The Security of Longevity: Mikael Stanne and Niklas Sundin (Dark Tranquillity) Talk Atoma

Swedish death metallers Dark Tranquillity are on their 11th full-length, Atoma. They’ve been a band, with the core of Anders Jivarp, Niklas Sundin, and Mikael Stanne soundly intact, for over 25 years. While most bands give up, give in, or just plain vanish the Swedes have the fortitude, the creative well, and a sound that’s distinctly their own to survive the ups, downs, ins, outs of band and music industry life. That Atoma is the strongest set of songs the Swedes have produced in a decade says volumes. From “Encircled” and “Force of Hand” to “Our Proof of Life” and “Merciless Fate”, Atoma is peerless in its execution and vision. Certainly, it sounds like Dark Tranquillity, but there’s more to it. There’s a depth, a palette not yet realized until now. Decibel synch up with vocalist Stanne and guitarist Sundin to discuss Atoma and the events that allowed it to be the great album it is.

Twenty-five years! The band is older than you guys were when you started it back in 1991. What’s it like sitting here at 25?
Niklas Sundin: It feels good! Our main goal when starting out was to write enough songs for a demo tape and perhaps get to play a couple of local shows, so none of us counted on this kind of longevity.

What is it like writing your 11th album? Scary or perhaps something else?
Niklas Sundin: Not sure if ‘scary’ is the right word, but making an album is always a challenge. When it comes to the practical aspects, we’ve done enough recordings to know how the process works and how to get the best sound possible out of our performances, but there are always creative obstacles to overcome.  The more songs you have in your back catalogue, the more you scrutinize every new idea—and you have to work even harder in order to come up with material that truly matters.

What do you remember about finding the starting point for writing Atoma?
Niklas Sundin: Some of the material started taking shape pretty soon after Construct, so it was a gradual process, but the bulk of the hard work began about a year ago. We had basic demo versions of 20 or so songs and picked 12 of them out to form the album. After having gone through all the details and changing a lot of things in the process, we began the real album recording.
Mikael Stanne: Anders [Jivarp] had tons of material that he started working on with Martin [Brändström] and once they kind of came up with a roadmap of where the material was headed, I started thinking about what I wanted to do lyrically and vocally. So, I focused on a few songs that I felt strongly about and with them as a starting point I outlined most of the songs in terms of theme and direction.

Musically, Atoma’s still DT, but there’s something else coursing through its veins. It perhaps started on Construct, but is fully realized on Atoma. Maybe a sense of freedom?
Mikael Stanne: Maybe it is. There is freedom in how these two albums were made that is new to us. There is a joy to bouncing around bits and parts of songs ‘til you find the right structure and form. Being in the studio doing that means that you can actually sit down and evaluate what changes you’ve made to a song rather than trying to remember what you decided as you’re trying to get through a different version of a song in the rehearsal studio. There are clear benefits to both systems, but since one has been our go-to thing for the first 25 years some change is needed.

How do you think Atoma is different from Construct?
Mikael Stanne: For me, it has a different emotional aspect. This is immediate and to the point in most cases and there is a sense of urgency that I tried to connect to with the lyrics.
Niklas Sundin: I’m tempted to take the easy route and just say that comparisons are up to the listener (and they tend to be pretty subjective anyway), but Atoma, to me, is a bit more diverse and energetic. Construct was intentionally very dark and moody all the way through, as a way of making the whole album a grand monolithic statement, but on Atoma things are a bit more mixed up again.

What’s it like to not have Martin [Henriksson] in the band, as a songwriter, fellow touring musician?
Mikael Stanne: It has been a big change for us obviously. In terms of writing he has done less and less of that in later years since the managing side of the band that he prefers has taken most of his time. But traveling and playing without him has been strange to say the least. You tend to take so much for granted and so many things are just in your mental muscle memory that when a piece is missing you kind of loose your balance. But being ever optimistic I have been really pleased with seeing his so far temporary replacements tearing up the stages and it’s with great joy that I get to somehow live vicariously through someone new to you our stage. Someone, who hasn’t done it a million times. And isn’t jaded in the least. Not that we are of course. But being able to this far into our career bring someone new in has proven to be quite interesting. Now we just need to find the perfect one.

Tell me about the studio sessions this time? Routine or was there a different energy?
Niklas Sundin: We’ve been recording at Rogue Music (the studio owned by keyboardist Martin Brändström) for 10 years now, so there’s a certain familiarity to the process. The basic steps for recording a metal album are usually the same no matter where you do it anyway. Not sure if the energy was that different, but maybe everyone stepped up to the plate a bit more due to the lineup change.

Dark Tranquillity are fairly self-functioning. You record in your own studio, do your own art, and are now managed by a former member. Is self-sufficiency important to Dark Tranquillity, considering the last 10 years of the band and the industry it’s involved in?
Mikael Stanne: Without a doubt. Being able to make informed decisions and being in charge of what is going on in the band is key to keeping us together and, of course, the reward of setting something up and having it succeed is way sweeter than just going with someone else tells you.
Niklas Sundin: It’s important for a variety of reasons. From a purely professional perspective, it, of course, makes sense for any band these days to cut out unnecessary middle men and be as self-sufficient as possible, and after all these years we’ve also developed a certain stubbornness and desire to be in control of things ourselves. We still work with external booking agents, and obviously we’re signed to a record label, so we’re not completely DIY, but on the whole we’re happy being in charge.

Tell me about the title, Atoma. Where’d it come from?
Mikael Stanne: Niklas suggested it to me after reading the lyrics and it really intrigued me. We had discussed ideas for a cover and Atoma felt like a perfect title for a new beginning. The start of something. The core of new ideas and actions.

And lyrically, is there a connection to the title? DT’s lyrics and album titles are always topics for discussion.
Mikael Stanne: As said the title came from Niklas’ interpretation of the lyrics and for me the hardest thing in the world is distilling the words to a song down to a simple title let alone putting a name on 12 songs. So having an outside view certainly helps. But for me I speak to what our core is. What is the beginning of these ideas and ideologies that we have. How do they serve us and at what point do we leave the old ones behind and start moving forward?

What’s left to say, from your point of view? Perhaps life is always feeding something new.
Mikael Stanne: Oh, for sure. There is always something that makes you furious or freaked out of your mind. As much as I observe most things from a safe distance through screens I am always curious about what drives and motivates the people around me. There are always stories to tell.
Niklas Sundin: Absolutely. If you have a creative mindset, there are always things in life (your own or someone else’s) to draw inspiration from. Also, given that each album is a reflection of where one is at that specific point in time, what we said on our old albums aren’t necessarily things that we’d say now, and the fact that we said a lot of things in the ‘90s doesn’t mean that we don’t have anything to say now.

The cover’s interesting. Organs and smoke. Where did the cover idea stem from?
Niklas Sundin: Thanks! The cover is mainly my interpretation of the basic lyrical concepts of the album and, of course, how I ‘visualize’ the sound. There’s interplay between microscopic and grand perspectives (bodily organs, celestial bodies, sinews, and blood vessels). However, I didn’t want to over-think things or create something that was overly ‘clever’ or riddle-like. Most of the ideas and references to the lyrics are fairly obvious.

Did you have different ideas for the cover along the way? The Atoma cover is different from Construct, which was a bit cold and urban.
Niklas Sundin
: No, what you can see on the cover is pretty much the first idea I had. Construct indeed reflected a bleak and industrial vibe, which worked well for the music on that album, but the material on Atoma just felt more (for lack of a better term) colorful. We’ve had a couple of more understated and monochromatic album sleeves—which served their respective albums well—but this time we wanted something that was more engaging.

What’s your favorite song on Atoma at the moment, and why?
Mikael Stanne: This suggests that I can actually be objective about it, right? I really can’t. But songs that stand out to me are “The Pitiless” and “Force of Hand”.
Niklas Sundin: It impossible to say when an album still is fresh, but right now probably “Forward Momentum” for its anthemic vibe or “Encircled” for being the fastest song we’re written in nearly 20 years. I have to say that the limited edition bonus songs turned out really good too, showing a completely different side of the band.

What do you want fans to feel/think after listening to Atoma? That DT are alive and kicking, that the band in its 25th year is on to new and exciting things?
Mikael Stanne: I just hope that there is some connection to the material. That it makes people feel and think. There are so many aspects of this album that I feel so strongly about that if just one tiny part of that translates to the listener I’d be satisfied. As much of a struggle the creation of an album can be, now that we hear the final product I feel invincible and ready for 11 more albums.
Niklas Sundin: Hard to say. I always tried to avoid imagining our music from a listener’s perspective. Once a song is written and recorded, people can do with it whatever they wish. We have a pretty diverse fanbase, so there will be those loving Atoma, as well as those that were hoping for something different (be it a back-to-the-roots album or something even more experimental). It’d, of course, be good if people in general acknowledge that we tried something different out this time, but what really matters at the end of the day is that we made the album that we wanted to, for ourselves.

** Dark Tranquillity’s new album, Atoma, is out now on Century Media. The excellent album is available on CD and VINYL by clicking HERE.