Dark Tranquillity have been a longstanding figure in the melodic death metal community, having released solid record after solid record. With the release of Atoma, the band took to the road with Finnish melodic death/doom band Swallow the Sun, fellow Swedes Enforcer who play it old school as a power/thrash act, and Chicago’s own power-thrashers Starkill.
I was lucky enough to sit down with vocalist Mikael Stanne before their show at Crest Hill’s Bada Brew, where we talked at length about the new album, events that inspired the themes, the state of the world, and even video games.
I’m here with Mikael Stanne from Dark Tranquillity. Hi, Mikael! How are you?
I’m awesome. Good to see you again.
Likewise. How’s the tour been? You’re about halfway through, right?
Not really. 13 shows so far and we have 32 shows this tour. About a third through, but it’s been awesome. Started in New York, the day of the release of the album, and we’ve been playing every day ever since. We’ve had a fantastic time so far. The bands are great, the tour lineup is awesome, we’ve met a lot of really cool people, drank some great beers—we’re super happy.
Any particularly outstanding beers?
Every day, man. Every day. That’s part of the reason we’re doing this; just to go out and find new, local stuff that I cannot get at home or anywhere else.
Atoma just released. It’s very much in the spirit of Dark Tranquillity material you’ve been doing for a long time. Can you talk a little bit about what you’ve done differently with the album?
Anders was the guy who started writing the material late last year. His mindset was, “Let’s try to do the opposite of what we normally do. Let’s try to get as far away from the standard form of a Dark Tranquillity song as possible.” I was like, “Yeah, alright. Let’s try to do that.” But, of course, once we started gathering all the material with the melodies and riffs and all that stuff and started putting it all together, it passes through all our filters, influences, and ideas of what a song should be. Eventually it will totally sound like the Dark Tranquillity you know.
The starting point was to get as far away from that as possible and that opened up for some new ideas, actually. At the very least, we had a different perspective on ourselves when we started writing. You always want to try to recapture that feeling we had when we were 19 and writing our first album, of excitement, of “Wow, we didn’t know we could do that.” It’s the hardest thing and it gets harder every year. That’s why we kind of waited with this album, because we just didn’t feel it yet. You need some time off from touring and to live a normal life to feel that hunger again, to get into the studio and start working on things again. Otherwise, doing it just because the record label just tells you to, it won’t be good. You have to give it time and allow it to come naturally.
Do you feel more inspired whenever you’re actively working on music or whenever you are not?
Touring and stuff like that, it’s all about the performance. It’s impossible to think about writing. Of course, I scribble down things, ideas for some lyrics once in a while, but I think we just need to be home and take it easy for a while when the desire for writing hits.
Was there anything in particular that happened in your life that really influenced the album?
A couple of things, I would say. Just from reading news, watching the news, trying to figure out what the Hell is going on in the world right now. Trying to figure out why there is so much conflict. Kind of like on a personal level—why do we do the things that we do to each other? How come we are so territorial in everything that we do? Like rooting for one football team and hating the other, or hating the guys on the other side of town or the border or the world. What is it about this feeling of “Us against them?”
I just needed to vent some of the frustration I felt. Even Sweden, a little insignificant neutral country in the middle of nowhere, has been affected by the pressures of the world, and that has brought out the worst in people. Their fear has motivated them to lash out and be against things like immigration. It’s fucking scary. I thought we were bigger and better than that, having evolved to a point where we can empathize with people and help your fellow man, but it’s the opposite.
We’re experiencing a lot of that here, as a matter of fact. It’s a weird time for the world and I’ve been experiencing some unrest myself. Having a hard time sleeping, the election has me all fucked up.
I can believe it. I woke up after the election asking myself, “Was I super drunk, but did that actually happen?”
It’s really just hard to imagine how we came to this point in the world where we’ve let our primordial prejudices shine and take over. It’s a frightening thought.
We’ve seen that in Sweden as well. Some of these parties that have risen to power are now expressing these ignorant and intolerant views. It’s like, “What?” When I was a kid, there were these things like Neo Nazis and racial intolerance. I thought to myself, “These should be a thing of the past, but it’s stronger than ever.”
It’s still very much alive. It’s mind-boggling. This is the stuff you read about in history books, but here you are experiencing it firsthand.
And all the people I meet, all my friends—I travel all over the world and never see that, because all we see are open-minded metal dudes. It’s so weird. I didn’t think that could ever happen.
I’m grateful, like you, to be in a pretty accepting community. Music in general. There are pockets of it which advocate a lot of intolerance, but overall I believe that we are dedicated to the music and dedicated to one another.
It’s really overwhelming and I apologize for talking about it so much. It’s been on my mind a lot, being on social media, talking to friends, and there has been so much conflict.
I was kind of happy. We were in Canada for four days during the election and our satellite didn’t work, so we couldn’t watch the news. Felt kinda good to decompress and not thing about it for a few days.
Do you feel that the events in the UK—surrounding Brexit—influenced a lot of what you saw in Sweden recently?
Maybe a little bit. When it comes to the EU, we are still very much for it. We’re very happy with where we are. I don’t think that could ever happen in Sweden. But the same fear motivates a lot of people and I think that has caused one of the past Neo Nazi parties to become part of our government. It’s mind-boggling. Some ignorant idiots, basically, are in the Swedish government. It’s crazy to see. I never thought that could happen. They can negate some of the changes that are trying to be made.
There’s a lot of fear happening here, as well. Mr. Trump is filling his cabinet with known white supremacists, which is fantastic. [Editor’s Note: Sarcasm]
Steve Bannon, yeah.
He’s not a good man.
It really reminds me of things that happened in Sweden.
Keeping the tone, but moving on—have you experienced anything dire in the year of 2016 that you’re willing to open up about?
We were talking about this, me and Niklas [Sundin], just how a lot of things have changed in our personal lives. Martin Henriksson left the band in January and that was tough. One of the guys in the band lost his parents recently. Some of us have been through health scares—cancer. We’re at that age where these things happen. We grew up together, we grew up on the same street, and now we have kids of our own. The reality kicks in. You’re not going to live forever. That was something we talked about at length and it inspired the cover artwork of Atoma and some of the songs as well, talking about how fragile some things are and how tough it is to explain to your kids what the world is like. Not everything is a fairytale. Things get real.
When you’re young it’s hard to comprehend how complicated the world is. Having to explain that is even more difficult. How do you explain that to someone who may not or definitely will not understand.
It’s something that I’ve been struggling with a lot the last couple of years. We got through it, but it’s something that I lay awake at night going, “What the Hell? How do I do this?”
Do you feel that there’s anything inside of you that you could possibly not put on a record? Either because it’s too traumatic or because music is just not the right conduit for catharsis.
In terms of personal stuff, I try to hide behind words. I know what I’m trying to say, but I know that it won’t be easy to comprehend for anyone else. It’s more abstract. I went through a separation a few years ago that I wrote about on Construct and that was super painful—the worst time in my life ever. I don’t think you can tell, but it’s definitely there. It has to be about the big emotions. It’s what attracted me to metal. Anger, frustration, fury—I love that, and we all have that inside of us. For me, to get it out, it’s through screaming and writing.
Do you feel that helps people identify with your music more, perhaps?
I don’t know, but it helps me feel better. And, of course, when you get a connection with the audience, there’s nothing quite like it.
Did you have any material during Atoma‘s creation that didn’t quite fit the record, but might be used for a future Dark Tranquillity album?
We had about 20 songs at one point, so there’s material for next time, but we’ve never really done that. In two or three years, whenever we decide to start writing again, we’re going to be in a totally different mindset and want to start fresh. It would be kind of cool to do an EP, but we’ll see. There’s material, that’s for sure.
[Mikael and I took a stark shift in conversation as he suggested we talk about video games, as we’re both quite fond of them]
What have you been playing lately?
Unfortunately I didn’t have much time to play anything. I’ve been super busy with the promotion of the album, traveling around Europe, and talking to people like you, but I’ve been dying to play Battlefield 1, Titanfall 2, Dishonored 2. I bought all those games, have them installed, and I’m aching. I played the Battlefield 1 campaign and it’s spectacular.
I just started Titanfall 2 myself and it’s really solid.
I’ve only played like an hour. I loved it—the feel of it, the movement, everything. I love the original, but this one seems even better. I can’t wait to get back and play it.
I’m really glad that Respawn [Entertainment] took this direction. My friends tell me the campaign is something special.
I’m looking forward to it! The environments look cool. I’m most impressed with Battlefield 1, I think. I have some friends who work at DICE that got me excited for its release. I’m used to seeing Call of Duty weapons, so I wasn’t sure how well a World War I game would work. I think they really nailed it. Even in the campaign, it’s really emotional. It just really works.
I grabbed a copy of that when I picked up Titanfall 2, so I’m looking forward to it as well.
They’re both EA, right? Like a week after Battlefield 1 was Titanfall 2.
Yeah, it’s really hard, because I think a lot of the marketing mindset is that these two titles cater to totally different audiences, but I feel they’re cannibalizing their own sales. I think they sent Titanfall 2 to die.
Yeah, and it’s really too bad! The first game didn’t sell that well and it was also kind of lost with its identity.
It released in early 2014, but one of its biggest downfalls was having no single player—it was completely multiplayer. After that, another issue it encountered was how it was marketed. It was foremostly advertised as being an Xbox One title, but it released on PC at the same time and then Xbox 360 about two weeks after, but those versions saw no marketing. It’s sad, because Respawn is a great company. I really like the minds behind Modern Warfare.
Haven’t played Infinite Warfare yet, have you?
I keep meaning to, but I’m waiting for a good sale.
I always play through the campaign. I played it on PS4 and I suck at shooters on console.
Yeah, need that keyboard and mouse. I’m the same way. I play Overwatch a lot.
Ah, yes. I love it.
We’ll have to play sometime! I’m a Mercy main.
Mercy’s awesome. I think she was the one I played most in the beginning, but I’ve been trying to switch it up. Life got in the way.
They just recently introduced Sombra. Are you familiar with her at all?
I only saw pictures. Like, I read about her on IGN.
She’s a really cool character. Her aim is to be more disruptive. She’s more keen to take away abilities, like Reinhardt’s shield.
Blizzard really knows what they’re doing, holy shit.
I love how the introduction of new characters changes the meta. When they introduced Ana, her Nano Boost added an interesting dynamic and now she’s a mainstay in competitive teams.
We have a PS3 on the bus and I’ve played every single game on the console. We’ve been thinking about getting an Xbox One on there.
The Xbox One S is a pretty small console, so it might be worth an investment.
Would be nice. We could put them together and play some matches—front lounge to back lounge. It’s a brand new bus, so everything is great in there, but why a PS3? Come on!
Are there any games you’re looking forward to? Persona 5 just got delayed to April. Are you an RPG guy?
I am, but not JRPGs. I’ve never really been into them. Mass Effect Andromeda. I saw the trailer they put out for N7 Day. I can’t wait. If it’s even close to 2 or 3, I’ll be happy.
A lot of people didn’t like Mass Effect 3. I loved it personally.
I did, too! I understand the criticisms, but I didn’t agree with them. I loved it.
They actually do some of the programming in Gothenburg for the Mako. Ghost Games do all the racing games—Need For Speed and the like. I want to go to their offices and maybe get a sneak peek.
Do you have a favorite character in the series?
Oh, man. Garrus. I’m a big fan. Now that they’re compatible with Xbox One, I’m going to go back and play all three.
It’s so rare that I finish games. I buy a new game, and a new game, and a new game, and eventually it becomes too overwhelming. I want to try everything. It’s a luxury problem.
What a first world problem to have.
Red Dead Redemption 2.
Oh yes! It’s about time, honestly.
Red Dead Redemption was such an amazing game. When it came out, I’d have never had a PlayStation before, so I was always in the bus playing.
Do you feel that RDR2 is going to be a prequel?
It’s hard to tell. The trailer didn’t reveal much. I heard some speculation that since there are seven characters that you might play as all seven. Or maybe they are hunting you. That could also be cool. Kind of like The Witcher 3.
CD Projekt RED do good work.
It’s incredible. Every time I pick it up, I always forget how great it looks and how great it plays. It’s such a well-written storyline. I hear Blood & Wine is fabulous.
I think their attention to detail is impressive. Even minor characters are excellently fleshed out.
Ah, the old Bethesda jab. Did you like Fallout 4?
Definitely. I had to promise myself not to play, because I was so busy writing. I finished a couple of songs and found a couple of days when my family was away, so I spent the whole time in front of the TV in my underwear indulging. I put my iPad on so I had the Pip Boy right there and just played for 12 hours a day. It was fucking awesome.
I feel I’ve taken too much of your time here, but last question—how do you like your eggs?
Scrambled and tons of hot sauce.
I think that’s it. Thank you so much for talking with me, Mikael!