One of the original melodic death metal bands, Dark Tranquillity are still going strong after twenty years. Now, their tenth studio album Construct is on its way, and I’ve had the joy of being able to chat with singer Mikael Stanne about the album, his life and metal in general. He’s one of my favorite vocalists in metal, and he’s a great guy. So join me in my fanboy moment as Mikael shares the wisdom of a long and storied career as one of the innovators of a genre.
How are you doing today?
I’m awesome! I’m in Dortmund, Germany, on the phone for hours, it’s really cool.
Man, you must be tired.
No worries, this is fun!
So, you guys have a new album coming up titled Construct, and it’s one of my most anticipated albums of the year. Can you talk about the direction of the album, what you were trying to achieve and how the process was for it?
It’s different. It’s our tenth. It feels, at least to us, like a new beginning in a way — something fresh. We’ve been re-energized in a way, it was written differently, conceived differently and came out differently and it feels like something kind of new to us. Sometimes we just make small changes in the process of an album to make it fresh for us. We’re incredibly proud of it. It’s been kind of tough to know what the album should be and where should we go, what it’s going to sound like. It’s been years, we’ve been talking about it and never coming to head to actually decide on what to do, but finally we just said, “fuck it“, hid in the studio and just did what we do. Treated it as a day to day job to just get it done, and did it.
How does Construct differ from your previous albums, how is it similar?
Obviously it has to differ from everything else, obviously it has to have the ingredients that are important to us, but it also has to be challenging and new. So of course you try different ways of achieving that, kind of start from a different perspective and write in a different way. I think we did, and we didn’t really have a specific direction when we started but it was pretty obvious early on that the album was very melody-oriented. All the melodies are very strong in the album, they get a lot of attention. We all worked towards the same goal, the foundation of the songs and everything revolves around that and I think that’s the biggest difference between this and some of our previous albums. This is a more focused effort, at least in our minds.
So you released your new single titled ‘For Broken Words’, and it’s quite interesting. It feels like a mix of Projector-era ambiance and the more recent Fiction sound, and it’s darker. Do you agree with that?
Yeah, I guess it is kind of an odd song. It’s one of the first songs we wrote for the album. It just felt really good and it came out differently than how we thought it would and we decided to use it as the first song of the album and also the first song to be heard because it’s different and some people react, “Hey man, what’s going on? What is this?” and that’s what we wanted. We didn’t want to make the most obvious song available first, you know? We wanted to get this, “huh?” reaction.
How does the song compare to the rest of the album?
It’s hard for me to say actually, it’s similar in tone, very melodic, very heavy and pretty sad in ways. I don’t know, it’s kind of hard for me to still be objective about it. We only finished recording one and a half months ago. Things are moving so fast, it’s hard to keep up with it.
I think you write the best lyrics in metal…
So could you explain what this album is about lyrically?
Lyrically, this album has two themes. One is basic skepticism/atheism. It’s about a construct being a belief system or a faith, how weird that is, to come up with something that you actually end up believing in. Taking something that doesn’t exist but making up in your mind so that it becomes something that drives you, motivates you and governs and controls your life. That’s very very scary to me and it’s the cause for a lot of conflict and stupidity around for sure. And that’s kind of the big picture of the album.
The other one is the more personal one where it’s about trust and honesty and lack communication. There’s a link to these themes, I decided to intersect them a little bit, but for me at least there’s a clear line between songs from one theme and the other. Some of them are more about bigger issues, and some of them are more personal issues. I think most of the songs on this album are very straightforward, we’ve cut away all the excess and the unnecessary bits and pieces, so I decided to do that lyrically as well. I threw away most stuff that I wrote just to get to the point and really focus on what I want to say with this, what I want to convey what’s important, and not use unnecessary metaphors. The stuff that I tend to easily get into that just sounds good and feels good but perhaps doesn’t mean that much, I decided to cut that all out because it made sense for this album, it’s all about not being affected by anything else and sticking to the facts and reality and reason and the scientific method. The simple truths. And that fascinates me. I’ve been getting so into that stuff in the last couple of years it’s on my mind all the time. What are the different motivations, why do people do things they do, what drives them? Usually it’s very irrational things that drive people and I get very frustrated about that. And whenever I get frustrated I take out my notepad and write it down and scream into a microphone.
So how exactly does that process of writing lyrics work? Where does your inspiration come from?
Usually, whenever we go, “let’s start writing,” I try to go into writing mode for the first piece of music that we put together and look for inspiration where I can find it. You know, write down anything that comes to mind. Some line of dialog from a movie, something that I come up with on the street — kind of capture every stupid idea that comes into my head. Sometimes you have to really work hard at it, set the alarm and go up early in the morning, brew your coffee, sit down in front of the computer and work. And then sometimes I write two songs during a movie or stuff like that, sit in a dark theater and just write. Most of the time though, I listen to the song over and over again until something comes up. I want the words to compliment the music and it has to fit. The phrasing has to be right. One of my biggest inspirations is Neil Peart from Rush, he’s such a great musician, and of course Geddy Lee. They make the words sound so good, it fits so well into the melody. Together with Geddy they make the words sound so effortless and they fit so well into the phrasing of the melody. That’s always my goal; “what would Neil do?” And it helps a lot actually.
I think you always do a great job. So, you’ve been screaming for a long time and your voice has changed over the course of your career. It’s not so obvious when you listen to one album and then the next one, but if you go from the start of your discography to the end, it’s quite obvious. What do you do to maintain your voice over all these years and how do you adapt with it?
I didn’t use to think about it at all, because I didn’t have to, but around 98-99 I started having problems. I tried to overdo it, try too hard, never really warm up and try to outdo myself, push myself too much. It didn’t work and it ended up hurting my voice, pretty much irreparably. It hurt for such a long time, and for many tours I couldn’t even speak. I could scream, but I couldn’t speak. It was painful, it was horrible. I felt like shit. I decided just to find out how it worked, what I needed to do. Proper warmup techniques to get into it and understand that I need to have this proper support to maintain it. Once I got into that, I never had a problem anymore. I do a little warmup, sometimes for an hour, sometimes for fifteen minutes before a show. Sometimes during the course of a few days before showtime just to feel good. Now it’s become so natural that I do it sometimes even when we’re not playing just to feel good, it’s almost become like an OCD thing. You know, you just have to do a bit of it, otherwise you get nervous and if it doesn’t work, then you get really fucking nervous. Usually it does after a while. We always have the same monitor guy, he’s fantastic. The sound I get from my monitors onstage is killer and I have a really really cool microphone as well and it always sounds great onstage. If you have a really bad sound you start getting self-conscious and you push yourself too hard and you end up fucking your voice up.
What microphone do you use?
It’s an AKG Ace D7. It’s pretty good, they sponsor me, and it’s awesome.
It feels like you’ve also been doing more and more clean vocals over the years, and they’re really cool as well. Is there a reason why you’re doing them more now? Are you more confident with your voice over the years?
I don’t know if it’s increased. It’s something that we felt was very different when we started. We wanted to do something that no one else was doing at the time. In 93 when Skydancer came out, nobody got it. Like, “What the fuck are you doing? Ballads? Clean vocals on a death metal album? What’s wrong with you?”, you know? We liked it, it was cool with us. And hopefully people will get it eventually, that was our philosophy. Then we did it in 99 with Projector, and people didn’t get it. It was weird, but it was a cool experiment for us. Then I cut a lot of it because there were so many bands doing it and I lost interest. I don’t want to be like all those other bands, doing the same thing. It was interesting when nobody was doing it but it’s not interesting when everybody’s doing it, you know? Stupid fucking obstinate punk rock attitude I guess we get into sometimes. *laughs*.
That just kinda took me out of it, I didn’t feel it. But some albums, some songs it just feels right. It feels like we can make it work with some clean vocals rather than some screaming and it just makes sense. It’s usually the song that dictates whether or not I will do it. And for this new album, there were more songs that just felt right for it, so there’s more.
Definitely, I think ‘Misery’s Crown’ is a great example of what you said, the singing on that is so iconic for me.
Yeah, that became kind of a weird thing, we didn’t know what to expect from that song but it turned out great, we’re happy. But you don’t want to redo that. People always ask us, “You should do another song like that!” Nah, that’s not what we want to do, we don’t really want to do another similar song to something that we’ve already done, we want to do a new song.
So, as you said, you have 10 albums (or, soon will have) and each of them has a lot of iconic songs. How do you make a setlist from that? It must be difficult balancing the old and the new.
It’s really tough. I guess we go with some of the standard songs we do. That always feels good. And then we always try to bring in some of the new stuff, from the latest album or whatever. The idea is to do if we do fifteen songs, five new ones, seven songs that have been done before, and two “new old” songs, so to speak. But it’s really really though. You always struggle with it, you always argue about it. Of course we have a repertoire, 25-30 songs that we could probably do, you know, with a little bit of rehearsal and preparation? But we’ve been doing them for many tours, so for this upcoming tour we’re going to need to change it up a little bit and do something fresh.
May I suggest ‘Crimson Winds’?
Oooh, ‘Crimson Winds’. I would like that, that album is twenty years old this year. I guess we should.
Speaking of twenty years, you’ve been doing this for so long now, and you have a family now. How do you balance your tour life and your “real” life?
It’s hard to… What is real, you know? *laughs* This is what I’ve been doing more than half my life, since I was 14 pretty much. This is just the way that it is. This is how I live my life. We spend some months of the year on the road. All the weekends during the summer away. You just have to work around it, you know? Actually it works out really well. I have a family that really supports me and are okay with me not being home all the time. At the same time, the way I kind of rationalize it is that I’m home all the time. Especially, like, I have a daughter who’s nine years old now, but the first five years of her life I was home all the time, I’m never late. If I’m home, I’m always home with her. I’m not like a regular dad who comes home late from work at 5 or 7 and goes to bed at 8. At least I feel good about that, and I know she does as well.
I wanted to ask about your daughter, is she into metal?
No, not really. Not yet. *laughs* She gets it, she really enjoys some of the stuff but there’s so much other stuff, like musicals. Phantom of the Opera, Les Mis, that kind of thing, which is cool. I’m into that as well and I don’t mind that at all.
Me too! What’s your favorite?
Oh, it’s actually Phantom of the Opera. We just went to see it in London two months ago. A Swedish singer that is amazing did the Phantom role and it was awesome. Me and my daughter were sitting there, geeking out, getting autographs and stuff like that.
I saw the original performance when I was a kid and I loved it.
Oh yeah, me too, Michael Crawford is fucking awesome.
So, speaking of your daughter, both you and her have awesome hair. What hair products do you use?
I don’t! I just leave it be.
My hair gets really tangly if I don’t use products.
I stopped using all products and everything. I used to do a lot, but now, eeeh, fuck it. *laughs* I don’t care.
So, you guys are one of the original bands from the Gothenburg scene, and many of those bands from that era have moved on or changed sounds while you guys have remained more or less “true” to your sound. Yet all of the bands remain very influential still. What are your thoughts on the scene?
I’m really proud of the way it’s going. I’m really happy for the way that the stuff we started doing in the early 90s has become influential in a way. That’s really awesome. And I’m really happy for my friends from around the city, around Sweden, who are doing doing really well. It’s so cool to have some of the best fans in the world, and some of my favorite bands are some of my best friends! It’s kinda weird, when I hang out with Anders Björler (At the Gates, ex-The Haunted) it’s like, you know that it’s still one of my favorite bands! He just made a new solo album and it’s probably going to be my favorite album of the year, and he’s my neighbor! It’s kinda weird like that, but awesome. There’s always been a very very cool atmosphere among the bands and I love seeing things work out, especially for other kind of bands, like Hammerfall for instance, who are this traditional heavy metal band and they fucking took the world by storm! That’s so cool, it actually worked. We grew up together being metal freaks and then all of a sudden Oscar (Dronjak, Hammerfall guitarist) decided to do this heavy metal project and it just took off, and it’s awesome. Now Jesper Strömblad (ex-In Flames) is doing The Resistance and the album will soon be finished and it’s fucking fantastic. I’m so happy for them. There are a lot of things that re really cool and it all comes from the original moral we had, this genuine good attitude towards music and towards everything. There’s no ego, there’s no rivalry, no bullshit. Just nice people writing music and having a good time.
So what are your thoughts on the modern metal scene then? You’ve probably heard of “djent” and similar other movements.
I’m always intrigued, you know? There’s stuff that I just don’t get, but some of it I really get into. When it comes to djent I really didn’t know what it was but some guy pointed out that I was listening to Animals as Leaders, I was like, “Yeah! They’re fucking awesome!” and he told me that they’re part of that movement. I went, “Okay, fine!” I don’t care, it’s fantastic, you know? It’s kick-ass stuff. Tesseract I really love. They completed their album. I listened to it yesterday. I really like it. It’s technical and well-performed and progressive. There’s a lot of really cool new bands. The last couple of years I’ve been getting into instrumental music and drone and doom and psychedelic.
Stuff like Om and Crown, who I’m going to see in a couple days, Pallbearer, Switchblade. Some really psychedelic music. I’ve always been a fan but there’s definitely a new surge of bands coming out that are so cool with so much improvisation and fucking junky music, and it’s awesome.
So what albums are you looking forward to this year?
Anders Björler’s new album is going to take the world by storm, I think, if people still care about instrumental prog.
Is it like Animals as Leaders?
Yeah, it has some similarity to it. It’s not as crazy as that but still. What else am I listening to? Leprous is one of my favorite bands, I’ve heard their new album…
I’m seeing them next Sunday and I’m very excited about that. I’m looking through my playlist here… Diagonal I think is really awesome, they made an album last year, The Second Mechanism. The best album of the year so far is, actually it was last year, Anathema’s Weather Systems. The new Clutch albumm I listen to all the time… There’s too much good stuff.
Speaking of shows, what are your tour plans for the upcoming year?
We’re going to reveal them pretty soon. I’m sure now that you will like our touring company that we’ve decided upon. The American tour starts at the end of September and goes for two months or something like that. We’ll do festivals here in Europe, European tour in December, South American tour in January, and then we’re back to today, a year from now! It’s pretty much fully booked all the way through, which is scary and daunting and cool.
A bit of a random question, how do you like your eggs?
How do I like my eggs? I’m a big fan of eggs so this is a good question. One of two ways. I do like a Spanish omelette that I cook in the oven. Tons of cheese, tons of ham, tons of pepper, jalapenos, meat. Or I just do it in a smoothie, like a six egg smoothie, tons of berries, fucking protein, stuff like that. Wolf it down before I go to a workout.
What’s your workout regime?
I don’t know, I just lift weights and listen to metal *laughs*
The best way.
So, Niklas Sundin (guitarist) has been doing all your artwork, and he’s also done some of your videos recently. Is there going to be more of that in the future?
Yeah, I think so. I know that he wants to. We did shoot a video the day before yesterday with Patric Ullaeus. He’s done a ton of videos, I’m sure you’ve heard of him. The next one I think Niklas is going to do, but we haven’t decided on anything yet, but I know he wants to, soon as he has some time. But he did the covers, he did three different covers, one for the CD, one for the limited edition, one for the vinyl that are totally different and very ultra cool.
So here’s a hard one for you: If you were to make a setlist with one song from each album, what would you pick?
Ahh, I don’t know. From Skydancer, I guess ‘Crimson Winds’ since you just mentioned it. From Gallery, umm, what the fuck, there’s a song that I always thought the other guys love too… ‘Of Melancholy Burning,’ I think. Mind’s I, I think ‘The Dividing Line‘… No that’s on The Gallery, from Mind’s I… there was a song that we played for a while but the other guys felt that we couldn’t really nail it. I think “Hedon” I want to bring back. From Projector, ‘On Your Time‘ is a really good song that we should play. From Haven there’s a song called ‘In Sight’ (on the 2009 reissue) that we haven’t done. From Character… Oh fuck, I don’t remember! Actually I went through it a couple of days ago to find songs that we should play. What’s this song about, would that work, you know? There’s only a few songs that we try to insist on every time, but not that much. We pretty much play all the songs we want to play and that people want to hear. We try to be open to suggestions when it comes to setlists and try to listen to what people want to hear.
You should play…
‘Crimson Winds!’ Yeah, we should.
So, a long time ago, you used to be in In Flames. If Anders (singer, who used to be in Dark Tranquillity around the same time) had to leave and they asked you to do a tour with them, would you go for it?
No, I wouldn’t. *laughs* I don’t think it would be a good idea, we only did two shows together and I was never a member. It was because they didn’t have anyone else, I guess. But I would gladly have Anders back, if he wanted to. We’d be ready for it.
It’s been great talking to you, you are one of my favorite musicians and a huge influence for me, thank you for doing this. Do you have any closing comments for your fans?
Just check out the new song, you know, check out the new video in two weeks. Prepare, we’re coming back to the States. We’re starting the world tour there, it’s going to be madness. We’re gonna bring our biggest show ever and some really really cool bands that we’re about to announce. It’s going to be a fucking killer package and a really cool tour so we cannot wait for that. It’s going to be awesome.
Alright, thanks for doing this, it’s been great talking to you.
Yeah, you too. Cheers man, see you soon! Take care.
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Dark Tranquillity’s new record Construct is due out May 27th on Century Media Records. Pre-orders are available at this location!