INTERVIEW: Niklas Sundin – Dark Tranquillity

Since 1989, DARK TRANQUILLITY have been a pillar of the melodic death metal scene. Being part of the famous Gothenburg scene, the band have managed to forge a career spanning over two decades whilst consistently shaping and developing the style. 2016 sees the arrival of album number 11, Atoma. Prior to the record’s release we caught up with guitarist Niklas Sundin to discuss Atoma‘s themes, messages and style alongside reflecting on the long career of the band and the pressures that brings.

It’s been 27 years since you formed DARK TRANQUILLITY and you’re about to release Atoma – your 11th full length album. That’s an amazing achievement, did your 15 year old self ever imagine that the band would make it so far?

Niklas: Haha, definitely not! We formed the band as kids, with no other intention than trying to make our own kind of music and and maybe get to record a demo tape and play a couple of gigs. There never was any plan on making it a lifetime project, especially since extreme metal still was in its infancy. One thing just led to another, and it’s indeed a bit weird to realise that we’ve kept the band going for almost 2/3 of our lives without any break.

You’ve just released the title track, Atoma, on YouTube, how have you found the early reception by press and fans so far?

Niklas: I have to say that the response has been extremely good, both regarding the preview songs we’ve officially released and from journalists that have heard the whole album. There are several “album of the month” positions waiting to be announced, and great reviews are pouring in on a daily basis. So far so good!

It’s been three years since your last release Construct, how has Dark Tranquillity has progressed in this time?

Niklas: I’m sceptical of using the term “progression” since it implies a linear development from A to B, where B means “better” or “more developed” or whatnot. With us, all albums had their own goals and intentions. Some were technical and aggressive, whereas some focused more on atmosphere, but we never really followed a straight path. But to compare the two, Construct was very bleak and had an industrial and urban vibe to it. We didn’t want the songs to be too catchy or direct but instead require a lot of listener effort to unfold. Every song intentionally shared a similar mood in order to make the album feels as a conceptually tight entity. Atoma is more colourful and inviting, with more variation between the songs and a higher amount of musical contrast.

As DARK TRANQUILLITY are one of the pioneers of the Gothenburg melodic death metal style does that put a lot of stress and pressure on you to perform and make each album a success?

Niklas: Not really. There’s always an insane amount of pressure from ourselves, and the writing process is always a big challenge because of our own high demands and “kill your darlings” mindset, but we don’t care much about any outside expectations due to us being considered a pioneer band. It’s a slippery slope; the second you bring other people’s expectations into the equation, you let the entertainment aspects take over the artistic ones and that’s rarely a good idea. Of course we want every album to be successful in the sense that good response and sales will allow us to keep touring and have the band as a full-time thing, but hopefully we’re not letting that influence the actual songwriting.

You’ve put out quite the discography of albums, is there a certain way that you’ve developed throughout the years for your recording process?

Niklas: We’re fortunate enough to have a band member who also is a studio owner, so during the past ten years or so we’ve been able to record ourselves without any pressure. I guess that the process has been refined with time and we now have a “formula” for recording that works well for us. I don’t think that it’s vary different from how most other metal albums are made though; drums first and then the rest of the instruments. The biggest difference compared to how we used to work back in the day is that everything is more flexible, both in terms of us having 24/7 access to our own studio and also that we’re experienced enough to take care of the recording ourselves without having to explain to someone else what we want.

Not long ago a founding member both a bassist and guitarist Martin Henriksson left the band. How has this affected the band and the recording process since his departure?

Niklas: It affected us a lot. We’ve always had a very stable line-up (4 out of 5 original members still in the band after 25+ years) and there have just been a handful of member changes since 1989, so it’s nothing to be taken lightly. I guess that we weren’t completely shocked since Martin‘s motivation had been in decline for quite a while, but his departure required the rest of us to really think through things. After some soul searching, we decided to step up to the plate and go ahead with the album as planned.

This album feels a lot more aggressive compared to Construct, do you have any messages or concepts you were trying to share with this album?

Niklas: Unfortunately I can’t delve too deeply into the underlying concepts since I didn’t write any lyrics for this album. We were never too explicit with lyrical mission statements or declaring that song X is about topic Y and so forth. Those with a keen interest in the lyrics will find their own way of relating to them, which is more rewarding than having the lyricist explain everything. I think that on a surface level that there’s a sense of urgency that’s easy to attribute to the fact that the world (whether accurately or not) feels like a less stable place than some years ago, but at the same time we always wanted the lyrics to be personal and “universal” as opposed to targeting specific current world affairs.

The album artwork for Atoma is really thought-provoking and quite different to your normal more gothic style of album cover. Does the artwork have any particular meaning behind it?

Niklas: Thanks! As mentioned earlier, Atoma felt more colourful and vibrant than the previous album, so I wanted the visual presentation to convey this. Since the design for Construct was based on shapes and graphical elements, it made sense to contrast things by having a hand drawn illustration this time. These were the guidelines, and after that I just sat down with pen and paper and listened to the demo versions of the songs and read the lyrics. What you see on the cover is my interpretation of what the album is about, but I prefer to leave the details open. Just as with the lyrics, a bit of ambiguity makes it more interesting for people to engage with the work. One obvious entry point is that the mother and child on the cover, and the red “lifeline” running throughout. There’s visual interplay between large scale objects such as planets and galaxies and, well, atoms, which gives an all-encompassing (“the great in the small”) impression that – at least to me – is echoed in the lyrics.

Do you personally have any favourite songs or highlights on the album that we should look out for?

Niklas: It’s all in the ear of the beholder. Judging by people’s reactions, there are no obvious hit songs or favourites for people, which always is a good sign. I read one review saying that Caves and Embers is the weakest song on the album, and the next review listed that particular song as the highlight. As for personal faves, I think that we’re once again guilty of putting some of the best songs as bonus tracks; The Absolute really turned out great even if it wouldn’t have fit on the album due to the very different production. Out of the regular album songs, Forward Momentum or Encircled are my faves right now, but it changes from week to week.

What do you hope to achieve with Atoma?

Niklas: The fact that Atoma exists is an achievement in itself, since we were far from sure that there even would be a new album a year or so ago when Martin told us about his departure. Apart from that, we of course hope the listeners will like it and they’ll enjoy the live shows.

With a long tour across North America coming up next month is there any way that you prepare for being away from home and playing constant shows for over a month?

Niklas: This is the start of a new touring cycle, which means that there’s a it more work than usual. Apart from having a lot of new songs that need to be properly rehearsed, we’ve also updated most of our gear. It was way overdue since the old equipment was on the verge of falling apart from all the touring, and we even had our crew arriving to Gothenburg a week before the tour start to help us getting everything ready for the road. So it’s mainly about practical preparations. Playing back to back for a month actually isn’t that taxing. We always try to minimise the off days since that’s when you tend to get sick or lose momentum. Having a show every day helps you stay focused.

Can European fans expect any touring news in the coming weeks?

Niklas: I think so. The plan is to tour extensively in Europe in March/April next year, and as far as I understand things are very close to being officially confirmed, so there probably will be a big announcement in a week or two. We’ll both do a support run for a bigger act as well as our own headline shows.

And to close, we will offer you the floor. Do you have anything to say to the readers of Distorted Sound?

Niklas: Well, thanks for reading this, and feel free to check Atoma out! Cheers!

Atoma is out now via Century Media Records.