Dark Tranquility is wrapping up their tour of North America. Vocalist Mikael Stanne took a few minutes while on the road to talk with National Rock Review about the tour and their new album; Atoma.
Pioneers of what is now referred to as the “Gothenburg Metal,” Dark Tranquility have kept the flame burning bright for over 27 years. They recently have added their 11th studio album called Atoma to their marvelous catalog of brutally beautiful metal. The new album sees the band continuing to explore new avenues within the boundless genre of melodic death metal.
The band is finishing up the final week of their tour of North America and are about to head into a short break before storming into Russia and back to Europe. National Rock Review had the opportunity to speak with vocalist Mikael Stanne over the phone to talk about the tour, the new album, and what motivates the band.
NRR:You guys are just finishing up your North America tour. How has it been?
Mikael Stanne: It’s been awesome. Yeah, one week to go and then we head back home. It’s been incredible. Crowds have been great. All the bands are fantastic and we’ve had a really really good time. Everybody has been somewhat healthy (laughs). You know.
No accidents. No sicknesses. Nothing like that. It’s been a blast seeing so many great friends and met a lot of new friends; A lot of cool new friends that I’ll keep forever. It’s just been incredible.
NRR: I saw you just recently at your show in Detroit at the Token Lounge. You guys were outstanding! The show lineup had a spectacular mix of genres. How did you end up on tour with Starkill, Enforcer, and Swallow The Sun?
Mikael Stanne: Well in conversations with our booking agent here, we talked about who is available and what other bands want to go out. Swallow The Sun really wanted to and he (our agent) mentioned that this would be a really good pairing. We thought this was fantastic. We had met those guys before, but never toured together. I love their music and that sounds perfect.
Ok now we need more bands, what else have you got? You know? Enforcer are really cool guys from Stockholm area in Sweden and Starkill just wants to go out and tour all the time which is perfect us.
NRR: You guys spend a lot of time on the road. What do you love most and what do you least enjoy about touring?
Mikael Stanne: The show of course. The show is the highlight of every night. Partying, hanging out, meeting new people. Seeing old friends that I only get to see every other year you know. And of course seeing new cities, finding interesting cool restaurants and finding good beers.
Actually on this tour just because we have some new guys in the band; introducing them to America. Especially Anders who is our new bass player. We’ve been friends forever, ever since we were 14. It’s the first time he’s been here. Just having the opportunity to show him around and showing him the country and introducing him to the audiences, and all the cool things about America has just been a blast.
NRR: Looks like you’ll be headed back to Russia and then over to Europe to begin 2017. Are there any new places for Dark Tranquility that you will be hitting on this leg of the tour?
Mikael Stanne: Yeah, a few new. We are going to do a tour with Amon Amarth in Europe and then we go to at least a couple of cities we haven’t played before. But other than that, I haven’t really looked into it actually.
My head is totally into this tour right now. Sometimes when you are tired and you have been away from home for a while, reading about upcoming tour dates is like, ah man no (laughs). I’ll deal with that when I get home. But this is just the beginning of the tour for this album. We always look for that you know, new places to play and new cities, just to meet new audiences.
That is one of the best things in the world you know. To come to a new country or city where people are dying to see you because you’ve never been able to come to them in such a long time. It creates a really special atmosphere and I totally love that.
NRR: Your new album, Atoma has been out for almost a month and has received well-deserved praise. I found it to be a very poignant and reflective work of art. Easily one of the band’s best and you guys have a brilliant catalog. How have you guys enjoyed the response to the new album so far?
Mikael Stanne: Oh it’s been great. Everyday we meet a lot of new fans and everybody seems to be into it. We play five or six songs from it every night and no one seems to complain (laughs). It’s been cool. We always worry; can we put together a setlist where this kind of works and makes sense. But it all seems to work.
A lot of rehearsals went into this especially since we have two temp guitar players (Erik Jacobson and Sebastian Myren from Deals Death) that had to learn all this material. I think we are sounding better than ever on this tour.
NRR: The lyrical content on Atoma seems to revolve around many philosophical musings on how we as humans obscure the truth of the world around us in various ways, from fear, doubt, to self-delusion. What inspires your thoughts that created these lyrics?
Mikael Stanne: I’m just trying to make sense of what goes on in the world. I see all these really nasty things that are being done to each other. All the conflict. All the territorial conflict. It just seems like aren’t we better than this? You know, haven’t we evolved beyond all this. It seems like we are standing still because people don’t want progress, they don’t want to move and they don’t want to be open-minded and welcoming. I think its because everybody is very selfish in away, you know. I’m trying to take all the weird things I’ve seen these last two years from the immigration crisis in Europe to the American election.
For me it’s about trying to figure out what are the motivations. Why would you vote a certain way? Why would you think a certain way? Why all this conflict when it should be so easy. If you are humane and empathic then things will be fine. But people are afraid and they get angry when they are afraid, you know. We turn to others that are feeling the same fear, which leads people feeling angrier.
Anything that makes me angry I want to write about (laughs). Heavy metal is such an extreme art form that it requires you to pull out all those strong emotions.
NRR: Do you feel that you as the writer need to actually experience the emotions expressed by your lyrics or is it more of a thoughtful exploration of a particular idea? A sort of story telling if you will.
Mikael Stanne: Most of the time its personal stuff that I have experienced. But sometimes I kinds of go “what if?” Like a couple of years ago, I wrote about loss. I tried to put myself in a place where you lose someone or something is taken from you, that kind of thing. So sometimes it is a bit of story telling, but sometimes it is about a pain that you have experienced yourself, you know.
It makes it kind of easier to write, if you write about it in the third person or something like that. You write about someone else, but you are basically writing your own experience, that kind of thing. It (the approach) changes. Sometimes a song needs a different treatment to make sense. To match the music and fits the album as a whole.
NRR: Regarding your approach to writing, do you start with lyrics or do you listen to the music first and build lyrics around the musical theme?
Mikael Stanne: We always start with the music first. I definitely write lyrics all the time, but that’s not how the songs start. Someone comes up with a riff and then we put together an early demo. Then I record some temporary vocals just to see if it fits and then build off of that. Yeah, the music always comes first. For me, I need that. I want to hear the song, the melody, the mood before I can figure out what I want to say (laughs).
NRR: Speaking of songwriting, what is the process like for the band as a whole? Do you jam as a band or is it more a process of circulating ideas among band members to craft a song?
Mikael Stanne: Anders (Jivarp, drums) normally writes a lot of stuff at home. And then we head to the studio and make an early demo of those ideas, you know. So Anders will have ideas written on piano; just basic melodies and chord progressions, stuff like that. And then together with Mutt and B (Martin BrÃ¤ndstrÃ¶m and Niklas Sundin) start building songs out of that. Sometimes Niklas will do a whole song production by himself and then of course we add our stuff to it as well. We add and subtract until everyone is happy (laughs).
It’s like it has always really been, you know. You sit alone at home and figure out what you want to write about and what you want to do. Then we all come together as a band to figure out what’s best for the band and what kind of songs should be.
NRR: Your voice is a defining element of the Gothenburg sound. It is so full of raw emotion. How did your style develop and how do you maintain your voice over time?
Mikael Stanne: It was all the death metal and thrash singers that I loved you know, like Mille Petrozza (Kreator) or Dave Vincent (Morbid Angel). And Rogga from Merciless an old Swedish band. You kind of mix and match and this is how I want to sound. Then eventually through rehearsal, you know (laughs)–. Five, six, seven hours a day for years, literally you develop your own style.
The emotional aspect was always very important to me. If you are going to scream about something, it should be something that you want to scream about, you know. Writing lyrics and songs that are just made so that it will sound cool and you can bang your head, that seems kind of hollow to me. You know I love stuff like that, but for us we wanted something else and so the melodic side of that came from a wish to express ourselves more on an emotional level and not only that primal, you know, death metal thing (laughs).
I tend to follow the melody a lot when I sing and even when I’m screaming. And to me, what I like about that is the melody and the voice kind of fits together and that can be even more emotional and powerful when done right. If I get it right.
NRR: Your voice definitely comes across with power and emotion and live it’s incredible
Mikael Stanne: Thank you. And that is a whole different thing. All of a sudden you are somehow communicating something. Where you have that connection with the audience that understands that and that release. The pleasure I get out of that is amazing. Seeing something that I worked hard to put together and write; and even translate it for a totally different country. Then to see that someone can understand how I feel maybe and see what we are trying to do. That is an amazing feeling. The best there is.
NRR: What one album, artist or song had the most influence on you wanting to create your own music?
Mikael Stanne: Pretty much when we started the band we were like we wanted the aggression and intensity of bands like Kreator, Destruction, Sodom; that kind of stuff. But we wanted the brutality and speed from the death metal bands like Morbid Angel and Atheist.
We didn’t want to write lyrics like everyone else was doing. It was important to do everything differently from everyone else. So that’s why we took our influences from many different types of music, captured the parts we love and tried to figure out how to do something unique out of that, you know.
NRR: The music industry has dramatically changed in the last 20 years; do you think you would be in a metal band if you were starting out today?
Mikael Stanne: Oh wow, yeah I think so. Obviously when you are 14 or maybe 15 you find that new cool music that changes your life forever. You know, at least it did for us. Maybe there would be other things if I was 14 right nowâ€¦15, maybe I would get hooked on video games instead of thrash (laughs). Or anything else; I have no idea. The options are there.
Like one of the reasons we started the band was because we were sitting around being bored, you know. We couldn’t afford to buy all the records that we wanted and we were just sitting around listening to music every day. All the time; always talking about music with our friends. And we thought, man we might as well start a band; lets do something, you know. There was nothing else.
NRR: Well, I’m glad you guys did!
Mikael Stanne: (laughs) Yeah me too.
NRR: Along those lines, what advice would you give a kid that sees you on stage and says “I want to do that!”?
Mikael Stanne: I think you have try to find your own thing and not just rush out of the gate and release music. You know, thinking that you have to have some presence in social media or whatever. Just wait. Go out and rehearse like crazy; getting into the rehearsal room and playing together as much as you can. Don’t rush it. Maybe then start doing shows, get some experience and then eventually you will find your own style.
The way I see it, I get a lot of demos and CDs from band that say “hey this is our first cd and we sound just like you”. And I will go like, well that’s not what I want (laughs) and probably not what you want either. You are like ok, cool this is a starting point. But maybe evaluate it another six months or a year and then maybe it will be even better. Then maybe you’ll have a better shot at actually cutting through. And not get lost in the blur of two thousand bands that are out every week it seems. So take your time and just figure things out first.
NRR: Mikael I have just one last question for you. Sort of a off the wall fun one that I like to ask; What is your favorite breakfast food?
Mikael Stanne: Ahh, super spicy omelets. Eggs and hot sauce. Yeah, I’d love to have that now.
NRR: That’s all I had for you Mikael. I really appreciate you taking with me.
Mikael Stanne:Hey! It was fun man.
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