Arched Bridges Beware
CoC talks to Mike Amott of Arch Enemy
by: Paul Schwarz
I have to be honest, after Arch Enemy's debut, _Black Earth_, was appraised so highly and near-universally by metal music critics, I was expecting it to light my fire considerably more than it ultimately did. It is a damn good record and its focus on incorporating more melody into a _Heartwork_-era Carcass type sound works well for it. When _Stigmata_ [CoC #32], the band's Century Media debut, appeared around the middle of last year, I was again gratified and disappointed at the same time. Though _Stigmata_ was more progressive yet still heavy, it lacked some of the vitriol and crispness of _Black Earth_ and ultimately wasn't the record I had hoped for. Why am I so fiercely critical of Arch Enemy? I am so fiercely critical of Arch Enemy because the band line-up consists of some of the most brilliant and respected musicians of the Swedish death metal scene. Johan Liiva's incredible vocals graced such works of mastery as Furbowl's _Those Shredded Dreams_, drummer Daniel Erlandson has provided the pounding rhythms for In Flames and Eucharist recordings, Christopher Amott's skills are amply displayed on Arch Enemy's records and in his own Armageddon project, and Mike Amott was the second guitarist in Carcass, probably my favourite death metal band, on their two best albums, along with helping to create Carnage's _Dark Recollections_ and playing in Candlemass. So, to cut a long story shorter, my expectations of this band are very high, maybe unfairly high, but that's the way it is. Late last month I got _Burning Bridges_, the latest Arch Enemy album (which features the talents of Sharlee D'Angelo of Mercyful Fate / Witchery in addition to the above participators). It would be an understatement to merely say "they have not disappointed me with their third offering". Featuring less of the more extravagant progressive-styled adventures of _Stigmata_ and a little more of the pummelling riff-assault of _Black Earth_, Arch Enemy's second release for Century Media cuts a line between the two sounds Arch Enemy have tried in the past and is their most satisfying record yet. On the line from the band's studio in Sweden, Mike Amott tells me about how things around _Burning Bridges_ shaped up, and in general his attitude to Arch Enemy and his other project Spiritual Beggars. Through dud phone connections and a temperamental dictaphone, this is what transpired.

CoC: You've played in a couple of seminal death metal bands, Carnage and Carcass; do you feel a duty to evolve the style in your work in Arch Enemy?

Mike Amott: Well, I don't feel... It's not my responsibility, really, I just play whatever I find interesting. I think it is just natural that it kind of evolves, the sound. It's not something that I think about too much, like in Arch Enemy there's a lot of influences that aren't strictly death metal.

[At this point my phone cuts off and I have to call Mike again.]

CoC: You were saying you don't necessarily have to be death metal; do you consider Arch Enemy to be a death metal band, or any kind of band in particular, or do you see it more as a free musical avenue?

MA: I just don't give it that much thought, you know. I think I have developed my own writing style, and the stuff I come up with is, uh, I don't know... 'Cause I've been playing this kind of music for a long time now, I don't really think about it too much, it's just like, the way, when I write, you know, more extreme metal, this is the way it sounds.

CoC: But you do have the two different bands, you have Spiritual Beggars...

MA: Yeah, exactly, yeah, and that's why, you know... The reason for that is that I like things to be sort of... I like to do the different things because they're both sort of heavy, sort of guitar music, but, you know, there's a different approach to each band. They both can be... I think I can do pretty much what I want within these two bands, there's a lot of space to grow as a musician, and I don't have to make Arch Enemy softer. A lot of bands, they change, they want to become more rock, some death metal bands want to become more rocky or whatever, and I think a lot of the times it doesn't work out that well.

CoC: I think that was the case with Carcass a bit.

MA: Yeah, definitely, after I left.

CoC: So, time-wise, do you find it's easy to fit Arch Enemy in with Spiritual Beggars?

MA: Well, virtually everybody I am playing with is basically in both bands, and they've got their other stuff going on at the same time. It is pretty hard, you know, with our time schedules and stuff, but now and again we sit down all together in a room and look through our calendars, try to fit it in, you know, "Maybe if you fly in this day or that day...". It's pretty chaotic at times, but we all enjoy doing Arch Enemy very much. Everybody that is a part of that band really wants to do it, so we just make it work sometimes.

CoC: Okay, what's the story behind the recruitment of Sharlee on bass, how come he joined the band?

MA: Well, basically, after our last tour of Japan, November last year, we kicked out our previous bass player, but we had the studio booked for recording [_Burning Bridges_] three weeks later. So we were kinda like "Oh shit, who's gonna play". We kicked the old guy out and then we sat down and thought "Who's gonna play bass?" I wanted somebody really good that could work really well with our drummer and the best bass player that I knew was Sharlee. He's been a friend for a while, a few years, and I knew he was a great bass player, but I knew he was very busy, you know.

CoC: The man of a hundred bands...

MA: Yeah, he's done a lot of recording, but I didn't expect anything of him. I just called him up and said "Do you wanna do it?", but first he was complaining. We were just talking about this and that and he said "Oh, I'm doing so much stuff now, and I have to stop doing..." this and that. Then I said "Well, y'know, I'm not gonna tell you why I'm calling, then", and he said "Why? What is it?". "Do you wanna play on our new album?" And he's like, "Oh yeah, sure." <we both laugh> "Sounds like fun." He ended up doing that, but you know, I didn't expect him to do anything else than the album, but he's really into it now. We played the Dynamo festival and we played in South America, so far, with him, live and it's been working out really really well, and this is a great rhythm section with Daniel [Erlandson] on drums and Sharlee. It really makes a difference, even in death metal, to have a great rhythm section. It's like really swinging now, <laughs> it's kind of grooving a little bit, but it's got a pretty good feel to it and everybody's on the same level musically. Sharlee came in so late on this album that he wasn't at all involved in the writing of the album. He added all his... I wanted the sort of bass playing that really felt more alive, so instead of just following the root notes, he's more a traditional, hard rock bass player in that he's got a lot of bass lines and stuff, works together with the drums very well: I'm really happy.

CoC: So, has he improved your live performances as well?

MA: Yeah, I mean he's got a lot of routine from touring for years and years with Mercyful Fate, so he's great live, and his bass sound is way heavier than what we've ever had before, so it's made us heavier and better. <laughs>

CoC: With _Burning Bridges_ I kind of get the impression slightly that it goes a bit back to the first album in terms of being a bit more riff-heavy. If you think about the position the album holds in comparison to your others, where does it stand?

MA: Well, I was really really happy with the first album that we did, _Black Earth_ [1996], it is one of my favourites out of all the albums I have done, out of all the albums that I've recorded. Then the second one, for me, personally, was a bit of a disappointment.

CoC: How the writing turned out...?

MA: Yeah, both the writing and the recording. It was just a bit of an overall disappointment for me compared to the first one, but now, I think this new one, like you said it's kind of a combination of the two, maybe, 'cause I think we went overboard on the progressive, more technical stuff on the second album, and we're not really out to prove anything now, we're just kind of going with it. I wanted some of that brutality back from the first album, with the return of Daniel... With Daniel back on the drums again it's like... He's really important for the sound of Arch Enemy, I think. When I write, I have the riffs and a lot of the structures, but I bring that down with me to the rehearsal room, and that's where it really happens. Everybody's an important part of the band.

CoC: That's where it all comes together?

MA: Yeah, exactly, we change the whole feel of the song and it can turn into something else.

CoC: How do you feel about being called a death metal supergroup by your label?

[Dictaphone cut out for a few seconds.]

MA: <laughs> This band -is- full of legends.

CoC: Yeah, you've got Johan from Furbowl, you've done Carcass, and Daniel's been in In Flames and Eucharist.

MA: Yeah, I don't know, it doesn't really count in the end, you know; if the music is good that's all that counts. For what we're doing now, if it's interesting to people -- people find it exciting, good --, what we've done in the past is like... Labels always do that, you know. I can see that if they want to get people interested, like "Ah, he's played with..." whoever, this and this band and they just want to get people to actually listen to it. If it makes somebody pick it up and go "Ah, I liked Carcass", or whatever, "I'll give it a listen", and maybe it is something that's up their street. But... it wasn't my idea.

CoC: With the title of the album, are you -burning- any bridges?

MA: <laughs> Musically?

CoC: Yeah, with respect to what you want to progress or regress to, or are you pretty open?

MA: We're really open musically, and we've already written a bunch of new songs. I think it [_BB_] is just a mixture of everything. I think it's going to be really cool. I'm in a really sort of creative period right now, doing a lot of writing and stuff. I don't really put any limitations... What's fun with Arch Enemy is that everybody is really good on their instrument, the playing is very high quality, I think, in the band. We just kind of do a little bit of what we want, we do a lot of stuff that's kind of... We're really into having really softer, more sort of emotional parts or whatever. You know, lead guitar and clean guitars: pretty sounding stuff. I like to have this sort of scope where there are two opposites: the total brutality of the fast parts and the evil notes and stuff (and then the soft parts). Sometimes me and my brother sit and play and think "Maybe this is gonna sound too... soft", but then when we just play it at rehearsal, with Johan's vocals on top and everything, and the way we play it, because we play... Even if we have something that's maybe more traditional, hard rock / heavy metal sort of idea, the delivery is just so brutal and aggressive or whatever... So it just sounds good anyway, you know. It doesn't sound wimpy, I think.

CoC: I think, for me anyway, listening to it, I felt that "Silverwing" and maybe "Angelclaw" -were- almost going to far, and then listening to it more, it doesn't, it just captures the dynamic, but it runs, for me anyway, pretty close to the edge.

[Dictaphone cuts out for a few seconds.] [Someone needs a new dictaphone! -- Gino]

MA: Yeah, that's cool. We were kind of aware of stuff like "Silverwing", you know, we thought "Maybe this is a bit close to the edge". <laughs> Are people just going to say "What the hell is this?" Because that's like major chord structures, it's not minor [nearly all death metal is written in minor chord structures -- Paul] and we were kind of afraid that it was going to sound too happy, but I don't think it sounds happy, it sounds kind of... I don't know. I really like to have really strong emotions in the music, you know, the melodies and stuff. That's really what we want to do, have the extreme emotions: really sad and then really brutal. I think it's a pretty cool mix, you know, I don't think there's anybody out there who's mixing things, that sounds exactly like Arch Enemy.

CoC: I would agree with that.

MA: And maybe that's working for us or maybe will work for us in some respects, but I think in many ways it probably works against us. It's been proven; it's often easier to sound like something that's a trend or whatever's going on. I mean, we do fit into this whole Swedish melodic death thing, but in other ways, we're not only that. We don't really feel like we're a part of anything like that, we just want to play metal. <laughs>

CoC: [Dictaphone cut out most of my question, but at a guess:] Do you feel you have to be careful not to go overboard with what you incorporate into Arch Enemy?

MA: I have a really strong belief in riffs, riffs are like my religion, you know. <we both laugh> I really believe in those things, like heavy guitars and guitar solos. That doesn't seem to be too much a part of a lot of those bands... I like those bands, I think some of them are really good, but I don't think we have the same... Especially now. All these bands are coming out with new albums and they all sound totally different from each other. So, I think everybody in that scene is kind of coming into their own now, or the bands that have been going for a few years, anyway.

CoC: Yeah, I think the new Dark Tranquillity and In Flames are a bit different.

MA: Yeah, I mean you can't really compare Dark Tranquillity to In Flames anymore. I think Arch Enemy is...

CoC: A bit more Carcass-like?

MA: Yeah, I think so, I mean a lot of people are saying now "It really reminds me of Carcass", and that's not so hard to understand. I mean I wrote maybe 40% of the _Heartwork_ album, musically, and obviously that's just what it sounds like. This is what I think that kind of music should be like, or whatever. Obviously they influenced me a lot, shaped me. <laughs>

CoC: Do you ever think of working with Bill [Steer, Carcass guitarist and main songwriter]? He's not doing anything at the moment.

MA: He's doing something, yeah, he's doing demos, I think he's recording an album this Summer. He's working with the drummer from Spiritual Beggars and the bass player from Cathedral, Leo Smee.

CoC: Would you mind talking briefly about some of your musical influences and music tastes?

MA: I listen to a wide variety of stuff, really, and that's my parents' fault, I guess, because their record collection ranges from anything, from classical music through jazz to soul music from the '60s and '70s. Then I like a lot of '70s rock, classic stuff: Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, obviously, the beginnings of heavy metal or whatever. But for Arch Enemy I suppose the whole twin guitar thing, that has a heavy emphasis with Arch Enemy. I guess that's from Judas Priest, Iron Maiden obviously, and stuff like that, and then the more brutal aspects of it are just me growing up listening to underground death metal and stuff from the '80s. That kind of ruined me, I guess. <I laugh> Listening to all those demos and tapes and stuff. So I've got that as well, you know; a bunch of stuff. I listen to a lot of more progressive stuff, I'll listen to anything, really. Pop, rock, anything. You'd be surprised to hear what actually influences us sometimes. But I'm not going to tell anybody. <laughs>

CoC: [Again, dictaphone cuts out my question, something about it being good to have diverse influences.]

MA: I think bands that are only influenced by their own sort of genre are often really boring. You hear some bands and they are so traditional and so... I don't know, but there's a fine balance there, you know. And then I don't like bands who have their own mixture of everything; that can't seem to make up their mind. I thought -funk metal-, for an example, was a pretty bad marriage.

CoC: Yeah, I've never heard that work too well.

MA: No exactly, yeah. I mean I like funk, and I like metal. I think it is good to have a healthy spectrum of influences; a broad spectrum of influences.

CoC: Yeah, I think what happened with a lot of early death metal bands... <cut off again> [... is that after a while they want to be less all-out brutal and incorporate more groove or melody.]

MA: That's what kind of happened with Carcass, that we kind of got into this whole "Let's mix in more of this traditional metal, you know, metal chord progressions, and let's put some guitar solos and the melodies and stuff in there", and you just have to do something with it, and that's what I've kind of continued with Arch Enemy: along those lines. But some bands are kind of bringing in more influences from goth music into the death metal stuff, and some people are going more electronic, and it's just people trying to do something with what you've got, you know.

CoC: And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

MA: Yeah, exactly, and it's kind of... I don't think there are any set rules for music, music is just a huge, vast sort of landscape, really, and just staying in one place all your life must be pretty boring, because you're sort of "We have to be extremely brutal and have blast beats and gruff vocals all the way through, on every album, forever". And I do like bands like Deicide, because they are kind of reliable <laughs>, you know? Buying an Arch Enemy album can be a risky affair, I don't know... <laughs>

CoC: Yeah, I'd agree and I think sometimes I like the traditional stuff, but for me Cynic and Nocturnus are among my favourite death metal bands, and they're also some of the most innovative and different ones. And they made and sold nothing because no-one [OK, few people] understood them, or what they were doing, pretty much. But that's the risk you take: underground popularity, for, even in the death metal scene, overground lack of sales.

MA: Yeah, exactly.

CoC: But I don't know, I think Arch Enemy, to me anyway, catch something a little bit... you definitely don't fall into the trap of some bands of just disappearing up your own arse. I think there's a huge danger -- not that I have any problem with progressive rock, I love Rush --, but I think you can so easily just lose yourself.

MA: That is just a very, very dangerous path. <laughs> Yeah, but I am a fan of that stuff and I do respect a lot of the musicianship and stuff, but we just like to take little ingredients from different fields of music and just mix it up. I mean I'm talking about... Somebody who's going to go and buy the album, the _Burning Bridges_ album, they're just going to be... it's just like super-heavy, intense, in your face and brutal vocals. It's still brutal and heavy, it's just little nuances in music.

CoC: Okay, you've been saying a lot about the album and how fans might receive it, but with you guys playing live 'round the world, what would you say to people who might come check out the shows?

MA: I'm just hoping that people are going to be into coming down and checking us out, 'cause I think with this new line-up we have, it just felt so good in South America and at the Dynamo festival, so we're really eager to go out there and play more and that will happen, so it should be fun and hopefully we'll see people on the road.

(article submitted 7/7/1999)

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