In the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, before labels were interested in signing death metal bands, or bands in other extreme underground scenes, tape-trading was the main means of circulating and marketing your music. Bands sent their homemade tapes to other bands all over the country (and sometimes the world). Mass mailings of flyers, demos, and ads for fanzines formed an interconnected network of bands and fans devoted to spreading their music. That was how the scene was built.
The Swedish death metal scene was born during this period, and morphing out of the first wave were bands like Carnage and Nihilist, that later transitioned into pioneering Swedish death metal bands Dismember and Entombed (R.I.P LG Petrov) that defined the early Swedish death metal sound. At the beginning of the 1990s, metal fans around the world turned their heads to the Gothenburg scene and its specific take on the genre where bands combined death metal with the melodious and harmonic elements of the new wave of British heavy metal. Melodic death metal was born and bands like At the Gates, Dark Tranquillity, and In Flames defined the genre, popularized the style, and laid the foundation for the influential ‘Gothenburg Sound’.
In February 1991, thirty years ago and a bit, At the Gates released their debut EP Gardens of Grief and soon after pursued a stubbornly individualistic, experimental direction with their first and second albums, ‘91s The Red in the Sky is Ours and ‘92s With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness. But nothing would measure up to 1995s epic record Slaughter of the Soul, an album that almost any metalhead will speak of with reverence, a record that not only defined a time and a place but also inspired the generations that followed.
Fast forward 25 years, after a long hiatus, a comeback tour in 2008, and a definite return to the scene with At War With Reality in 2014, the band was supposed to have celebrated Slaughter of the Soul with a 25th anniversary tour. But the world went into a state of horror and was struck with agony and pandemic terror, and At the Gates had it all postponed. But they went into the studio to record a new album.
We met up with frontman Tomas ‘Tompa’ Lindberg at local vegan restaurant Blackbird in Gothenburg and chat about releasing records for more than 30 years, still being excited about new releases, and some facts on the upcoming 2021 record.
Thirty years of melodic death metal
Like all bands in times like these At the Gates must have had a rough year. I guess lots of festivals and tours have been postponed or canceled?
Yeah, we were supposed to have come out for a one-week tour in the US in August last year to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Slaughter of the Soul, but it was of course postponed. The problem is that if we do the tour this year it will be the 26th anniversary, and if it’s postponed again, which is likely to happen, the record will have turned 27 by next summer, but then we want to tour the new record which also will be a year old by then. Weird situation isn’t it (laugh). Luckily Slaughter of the Soul is just a 25-minute long album and maybe we’ll do a mash-up and put in a few new songs in the set as well.
Most gigs and festivals have been postponed, not canceled, but no one knows when it’s possible to play again anyway. But we’ve been very lucky because we’ve had a new album to record. The only problem is that you can’t apply for any cultural funds for lost income from gigs because we haven’t lost any, just postponed it. That’s a bit crappy, but we all have normal jobs and won’t get bankrupt (laugh).
It’s important to understand that we’re not economically dependent on the band and never really wanted to be that, not even during the 1990s, simply because we didn’t want to make music for the wrong reasons, like unconsciously writing music just to sell copies.
Not even for a year or two?
I lived in Belgium for a year and before I moved there I had a talk with Jonas Björler, our bassist who also is our manager, about finding a way to live off At the Gates during that year. And it worked out but I had to cut down on my living costs quite much, almost half of what I was used to. We split a really cheap apartment for 400€ a month which was a bit cheaper than the 1300€ house I had in Sweden (laugh).
I’m a primary school teacher and have been very lucky to keep my job in times like these when lots of people lose their jobs. The money we make from touring is just a great extra income that makes life a bit easier. And you stay off the road to become a commercial band (laugh).
But At the Gates never reached the level where it was possible to even consider to live off music. We always traveled in vans and did support gigs for bigger bands and never ended up at the top of the payroll. In the 1990s we toured and lived off unemployment funds. You had to send in unemployment cards once a week, but because it was impossible to do it when we were out touring we had our parents helping us out (laugh). All bands did it at the time. The only time we actually got well paid was at our comeback in 2008, but you don’t quit your day job for one lucky year.
When covid-19 hit the world we’ve just finished touring our last album To Drink From the Night Itself and had started writing the upcoming album, and we asked our label Century Media for an advance to get more time off to continue writing the record. That’s what we’ve been doing until October last year. In that sense the pandemic has been a good opportunity for us to write new music.
Maybe it was a chance to have a break after a lot of touring as well?
Most definitely, and it was a well-needed break for all of us because we did twice as many shows on the last tour compared to the album tour before that [At War With Reality] and were exhausted, not mentally but physically tired and almost burned out, and the pandemic saved us a bit. It’s horrible to say like that when people have lost their jobs and, even worse, family members, but as a touring band it was good because we wouldn’t have had much of a break before we would have been out on the road again.
At the Gates have been around for more than 30 years by now and a few weeks ago it was 30 years since the release of your debut EP Gardens of Grief. How do you value older releases today when you probably have evolved as musicians?
I’m super proud of what we did back in the ‘90s when we were teenagers, young kids that just wanted to play loud music (laugh). But it’s impossible to play those songs today because they were written by teenagers.
In the early ‘90s we had that kind of young energy, but we’re not there anymore because we’re older and experienced and can’t really make music on the back of that kind of energy. Another thing is that death metal is in large part avant-gardist music in the sense that it doesn’t follow a classic formula, the formula with chorus, verse, bridge and the other building blocks for songs. The young At the Gates didn’t write songs at all, we just pulled together riffs into songs, in a very weird way at times. If we would try to play those songs today, they would sound completely different because we’re far better musicians now, we can’t play like that anymore. The reason they sound like they do is that we weren’t any good musicians.
But I remember how proud and excited we were when we got the EP in our hands the first time, and what’s fun to know is that I still have that feeling every time we release a new album. You would think that those feelings will get less intense after you’ve released more than twenty albums [including releases with other bands] but I still have it, it always pops up when I get a new record in my hands. When we released To Drink From the Night Itself I was at Roadburn ]Festival] and the label rep turned up and gave me a copy of the album, and I almost ran off the hotel just to have a listen (laugh). It’s just an amazing feeling.
In some way I’m even more proud when we release records today because it’s difficult harder to reach the longer you’ve been around. The whole scene, and the industry, has changed and we had to change with it, and that’s tough. But I would like to think that we have developed a kind of humility that reaches out to our fans and pull them in. Maybe they’re excited about the fact that we don’t always know where we’re going, that we’re trying to find it out while we’re in the process. We trust that our fans understand us even if they don’t know what to expect.
When you started there was a generation of successful bands coming up at the same time, and Gothenburg is famous for At the Gates, In Flames, and Dark Tranquillity. I know you grew up in neighboring areas in Gothenburg but did you help to push each other or was it a kind of competitive environment that made it happen?
We’ve always been good friends and started hanging out when we were young already. It’s the recipe for a successful scene, get a lot of people of the same age to do similar things, and we all liked metal. I’m aware of the fact that a lot of people say that we sound the same because of the Gothenburg sound, but it’s quite a difference but you won’t understand if you’re not into the death metal scene. At the Gates are very different from In Flames and Dark Tranquillity. But the second wave of bands, the generation that turned up after us and bands like Arch Enemy and Soilwork, are more similar to us.
There wasn’t any real competition back in the ’90s, we pushed for all bands to get gigs. But you always wanted to know what the other bands would say about your latest release. For me it’s still like that. “What will Stanne [Dark Tranquillity] think about the record?”, that’s important to me (laugh) because he understands what we’re doing.
People and bands in the scene have always been very helpful and there’s never been a beef or any rivalry between the Stockholm and Gothenburg scene like other music scenes had because the scene was extremely underground already from the start. Everyone, every band, knew each other through tape-trading, that was the only way to get hold of new music. We didn’t have any role models in the scene because we were building it. Compare that to America where the scene is split between cities divided by huge geographical distances and with lots of bands and people in the scene. Of course it’s more competitive when you need to fight for gigs and attention. But that’s America and if relations turns bad with someone there’s always another to hang out with somewhere else (laugh).
But don’t get me wrong; we really love to tour the US and love the culture, especially the food culture, but we don’t always understand Americans, not even our American friends (laugh). There’s a never-ending stream of “awesomes”, and as a Swede and European you don’t think everything is awesome. If a German would say “awesome” it means something. Other than that, America is one of the best places to tour.
Changing line-up and a third concept album
Heavy bands making stunning comebacks became nearly routine in the 2010s. After a long hiatus At the Gates returned to the scene in 2014 with At War With Reality, but much has happened since then. Long-time member and friend Anders Björler left the band a year before To Drink From the Night Itself was released after nearly being burned out in the making of At War With Reality and from extensive touring, and was later replaced with Jonas Stålhammar.
The new At the Gates era also involved the start of making concept albums. While At War With Reality dealt with magic realism, To Drink From the Night Itself puts its hands on the concept of art, and their third album since the comeback is yet another excursion into the world of concepts. But about what we have to wait and see.
Not much has been revealed about the upcoming album yet, but you posted on social media that you’ve started the final process with mastering and started working on your first video.
It’s actually mastered and done and we’re about to do the last bits of the artwork, the layout and that stuff. But we’re very picky about the details and that drives the Germans [Century Media Germany] crazy (laugh). “You can’t have it in that color because it won’t look good in digital media”. But we don’t care, we just want it to look good on the LP cover (laugh).
We’ve also done much of the less fun promos for the record, like press photos, and started doing videos. At the moment we’re working on two videos at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, we always love the end result but miming to the same song a hundred times isn’t fun at all. The pandemic caused a bit of a problem though because Adrian [Erlandsson, drummer] lives in London and can’t get here that easy because of pandemic restrictions. It worked out when we recorded in the studio but the second pandemic wave made it quite difficult to travel to Sweden.
This is your third album after the comeback and Jonas Stålhammar has been part of the whole process for the first time. Where would you place the album with reference to the other two comeback albums?
That’s true, Jonas is new to the song-writing process although he joined the band before we released To Drink From the Night Itself. But he hasn’t been involved super much in the song-writing process on this album, not because he wasn’t allowed to, but Jonas Björler and I ended up in this extreme writing bubble, a trance-like condition, and just poured out new songs. But he will for sure be part of it in the future.
We were very excited about At War With Reality already before it was released because it represented our comeback, no one was as excited about it as us, but some time later I thought it was too slick, too well-produced. To Drink From the Night Itself was a response to that and we wanted it to be dirty and gritty and have loads of classic death metal sounds on it, like a lot of reverb on the vocals and that stuff. It was a record for old-school fans.
The upcoming album is somewhere in between, something that continues on the concept we started on the two previous albums where we incorporated much more of our proggy, krauty and avant-gardist influences. Just to give you the picture of how it sounds; one song goes by the nickname “the Goblin song”, another we call “the Neu song”. But I promise you we don’t take it too far, people wouldn’t listen to it if we did (laugh). When we were in the studio we told Jens Bogren [producer] to keep the gritty sound and the attack from the last record and put the overall sound in between the comeback records. And it sounds awesome!
When we did the Roadburn Festival two years ago we did a special set with guest vocalists and string instruments and that stuff on stage and played songs we never played live before. All that was very inspiring because we realized we can do it today, the things we thought we could do as teenagers when we wanted to be the King Crimson of death metal (laugh), but we weren’t good enough. After the Roadburn gig we talked about incorporating more of those elements on record.
Let’s say we’re super excited about how people will receive the record because there’s stuff on the album never heard on an At the Gates record before, a lot of weird things (laugh). For old fans there’s at least five or six classic At the Gates songs on it, but it’s a quite diverse album.
At the Gates have been around for such a long time by now that we don’t need to release records to please someone else, we want to do things we like ourselves. It’s still death metal but it has evolved. We just want it to sell enough to get money to record the next album (laugh).
Anders left the band a year before you released To Drink From the Night Itself. How much does something like that affect a band when one of the original members leaves?
He’s still around, but in the background; Anders is the first to listen to our demos. But he was tired of it all. Or rather, both of us were pretty much burned out after At War With Reality. That whole creative process was really tough on us.
I thought a lot about what really happened, but I guess it all had to do with expectations. You want to believe that you know how to handle pressure by now, but you don’t. And it was a comeback record and all the pressure that comes with it. The end result, what’s on the album, wasn’t affected at all, but the process to get there was too tough to handle. Most of that pressure stayed with that album, Jonas and I were quite relaxed when we wrote the songs to To Drink From the Night Itself.
The Björler brothers, Jonas and Anders, are quite different. Anders is more like me, a bit introverted and someone who reflects a lot on things. Jonas is a doer, he makes it happen. That’s why it worked better on the second comeback album; I reflected in my introverted state and Jonas made it happen (laugh). The best is that he doesn’t care when I’m brutally honest and don’t like an idea, he just says “Yeah yeah, let’s try it like this instead” (laugh).
But it feels like Anders, and Alf, our first guitarist, is still with us. Those are the people we trust when we want feedback on our demos. Plus a few more people that in one way or the other are part of the production process, like Per Ståhlberg at Welfare and Jens Bogren.
Both your albums since the comeback are concept albums and I suspect that the upcoming record follows the trend. What is it that makes concept albums interesting? Is it about having a storyline, something to build your musical idea on?
Yes, it’s a sort of concept album as well, but I won’t tell you the concept yet. You have to wait and see (laugh).
I’ve loved concept albums since I was young and listened to bands like King Crimson and Bolt Thrower that brought me into some sort of fantasy world. The idea was to reach a higher state of consciousness, to leave the reality while listening to the record. I just love the idea about that.
The reason I wanted to do it at first, at At War With Reality, was to show our fans that it wasn’t just a temporary comeback to earn money, it was us saying “We’re back and won’t stop after this record”, and to do that I wanted to have a concept because it demonstrates a lot of work. Fans should understand that we’ve worked so hard for our comeback and that we wanted it to be the best At the Gates album ever made. It also boosted me, to show myself that we could pull off a concept album.
After At War With Reality I started to be even more interested in concept albums and since I read a lot of non-fiction I thought “Why not use it as inspiration for our records?”. Writing shallow and trivial lyrics doesn’t suit me at all, I can’t do it. I need something that inspires me, otherwise I can’t be creative. That’s my universe I describe in the lyrics (laugh).
To wrap it up; the record is mastered and basically ready for a release. Do you know when it will be?
We’re still discussing it with Century Media and it seems like it will happen somewhere between May and in the middle of the summer. The biggest problem is to coordinate the release in Europe and the US because of the pandemic, it’s a bit of a problem to distribute the physical record across the world.
And there’s a tour if it’s possible to do it later this year?
For sure! If it’s possible we’ll do it. But we need to do the postponed shows first, the anniversary tour from last year and a few festival gigs. We need to combine it in some way. Again, the problem is if it’s postponed one more year and we’re supposed to tour a 27-year old record – that’s weird already (laugh) – and a one-year-old album. It’s all old stuff by then. Whatever happens it’s going to be weird (laugh).
At the Gates pages