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The Comeback: An Interview With AT THE GATES Frontman Tomas Lindberg

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Saturday, October 18, 2014 @ 8:10 AM

"It's kind of like this place is the best place we have ever been as a band and we wouldn't be exactly here if it wasn't for the breakup in '96."

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Photo Credits To Daniel Falk And Ester Segana

It was almost 20 years ago that Sweden’s AT THE GATES released its landmark fourth album, Slaughter Of The Soul. At the end of October, the band finally will follow it up with the eagerly awaited – which is usually marketing puffery, but in this case may be an understatement – comeback album, At War With Reality, and fans finally will get the chance to decide if the wait has been worth it.Building on the foundation of 1994’s Terminal Spirit Disease, Slaughter Of The Soul helped solidify a sonic palette for “melodic death metal” in 1995 that remains not only relevant but influential – for better or for worse - to this day. Its gritty, grinding riffs, bracing rhythms and shrieking vocals were countered by dark melodies, crunching hooks and catchy guitar harmonies, and streamlined arrangements that made it more palatable and engaging than its vomitous, gore-obsessed, uber-technical or ultra-brutal cousins. And after AT THE GATES split up while at the top of its game a year later, following the departure of guitarist and main songwriter Anders Björler and his twin brother, bassist Jonas Björler, Soul's legend only grew with time.

The Björlers went on to form THE HAUNTED with AT THE GATES drummer Adrian Erlandsson and kept carrying the melodic death metal torch. Erlandsson would later go on to spread his wings with CRADLE OF FILTH, PARADISE LOST, VALLENFYRE and his own goth-rock outfit NEMHAIM. Frontman Tomas Lindberg did the same, performing over the years with the hardcore/crust punk-oriented THE GREAT DECEIVER, SKITSYSTEM and DISFEAR, the grindcore supergroup LOCK UP, as well as with melodic deathsters NIGHTRAGE and THE CROWN – along with working as a social studies teacher in Sweden.

In 2008, AT THE GATES – rounded out by guitarist Martin Larsson - reunited for what the band maintained was a one-off series of shows around the world – a true farewell tour, as it were. Only it wasn’t. Two years later, the band reunited again for more shows, which eventually snowballed into the writing and recording of At War With Reality - despite earlier assertions that there would be no new music. It would be impossible for the new album to pick up where Slaughter Of The Soul left off. The band members are 20 years and many miles removed from where they were as fresh-faced 20-somethings back in the day. That said, At War With Reality still makes for a fitting new link in the AT THE GATES chain. What it may lack in the buzzsawing aggression and urgency that made Soul so immediate and fierce, it makes up for in variety, depth and finesse. Fear not, At War With Reality still is plenty abrasive and heavy – perhaps even moreso, given the advantage of contemporary recording conventions – but it’s also more mature, cleverly conceived and nuanced, providing a musical journey that transcends mere instant gratification.

On the phone from Sweden, after some initial connectivity issues, Lindberg spoke about the enduring legend of Slaughter Of The Soul, the decision to keep the AT THE GATES reunion going, the concept behind At War With Reality and learning never to say “never”.

LINDBERG: Can you hear me now?

KNAC.COM: Yes, that sounds much better.

LINDBERG: Good, excellent. Glad we got that sorted out.

KNAC.COM: No worries. So how are you?

LINDBERG: I'm doing fine, how 'bout you?

KNAC.COM: Doing fine as well. How is it in Sweden now, getting fall-like?

LINDBERG: Yeah, I'm looking out the window and it' a lot of different colors. Everything from green to bright red, and a lot of wind.

KNAC.COM: Looking at all of the press you've been doing, especially lately, did you ever have this level of media attention when you were at the height of your popularity, so to speak, back in the day?

LINDBERG: This is definitely something that we couldn't really see coming when we were deciding if we were going to do this now, again or still. The level of attention that we are getting right now and the, what would you call it, interest? is way beyond what we could have ever imagined. It's fantastic.

KNAC.COM: The buzz that started building after the second reunion in 2010 when you kept things going, is that kind of what has spurred you on?

LINDBERG: Definitely that was part of it. I would say it was probably in the back of our heads already in 2008 that this is too fun to let go. But then we were like, “we did that promise, we made that statement [that there would be no shows after 2008’s so-called “Suicidal Final Tour” and there would be no new album] so we really have to hold back here and sadly let go of this.” But when we broke the first statement by touring again we just had such a brilliant time, and there was just one thing missing. These are some of my oldest friends, some of the people I've known the longest and we have great times together, everything clicks. But we weren’t creating anything together. And why? Because of this statement (laughs), because of words spoken in haste a few years back that are totally irrelevant today when we look back at them and where we are right now.

KNAC.COM: It's easy to say something before you’ve dipped your toes back in the water to see how it feels – or how everyone feels about it.

LINDBERG: Exactly. We couldn't figure out the level of interest that was going to happen in 2008. Believe it or not, we were totally taken aback and didn't have any idea that it was going to be that big or people were going to be that fanatic, so we were taken by surprise by that and it was really weird letting it go. Plus, as I said, we were having such an amazing time ourselves. I don't think we realized how much we were actually going to enjoy playing and performing together until we actually did it. And we wanted to carry that on.

KNAC.COM: Before you did reunite, this reverence had built about the band, and especially the Slaughter Of The Soul album, sort of on its own over the years. Were you aware of all that happening in the background? Or were you all so busy with the other things you had going on that you didn't pay any attention to it?

LINDBERG: We kind of noticed it because we were all playing extreme music, we were still in the scene, so we noticed that people wanted to talk about AT THE GATES when we wanted to talk about our then current projects back in the day. It was flattering and interesting to see this phenomenon grow in our absence. It's always been flattering, we've never been irritated by it (laughs) because it was stealing attention from what we were doing in the meantime. That was never an issue. It's all good.It was very strange, though, to see just how big it had actually grown, and that was why we were taken by such surprise when we got back together in 2008. We understood, we heard that people were interested about it, but to actually be in it, it really can't be explained how weird if felt and how big it felt and how precious it was.

KNAC.COM: When Slaughter came out, did it feel like some kind of milestone to you guys, or did it just seem like another album in the line?

LINDBERG: We really tried to write a really good, strong record, one that was more focused than our previous efforts. We tried to go on to a different standard with the record because we were pretty bored with what was happening on in the metal scene at the time, in '95. So that was our intention, to really focus and write a really strong record. The reception was a little bit better than our previous records, but we felt that that was because we were on a bigger label. We were on Earache Records, they were still a pretty prominent label at the time. And we did a bit more extensive touring for it, so we got more of a reception for it, but not where we were like, “Oh, it's happening now. This is big.” We really never got to that stage (laughs) because, of course, the twins left and the band split up.

KNAC.COM: Which, of course, leads to the inevitable “what if?” question.

LINDBERG: Of course (laughs). People have asked us, are we bitter that we split up? Well, if we would have continued, where would be now? The thing is, the place we are now, exactly now, when we are about to release this new record and we are enjoying five or six years of these reunion tours, it's kind of like this place is the best place we have ever been as a band and we wouldn't be exactly here if it wasn't for the breakup in '96.

KNAC.COM: Not to keep dwelling on the past, but I saw a comment that was interesting, something to the effect that “Slaughter Of The Soul doesn't sound like thousands of bands, thousands of bands sound like Slaughter Of The Soul.” Do you take the imitation as a form of flattery, or do you feel kinda like people have been riding your coattails for the last 20 years?

LINDBERG: No, it's more flattering. If people are into what you do, it's rewarding to see them get inspired by it and want to try something along the lines of whatever you are doing. We still to this day don't feel there is one band that has captured the idea of this band. I think what we did, and what we still do now, it was always more death metal than anything I have heard since (laughs). There's cool bands out there, and we are friends with some of them, but I still see Slaughter of the Soul as a pretty brutal death metal record, with some melodies. But it is quite savage.

KNAC.COM: The fact that that sound and style has carried on for this long and is still relevant shows is pretty amazing?

LINDBERG: When bands start to form their own sound, if bands do that, many of them don't, if a band starts to create their own sound it is a sum of their creative influences. And sometimes bands get more lucky than others in terms of being able to combine their certain influences in a way that hasn't been done before and is maybe more striking. Our death metal roots, and before that even our thrashy metal roots, combined with what we'd been incorporating, the progressive, the classical, the more emotional, melancholic melodies, that combination seemed to be a winning one. Who knows, it might go out of style, but then we'd probably still do it (laughs). We're lucky to be striking a chord that people probably were missing.

KNAC.COM: The way the AT THE GATES reunion is progressing kind of mirrors what went on with CARCASS, and they really set the bar pretty high for a comeback album with Surgical Steel. Seeing how they've done things, and how it's gone, has got to be an inspiration as you guys have carried things forward and started recording again?

LINDBERG: We are friends with Jeff [Walker, CARCASS bassist/vocalist] and Bill [Steer, CARCASS guitarist], and it was something we were certainly very aware of, and I was discussing it a lot with Jeff, what they were doing, what we were doing. We were both interested in the fact that we were on a pretty similar trip, but I think both bands have such a strong identity and integrity that CARCASS and ourselves probably would have gone and done this exactly the way we have done it even if that wasn't the case, that we were on a similar trip. Subconsciously, maybe we thought about it when they released the record and people were digging it, that kind of like made us realize that we won't die doing this (laughs). It will be OK.

KNAC.COM: They had a bit of an advantage in that they split with a last album [Swansong] that is not very well regarded, to be kind, and most people were probably hoping their comeback album just didn't suck. You guys are coming back with much higher expectations given Slaughter's aura. Are you feeling any pressure from the expectations that are coming with this?

LINDBERG: We intentionally decided to not write the “follow up” to that record and do something new, something we are really inspired by now, that was honest to where we were as people. I would say that approach of not letting Slaughter Of The Soul hold us back was the best way to approach this project. That way we could be more creative, free and maybe even look back to earlier in our career, incorporate the melancholic, disparate stuff from those records. I think this album was a wider palette than Slaughter Of The Soul, it's less one dimensional and more dynamic.That's the thing for us, that we could evolve and we could try something else without surprising people too much. This is what we've been known for all the time, to be diverse and ever-changing, always trying something else. It really helps to have that position.

KNAC.COM: Was the songwriting approach similar to how it was back in the day, or was there a whole new dynamic now that everyone had gone out and done different things, played with different bands?

LINDBERG: I would say it's a little bit of both. Anders still comes up with the framework for the songs, and his main core of influences hasn't really changed since '95, even if there are a lot of other influences as well. The core has always been intact. The way we went about this album, the actual songwriting and arranging, we said we should be open to everything, we should be willing try everything that comes naturally to us and really follow the more different ideas and try them out and give them the effort. But, at the same time, everybody has to be happy with every aspect of every song, which means a lot of work (laughs). But we knew that if we went into the project with this kind of intention, we felt safe. I trust Anders totally, he would never come in with something half-assed and let it slip. He probably trusts me the same with my frame of mind. That starting point was a positive inspiration, a positive creative force for us.

KNAC.COM: You kind of answered my next question, it sounds like the writing process was pretty meticulous if everyone had their say about everything, but did that leave much room for spontaneity?

LINDBERG: That's the thing, we actually had both. The beginning of the process was very spontaneous and free, because we said we have to follow every idea and try it. Some of them are still on the album and a bit out there, you know, but there were ideas that were even more out there that didn't make it because we didn't see them leading to where we wanted them to lead. We really tried a lot of different things, and then we worked through them meticulously until we came to a result we were happy with, that we felt was a representation of what we feel AT THE GATES is.

KNAC.COM: When it comes to writing the lyrics, do you have a specific mindset for AT THE GATES, as opposed to the other bands you've sung with, or do your lyrics come from one well of inspiration no matter who you are writing for?

LINDBERG: To be an honest songwriter who writes from the heart, you end up exploring the same kind of things or emotions or going back to working with who you are in the lyrics. At least if you think about real stuff as opposed to zombies or gore or whatever. If you write about stuff the matters to yourself you are going to end up having similar kind of vibes to what you do. This is why this time around it was very hard for me to start this project because I really felt a responsibility to deliver the best ever Tomas Lindberg record, lyrically, that I should say everything that I wanted to say about religion, politics and philosophy or whatever within this album. And that starting point was too overwhelming and it really held me back. So, instead, I stumbled across this idea to create a whole concept with this album, for a concept album based on one theme. I thought that was a great way of presenting the band as a genuine, inspired, creative unit. To come up with a concept record as a comeback record.

KNAC.COM: Since we're a little pressed for time, could you give a 50-words-or-less explanation of the concept and how it works its way through the album?

LINDBERG: Well it's a pretty big concept, and a pretty detailed one and multi-layered one…

KNAC.COM: So 50 words or less might be cutting it short?

LINDBERG: Yeah (laughs). The starting point is magic realism, which is a literature genre [in which magical elements appear in a realistic settings, think Pan's Labyrinth] that is spawned from the post-Colonial conflict in South American countries during the '40s, '50s and '60s, which includes the work of [Jorge Luis] Borges, [Ernesto] Sábato, [Gabriel Garcia] Marquez, [Julio] Cortázar, and there's two sides of this concept. The first side is that I wanted create this text, lyrics, in the same style of writing as these authors, which is very multi-layered, very intertextual, mixed between normal stories and this heightened, fevered kind of reality that is more twisted and maybe even magic. There's different levels in the text interacting with each other and some hidden meanings to them. And the other part of the concept is, when I started studying this literature genre I realized they were all part of post-modernism and post-structuralism, and these authors were really against one way of explaining the world or one way of explaining reality, and I was really intrigued by that. Therefore, the lyrics are written by me, I created them once, but when you read them or listen to them you create them again into your own context, into your reality. So the concept of the album is ever-changing and deals with the idea that we have to conquer or reconquer reality every day, every single one of us and nothing is what it seems.

KNAC.COM: That's a pretty grand concept. Did you really have to hone your writing to fit into the body of the songs? You mentioned trying everything, but 12- or 13-minute-long epics to fully explore the lyrical ideas aren't probably what the other guys had in mind.

LINDBERG: (laughs) No. But I wrote long, epic ones and then did scale it back. But that was part of the process as well. Everything started bubbling out of me and there was not a problem writing at all, the problem was to make it work in context with the music. Everything had to be theoretically grounded within this philosophy, and this intertextuality and this eclecticism in the lyrics. I really had to work hard on the details. But that is a rewarding process, because my writer's block definitely was gone. That was the first problem, the rest of it was a technical problem which is something I could really get into because that is a fun part of the process, refining my ideas and incorporating it with the music.

KNAC.COM: Is the idea to keep this rolling after this album is in the books and let things run their course - and not make any pronouncements like before, like “this is going to be our only album?”

LINDBERG: (Laughs) Yeah, exactly. You hit it right in the head there. We understand now that the statements are not really something we should be making, because you never can tell and we don't know where this is going to take us. Right now, I feel we could write a next album after this touring cycle, but if I'm saying that now it's because I am where I am right now. After the touring cycle I might be somewhere else in my head. Right now, we feel like we're an active band, we're back together and we're going to follow this through.

KNAC.COM: I know you teach, are you going to have to take a sabbatical or a break or something to accommodate all the touring the band has coming up?

LINDBERG: We try to work around that schedule as much as we can, going out on the weekends because I only work in the middle of the week, so I have long weekends. And I can take some extra time off for the longer tours. But we still want to keep the exclusivity to see us live. It shouldn't be like “Yeah, I'll see them next time around.” Because, who knows? We may only come one time on this record to town. If we're coming to America this time, for example, that will be the tour that we do.

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