If there’s one person in the Swedish metal scene that is truly a man for all seasons, it’s Dan Swanö. Not only has he become known as a multi-instrumentalist and member of various bands and projects – Edge of Sanity, Nightingale, and Bloodbath to name a few – he’s also a prolific producer and mixing engineer whose CV includes albums by the likes of Opeth, Katatonia, and Omnium Gatherum. Swanö’s latest project is the progressive death metal duo, Witherscape, which features him on drums, keyboards, and vocals, while Ragnar Widerberg handles guitars and bass. Their sophomore album, The Northern Sanctuary, will be released on July 22th, 2016, through Century Media, so we took the opportunity to talk to Dan about the record and his other endeavors.
Can you tell us what to expect from The Northern Sanctuary – are there any big differences between it and The Inheritance (2013)?
The sound is a bit more epic this time around. The hard is hard, the soft is softer, and most of the songs have more of traditional arrangement, and then the epic title track knows no boundaries at all 🙂
The Northern Sanctuary picks up where the story of The Inheritance left off. You’ve released multi-part concept album series in the past, namely the Crimson duology by Edge of Sanity and The Breathing Shadow saga by Nightingale. Do you enjoy making records with this sense of continuity and find the medium of concept album inspiring?
Yeah. I totally dig making a soundtrack to a cool story. There’s of course also something special about finding a theme that will only work for a short lyric, but I am not as good at finding those as I am to dream up big story lines that takes a few albums to finish off!
You and Ragnar live in different countries, but on your Facebook page there are a lot of photos of the two of you working on the album together. Do you write and record everything face-to-face or is some file exchanging involved?
For all Ragnar’s parts, I have been there by his side making sure everything is top notch. Most of the riffs are recorded only after he’s played them for the first time, but Ragz has an uncanny way of making a riff his own and playing it like he’s been jamming on it for years, only 10 minutes after playing it for the first time. Spooky and very, very useful 🙂 The first album was written face-to-face, in parts, and some of the stuff was written at home and then brought to the rehearsal room. But since we now live countries apart, rehearsals are a thing of the past and we write separately and I but the stuff together and make sure it will sound as if we’d been sweating the stuff out in the rehearsal room for years!
Are the songs generally 50/50 efforts or does one member contribute more ideas than the other?
In the old times that was the plan, and with the exception of a few songs on the first album, it was pretty much a 50/50 thing. But since then, Ragnar has another band in need of his best metal riffs [Shadowquest] and since I needed to start writing this album really early, because the songs must lie around doing nothing for a while, to make sure they stand the test of time… and this time around he contributed with one full track and some of the very best pieces for the title track.
I know you’re not overly keen on touring, but is there any chance we might get to see Witherscape on stage in the future?
No. Sorry. Witherscape is strictly studio. I like to create my music completely free of restrictions these days, and having to think about “how do we do this live?” all the time limits the hell out of me, and once I decided that live was a no-go, the possibilities are endless! In the end… the music is what I am here for; the live performances, not so much!
The limited edition includes a more dynamic mix of the album as bonus material, just like the debut and Nightingale’s Retribution (2014) did. As an audio engineer, what do you think the state of the loudness war is in 2016, now that YouTube and streaming services like Spotify use loudness normalization, which results in all the music being played at a similar volume, no matter how loud or quiet the original master is?
I am hoping that the world will slowly come to realize that the loudness war is the most stupid thing to happen to music since rap and hip-hop. Once you play back a song that has been limited to death, to be loud, lowered 10 dB by your software, to be followed by a song that doesn’t have any strong limiting to it, played at the same volume… you get it how much damage is done to some albums released today. It’s one thing that the radios are limiting stuff for the music to be “thrown” longer in the air, but to kill all dynamics so some stupid jogger doesn’t have to be adjusting the volume in their random mix tape… that is just stupid. Then use something like MP3 Gain software and lower all your files to the same level… not push the low ones up to the level of the loud. There’s a fucking volume control for a reason! Support the war again the loudness war! Hell yeah!
Lately you’ve been mixing Insomnium’s upcoming album, Winter’s Gate. What was it like to work on a 40-minute one-song album by another band when you’ve released two records like that yourself (Crimson (1996) and Crimson II (2003))?
I just have a break from mixing it. Still have lots to do on it. It’s a rather exhausting experience because it is so fucking epic and different from traditional song structure, all the time, which it should be. So I have to really focus on yet another level than for a traditional death metal album… but it’s a hell of an album, so it’s worth the extra mile… you are all in for a real treat. Definitely a huge entry in the book of one-track albums!
Let’s talk about Nightingale a little bit: considering how catchy and accessible your material is, do you think the band could’ve grown bigger with more label backing and gigs?
Most likely. If you see how some bands that went from playing to ten people 1 week and after having a big MTV hit playing to thousands the next gig… it could have happened. There’s no shortage of awesome material. But we will never know, will we! I have reached so many awesome things through the music of Nightingale, the most awesome is meeting my wife because of our music, and then there’s been shows in countries I might never have had the chance to visit otherwise. For me, it’s good as it is, and I have learned through my friends in the music business that you have to work so incredibly hard to achieve lasting success to the point that you’re actually making money from your music and I am not cut out for that lifestyle. I like it better at home in my studio with my family 🙂
Your solo album, Moontower (1999), has become a cult classic over the years, but sadly it’s really hard to find copies of it on the internet. Is there a chance it – or Edge of Sanity and Nightingale albums – might get reissued on CD and/or vinyl or is this totally up to Black Mark?
I have actually prepared vinyl masters (better than nothing) for both Moontower and Nightfall Overture, but Black Mark are going through a rough patch at the moment, but I am always hoping that things will get to a point where they will be released!
Finally, besides Witherscape and your mixing and mastering jobs, are you working on any other projects at the moment?
Moving to a house with my family and set up a new mix/master room and a separate writing/recording room. That is quite the project and my head is spinning from all the things that need to be taken care of. Musically, I will look into the darker side of my writing for a future release. It’s not really clear what it will be yet… but I plan to make it bruuuutal 🙂
Text: Ville Karttunen | Ed: Amy Wiseman