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Dark Tranquillity | Character | interview | Mikael Stanne | metal | Lollipop
Character (Century Media)
An interview with singer Mikael Stanne
By Eric Chon
While the phrase "melodic death metal" might seem oxymoronic to some, those of us familiar with it know how very real and powerful it is. One only has to look to Sweden, that haven of all things metal, to see its origins. At the Gates and In Flames went beyond the relentless beat and harsh vocals by injecting melody and harmony into the light-speed fray. But one band has truly embraced the ideals behind this Gothenburg movement from the beginning. Dark Tranquillity (sic) pushes boundaries and continues to innovate with each new release.
Character is their latest album, and it showcases their constant evolution. It builds and borrows from all their previous material, while incorporating new ideas and themes at the same time. I had the opportunity to speak with vocalist Mikael Stanne about his own character, his experiences, and how he and his bandmates stand each other on tour. I now also get a chance to apologize for missing his initial call (he called an hour early! Curse you, time zones!)
Tell me about Character. Why is it called that? Is it about your own character, or the human character?
It has a lot to do with the human character, what our different traits and behavioral patterns are. I tried to tackle a different aspect in each of the eleven songs. But I suppose it's also about my own character: What I've done and what I do. I've projected all my own failings and mistakes into this album, trying to cope with them and come up with stories.
Your own failings?
Well, it's important to have a strong sense of direction in everything you do. You've got to know what you're doing, what you've done to get there, and to be sure of yourself. But sometimes one is lacking in that sense of direction.
Character is your hardest-hitting album to date
We wanted to take things to extremes. But, you know, with progressive and electronic elements. Well, maybe taking those to extremes as well. There's also an emphasis on speed. Occasionally we think a track is too mellow, and then try and make it a bit harder, or just the opposite. We always try and throw something unexpected into the mix. I think, in that aspect, there was very little compromise: We did exactly what we wanted.
There definitely are a lot of facets to the album.
I wanted the listener to always be able to pick out something different with each listen. A lot of times, you get a new album and you're totally into it, but two weeks later, you're onto the next thing. Character has a lot of layers, so each time you play it, there'll always be something new.
What's the writing process like?
Everyone writes and records a lot at home, and then we all sit around and put together the best stuff. Thirty-percent we keep! (laughs) We take that amount and go over it again and again, really work it. We see what clicks, what connects, and that's how we do it. It's a long process, but we're all good friends, and making music we love.
Obviously, it's hard sometimes, but I believe a difficult process and conflict oftentimes leads to better songs. This is the reason we do this: It's challenging and the rewards are more than worth it.
What about the recording process? I hear you don't have a producer
That's true, we do all our stuff before going into the studio. It's very basic, very simple. Once we go in, all we have to do is really mix it all together, and that usually takes about five or six weeks. It's my least favorite thing to do, honestly. It can kill the whole feeling of the album. It's just a very sterile environment.
That's gotta fuel your desire to go out and play.
Oh, rehearsing and writing I love, but playing live is the best! All the songs take on a new form, they suddenly mean something totally different to me. Singing and performing in front of people who actually get it is the greatest feeling. If we haven't played or rehearsed in a month or two, I start to feel really strange and fidgety. (laughs)
While you're out on the road, how do stand being near the same dudes day-in, day-out for such extended periods of time?
We grew up around each other since we were six years old, so it's pretty easy. Of course, not every day is the best, but it works, and we all know where each others' buttons are. If you really want to just piss the other off, you know exactly what to do, and sometimes you do it. But even the worst days are okay. They usually end up in a drinking competition! (laughs)
What do you do with your time off?
Video games. Lots of that. We also tend to read and watch a lot of TV series. You always gotta try to have something to do. I tend to bring my laptop and, like, 200 DVDs on the road. Of course, there's the drinking as well, perhaps a little too much of that! (laughs)
What have you been listening to recently that's caught your attention?
Right now, the new Kreator album. It's absolutely brutal! I am dying to see them play. I've really enjoyed The Mars Volta, and the new Masterplan album is fantastic. You know, there's a ton of good stuff out there, and it's sometimes hard to keep track of it all. Oh yes, Leviathan by Mastodon is amazing. I've got lots of nice friends that constantly recommend stuff for me! (laughs)
In the U.S., we're seeing a lot more respect for underground acts, and more recognition that metal is a legitimate form of music. How is metal viewed in Sweden? Is it common for someone to list The Cardigans and Dark Tranquillity as two of their favorite bands?
It's getting a lot better. The last five years have been great for metal. With bands like Hammerfall, it's become okay to like beefy metal again. Our Grammy awards have metal categories with real bands, and even radio shows are playing more metal. On TV, they're playing plenty of metal videos. It's really accepted here, and the younger people are really into it. It's becoming very cool. Bands like Slipknot are always bringing a younger crowd into the fold of extreme music. We even hit the singles chart with our last EP (it entered the Swedish charts at #47)! When you can be in some of the biggest magazines out there, it's nice.
Still, it's not quite as accepted as I might make it sound, and there's something about that I enjoy. Metal really isn't for everyone, and I think the music itself makes that abundantly clear.
With all this acceptance, you must get a lot of people calling Dark Tranquillity the band that originated the Gothenburg sound. How do you react to that?
We don't know how to react! We're all very flattered, but it doesn't change anything. We're still gonna hide away and rehearse and write, and we're still gonna do things our way. We try very hard not to put that kind of external pressure on ourselves, you know? "Is this the true Gothenburg sound? What will people think?" (laughs)
Back in 1996, people were getting obsessed with it, and we were bored with the whole thing. Many of the bands became interchangeable. But that's changing now. There are quite a few bands that are fresh and very conscious of the scene here. They're always trying to push the envelope and be original. They work really hard, and it's great to see that. There's a band called Burst that you'll probably hear about soon. Really amazing.
The fact is, the bands from here are always of great quality, no matter what your opinion is of the musical style. And that you can go to out to a club and see a metal show, that wasn't the case five years ago. It's really fantastic.
When it comes to spreading the word of metal, then, what do you think of mp3s? Do you think they're a valid tool to spread the word?
To me, when it comes to metal, mp3s are a marketing tool, yes. They get the word out and let people know what's out there. Fans, in general, are devoted and passionate about their music. Metal fans know that the bands live off their generosity, that they can continue to make the music they love because they support them. I download stuff all the time to check out new music! (laughs) And when I find something I like, I go out and buy it! I think it's great that you can do that now.
When it comes to metal, it's made by real people who will come to your town and play for you. Looking at music genres everywhere, metal doesn't seem to have gone down much or at all in sales compared to everyone else. And with us, we've been selling more with each release!
Metal fans want the whole package. They demand the vinyl version. They want the t-shirts and the sweatshirts. Real metal fans will go out and support a band. And that's why they're the best in the world.