It is freezing cold in Brussels that day. An empty giant wheel makes turns for no one and the Glühwein is getting cold in the booths while uninterested people are in a hurry to get home. But soon we forget this cold atmosphere by a warm welcome in the place to be. We go upstairs to a large room with rather scary pieces of art, inspired by horror and porno. On a large ancient wooden table, we are welcomed by Mikael and Niklas. That's where our in-depth conversation took place.
We are here to talk about the new album 'Character', coming out in January 2005. But I've heard it was already recorded in March 2004. How come it took so long?
Niklas: Our record label Century Media was at the end of our contract and we wanted to look around a bit for other labels. That process takes forever if you got management, lawyers and stuff but you cannot rush it, it takes a while. It took six months or so. And then in the summer we decided to go with Century Media again. So it became January for a release and that's fine for me.
And in the meantime there was 'Exposures' to be released…
Mikael: Yes, indeed, they wanted to wait to have the maximum impact. We had the time to do a video and this EP single, to build up tension. It might be kind of strange for a band like us to make a video or a single, but it works. Now we feel very prepared, now we have a whole year scheduled and a tour planned. It is very good to be prepared and not having to rush anything.
Do you still feel a kind of suspense when a new album hit the streets?
Mikael: Oh yeah. We really kept this album tight. We only played it for a couple of friends. As the promo is out, we see people find out and download some things and they seem to love it. That's a good start.
Niklas: We have been waiting for almost a year before we got the first reactions, so it is nice that things are finally happening. And we still haven't grown tired of the album. It still sounds fresh, it is quite rare for usually you really get tired of an album after recording it. That's a good sign.
Mikael: And we can't wait to do these songs live!
In February you go on tour with Kreator. Isn't it a strange combination, for I remember them more as a thrash metal band…
Mikael: We have always been huge fans. One of the reasons we started to play music in the first place was because Kreator was so cool. One of the first EP's I bought was the coolest thing I ever heard, it blew me away. They are one of our biggest inspirations.
Niklas: It is a privilege and a great honour, it is a strong package.
I remember you once did a cover from Kreator: 'Bringer Of Torture'. Is there a chance to see you together on stage with Kreator, maybe for that one song?
Niklas: I guess not, since we played that on the tour in 1997, but who knows on the last show, haha…
Is there a special reason why the album is called 'Character'?
Mikael: Pretty early on, when I started writing lyrics, I wanted to write about different kind of people, personalities and emotions, how people deal with certain situations. I mean, the world gets more scary every day and it is important to know how to deal with that. You just cannot comfort on religion or follow a certain trend or politics. You have to choose your own path to know where you should be. So many strings pulling you in all kind of directions and that takes character and a strong personality. You have to be strong in your conviction and have foundation. I tried to write eleven songs about different characters and how they would deal with things. Different things of myself too. The lyrics are rather personal, I don't know anyone else that well, so… I sing for myself, to kind of free myself from these frustrations. If people want to interpret it in their own way, that's cool. I try not to preach or think for anyone else but me.
Was it an easy process to write songs this time?
Mikael: It is always hard for me to write lyrics. It takes a lot of time. You have to stir yourself up, expose yourself to something, get frustrated and angry, feel all these emotions that will fit the music.
Niklas: As for the music, basically it was the same process as always. We write the basic riffs and come up with the original and really simple concepts. Then we start to experiment, different arrangements for different riffs, trying things out. With rehearsals everything comes together and we can focus on tiny details. It takes a lot of time with six people involved. The most important thing is to write songs you are satisfied with. Otherwise you are more an entertainer than an artist, which can be fine, but it may not be a primal goal.
Niklas, you are also involved with the artwork of the band and many others too…
Niklas: Not the first three, but everything since 'Projector'. I went to Art School and to the University, I was also involved in to multimedia design concepts. I made that 'Projector' cover and then I got response from labels and bands, asking for creating covers. At that time I was working as a web designer, but I decided to build my own company and go freelance and do different stuff. Since 1998 I do album covers for other bands as well. And of course I did the cover of the new album.
Yes, it is magnificent. Don't you find it a little bit a pity to do this for CD's, on LP it is much bigger.
Niklas: Yes, but it did it for the LP too, but it is a different artwork.
Mikael: And the digi pack is different as well. I am an old school when it comes down to that. I love vinyl covers like the ones of Roger Dean.
Niklas: Yes, but we must accept the reality of CD's.
What's extra on the digi-pack?
Niklas: Some live video stuff from Korea. It was an amazing experience to play there on the beach with nice settings. I thought there were 15000 people, but it seemed to be 35000. Amazing! It was like a holiday resort: sunset, beautiful beaches, mountains and it was the biggest crowd ever. I was so overwhelmed that I wrote on the website when I got home: thank you people, for being there and make it possible to headline this festival.
Mikael: And there is a part of the 'secret' show in a club in Seoul we did as well and then the video of 'Lost To Apathy'. On the LP the whole cover is different but there are no extra's in music.
I have heard you entered the Swedish charts again. Congratulations with that!
Mikael: Thank you. Yeah, even the single charts. Those I never follow since years. It is always the crappiest music because it's only like twelve year old kids who buy this stuff. Seeing yourself there is very weird. There is some other cool stuff, like mellow things, Nightwish and Rammstein. But it is very cool and it is one of the reasons we made a single and a video, to know if we are OK and stand the test. To see if it works… and it does, so why not?
Niklas: It is also a matter of being a bit strategic, I mean, the more exposure you get in Sweden, the better chances you get for good festivals and good gigs. We try to raise our exposure and awareness in order to be able to play more.
Now you have signed again at Century Media for three albums and you are safe for a while…
Mikael: Safety is important! These are people we know and trust. We have freedom in what we do, we can do whatever kind of album we like. I hear all these horror stories of labels and bands with so much trouble. We feel comfortable with it so much. We send the final product of mastering to them along with Niklas' files for the artwork, with photos and they just release it.
Niklas: We have total freedom. We really have a good relationship with them for several years. They have shown they are willing and eager to take the band to the next level as well. They are doing so much good promotion for this album. Whole Century Media, in Germany, in US…they are keen on releasing an album and coming up with fantastic promotion. They are devoted.
Is it an aggressive album?
Niklas: It is more difficult. It is more complex, more technical. You need a couple of times before the songs begin to enfold.
Mikael: It is faster, angrier, it is more extreme in many ways. It is urgent, something we really had to do after all these years. We kind of itching to go further with everything we had learned in those fifteen years. How can we push it further, take it to the next level, add this and that to spice it up to make it interesting. We obviously had the time to do so and we did take that time to perfect every single aspect of the album. You can listen to the album over and over again and still don't get it. You really got to explore it and not be satisfied with a first listen.
In their own words:
The New Build
Niklas: It is the opening song of the album. I guess we wanted to start off on a really intense and fast note. It has our first blastbeat riffs since 1996. It's an aggressive song, more rhythm based, not as melodic except for the chorus.
Mikael: It is the second to last song we wrote for the album. If you write eleven songs and look for a sequence for the album you often come to the opposite, it is a little bit like that with the whole album. The last song we wrote is the one we are most excited about. Something to say: people, pay attention!
Through Smudged Lenses
Niklas: Another quite fast song. We played it live a few times at the festivals as a teaser of the album.
Out Of Nothing
Niklas: This is really complex in the riff construction. It is very far away from that chorus-verse-chorus thing. It is very complicated with intrinsic keyboards and a quite heroic guitar solo. This is one of the songs that you need to listen to many times before everything make sense. It is not mediocre, it sounds good all the time but it takes a while to get into your system.
The Endless Feed
Mikael: It is a song written on keyboards by Martin Brändström, our keyboard player. It is allied with computer games music. We wanted different things for the sequence of the music. We put some guitars to it. The remix thing on the EP is more like his original version on the keyboards. Some people I talked to in interviews, said: “Oh, the album is going to be more industrial and electronics”, but that's just because he can really have his base on that remix track. Now it is taken over by guitars all over.
Niklas: It is dominated by guitars, back where we came from, it is an interesting way to work. And for the guitar freaks: we also used a different tuning. It is the first time ever we don't have the basic standard tuning of the guitars.
Lost To Apathy
Mikael: It is the first song we wrote for this album. It is fast, a little bit technical, with great melodic parts. It has all the elements in it when you think about the sound of Dark Tranquillity. It was a good way to start off a writing process of an album. It felt good to know, this is a good direction, we can continue working in this kind of mindset.
Niklas: It gave us a good framework to start from. The thing is: the hardest part is always the first song of a new album, start writing music. You don't know exactly what direction to take. We never had major plans or band meetings about the next album. It is always hard to nail the first song down. When that is done you have the basic direction and we can start moving.
Niklas: The opening riff is from the first part in the 'Derivation tnb' on the EP. On the EP it is played more relax. Now it is played twice as fast. It sounds very metallish now, very power metal like.
Mikael: Derivation tnb was taking the metal out of the riff. It is quite interesting to work that way, just focused on feeling and rhythm.
Mikael: A pretty simple song, one of the first we played live.
Niklas: Over a year ago in Italy we played that song already
Mikael: Even before we recorded it. It has a lot of straightness and catchiness in it, it gets people going. It worked from the first time, which is not for all of the songs. It seems to catch the audience immediately. You never know what to expect, but we got a great response.
Niklas: It is a good representation of Dark Tranquillity, it has all the different components. It has a lot faster riffs, an electronic part which is quite prominent and some more mid paced melodic parts. It has all the different Dark Tranquillity faces, combined in one song.
Mikael: It is one of the heaviest songs of the album. On this album I use no clean vocals, it's all out screaming.
Niklas: When you hear the album you will understand, this is very much about extremes. It wouldn't work with clean vocals.
Am I 1?
Mikael: One of the most technical songs. It's got a lot of things going on. Lyrically it deals with the whole idea behind 'Character', it deals with how you really get a focus on who you want to be and what direction you want to take in life. The song has very diverse things, it goes in all different kind of directions, so I thought it was appropriate to write something straight into the chaotic structure of the song.
Niklas: I guess the most basic song of the album. Quite shortened, very much to the point, with a catchy keyboard line, elapsing to frantic, very fast parts.
Mikael: It is one of the songs I sing constantly without taking breath.
Niklas: Yeah, it has got long lyrics, it is energetic without breaks, no mid temp parts.
Mikael: A very different song on the album. It is the longest one with a totally different kind of feel. We focused more on emotions here in an epic way. The lyrics are very different from the rest of the album as well. It serves as a great closing song of the album. You can take your time and so we do. There is a long instrumental part at the end.
Niklas: It is indeed a great closing part. I guess you can compare it to 'Abolt Of Blazing Gold' from our first album. Some clean guitars and everything taking its time; slow evolving with lots of space between the notes.
In what way are the lyrics different?
Mikael: It is my absolute opposite, totally pure and unaffected. Simple, without all the complications of having things influenced and how you can reach that state of mind.
Niklas is also responsible for the website and I make him a compliment for the tons of info you can find there.
Niklas: I work on a new version which is way better. We got so many visitors from places where they don't have fast connections or big monitors, so I want to keep it more basic. Without items that will be time-considered to load. But technology always progresses. So the new one will also be more visual and stylish. It will be stripped down, not filled with a lot of categories, focused on basic things. I have to finish that before the album is out.
I have heard your keyboard player Martin Brändström will be touring with Tiamat?
Niklas: Yes and he did before because they don't have a steady keyboardist anymore since Edlund writes all the keyboard parts. He is always working for us, or a session member for touring with Tiamat.
Now that you are here in Brussels, do you have the opportunity to see something from the town?
Niklas: Unfortunately not, it is really a hectic schedule. It is a promo tour of eleven days. Tomorrow it is Paris, the day after it is Italy. We are busy every day until nine o'clock in the evening. It is working, so they don't expect us to build parties. But I am happy to travel a bit anyway.
Are you, beside music, interested in other arts?
Niklas: For me, it is my work as designer, that's what I do for living.
Mikael: I see as much films as I can, I read as much books as possible, because there are always things that can sparkle your imagination. At least augment your creativity. When I see something that is a real personal piece of art, it makes me want to write. It doesn't have to do anything with me but I need it to get me going. You can be inspired by that passion that someone has for whatever material. I really love it. When you go to a cinema there is 90% crap, so you have to make your own little searching to find out the true stuff. But it is worth it…
Do you listen to other music than metal?
Mikael: Oh yeah, everything. I am a huge fan of old progressive rock and a lot of singer songwriters. As long as it is passionate, something that really matters. Then we can bring that in our music. Everything can pass the filter of us all, whatever comes out is still Dark Tranquillity, no matter what the influence may be in the beginning.
Niklas: It is also something what comes up when you become a musician, when you play an instrument. You can find quality in almost all kinds of music. You suddenly start listening to music in a totally different way.
And when this leads to something like the killer album 'Character' we can only be happy with it!