Still on a quest for the perfect record: Dark Tranquillity’s Mikael Stanne on 30 years in the scene

Try to imagine Gothenburg 30 years ago, a rather depressive city to live in marked by a massive crisis in the maritime industry while Sweden faced a gigantic economic crisis in 1991. The banking system almost collapsed and resulted in soaring unemployment and personal debts on an unprecedented scale in modern Swedish history.

That same year saw a new, dark music scene arise in Gothenburg. Growing up in neighboring areas, At the Gates released their debut EP Gardens Of Grief while Dark Tranquillity recorded their first demo tape Trail Of Life Decayed inspired by the early Swedish death metal scene and bands like Entombed, but with a twist. By incorporating classic death metal with more melody and harmonies in the sound through a dual guitar approach and, at times, clear vocals, they defined the melodic death metal genre that came to shape the Gothenburg sound.

Two years later In Flames joined the “holy trinity” and in 1995 the trio of bands all released pioneering albums – Slaughter of the Soul (At the Gates), The Gallery (Dark Tranquillity) and Subterranean (In Flames) – that immortalized Gothenburg in music history books as the melodic death metal capital of the world and the epicenter of new bands in the scene.

At the end of last year, Dark Tranquillity released their 12th album Moment, claimed to be their best album to date by frontman Mikael Stanne, and Messed!Up caught him at local metal bar The Abyss in Gothenburg for a chat about the hard work put down to become a professional musician, what drives him to continue a hectic and sometimes chaotic touring life, and why the Gothenburg scene is such a great incubator for bands of all genres.

The Rise of Melodic Death Metal

Moment came out in November last year and usually you would have been out touring by now, but nothing is as usual. Is it frustrating to just sit and wait and hope for some sort of miracle to happen that will open up for touring again?
I’m not worried about that at all actually, I have lots of other projects to do and have continued writing music. When we released Moment I was prepared that nothing would happen and had a few ideas on what to do instead. You just have to make sure you have something to do, like writing and recording new stuff. It’s fun to hang out in the studio a bit more than I’m used to.

Many bands postponed their records in some sort of hope that this whole situation will change soon and they can tour again. We also talked about it just ahead of releasing Moment but decided that there’s no point in waiting. What will happen if it takes another year and you’ve had a record ready for release for almost two years? For fans it will be new but for you it’s just an old record.

It was obvious way before we released the record that we had to find something else to do as a band and it has been a continuous reflection and discussion on what we can offer fans, but also a lot more administrative work – too much actually – and it’s not always fun (laugh). Our merchandise, t-shirts and stuff, suddenly became super important to us. Usually it’s just something we bring with us to gigs.But again, what’s most important is to have something to do, get absorbed by something else, like doing live streams. We had this huge stream at Storan [live venue in Gothenburg] last year which was really fun to do, people loved it, but you can’t do many of those because the market is quite saturated already. And as a band it’s not super fun to play in front of a cameraman, but once or twice works out.

It’s also really important to stay in touch with the fans and remind them of Dark Tranquillity, but to find that sort of unique angle on things that catches people’s attention is super hard. I’m trying to keep an eye on how other bands do it to find something exciting and although there are lots of ideas out there quite many sucks (laugh). Our press people at Century Media are very creative and great to work with, and they suggest loads of things for us to do. But let’s just face it, some ideas don’t really work when you’re in our age (laugh).

It’s not really possible to do a set of live shows, like The Hives online world tour?
At least not for us. Some bands did great sets of shows, like Enslaved from Norway. They released an album last summer and did five online shows with different setlists and in different settings. Just awesome shows, I watched them all. But there have also been too many disappointing live streams as well, but I get that. I understand why bands can’t do their best when there’s no audience on site. It’s a weird, or at least strange, feeling to play without an audience because you lose the energy you get from interacting with a crowd, that’s a major part of the show.

Online festivals can work out because you usually just record one or two songs at home and the festival takes care of the stream and distributes it online. Then you don’t need to work so hard to make things work out yourself; it is a lot of work behind the scenes when you plan for an online show.

I’m trying to support as many bands as possible and buy tickets but I don’t always watch them because it’s too many. But sometimes it’s just perfect, like on a Saturday night with a few beers and really loud metal pouring out of the speakers. That’s almost like watching a live DVD (laugh)

Dark Tranquillity are one of the holy trinity of bands that shaped the sound of Gothenburg and are one of the pioneering bands of the melodic death metal scene. Together with In Flames and At the Gates you put Gothenburg on the metal map, but why do think it happened at that point in time?
It’s all about timing and that people may have been bored to listen to the same formula that dominated death metal music back then. Our generation tried to do something different and new that was interesting for us to play. We just put in pieces of what we liked from all subgenres of death metal in our music and didn’t really expect to get so much attention for it. But it happened, and all three bands did really well from the mid-90s, maybe because we’re three bands from tiny Gothenburg, bands that also shared a studio. Maybe it’s a bit exotic (laugh).

But wasn’t it a bit frustrating to always be compared to At the Gates and In Flames every time you released a new album?
I do understand why people lumped us together but it was so fucking frustrating, and it was like that for a very long time. It’s not like that anymore but at times it still pops up, like when we released our new album last year and In Flames did a special anniversary release of Clayman. But you can’t let it get to you. I do it myself when I listen to my favorite bands and compare records, although I don’t put it online for public scrutiny. It’s a mind experiment and should stay like that. I just find it ridiculous when I read reviews like “The record isn’t as good as the first In Flames record” because we’re not the same band. But I love those bands because we grew up together and shared the same scene and did gigs together.

Did it ever come to a point where you planned your releases and tried not to release records at the same time, just to avoid comparisons like that?
No, that would be like taking it too far, we’ve never had any plan or strategy behind our releases. It all happens by chance and label strategies, but nothing we’re involved in.

What I find most interesting today is that lots of our fans have been with us from the start and we rarely hear anyone say “They’re not as good as in ‘95” or something like that. Fans, and reviewers, see us as a band that evolve with every new record, and for us it means that we’re not tied to an older album that everyone wants to hear live all the time. We’re blessed to have fans like that and it gives us the energy to continue doing what we do.

Have the metal scene in Gothenburg suffered from the success of the first wave of bands in the scene? You rarely hear about any successor in the Gothenburg scene, it’s still associated with At the Gates, Dark Tranquillity and In Flames.
There’s so much more music coming out of Gothenburg, but I guess that because we were the first to get international attention and started a completely new scene it may be that people won’t see beyond that. Journalists abroad often ask us “Why is Gothenburg so special? You have such great bands”, and I usually say that we probably have twice as many great bands than he or she would know about – and in all genres. Even before we started there were bands like Union Carbide Productions, and after our breakthrough, the whole indie rock scene arrived which became very popular across Europe.

Today we have awesome stoner rock bands, prog metal bands and loads of psych bands from Gothenburg – and it’s high-quality music. If you like heavy and loud music you will find something in every genre to listen to.

I remember from growing up with the scene myself that bands never competed but pushed for everyone to succeed no matter what music they played.
Most definitely! When journalists ask about it I always come back to the amazing atmosphere we have in the scene in Gothenburg. There’s no competition or rivalry, just friends that want to organize gigs. That’s the reason the Gothenburg scene has seen a lot of successful bands, people are helpful.

“Our fans keep me running”

Long hours in vans and solitary hotel rooms. Screaming fans when you’re on stage, then back home to feed the cat. The life of being in a band frequently touring the world since the 1990s isn’t that of a glorified jetsetter and can rather be quite destructive if you don’t find a balance between crazy tours and coming home to a completely different life off stage.

Stanne points out that however stressful and chaotic touring can be, Dark Tranquillity won’t cut down on gigs and festivals, rather the opposite. It is however important to take breaks in between to calm down and recalibrate the system, but with fans like DT’s there’s always energy to go that extra mile to explore new places and venues to play.

I read an interview just ahead of the release of Moment where you listed all Dark Tranquillity albums and you put Moment as number one. Is it really your best album?
(laugh) But that’s how I feel about it and it should feel like that. The worst that would happen is if the result on record, the end result, doesn’t live up to our expectations, but this record evolved into something far better. But ask me in ten years again. Maybe I’ll feel like “Ok, it was a great record back then” (laugh).

You always have this idea that the next album will be the best you ever released, and you try to make it as close to the perfect record as possible. And the next time after that you’ll think “Let’s take it one more step closer to the perfect record”. It’s about pushing yourself to do something better.

To get new band members into Dark Tranquillity helped you to push it closer to the best record ever?
Absolutely, that’s how I feel about it. We have been able to do stuff we couldn’t do on previous records. It just felt like we didn’t have any barriers or limits for what we could do this time. With Johan and Chris it was a lot easier to push our guitar sound in a new direction. Although most songs were already written when they joined the band we knew that the overall production would be much better when we started to work on the songs together. There’s some sort of freedom in the song-writing process we haven’t had before. That’s how you want the process to be as well rather than “Ok, let’s do it as usual” because you’re limited in what you can do.

Every band needs a bit of rejuvenation and this was kind of a big one. I felt already from the start that it was going to be so fucking great in the end.

It’s also quite some years since your first demo tape Trail Of Life Decayed was released, it’s actually 30 years ago. Many things happen during 30 years, both with the band and in life, and it’s impressive to still be thriving in the scene considering how much hard work you need to put into it. What drives you to continue?
I got that question not that long ago, at the end of the seventh week on a US tour and with a two-week tour left to do in South America. At that point I just answered “I don’t fucking know why I’m doing this” (laugh). When you have been on the road for several weeks playing gigs almost every night you get tired.

It’s the fans that keep me running, the energy you get in the interaction with people at shows which is very rewarding when you have worked so hard just to make the tour come together. But it’s also about communicating with fans when you’re off tour. To see that people love what we do is good enough for me.

The other thing is that I still love the creative process, to sit at home and write new songs and try out lyrics and then head off to the studio to play it for everyone else in the band. That’s still super exciting for me. You know when you get the feeling “This is gonna be so fucking great” when you’re in the studio, that type of feeling still turns up. I just love it, it’s a real addiction (laugh).

You have to understand how much music has shaped my life. As you said, 30 years is my whole adult life and I don’t know a life without it. What started as a hobby is now my job. But it’s also important to keep a balance. It’s about balancing different lives where you change between being out on crazy tours for weeks or months with your best friends and coming back home, cool down and start being creative again. You have to find a balance when you don’t have routines in life like people with normal jobs have.

Many musicians seem to find it really difficult to find that type of balance and don’t know what to do when they’re back from touring, almost feeling empty and a bit lonely.
Oh, I do understand that really well. It’s almost like getting sick the first days after a tour and you’re like “What the fuck!? Nothing happens, it’s just a boring everyday life”, but you need to learn to appreciate that type of life because you won’t survive a life in full throttle all the time. After really long tours it could take almost two weeks to calm down.

Some bands start to cut down on touring when they get older because it’s too tough. You never had that type of feeling?
Never! We just love to be out on tour and we just seem to get more gigs. Maybe we have longer breaks between tours today just to recover a bit, and we try to tour smarter meaning we don’t pick the cheapest nightliner without air condition (laugh). Our awesome crew also makes sure that everything works out as easily as possible and that we just have to focus on the gigs and that’s not really hard work, it’s why we do all this.

But how much hard work did you have to put down to get to the level where you could start living off music?
I’ve been a professional for some years by now but it has been many years with super hard work to get there. All that touring we’ve done earned us quite a following and a continuously growing fanbase that apparently likes our stuff and buys it, and that made it possible to work as a professional musician. Another reason is that we’ve toured a lot in the US where the big market for our music is, and we have been very lucky to find great people to work with that find gigs for us and always keep us updated on new opportunities over there.

We’ve also reached a position in the scene where we’re booked for bigger festivals and get great slots, and with that comes a better position on the payroll. In terms of gigs we do it all ourselves and don’t spend money on someone who doesn’t understand what we want. You’re in control of your workplace then, that’s how I see it. And we have a great network of venues we always play and then you know it will work out. But we also try to find new places to play, new countries to visit, every time we tour. If we do two European tours we have an A-market with venues in our network and a B-market where we play venues we rarely visit or haven’t played before, and that’s always super exciting because you don’t know anything about the fans at those places.

Martin [Henriksson], our guitarist until he left five years ago, is our manager today and knows what we want and takes care of our bookings. It’s much easier to have it like that because we can discuss tour plans together and don’t need to work with some stranger somewhere else who doesn’t really know us.

To wrap it up; what do you think about the possibility to tour later this year and finally do a Moment Tour across the world?
I don’t really want to say it, but it will be hard. I’m sure we can do some sort of shows in Sweden in the fall but I don’t know about festivals. Maybe one of those corona-secure festivals that have been tried out a few times, but do people want to come out for that kind of festival? Isn’t it a bit boring? But nothing will happen this summer, I’m quite sure about it.

International travels will be really tricky and running a festival when you don’t know if the band will turn up or not because restrictions may change overnight won’t work out. But we really want to play live, that’s our life.

How do you think the music scene will look like on the other side of covid?
I’m sure there will be an avalanche of releases, something never seen before in music history, when this is over. As a fan it’s going to be crazy but as a band there’s a huge risk that your record will disappear in that flood of releases. And I’m also sure that there will be many weird projects, bands that haven’t played in years who release something to tour just ride the wave of freedom people will experience when it’s over. Just imagine how many gigs there will be, venues will be completely full even on bad gig days. It’s going to be mental (laugh).

Photographers: Krichan Wihlborg and Richard Bloom.
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About J.N.

Music researcher with an unhealthy passion for music and music festivals. Former studio owner, semi-functional drummer and with a fairly good collection of old analogue synthesizers from the 70's. Indie rock, post rock, electronic/industrial and drum & bass (kind of a mix, yeah?) are usual stuff in my playlists but everything that sounds good will fit in.