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Mikael Stanne : “The idea is to go for it for a long time with this band, it is not just a project

Vanuit het niets kwam deze samenwerking tussen legendarische muzikanten uit het Zweedse Gothenburg. Dit betekent melodieuze death metal van een aantal muzikanten die ooit wel iets te maken hadden met In Flames (en Dark Tranquillity), niet toevallig de meest prominente vertegenwoordigers van de Gothenburg stijl. Hun debuutalbum ‘Days Of The Lost’ is dan ook het prototype van een plaat die geworteld is in een rijk verleden, maar ook vandaag nog relevant blijkt te zijn. Om deze belangrijke release wat extra steun te geven, praatten we een uur met zanger Mikael Stanne en gitarist Niclas Engelin.
Vera Matthijssens Ι 7 oktober 2022

Recently The Halo Project played its live debut at Sweden Rock Festival. What a start! How did you experience that on such a big festival?
Niclas: ‘It was an explosion. It was so much fun, so much feelings, a highlight with full-blown metal and happiness.’
Mikael: ‘And a lot of build up to that too. I mean, we finished this album so long ago and it is August before it is out. We released singles. The expectations from the people who were there of course were peaking and for us, there was so much stuff to play for the first time. Everything we do with our other bands is a well-oiled machine, but this was brand new. Finding the right people, the equipment, all the technical stuff behind it and then of course we didn’t have that much time to rehearse. All that stuff was very stressful, but once we were there, once we were on stage, everything worked out and it was just beautiful. It couldn’t have been a better first show. If you just dream of the ultimate first show, then it wouldn’t even come close to this one. It was perfect. A fantastic festival to play, it is my favourite.

But let us go back to the very beginning. I think this band started during the downtime of the pandemic, but please tell us how this all exactly started?
Mikael: ‘It started already in 2019 with talks actually. Me and Niclas talked about it – what was it? – four or five years ago ‘it would be fun to do something together’ we said, sitting on the train to Stockholm with a few beers. You always come up with these ideas: ‘it would be great’ and then you realize there is no time to do that. But this first real foundation or spark, a kind of first idea of doing something together was in the summer of 2019. At that time, for me, I was just writing the latest Dark Tranquillity album, so I was still in a writing mode, like writing lyrics and recording stuff. I was kind of ready with it. I thought: ‘it is done, now we are going to record it in a few weeks or months’, but I was still in that kind of creative mode. I felt like maybe this could work. Niclas talked to Peter (Iwers – bassist – VM) and Peter talked to me and when he told me that Peter and Daniel, the drummer wanted to be in the band, we were amazed. Then we talked to Jesper too and yes, this was too good to be true. This needed to happen, you know. That was just the beginning and then of course we started writing some songs.’

The first song you have written was ‘Gateways’ and it started with bass lines of Peter, isn’t it?
Niclas: ‘The band was formed and we knew what to do, but we didn’t know exactly how we wanted to sound. Do we wanted to be progressive or daring or shall we just do music that we love and just go for it? And I think that ‘Gateways’ was the first kind of test to see how we could write music together, how we should do this. But we put this aside. We just wrote music for the love of music. We just go for the flow and then we had the first song ‘Gateways’ and soon we had ‘Shadowminds’ and ‘Feel What I Believe’. That was the first demo we did. We just had a lot of fun making music and decided to just do it, very easy’.
Mikael: ‘And that was what kind of attracted me. I heard the song and thought: ‘I know exactly what to do here’. I know the DNA of this kind of music, I understand the artistic level. It is so easy to come up with something fast. We recorded a three song demo and once we heard that, we knew we were on to something, this is going to be great, because we had all the elements that we like, everything about this style of music that we like, without sounding like a retro band. We wanted to sound like things sounded in the nineties, but it still felt fresh and interesting. Niclas’ riffing and Jesper’s melodies, Daniel’s drumming and Peter’s bass as rhythm section… that made me just want to scream (chuckles). It is really easy like that, just the beginning of it. Of course we didn’t really know what to do with it and if we had any time to actually finish it or make it real. So it was only when I finished the ‘Moment’ album of Dark Tranquillity in February/March 2020 that we realized that there was not so much going on then. We had all the time in the world basically and then we could start working for real and that was a blessing in disguise so to speak. All of a sudden you had infinite time, nothing was coming. We just locked ourselves up in the studio and started writing and finishing the songs for the album and that was really cool, to have all this time on our hands, so that we could evolve and don’t rush anything. Really, there was no pressure either, because we had no deadlines. Nobody knew it. We didn’t tell anyone that we were doing this, just the closest friends and we were just writing songs that we loved. That made it so much easier. No history, other than our personal histories, and there were no expectations, so everything was possible and that made the creativity flow in a way that it is the most exciting experience since the early nineties.’

You are the DNA of the Gothenburg sound.
Niclas: ‘All the experience and everything that we have done of course place in to this. That’s one of the things we said too: let us not overcomplicate things, don’t think about it too much, because we know this by heart. This is what we do, so let us try to make the most out of what we know, with our collective experience and something that makes us fall in love with the genre again. It became kind of clear, just sitting in the studio and talking about the nineties, when we grew up and when we started hanging out with each other and we did shows together and tours and all that stuff. That kind of seeped in to the writing and the recording as well, because we haven’t seen each other for such a long time, only brief, but now suddenly we were in the studio for four months and that really helped to set the tone what we want to do.’

And that you have such a long history together. When did you meet each other for the first time?
Mikael: ‘1989 or 1990?’
Niclas: ‘Something like that. We met in a rock club called Valvet. That was the first proper venue.’
Mikael: ‘Before Dark Tranquillity we were called Septic Broiler and we opened for Niclas’s band Sarcasm. So my first show ever was supporting Niclas.’
Niclas: ‘There is some Sarcasm riffage on The Halo Effect album, from when I was 19.’
Mikael: ‘And the fun fact is: we were called Septic Broiler and we decided to change our name into something more serious and our first serious song was called ‘Void Of Tranquillity’. So we named the band Void Of Tranquillity. I told Niclas and he said: what the hell is a void? It should be something like dark, something more straight forward. I said: yeah maybe, and that’s how it happened.’

If someone is going back to the roots, it is you with this project or band. Do you see this as a project or as a band?
Mikael: ‘As a band. It is not something you do on the side and for fun. The idea is to go for it for long as a band.’
Niclas: ‘We agreed from early on that we wanted to take this very seriously and not just like a one time thing or something like that, especially not now that we have the time and the creativity was so strong.’

Another important feature are the lyrics Mikael. Did you feel completely free, since this is a new band? Did you approach it differently than with Dark Tranquillity?
Mikael: ‘Of course I wanted it to be different from Dark Tranquillity, because I had just written 15 songs for them or so and I was like; oh what am I going to do now? What I found interesting was to be inspired by the other guys in the band basically and how we met and how we grew up and what made us come together. How we bonded over our shared love for music of course and our past experiences. It is about the ups and downs of being in a band and how it was before we started bands and before we found extreme music, that underground scene and this community that was so strong and amazing, because before that, you were just like a kid and had no idea what direction to take and what had to go down and that was kind of disorientating and confusing. We found a new kind of purpose in music and I think that was something that binds us together. So that was the starting point for the lyrics. I just wanted to take some of our shared experiences and write about the ups and downs of it and how difficult it can be to be a creative person where you constantly doubt yourself and you second guess every single move you make, but at the same time that is what has got us here. So it is the most amazing thing in the world, but at the same time it can be crippling and destructive. So it is about all those things, but it was fun to write something, at least for me, very different. It related more to the band than just to my personal experience.’

Someone who really helped you was Oscar Nilsson from the Crehate Studios. In which way was he involved?
Niclas: ‘I used to work for him with smaller bands. We just do recordings and such at his studio. It was natural to bring the other guys to the studio. He is a song wizard and a really easygoing guy and he is a huge fan of this genre. He knows exactly how we want it. And I think everybody really enjoyed it down there. It is so easy to record there, like I said, it is an easygoing guy and he knows his stuff really well.
Mikael: ‘He was part of the writing and producing as well, just in terms of helping out and programming drums and stuff like that too.’
Niclas: ‘Yes, bouncing ideas and stuff like that. You progress all the time as musician and as human being and sometimes you need that feedback from someone else when you have doubts about a developing idea.’
Mikael: ‘It is good to have that positive feedback, because it encourages you to do something. It is easy to second-guess yourself, but if you have someone around you who says ‘no, this is actually good’, someone who knows the genre and he knew Niclas, but for me it was the first time over there when we did the first demos. Immediately I felt: ‘this is fun, this is so easy to record with someone who gets it’, but also very particularly knows what he wants and that helps you a lot. You become a better musician, just by having someone who guides you, supports you and that really helped. That’s why the writing and the recordings and the preproduction were effortless, because of him and because of us not having any time constraints at all. It was really cool and Oscar was with us on the first show on Saturday. It is like a big circle: he was there with the first song and he was there with the first show.’
Niclas: ‘He has been there the whole way.’

How did you end up with the band name The Halo Effect? Since you are all ex-In Flames members, that is quite suitable in this concept, because it is something you have certain expectations from, isn’t it?
Mikael: ‘Yes, kind of, when you have a preconceived notion on exterior things, for example when you see someone you like – an actor or a musician – and they sell something to you, you say: ‘I like that’, because you like that person and you like the way he looks. You think they know everything, just because of what you in your mind are thinking about that person or the way they represent themselves. If someone looks like a teacher, then he should know something. That kind of connections you make. You project that kind of look in a broader way. It is a logical parallel because it is very easy for us to do that. It happens all the time and it is something you don’t realize maybe. I am kind of obsessed with these logical fallacies, they are like mind games you play with yourself or that we play with ourselves, without knowing it.’
Niclas: ‘All the time actually, in many ways.’
Mikael: ‘It is fascinating. So we wanted to get a name after those logical fallacies and there are so many, but none of them fit us as a band name, except for The Halo Effect. Of course, I know it is an instrumental track by Rush, my favourite band. It made perfect sense and it is also cool, like obviously people who see us, they know and they think they know what to expect, so it is kind of a way of be ready for these kind of expectations and we will see once this band goes public. It was kind of exciting to kickstart this band, with also the name and having images of us. The first time you see us, what do you expect? Hopefully our music supersedes those expectations, not just ‘okay, this is exactly what we expected from you’.

‘In Broken Trust’ is one of the songs you excel with clean, melancholic vocals, that is always a win-win situation. What can you tell about this song?
Mikael: ‘Some of the songs went through different phases, just like the choruses and stuff like that. When I heard the songs, I wanted to make the most out of this. I could hear so much potential, the songs are amazing. It was up to me, if I didn’t do this justice, then the song sucks no matter how good it is. That is when the self confidence comes in. You go like: what the hell is this? This must be good. You get the right vibe and the right feeling for every song. Sometimes – like for choruses – there is that beautiful, super melodic, emotional aspect to that song, so that called for doing something else. We talked about this as a heavy record, but the melodies are so strong that you don’t have to have a soaring clean chorus, that’s been done to death. If you can get away with itt and it is still accessible and catchy, that is for me a great win, but sometimes it just needed to have an emotional part that is different. On two songs on the album, I thought this was needed, having the right balance without it being repetitive or strange. It turned out great, I really love that song and it became pretty anthemic and cool and it was great to play live too.’

There is one guest appearance: Matt Heafy from Trivium in ‘Last Of Our Kind’. What is the story behind that?
Mikael: ‘We talked about it early on. Shall we have guest guitar solos? Shall we have something from the Gothenburg area, because this is just like a homage and having all our friends on the record would be cool. We realized that maybe we don’t need that. For this song we had this string section in the beginning and it was kind of like a nod to early At The Gates who had these string sections. We considered having a guest on that song. Jesper knows Matt pretty well and we do too, all of us. He is really cool.’
Niclas: ‘He was really keen on doing it when we asked him.’
Mikael: ‘He grew up with Gothenburg death metal and that was his first love and that is how he started playing music, but I remember being in contact with him years and years ago, maybe in the nineties or something like that, and he was so fascinated by the Gothenburg scene. He said things like: ‘do you meet all the time and do you hang out with the other bands?’ but I told him that Gothenburg is tiny and we rehearse in the same area, we were in the same basement section. At The Gates, In Flames and Dark Tranquillity and he was like: ‘oh shit, I got to go there. Can you please bring a tape recorder and record it?’ He is such a super fan and it felt cool to have him, as a super fan, on a song that very much deals with the scene and what we think about it. He immediately wanted to be part of this. No matter what he had to d, one word or a full song and it turned out great. It was really cool to do. Hopefully our path will cross somewhere and he can join us on stage. That would be awesome.’

You have a lot of singles and video clips already. One thing that struck me was that your town Gothenburg is well presented in those videos… Please tell me something about the title track ‘Days Of The Lost’, because it is filmed on a roof…
Niclas: ‘Yes, the rooftop concert. It is on the rooftop of our management. We recorded it in the middle of January. We were really lucky with the weather, because it did not rain or snow.’
Mikael: ‘But it was incredibly cold. We recorded four songs live up there, but then we also cut it for a video as well. So we made the ‘Days Of The Lost’ video out of this concert. With different shots and different colours. It looks very cool. But it was cold as hell.’
Niclas: ‘It was cool to be there because we had the backdrop of the harbour of Gothenburg and a real cool scenery. It was a fun day, we didn’t get sick afterwards.’
Mikael: ‘We worked with the same director as for ‘Feel What I Believe’, so he knows us. He is a professional and really cool and definitely around. He also made a documentary that’s coming out on the Blu-ray of the album. It is someone who is very close to us and someone we have known for a while. So it was very easy to do this kind of stuff, to have someone who gets it and you can work together with.’

The video clip for ‘Shadowminds’ looks different…
Mikael: ‘Lucas Englund did the ‘Shadowminds’ video. This effect when we walk into each other, that was perfect for this and presenting the members of the band. It made perfect sense. Then we wanted to show the city somehow and the rest was kind of his idea. It was cool and he shot it in a day. Then we got these effect shots with the hired guns from different countries in the world and it turned out really cool but it took forever to finish it, but it didn’t really matter. We first wanted to do two performance videos where we play together. That’s how we wanted to present the band, as a unit of musicians that makes music together. So we found this abandoned thing outside of our town full of asbestos and misery, but it looked super cool with the white lights and everything. It looked amazing but wow it wasn’t a pleasant place to be. The things we do for art, you know (smiles). Making videos can be super boring and tiring and weird, but somehow it is fun too. Sometimes you work so hard and you are standing there looking stupid, then you think: ‘is it worth it?’ but then you see a million views on YouTube and you think: ‘Well, maybe it is worth the efforts.’ It is something that people relate to and watch. I am not really that kind of guy, but maybe that’s just me, but I think in this case, it was really worth it, because you are presenting a new band. Making a video for a band that has been around forever, may not have that much sense, but this was really cool and I love this video stuff we have made and it is fun to do it with someone who really knows and digs this kind of music and we have a personal relationship with.’

Niclas, how was it to play and work with Jesper Strömblad again after such a long time?
Niclas: ‘It was very inspiring, because he has this magic when it comes to melodies and such. Sometimes we played the songs back and forth and he keeps on coming up with great ideas. While he is playing those melodies, it feels like it has been there forever. It is meant to be that melody he had inside and we put the harmony on top of that. He is really quick and smooth, very inspiring.’

The lyrics from ‘The Needless End’ might be a nice subject to go deeper into?
Mikael: ‘It is basically about a communication problem and lack of empathy and understanding and how that can lead to premature and terminations of things. It can be professional relationships or friends where you are somehow not able to communicate properly and it just brings you to a hold and nothing’s gonna come from it. Of course I know how it is and how difficult it is to be fully empathic to someone else’s needs regardless of what they say. Like how do you handle certain people? How do you handle yourself and how do you try to be someone who brings everything together, being the mediator or the one that fixes things? Things come sometimes to an end without it needing to, it is basically about lack of understanding, maybe inside as well, like not understanding that you might be part of that problem that leads to the end of something. Of course that can directly be related to the experiences that we had, like in our professional career if you want to call it that way. Things maybe just end because we did not talk it through, because you think that everything is fine, but it is really not. The kind of frustration that can come from that is what the song is about.’

It is amazing that the band is founded on years long friendship… some of them just have a work relationship… this band is really based on things you already experienced in your youth…
Mikael: ‘And that helps. It is one thing to work together with people you love and respect and you can have fun, but you also do something creative, but this started out more like ‘I just want to hang out and see those guys in a while’, because for the longest time Daniel, Peter and Niclas were always away, never in the same city. We only saw each other at airports. This was the perfect opportunity to hang out more and that is something I look forward to a lot.’

That will be the fact when you go on tour and you start with a stunning bill with Amon Amarth and Machine Head…
Mikael: ‘Yes’
Niclas: ‘This will be an epic tour!’
Mikael: ‘You know what, it doesn’t get better as this first tour, it’s going to be perfect, just to present this band, present us on stage together, it is going to be big crowds and the perfect audience I think. I toured with Amon Amarth before and you guys (In Flames – Vera) have toured with Machine Head before, so I think this is going to be fantastic.’

To occlude some words about the artwork which was done by Adrian Baxter…
Mikael: ‘Yes and this was something that we worked on for a long, long time.’
Niclas: ‘Mikael was the leading one, he had this vision.’
Mikael (laughs): ‘I knew what I did not want. What do we want the band to look like? We had tons of ideas, right. We were bouncing ideas ‘we don’t want this’, ‘we don’t want that’, okay but what do we want? So we started with some advertisers, talked to them, but that did not work. If you want to make a cover or a band logo for a metal band, you have to see every cover and every logo first and then you can make something. You cannot just started out of an advertising perspective. We talked to seven different people I think, who made some sketches and ideas before we saw Adrian’s stuff on Instagram. That was cool. It was cold and dark and moody and weird. Before we talked about having something more adventurous and mysterious, maybe hand-painted or maybe something that is very closely connected to Gothenburg, but when we saw his stuff… I love the symmetry of it, I like the hand painted aspect of it, also when we spoke in the band what attracted us to metal, was the cool covers. It wasn’t necessarily the splatter death metal covers, but it was blackness, mysterious, darkness and symbolism and all that stuff. I think that ties in to what Adrian is doing too, there is some mystery to it. I talked to him and he was really into it. He was super fast, all the covers for the singles, extra images in the booklet… We finally made it, it actually took a year. When talking about the band logo, how many did we see? Ten? I sent some to Adrian and told him about my ideas and he had never done logos, but he was kind of inspired he said. Two hours later it was ready. We wouldn’t be happier how it turned out this way. Now we have a look and a feel and a vibe for it, through this artwork. We can use it on backdrops and on animations and the whole stage design is based on his stuff. It makes everything so cool iconic, I love it. We are going to keep working with him for sure.’