“We have no plans of stopping right now”—At The Gates are death-metal’s brightest hope
20 years after the release of melodic death-metal’s defining album, Slaughter Of The Soul, Sweden’s At The Gates have finally broken their sonic silence and released a new album. Amazingly, they’ve managed to not taint death-metal’s most revered legacy and release the stellar At War With Reality—already earning much critical praise. AP caught up with legendary vocalist Tomas Lindberg to discuss Slaughter Of The Soul, the personal dynamics of the band, their improved musicianship, the Gothenburg scene and the newly fired-up band’s future plans.
So it’s 1996, and At The Gates just released Slaughter Of The Soul, changed the face of metal and then broke up. It’s been called the biggest mic drop in the history of metal. Can you take me through what the band were going through at that time, and why you decided to split?
TOMAS LINDBERG: We were so young, really. The pressure was not as big as we thought at the time, but we didn’t understand how to cope with it—at all. There was a lot of touring, and we didn’t know how to cope with being on the road for such a long time together. If it happened now, we would have no problem, because we can talk to each other. But now, it’s almost a good thing that we broke up. [Laughs.] Because it has helped us into the situation where we are right now, and everything that happened after the breakup has created what we are now.
There weren’t any personal reasons?
Not really in that way, no. There probably were different directions that we wanted to go, but not so major that we couldn’t have solved [our differences]. Now, we’re compromise masters. At that point [in 1996], it was a “my way or the highway” kind of thing. That’s not a very fruitful relationship to work under. Everybody was eager, very inspired and fired up. It was almost a negative inspiration. [Laughs.] It meant so much to everybody, but we couldn’t really see beyond our own point of views. But that comes with age, and that’s where we are.
Slaughter of The Soul is always held up in this trinity of sacred death-metal albums, which includes In Flames’ The Jester Race and Dark Tranquillity’s The Gallery. But it’s crazy how far ahead of those bands At The Gates actually were at the time. In Flames didn’t really catch up to where ATG were in ’95 until Colony in ‘99. What was it like being part of that Gothenburg scene? Did you guys view yourselves as the leaders?
We were the oldest band. We were all friends. There was only a friendly competition. We were inspired by each other in a way: If Dark Tranquillity made a great album, we wanted to prove that we could also do it. But how the music sounded was never really inspiring. Maybe if you look at Jester Race, that’s probably the one album that has actual color from another album, which is pretty reminiscent of Slaughter Of The Soul. But that’s the only record that sounds like any other band from that era. Dark Tranquillity has a really unique sound that is really hard to copy. It’s very inspiring in that way, but there were no leaders or followers. We were all leading our own little path. We are still friends, and I think all three bands are still very relevant and have a lot of stuff to give.
You’ve been up to a lot since At The Gates called it quits. Sweet Vengeance was one of the most anticipated albums for post-At The Gates melodeath fans. Was Nightrage a similar creative release for you? Since you left Nightrage, have you missed having that melodic style in your life?
I didn’t really work so much on the first Nightrage album. I just kind of joined in the studio and sang what they wanted me to. On Decent Into Chaos, I was more involved in the lyric writing and vocal structures and arrangements. Otherwise, those records are Marios [Iliopoulos, Nightrage guitarist]’s creations. It was fun, they were very talented musicians, and I had a good time with it—but, that’s probably the not the exact style I would write. If you look at At The Gates, it’s a very different beast all together. It’s much more death-metal. I think Nightrage have more in common with Soilwork and Arch Enemy than At The Gates. But I would say I was missing being creative with Anders [Björler, At The Gates guitarist] and Jonas [Björler, At The Gates bassist]. That’s what I was missing, because we were touring the world together. We had such a great time, but we didn’t create together, and it just felt wrong. At the end, the only reason we didn’t do it was because of that statement we made: “No new record.” [Laughs.]
[In a 2007 interview after At The Gates reunited for touring, Lindberg said, “No new record will be recorded. The legacy of Slaughter Of The Soul will remain intact. It would be fun to write together but not under the name of At The Gates.” The statement, heartbreaking for fans at the time, has now become sort of infamous. Lindberg seems to find it pretty funny, too.]
When At The Gates reunited to tour again, what was it like performing together? Was the magic still there?
Yeah, definitely. When we came back for the first time, it was exhilarating almost. It was like being on top of the world, really. Because we knew it was gonna end, that was an honest statement—that is was going to be just 2008, and that was it. At the end of it, we were so sad. We had made that statement, and Anders and I started working on the documentary and the box set and stuff like that. When Metaltown [a music festival in Gothenburg] asked us if we wanted to continue and do one final show in Gothenburg, we jumped at the opportunity—and have been playing ever since. The idea that we would be a full active band was not spoken of but [it was] there in the back of our heads. So now, this is the best of times. This is exactly where we want to be.
After you gave that fateful quote (“the legacy of Slaughter Of The Soul will remain intact”), something must have changed. What made you decide you were going to go forward and make that new album?
It was, basically, the spark that was ignited under us. Anders had left the Haunted and had made his solo record. He had got a lot of stuff out of his system. I think he found a different tone, maybe, that he wanted to work with in metal. The Haunted were a great band, but I think he had said what he could say in that sound without repeating himself. Anders, I felt, maybe wanted to create something that was also more emotional. The Haunted are a very angry band, and At The Gates were with Slaughter Of The Soul as well, which is a very good thing for metal. But I think Anders was looking for a wider emotional outlet, and I think At The Gates is just that. We have more desperation and melancholy within our songs, and I think that fit him perfectly. From there, he just started sending me songs, and it was very hard not to like them. [Laughs.]
So was it a situation where the band were waiting for Anders?
No, not in that sense, because I always felt that without Anders, there’s not gonna be anything, anyway. In 2008, we had a meeting where we said everybody has to want everything, and there’s no At The Gates unless it’s us five. So, to push anyone, that would not come into question, because that’s not how we work. We didn’t want Anders to write until he was ready to write.
I have to know: When the band decided to release a new album, how many record labels—and what labels—were begging you to let them put this thing out?
Well, we didn’t really tell anyone. [Laughs.] That’s the beauty of it: We didn’t tell anyone we were doing it—at all. When we actually had 15 songs ready—I think it was December/January—we were starting to talk with labels a little bit, but Century Media signed us right away without hearing a note. Most of us had worked with them before on different projects, and we knew they wouldn’t hold us back creatively, in any sense. We have total creative freedom, as we have had throughout this whole thing, with videos, covers, producers—anything we wanted, we could have it. That’s the main reason we went with them, because we felt it was very stable and we wouldn’t be forced in any direction.
When we released the first teaser video, then people woke up and said, “Hey, maybe they’ll do a new record. Let’s contact them.” But we already signed with Century Media at that point. [Laughs.]
At War With Reality still sounds like an ATG record. My friend texted me the other day after hearing it and was so excited because “it sounds like the old stuff.” But it really does sound like you have improved massively as musicians. You bring new elements to the table, and, on a craftsmanship level, it sounds so perfected. Did you feel more capable as musicians this time around? Were you impressed by the level of skill everyone brought to the group?
We kind of knew that already when we were touring together. That’s one of the reasons [making an album] felt so much more necessary. Anders and I, for example, hadn’t worked with Adrian [Erlandsson, drummer] on the level that he’s at now in the studio. It’s more inspiring that way. Our earlier albums are very abstract, and they’re pointing in different directions at the same time. There’s a lot of great ideas there, but we’re not really focused. And on Slaughter Of The Soul, we maybe were too focused in one direction. We wanted to bring everything we’ve learned as At The Gates into this. With that kind of improvement in musical skills, you can’t really create as naively as you could when you were a teenager. It takes a level of reflection to get there, and I think that’s actually where we matured most.
You’re a very different vocalist than you were on Slaughter. It seems like around the time of Nightrage, your screams really opened up, changing from that high-pitched scream on Slaughter to this more raw, tearing sound that you have now. Were you trying to push yourself vocally this time around?
Yes, definitely. Every record I do, I wanna outdo myself in every sense. Vocally, this is as perfect as it has been so far. I’m very pleased with the vocal takes and production of the vocals, as well. That high-pitched thing is honest, but it’s almost a bit naive. Now, [the vocals] come with a power and a conviction. With age, that is more important. It sounds raw but it has this conviction behind it that it didn’t have before. Before it was like confused rage, now it’s focused rage. It’s finally now that I can master it.
Also, sonically, it’s not the most accessible ATG record. There are abrasive parts, gritty parts, strange parts. You could’ve just made a bunch of melodic riffs and satisfied everyone—but those big, epic riffs are more sparingly and tastefully used on this album. “The Book Of Sand” is a good example: It’s very thrashy and abrasive, but it’s got that blazing riff in the chorus. Were you trying to challenge listeners?
We wanted a record that was more challenging and intellectual and dynamic. Because those kinds of records last longer. Of course, now we know that Slaughter Of The Soul did last long, but right after recording it, we felt that it was a bit too one-dimensional. We wanted to explore everything that we can do. After listening to it myself, as a fan of extreme music, I liked the album. We wrote honest and from the heart, because this is what we wanted to hear, but it’s not forced. Everything that At The Gates is boils down to this record, and everything that you can expect from At The Gates is in there. But it’s not safe. It’s not easy listening, as you say. It’s something else.
When you see a band from your scene like In Flames, who have changed their sound so much and left the realm of pure death-metal—and have taken a lot of shit for it—does that affect where you take At The Gates’ sound?
No, I mean, we don’t really let any band invade our thoughts like that. I’ve seen these kind of reviews where some are positive and they mention In Flames as an antithesis of it, like, “Yeah, that’s so good, because it’s not In Flames.” That’s irrelevant. [Laughs.] Listen to the album, and make up your own mind. In Flames are all friends of ours. To me, the new In Flames is not the music I listen to. The new material is not what I’d usually listen to. I will say that I’m amazed by how much energy people put into that discussion and argument about the new In Flames. Because if you really follow each In Flames album, the change between each one is not really that big. It’s not mind-blowingly different. The steps are small, and it’s taken, like, eight albums to come to this album. If this new album came out after Jester Race, yeah, I would’ve understood if people were… you know. Bands develop, and sometimes they don’t develop the way you want them to. But if they would just play music to please their fans, then they would be sellouts. I actually believe that In Flames are doing this because they want to do exactly this—not to [get bigger] or anything, because they already have an audience; they don’t have to do that. We haven’t really thought of what In Flames are doing when we were doing this record. The guys, as friends, they’ve been very intrigued by it, like, “How does it sound?” So we talk about that, and they’re interested in what’s going on in the At The Gates camp.
There’s a part on “The Circular Ruins” where you namedrop your own band and say “At the gates of the void, dark spirits rising.” There are so many cool little nuances like that on the album. Is that sort of thing intentional or does it just happen in the writing process?
The whole concept with the lyrics is that they’re very inner-textual; they are references to other books, novels, writers and my own songs. If you really want to explore the album, you have to use Wikipedia and go from the titles and song quotes. It’s like a literature reference opening up, and we really wanted that. We wanted clues that you can go further investigate from our lyrics. People always ask, which “gates” are you talking about with At The Gates? This is just one of the gates—the gates of the void. “The Circle Of Ruins” is the title of a novel by Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian writer, and there are a lot of gates in that story—mental gates, physical gates and philosophical gates that the main character has to travel through. And therefore, I thought it was funny to namedrop the band in that song.
Speaking of lyrics, I haven’t even began to wrap my ahead around what you’re talking about. The writing is so in-depth. I believe you teach social studies, so I’m wondering if that plays a role. But can you tell me what At War With Reality means and what were some of the ideas when you were writing? Like, the beginner’s guide.
It all started with me trying to write the ultimate Tomas Lindberg album. I wanted the whole album to represent who I am, philosophically. That’s just too big of a starting point, and it held me back for so long. Then, I figured, what’s the other version of doing this? What are people not expecting? That would be a concept record, and that’s very weird to come back with a concept record. It probably was a cool way to show people that we were excited and fired up. I was reading a lot of South American literature at the time, and I stumbled across the idea called Magic Realism. Some of the main writers have the same philosophy behind it: a very post-modern, post-structuralism philosophy. Like, questioning that there would be one explanatory model for everything, for every reality. That’s why it’s called At War With Reality, because we are at war with our version of reality being the only one, you know—the white/male/Western version of reality. Where as, we’re blind to other people’s realities. That’s just the starting point for the whole concept. The songs have individual themes and concepts but all are in the same philosophical world.
What comes next for At The Gates in the future?
Right now, we’re so happy where we are, being able to release a new album in 2014 and tour on it. But after that, we don’t wanna make any more “statements.” [Laughs.] We’re done with statements.
I know it’s super-early to ask the question, and you don’t want to make a definitive statement, but does this seem like a one album thing to you? Is there a future to look forward to? More albums?
There’s a future to look forward to, and right now it’s looking really bright and sunny. At this point, this is the only statement you’re gonna get. [Laughs.] At this point, there are no plans not to make a new At The Gates record in two years. But saying that, we don’t know what the future brings. We have no plans of stopping right now, and we are really inspired. alt