’re not eligible for that. We had sixtyfive shows cancelled this year. One of them was in Sweden. It didn’t really make any sense for us to apply to such thing. It’s kinda shitty, especially since you pay a lot of artist taxes in Sweden and you don’t get anything in return, it’s not like we have social benefits or insurance because of the taxes you pay as a musician. It’s kind of rough, like that. We’re fine, we will survive, but it’s rough, a lot of people in Sweden working in music and entertainment are worried about the way this situation is being handled.
In November though they are going to open up events for crowds of three hundred people, seated only, which maybe is going to work, but it would be definitely weird, I don’t think is something for a death metal show. As of today up to fifty people can gather, if you have people sitting, say in a restaurant, then it moves up to a hundred. They are really trying to have at least small venues and theaters open. I have no idea whether it’s going to work in the end, but at least it’s something and people have the chance to work. I don’t know, it really feels super weird, we are just going to wait it out, we booked some shows next year but who knows. We have a few dates in Russia, but I don’t know about the situation over there, I talked to some people and they said everything is fine and they are doing shows.

It really varies from day to day. Yesterday the government here in Italy promulgated a law setting the closing time for commercial activities at 6 PM. And you can very well understand the impact of such a thing on theaters, clubs, restaurants and the whole industry.

Woah. No, in Sweden they’ve never done anything like that. Masks are not mandatory, there is no shutdown at all, it’s just like: “Everybody keep your distance”, there are limits for people in restaurants, but everything is still open. I think mainly for the mental health of people. I rarely go out, I try to stay in, to take it easy and be mindful of other people, but I can if I want to. I can go to an empty bar and have a beer, meet a friend, go to a friend’s house, meet my parents. At least there is that, it’s not prohibitive like a lockdown. I don’t know how I could handle that, that would feel strange to me. Since I’m doing this every day, talking to people from all over the world, I get a lot of stories and I feel bad about telling how easy it is here in Sweden compared to everywhere else. And that is just because of what we decided to do, not because it’s better or worse in any way.

I’m sorry to change the topic now, but since you mentioned it before: the North American tour. This year it is not happening, but the 2021 one had some issues and was cancelled too because of the promoter. What happened? Can you talk about that?

There was this promoter guy, with whom we worked for the past couple of years, a super weird guy, one of the guys we never want to talk to or hang out with. But yeah, he worked for us. He’s an American, loudmouth, obnoxious, constantly being a dick, one you hope never shows up – and in fact he rarely does, and when he does you keep your distance. Yet, we didn’t have another booking agent, and tourin in America is tough, pretty difficult for an European band, and this guy did put tours together, so we were fine, we heard how much of an asshole he was to bands, so we were never completely satisfied, but we said ourselves we’d live with it as long as he had the job done. But then Metal Injection I think it was [it was Metal Sucks – Bosj], made an article where they collected stories and allegations for a year or more about how much of an asshole he is to absolutely everyone, there were stories of sexual assaults, of stolen money from bands and of how he was an absolute asshole to all his employees and the people he was working with. It was mind blowing. We knew he was that kind of guy but we couldn’t, I couldn’t imagine something like this. Of course we had to verify what was stated in the article, but then my inbox flooded with messages from people who knew the situation or had similar experiences with him, and fuck it, this cannot continue, so we dropped him. And so did everyone else, the likes of Nightwish, Symphony X, Amorphis and a lot of big bands that he cannot use as leverage anymore. So now everybody left him, and it’s for the better, it’s a good riddance, now we have a new fantastic agent and it’s all for the best. I do regret working with him at all, it wasn’t easy, ever. But it happened, we got it done, so we’re now trying to re-book a tour around the same time period. I’m sure it’s going to be a better tour, with better venues [chuckles positively].

I’d like to move back to the album now, since the digital promo didn’t show any lyrics. What kind of topics and subjects did you draw your inspiration from this time to write your verses?

Well, the ideal theme, if I have to name just one, is based around the title: why do we do the things that we do? What is it that separates the past from the future? Our experience, our upbringing, our knowledge, our education, everything that informs where we go from now on, from this moment forward. What path did we take? What choices do we make? Why? It seems to me the world is constantly veering into territories and into a direction that… I’m just not comfortable with [sighs], I’m just confounded by and I don’t understand. And if I understand it, I don’t feel it is the best way. I’m trying to figure out, for myself, why this is happening. What is wrong with us, what is it about the human condition and nature that makes us go against what is scientifically proven, what is socially accepted. What is it about us that makes us rebellious, but in a way that is just negative and destructive.
Some of the songs are about losing things that you take for granted and how you deal with it. Changes in your life and how you cope with them. Trying to make sense in moments of grief and loss. Others deal with this selfish behaviour and how easy it is to see the world only the way you choose to view it, with blindfolds on and not really looking at the whole picture. Things like that make me furious, make me angry, both on a macro and a micro level, looking at the big picture and in the small detail. It really infuriates me, who we are.

Moving to another specific element of the album: the artwork. I guess you parted ways with Niklas [Sundin, founding member and guitarist for Dark Tranquillity until 2019] as friends, since he is the author of the illustration.

Definitely. Niklas still wanted to be part of the band, of course, but he also needed to be with his family, and he wanted to be a family man, he wanted to be home. That was not going to work, he did not really want to tour, he did not want to be stuck in the studio forever and it just made sense for him to stay home, that’s why at first we needed live guitar players, but then he said it would be weird for him, he felt like he was holding the band back. He is super busy, has a pretty stressful situation and he lives in America too… It just made sense for him to officially kind of step down, it was something that more or less we already agreed on and that was going to happen anyway. But of course he is as much part of the band as ever in so many other ways, we’re in contact every single day about everything else. It’s kind of similar to what happened with Martin [Henriksson, founding member and guitarist too], when he left he was already doing all this other stuff besides the music, he was in charge of every management aspect and issue and that overtook the playing, in the end he was like: “Yeah yeah ok I’ll play, I’ll do that too”. Same goes for Niklas, but with art: he is an artist, he wants to write, but traveling constantly, doing shows, it’s not for him anymore. Priorities change, it happens.

Well, you’ve been doing this for three decades, he definitely had his share. I brought Niklas up because I was curious about the artwork, which I like very much, and I think it’s the most colorful artwork Dark Tranquillity ever had. What’s the concept behind it and how did it come to life?

It started from the title and from some of the lyrics. I sent him some of the early songs and the idea was to have something like a virus which was spreading out, which was a poor choice of words at the time, but I didn’t know a pandemic was going to happen. Then we discussed the concept of a revelation, the learning of something new, the moment when you realise you’ve been wrong all this time and you see things for what they truly are, instead of what you think them to be through your filters of faith, lack of knowledge or plain stupidity. So Niklas asked me some references and inspirations and then he came out with this draft which I think was great, this light pillar with a character, in a strange environment signifying the world and how strange it is, how distant you feel from everything before you can see what is truly there.
When we started discussing the colors, I wanted it to be very different from Atoma, so I suggested him to check out some videogames. I am always recommending videogames to Niklas and he never has time to play, but I do all the time and I find some of them so inspirational, some artbooks and games are incredibles, some of the best artists in the world are working in the videogame industry. I always tell him he’d love some of those, but he never plays [says a bit grumpy].

Now our nerdy audience needs to know what games you’re talking about.

Ah, I play everything. Tonight I’ll go back to Ghostrunner, which came out today and looks amazing, this wall-running cool sci-fi samurai game. But I really play a lot: Call Of Duty, World Of Warcraft, I’m an old Blizzard nerd. But what I specifically suggested to Niklas was Firewatch, a game by an indie studio which is absolutely amazing, with this vibrant, red-orange-yellowish art. I sent him some videos and screenshots and he said: “Cool, cool, we might do something with that”. And that became the cover for Moment. I cannot wait, we’re going to the pressing plant tomorrow and we’ll be there during the pressing of the album for the first time and I am so excited to see the cover and how it looks on paper.

My last question is now related to your off-music activities: what’s happened to your beer, the Atoma stout? Still waiting to find it available for the European market.

Nah, you could order it from Denmark for a short period and that was it. Now it’s sold out actually. We did not make a new one because right now all the small breweries here are struggling, so it’s not a great time to do that. Actually we’d like to have a Dark Tranquillity beer brewed in Milan, it’s in the plans, it’s just that we have no idea when it will be possible.

Know that I’ll be a guest when that happens, sounds very funny.

Ah, it would be a dream to me, whenever we’ll be free to travel again that’s going to happen. For the time being we’ll be focusing on the album release and the streaming show. It is the only way to feel close to someone, because frustrating as it is at the moment this is as close as we can get.