Merging the Mundane and the Magic
Mikael Stanne and Niklas Sundin of Dark Tranquillity look back across a successful career which shows no signs of stalling
by: Colleen Burton
During the Toronto, Ontario leg of their "Tyranny and Bloodshed" tour with Arch Enemy, I was fortunate enough to get a chance to chat with Mikael Stanne and Niklas Sundin after their fantastic set, concentrating largely upon recent material. They were both quite pleasant and patient as I picked their brains to get a bit closer to the unique workings of the Gothenburg entity that is Dark Tranquillity.

CoC: So, you guys are clearly on tour with Arch Enemy right now; how are you liking traveling with them again, as it's been a while since you last toured together?

NS: Yeah, it's been a while, we did a tour with them in '99 in Europe, also with In Flames and Children of Bodom on the bill, I don't think we've toured with Arch Enemy since then, four or five years ago. It's really cool.

CoC: What other Swedish acts do you admire right now? Who would you tour with if you could pick anyone?

NS: It's two different things. I mean, just because you like a band doesn't mean they're any good to tour with or that it can even be practically possible in terms of labels. So it's really two different things. I can't even think of a single Swedish band I would admire.

MS: It's more about bands that you can get along with and that you know and that you have a good time with.

CoC: Are there any that you've had a really good time with?

MS: Last year we toured with Scar Symmetry from Sweden, they're fantastic, a really good band and fun guys, and we also toured with The Haunted. We've known them for years and years, they're a great band and cool guys -- probably my favorite.

CoC: Do you think you would tour with At the Gates at any point? What do you think of their reunification?

NS: I think they're only doing these selected shows, so I would be surprised if there were any additional touring for them, it would be fantastic! We did some shows back in the day and they're obviously one of the most important bands from, well, ever, so it would be amazing, but...

MS: We don't even have a chance to see them this summer because we have conflicting schedules, so I cannot even go to one of their shows which really sucks, but then again, I've seen probably twenty.

CoC: What were you guys doing in your lives when you decided to play metal as a profession?

NS: I think if you do music full-time you immerse yourself in that lifestyle completely, without a doubt. Often people ask us what the secret is to being around for twenty years and keeping four out of five starting members still in the line-up.

CoC: Aside from HammerFall, Dark Tranquillity members have rarely become involved in side projects; how do you stay so unified behind the band?

MS: That's the thing, I guess, we manage to separate the band life and home life, pretty much, and this is something that we feel we are really good at and love doing, and for me, at least, I pretty much suck at everything else!

CoC: Before Anders left, did you ever envision yourself as a lead vocalist? Was it an aspiration of yours or something you fell into?

MS: It was something I had really wanted. I was a crappy guitar player and I always wanted to sing. It was a combination of those two things, but I always wanted to sing, and when I tried to play guitar at the same time, it didn't really work.

NS: Yeah, it kind of fell into place.

CoC: Mikael, there's something striking about your voice, in the sense that you don't frequently use clean vocals but your death metal voice is really clean. What you sing is very articulate and people can understand what you're saying really well, and I was wondering if you had a particular technique or something like that, because it really stands out from typical death metal growling.

MS: Ever since I first got into extreme metal and music with screaming vocals, I always admired that because I always wanted to listen to the lyrics as well as hear the anger and the frustration in the singer's voice, so that's always been really important to me. Singers that I admired back in the day were Mille Petrozza from Kreator and David Vincent from Morbid Angel, where they could really combine the strength and aggression and power with the lyrics they were writing.

CoC: Kreator is a great example of that singing style!

MS: That was my main influence when I was starting out.

CoC: What do you think about the role of keyboards in metal? There are many synth-saturated bands like Children of Bodom and Sonata Arctica, whereas your keyboards are way more atmospheric and background to the rest of the music.

NS: I think it's mainly because of Martin not being from the metal scene to start with. We've known him for years and years, but he comes from a background of electronic and popular synth music, so when we first got in touch with him, he didn't know anything about metal apart from having heard Iron Maiden or Metallica once or twice, so he approached the thing from a different angle. Most metal keyboardists are really guitar players to start with or they got into metal through playing an instrument and then switching to keyboards, but Martin comes from a totally different angle.

MS: Also, he doesn't feel like he's playing a lead instrument. He's part of the overall sound. We've always used keyboards on of all the stuff we‘ve done, even from the first demos, as something to back other things up, to enhance a melody or to add different moods into the sound, so I guess Martin picked that up when he listened to the music and developed that further.

NS: We're much more into building soundscapes, on every song, there are so many different layers, there is so much going on beneath the surface which adds this whole atmosphere or extra quality to the arrangements.

CoC: Niklas, I heard that you wrote "Inside the Particle Storm". Are you getting back into lyric-writing or is that more of a one-time thing, as you have more creative control with the song writing?

NS: It's a common misconception that I am the driving force behind the music, that's just not the case. Martin and Anders are writing 90 percent of the music and it's been that way for the past ten years, so basically, the material that I write is kind of difficult to combine with what everyone else is doing, because I write darker stuff. I like dissonance, I like friction, whereas Martin's writing style is more safe, it's more metal-based in a way. I usually end up writing a lot of material for the songs but none of it ever ends up getting used because, well, I'm the only one that likes it. <laughs> So, with that song, I wrote the whole song and the lyrics and presented it in a take-it-or-leave-it way because it wouldn't be possible to integrate those riffs with what I had been doing. I kind of like doing lyrics, but at the same time, it takes up time, and well, I enjoy other creative endeavors more.

CoC: You've done the artwork for _Fiction_ and many other albums. Are you still active with Cabin Fever Media or other bands?

NS: Yeah, I'm still going strong! I did the new album for Arch Enemy, for example.

CoC: With the eyeball? It's cool. <laughs>

NS: Yeah, so that's what I'm doing when I'm home and not touring, but then again, we're getting more and more busy with the band, so...

CoC: Mikael, you often describe life as very boring and mundane in your lyrics, and a common theme is your somewhat nihilistic view of an external nothingness and seeking meaning within. Are you inspired by literature or politics when you're writing? A lot of it seems to come from within, on a very emotional level. _Fiction_ seems a bit postmodern, with your uncertain protagonist.

MS: The protagonist would be somebody who has all the worst qualities in me, in an exaggerated way -- stuff that I really hate about myself, my biggest failures embellished. So I try to focus on that and create a persona that has all of these horrible sides to them, and write about that. It makes it easier to focus on what's actually wrong with the world around you. It makes me focus more, I think.

CoC: Niklas, in an earlier interview for Chronicles of Chaos, you said that _Projector_ was tame and needed an injection of energy.

NS: <laughs> I'm such a negative bastard!

CoC: <laughs> Do you feel that more recent works like _Fiction_ have accomplished that?

NS: I tend to change my view ten times per year, and so, it goes in circles and we're always our harshest critics. It's hard for me to listen to our music, because I only hear the things that could have been done differently. So it's usual for me to finish an album and think it's complete crap and after a few years I can actually appreciate it.

MS: Every album seems to be a reaction towards the previous one, where we decide, "That's not really what we're going for and we need to do something totally different."

NS: I think that's also part of the reason as to why we've been around for so long, we never allow ourselves to become too comfortable with our music or too supportive of it. We'll listen to an album and realize that we've put a lot of hard work into it but think about what we can do next time. We're always focused on moving forward instead of sitting and worshipping our own music. Of course, there is an element of being proud of the work, as well, but I think it's more constructive to be critical about what you've done.

MS: I think it's really dangerous to feel safe about your musicianship and just say, "Ah, we love this."

CoC: A bit subjective, but I think _Fiction_ has a more simplistic and unified quality to the sound, while _Damage Done_ and _Character_ were really hard and aggressive, and then back to _The Gallery_, which is very experimental, but _Fiction_ is not exactly like _Projector_, but very melodic. What direction are you taking for your new material? Because as you say, you always want a new and different sound.

MS: We haven't really decided yet what we want to do with the next album. We have a lot of material and we've talked about it a little, but we're not really sure. Usually when we come home from a tour, we feel like doing something totally different. We don't really know what that's going to be like yet.

NS: We haven't even had time to really sit down and think about the new album, so your guess would be as good as ours.

MS: There's a constant frustration to write new material and get things done, but at the same time, it doesn't make any sense to rush things. That would only create an inferior product.

CoC: You've mentioned an interest in doing a summer festival in Italy or Spain. Is there anything in the works for a new DVD?

MS: Actually, there is! We're doing a European tour in November. We're actually going to record a show in Milan, as well as some other stuff, so that's going to be the next DVD right there.

CoC: Nice! _Fiction _ is my favorite album, but when you're looking across the spectrum, what are you the most proud of? If you had a room full of people totally unfamiliar with your music and you could play them one album, what would you play?

MS: Oh, I would never do that, but if you were to force me, it would be _Fiction_, because that's the most contemporary album, and even though I think it's -timeless- <laughs>, I'm always most proud of the new album, otherwise, what's the point? However, if I was talking to older metal people, I'd say _The Gallery_ was the most important album, because that's when we got started, found our sound and felt comfortable writing this kind of music.

NS: Yeah, and also it was quite different the first time in the sense that it launched many things and was more radical. But yeah, I would say _Fiction_ as well, because it's the most recent album and reflects our sound today, so I would go for that.

[I am particularly grateful for the kind efforts of event promoter Noel and tour manager Chris, as this interview wouldn't have been possible without them.]

(article submitted 5/7/2008)

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5/25/2000 P Azevedo Dark Tranquillity: Projecting and Reinventing
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
2/5/1997 P Schwarz Dark Tranquillity / Enslaved / Bewitched / Swordmaster / Demoniac / Dellamorte We Must Dominate, We Will Dominate
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