Interview with Dark Tranquillity vocalist Mikael Stanne | By Nicholas Senior
When a band approaches their 11th album, they begin thinking about the big picture, no matter how minuscule it may be. For Gothenburg legends, Dark Tranquillity, Atoma—due out via Century Media on Nov. 4—wasn’t just going to be any record. After coming off of their longest touring cycle ever for 2013’s Construct, the band began constructing their 11th record at an atomic, elemental level. Vocalist Mikael Stanne explains, “It took some time to figure that out, actually. Where do you go? What do you try this time? The process was really interesting. We removed all the unnecessary stuff, focused on what we felt were our strongest elements—our intensity, melody—and we wanted all these songs to have this sense of urgency, to get the core of the song. We wanted to make sure all the different elements of the song had maximum impact. That became the challenge and something I thought about when I was writing lyrics. It was our inspiration.”
Finding inspiration wasn’t easy, and Atoma had been in the works for almost a year. “It’s been really intense and crazy. I felt like I haven’t slept in months,” Stanne laughs. “It’s hard to reach that unreachable goal of the best album ever, because that’s what you always want to do. Of course, it doesn’t get any easier with time. You would think after all this time, we’d have perfected the art of making an album, but it definitely just keeps getting harder to keep coming up with something new that is original and has something to say.”
“You really need to tap into some of your darkest feelings and almost end up losing your mind, because your sense of self-confidence disappears,” he continues. “You feel like the worst musician in the world, because you haven’t slept. You’re up all night just thinking about these songs, like, what do they actually mean? Out of that stress and frustration, something came out of that. Actually getting this done and having all the songs come together where all the pieces actually made sense was one of the most rewarding things we’ve ever done. This was so difficult to make that, once we realized we pulled it off, it felt incredibly awesome.”
Did Stanne ever consider taking the easy way out by rehashing old material to speed up the process? In a word, no. “It would be so good to be a punk rock band and do the same song 200 times,” he says. “As frustrating as it is, that’s part of the great thing about it. It’s what you want, the challenge. It was crazy: we recorded in the height of summer, and we’re in the studio with no windows. We kept thinking of everyone enjoying themselves outside,” he laughs.
Dark Tranquillity clearly succeeded in their desire to get down to what defines the band. Atoma feels like it has triple distilled all of the elements that have made the group legendary over the years: the majestic melodic interplay between the guitars and keyboard, the death metal fury, and the morose, gothic atmosphere. It’s also Mikael Stanne’s most complete vocal performance, his voice binding together the band’s brash and beautiful elements. The band’s chemistry has never been stronger.
Atoma reflects on what drives humans at a deeper level. Stanne explains, “Sweden is a tiny, insignificant country in the middle of nowhere. What I’ve seen is a lot of ordinary, everyday people have all of a sudden turned into really fearful, territorial people, thinking in ways that I never thought possible. We’ve never had to worry about someone else coming here and destroying our way of life. Suddenly, [it’s different now] because of the rhetoric in the media and the way people are worried about the state of the world. If you read about these horrible things that happen every single day, of course, that affects you. But, instead of striving forward and being an open person with empathy and sympathy for those who are less fortunate in other countries, we turn to fear, anger, and hate towards those who are ‘coming over and destroying the values we have over here.’ This crazy attitude towards anything that is different is something I never thought I’d see.”
This frustration sparked an idea. “That became a starting point for trying to figure out why we are the way we are, and how come we resort to these animal instincts once we feel we’re being threatened,” Stanne continues. “I’ve been angry, sad, and upset with seeing these new political movements in Sweden that are horrible. You realize a huge part of the population have these racist, xenophobic views. I never thought I’d see that, and it’s scary to me. I felt really helpless. The only thing I can do is write all my frustration down and go into the studio and scream my ass off.”
On a lighter note, Stanne has had an idea for another way to work at the elemental level and discover more delicious chemistry: making an official Dark Tranquillity beer. “One of my favorite breweries in Gothenburg is called All In Brewing,” he begins, his excitement evident. “They’ve brewed some amazing stuff the past couple years. They have a bar at the brewery, and I’m always there, so I started talking to the owner about maybe doing something one of these days. He was like, ‘Hell yeah!’ [laughs]. When it got near the album, we came up with a cool recipe and a cool idea for the beer. Two weeks ago, I brewed a huge batch of an imperial stout that we will age in oak barrels that have a single malt, peaty whiskey. It’s going to be an amazing beer. In December, we’re going to release it. I’ve been a home brewer for a couple years, and I love that kind of stuff, but I’ve never brewed at a commercial level like this. I learned a lot.”
Does this collaborative beer have a name yet? “I think it’s going to be the ‘Atoma’ beer,” Stanne says. “Laws are crazy here, but we’re looking into finding ways to be able to ship the beer out. We’re trying to figure that out, hopefully by the end of the year.”