Niklas Sundin DARK TRANQUILLITY guitarist, speaks about the band orgin, its discographie and Cabin Fever Media.
Hi Niklas ! How are you and how is DARK TRANQUILLITY doing ?
Hi! All good with both me and the band, thanks!
Let’s speak a little bit about your introduction to music, how did you fall into it ?
I didn’t have much of an interest in music until the age of 12-13 when I (along with the rest of the to-be DARK TRANQUILLITY members) discovered metal. A friend had somehow gotten hold of a couple of vinyl’s including HELLOWEEN’s”Walls of Jericho” and KREATOR’s “Flag of hate“, and from then on things rapidly progressed. We soon were a part of the tape trading circuit and travelled to any small underground show we heard about. The obvious next step was to learn to play an instrument myself, so I picked the guitar up at the age of 14. There really weren’t any guitar hero style of idols in the picture, and to this day I’m more interested in genuine songs than skilled instrumentalists, but the main inspiration behind the early days of DARK TRANQUILLITY. were probably KREATOR, SABBAT (UK) and HELLOWEEN. I say “inspiration” and not “influence” since we never really wanted to sound like any of those bands even if we loved their music.
You are very active into music so I guess you’ve been to a lot of concert in the past ! Do you remember the first major concerts you saw?
Let’s see…I saw IRON MAIDEN back in 1987 or so, which was the first concert experience with a major band. Two years later, the awesome tour package of DARK ANGEL, NUCLEAR ASSAULT and ACID REIGN came to town and that was pretty much the defining moment for us deciding to form our own band.
DARK TRANQUILLITY has been created in 1989, on SEPTIC BROILER ashes. What was your goal at this time?
The beginnings were a bit weird: We actually formed the band before we even could play. None of us had touched an instrument before, so for the first 5-6 months the only goal was to be able to play a song from the beginning to the end without fucking up. We were so inexperienced that we didn’t even understand how to tune the guitars properly, but it was a lot of fun and we managed to learn the basic pretty quickly. When we thought that we actually had a few decent songs, the main goal was to record a demo tape and perhaps play a gig or two, but anything beyond that seemed very unrealistic at the time. Death metal was still a very underground thing, and there wasn’t much of a touring scene either, so none thought of “making it”. It was all about the music.
DARK TRANQUILLITY is known to be one of the pioneers of the melodeath scene from Gothenburg, as well IN FLAMES. How was the music scene at this time ?
This subject could probably cover a whole book, but in general the scene here was really small. It was a tight-knit group of perhaps 40-50 people, of which nearly all played in bands. When we started out, there were already scenes with like INTOXICATE, PAGANDOM, VALCYRIE and of course the legendary GROTESQUE. Shows were held at local youth centers, and sometimes one could get an opening slot if a bigger tour came to town (which was pretty rare). The biggest misunderstanding is probably the scale of things. When bands like us, IN FLAMES and AT THE GATES started getting more international recognition in the late ’90’s, a lot of people from abroad just assumed that metal was a huge thing here when there actually were very few shows and almost no audience (everyone played in bands of their own). It wasn’t until many years later that a real concert scene emerged and one would get more than 2-300 people at the gigs.
Thank you for this info ! DARK TRANQUILLITY is known for their melodic album. As a composer could you please explain us how do you create a song?
There’s no real formula. Every member of DARK TRANQUILLITY writes music, and we all collaborate on things, so every song has a different story. The biggest change from back in the day is probably that we often try things out in our home studios instead of being in the rehearsal room all the time, but otherwise it’s the same principle. We tend to try lots of different ideas out (every riff gets played in different tempos and styles) and eventually we reach the point where a song feels complete. The music is always finished before Mikael starts writing the lyrics, but it happens that we go back and adjust musical things afterwards if needed.
As a musician I assume that you like to have music gears ! May we know what your first guitar model was? And what is your gears now ?
I’m sorry, but I’m just not very interested in the technical aspect of things and tend to not pay much attention at all to gear. Our other guitarist Martin is the one who dials in the tones and takes care of our live rig setup. In the studio, I’m happy to leave the decisions to whomever is engineering, and we usually try a lot of different configurations out. My first guitar was a really bad stratocaster clone from Hondo. Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different guitars (B.C. Rich, Fender, Kramer, Ibanez, Jackson etc) and I had endorsements with Gibson and Mayones, but came to the conclusion that I’m not really a “brand” player. I enjoy the freedom of just playing on whatever instrument that I feel comfortable with at the moment, and there’s also a certain rockstar connotation to the whole endorsement thing that I’m not comfortable with. For their build and quality, I’d say that the Mayones are the finest guitars I’ve used, but after having done 200 shows with them it felt like a nice challenge to switch things around a bit. On the “Construct” touring I’ve mainly played my old Gibson V and an Ibanez Iceman.
Speaking about guitars how did you learn to play? Which advice could you please share to a new or intermediate guitar player ?
I’m completely self-taught. In retrospect, I think that it was good for DARK TRANQUILLITY that none of us knew any music theory or know how one thing were “supposed” to sound. If we had gone the usual route, with instrument lessons and playing cover songs before trying to write our own material, I’m sure that the music would have been less original. That said, I’m sure that good music education can be a way of finding one’s own unique voice, so I don’t mean that guitar lessons are a bad thing – just that I can attribute a lot of the weirdness of our early albums to the fact the we didn’t know the rulebook, so to speak. As for advice, I really don’t know. I’m an atypical metal musician in that respect. I don’t like playing solos and don’t care for perfect technique. Most young people that ask for advice either want to “make it” in the music business, whatever that means, or learn to how play like a shredder, and then I’m the wrong person to ask.
Let’s come back now to DARK TRANQUILLITY. The band changed across the years and the albums and so far DARK TRANQUILLITY released over 10 full albums. Could you please share one word about each album?
I don’t know…It’s easy to over-analyze these things. When we had 2-3 albums out, it was a bit easier to follow the musical change between the recordings, and back then there was also more of a point to talk about the music in interviews since the readers often couldn’t find the albums even if they wanted. These days when all the music is just one click away, it doesn’t make as much sense for musicians to try to describe how it sounds. The main thing is probably that every album represents what we wanted to do at the given time and that we always strived to give them their own unique flavor, but it’s not a linear progression as such. We’ve gone from basic to technical music and then from technical to more minimalistic and then more atmospheric etc. I happily would have added some words about the equipment on each recording, but I honestly don’t remember much since I didn’t pay attention in the first place, ha ha!
Fine ! What were the biggest success / sales for DARK TRANQUILLITY? On the other side do you have some regrets?
Hard to say…I guess that “The gallery” was the real breakthrough album in the sense that it was widely promoted and came to represent the birth of a new genre. This was also the time when we started touring internationally. As for regrets, it depends on how you look at it. We’ve made many decisions that were pretty bad from a career perspective, but at the same time most of them were intentional and we knew what we were doing. For many years, we were happy with having more of an underground ethos, and happily said no to things that would have been great for our career but just felt a bit too silly or too much of a compromise. As for sales, I don’t really know.
Let return to 1993, when you released Skydancer, the first DARK TRANQUILLITY album. What do you remember about this souvenir ?
Since the music was pretty complex and it was our first time in a professional studio, it was a very stressful recording. The engineers didn’t know their equipment very well and there was a lot of frustration involved. But this is the story of pretty much every death metal recording made back then – there was always a lot of pressure involved due to the lack of time and experience, and the whole genre was so new that very few studio people knew what to do. Our engineers were metalheads themselves, listening to POISON and KISS, but even they just scratched their heads when they heard the screaming vocals and the guitar arrangements.
DARK TRANQUILLITY moved from different labels such as Spinefarms Records or Osmose Productions in 1995 for “The Gallery” album. May we know how did it happened and why ?
It was nothing dramatic at all. We simply had a one-album deal with Spinefarm, and after “Skydancer” was out there did other labels want to sign us. Osmose Productions gave us a great offer, so we went with them.
Then, in 1999, for the “Projector” album you joined the Century Media Records roster, one of the biggest metal label used until now by the band. Did you feel that DARK TRANQUILLITY needed one the biggest label in order to grow?
We actually started recording “Projector” with the intention of releasing it on Osmose Productions, but after having finished the album we decided that it wouldn’t be a good match. Osmose Productions were almost exclusively releasing black metal at the time, and they were heading towards even more extreme music, so it wouldn’t make much sense for them or us to release “Projector“. It wasn’t so much about growing as a band (since we honestly expected our old fans to hate the album) but rather having the album released on a label that had experience with softer kinds of music.
Speaking about Projector, this album was totally different for the band and also different from what the metal scene excepted. What was the feedback you got in the past? Do you think that DARK TRANQUILLITY was maybe too “avant gardist” / in advance at this time ?
I have to say yes. People don’t think about it nowadays, but “Projector” was the first album from our scene to feature clear vocals to that degree, before other bands started doing it. Of course I don’t mean that every death metal band with clean vocal choruses owe it to DARK TRANQUILLITY, but in some way I think that “Projector” helped by showing people that it was possible to incorporate normal singing in this kind of music. It’s not an easy album to get into, but a lot of the older fans actually got to like it after some time.
In the meantime you created Cabin Fever Media in 1999, a design studio involved into graphic design. Does to work as graphic designer was your wish when you were a student or how does it happen?
I studied art at the university and have always had an interest in drawing and painting. The “Projector” album was actually the starting point; after the record was released, a lot of bands and labels started getting in touch asking if I was available for commissioned artwork. I did some thinking and decided to quit my job at a webdesign firm and instead go freelance.
Cabin Fever Media created many covers for bands such ARCH ENEMY, IN FLAMES, SENTENCED and more. How do you find inspiration in order to create a cover ?
Just as with music, it’s very hard analyze these things. I try to keep an open and curious mind and do my best to come up with something interesting that also fits what the band wants to communicate.
You created many covers but which one is your favorite one?
I’m not good at picking favorites. Same things with music. I’m pretty self critical and tend focus on the small details that could have been done differently. By the time an image is finished, I’ve spent so much time staring at every little thing that I’m just happy to move on to the next one. These days I’m more interested in animation and video, but I still make album artwork from time to time.
On the other side, do you have some regrets on some covers?
Yes, it has happened. Sometimes there have been changes in deadlines or other factors that made me feel that the work wasn’t 100% ready, and sometimes my own opinion has been too different from that of the band.
As a graphic artist, do you plan as well to create an animation movie or a short movie ?
I have lots of ideas, as well as a couple of things that I’ve already started on, but it’s always hard to find enough time for big personal projects. In between the band, family and paid commissions there’s really no time for personal projects at the moment.
Another step into your musician career is your side project, LAETHORA. What was your goal when you created the band?
I have to clarify that it wasn’t a solo project or “my” band or anything like that. People seemed to think that I was the mastermind behind the project, but that’s not the case. LAETHORA was a band created by friends of equal stature. With that out of the way, the main idea was just to write more intense and brutal music with certain alternative and eccentric touches, and I still think that we succeeded really well even though very few people have heard the music or even know about the band, ha ha!
The latest activity of the band is your video clip for the title “The Sightless”. May we know if the band is planning to release a new album ?
At the moment there are no such plans. Everyone is busy with work, family and other priorities, but who knows what the future will bring? I certainly would love to play with the guys again if everyone’s schedule allows for it, but maybe it’d be more interesting to start something new up instead of making another LAETHORA album? Time will tell.
In the 90’s and beginning on the 2000’s it was quite easy to see that DARK TRANQUILITY was very close to IN FLAMES. So close that you wrote, and translated later, some of their lyrics. How does the relation with IN FLAMES started? Is it still the case now ?
As said, the scene was really small back then, so everyone kind of knew each other. There was a lot of “inbreeding” going on, both in terms of sharing band members and helping each other out with contacts, gigs and so forth. IN FLAMES simply asked if I wanted to help them out and I ended up writing the lyrics for “The jester race” and “Whoracle” and translating the words for the album after that. In retrospect, I think that it’s more authentic when a vocalist sings his own words, so maybe it wasn’t the best decision, but back then I enjoyed the creative challenge. We still have a great time with the In flames guys from time to time at festivals, but of course it’s not like when we were teenagers and everyone was out drinking and partying as a big group the whole time.
Let’s come back to the present. The latest DARK TRANQUILITY album has been recorded without any “bassist” member as Martin Henriksson took over the bass. Is there a plan to have again a bassist into the band?
Yes, I think so. It was the right decision to play most of the “Construct” touring cycle without a live bassist, but at the moment we have Anders Iwers from TIAMAT handling the four string duties. He used to play in CEREMONIAL OATH, the band Jesper Strömblad had before In flames, so we go way back. Come to think of it, he shot the band photo for our “A moonclad reflection” EP back in 1992.
The latest single “A memory construct”, has been released in 2014 and shows a melodic side of DARK TRANQUILITY. May we know if you are working on a new album and if so, can you share some details ?
We’re working on new material, but it’s a bit too early to know how the album will end up sounding. We always keep tweaking and experimenting until the last minute, and every time we’ve said in interviews that the next album will sound like this or that, it ends up being very different – so I really can’t say much at the moment. I’m as excited as everyone else to hear the final result, ha ha!
What are the plans for DARK TRANQUILITY for 2015 and 2016 ?
We’re doing the usual bunch of summer festivals this year, but the main focus is the songwriting for the new album. It should be out in 2016 for sure.
DARK TRANQUILITY is an icon of the melodic death scene. Some of your first albums, such as “The Gallery” or “The Mind’s I” put you on the top of the melodeath scene. Do you feel as a leader of this scene ?
It’s hard for us to have an opinion about things like this. It’s of course very flattering to know that our music and lyrics have influenced a lot of people, and I’m proud that we’ve managed to keep the band going for more than 25 years while carving out a sound of our own, but I really don’t think much about how we stand in relation to a specific scene. A lot of people seem to have strong opinions about this «melodeath» thing, but I’m happy to just keep focusing on the music.
As an icon you should have some “masterwork” albums to share wiht us, no? Which albums are you listening to? Which albums are for you “masterwork” ones ?
To me, music (and books, movies, art or whatever) is very much about context, and I never really had any static all-time favourites. There are a lot of albums from all possible music styles that each resonate with me for various reasons, and it’d be impossible to compare – for example – Nick Cave’s “The boatman’s call” with KREATOR‘s “Extreme aggression” or RADIOHEAD‘s “OK computer” and to rate them on some kind of quality axis. But to give some examples, today I’ve listened to the old EXCITER album “Violence and force“, a Swedish band called SILVERBULLIT and the latest DAFT PUNK album. All good stuff but for different reasons.
Just out of curiosity are you listening to some French band, either metal or not ?
Sure! DEATHSPELL OMEGA and BLUT AUS NORD doing truly amazing work with admirable spirit and dedication. ALCEST and LES DISCRETS are also great, and AIR was one of my fave electronica bands back in the day. I’m sure that there are others as well.
The metal scene evolved a lot since the 90’s. What are your thoughts on the current metal scene ? Do you prefer the old time with tape trading and so on ?
Hard to say… People usually asks about this in interviews, but I don’t have a lot of opinions. There’s a huge deal of nostalgia tied to the old tape trading scene and the time where everything was “hidden”. Normal people didn’t know about our music, and there was a powerful feeling of belong to a secret club of sorts. At the same time, there are of course many great things with today’s more professional climate. I’m fortunate to have experienced both the old and new times.
We’re in 2015 and a lot of things changed into the music industry. How do you feel about online music services like Youtube, Deezer or some others? Are you willing to keep the music only on the “hard copy” or are you ok with the digital?
Tricky question. There are a lot of different aspects to consider, and it’d be impossible to give a good reply in a short interview like this. Things change so rapidly that nobody can be sure of anything, and like anyone else I can only say “I don’t know” regarding the present and future state of the music industry. As a listener, I’m actually OK with digital streaming, but as a musician it’s a bit more problematic. Still, my attitude has always been to focus on the music and leave the industry headache to the manager and record label.
Thanks for answering to this bunch of questions! Do you have a last word for the french readers
Thanks for the interview and thanks to the French fans that have been supportive throughout the years.
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Photos : Thiswaytoheavy / Sinestrastudios / Macly Bean / Przemek Wozny