Dan Swanö (Witherscape) interviewed

** My interview with Dan Swanö appeared in Decibel, but decided the long-form version of my chat with the omnipresent Swanö would best read out in its entirety. Why am I talking to Swanö? He’s the lead man (well, half) of new project Witherscape. The group’s new album is The Inheritance, which is available now on Century Media. Curious? Check out this lyric video for track “Dead for a Day” (click HERE).
When did you decide to get back into the musician’s life?
Dan Swanö: I have been a musician all the time, just not a very song-writing one for the past years. Around 2006 I decided to focus on becoming a better sound engineer and moved to a really small and cheap flat, so I could cut my day job hours by 50 percent and get back more seriously into the mixing game. During this time, I wrote a few riffs here and there, but it wasn’t until I ran into Ragnar [Widerberg] that I finally met someone that had a shit-load of excellent riffs just lying around. And by that time I had become the sound engineer that I always wanted to be, and the business was great, so I quit my day job, and that gave me more hours in the week for new adventures—and reviving the songwriter in me was the first thing that happened!

And what’s it like being back in the saddle, so to speak? The industry’s changed a bit since Edge of Sanity last released an album with you.
Dan Swanö: It’s great. Century Media is well-aware of the stuff you need to do to sell records in 2013, so I just do what they tell me! The internet is obviously the ‘battlefield’ these days, and things move a lot faster. But in the end, if you have a great album, you will prevail, and I really believe that Witherscape is the best thing I have done in the ‘metal world’ for a long time!

How’d you meet Ragnar?
Dan Swanö: He joined the staff at my day job, and I knew of him from before, since he played guitar in a Judas Priest tribute band called Swedish Steel, and that is a big plus in my book! So we started talking about stuff we liked and this and that, and since I knew he was co-writing stuff with Ronny Milianowicz (ex. Sinergy, Dionysus, Saint Deamon, etc.), I asked him if he had any unused ideas lying around, and he sure did! So, at first I thought it would be useful for new Nightingale stuff, but it was a bit too ‘metal’ for Nightingale. Instead I started to think about using Ragnar as a sidekick for writing a new solo album, but later on I decided to ask him if he’d be interested in joining me as a 50 percent creative force in a new band, and the rest is history!

I’m surprised you didn’t want to include your brother.
Dan Swanö: We already have Nightingale together, and he’s not really into the growling stuff.

Did you approach the music to Witherscape any differently from your previous musical pursuits?
Dan Swanö: I was a lot more careful, and made sure that nothing ‘boring’ passed my sharp scissors and made it onto the record. No passages are still in there ‘to make member X & Y happy.’ I listened to the pre-production back-to-back several times and made notes where I was not ‘feeling it’ 100 percent and that part had to be reworked or cut out. And by the time we started recording the actual album, all the boring stuff was gone and it was ‘Bam! Bam! Bam!’ with only the best stuff!

Is there a connection to Moontower or Edge of Sanity or Nightingale or Infestdead or Pan.Thy.Monium? Maybe it’s all and then some.
Dan Swanö: Well, as long as I am writing the riffs, there is a ‘Swanö kind-of-melody’ in there somewhere, and I have the same preference for what gets me going, independent of what project/band I write for. So I guess many listeners will hear traces of Moontower or my songs from Edge of Sanity, perhaps some Nightingale too—not that much Pan-Thy-Monium and Infestdead. [Laughs] I save that for the future!

You’ve described Witherscape as culmination of ‘70s prog, ‘80s heavy metal/hard rock, and death metal.
Dan Swanö: We wanted to make the perfect blend of “Sad Wings of Destiny/Sin after Sin/Moving Pictures/Nothingface/Moontower” and I think we came pretty close!!

How do you connect it all together? I mean, are transitions and emotions as important as jamming together ideas?
Dan Swanö: We actually rehearsed like a real band! I haven’t done that since the summer of ’92! It was great fun sitting behind the drum kit, sweating it out again. You are ‘in’ the music in a more physical way in the rehearsal room than you are at home with your computer drummer and ear-friendly levels. Certain parts that you would normally use for like four rounds just scream at you to go on longer and longer until the part becomes a different thing, and that new thing evolves into something complete different. And at the end, you might even cut out the riff that started this ‘evolution of sound.’ I have missed that kind of organic process a lot. But it’s easier when you’re only two. The ‘connection’ is a lot quicker than with four other members that should understand that brilliant new idea you just had!

There’s also some different things happening with your vocals. Was this the result of natural growth or did you have specific sounds in mind for specific parts in Witherscape?
Dan Swanö: I wanted to use three voices: (1) My normal ‘friendly’ clean voice (2) My kind of new ‘Dio’ voice that I used for the second Star One and a bit on some Nightingale stuff (3) And my growling. I am super-happy with the way the vocals turned out. I like the mixture of clean and growls on the same riff. Usually bands have ‘growl riffs’ and ‘clean riffs’—we have ‘universal’ riffs that work well with both growls and clean on top of them. The chorus for “Astrid Falls” has one round of growls and one round of clean—never did that before!!

There’s a pretty involved concept. Care to take us through the protags/antags? Sort of an Abigail theme, right?
Dan Swanö: Not really sure what Abigail is all about, but the short version goes: Late 1800. A young man sees his whole family die one by one in a mysterious disease, and when they’re all gone, the family lawyer comes around to their big house in Stockholm’s finer area and presents him with his inheritance. Among the things are the keys to a mansion somewhere in the north. He never heard of this property in his whole life and finds it odd that it’s been hidden from him his whole life. He finds his way there and the cover artwork is a snapshot through his eyes, what he sees when he finally sees the mansion for the first time. Then all kinds of stuff happens!

I hear the album has different mixes. Why is that?
Dan Swanö: Because of this stupid loudness war! I decided to mix the album without any thought of ‘adapting’ the sound to the insane levels of modern CDs, more to sound as good as can be, and let that be the version for the vinyl, where dynamics are still allowed! Once I had the mix ready, I started to experiment with getting the level up without damaging any of the balance between the elements. And even with the best limiters, there is something happening to the sound when you ‘kill’ the dynamics in order to make it louder. So, I used the vinyl-mix as a reference, and with the limited CD mix at the same lower output level, I started to add back some of the snap, crackle and pop that disappeared from the drums. Some of the soft parts were louder, because the loud parts where getting ‘smashed’ a bit. So, I spent quite a lot of time making sure, that when played-back on the same level, both mixes sounded as similar as possible. The same procedure for the MP3 version, that needed even more adjustments in the mix to sound like the vinyl version, but at even louder levels and MP3 conversion (that reduces the data with 75 percent or more!). But in the end, when played back at the same level as the vinyl-mix, it’s really hard to tell the difference.

At this point, is there a difference between mixing for vinyl, CD, and digital?
Dan Swanö: Most bands don’t seem to care. But since Witherscape is a showcase for me both musically and sonically, I wanted to be 100 percent sure that I did the best I could in both fields! Hopefully, more bands realize that their music would sound better if they dragged their asses out of the loudness war and let the music breathe a bit. Include a loud MP3 version as ROM on the CD, and let the CD become a dynamic medium again. Verdammt nochmal!

The cover kind of reminds me of Them mixed with Somberlain. Was that intentional?
Dan Swanö: The first versions were different. More of a sepia/black & white kind of vibe, but after some ‘what if we…?’ the whole vibe of the album came to life in the cover with this ‘Kristian Wåhlin blue/purple’ as we call it. Or perhaps ‘Somberlain blue.’ The Them similarities are completely unintentional. I love Mercyful Fate, but I never liked King Diamond. Don’t know why. Must have been Hank Sherman that ‘did it’ for me! We are not trying to reinvent the wheel with the concept of the album. Just creating some high quality entertainment. Travis Smith did a spectacular job at getting the images from our heads into Photoshop. It’s no miracle he is as popular as he is!

What are Witherscape’s next steps? I know you’ve been down on touring, but can fans expect to see Witherscape on stage?
Dan Swanö: Well, we’re stuck at some kind of catch 22 scenario. There is no time/money for us to get a band together and rehearse until some promoter says, “Hey dudes, here’s a shitload of cash, get up on that stage!”, and I am not sure they will do that before they will see what they get for their money. So for now, enjoy the album. It is the ultimate version of all the material. Some stuff might benefit from the rawness of a live set-up. The Inheritance, not so much.

And, finally, will Day Disyraah resurface at any time in the near future. He’s been pretty quiet.
Dan Swanö: Yeah. He’s been hanging out with Raagoonshinnaah in Amaraah for the last 20 years or so. I’ve been planning for his return for a song or two for an upcoming solo album, with brutal stuff! The idea is to let the songs have the ‘flavor’ of my past sins, like a few Edge of Sanity-style tracks, an Infestdead ‘groovy’ kind of track, a Pan-Thy-Monium ‘strange, doom, blast’-fest, some Bloodbath “So You Die”/”Eaten” kind of riffing—and there’s a couple of geese around the corner that sound just like the free-form saxophone jam at the end of “Sbrodj,” and every time I am walking the dog and hear them go bananas, I say to myself, “I gotta make another Karaboudjan track!”

** Witherscape’s new album, The Inheritance, is out now on Century Media. Order it HERE with a t-shirt or HERE without a t-shirt.