When thinking of Gothenburg metal, one of the first names that comes to mind is At the Gates. Their sixth studio album will be released on May 18th, 2018 via Century Media Records, and so we took a few moments to speak with vocalist Tomas Lindberg about their upcoming release.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to me this evening, Tomas. How’s life treating you?
All good, all good. Just preparing for the album release – a lot of work but it’s also great to get some initial reactions from people who’ve actually heard it. That’s nice.
At the Gates’ last album, At War with Reality, felt like quite a different album in many ways, but still sounded like the same band. How do you view the album now with 4 years under your belts?
I think we still are on the same page as when we were done with it. Our idea was to not put any outside pressure on us when we wrote At War With Reality. But we kind of felt, almost immediately after that, that it was a little bit too safe and too clean. That was one of the things that Anders said, straight after we were done with it, that he wanted to make the next album, you know, more progressive, more daring, more dark.
At War With Reality was kind of the comeback record that people expected. So we wanted always to turn heads. Maybe At War With Reality sounded like that because that’s the album we had in us at the time, with the outside pressure involved as well. But now we feel like we are free to create totally what we want.
How has it been to begin again after the departure of Anders Björler?
Well, Anders departure… I have to say, he’s one of my closest friends and we have a great respect for him as a musician. Anyone who’s into extreme music would have. But for us, him leaving was almost like the creative spark that we needed. We needed the kick in the arse to tell us, you have to focus now, you have to work hard to get where you want to go.
That was what set us up on this journey, him leaving the band, because before that we didn’t have anything. But that was what we needed.
The band must have found itself at something of a crossroads with regard to writing as, especially on At War… and Slaughter of the Soul, he was very prominently featured in the writing credits.
Well obviously there’s no writing credit [for Anders] any more on this one!
But if you look at it closely, if it’s not 50/50 it’s at least 60/40 in the writing credits. So Jonas always wrote a huge load of material as well and Anders always said that he thought that Jonas wrote the best stuff. He just needed help to get his great ideas into actual songs, to arrange them. And working so close with Anders, arranging the songs on At War with Reality, I felt very intrigued by doing it with his brother instead and we really had a great time doing it. It was a very creative, inspired atmosphere. It was a pleasure writing with Jonas.
So on to the new album, To Drink from the Night Itself – what an epic title! Where did it come from?
It was a line that I probably dreamt or something, as with all those epic titles that come to my head, like “The Red in the Sky is Ours” or “With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness.” Sometimes a line just comes to you. And it came to me when I had started writing the record and started using my inspiration from different novels and stuff. I actually caught on that this could be metaphorical for the whole idea of the record and it was such a strong title. For me it’s a representation of what art means to us and how important art is to us and probably to our fans as well.
Do you work purely with the lyrics and vocals or do you come up with musical ideas yourself, such as riffs or anything?
I don’t write the guitar or anything but I’m very involved in the song writing, on the arrangement part. I could probably hum a melody to Jonas, or I’ll do a line that goes up instead of down: “We need more melancholy here”; stuff like that. We write together but he comes up with actual parts, of course, but we put it together as a unit.
I read that Jonas Stålhammar joined too late to be involved in the writing process for the new album.
Yeah, when Anders left, me and Jonas were so inspired, ’cause we had been waiting to start writing, really, until we knew what Anders was gonna do. So we wanted to just start the process of the record as soon as possible, and in the mean time look for a replacement, ’cause we knew that basically we wouldn’t need a guitar player until it came to the live situation.
But then the idea to ask Jonas Stålhammar to join was… I think we had that idea in the middle of the summer, when we already had five or six songs and when we actually got around to… audition is the wrong word probably, but like, play with him, we probably already had eight or nine songs ready. So it was natural for him to just go along with this album and of course he contributed with ideas and stuff like that, as with anyone else in the band. But me and Jonas wrote all the music. Of course, Stålhammar wrote his lead parts. He’s full time in the band, as much of a member as anyone else. He will of course be involved in the songwriting for the next record.
Has his arrival influenced the performance of the new material so far?
Well he is the new guitar player in the band, so that goes without saying. Me and Jonas Björler had a very clear vision of the album’s sound, even before that. We were just happy to find a guy that fit in this new direction too. His playing is much more death metal than thrashy.
On the subject of the sound, I actually first heard At the Gates completely by accident, about 15 years ago. Tower Records had put “the wrong CD” in their listening post. It was Slaughter of the Soul and I completely fell in love with the album. When I first heard “To Drink from the Night Itself”, I felt that the sound had gone back to that sound. So I have to say I’m really looking forward to hearing the rest of the album. Was that something that you guys have thought about?
No, we didn’t want to regress, we want to progress. But for us it was very important to prove that we knew what At the Gates is about for a lot of people. And that was being a death metal band, first and foremost. So it was important for us that the production was not too clean, so that it had a little more death and darkness in it. So it’s a conscious step that this album is much more raw than it’s predecessor.
Would you say this track is pretty representative of the rest of the album, sound-wise?
Sometimes the band chooses a song for the first single that represents the whole album and sometimes the band chooses a song that is more in your face and more direct than the rest of the record, and I think that’s what we did this time. Mostly because there is no such song that incorporates all the elements of the record in one song, because it’s such a wide palette, it’s got so many twists and turns, so much progressive stuff in it, that it will be hard to boil it down to one song. So, “To Drink from the Night Itself” is the most direct and straightforward song on the record. For our real fans, that’s a lot more in the past.
You recorded at Parlour Studio, in Northampton. Was this the first time there?
Yeah, The Haunted have recorded there before. I’ve recorded with Russ [Russell] before on the Lock Up record. Yeah, we know Russ very well and we knew he was the guy that we wanted to work with for this one. He was actually the runner-up for the last album! He just couldn’t do it in the timeframe for At War with Reality.
To go to his studio was more efficient because we want to work with the guy because of what he can bring out of you, but you also want him to be comfortable and be in an environment that he knows very well. So it was a perfect decision because we could really tell (14:10) ourselves in there and focus on the creative aspects of the record.
Aside from having a new guitarist, and you did say that some of the writing had been done without him beforehand, how did the writing process on this album differ from the writing process on other albums?
If you would compare the two comeback records, as I said, both Anders and Jonas wrote music for At War With Reality, and then me and Anders arranged the songs. On this one, me and Jonas arranged the songs as we were writing them instead, directly. A song could be very different from the initial idea when it came out the other end. There was much more adventure this time around. We had less nerves. They are very different to each other. Anders is much more self-conscious whereas Jonas is more of a doer. So for me it was actually easier to get my ideas across on this one with Jonas than it was with Anders. Not saying anything bad about Anders, just everything took a little bit longer with Anders because he had to think about it a thousand times before he could decide on what to do.
But with me and Jonas, we just tried a lot of different things and everything went. We could try anything and, “Oh that didn’t work, let’s try something else.” There was no nervousness at all. It was a very inspired writing session.
You mentioned a little bit about the inspiration for the title track. Did you, or the band in general, have any other sources of inspiration for the other songs on the album?
Well the whole album is based, lyrically, around a novel actually. One novel this time, not a thousand books, but one novel! It’s based around the German writer Peter Weiss, and his novel The Aesthetics of Resistance. As usual, when I read books, I read books that work on a lot of different levels. This one is,
Also on the second level, it’s a monument to the resistance movement during the 40s, 50s, and 60s. On a third level it’s a very big discussion about art and how art could be used as either oppression or resistance of such oppression and that we basically need to reinterpret our European cultural history and legacy to be able to free us from the shackles of oppression. So it’s a very big book!
I based the songs differently; here and there there are references to different chapters in the book and on some songs it’s mainly just the emotional aspect of the book that comes across. So it’s a very wide range of inspiration that comes from this novel.
That sounds really interesting! I’ll have to check that out!
It’s a life changing book.
Do you have a favorite track from the album?
It’s very hard to say that because, as I said before, it’s a very diverse record. There’s a lot of stuff happening all the time. And there’s not really one song that could cover the whole record because they’re so different to each other.
There’s some stuff that I’m particularly proud of. That we pulled off the kind of songwriting that we haven’t attempted since the early 90s and that we really enjoy doing. A song like “Daggers of Black Haze” is such an epic, monumental, driving, slow piece that we haven’t done for ages and that was a challenge. But we like challenges and when you succeed with a challenge, it’s more fulfilling.
Challenge is good!
Since Slaughter of the Soul, we always find ourselves in a position of challenge and then we come out the other side.
The video for the new song has already nearly 8000 likes on YouTube and a stream of praise in the comments. I’d say this bodes well for the album.
Yeah, I’m not so much into looking at social media stuff like that for approval. I mean, I like to talk to people like you, to actually hear your opinions like this. If you go online, there are always opinions everywhere. But if it’s good, thanks for telling me now, I didn’t know. Yeah, that sounds like our album will be well received.
That’s the thing with At the Gates fans – they have come to appreciate so much more than the comeback. At the Gates fans really are different, in a way, from other metal fans because they really want to understand the band. We are also challenging the fans all the time with new ideas and new terms. They follow us through that and, “Oh this is strange, let’s try to understand it,” and then they like it. They live through the challenge of liking a band that’s so weird, like At the Gates, and we are very grateful for those fans and I think that’s why we can survive as a band even though we are not what you would call a mainstream band and write ‘hit songs.’ We’re a little bit more tricky… such a great fan base.
Yeah, as you say, you challenge the fans and that’s probably what keeps us looking forward to everything you guys put out.
Haha! Yes, I always say At the Gates are just a little bit smarter than the average metal guy!
I wouldn’t argue with that! Looking at your website, you seem to have quite an extensive tour underway, with a lot of festival dates. How do you find doing festival dates, compared with doing your own shows?
They are of course both filled with excitement for us. Either going on a festival stage, playing in front of a lot of people are into the band and a lot of people that might just want to check it out. That’s a challenge in itself. Again, the word for the day is challenge, I think! It’s also intriguing to try and get the atmosphere and roll with that. Because you never really know what’s going to happen with that when you go on a festival stage.
But when you play in front of your own fans, in a club, you know that everybody there has paid for tickets to see your band. They will understand the band. That’s another rewarding experience, the interaction is so much easier, because they know the songs. They know what they’re getting and the reaction is very heartful and very moving, in a way.
As we’re talking about touring, do you have any fun touring stories you’d like to share?
Well, we’re not a ‘dangerous’ band in any sense. We’re very normal and down-to-earth. We take care of each other and put the performance first, always. That doesn’t mean to say that we don’t like to have a beer now and then, or have fun. But I don’t think we are the band that you should ask about, “Oh when did you throw that TV out of the window?” or something like that because that stuff rarely happens! When we have fun, it’s more about when we play in a town where a lot of friends will come out, let’s hang with them and have a few beers after the show and share some old memories, jokes, stuff like that. Of course, if you know us, we have a sense of humor and we like to fool around, but nothing over- the-top with At The Gates. We focus on the music.
Tack så mycket, Tomas! All the best with the new album. And best of luck with the tour.
Tack själv! Thank you very much and I’ll see you in Finland.
Text: Marc David Taylor