Of Damage Done and Introspection
CoC interviews Dark Tranquillity's own Mikael Stanne
by: David Rocher
Dark Tranquillity's history, akin to that of In Flames or At the Gates, is intimately meshed with the history of the infamous Gothenburg death metal genre itself; indeed, Dark Tranquillity's vintage 1993 _Skydancer_ and 1996 classic _The Gallery_ -- alongside milestones such as _Slaughter of the Soul_ or _Subterranean_ (both of which were released in 1995) count among the referential death metal landmarks which most eminently contributed to forming and crystallising the essence of the "Gothenburg sound", which countless formations throughout the whole world now thrive on.

As the now six-headed Dark Tranquillity were poised to release their new album, heir to their much-debated electronic offering _Haven_, I was offered the rare opportunity to discuss the past, present and future of an inevitable and quite simply crucial component of the melodic death metal scene's history -- for, with no less than five full-length recordings in their bags, Dark Tranquillity are, beyond any doubt, one of the most emblematic formations the Gothenburg scene ever produced.

Calling from his apartment in Gothenburg, Mikael seems extremely restless and enthused in his reply to my altogether rather banal and predictable opening interrogation regarding the album's impending release -- "yeah, yeah, exactly, finally!", he voices. "It's been a hard wait. It's still frustrating to finish it off and just wait for the release, but we know that it's finally recorded."

Judging from Mikael's underlying exasperation, I can only guess that _Damage Done_ has been hammered on reels for quite some time now, so what might Dark Tranquillity's energetic frontman care to tell me about it? "The recording was finished on the first week of March", he explains; "it's been one and a half years in the making -- that was the most focused writing period, because we'd been experimenting before. We had two new members in the band, we all wanted so many different things to be on the album, so you kind of reach in all directions all the time, and eventually you come to a compromise."

With two new band members indeed, the walls of Dark Tranquillity's rehearsal haven would most likely tell the tale of renewed conflicts arising from the proverbial musical differences and of all-out musical blanket-tugging; so how did the whole songwriting process figure out in time, in Mikael's opinion? "With this album, after two or three songs were written, we kinda realised that was the way to go, and everybody had the same image of how the album should sound, and where we were heading", comes the reply. "It's a great experience, being on the same page, and really focusing on making the songs, and making it as intense and as perfect as possible" -- which, beyond all doubt, explains why _Damage Done_ has been in the works for so long, Mikael? "It takes some time, as we all had to agree on everything before moving on to the next part", comes the almost weary reply; to which the frontman follows, on a more enthused note, "but you know, it sounds really good!"

Agreed, the sound on _Damage Done_ really is huge, definitely one of the most ample worlds of sounds ever to emanate from the famed Fredman studios -- so is there anything I should know about the recording process per se? "The recording stuff was just one month of putting it down on tape, you know -- boring as hell!".

A release as unexpected and discussed in Dark Tranquillity's career -- and an event whose similarity in style to the release of _34.778%... Complete_ in My Dying Bride's existence is quite striking to my eyes --, the distinctly electronic-tinged _Haven_ welcomed, as Mikael earlier evoked, two new members to the Dark Tranquillity fold. But what exactly occurred within the band, I wonder? "Well", replies Mikael, "Fredrik [Johansson (guitars), who first appears on the _Of Chaos and Eternal Night MCD -- David] didn't really work out, so we had to tell him to leave the band -- which was sad, but necessary. We needed another guitar player, so Martin [Henriksson], who played bass before, went over to the guitar, so then we needed a bass player!"

Ah, the enrapturing thrills and spills of musical chair sessions within a band... The competition among enthusiastic bassists auditioning for a slot in Dark Tranquillity must have been of untold fierceness, but how did the Swedes finally come across a suitable replacement for Fredrik Johansson on bass? "We tried some [bassists] out, but the obvious choice was an old friend of ours, who's been a fan of the band for ever", replies Stanne.

So much for the band's low-end issues, then -- but how did the enrollment of full-time personnel on electronics occur? "[It's] something we'd wanted for many years", comes the unexpected reply; "[we] just couldn't find someone who'd fit in."

As it occurs, the discreet Martin Brandstrom is an old friend of the band's, who had been helping out with recording sessions on several occasions, so... "we asked him if he wanted to join full time, and he said yes!" But the question that's on every Dark Tranquillity fan's lips is, "what's with the keyboards in the first place?"

"Oh, it's just [for the sake of] having another instrument to play around with. Adding a new layer of sound, and experimenting further. We always used keyboards to some extent, so it's just something that would eventually happen anyway", Mikael explains.

Is Dark Tranquillity about experimenting with sound, then, or does this tampering just of occur more or less unwittingly? "There is of course a will to experiment and expand. We won't keep playing unless we find it intriguing, or exciting and challenging", replies Mikael. "After touring for an album, doing all the stuff, and coming back and writing new stuff, we tend to wipe the slate clean and start off anew, start off as fresh as possible and see what happens. If it feels good, we continue, and if it doesn't, we'll wait until the spot comes, until the inspiration comes."

True enough, Dark Tranquillity always seemed to take their time in preparing new material from the confines of their rehearsal room and, love them or hate them, each of their consecutive releases has found them pushing the boundaries of their previous recordings, in a way or another. "There's always a long time between the albums", Mikael concedes, "but we need to find something new to do, something different that will challenge us musically and lyrically."

Experimentation also obviously takes it toll at some point -- Dark Tranquillity's inclination to tamper with their own sound, in particular on their two previous releases (_Projector_ and _Haven_) has estranged them with the more rabid fringe of the hardened death metal pack following their every move. Having not thought that much of _Haven_ at the time of its release, I am eager to learn about the forms of pressure that may have built up in the wake of Dark Tranquillity's first "electronic" venture -- which incidentally happened to be released consecutively to another tentatively "experimental" masterpiece, namely _Projector_.

"A lot of people who listened to this album [_Damage Done_] said they were expecting something totally different, and expected the new album to be more electronic, perhaps", muses Stanne -- and quite rightly so. However, much as _Damage Done_ is still heavily loaded with synthetics, it also presents a harsher, distinctly more rugged edge, quite typical of a Gothenburg death metal act. "We just went where we felt right and did what we wanted to do, so we didn't feel any pressure. And after a while, we realised it was something people might get into; it was something a lot of people had been asking for for years, something that would perhaps remind them of _The Mind's I_ or _The Gallery_ -- more in tone with the aggressiveness, and speed, and intensity [on those releases]."

_The Gallery_, as you may recall, turned out to be one of the more surprising releases from the cult French label Osmose Productions back at the time and, I guess, certainly the release which set Dark Tranquillity on their stellar course to recognition. I feel compelled to question Mikael about those good old times on the thriving Osmose roster, back at the time of _The Gallery_ and _The Mind's I_; it must after all have been quite a strange period for Dark Tranquillity, who were, as it seems, one of the few bands on Osmose not to be decked out in corpsepaint and studded leather attire -- and also one of the few acts on the Osmose roster not to pride themselves in a terrible "true" sound!

"Oh yeah, it was kinda weird", Mikael chuckles; "but I don't recall it as being -that- odd; it's just that after a while, we thought we didn't really fit in, so to speak, and I guess that's when we switched labels", he explains about to the changeover to Germany's Century Media, who released all of Dark Tranquillity's material posterior to the _Enter Suicidal Angels_ EP (including _Damage Done_). "But that was a good time, you know", he concludes. "We released two albums and a MCD; they worked well, and the company did everything in their power to promote them."

After this brief trip down memory lane, I return to one of the new CD's more intriguing points -- its very title, _Damage Done_. "It has to do with the lyrics, and also the whole writing process", Mikael explains. "We spent so much time making everything's perfect, defecting every single note...", he trails off; "eventually, you put it down on tape, and it's there --there's no way you can go back. Then we move on to the next phase, [on to the] next songs." So, the expression "damage done" alludes, at least in part, to the anguish of leaving the studio with your new release on tape, and knowing that the next people to hear it will be the grouchy critics and demanding, starving fans -- but there's more to it, as Mikael continues: "as for the lyrics... most of the songs [deal with] that thing -- old choices and old failures, things that you missed in your life, the irreversible nature of things. There's no going back, and rather than dwelling on the past and the mystery of things that you've done, you might as well look ahead, forget about it and move on. It's the kind of one-way thinking that the album deals about."

As the introspective nature of Mikael's lyrics becomes apparent, I ponder on whether the mistakes he mentions also encompass the band's evolution in itself -- "no, there are really no regrets when it comes to the band. It's more on a personal note, things around us... stupid mistakes; stupid life choices people have made, based on inexperience and lack of insight, and lack of knowledge, I guess... and that could be avoided."

Although I'm not altogether swept off my feet in surprise as I learn about the brooding yet forward-looking thoughts that animate Dark Tranquillity, I'm quite intrigued by the contrast that appears between the generally intense music on _Damage Done_ and the lyrical contents it conceals. As a matter of a fact, I venture, the darker, moodier material on _Projector_ might have befitted such topics with maybe even greater accuracy. "Yeah, that could be!", Mikael laughs good-heartedly; "yes, it would [fit]; it could work equally, I guess. [_Projector_] kinda deals with some of the same things", he ponders -- which brings me to voice another interrogation lingering at the back of my mind. _Projector_ -is- a damn strange title for a heavy, melancholic death metal album, isn't it?

"We wanted it to be different, but we also wanted it to represent the whole album, how the whole process of writing felt", Mikael explains; "the blowing up of every single little thing, the sleepless nights and problems and anxieties that came with it -- it's suddenly like all projected on a big screen, and you can defect everything, take it apart, and put in on paper; and eventually, scream your lungs out to it", Mikael comments with a smile in his intonation.

It's funny, then, how titles such as _Projector_ and _Damage Done_ reflect a definitely unsuspected and rather surprising sense of insecurity coming from the band -- the pressure on Dark Tranquillity can't be that insignificant, after all. But further, how do they relate in contrast to a "reassuring" tile, such as _Haven_?

"That's where our music comes from, explains Mikael; "we write out of a most safe place, I guess -- our rehearsal rooms, our bedrooms... And when we're together in our rehearsal room, that's our haven; we just shut everything out from there. It's great to get out of everything -- it's a quiet place where we can make loud music!", comes the reply.

Having more or less assessed all I need to know about _Damage Done_, I turn to a lighter topic and broach Dark Tranquillity's stay at the 2001 edition of Germany's "Kult" festival, the Wacken Open Air, at which the Swedes made a very lively and successful appearance. At the time, their performance had struck me as lacking the energy inherent to the death metal genre, yet also possessing something that death metal couldn't offer -- a more aesthetic, emotional sensation, quite typical of Dark Tranquillity's material, but nonetheless quite difficult to pinpoint. And precisely as I was dwelling on a mitigated, unsatisfactory sentiment consecutive to their show that day, some nearby Germans coined the expression providing the key to unlatch the irritating feeling my mind failed to point out by itself -- they had found Dark Tranquillity's show "wunderschon" -- wondrously beautiful.

I am of course tempted to ask Mikael what he thinks of this opinion voiced on their performance at the W.O.A. "Wunderschon? Ja!", he laughs. "Well, my impression of the show is that it was a wonderful thing -- just playing that early [1:00pm on August 4th -- David], and getting people up out of their tents... A wonderful stage like that, and all these beautiful people who'd come around to see us -- we couldn't have been happier. The whole festival was just a blast, it's a wonderful experience", Mikael fondly recalls.

The interview now draws to its good end, so I ask Mikael for any closing words. "I'm anxious to get out and meet all the people that have been so cool to us over the years", he replies with tangible impatience in his voice. "Now, we're going to player longer sets, with all the songs people have been missing for three years... I hope you people will get into the album -- at least give it a chance", he fervently continues, obviously aware that the album has a foot set in at least two different musical worlds, and that some of Dark Tranquillity's fans will most likely fail to adhere to their sense of musical compromise.

But there is still time for one most crucial, existential question -- "Mikael, what do you think the guys in Septic Broiler would have thought of _Damage Done_?" After a resounding burst of good-natured, low-case laughter, Mikael confidently voices, "They would have probably -loved- it."

(article submitted 1/9/2002)

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5/25/2000 P Azevedo Dark Tranquillity: Projecting and Reinventing
10/13/2013 A El Naby 8 Dark Tranquillity - Construct
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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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