“We should control the moment” – Dark Tranquillity on Melody, Emotion and Video Game Inspiration

There is very little ground in the melodic death metal world that Dark Tranquillity haven’t covered. Over 11 records, the band has set a precedent that only comes with being one of the titans of Gothenburg melodeath. Each record is a metamorphosis and a change, but with the release of the band’s 12th album, Moment, the band sees the departure of founding guitarist Nicklas Sundin and the arrival of two brand new ones, Christopher Amott and Johan Reinholdz. For frontman Mikael Stanne, the arrivals and departures signalled a point of deep introspection: how do the everyday moments of life push someone in one direction or another? What would have happened if we go the other way?

Moment is a record filled with rich texture, thoughtful observations on the world, and an ever greater focus on melody and brevity. It’s picking up steam in the metal community as one of the finest records Dark Tranquillity have released in recent years. With the world at a Standstill (pun intended), there has been no better time to reflect on the moments that shape us.

We sat down with frontman Mikael Stanne to talk about the new record, the moments that have shaped his life, the process of writing with new bandmates, and finding inspiration in some unexpected places.

What was the new working dynamic in the band like in terms of crafting a record like? With Niklas leaving, what was it like writing and working with Johan and Chris? Did they bring a sense of new inspirational spark to this record? What is a quality about them that not many know that you feel is truly unique?

Mikael: “It was a different vibe, a different feeling. At the beginning we weren’t worried, but we were protective over our sound we’ve built up over 30 years. Anders wrote songs, Martin wrote some, and we started crafting the album first and foremost to have a direction to go in and to have enough material. So then we brought in the other guys, and we talked to them and asked ‘How do you want to proceed? We have all this material let’s dig into it and see what we can do.’ From there, it was about them interpreting it and finding a way to be a part of it.”

“Johan started reworking the songs and started making them into something new. There was a back and forth between us to work the songs together and eventually we went into the studio and figured things out. For us, it was a balance between our old sound and working with the new guys to add a layer to fundamental Dark Tranquillity songs. Johan wrote songs that eventually fit right. He comes from a very different background.”

You have explored so many sonic palettes over the years through twelve records. Were there any untapped things that you wanted to attack on this record, and if not, where did you find your sonic inspiration coming from and going to?

Mikael: “I guess what we talked about was to have this be more organic in how we record it and how we approach it. We’ve worked in the same studio for ten years now, Martin’s studio. But it’s great and it’s a part of a complex. We thought we should use some of those other studios just because we can and its fun, and we’re gear geeks. We could get new amps and just make it more real. We wanted to kind of go back to something more handcrafted.“

What moves you the most when it comes to melody? What does a melody have to have in its essence to move you emotionally and have you feel it deeply? I feel that in the way you sing in songs like Standstill. Is that something that you feel not only when recording the songs for a record or this record, but every time you get to repeat that live?

Mikael: “That’s what I want, to get an emotional connection with a part of a song, then to fully realize that melody and then perform it in a way that makes me feel something. It’s easy to get lost in that in the studio when you can do two million takes. When you do something so much you forget what it’s all about and you can get lost. We really tried to have it be fresh and decided to do long takes instead of short ones. We wanted it to be a one take thing to make it a little bit off, so It didn’t sound too fixed.”

“I try to have it be instinctual. I sit at home with a microphone and headphones and make sure everything sounds good and I just try different things until I feel very comfortable about it. I do little placeholders and the other guys give support. But it has to feel good and have emotional impact as well. If it feels good a month later, then we have it. It’s easy to get emotional about a song the first time but it’s good to be realistic and maybe try it 100 times.”

What are the moments when you’re writing and recording that spark the most joy in you? What was a moment or moments either on a song or during recording that sparked real passionate response?

Mikael: “We are very cautious about being too enthusiastic about things, and you become critical when writing. It’s rare to hear something and you think ‘Yes, this is awesome.’ You think maybe we can improve it and it’s a good start. You’re cautiously optimistic. When we all sat in a studio where things in the song weren’t lining up then we try out things and change everything and then it just works and its 14 or 2 hours later. It’s fantastic when we can finally cross it off the list."

"Becoming a parent changed everything for me: responsibility, how you view love and relationships; it all changed."

What songs to you hold the most personal weight and are you most personally proud of and why?

Mikael: "I really like “Standstill” and “In Truth Divided.” “Eyes of the World” came together well. I’m just happy when things come together when it’s a short and impactful track. I felt that it was a punk rock song in a certain essence. With “In Truth Divided,” it was nice to write about how universal truth can be seen in different ways nowadays. It reveals a lot of hidden truths about us as people, and why we choose to not see facts when everything is available to us. I’m a huge fan of new technologies and I used to think the internet was going to change the world. When I was young I thought everyone was going to be super smart and we can get rid of religion because no one is going to need it anymore because all the answers are there, but it didn’t really work out that way. It did in many amazing ways to be sure, but this is death metal so we need to focus on the negatives."

When you craft the songs that have the tone setting electronic openings, are those textures that you plan first, or do those come later after a song has been constructed and the parts are all laid out?

Mikael: "It depends but usually Martin adds them late in the process. He’ll really set the tone of what will be later in the track."

When you were writing the lyrics, what sorts of things specifically not just in relation to Dark Tranquillity, but in your own personal life did you have to stop and really reflect on when it comes to moments that shifted your life, even if you were unaware at the time? Did your perspective change on how these moments come or on how you reacted to them?

Mikael: “There have been a few throughout the years of my life where I’ve experienced new things that have changed my perspective and the way I see the world. Becoming a parent changed everything for me: responsibility, how you view love and relationships; it all changed. I was just learning things and trying to understand the world and people. I wanted to write about the small things as well. There are the huge life altering things that make you revaluate everything but the really small things are also there where you realize something is not going well and you have to accept it. 'Drawn Out Exit' is about trying to help someone who you realize doesn’t want or need the help and you decide to give up, even though it’s difficult. I wanted to capture any decision that makes you change direction”

I read about how the art was partly inspired by the video game Firewatch. I’m personally curious if any sort of media played any part in the musical or lyrical construction of this album? Specifically if there are any films or games that you or the band enjoy?

Mikael: “Anders is a huge gamer and he gets caught up in a melody or a sound, and so is Martin, and he’ll hear a soundtrack and he’ll tell me he borrowed a little bit from a soundtrack here and there. Subconsciously when I write I’ll use all sorts of words and phrases from movies and stuff at the beginning as a placeholder, and sometimes it’s easier to explain something to Nicklas through videos and Youtube links. I find things that when I see them, I think are cool and what I want to go for in a record design.”

What is the biggest way your perception of the music you’ve created from your first record to now has shifted?

Mikael: “Everything was just an adventure at first, where you put so much into every song and you want to experiment as much as possible and learn as much as you can as you go along. It’s where we’ll say, ‘How about we write in this time signature, or use this instrument,’ just because you could, but in the last four or five albums we say we’ve done all these things, so it’s more about finding the uniqueness in every song and finding an overall theme for an album. It’s about having an identity. Having them be different and tell a different story sonically is the challenge now, and that’s what I like about it; finding new ways to write simple straightforward songs.”

At the end of writing this record, do you truly feel that we control the moment or the moment controls us?

Mikael: "We should control the moment. We should have enough experience in our background so that we can control it and make the best decisions based on available information. That’s what I would prefer, and if unexpected things happen, we should be prepared. That’s what I thought about early on. How do we deal with the intersection of the past and the future?”

Moment is out now via Century Media.

Purchase the record here.