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Interview: Niklas Sundin(Dark Tranquility)

Pure metal...interviews

It is not quite often that you are given the chance to interview a member of the Swedish outfit Dark Tranquillity, and the fact that their latest studio album 'Character' is on its way, made my friendly chat with guitarist Niklas Sundin far more interesting.

On the top floor of the Century Media headquarters which are located in Camden Town (London), it was explained to me why 'Character' was the best possible choice for the title for the new album, and also what I am to expect of Dark Tranquillity when they hit the road, opening the gigs of the legendary Thrash Metal outfit Kreator.

Hi Niklas - welcome to the United Kingdom. I have plenty of questions to ask you, and not enough time at our disposal, so letís start this friendly chat by talking about tomorrowís one off show.

Niklas: Yes, tomorrow we are playing with The Haunted, Arch Enemy and Nightrange. I think that this Christmas festival that we are talking about is a Metal Hammer thing, featuring all these Swedish Metal bands. This is a very weird thing for us, because for some really strange reason we donít play so often in England - I think that so far we have only made two shows - one in 1997 and the other one two years ago. It is really a great thing to be able to play here again.

This show is going to be sold out, and we were told that there are going to be something like 2000 people there and there is also going to be a big coverage in all the well-known Metal magazines. This is a very important thing, not only for us, but also for the rest of the bands that will play with us.

I spoke with many people so far, all of which believe that this is a very important gig that will prove to both promoters and club owners here in England that there is a big audience for this kind of music. I am pretty sure that this is going to be a good show, and a great time for everybody that will attend it.

For some strange reason, many Swedish Metal bands last visited the United Kingdom during that same period. I have quite recently interviewed Christofer from Therion, and he also told me that he last visited England in 1998. Is that a strange coincidence, or what?

Niklas: Well, I have to admit that it is. We, as a band never have an input as to which countries we are going to be visiting in each tour that we make. For some strange reason England is always excluded from our European tour plans, but pretty much the same way, a lot of our European tours never make it to Sweden, which is our own country - you know what I mean? There must be some practical or even logistical reasons for that to happen. We were hoping that this thing was to change. We will be visiting England in our upcoming European tour with Kreator, so tomorrows gig is very important for us. We will be given the chance to show people what we really are capable of, and also to bring new fans to the band.

I am very happy to see that Metal music is becoming popular on this island once again. We have quite recently seen many good Swedish Metal bands like In Flames and Soilwork doing sold out shows. What about Dark Tranquillity though - what do they have to gain from tomorrows show? Is there something more for you than just re-introducing yourselves to British audiences?

Niklas: It depends. Apart from the fact that it is always good to play live, it is also a great experience to perform here and that is the main thing. We are going to play for a lot of people that have never seen us live before. I hope that if there are enough people who are fans of both The Haunted and of Arch Enemy, they will at least know or have heard about us. It is a very good thing to get our music out there and build something for the future. If we make a good performance tomorrow, we will hopefully convince a lot of people to come and see us again in February supporting Kreator - itís all about building a presence I guess.

The year 2004 was quite a busy year for the band. We had the release of the double CD collection 'Exposures - In Retrospect And Denial', as well as the 'Lost to Apathy' EP, and the new album 'Character' which is going to be released quite soon. I would like to take things step by step and talk about all three releases, starting with 'ExposuresÖ' When did this idea first occur?

Niklas: We had been talking about such a release for the last two years. We had many people asking us how they could obtain the old demo 'Trail of life decayed' (1991) and the EP 'A Moonclad Reflection' (1992). These people could either download those two releases in a terrible state from the internet, or buy them from eBay or local record shops, in which case they would have to pay a small fortune.

I once saw someone selling the EP 'A Moonclad Reflection, for something like $300, which is simply insane! We thought that we should offer people an alternative solution by giving them all these songs remastered, with a far better sound, on a proper CD. Obviously there are many people that will not be interested about that specific release - people that choose to spend their money only on full length albums, and not on EPs and compilations.

We have included some songs in this compilation that were recorded during the sessions of our last three studio releases, and that never manage to be part of them for some reason - some bonus songs from the Japanese releases etc. This year we celebrated our 15th anniversary, and we thought that it would be a good idea to release all the extras that we have kept secret for all this time in our closets. The time seemed to be right for such a thing, so we just went ahead and did it.

Do you think that this release is targeting the bands already existing fan base, or are the songs strong enough to also attract people that have never been in touch with Dark Tranquillityís music before?

Niklas: I will not really recommend this album to someone who has never heard the band before - this is a release for the already converted letís say (laughs). This release contains both songs that were written in 1993 and in 2002 and as you understand there is a huge variation of styles and sounds there.

'Exposures' is more of a 'thank you' gift to the people who have been supporting Dark Tranquillity throughout the years.

The second CD of the collection is a live performance that we did for the 'Damage Done' tour, and you could consider it to be some sort of 'best of' album. This is again a gift to our fans, and a way to take everything out of our closets. With 'Character', we are going to start from the very beginning with fresh new ideas.

OK, but you do promise that there are not going to be any more extras in the near future (laughs)?

Niklas: Yes, I promise (laughs). Unfortunately, thatís all people. People can only listen to 'Exposures' if they really feel like doing so, and we can feel like we have closed a whole chapter in our career and make a fresh new start.

Dark Tranquility

I think that we efficiently covered 'Exposures' - letís now talk about the release of the 'Lost to Apathy' EP. Let me start by asking what made this specific song the choice for an EP?

Niklas: Well, we were not the ones to make the choice. When we decided to make this EP, we couldnít choose a specific song for that purpose. All the songs that we have composed for 'Character' were quite complex and demanding as far as Iím concerned.

We wanted to record songs that would be more complex and 'difficult' that the ones that we wrote for 'Damage Done'. I really like 'Damage Done' as an album, but I believe that the songs reveal themselves too easily. This time we decided to record an album that would be more complex and difficult, and as a result a more valuable release - an album that you would listen to ten or fifteen times and still be able to discover new stuff in it.

We really had quite a difficult time selecting a song for our new video and EP. At the end of the day we found out that it was impossible for the members of the band to agree on one specific song, so we ask our record label (Century Media) to pick up the song that they though would be the most suitable for that purpose.

They chose 'Lost to Apathy' and we simply accepted their choice. Iím not really unhappy with their decision - maybe it is the most representative song of the album after all.

Allow me to say that in my opinion this is also the most straight forward song of the forthcoming album.

Niklas: Maybe youíre right- it is very hard to tell as a member of this band. After having played this song so many times in the studio, it is very hard to be objective, you know what I mean? I guess that itís one of the most basic songs of the album, but at the same time it is a very difficult song to perform - youíre probably right though.

When I first received the promo of 'Lost to Apathy' I was very eager to find out what was the new musical proposition that Dark Tranquillity had to offer to us, but after listening to the three main songs, I ended up being more confused and intrigued than before! Was that something that you guys did deliberately?

Niklas: Yes, I guess so - the main reason for this release is quite simple. The recordings of 'Character' were finished back in February 2004, but the release was delayed due to this negotiation thing with our record label, and that meant that we had to wait for eleven whole months before its release. We felt the need to get something out in the market.

When you record new stuff, you are always eager to have people listen to your work and evaluate it. We could not play the new material to anyone - it would be suicide to do so before having signed a new deal with any record label.

We tried not to allow anyone to listen to our work before being secure enough.

This EP was a good way of showing people that we are still here and also to promote the bandís latest video. I know that it will sound very weird but there are more chances for channels to play a video if it is accompanied by the release of either an EP or a single.

For us it kind of prepared people for the album, and also did an additional promotion. Most importantly though, it brought us back in the studio in order to record the remix of the song 'Endless Feed' and also the alternative version of the song 'Derivation TNB'.

We also believe that EPs in general are a good way of experimenting, trying thins out that would have not really fitted in any of our studio albums.

I really like the way both 'Derivation TNB' and the 'Endless Feed' sound in the EP, but I wouldnít have wanted them on the real album. On a full length album you need to follow the red line, you need to have a certain directive.

The thought behind 'Derivation TNB' was to take some riffs and melodies that already existed on the new album, and mix them all together. Itís more a case of introducing some of the melodies and the themes that people will hear in a totally different version when theyíll buy our new album.

I believe that this is a nice and very interesting thought. 'Endless Feed' had an electronic beat from the very beginning. Martin, our keyboard player, wrote that song - he was inspired by Nintendo computer games. The album version is more guitar based, but we liked all the electronic stuff that he prepared on the demo version. The thought that we could do anything that we wanted and go wild on that version is something that we like and that makes us really happy. It also helps people discover all the different aspects in the music of Dark Tranquillity I suppose. 'Character' is a very intense album all the way through, and we didnít have any room for melodic, clean sound.

The 'Endless Feed' was one of the songs that I really wanted to ask you about. The first time I listened to it, I couldnít help comparing it with the stuff that Samael had quite recently released.

Niklas: Yes, I understand what you mean with that. Samael is a great band. I saw them live two or three weeks ago in Sweden, and they were simply amazing! Even in their very early years when they were a pure Black Metal band, they were releasing real quality music.

I donít think that what we did was intentional - I know that Martin is also quite fond of them. It must be that both us and them have the same approach in mixing electronic sounds with distorted guitars. They are also a band that does not have the typical Metal keyboard sound in their music. They are influenced by different styles of music as Martin, who was never really into Metal - he has a more strict electronic musical background. He is really fond of bands like Depeche Mode for instance. He prefers to build an atmosphere with his keyboards rather than composing classical themes in which we would build our songs.

OK Niklas, this is my last question as far as 'Lost to Apathy' is concerned, and it has to do with your new video. Tell us a few things about it.

Niklas: We did the video with the help of a very good friend of ours, who has also worked with bands like Hammerfall, Soilwork and In Flames in the past. We always wanted to work with him, but this was the right time for it. We saw each other a few times and I showed him the early versions of the artwork for the new album.

We both agreed that we should base the video on some of the graphics of the album cover - things like the big city and the huge buildings that are featured there. I developed them making more detailed versions of them and then we turned them into 3d models, and used them for the video. That was the main connection with everything.

We also decided earlier on that we wanted a classical performance video that would have the band performing the music. It all turned up really well in my opinion. You can also see the connection between the lyrical and the musical part of the song - both accompanied by the right media theme. There is a great connection between all these things and the result is better than I ever expected.

What exactly was it that you did differently from the video for 'Monochromatic Stains'? Is Achilles the same person that you worked with?

Niklas: Well, heís actually here tonight believe it or not - he also lives in London just like you do. He is a multimedia student from Greece who loves our music. We met him at gigs, and we realised that not only is he a great guy, but also an amazing artist. He can draw fabulous portraits. He proposed to do the video for 'Monochromatic Stains' as part of his final masterís degree. It was a good thing for us both, because we got a very suitable video for our song, and he got a real video to show in his portfolio. This video was shown in places all over the world - something that helped him gain quite a huge exposure. After that he went to work with Tim Burton something that elevated his career, and we got this new and different video.

As you have previously mentioned, the recordings of 'Character' were finished eleven months ago. What is your opinion about it after all this time?

Niklas: Actually, we talked about his thing with the rest of the band a few weeks ago, and we are all quite surprised with the fact that we still like a lot the new album. We can still listen to it over and over again, which is something quite rare because we are totally self critical. Normally we find it quite boring to listen to our albums a few months after we have recorded them, but 'Character' still sounds as fresh and challenging as it did in the very beginning. I believe that this is an album that will keep people interested for a very long period of time, and that makes us feel very satisfied indeed. We are very eager to perform the material of 'Character' live and see how the people will react to it.

Why is the new album called 'Character' then?

Niklas: The title? We wanted to use a title that would somehow sum up the whole album - it is not a concept album but there is a certain rangeÖ

A main musical theme perhaps?

Niklas: Yes, exactly - something that also happens in the lyrics of the album. Mikael wrote the lyrics of the album as usual. They have a lot to do with different behaviour patterns, different ways in reacting in the same situation - different ways of dealing with conflicts within the same mind and often with contradiction. In a way you can view every song as certain behaviour and reaction. It is also all about showing character as a symbol for the band. We have been around for fifteen years now, during which we always followed our own route - never really caring what the other bands were doing or what the current trends were.

We were always comfortable locking ourselves in with our music, trying to be creative and doing whatever we wanted with it. I guess that in that sense, the word character is a symbol for a band that never really looked to follow what was popular, but simply their own path.

Dark Tranquility

My opinion is that even though 'Character' is heavier than 'Damage Done', it is equally melodic and it once again carries the signature of the band. Donít get me wrong, I really liked albums like 'Projector' and 'Haven', but I believe that they were never really accepted by the old fans of the band. Is that the reason why you have chosen to play heavier in your last two studio albums?

Niklas: It felt natural. I mean, even if we got a lot of backlash for 'Projector' and 'Haven', we also had quite a lot of people that really liked those two releases. Both those albums were successful as well, so it is more of a case that every album is in a way a reaction towards our previous release. After having done all the atmospheric and mellow stuff with 'Projector' and the more straight forward stuff with 'Haven', it felt really interesting to bring the pace up once again and get back to the intensity of the old material with a new line up and some lessons learned. We never really make any big decisions before hand, or make any plans like 'yeah, the next album is going to be like that'. We begin writing songs, and we just wait to see what happens. We have no clue before hand. I personally thought, before we started writing 'Character' that it was going to be a really soft album with clean vocals and stuff, but it turned out to be the exact opposite because it felt natural.

Would you really mind if I say that I did manage to detect my favourite songs of the album? For me it was 'Out of Nothing', simply because I love the way the bass comes and swipes away everything thatís in its way. I also found 'Am I 1?' a very interesting musical proposition, but I can definitely say that 'My Negation' was the one that did it for me. It is funny that even though you have very intense and heavy songs, you still continue to explore the melancholic side of things. What has the reaction been so far?

Niklas: Fantastic! Iím not just saying it because itís us, but the reaction has been excellent! Our songs 'leaked' on the internet only a month ago, which wasÖI donít care personally - it would happen as soon as the promo was out anyway. For us it was interesting to finally see some peopleís reaction. The songs were finished over a year, and we were itching to be able to show it to people. The response was fabulous, both from older and newer fans. The media is really picking us as well - I know people from the music press that are quite familiar with the bandís previous releases that are very impressed with 'Character'. Obviously, not everyone can like an album, but so far the reaction has been really good.

What about Fredman Studios? Are you so much in love with that place? Are we ever going to have a Dark Tranquillity album that will not be recorded in that location?

Niklas: It really happens out of convenience really. We do all of the producing ourselves, and when we enter the studio everything is 100% ready. Itís not the case of us needing a new studio in order to try new things out, or a studio with a specific atmosphere because by that stage the work is already finished.

All we need is a place with good equipment and a smooth working process. We have been to Fredman so many times that we know that we can rely on the equipment - we know that we can focus 100% on just recording without being afraid that the computer will break down, or that a certain piece of equipment will blow up (laughs).

Itís just a case of us getting there, Fredrik captures the basic sounds and puts the microphones in the right places. Then we are simply left alone to do our recordings for ourselves. We are quite nervous and itís a lot of hard work and pressure.

After weíre finished with the recordings, Fredrik does the mixing of the album - trying to make it sound as good as possible. It really works for us. I do agree that it would be very interesting to record an album in a different studio, but at the same time what we really need is a place that will have good microphones and good equipment in general. Regardless to which studio we chose to record in, it will not change the way that we compose our songs or us in general. We know how we want to sound - we bring our own guitars, amplifiers and drum kitsÖit is more a case of us capturing the sound that we want and we know that we can do that at Fredman Studio.

Excellent then. You have a new video out on the market, Century Media has programmed quite a few interviews from what Iíve understood, but the best way to promote your new album is to play the new material live. You are going to be touring with the legendary Kreator. That must be quite a fantastic feeling!

Niklas: Yeah, absolutely! Kreator were one of our main influences. I honestly believe that if it was not for Kreator, we would not have been playing music today! We got to the extreme underground scene at that time because of them - they were the main factor for us. They were the first band with screaming vocals that we really got into - the release of 'Flag of Hate' was a life changing experience for us. They have quite a great impact and they have influenced us even in our latest releases. Of course, it is a great honour to go on tour with such a legendary band. Their new album is simply amazing, and I believe that it is a great package for us and also for the people that will attend the shows. I am really looking forward to it.

Are you going to be co-headlining?

Niklas: Kreator are headlining and we are the main support band. We really wish that we will get enough time to play our set, but we donít really know how much time we will have available on stage. Itís all a matter of management decisions and so on - itís really not up to the bands really. We want to play as much as possible, but I think that it is going to be something like one hour maximum - you never know. Sometimes when youíre on tour gigs are getting delayed and you have to cut your set list short -thatís how things work.

Niklas, I wish I had more time available for this interview, but I understand that you are under pressure to do as many of them as possible.

Tell me, what should we expect from Dark Tranquillity in the future?

Niklas: You can expect constant touring - we are virtually committed to be on the road for more or less the whole of the next year. We are going to have a European tour for five weeks. Then weíll go to the states for two or three months. We are going to do all the summer festivals, and in the autumn we will visit countries like Japan, Korea and Australia. After that we will do one European and one US headline tour. These are our plans so far, but of course you never know how things will progress - weíll see. We are really looking forward for a very packed 2005. We are really looking forward for that. I hope that people will like our new album, and that we will see them in February on our tour with Kreator.

All the best for you and your band Niklas.

Niklas: Thank you for the interview.

Interview © 2005 John Stefanis

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