Projecting and Reinventing
CoC interviews Niklas Sundin and Mikael Stanne of Dark Tranquillity
by: Pedro Azevedo
One can hardly discuss Swedish metal without at least mentioning Dark Tranquillity. Every album of theirs was a landmark in their time for many of us, and they still are: their debut _Skydancer_, _The Gallery_ -- perhaps their greatest effort [see CoC #7 for a completely different opinion] --, _The Mind's I_ [CoC #22] and last year's more experimental _Projector_ [CoC #41]. But with a discography as brilliant as theirs, after four full-length albums and more than ten years, Dark Tranquillity are still looking to evolve and face new musical challenges, both on their latest album _Projector_ and the forthcoming _Haven_ (to be released in July). The following is an unfortunately much delayed e-mail interview with guitarist Niklas Sundin and vocalist Mikael Stanne about the past, present and future of their outstanding band. Much like what happened with _Projector_ itself, I feel it was well worth the extended wait.

CoC: More than ten years have passed since Dark Tranquillity was formed; do you have any plans to celebrate this with a live album or anything?

Niklas Sundin: There may be some sort of celebration album coming out later this year, but at this stage it all depends on some factors that we don't have any control over; so we have to wait and see. If it happens, it'll just be a mid-price release for dedicated fans, featuring various goodies and rare songs from our career. We actually were in negotiations with someone in possession of a high quality Dark Tranquillity live recording from the last tour, but for various reasons an agreement couldn't be reached. It was a great shame, since we even had all the artwork ready.

CoC: What were the reasons behind guitarist Fredrik Johansson's departure after recording _Projector_? How have things been going with his substitute, Michael Niklasson?

NS: Fredrik was simply too busy with his private life and job to be able to invest the same kind of energy and devotion in the band as the rest of us. Actually, our old bassist Martin Henriksson now plays the second guitar. Michael Niklasson has taken over the bass duties, and everything's working really well. Fredrik is an excellent guitarist with a very personal style. We were worried that it would be hard to get a new line-up with the same level of quality, but at this point I can safely say that we have the strongest DT line-up ever. Keyboardist and digital wizard Martin Brandstrom was added shortly after Fredrik's departure, so we have a wider range now than before. People who have been listening to us for some time will doubtless notice the absence of Fredrik's playing, but other elements have been added that compensate for this.

CoC: Looking back upon four full-length albums and a couple of MCDs now, do you have any major regrets, anything that really didn't turn out the way you would have liked it to? What is your overall view of the band's career?

NS: Every band that has been around for some time probably have been ripped off at least a thousand times, and we're no exception to that rule. I can't say that we've made any major mistakes or been victims of any bigger disasters so far. We've trusted some people who couldn't keep their part of the deals, but most of the problems have been of a practical nature -- getting thrown out of rehearsal rooms two weeks before recordings and similar things. Nothing too devastating so far.

CoC: What is your personal favourite Dark Tranquillity album and song, musically or emotionally?

Mikael Stanne: I would say that _Projector_ is my favourite album right now, and I guess my favourite song would be "Punish My Heaven" from _The Gallery_. It always gets to me in a weird way.

NS: It's impossible to give a good answer, since it changes all the time. Some songs that I'm really satisfied with on the albums aren't very interesting to perform live and vice versa. "Punish My Heaven" seems to be -the- favourite for most people -- a bit ironic, considering that it was the first song we wrote after the line-up change in '93.

CoC: Overall, how happy are you with _Projector_?

NS: We're pretty happy with it, but as usual there are some things that could have been done a bit better. Now that almost two years have passed since the recording and we have more perspective to it all, I think that some of the songs are a bit too tame and could have used an injection of energy. Then again, we wanted them to sound the way they do at the time of recording, so...

CoC: If you were to compare _Projector_ to your previous albums and to the rest of the Swedish scene right now, what would you highlight as the album's most remarkable characteristics in each case?

NS: I don't follow the scene much these days. I'd like _Projector_ to be quite different from the rest of the stuff being released from Sweden, and judging from the reactions, that's definitely the case. We're not any good at analysing our own work -- we'd rather leave that to others --, but I guess that the most distinguishing feature that separates our new album from the rest of the bunch is the clear vocals and the fact that we're not relying on any cliches or already fixed traditions with the music. _Projector_ is a stand-alone entity, for good and bad.

CoC: Since you are unquestionably one of Sweden's premier bands, and have been for several years, I have to ask you what you think of the competition these days. How do you view the evolution of the Swedish metal scene as a whole over the past few years? [Note: as this was an e-mail interview, I was unaware of the start of Niklas' previous answer, otherwise I wouldn't have asked this. --Pedro]

NS: I rarely listen to the competition, so I can't really give a good answer on this topic. I'm pretty comfortable playing this sort of music while mainly listening to other genres. Every now and then I get to hear an album or a couple of songs from a "melodic Swedish death metal band" and it usually doesn't have anything that interests me or grabs my attention. Cliched, stereotypical nonsense lyrics mixed with the obligatory Maiden-worship just makes me yawn, even though the musical skill of some of these bands is excellent. One good exception is the new Gardenian album, which is striking in almost every aspect.

CoC: Personally, I think that you have basically succeeded where many bands fail: in changing your sound the way you did. One might still miss some of the "old" Dark Tranquillity, but _Projector_ is indeed a brilliant album. But what was it that caused these changes?

NS: I'm glad that you like the album. I agree that a lot of bands that try to change their sound into a "softer" direction fail miserably. Of course, there are people thinking the same of us now, but at least in our ears we managed to expand the sound without sacrificing the band's identity. The reasons for the changes? We needed to come up with something new in order to maintain the interest in playing. Already when recording _The Mind's I_, we felt somewhat fed up with the musical style (especially since so many newer bands were starting to imitate what we've done in the past) and realised that we'd better start exploring new territory before we grew tired of the whole thing.

CoC: I still feel the essence of what I like in Dark Tranquillity on _Projector_, and the increased contrast works extremely well, especially on songs such as "FreeCard", "ThereIn" and "Nether Novas". While writing and recording _Projector_, were any conscious decisions made about balancing the amount of harsher and softer parts, as well as the use of new and "classic" elements, or did it all just turn out this way? Because it -is- quite different from what it used to be, but it's definitely still Dark Tranquillity.

NS: It just turned out that way, but we were also determined to make this album considerably different from the older ones while still retaining the DT-spirit. We have never been interested in being one of those bands that continue releasing the same album year after year. We probably would keep some people satisfied by staying in a fixed style, but I honestly think that the quality of the songs would decrease, since our hearts wouldn't be in it the same way as before. With _Projector_, we had something like fourteen or fifteen songs that we recorded in the studio. Afterwards, we decided which ones should appear on the album and which ones we should save.

CoC: Were you confident that the new elements in your music (clean vox, keyboards, etc.) would be well accepted by the Dark Tranquillity fans? Did that matter to you? It seems that _Projector_ tended to cause rather extreme opinions among most of them, both positive and negative. How do you feel about this?

NS: It's hard to avoid getting some slaggings if you change your style a bit, but we have to write the music first and foremost for ourselves. After each album, we've had our fair share of people moaning about the result and asking why we couldn't just keep going in the same vein as on the previous album, so we're used to it. Of course we thought a lot about how people would react to _Projector_, but this didn't affect the songwriting. More than anything else, we were really curious. As expected, lots of people were disappointed after the first listens but eventually got to like it a lot with time. This is way more interesting than playing it safe.

CoC: There is one song in particular that seems to be raising a lot of complaints from some of your fans, "Day to End". I personally do like that song a lot -- the vocals are great --, although it wouldn't normally be my kind of music at all; you made it excellent, though. It is, nevertheless, very different from your past works. What thoughts were going through your minds as you recorded it in terms of the intentions behind it and the feelings put into it?

NS: "Day to End" started out as a song Mikael wrote and just toyed around with on his acoustic guitar. It's several years old, actually, but we always liked it and decided to try to make something out of it in the studio. Originally, the song was more of a guitar-based ballad, like "Through Ebony Archways" but much better, but we eventually added a more electronic flavour to it. Honestly, I think that the song sounded better in the original arrangement, but it was pretty fun to experiment a bit. But this is the only song on _Projector_ that I feel shouldn't have been included on the album.

CoC: What's been on the bandmember's CD players the most, lately?

NS: We're all pretty diverse in our tastes, and it'd take too much space to give any complete lists here. Personally, I've been listening to everything from Enslaved to Madonna this week, so if I were to give a full list it'd give a very shattered impression. We're schizophrenic in our tastes for sure!

CoC: Mikael, you have suddenly used your previously unknown clean vocals on so much of the new album that one has to wonder: why did you decide to use so much clean singing so suddenly?

MS: I always wanted to experiment with other types of vocals and with this material I felt it was time to do it. The songs really needed different vocals this time around and I had a great time trying things out. It also opened up an whole new way for me to express myself lyrically and of course vocally.

CoC: I personally like the contrast between the most emotional clean parts and the harsh ones very much, but you certainly risked a lot, with several different clean styles and some really emotional clean vox. Are you happy with the results?

MS: I am. And we will continue in this vein on the next album as well.

CoC: I was quite interested by the "FreeCard" lyrics; can you tell me more about them?

MS: Basically it's about being a coward, one who escapes the demands and has excuses for everything. There is always another way to go that is easier and the song is about people who choose the easy way out in every case.

CoC: One other song that has some particularly interesting lyrics for me is "Lethe". In Greek mythology, Lethe is "a river in Hades, the water of which produced, in those who drank it, forgetfulness of the past." Was this the concept behind the lyrics for that song? Can you expand on that some more?

NS: The whole song explores the notion of being able to delete all your unwanted feelings and experiences. As many other artists have done in the past, I used a metaphor from well-known (or so I thought, hehe) mythology in order to illustrate the concept and get the point across better.

CoC: _Projector_'s release suffered a remarkably long delay that included your departure from Osmose and signing with Century Media. What happened with Osmose after all? And why did you choose Century Media as your new label?

NS: After we had recorded _Projector_ and given it some listens, it was obvious that it wasn't really Osmose material per se. We were always the "white sheep" on that label, and seeing that our sound had changed that much, it just wasn't a good match. Also, we had just decided the line-up change, so we wanted to continue riding that wave of reinvention. Osmose is a great label, but we felt that their target audience was too far removed from how we sound these days. Century Media offered us the best terms, so we decided to sign with them for three albums. Naturally, all the legal hassle took a long time, so the album ended up being released almost a year after it was recorded.

CoC: So... what happened with the famous _Projector_ digipak bonus track, "Exposure"? My digipak was one of the forsaken...

NS: Good question, hehe. We first heard that all the digipaks should feature this bonus track, but when the album got released, it turned out that only some of the copies actually had "Exposure" included. Furthermore, the song wasn't printed on the track listing on all of these copies either, and there apparantly were some cases where the song was listed on the back cover but not included on the actual disc, so it's a confusing matter... We'll make sure to release it in some format in the future since it's actually one of the best songs from the _Projector_ recording.

CoC: You have recorded a video clip for "ThereIn", which I recently saw. Can you describe the concept behind it and how it fits the song? Are you happy with the result?

NS: Well, the video is OK, but I feel that the original footage was better than what the end result may lead you to believe. It was all done on a very tight budget, so the mixing got a bit hurried. The storyboard involved focusing on the duality and contrast that the lyrics play with, but this was only half realised in the video. Another weak point is that the song is over six minutes long, and it's hard to keep the viewer's attention for so long with the limited range of scenes that we had. Anyway, the video will be featured as a multimedia bonus on the first pressing of the next album, so eventually it'll be seen by more people.

CoC: Besides the band sequences, there are several nocturnal urban scenes and lots of traffic moving in fast-forward during the video clip. Then those scenes turn into storm clouds travelling in the sky. Is that a metaphor for how you foresee the evolution (or in this case, demise) of civilization in general?

NS: No, the main thought was to display this duality in a convincing visual context. We had to improvise a bit since some of the footage we intended to use turned out to be ruined by inadequate light conditions. This will probably take some of the mystique away, but that footage is actually taken from a video library and not custom shot for the purpose.

CoC: I'm curious about one of the photos from the _The Mind's I_ booklet, the third (blue) one, depicting what appears to be a tree beneath a wintry storm. The coldness and desolation that I see on that picture make me think of death approaching, maybe even the world coming to an end. What are your thoughts on that? And what does the picture actually mean to you?

NS: We worked closely with a Hasselblad photographer on that album, and he made a selection of photos that we could chose from. I can't recall that that picture had any specific meaning attached to it. It just looked good and had the right characteristics to fit with the rest of the booklet. We were more involved with the cover, for which me and Mikael arranged the "still life with a horse's head". [So much for my philosophical approach... --Pedro]

CoC: After listening to _The Mind's I_, I didn't have a clue of what was coming with _Projector_... Can you reveal some of what Dark Tranquillity might sound like in the future?

NS: We just finished recording our new album, _Haven_, and it sounds again a bit different from the norm. It's not a continuation of _Projector_, but it's not a return to the earlier style either. More than anything else, it's a mixture between everything we've done in the past, but with lots of elements and experiments that are new to us. I can't reveal too much in print, since it's bound to give the wrong impressions, but I'm sure that _Haven_ will appeal to fans of both our older stuff and _Projector_.

CoC: What about touring, now that you're with Century Media? I know you've toured some of central Europe last year. How did it go? Any peculiar stories you'd like to share with us, from that or some other tour?

MS: Yeah, CM and our management fixed up a great tour for us as well as some festivals. It was a great Summer for us and we've had a wonderful time. The five weeks with In Flames, Arch Enemy and Children of Bodom were certainly insane in many ways and I would rather stray from the subject than tell the bone-chilling stories of this venturesome quest into alcoholic depravity....

CoC: What are your plans for the future? Any chance you might come to Portugal?

NS: I hope so, but nothing is confirmed about future tours yet. There will be some festival dates during the summer, and we're likely to tour with Sentenced in Europe in September, but I have no clue about where we'll play.

CoC: What is your greatest wish for the future of Dark Tranquillity?

MS: To continue to evolve and experiment. To do what we like to do best.

CoC: Those were my questions; is there anything you would like to add, perhaps a final message of dark tranquillity for our readers?

NS: Sorry for the massive delay in finally getting this intie answered. To the readers: stay tuned for _Haven_, set for release on July 17th!

Contact: http://www.DarkTranquillity.com

(article submitted 25/5/2000)


CHATS
7/5/2008 C Burton Dark Tranquillity: Merging the Mundane and the Magic
9/1/2002 D Rocher Dark Tranquillity: Of Damage Done and Introspection
ALBUMS
10/13/2013 A El Naby 8 Dark Tranquillity - Construct
6/13/2010 K Sarampalis 7.5 Dark Tranquillity - We Are the Void
3/25/2007 K Sarampalis 8.5 Dark Tranquillity - Fiction
1/31/2005 P Azevedo 9.5 Dark Tranquillity - Character
11/29/2004 Q Kalis 8 Dark Tranquillity - Exposures: In Retrospect and Denial
1/30/2004 P Azevedo 8 Dark Tranquillity - Live Damage DVD
9/1/2002 P Azevedo 9 Dark Tranquillity - Damage Done
8/12/2000 P Azevedo 9 Dark Tranquillity - Haven
7/7/1999 P Schwarz 8.5 Dark Tranquillity - Projector
7/14/1997 P Azevedo 10 Dark Tranquillity - The Mind's I
2/9/1996 A Bromley 3 Dark Tranquillity - The Gallery
GIGS
2/5/1997 P Schwarz Dark Tranquillity / Enslaved / Bewitched / Swordmaster / Demoniac / Dellamorte We Must Dominate, We Will Dominate
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