Interview: A Conversation with At The Gates’ Tomas Lindberg

At-the-Gates

I found At The Gates in a roundabout way. It was 1998 or 1999,  I think, and I was still in high school and living in a shitty little town in South Arkansas. At The Gates was already history by then, having broken up after releasing their landmark achievement, 1995’s melodic death metal masterpiece, Slaughter of The Soul. While I had other European imports like Emperor and In Flames handed to me by friends (and friends’ older brothers/cousins), I heard At The Gates by association, via poking around the other way we found new music: mIRC. Through the bustling community of metal listeners in Dalnet’s #mp3_deathmetal and similar channels, I became acquainted with At The Gates, Dark Tranquillity, Dissection, and a number of other bands I still love to this day. But, even from that initial first listen, nothing left a mark on me quite the way Slaughter of The Soul did.

The riffs were a master class in the Gothenburg melo-death sound, boasting muscle and melody that didn’t meander into noodling territory, bolstered by thick, complementary bass lines, and precision percussion that never overpowered or complicated the songs it supported. And then there were the vocals… Jesus. I’d been well-acquainted with a number of death metal styles by then, and for me, there was no other singer quite like Tomas Lindberg. His howl was a breed apart, savage as any other pissed-off kid with a microphone, but gruff and tortured in a way that lent him credibility as a sufferer, not just a dude who documented or fantasized about the suffering of others. His lyrics were an equal part of his benchmark, dredging the muck of the mind in which dwelt insecurity and longing, as well as displaying a willingness to probe the shadowy unknowns in the world and within ourselves that drive us to hurt, drive us to want, or simply drive us. All this shit fascinated me to no end as a kid, and it fascinates me still as an adult, as a music fan, and as a writer who’s still concerned with how the same topics shape the world I live in today. Like a significant number of other fans, I was fuckin’ stoked when the band made their return to the stage in 2008, and I was just as content with their comeback album, 2014’s At War With Reality. There’s not a lot of shit that captivates both 18-year-old me and 32-year-old me with the same intensity, but At The Gates is one of those things.

On February 11th, I made my way down to Atlanta from Myrtle Beach to catch At The Gates’ gig at the Masquerade with The Haunted, Decapitated and Harm’s Way. got to spend some time before the show chatting with Lindberg (also of numerous other acts, past and present, prominently including Disfear and Lockup) on the bus At The Gates shared with The Haunted. It’s always comforting when you meet your heroes and they turn out to be genuinely kick-ass people. Take a look below for our chat about inspiration, history, magical realism, Cormac McCarthy, the Phil Anselmo incident and its implications for metal as a community, translation loss and more.

Schuler Benson: “This is the third show of the tour. How’s it going so far?”

Tomas Lindberg: “Great. We actually did the cruise, as well, so then it’s the fifth. But it’s going good, it’s going great. We expected Florida to be a bit slow with ticket sales and all that, but it was actually quite good. Fort Lauderdale had over five or six hundred people, in smaller clubs, so it was fine. We’re very happy. It’s a great package and we’re very happy with how it came together. It’s very easy to share a bus with The Haunted, who’ve been our friends for a very long time. Very smooth, I’d have to say.”

SB: “Cool, man. How many times have you guys been stateside since At War With Reality came out?”

TL: “This… well, since At War With Reality? Second. This is the second time.”

SB: “Okay. I knew it was the second or third, but I couldn’t remember.”

TL: “Yeah. You’re thinking of the Decibel tour we did with Converge.”

SB: “That’s the one! God, what a lineup.”

TL: “We didn’t manage to go everywhere we wanted, logistically, time-wise, you know? We really wanted to go out with Converge, and it was like, there were only certain dates we could do. So we knew we were not gonna hit the South at all. So, therefore… we always planned it. Like, really, this is the second leg of that tour. We’re hearing from people, like, ‘why aren’t you playing New York?’ and we’re like, ‘We did play New York.’ [laughs] This is still the same tour even if there was a little gap between the two.

SB: “I’ve seen a lot of chatter about it, too. Seems like there are folks who can’t believe we’re getting this package down here in South Carolina and Atlanta, and… well, I mean, I drove from South Carolina.”

TL: “Oh, cool! Yeah, so we did play New York. The last show. We sold out Webster Hall, so we were definitely there.” [laughs]

SB: “How about the new setlist? How’d you go about choosing it for this round?”

TL: “For this time, we went with what we wanted to play, with what we wanted to be a ‘full-on’ kind of setlist. I was reading Johnny Ramone’s biography, and I really wanted that kind of feel, you know? Bam, bam, bam. Fast. So there’s not much talk. Eighteen or so songs or something, back-to-back. We’re focusing a bit more on the last two records, actually, than we did before. Because we’ve done the rounds now, playing all the old stuff so many times. This is like, we’re supporting the new record. Otherwise there are a few old songs, but this time it’s more… relevant, up-to-date.”

SB: “Man, that’s awesome. Okay, so I’m curious about you. And about your process, specifically. To an extent, a number of fans inside and outside of the metal community sorta identify with music through the lyrics. I can tell by reading your work that you’re a fan of Jorge Luis Borges and South American magical realism. Referring to that specifically, how much is it an influence on your work? What else inspires you? Do you feel like your lyrics are more of a commentary on that preexisting work, or are you entering your work into conversation with it?”

TL: “I’d say, like, with At War With Reality, that one is directly influenced by the magical realists. It works on a lot of different planes. Lots of intertextuality, lots of references to actual works. And with how magical realism works, there have to be different sublevels of the writing. So I have my own story, and that influence is mostly on the way that it’s written. The technique and such, the feeling. Some stories, like you say, yes, it’s almost a response to it. If you start with a story like, say, ‘The Circular Ruins,’ our song ‘The Circular Ruins’ is not just about what’s in that short story. It’s more like that story is where I start off with my writing. So, it’s more in conversation, as you say, probably. In general, I read a lot. Right now I’m not in a period where I’m reading a certain kind of novel, really, but, uh… [reaches for a book on the table between us] for instance, I just picked up this Cormac McCarthy novel, and I haven’t gotten to really read too much of it yet, but it’s different. It’s more, how would you say, character-driven. And I like that, too. So I’m experimenting right now, trying to read stuff I normally wouldn’t, maybe.”

SB: “Dude, that’s awesome. I’m a McCarthy fan, so this is kinda surreal to be having this conversation with you right now. With the lyrics though, I feel like, even back in the day, as far as Burning Darkness and even The Red In The Sky, was really exploratory, really expansive. Especially when I was younger, listening to you and reading those lyrics, it felt like something that was lacking in a lot of other metal I was into. Your lyrics always felt less out-and-out aggressive and more pensive. Do you make a conscious effort with the tone of your lyrics? And do you feel a big difference between what you’re writing now and what you were doing when you were, like, 19, 20?”

TL: “There is a connection between the early At The Gates stuff and what we did with At War With Reality, concept-wise. But the difference is that… it’s grounded now. Theoretically, emotionally grounded. When, as before, it still had meaning, but it was much more abstract, you know, stuff that sounded cool [laughs], what worked with the music. Whereas now, there’s a lot more meaning behind it, I would say. But also, as you say, with emotions, with age, you notice the difference. There’s emotions you portray when you’re in a metal band, and they’re not happy emotions. But there’s more than just brutal aggression, and with age, you’re not angry in that kind of sense as much anymore. It can be disappointed, it can be melancholic, it can be frustrated… there’s so much different emphasis that opens up to you. And that’s what me and Anders wanted to do. We had a conversation about how we wrote the songs. Like, ‘where do you want to take this song emotionally, lyric-wise and harmony-wise?’ And we worked on each song like that. I think that’s what differs mostly since we were younger, we work together to try to portray different feelings. You know, we’re not a doom band that only have depressing lyrics, we’re not an aggressive thrash band, so… you know. There’s room for all emotions here.”

SB: “A lot of readers, when it comes to really stylized writing, like magical realism, or like a lot of McCarthy’s work as well, really savor the language. I’m curious about you as a multilingual reader and writer. Do you prefer to read more in Swedish? Do you feel like there’s any translation loss in English, or did you get to read any of Borges’s work in Spanish?”

TL: [laughs] “Well, I’m not a fluent Spanish speaker, so no.”


[Jensen from The Haunted enters the bus lounge, where we’d previously been alone, and sits down behind me. Just including this to let you know I was surrounded by legends and kinda starting to sweat.]


SB: “Is it cool if we stay here?”

TL: “If it’s cool with you, Jensen.”

Jensen: “Sure.”

TL: “Okay. So I can read in English or Swedish, but I only read English-speaking writers in English to get the full effect of it. Like, to read Dostoevsky only in English would be stupid if you can read Russian, you know? [laughs] But it’s strange if you think about it. I read the English and it translates to Swedish in my head. It’s interesting when you’re abroad. I love bookstores, but I can’t really buy anything other than English here, can I? [gestures to the McCarthy book, which is a Swedish translation] But, this was just a coincidence that I stumbled across this book, the trilogy, in Swedish. Martin actually said, ‘why didn’t you get it in English? I have it in English.’ And sometimes the translations help, you know, you get more from it. Sometimes it can be intense, like with Beckett, when the translations can be… dizzying. So, it’s kind of both. I write, and like reading, in English as well as Swedish. It helps me with the language.”

SB: “I took a fucked up class on Beckett’s plays when I was younger. Before then, I didn’t know he wrote in French, as well, and I had a lot of similar thoughts then about the stuff I’m asking you now. The things that get lost or picked up in translations are interesting to me.”

TL: “I actually, though… I actually have some novels, Borges for instance, in Spanish that are sitting on my bookshelf.” [laughs] “I couldn’t help myself.”

SB: “Thank you, man. Okay. So extreme music in Europe, especially in the early 90’s, was marred by a lot of controversy… church burnings, media accusations of Satan worship, shit like that. A number of Scandinavian bands voiced some divisive political leanings at the time, stances leaning towards nationalism, ethnic purism, what-have-you. Where a lot of mud stuck to a lot of bands, At The Gates completely sidestepped this. You guys have gone on to become a really influential act without attaching yourselves to any kind of exclusionary ideology, while other musicians, a few to this day, still cling to really polarizing political and social opinions. In America, racism, homophobia and gender bias have been brought into conversation quite a bit in the last few years, one of the most recent headlines involving Down’s Phil Anselmo, the whole ‘white power’ thing at a show last month.”

TL: “Yeah, I read about that.”

SB: “My question to you is this: what’s your take on the state of metal when it comes to equality among fans? And as a veteran metal musician who’s been around, been part of a scene, and pushed through somewhat similar controversy in the early 90’s, what can the American metal scene do to make the genre more inclusive?”

TL: “Well, for me, metal and extreme music in general, should be about inclusivity. It should be built on respect for everybody, no matter gender or race, or anything else. For me, from day one, hardcore and metal was the same for me. It was easy for me to align my views in the metal community as being really accepting, you know? So for me, all of what happened back then made such a weird impact on me. The state right now? I don’t know. Sometimes it surprises me. Sometimes I’m ashamed when I hear a metalhead talking. But I’m often proud, as well. As far as what’s to be done, I don’t know. I only speak for myself. You know, for us, in our music, there has been sort of hidden political stuff before. But the band, all five of us aren’t really political individuals, whereas me and Martin probably tended to be least open about it and not talk about it too much, with the political beliefs. At War With Reality, as with magical realism, sure, there are hidden meanings, but it’s so hidden that we can get away with it. And it’s as far away from what happened in Norway in the early 90’s as you can get.”  

SB: “Thanks, man. So, the year’s young yet. You guys just got back here. How long will you be in the States?”

TL: “Uh, only til the twenty-second. Play San Francisco, then we fly home. We pretty much prefer the short tours.”

SB: “I can imagine. Especially here with so much driving around, so much space to cover. So, keeping that in mind, what’s next in 2016 for At The Gates? And for your other musical endeavors, as well? We gonna hear anything from Disfear this year?”

TL: “We’re doing, uh, a lot of European festivals. I think it’s around fifteen, something like that. After that, we’ll see what happens, but that’s what we’ve got booked right now. I think some discussions have been had about taking a small, short break to see if we want to start writing again or what. A small break, just to catch our breath. We’ve toured more on this record than we’ve done on any record before. And, uh, you know, with what happened after Slaughter of The Soul, we don’t want to do that again. We want to be in the moment, and enjoy it, and not think too much about what’s gonna happen after and end up getting depressed or stressed or whatever. So, that’s the idea, to continue on to August with this. With other stuff? There’s some projects I’ve got, but they’re really just projects right now. I’m really excited about some of the musicians I’m hooked up with, it’s probably too soon to mention any names. Disfear are, though, starting to rehearse again after that, so in September. So, the idea is to get an album out next year, with Disfear at least.”

SB: “Tomas, thank you so much for being so gracious with your time and talking to me about all this stuff. Just a bit more. After you guys got back together to tour again as At The Gates, you did some festival shows, a few years later we get the new album, and now you guys are back over here touring again. Throughout all the time since the comeback, has it been everything you thought it’d be?”

TL: “Oh, it’s been more. So much more. That’s why we continued after 2008. We were deadly serious about quitting. Like, when we played the last show in Athens, you know, there was a lot of tears. We really believed that was it. And then we thought, ‘Why? Why stop?’ Especially after being back together had started to grow on us. And Anders focused on doing [The Flames of The End DVD], so he and I worked a lot together on that. And it felt like we never really quit, so it was easy to keep going. And after that, the next step was obvious. A big step though, you know? To do something new, to stick our necks out. So I guess it took a while to build up the courage.”

SB: “Getting ready to see the show tonight, what keeps going through my mind is the footage from New York, the smaller show, I think it was a club or theater, on The Flames of The End. When you guys start ‘Slaughter of The Soul,’ and the crowd screaming ‘go’ is so loud it totally drowns you out… there’s gotta be no feeling like that in the world, to see your music resonate with so many people after being gone for so long. Is it still like that? Still that powerful?”

TL: “Definitely. That’s why we’re still playing. We wouldn’t do it otherwise if we weren’t still getting that feeling all the time. And what’s grown so much on us is that the new stuff is going down as well as the old stuff, and that’s the most rewarding feeling you can get, really. We have the most awesome fans. They believe in what we do. And that’s fantastic. Otherwise, we just wouldn’t do it.”

– Schuler Benson


At The Gates will be touring with The Haunted, Decapitated and Harm’s Way until February 22nd. Their latest album, At War With Reality, is available now from Century Media.


 

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