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Niklas Stålvind: “We are stardust and we are going to be dust when we are gone

Twee jaar na ‘Feeding The Machine’ is zopas het negende studioalbum ‘Shadowland’ uitgekomen. Daarop horen we een gerevitaliseerd Wolf kwartet grote sier maken om ons bijna een uur strakke, opzwepende heavy metal te bieden. De Zweden zijn in topvorm! Maar er is meer… Zanger/gitarist Niklas Stålvind is een man waar je diepgaande gesprekken mee kunt voeren en dat mondde uit in anderhalf uur gespreksstof die we hier weergeven om deze knallende plaat nog eens extra onder de aandacht te brengen.
Vera Matthijssens Ι 15 april 2022

How are you doing, Niklas?
Well, these are weird times. It feels heavy. Personally I think I had a bad feeling about the world for the last seven years or so. I am not very positive. I am just waiting, after this war, for the next crisis. Now we have come to the point that we are just going to do what we have to do and release art and take one day at the time. You cannot foresee anything anymore. It is just impossible. If we are lucky, we will have a better time with this album, but I don’t count on it.

Indeed, you released the previous album ‘Feeding The Machine’ in March 2020, right when the first lockdowns happened… by the way, did you play the recent concert? I saw a concert planned with Sorcerer and Tad Morose?
Yeah it was successful actually. The presales were not good at all, so we were a little bit pessimistic because the war just broke out and people were scared or even like I thought: ‘I don’t want to go out’, I mean, I felt so bad for all the people suffering. But it was a really good turn out. It was a good positive energy boost for everyone, for the bands and for the audience and I think that we really need to meet in person in difficult times, celebrate life and music and get some energy to go on and do something good in the world. That’s my view at least. We need it, culture is more important than ever. It is what makes us human and especially here, in the west, we have our western culture and it is really important. We should protect it. I mean, we did one of these live streams and if that is the future, if the future is on line, then I am just going to shoot myself I think. That’s not a way of being alive for a human being, we need people and have different cultural celebrations across all cultures. I don’t think the way the world is going now, is not in a positive direction. Everything is diverse, but it is not really diverse. It is just a mix of everything to make everything grey. In Sweden we have been fortunate. I don’t go out and have to wear a mask and can look most people in the face. I am not afraid of meeting people and we don’t have these extreme restrictions which I personally don’t believe in. I think it is harmful for the psyche to wear this. Now we can finally do a live show and people were there, no one was afraid of anything and it was such a positive experience and I hope that we can continue doing that, but you never know that. Next crisis is going to come soon and then the next after that. It feels a bit heavy to know that my kids are going to grow up in a world way worse than I grew up in and be more brainwashed than I was.

How many kids do you have?
I have two kids. They are 11 and 16 years old. They have been grown up with the internet and everything on line. They don’t know anything else. They are smart kids, both of them, but…. I don’t want to discuss politics when I discuss Wolf – but I see the world around me and I write songs as reaction and I think people are talking about diversity today, but I don’t see diversity in having different points of views and you can discuss and you can meet and you don’t have to be enemies or hate each other. I see the opposite, everyone has to conform, more than ever. Almost like in the Soviet Union and that scares me. We need different views and to be open-minded. That’s what I think metal music – at least – used to be. Metal music fans were a bit more open-minded, maybe because we were outsiders who liked aggressive music which wasn’t mainstream. The ‘Feeding The Machine’ album was pretty much a reaction to social media, the negative aspects of social media. It turns everybody up in clusters of extreme views and make friends or hate each other and argue for no reason and then you meet people in the real world and you realize: ‘we have a lot in common’, we are actually above these people who want the best for everybody, so why does this on line thing make us hate each other and cancel each other. I think that is very negative and that is one reason why we really need to go out and have live shows and celebrate music.

When you started writing this new album ‘Shadowland’, why did you initially have the idea that it was going to be a solo album?
It is because I was so tired of the process of making the ‘Feeding The Machine’ album. It was a very exhausted album to write, because I was bringing up all the difficult things from my past that I tried to bury for twenty years, but I came to the point where I needed to face my old demons from the past to be free, to be a whole human being. So it was very therapeutic, so it was difficult to write the album. It took three years and it was also very difficult to record it, for a lot of practical reasons. It was a terrible album to record and also two band members left during the recording of the album. I just felt the need to be creative, because I hadn’t written anything for a year. I just needed to write something for myself and I wasn’t sure if it was going to end up as a solo album or a different project, something that wasn’t Wolf and hadn’t the Wolf boundaries, you know, the Wolf rules. I wanted to break out of that. So I started writing music and the first song I wrote was ‘Shadowland’, then I wrote the next song and I wasn’t afraid to use more mellotrons on this album or have a part in a song with just tambourine and vocals. Just do something that Wolf doesn’t normally do. I wrote four songs and by that time we had two new members in the band, they recorded their parts for the album. Then we released the album and went on tour and by then I realized that I had written four new Wolf songs. I played the songs to the other guys and they really liked it. We just continued from there, to write together the rest of the material. I think I actually tricked my mind to do something not Wolf, just to get a creative boost, and I have done it twice, because the same thing I did when I wrote ‘Rasputin’. It was a song that I wrote in 2011, just after the ‘Legions Of Bastards’ album. I was also very tired. It was also a difficult period in the band’s life, so I wanted to do something completely different and that’s when I wrote ‘Rasputin’. That song has been waiting for ten, twelve years. I thought maybe it could be a bonus track for this album, so I played it to the other guys and they all said it was a great Wolf song, not a bonus track on the album. Let us get it on the album, they said. Then we recorded it with them, with these musicians in the band now, because when I wrote the song I was the only musician that is in Wolf now. With Pontus on bass, Simon in the band and Johan on drums, this song was just perfect and I am glad that I waited so long to release this song actually.

And you must be glad that the line-up from the previous album remained the same. On ‘Feeding The Machine’ they were all new members, so I guess the recording of ‘Shadowland’ must have been easier than the one for ‘Feeding The Machine’ when you know each other better…
Yeah. It was very easy. I mean, a Wolf album is very difficult for me to record, that has always been, because I am doing most of the guitars before Simon came into the band and I like to do the rhythm guitars, because I have a very strong sense how things have to be and I write most of the material. I am very exhausted when the job is done, because I do a lot, but with the new band, it is amazing. They take a lot more responsibility and they are such amazing professional musicians. That’s why everything is way, way easier. Before I was a kind of music police in the band, because I was keen on making everything as good as possible, but now I say to myself: I need to practise more to be able to play with those guys (laughs). They are very good producers, they are very confident in other aspects than just playing their instruments. That is also a thing that makes everything so much easier. So I can sit back and relax, do my thing and everybody contributes in a beautiful way in Wolf now.

Indeed, Simon has producer skills, I found out…
And he has built a fantastic studio, called SolnaSound studio, he lives in a place called Solna and that was one of the reasons why ‘Feeding The Machine’ took so long to record, because he was only half finished with the studio. It took over a year to build and it was very expensive and an extreme amount of hours work, but it is an old school, real studio, an expert in acoustic has made all the drawings, all the materials. It is top notch, it is world class, so it is very easy to work there. Now the studio is finished, it went faster. ‘Feeding The Machine’ took one year extra, because we wanted to record there, but it never got finished. Now it feels like we have everything in place: great studio, great musicians, we just try to write some good music.

It was worth the efforts…
Yes, it really paid off. I am very glad that he decided to do the studio building and it turned out great and a lot of bands want to record there now.

Do you all live close to each other or spread over Sweden?
We used to be spread out, but now everyone is in the Stockholm area, except for me. I have a two and a half hours drive by car. I live on the countryside, so there is a lot of travelling for me. It is not an optimal situation for a band not to meet up and rehearse on a regular basis, but with these guys, it is way easier. They can rehearse without me, I rehearse at home, we put together things and now with technology we can do more, even though we don’t meet in person. It depends on what kind of musician you are if you can make it work, but it works really good now and I am very thankful for having these guys in the band. It is like Christmas Eve every day for me now.

I guess it is a way of working you have to get used to…
Yes, when we started the band, we were writing most of it in the rehearsal room. It was me, the bass player and the drummer and the three of us wrote most of it together. It was amazing, but we did not realize back then that this is very unusual to have three people in one room with instruments that can actually write well together. It is very unusual, but there is a certain magic that can happen when you do that. I also see the possibilities to be able to write alone, because most of the things are happening in my head when I am not in the studio, when I am not writing. I have a need to express myself, a need to write songs by myself as well. So the mix of writing with other people, sometimes in the same room like we used to do and the mix of writing by myself and collaborate and sending files back and forth, it is great to be able to take advantage of all the different kinds of song-writing and the different kinds of collaboration you can do now.

I think it is easier to keep focussed on creation when you are doing things alone…
Sometimes – it can be an idea from someone in the band or from myself – I have the feeling that there is a song in that idea somewhere, but I know I have to be completely open and honest and I need to pull it down. If other people are contributing with: ‘we can do this’ or ‘we can do that’, it is not the place to write. On the other hand I also have a song, one of the bonus tracks ‘Trial By Fire – I wrote the beginning of the song before we entered the studio and I thought this would be for the next Wolf album. I wrote it and I got completely stuck. I could not go anywhere with it. I felt that this was a song that I would collaborate with someone. The song wants it, and needs it. On the way to the studio to record the album, I got the idea for the last part of the song. I had the beginning and the end, but I knew there was going to be a long mid section. The other guys forced me to have this song on the album, but it wasn’t written yet and I don’t want to write in the studio. When I am in the studio I want to focus on being a good musician. Simon and I sat down, with just two guitars, two brains thinking are better than one, the song needed it. I never close the door to co-write with other people. I think that is also a beautiful magic thing.

There are two loose themes on the album and one feature that pops up is that humans are insignificant things in the universe…
That is one main theme and I haven’t explored that earlier. It was in a period when I was over all the things I went through on the ‘Feeding The Machine’ album and I came out like a complete new person. I just let go a lot of darkness and I just started to listen a lot to Carl Sagan. Thinking about the vastness of the universe and also fascinated by the thing that in the history of the universe, we are just almost nothing. When you see it from that perspective it is so unnecessary to start arguments with people or worry about very small things in life. To you it is the whole world, but if you take a step back, maybe it is not that important, because we are just dust. We are stardust and we are going to be dust when we are gone. If you believe in a God, that is wonderful for you, but probably there is nothing and the universe will end. The earth will end and be swallowed by the sun and by then nobody will probably know that we even were here. I feel a bit sad about that, because you want at least something of earth and human kind to be for someone else to discover, but it will probably not happen. We all have to accept it that we are just dust.

Carl Sagan: interesting! The next theory struck me the most: every kind of civilisation has a kind of height and then it goes down and in the end will destroy itself…
Throughout evolution the thing that made all this progress was: one aspect was that we were able to collaborate, but we also were very ambitious. We always wanted more and weren’t afraid of taking it from someone else or kill people. It is a double nature on which human kind has progressed. We invented so much, but we probably would not have done it if it wasn’t for our aggression and I think probably in the end we might destroy ourselves. If there is intelligent life in the universe, they are probably going through the same process. We never know for sure of course, but it is at least a good theory. I have thought a lot about it actually.

Fascinating food for thought indeed…
The other theme where I have written mostly about is the inner universe and the darker side of humans. I started more to focus on this album that we need to face our shadows and darkness and accept that it is there. Some people have way more than others, but speaking about us, normal people, we are capable of both good and evil and to find a balance between good and evil. I see it now on social media, people are pointing fingers and they want to portray someone else as the devil, as evil. They are probably projecting their own darkness unconsciously. I was reading books and listening to podcasts a lot about Carl Jung and he had a thing to face your shadow and do your shadow work. I thought wow this is actually what I have been writing about since I write lyrics for Wolf. I think there is a lesson there, something to explore. I think the more I write about the evil inside us and the more I dare to face my own darkness, the better person I become, because you must realize that you are capable to do that. I don’t think that anyone who is over 13 years thinks that all the German in Nazi Germany were evil to the core. We see now that people are so capable of evil, but they think they are doing a good thing and they are pointing to someone else: you are the problem, you are evil. I think that is very, very dangerous. So if you start to see yourself as this very extremely good person – I shouldn’t go into politics – but some people seem to believe that they are gods gift to humanity and they are pointing fingers to others and I think this is very dangerous. I think you have to be honest with yourself if you want to make the world a better place.

Who is Mr. Mordrake in the song ‘The Ill-Fated Mr. Mordrake’?
I have to admit I got the idea from another song. I heard a song called ‘Poor Edward’ by Tom Waits and I really like that song, but I didn’t know what it was about. I just listened to it. I love that song and I knew there must be some story behind it. One day I looked it up and I found this urban legend of Edward Mordrake who was living late 1800’s or early 1900’s and he had a co-joined twin, but it was like a face in the back of his head. That face was very nasty. That Mordrake was an English nobleman. A good looking young man, but he had this evil, twisted face in the back of his head and it made him going insane. When he was crying, when he was sad, that face was laughing and when he tried to sleep, the face whispered evil nasty things. The face couldn’t speak, only make nasty sounds. Eventually it drove him insane and he killed himself. This was a case studied by a doctor in a scientific magazine, but the thing is it turned into…  It is complete fake. A doctor wrote this case in a scientific magazine, probably he wanted to boost his career or to be important. It was like in the days of the elephant man, in the early days of science. For 99% it seems to me a fake story, but an interesting one. It has lived on in popular culture, in movies and songs. I first wanted to write a song about that topic, but Tom already did and since this one is top notch, I am not going to do it. When I was on my way to work – I have a normal day job – I was driving to my work early in the morning and I just started to sing the song. Soon I had the two first verses as a rough idea and I said ‘well, this is going to be a good song’. It became one of my favourite songs. When things like that happen, it feels like a spiritual experience, like something beautiful the universe just decided to give me a song. I don’t think that I have written it, it just came to me.

That’s a beautiful way to put it…
I know with my intellect that I have written the songs, but it doesn’t feel like that. Those songs are my favourite songs. I don’t think I should take too much credit for it, because the only thing I did write was to be disciplined and go out to the studio and try to work on it and be open to this idea. I knew there was a song to get out. That is what I like most on song-writing, that moment of … when starts align and magic happens. Then you feel: wow we got something. Then you record it with the other guys and everybody contributes to make it a great song, but then, when you go out and play it live in front of an audience, having an audience listening to the song, that is when it feels like the song is complete. I could not write the song and just put it away in a box. You need to have an audience to listen to the song, otherwise there is no song.

I understand, same feeling when your article is printed in a magazine…
Exactly and other people are reading it and seeing your point of view. You also feel that you are giving something to other people. That is the most rewarding thing you can do I think. When I am in a difficult period in my life, I write a diary. I don’t do it otherwise and whenever you write and put words together it is something magical. It helps you think. It helps you analyze and face things. It helps you to become more whole.

Sometimes the lyrics are really heavy… for instance ‘Exit Sign’ gave me chills…
Yes, it was when I got the news that my uncle had killed himself. He was the same age as my father, so 74 years old. He became mentally ill when he was in his thirties. I remember that, but we have never been close and our family aren’t close. I just met him a couple of times in my adult life, but I know that he was taking heavy medication and schizophrenic. When it happens to men it is usually in their thirties. Something happened to him. I didn’t know that he attempted suicide many times and just before he killed himself, he tried to kill himself with an overdose of sleeping pills, but they found him and reactivated him. Then he promised he would not do it again, but just a few days after he regained enough strength he jumped from the balcony of only the second or third floor, and he died. Good for him, otherwise he would just be a vegetable, but there were no answers. I don’t know why he did it, what kind of diagnose he had. No one wanted to tell me, I was not close enough to the family. That inspired me to write this song.

When looking back on the making of this album, did you have any intentions about sound or how it sounds in comparison with your others discs?
Yes, we wanted to make it more melodic than ‘Feeding The Machine’. I think it is a more melodic album, especially the choruses – except for ‘Rasputin’. On ‘Feeding The Machine’, the choruses are more thrash metal like. It feels like a very natural album. It doesn’t feel like we have anything to prove. Before I recorded my vocals with producers and everybody wanted me to be aggressive and screaming all the time and make more and more aggressive noises, but this time I did not feel like I had anything to prove to anyone. I wanted the vocals to be diverse. It could be soft, it could be aggressive, it could be somewhere in between. I just wanted to sing from the heart and I think it sounds more natural, at least when you look back to some older albums, the song-writing also became more natural. Just let it happen, don’t try to force my voice or the songs or anything.

Didn’t you do a side project recently?
It might be The Doomsday Kingdom you are thinking of, a project from Leif Edling from Candlemass. It was a solo project of him, but it also felt like a band with those four musicians. It was also very natural. He asked me to sing on a few songs and I said: Sure, but I can only sing like I do and I am not interested in trying to be this ‘normal voice metal singer you hire’ to sing like this and sing like that. I wouldn’t sound good if I tried that either. If I am going to do this, it will be 100% my version. ‘Okay, but that is why I asked you’, he said. So I felt a lot of artistic freedom. He had written the songs and I understood how he wanted it to be, but it is my voice and my expression. It is natural and diverse. I really enjoyed making that album. it was very spontaneous. Actually, the vocals that ended up on the record, are the vocals on the demo which I recorded where I am sitting right now. I just put up a microphone here in my home studio and recorded it. When it felt good, I sent it to them and then they used it for the production and I think that was a good choice, because it came from the heart. By then I did not have any producer or band members who tried to make me sound like this or that. It was spontaneous in the studio and I really enjoyed that. I felt a lot of freedom and on this Wolf album as well, because now I really don’t care anymore how you are supposed to sing when you are a metal singer. I really don’t care at all. I can only sing like me. I need to express myself and I have no ambition at all to sound like anyone else. I started singing in a band because we had no singer. I was the guitar player. We were kind of looking for a singer, but in the early nineties, finding a metal singer the way we wanted it, an old school one, there were none. Nobody wanted to sing that way anymore. So I started to sing and immediately I felt I had something unique, but of course I also tried to learn and push my voice. Now I accept my voice, I rather am myself than an odd copy of someone else.

The plans for video clips are quite extensive…
Yes, we are planning four singles and four video clips. I had written a script for ‘The Ill-Fated Mr. Mordrake’. I am Mordrake and play his demons. The whole band is acting in the video. I really enjoy making videos where you can tell a story with your acting. I once played in a musical and that is a part of me that I like to explore. We don’t know how much touring will be possible, because of the virus and the crisis in the world. If we have more videos to show, we can at least entertain the people and we can reach out to people with music. That is why we decided to make four video clips.