Scar Symmetry – interview met Per Nilsson (guitars)
Per Nilsson: “What if Spotify starts producing music made by AI, they don’t have to pay the artist or the song-writer to stream? What happens if the corporations start making AI music? And not only that: what if music produced by the AI is a lot better than music that we as humans can make?”
In 2014 begon de Zweedse progressieve death metal band Scar Symmetry aan een voluptueuze trilogie met ‘The Singularity Phase I – Neohumanity’. We hebben maar liefst negen jaar op het tweede deel moeten wachten, maar – zoals men zegt – het was het wachten waard. Nu ‘The Singularity Phase II – Xenotaph’ zopas uitgebracht is, lichten we dit album toe met mastermind Per Nilsson. We krijgen dan ook een opgeluchte Zweedse muzikant aan de lijn.
Vera Matthijssens Ι 28 juni 2023
Good morning, how are you doing?
Fine thank you and how are you?
Pretty good. I have a full day of interviews scheduled. It is nice, it is a lot of fun to be able to do all the promotional work and have an album finally, because it has been a long time.
That is true, because ‘The Singularity – Phase I: ‘ came out in 2014. I remember it was the start of a trilogy and you did some touring. Can you tell a bit more about that touring and why you decided to take a break then?
I wrote this album in 2016, at least the most of it and recorded most of it in 2016 and 2017 and then I sort of felt like doing something else for a while, because there was so much responsibility for me doing Scar Symmetry. Being in charge of the business and everything. Basically I was managing the band and I am not a good manager. It is not a job for me. So it was very stressful and I just wanted to do something else for a while, so I started touring with first Nocturnal Rites – I did an album with them – and then I joined Meshuggah being their live guitarist for a few years. There were few years that I did mostly those two bands and not so much Scar Symmetry. We did some shows, but not a lot and then in 2019 I became a father and in 2020 – as we all know – the pandemic came, so everyone had to take time off. So there were a few years that Scar Symmetry wasn’t doing that much, but a couple of years ago we got the band together, finished the album and last year we did a little bit of touring. Now finally the album is coming out after almost nine years.
Indeed, almost a decade, but I hear that you have been busy. Becoming a father is also very important for human beings. I found out that the lyrical context for this trilogy was already prepared since the beginning, at least there was a kind of synopsis.
That was a bit lesser work for the second part maybe and this second part is very heavy, more brutal and that obviously aligns with the story, because the first part ended with the starting of a war…
Yes. Before we even wrote a single note or a single word for the lyrics for phase I, we came up with the synopsis and then I wrote the music to fit the synopsis of phase one and then Henrik (Ohlsson – drums – Vera) wrote the lyrics. Same thing for phase two. I had the synopsis. I wanted to write something that would fit the storyline and as the storyline goes, it becomes darker. It is like a very dystopian story. For me it felt natural to make the music a little bit heavier and more aggressive. Also I think it is cool from the musical perspective of doing a trilogy, to not put out three albums that are all the same, because in Scar Symmetry our style consists of many things, right? There is the – almost traditional – death metal thing, a tiny bit of thrash metal and there is a whole lot of melodic metal and there are pop influences, there are movie score influences, even some jazz/fusion influences. So we paint with a lot of colours and usually we just make one album and we just use all these colours so to speak, but in the context of the trilogy, I wanted for each album, each part of the trilogy, to be its own thing musically in a way. So the first part became kind of progressive and very melodic, with an emphasis on clean vocals. There’s a lot of big keyboards and things like that. The second phase has a lot of those elements as well, because it is still the same band, but my goal was to take it more into the death metal direction. So there are a lot of blastbeats, even some black metal influences.
Every album should be a reaction to the former one. Then we have these contrasts as well I guess?
Yes. That’s always been the case, we put out an album and when we have done an album, then we have done that thing that we did on that album. The first album we ever did, ‘Symmetric In Design’, was very raw, the production isn’t the best. Everything is raw about it and the song-writing is not… we are not really exploring that much on that album. It is kind of pop structures songs. So then, on ‘Pitch Black Progress’, we wanted everything to sound better and to be more elaborate with the song-writing, so that one became matured. Then on ‘Holographic Universe’, we really wanted to make an album that was super polished. Then ‘Dark Matter Dimensions’ was a reaction to ‘Holographic Universe’. We couldn’t make another album that was super polished, we wanted to make something that was dirty. It is like a constant thing. Right now, I have done ‘Phase II’ and it was like a long process. It was complex in some ways and the song-writing was complex in certain aspects, so now I am almost feeling that I want to go back to simpler song structures and do that. I am not really sure what to do, because ‘Phase III’ probably will not be about simple song structures. It looks like a pretty complex album, so maybe we should bring out an EP with something else meanwhile. I am not sure, we are still deciding. I am going to start writing new music soon, so I guess we will see what comes out…
You are a huge fan of ‘Star Wars’, aren’t you?
Yeah sure. I was born in the seventies, I am like a kid of that era. I saw ‘Return Of The Jedi’ with my dad at the movies. Core memories were made.
The story is intergalactic science-fiction. Mankind has created neo-humans. I was thinking: this is happening in the real world now, with AI… don’t you think so?
Isn’t that frightening?
Euh I suppose it is. Anything unknown is frightening, right. If you walk into a room where you have never been in and it is pitch dark, you have a sense of ‘what’s going on here?’ but then you flick on the switch and there is light, you think ‘oh it is not so bad. There are no monsters here.’ So it feels scary because it is difficult to imagine the outcome of the AI, but there is also so much promise in having these tools, like how it is going to transform all the work places and society in that way. Jobs are going to disappear, musicians are wondering what’s going to happen. What if Spotify starts producing music made by AI, they don’t have to pay the artist or the song-writer to stream? What happens if the corporations start making AI music? And not only that: what if music produced by the AI is a lot better than music that we as humans can make? What if they produce super beautiful songs, almost unimageable for humans to create? As a music lover I think it is really nice to think of that music should be made by humans, but if I am presented with music that is like the most beautiful thing I have ever heard, and it is created by AI, I would want to listen to it. I want to hear stuff that amazes me and if that is created by AI, I would probably listen to it anyway.
In some way it is also a kind of fear of losing control… you make the record, you do a lot for it, but you have the control… if something is created by an entity even not visual, then anything can happen…
Yes, it is really crazy.
I have a natural detesting of new things. My boyfriend always says: if everyone was like you, we would still be living in a cave…
(laughs) A certain evolution is unavoidable, but it has to be in law. And not only good humans are in possession of new things. You can see it in every movie, you would not be able to write a trilogy if not, but there is always a bad guy… misusing that same invention… It was also interesting, when we did the first part, artificial intelligence seemed like something that was a long in the future and certainly not this advanced already. I think like the more of that stuff we create, the faster it is going to get. That is what our albums are about: the technological singularity, when you reach that point where technology – like snowballs – it goes faster and faster and the human intelligence is left behind, because we cannot keep up with the evolution.
Will that evolution that goes faster than planned influence the third part or is it already written and you keep away from changing it?
The thing that happens in phase III is as follows: in phase I we have this artificial intelligence that happened and people can upgrade themselves to become neo-humans, where they have these possibilities to upgrade their own intelligence and what happens is that AI has turned malevolent and they unleash like a virus, not a virus, but they have like a destruction that goes to the neo-humans, so they turn against the majority of mankind that has not upgraded themselves. So that is what’s happening in phase I. In phase II war has been waste upon mankind by AI and it is looking really bad. They are enslaved and killed and then suddenly in the night sky a space craft appears and we have an alien race that has travelled through time and galaxies and they have been following mankind since the dawn of mankind and been helping out millennia, overseeing the evolution and they have been watching what’s been happening with AI and they step in to help mankind. So that is what’s happening and then after a while you start to see that these aliens have their own alternative motives that might not be in the best interest for mankind. So now we have the rise of AI in the real world, but we haven’t seen any aliens yet, right? So in that aspect we can probably continue with the story that we got. In our singularity universe, we also have things like people being able to upload their minds, their consciousness to machines. We have things like that, which is most likely still on the horizon in the real world. It is not really here yet.
One thing that was different on ‘Phase II’, is that you have a second guitarist now, Ben Ellis. Was that a kind of coincidence or a conscious decision to help you?
We used to do shows sometimes with only me on guitar, sometimes we brought in an extra guy and that started many years ago when Jonas (Kjellgren – Vera) was still in the band. There were occasions when he could not do a tour, for different reasons, like he was fully booked in his studio, and then we just did it with one guitar and sometimes I really enjoyed doing that, because it makes you feel a little bit like Eddie Van Halen or something, you know, the classic one guitar sound. But our music is written to have two guitars and two lead guitar players and all that. In 2014 I had to cancel a short tour in Eastern Europe, a friend of my family passed away and I really wanted to attend the funeral. We brought in Benjamin to fill in for me actually on this tour, because we had toured with his previous band Bloodshot Dawn a year earlier. So I knew that he could play and I knew that he was a great guy. Really short-noticed he step in for me and played a bunch of shows. So the next year, when we had a tour with Epica – it was a pretty big tour and a big deal – I wanted to have a second guitar player and I asked him if he could do it. So he did. A year later in 2016, late 2016, we were going on a US tour and I asked him if he wanted to join on a permanent basis, which he wanted to do and he did. Interesting thing though was that if we decided that he was going to be an official member, this new album was already written and all the basic tracks like drums, bass and guitars, were already recorded. I didn’t have any solos recorded. I did them a few years later. The first idea was to do the album all by myself on guitars, but then he joined the band and then I figured ‘I could play all the lead guitars myself or I could open up for him to do some of the leads.’ Because we are going to tour with this album, and it would be nice for him to have also something to play and also to have that two guitar thing again. So I actually gave him some of the solos that I had to play myself and I had to cram in more solos, like doing the intro riff of a song, that is a short thing he can play. So there is a lot of guitars on the album.
At the moment there are two video clips. Let us shine a light on the first one ‘Chrononautilus’?
Can you tell something about the video and about the song?
The song is the opening track of the album and as I told you, this album is a little more aggressive and brutal than what we usually do and also I wanted to have more of that thing as a start of the album. To make it really clear what this album is. So some of the stuff is a little bit more melodic, but that is happening a bit later on the album. I wanted to start with something that would feel like a punch in the face. It also fits the story, because phase I ends with ‘Technocalyptic Cybergeddon’ which is the story of this great war that happens. This album starts in this big war, with the aliens showing up. There is a melody from ‘Technocalyptic’ that is appearing in this song as well, so they are sort of siblings. They belong together. The video was made by David Letelier and Wayne Joyner. US based video with designers.
And ‘Scorched Quadrant’? Also made by them?
That was made by Owe Lingvall and Konstantin Smirnov. Owe actually did the ‘More From Genesis’ video for us many years ago and he is the drummer from Nocturnal Rites. Wayne, who did the ‘Chrononautilus’ video, he is going to be making a video for ‘Overworld’, that is going to be our third single. I have been in contact with Wayne for a few years. I have seen his work. He has done video for Devin Townsend and John Petrucci. He has done live videos for Dream Theater. So he has been working a lot with so called progressive artists and we have been in contact and he told me that we are one of his top 3 bands and I really like what he did, so that is a nice starting point for working together. He loves my work and I love his work.
At the 15th of April there were some re-releases of older albums on vinyl. Is that something which moves you or was it just a commercial move let’s say?
I grew up in the vinyl era, so for me, going to the record store and you had all these LP’s and the best thing was when they were like gatefold, so you could open them… I love that. Then you could test listen to the albums in the shop. You put them on the turntable and put the headphones on and listened to the latest Iron Maiden album and then you bought it and went home on your bike. I have very fond memories about vinyl. And CD’s are great, but when they came, they were more convenient. You could have your little CD walkman in your pocket, you could bring a turntable when you’re out. So CD’s were great for what they were but there was always something that was not as exciting about them. You had it in plastic with a tiny little booklet. So for me vinyl rules in that sense. ‘Phase I’ was actually the first album that we finally released on vinyl. Some of the other bands I have played with have brought out vinyl. We got many requests from fans during the years about doing vinyl, but when we started up the band again (so to speak), we signed a new deal with Nuclear Blast and they were like ‘we want to do the new album, but we also want to re-release the back catalogue. It is way overdue, these albums’. So for me it was very exciting. It felt really great. Before we even announced that we were making a new album and we were promoting the back catalogue vinyl’s, a lot of fans were like ‘holy shit! ‘Holographic Universe’ on vinyl! Finally! Where is the new album?’ So it has been a nice piece of teasing of the fans. And I think it is really cool, because our fans they have been so patient and they have been waiting so long. I am so incredibly thankful that it seems like most of them are still with us, they look around and show interest and for sure we gained fans along the way who discovered our music. I think it is really cool. Now that we are coming back, we have these classic albums out on vinyl now plus the new album is coming out. From nine years of not happening anything, a lot of things suddenly happen. That feels really fantastic.
Recently you have done some touring, because the 25th of April was your last show, isn’t it?
Yes we also did a show this last Saturday, but it wasn’t part of the tour. We did six arena shows with Meshuggah. We had decided on the release date of the album and we were discussing with Nuclear Blast when to release the first single and the same day I got a message like ‘do you want to support Meshuggah in Sweden?’ and it was perfect timing for the first single, so we put out ‘Scorched Quadrant’ on the day of the first show and we played that song as starter from this show.
But at the moment you are not the live session guitarist in Meshuggah anymore?
No, I did my last show with them in 2019. I was supposed to tour with them in 2020, but obviously everything was cancelled. So my last actual show was in 2019. Early 2021 finally Fredrik Thordendal, the original guitar player decided to come back and I could return home. Actual doing these Meshuggah dates, we played early, so after our show I had plenty of time to hang and I went out to our merch boot and talked to fans and all of that good stuff. There were actually quite a lot of people who thought I was still in Meshuggah as well. Even in these times of information that is super accessible, some news will not reach people.
What are the plans for the near future?
We have a few shows this Summer. We have like four or five festivals. Actually we don’t have a lot, but enough to keep us pretty busy and then – after the summer – we are planning a headline tour in Europe in September, a couple of festivals in October and I think we are going back to Japan in October. It is looking pretty good, possibly next year coming back to North America. Since we haven’t toured all that much in recent years, it is also interesting, because promoters they don’t know how many tickets they can sell. They see the buzz around the new album now, but it remains a little bit of figuring things out and feeling things out and trying to make some sensible decisions. We are coming to the Netherlands in June the 10th, the day after the release. We are playing at Into The Grave festival.