Heart of Steel: Interviews

STANNE - Vocalist of Dark Tranquillity
Interview by Lord of The Wasteland
Live pics courtesy of Diana van Tankeren - www.dark-tranquillity.nl

Dark Tranquillity—legends of the melodic death metal sound that came out of Sweden in the early-to-mid 1990s. The band has influenced countless others with their twin guitar sounds, melodic harmonies and harsh vocals. After seven full length CDs and two EP’s, Dark Tranquillity has finally given its fans a two CD “grab-bag” called EXPOSURES: IN RETROSPECT AND DENIAL that combines all of their hard-to-find songs with their original demo from 1991 and follow-up E.P., 1992’s A MOONCLAD REFLECTION. As a bonus, Century Media has packaged an audio version of the band’s new DVD, LIVE DAMAGE, as a second disc to sweeten the deal. I had the chance to speak with Dark Tranquillity vocalist Mikael Stanne about the busy year that the band has with the release of a DVD, EXPOSURES, a new CD in the fall as well as reissues of their first two albums, THE GALLERY and THE MIND’S I.

You have a new CD out called EXPOSURES: IN RETROSPECT AND DENIAL. Being that this is a look back at tracks from the band over the years, I understand the “retrospect” part of the title, but what is the significance of “denial?”

Well there are songs that we recorded during the sessions for the last three albums and we felt that some of them didn’t fit within the context of that particular record. Others we just didn’t think were good enough and that was the “denial” part of it. We hid them away at the time and then we looked at them after and realized that it’s actually pretty good stuff! They didn’t work for those albums, but they work as separate songs on this album. We thought we might as well get it out there because people are constantly bugging us about the material that they’d heard rumors about. We thought we would release everything and get rid of all the secrets.



It’s hard to imagine these songs not being up to snuff. I think “Cornered” is one of the catchiest songs the band has ever written, “Static” has some great vocals and the blend of clean and death vocals on “No One”…these are some damn good songs!

Yeah, I really like them. Some friends of ours heard them over the years and said, “You should release it!” We finally got around to it and it was years in the making. We wondered how we would get this stuff out there, whether it would be bonus tracks on various releases or what. We had quite a bit of material, too. This is something like 77 minutes of music?



Are there any more songs in the Dark Tranquillity “vaults?”

(Laughs) No, no. This is it! Every original song that we ever recorded is out there now and all the covers as well. It feels pretty good (laughs)! We can start anew and not have to worry about it.



How much involvement did the band have in putting the package together?

We did everything. We tracked down the master tapes for the original demos and we did the mastering right here in Gothenburg. I had to see if there was any quality material that we could work with and make it sound good. We wanted it to be in backwards chronological order and Niklas [Sundin, guitar] did the actual layout, then we sent it down to Century Media and they were like, “Cool! Let’s release it!” The only thing they wanted was to release the live CD separately but we said we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to include it with this to make it a cool package and not a rip-off. We’ve been talking about it for years but we had to do it someday and now seemed like a good time.



What kind of shape were the early demo master tapes in when you heard them?

It’s never been on CD before and I’d never heard it through professional mastering studio quality and all the flaws came out. It was hard but the mastering guy [Goran Finnberg] did a great job. It sounds better than it ever has.



It does sound surprisingly good, especially since, as you said, it had never been on CD before!

Yeah it was fun! Good nostalgia to go through those old recordings, but then it’s hard for me to imagine I played guitar. It’s hard to get into that mindset that we were at the time. Where these ideas came from, we have no idea (laughs)!



You were only kids then, too…what were you seventeen years old (laughs)?

(Laughs) Yeah…it was a long time ago!



Who played the keyboards on the early tracks? There are some keyboard parts on the “Midwinter” intro and “Void of Tranquillity.”

I think Anders [Jivarp, drums] played some parts and our old singer [Anders Friden, now with In Flames] played some parts as well. Someone in the studio probably hit a few notes as well. I don’t remember. We didn’t have a keyboard player or anything like that.



Do you remember how long it actually took you to record those tracks?

The first demo, I think, was a weekend and the first E.P. was something like that as well. Maybe five or six days.

Those were the days (laughs)!

Yeah, not knowing anything about studio recording. We had tons of ideas and how things were going to sound and then suddenly you find out the reality of things and you’re like, “Oooh…damn” (laughs)!



There was some delay in getting EXPOSURES in stores. Was it a label decision or were there some problems elsewhere?

The label wanted to time it right, but there were some problems with the packaging, as well. Century Media wanted to release it before the summer, though.



I don’t know if you know this or not but there is a tracklisting error for the first CD on the back cover. Tracks three and four are backwards and tracks six and seven are backwards. It seems to be fine in the booklet but the back panel where the songs are listed is incorrect. Did you know this?

Actually a guy on the forum on our webpage alerted it to us. I really haven’t found out what happened, but it’s just stupidity, I guess. There are no excuses.



Inside the booklet, there is a really interesting essay written by a guy named Chris Dick. How did he get involved with this project?

We’ve known him for years. He’s been to Sweden a number of times over the years and the first time we met him was, like, ten years ago or something. He’s always been very interested in the whole Swedish scene, especially right here in Gothenburg. He knows the back story of all the bands here even better than I do sometimes (laughs). He’s a good friend, so we asked him if he wanted to do something and he was really excited about it. He did a great job. It’s a really great essay and it’s very entertaining. I love it.



Absolutely! There is also a page in the booklet with fans that have Dark Tranquillity-themed tattoos. What do you think when you see people with the logo and such on their bodies?

I’m amazed! I don’t get it! I drew the symbol ten years ago and now somebody has it on their arm forever. It’s really, really weird, but it’s such a great compliment. I’ve even seen more tattoos after we compiled this little collection of photos. There’s three times as many tattoos out there. We actually saw some this weekend in Germany where we were playing the Rock Hard Festival and people came up to us and said, “I could have been in your booklet!”



As you briefly mentioned earlier, Dark Tranquillity has a new DVD out, as well, called LIVE DAMAGE. I reviewed it last month and it really is a superb DVD. There is a ton of stuff on there! The whole concert, the bootleg stuff, the interview you did and a bunch of other stuff. In my review of it, I believe I said that Dark Tranquillity have raised the bar for what other bands must do to meet fans expectations.

I love the format of DVDs and since we had the chance, we thought we might as well go all the way. Initially, it was just supposed to be the show and the interview and that was it. Then we convinced them to go to that bigger standard of DVD. We dug up some old stuff and put it on there. There’s always the problem with rights and we have literally hundreds of cassettes and cool recordings. Some of them are great and some of them are just interesting, so we wanted to put that out, but it’s always hard because we don’t know who recorded things. You need a signature somewhere or a release form, so hopefully we’ll get that done in time for the next DVD and make it even bigger and better!



What made you choose to record the main show in Poland rather than in Sweden?

There’s this production company in Poland called Metal Mind and they are in good company with our label, Century Media Records. They really want bands to come down there and record. There have been, like, ten DVDs out that were all recorded in the same place by the same company. They asked if we wanted to come down and we had never been to Poland, so we thought it would be a great first show. But nobody knew about it! They just invited special people that they wanted. It was very weird being in this TV studio because we felt like we were on display rather than on stage with a crowd.



Was it strange recording in front of so many cameras? Did you get any extra stage fright or anything?

(Laughs) Oh, absolutely! It felt very different because you don’t get that nice connection with the audience because the cameras are always in the way or something wherever you go. Perhaps we will get used to it, but not yet (laughs)



Well that particular crowd couldn’t have helped! They seemed like they didn’t even know who Dark Tranquillity were or something (laughs)?!

This is the biggest TV studio in Poland, in Krakow, and they didn’t want thousands of fans there, so they said, “We only need 150 people or so” and they brought in some local metal guys and that was it. It was weird because we were hoping to finally meet people there and we had heard great things about shows in Poland.



As a band, did you find it harder to really get into the show when you looked out and saw a half empty theatre of catatonic people just standing there staring at you (laughs)?

Oh yeah. It was the middle of the day, too, so it was hard to get into it. That’s why we put some of the bootlegs in that are more like what happens at one of our shows.



How long did it take you to compile all of the bootlegs and other stuff?

Actually Century Media and the guys from Metal Mind were really good with that. We just gathered all the material that we really wanted to put on there and Niklas did all the artwork and some of the graphics for the menus.

I love that first menu that comes up!

Yeah, it’s great! It was Niklas’ first time working on a DVD, so he was really excited about it. We just sent everything down there and asked them to put it together in a cool way. They sent us several drafts and some of the ideas. It worked out really well, I think.



You have a new CD coming out in the fall of this year, as well. Have you finished recording already?

We’re finished. It’s all wrapped up about two months ago, so it’s kind of frustrating. I just want it out there right now (laughs). It’s an excellent recording and we finished ahead of schedule.



Did you record at Studio Fredman again?


Did Fredrik Nordstrom produce, as well?

No, we produced it and he mixed it. That’s how we have worked the last couple of albums.



What direction are the new songs? Are they heavier like DAMAGE DONE or more experimental like PROJECTOR and HAVEN?

They are heavier than DAMAGE DONE but they are also more experimental than anything we’ve done. It’s very complex and progressive in a way…more twisted. We really wanted an album of songs that would have a longer life than our usual songs. We didn’t want to be too obvious or take an easy way out. They’re complex but definitely fast and aggressive. I think we outdid ourselves. Sometimes it’s nice to go a little nuts (laughs)!



Is there a more exact date that you can tell me when the new CD will be out? Century Media has just said tentatively in the fall of 2004.

That’s how much I know (laughs). We’ve been working on negotiating record deals and all that boring stuff.



Can you give me any song titles or maybe even an album title if you’ve decided on one yet?

There’s nothing final, but there is one song called “One Thought” that we just played this weekend for the first time. There’s a song called “My Negation.” We’re probably going to change some of the titles, so it’s still too early to really say.



Do you have any pressure sales-wise from the label since DAMAGE DONE was such a big breakthrough album in North America?

Not sales-wise. We put pressure on ourselves to make better songs and a better album each time, but the label has never pressured us at all. They have been really supportive. Some of the people there, especially in the European office, have already heard the album and they can’t wait to release it. I would never want them to pressure us because I put enough pressure on myself.



Will the band be doing a larger-scale tour of North America for the new CD?

We’re working on it and that’s definitely the plan. It depends when the album is coming out obviously, but it will definitely be a longer tour. We’re looking forward to it and we already discussed it this past weekend actually.



We’d love to see you up in Canada!

We’d love to come there, too! We had a guy from Canada travel to Germany to see these two shows we did this past weekend in Germany. He had tickets to the two cancelled shows we had scheduled in Canada but then we didn’t make it, so he got frustrated and came over here (laughs)!



How was the Rock Hard Festival this past weekend?

It was great, amazing. We had a blast. They put together a really great package and it’s a really cool festival.


Who else was on the bill?

Machine Head, Gamma Ray, Stratovarius, Rage, Into Eternity. It was a great two-day festival. Crazy as hell. I’m still recovering (laughs).


(Laughs) You did a couple of dates in Japan with Soilwork at the beginning of May, as well. How did they go?

It was awesome! You can’t go wrong when you're there. We did a couple of new songs there, too, to tease them a little bit. I can’t wait to get back there.


How has the response been to the new songs?

Really, really good. There’s probably already bootlegs out there (laughs)!

I’ll look for them on eBay (laughs)!

(Laughs) Yep.


Century Media is also releasing the first two Dark Tranquillity albums—THE GALLERY and THE MIND’S I—with bonus tracks this fall. Did the band get involved with putting these together or was it handled exclusively by the label?

Yeah, I think Niklas did. They asked us what we wanted on there. Most of it is the stuff that came out on the limited editions at the time. Stuff like the cover songs…

Are those the Metallica songs you did?

Yeah, there’s a Metallica song, an Iron Maiden song, a Sacred Reich song and a Kreator track, I think. There’s also the ENTER SUICIDAL ANGELS mini-CD on THE MIND’S I, videos and stuff like that. What Niklas did was finish the artwork because I think it’s being redone with some new stuff in there like pictures and liner notes. From what I hear, it’s almost impossible to find in North America, so we can finally get it out there.

I actually got my copies from a store in Russia.

(Laughs) Oh, there you go!


They are the actual Osmose Productions releases, but they have a small note on the front cover that reads, “NOT FOR SALE OUTSIDE OF THE CIS STATES” or something. They are out there…you just have to know where to look. (laughs) They even have all the proper artwork, lyrics and everything!

Wow! Weird. They are either very good bootlegs or Osmose pulled through and released them there. That’s one for the collector’s, I guess (laughs)?



I have a few historical questions about the band. Dark Tranquillity was originally called Septic Boiler. Who came up with that name?

I think me and Niklas came up with it one stupid day (laughs). We were just writing down funny songs that we thought were hilarious. We thought that if we weren’t going to play serious music, we might as well not write serious songs either. We had a blast for a few months writing really silly music and then when we finally realized that we could play an entire song without fucking it up, we changed that name and started writing serious songs.



Will we ever see the CD, “The Septic Boiler Sessions,” or is that stuff gone for good (laughs)?

You can actually find it on eBay! We recorded a little three-song demo and it’s out there!

Is it scary stuff (laughs)?

(Laughs) Yeah! It’s pretty serious on some of the parts, actually, but we try not to talk about it too much (laughs).



Most people know that you didn’t sing on the first Dark Tranquillity release, 1993’s SKYDANCER. It was current In Flames vocalist Anders Friden who was the singer in the band at the time and you were still playing guitar. Since you were a guitar player then, do you still contribute to the writing of the music or do you focus solely on the lyrics?

I stick with the lyrics. I play mainly acoustic guitar. I contributed two songs that appear on EXPOSURES—“Misery In Me” and “In Sight.” I wrote the guitar chords and the vocals for both of them. They were never really intended for the band and were basically just written for myself for fun. Then I played it and we started rearranging the songs and passing them through our usual filters, so to speak. Those are the only ones that I contributed the music for. I don’t dare play guitar because I’m really, really crappy (laughs).

(Laughs) It sounds good on the first record?

(Laughs) I’m amazed, too. It must be some really clever studio engineering.


I found something out yesterday, too, that I didn’t know. You were the original vocalist for Hammerfall!


I know you weren’t on any of their albums, but did you ever record anything with them?

Nope. It was just an idea that Oscar [Dronjak, Hammerfall guitarist] and Jesper [Stromblad, ex-Hammerfall drummer/current In Flames’ guitarist] had. They wanted to form a heavy metal band and they asked me to join. I think we did three shows for a rock contest here in Gothenburg. We really wanted it to be all-out metal with leather and chains and all that stuff, which is kind of hilarious for us. We ended up in the semi-finals one year and then I went on tour, so they needed another vocalist. The rest is history. I was like, “Oh cool! Now I don’t have to wear leather and chains anymore!” (laughs)



(Laughs) What vocal style were you using with Hammerfall? Your current style doesn’t really seem to fit the band whereas Joacim Cans seems like he is better suited for them.

It was nothing like they are using now. I think it was a combination of Judas Priest and Danzig, or something (laughs)?

(Laughs) Now that’s an interesting mix!

(Laughs) It worked though!



There are a lot of American bands that are taking elements of the “Gothenburg sound” and mixing it with hardcore. What do you think of these bands when you hear how they have taken and twisted the sound together?

I really enjoy it actually! I did an interview with an American magazine a couple of years ago and he asked the same thing and I was like, “What?! Really?!” I thought that was a really weird idea and I couldn’t even picture myself listening to it, but I think it really works. Some of the stuff that I’ve heard is amazing! I mean, why not? It’s a great compliment that bands are influenced by our kind of music, so I think it’s all good.



Some bands that I have spoken with hold At The Gates, In Flames and Dark Tranquillity in the same regard as bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest—“metal gods” for lack of a better term!

(Laughs) That’s just weird! I don’t get that at all. I can’t even take that to heart because I just don’t believe it. Of course it’s great and it’s really flattering but it’s just incredible to me to even think like that.



I interviewed an American band called Enforsaken a couple of months ago and Niklas actually did the cover art for their new CD.

Oh yeah! I know of them, too.

I spoke to the guitarist, Steve Stell, who is also kind of the founder of the band and he said that Dark Tranquillity is such a big influence on them.

(Laughs) That’s amazing and it’s really cool. The first time we went over to America, we found out that people are really passionate about us. It was hard because it was our first time there and we didn’t know how people would react or what to expect. We were overwhelmed by how cool and supportive the people were.



What is your favorite Dark Tranquillity song and CD?

(Laughs) The next one!

(Laughs) Okay, besides the next one, what is your favorite?

I think DAMAGE DONE is the best album we’ve made. Two of the songs that really work well in a live situation are “Punish My Heaven” and “Zodijackyl Light.” I really enjoy singing them every night.



That’s a great version of “Punish My Heaven” on the DVD!

Yeah, that worked really well. It’s always fun to play. It always works and it doesn’t get old to me. That has to mean something, I guess.



Have you always been a singer or did you grow up playing guitar?

I consider myself a singer because me and Niklas wrote the lyrics and I did all the vocal parts and arrangements but I played guitar, as well. Whenever Anders wasn’t there for rehearsals, I would stand in, so I always felt more interested in singing than in playing guitar. When we started the band, Niklas and I decided we would play guitar, you play drums and you play bass. That’s how it was!



Has your vocal range changed at all over the years? Are there notes you can’t hit anymore or songs that you can’t sing because of it?

My voice has definitely changed between THE GALLERY and DAMAGE DONE, for instance. It’s like nine years, so it’s definitely different. I’m actually recovering from a really bad throat condition that I caught when we recorded PROJECTOR. It was pretty bad for a couple of years and I’m still recovering from it now, but I feel better than ever actually.



Was this something that required surgery or not that serious?

No. What I needed was time, actually. Time to heal and shut up for a bit (laughs). I worked a lot on technique and that sort of stuff, so now it feels better than ever.



Which style do you find easier to sing: the clean vocals or the harsher ones?

The screamiest songs are the easiest and the most fun. The more energy the better, you know? Some of the clean parts I really enjoy but it’s hard to switch. We don’t play that many songs like that live. We tend to lean more towards the aggressive stuff.



Are there any clean vocals on the new record at all?

No, it’s more screaming than ever (laughs). It was more like how we felt with DAMAGE DONE. There is no room for it really. We wanted it all to be just loud with tons of melodies and complex arrangements.



The band received a lot of backlash from the fans for using so many clean vocals on PROJECTOR and HAVEN, as well.


Why do you think people reacted so strongly to those records?

I’d feel like that, too, if I liked a band and they put out a new album that was very different from what I like. I would be upset, too, I guess. For us, it was so necessary to do it. We really needed to confirm to ourselves that we weren’t just another death metal band from Gothenburg and that there was something else to it. It was vital to the band and I don’t think we would have continued otherwise. It seems like a lot of the people who were screaming the loudest at the time are now embracing it.



If people had gone the opposite way and really loved the pairing of clean vocals with the Dark Tranquillity sound, do you think you would have abandoned the harsher vocals altogether?

I don’t think anything would have changed. We probably would have done the next album the same way we did. I guess the most hardcore fans were kind of annoyed or disappointed, but I think all of our albums are pretty different and we needed to prove to ourselves and to others that we can do something else, as well. We cannot do another THE GALLERY even if people wanted us to.



Metallica kind of faces the same problem. People are waiting for them to pick up where MASTER OF PUPPETS left off in 1986 and it’s not going to happen! In Flames is getting the same reaction because people want them to keep on doing THE JESTER RACE and WHORACLE.

If that’s the music they say they want to do, then people should respect that. There are some bands that I hate their new albums but I love their first two, which is fine with me.



What do you think of In Flames now and how they have evolved? When I heard the original Dark Tranquillity demos on the EXPOSURES CD and then heard Anders’ voice on the new In Flames record, it’s hard to believe it is the same guy (laughs)!

(Laughs) Yeah, it’s different but I really enjoy it. The old ones are really good and the new stuff is great, too. They have gone on to do music that is more widely accepted and that’s great. It has done wonders for them.



They still put on a killer live show, too! They were here about two weeks ago and just blew everyone away who was there.

Oh yeah!



Now that Dark Tranquillity has been around almost fifteen years, is there anything left that you would like to achieve as a band before calling it a day?

Yeah, we can always make the perfect album (laughs)! As long as it’s still interesting and exciting to make music, then we will continue, and it still is. Playing metal has been a great experience for us since the first demo. There are still tons of places that we need to go, Canada being one of them! We need to see a lot more people and play our music, so there is tons of stuff to do.



With the new CD out this fall, are you or the label taking any extra measures to keep it from being leaked early on to the Internet? You had that problem with DAMAGE DONE and to a lesser extent HAVEN, so what is Century Media planning to do to stop that from happening again?

Nothing that I know of. Talking to Century Media, they know that it’s not going to be stopped. They could do all sorts of things like put out a teaser album or something, but that affects you guys! You need the full CD to review and it’s best if the review is out before the CD is. That’s how it works. We cannot all be like Metallica and lock it away in a vault and have listening sessions all over the world. Once the promo CD is out there, which is usually a month before it gets released, then there’s no way to stop it, but hopefully it won’t be as early as it was with DAMAGE DONE, which was like two or three months before. Usually I don’t mind stuff like that but it kind of spoils the surprise. We were so proud of the album and we wanted everybody to react to it at the same time, not having someone hear two songs there and then getting the whole album a week later. It kind of spoils the whole thing of having a release date.



Do you think that having promo CDs sent out to reviewers like myself, especially if that reviewer doesn’t like the CD, does that have a really profound effect on how the record sells?

If you have an album that comes out and everybody hates it and all the reviews are bad, then obviously that will affect sales, but it hasn’t really happened to us yet. Obviously we have received some bad reviews, but I think it SHOULD be like that! People should voice their opinions and it should be subject to review. If you make an album, you’d better be ready to get it reviewed and hear people’s opinions about it.



My last question concerns what bands or CDs you’re listening to right now. Is there anything special or outstanding that you’ve heard recently?

I actually have been listening to the new Slipknot a lot over the last week! The new Morrissey album…

I’ve heard that it’s really, really good! He’s getting some incredible reviews for it!

It’s frighteningly good! It’s really emotional and really beautiful. His voice is better than ever. It sounds like he’s still 19 and with The Smiths again.



Alright, Mikael. Thanks very much for taking so much time to speak with me today. Good luck with EXPOSURES and hopefully we can speak again when the new CD is out and the tour begins in the fall!

Thank you. I hope to see you in Canada soon.

Dark Tranquillity—Official Site

Thanks to Heather at Century Media for setting up this interview.