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With Or Without You - Dark Tranquillity Interview
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Dispute all you want about how Dark Tranquillity aren't as groundbreaking as they once were, but one fact remains in the band's long history of metal mastery. Dark Tranquillity have always been unpredictable. From the genre-defining Skydancer full-length to the unexpected leap into Projector, Dark Tranquillity are one step ahead of the mass quantities of bands with that distinct "Gothenburg sound." Even before the phrase New Wave Of Swedish Death Metal was coined by some keen journalist, Dark Tranquillity were moving away from the sound that typified the movement. Call it foresight, call it luck, but whatever it is, these incredibly talented musicians were never ones to be pigeonholed into the sound they helped forge into an international force. Last year's Haven album proved just that. Largely overlooked by fans and journalists alike, the album was a masterpiece in contrast and subtlety - certainly Haven didn't rely on the strong, one-string melodies that hurled Dark Tranquillity into the spotlight. What Haven did establish is that Dark Tranquillity have learned how to write dark, aggressive pop tunes that have as much to do with Depeche Mode and U2 as they do with Kreator, Iron Maiden and Skyclad - Cringe in horror or bask in the album's addictive songsmithing. Dark Tranquillity have been all too quiet in the last six months, so we decided to knock on guitarist Niklas Sundin's door and see what's been occupying the band's time between albums.

Since you've been around the Gothenburg scene for over 10 years, looking back on what you've achieved musically and artistically must be rewarding. A Moonclad Reflection sounds so dated now, but there's still a spark of energy and originality after all these years. Care to comment on that.

I don't really know what to say...It's great that you think that we still have the spark, since one of the main concerns for us has always been to try to keep the music fresh and original. It's so common that bands get tired and dull and play it safe by comfortably staying within the same musical borders year after year just to please their audience. A Moonclad Reflection sounds incredibly dated and very chaotic today, both when it comes to the playing and the arrangements, but it's a good documentation of what we were about at the time.

What's it like knowing you've had a resounding impact on extreme/heavy metal worldwide. Dark Tranquillity were the first band to have the "Gothenburg Sound" tag. Gothenburg was a very positive force for just as long, if not more, than the "Stockholm scene." How has that impacted you as a person and songwriter?

Honestly, the only time I reflect about the "success" of our band is when I'm given the question in interviews, and I can only say that it's nothing that plays much role at all in our lives. In a way it can feel good that we've helped to pioneer a movement or whatever one can call it, and of course we're proud to have made some sort of impact during the years, but I can't see that it has affected us as persons very much. It's not like we're sitting down in huge mansions at the countryside, opening the daily bottle of champagne and feel like godfathers of metal. [laughs] Success in this style of music is still very moderate. We've never been close to making a living out of our music and have always had other ways of supporting ourselves, so D.T. has never been a full-time venture. There really isn't anything in it that can make a huge impact on a personal level compared to, say, the Robbie Williams-type of success which probably can be pretty life-changing...being able to afford everything you want and immerse yourself in luxury and decadence all the way.

Skydancer is a genre-defining album. Even though you wrote that in '92/'93 you must be proud of songs like "A Bolt of Blazing Gold" and "Shadow Duet." When listening to your old work (pre-The Gallery) do you feel still connected to it in anyway?

It's very seldom that I listen to the old albums, perhaps once a year or something, and when I do it's mostly for their nostalgical value. We're still proud of everything we've done, and what I like about Skydancer is that while the playing and production isn't the best, it was very uncompromising and different from everything else that was around at the time. I guess there's some sort of connection still, since we put so much time and effort into writing that album, and those songs trigger a lot of memories about the "good old times"; a very intense and happening period for the band. We still lived with our parents, and rehearsed incredibly much, trying to learn how to play our instruments and basically spent almost every minute of our spare time promoting the band and struggling to get a record deal. Some of us were fanatical tape traders and really involved in the underground scene at that time - writing scene reports for 'zines and sending dozens of letters every week - and it was of course a very special environment and subculture to be part of. But it does feel like centuries ago. [laughs]

Come to think of it, Dark Tranquillity paved the way for the popular dual vocal styles that In Flames, Soilwork, Opeth and so on are using to great effect. Mike's 'clean' vocals back then were such a revelation for death metal. Did you ever get any negative feedback on his singing over the top of Anders?

I don't know if we can take the credit for that...I'm pretty sure that other bands had combined different (male) vocal styles before us, but it wasn't so common back then. Same thing goes for the female vocals, which eventually got a pretty usual and predictable way of adding "atmosphere" to the music. We were very impressed with how bands like Paradise Lost or Sabbat occasionally used different vocals, so we wanted to have a go at it ourselves. We contacted an old classmate of mine, Mikael and Martin's and she got very excited about the prospect of singing on a real album. Negative feedback? Not a lot to be honest. Most reviews were very positive, apart from a couple of real slaggings. The "bonus" vocal parts were usually listed as a good thing about our music. People really weren't used to that sort of music then. I recall reading reviews that said that we used tons of violins, cello, choirs and the likes, which was pretty odd.

In many ways, Dark Tranquillity's prime motivator has always been contrast, merging diametrically opposed forces into a sort of sonic journey. How do you think the implementation of contrast and compositional dynamic has helped the band stay ahead of normality?

I think that the "sonic journey"-approach to making music was something that's more applicable to our older material. Some songs on, for example, Skydancer have very complex arrangements with themes and countermelodies appearing in lots of different shaps and contexts; a bit like classical music. I think it was your old Requiem review that said that the album induced the feeling of travelling over mountain passages or something, and that says a lot about what we tried to achieve at that time. Our newer songs have more basic, rock-ish structures that on the other hand allow us to explore contrast and dynamics to a greater degree. Of course, the addition of keyboards have allowed us to develop a lot in those areas as well. Whether this has helped us stay ahead of normality or not I don't know. One thing that separates us from most other bands is our writing method. All the members contribute with riffs and ideas to our music, which might help to keep the sound more unpredictable.

Projector and Haven were definitely albums that were unpredictable, especially Projector. Artisitically, looking back on how Projector proceeded The Mind's I, the change seems very natural, taking into account the numerous "Gothenburg" bands releasing albums at the time. Do you see Dark Tranquillity's vocal and style changes as a natural progression or a reaction to the proliferation of "Gothenburg" bands?

It's a bit of both. We never plan too much ahead when writing an album, so everything we do musically is, in a way, a natural progression. At the same time, we were extremly tired of everything that had to do with melodic death metal in general and the "Gothenburg sound" in particular, so Projector can also be seen as a reaction to that. It wasn't a calculated move to make that kind of an album; it was the only thing we could do in order to maintain our interest in continuing with the band. Projector certainly got mixed reactions when it was released, but now people seem to like it a lot. On Haven, we wanted to bring back some intensity to the music again.

In a way, many of the Swedish bands seemed to lose sight of what Dark Tranquillity, At The Gates and Eucharist started in the early nineties. The initial movement was about precision, aggression and musicianship, but it was also about attaining a certain vibe. I think a lot of bands failed to complete the equation, seeing The Gallery and albums like it at face value. Care to comment on that?

It's possible. Frankly, I'm not at all updated with the current scene, so I can't offer much of an opinion here. With some rare expections, I haven't heard any of the newer bands that get placed under the Gothenburg sound umbrella, but people keep saying that while many of them are skilled musicans, they may lack an identity and expression of their own. That said, most bands need a few years to find their own sound, and we definately were no exception, so I don't want to slag any newer bands for not being 100 percent original. Also, one must remember that the bands from here never set out to form a special style of sound or to get that G********g-tag to it. We were just concerned with making our own music as good as possible, and couldn't care less about labels or definitions. It got misunderstood a lot during a certain period. Magazines kept asking things like, "Tell me about this Gothenburg sound that you claim to have invented" and "How do you think that the Gothenburg sound should develop?", implying that the whole thing was about a set of rules or a movement that the bands themselves had started to spread around and tried to hype as the ultimate way of playing metal. It was never anything like that.

Do you see Dark Tranquillity as a 'move and shaker' in extreme music or simply a band that writes what it feels? If it's the latter, do you sometimes feel surprised at the music that does come out of the songwriters.

As mentioned, I don't follow the scene so much. After having spent hours and hours in the rehearsal room listening to our own music, it feels more interesting to put something in the CD player that is as far away from D.T. as possible. Therefore, I haven't really thought much about our "position" in the scene. It just doesn't feel like a relevant thing to think about. We do what we feel like doing at any given time, without caring too much about what other bands are doing.

Based on Haven, Dark Tranquillity are writing music that isn't as immediate as previous records. Upon the first listen, Haven sounded a little too safe and predictable, but there's loads of intricacy layered into the songs - something Brandstrom, Jivarp and Henriksson developed without a lot of people noticing.

I see what you mean. There was a very obvious complexity in our earlier albums, where a song could have 14-15 different riffs and lots of tempo changes and sudden twists and turns. Nowadays, it's more subtle. The song structures are way more basic and the songs are much shorter, but on the other hand there are lots of things going on that isn't as apparant on the first couple of listenings. It may sound strange to non-musicians, but lots of the riffs on Haven are more difficult to play than most of the The gallery, and the actual arrangements are often more complex. We're just approaching it from a different angle now, with more subtlety.

I also noticed the songwriting has moved from you and Henriksson ("Skydancer") to more Henriksson/Jivarp. Why have you had a lesser role in the songwriting over the years? Furthermore, is that a trend you see continuing as Cabin Fever Media starts to consume more and more of your time and creative energy?

There's no great reason for it. When we started out, me and Martin wrote most of the riffs, but these days all the members are contributing with material. As for my own participation, I wasn't overly active during the Haven songwriting process, and the reason for that is that I was so busy with setting up my illustration studio, and that had to be the highest priority. Now things are running smoothly, and I've got more time to devote to the band again. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter which band members that write the riffs, it still takes the six of us to make it sound like D.T.

As a songwriter, which of Dark Tranquillity's songs are your favorite and why? A detailed answer on structure, idea and compositional flow would be nice.

I don't have a particular favourite song. This probably sounds dull, but after having rehearsed a song millions of times, recorded it in studio and then performed it live over and over again, much of the relationship is lost. My fave D.T. tunes are always the ones that we're currently working on since they are still fresh and challenging. After they've been documented on CD, they belong to the past and just aren't very interesting anymore. Of course, certain songs like "Punish My Heaven" and "Zodijackyl Light" are usually great experiences to play live because of the support from the audience and the intensity of the feedback, but that's a different matter. But just to give an answer, I'd say that "Lethe" is probably the song where I feel that the lyrics and music are best connected.

Moving forward, where do you see Dark Tranquillity going musically? I feel you have successfully added electronics and parlayed 'clean' singing into the songs more efficiently. Do you think there's a creative peak for the band?

There are lots of different roads we can take from here. I can imagine the next album being more adventurous than Haven, featuring a bit of everything mixed with some new influences, but it remains to be seen.

Once a creative peak has been reached or rather felt, where do you see Dark Tranquillity moving from there. It's interesting to see bands like Kreator go through the years and finally return to a style more representative of their middle years. Do you think something like that could happen to Dark Tranquillity?

I don't know...It's hard to speculate about what the future will bring, since we usually aren't able to predict even what the next album will sound like. After The Mind's I, we were all set to record our fastest album ever and hinted at that in interviews, but instead Projector turned out to be our most mellow album so far. When starting to write songs for Haven, we were all sure that the result would be a slow and depressive album with clear vocals, but we were dead wrong - so even if we'd make a fair guess about the coming couple of years, it'd still be uncertain. But it's a pretty common cycle that bands experiment in different directions and then eventually return to grounds that they covered earlier. Who knows, maybe there will be a The Gallery II in a couple of years. [laughs]

Do you see a foreseeable end to Dark Tranquillity? I mean, there are loads of things to accomplish artistically and conceptually, right?

We'll keep going for as long as we find it interesting...I have no idea if that means one or 10 more years, but right now I can't see any reasons to put the band on ice.

Speaking of the future, you're currently working on songs for your forthcoming album. Can we expect any surprises, new elements? It'd be nice to see Dark Tranquillity honing the electronic elements into your trademark aggressive bursts further.

It's a bit early to say...We've got a lot of material written, but no song is 100 percent finished yet and we're trying lots of different arrangements out for each track. Everything is pretty open right now, but my guess is that it's going to be a very diverse album with a bit of everything in. Some of the riffs sound very old-school while some ideas are definately a step into unknown territory for us. We'll enter Studio Fredman in February next year, so I think that the album should be out in April/May or something.

Personally, I think Brandstrom's electronic components to the songs are a little predictable - almost Depeche Mode. It'd surprise a lot of people for the electronic element to be harder, edgier. Of course, this is dependent on the musical direction...

We're all great fans of Depeche mode and other bands whose keyboard presence is very electronic-sounding, almost in an '80s synthpop way, so it was natural to incorporate the keybords in this way. Most other metal bands with a permanent electronic-wizard in the line-up primarly use more classical and atmospheric sounds, so we wanted to do something slightly different. I'm sure, though, that the next album won't have the same sounds as Haven. Martin said that he wanted to experiment with harsher, more organic keyboard sounds and samples in the future, so we'll see what happens.

Do you think there will ever be a continuation of "A Bolt of Blazing Gold?" I know that was the first song to impact me (and others) greatly. I guess your entire fanbase is secretly yearning for a part 2. But that's just the fan in me...

[laughs] I don't know, really. Most follow-up songs turn out pretty cheesy and can even destroy the "magic" of the original song. It's probably better to leave "...bolt..." as it is without attaching it to a new composition made 10 years later. I'm also not sure how to find a bridge between such an old song and a new one content-wise, since our current lyrical style is very different from the one of Skydancer. We did make a song for Projector that was dubbed "Lethe 2", but that was mostly because they had the same sort of vibe rather than anything else. This song, called "No-one", never made it to the album, by the way. I'm much more into reworking an old song, but that isn't too likely to happen either unless we suddenly get lots of time on our hands. On the Projector tour, we played an updated version of "The Gallery", which honestly wasn't too good.

Well, that sums up the questioning for this round, but any parting shots on behalf of Dark Tranquillity? Plug your new record, if you like.

Well, thanks for the interview and sorry for having taken some time with the answers. Things are really hectic right now. Before signing off, I urge your readers to keep an eye open for the new album, whatever it'll be called. Cheers!



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