The latest album from the legendary Swedish melodic death metal band At This Gates is The Nightmare Of Being. I had the opportunity to speak with frontman Tomas Lindberg. We discussed everything from the new album to his other lockdown projects to the effect of the pandemic on his teaching job. He also reminisced about his longtime friend LG Petrov who recently passed away, and revealed the origin of his trademark baseball cap.
Chad Bowar: When did you begin the songwriting process for what became The Nightmare Of Being?
Tomas Lindberg: We started writing already on the tour for the last album. I have memories of flights, dressing rooms, and recording equipment, demo recording equipment setup. I think the real process started when we came home from the last tour. Early last year I would say was when we tried to figure out the concept and started to really go down deep into what the album would be about.
What led you to use multiple studios and producers for this album?
We decided early on that we wanted a very layered, very detailed album with a lot of stuff on it, basically. To make everything audible, we really needed to be precise and meticulous in the recording process using a special studio for the drums with producer Jens Borgen being there for that, using Andy LaRocque from King Diamond recording guitars in his studio. Get the best engineer for each instrument, basically. The classical instruments of course need a totally different kind of engineer. It was an arduous journey, so to say, but it was worth it.
What was the effect of the pandemic on the whole process?
It’s horrible to say the word positive when it comes to something as horrible as a pandemic, but for us it was positive in the sense that it actually provided time for us to focus more on the record. There was no outside distractions, really. We could go deeper into the process this time. I think you can hear it on the record. It came out much more cinematic and epic than a normal At the Gates record, I would say.
The overall lyrical concept has to do with pessimism, right?
Yes. I was curious about it. I didn’t know that much about that philosophy. Reading up about it, it made me more intrigued to try to understand the world looking at it from that perspective. As usual with all the different worldviews that are out there, some things are interesting, some are not, but some stuff really resonated with me. I also discovered that it is perfect for a metal album to use this. It’s like the struggle of the human soul and so on. It’s pretty dark and perfect for death metal.
Would you call yourself an optimist or a pessimist or somewhere in between?
Usually I don’t adhere to any philosophy, really. I choose the parts that connect with me. It was more interesting than I thought, and some of the ideas really stuck with me. One was the idea that we protect ourselves with different defense mechanisms to cope with the thought of our own mortality and the fear of death. Just try to be aware of these defense mechanisms, like the distractions, different worldviews, whatever that we try to use as defense mechanisms. You don’t have to get rid of them as long as you’re aware of them. I thought that was pretty cool. Try to live with your eyes more open. There will still be pain and suffering and all that, of course, but at least you don’t expect everything to be better so you’re never disappointed, really.
Did you plan on the music being a little more experimental going into the process, or was that how it just turned out?
We really discussed it a lot, me and Jonas (Stallhammar, guitar). We wanted it to be a very dark and progressive record from the get-go. Also to go with the concept of the lyrics. It’s one piece of art really, but they need to be on the same level, express the same emotions. We had the time and focus as I said, to go even deeper. The idea was to go as deep as possible. We just managed to do it because we had a lot more time to focus on.
Some people are going to be surprised to hear a saxophone on an At the Gates album.
In one way surprised, but every At the Gates album has been different from one another. I think our listeners now are as curious as we are that they want to be challenged by an At the Gates record. They almost expect something new every time from us, instead of delivering just Slaughter Of The Soul part two. I don’t think anyone is interested in that anymore. They know they’re going to get more. The saxophone is like the little spice on that song, because of two things. We believe that every instrument has a different personal emotional tone. The saxophone has this desperate cry of emotions. Also, that fit that song very well along with the idea to bring in improvisation into a very strict music form as we play, and to see how that correlates and what happens when we do that. It was a very rewarding experience, actually, to see it happening before our eyes or ears.
Once you’re able to tour, are you going to have that on a keyboard, or are you going to have an actual live saxophone player?
I think that song needs to be played by hopefully that guy. I think that’s going to be a song we play now and then when possible to have him around. Strings, like violins, you can have that on backing tracks for intros and stuff. To have a saxophone on a backing track, that’s too boring. You need the raw energy. That will probably be more of once in a while when the stars are aligned to perform that song live.
Promotion has changed a lot in the years you’ve been releasing albums. Do you like the interaction with fans and the transparency of today’s social media, or do you prefer the old days when basically an album just came out and you didn’t really know anything about it?
For me, personally, as a fan, as a listener, I like the surprise more. Get the album. Wow. What’s this? From nowhere. As the listener. As a musician, of course, it’s a lot of work doing interviews, keeping updated on social media, doing content, stuff that’s not really artistic, per se. It is actually rewarding in one sense to get some feedback from the fans early on in the process. I’m more old-school myself. I just want to get the album. I don’t want to hear a single note before I have it in my hands, basically.
How did the pandemic affect your day job as a teacher? Did you do a lot of Zoom teaching or were you in person for a lot of it?
Up until December last year, it was normal, actually. Of course, we were trying to do social distancing at school as much as possible. This last term that just ended, there was first a month of 100 percent online teaching, and then every third week the classes came in. Seventh-graders came in one week, eighth-graders next, ninth-graders the next. It’s been hard. It’s been very tough on the kids. As adults, we can learn new platforms and stuff like that because we get paid for it. For the kids, it’s hard to keep the motivation when you don’t actually see your teachers. That’s something we noticed.
Did you miss touring at all or did that year and a half not bother you too much being off the road?
We toured a lot for the last record. We just came off the tour when the pandemic hit. I didn’t notice it, because we were going into a writing period anyways. The last few months now, I’ve been busy with video production, interviews, stuff like that. It’s been focused on other band activity, but now when the album is actually going to be released, I feel a little bit of urge again for everything.
When you’re playing songs from the ’90s live, is it necessary to be able to reconnect emotionally as you’re performing those songs?
It is. This has always been a band that portrays different emotions, not just brutality or aggression. We have a lot of melancholy, desperation, all of those emotions are in our music, and you have to be able to play it or sing it. You have to let the lyrics and the music speak for you. You need to be there, as they say. I think that’s something that makes us a good live band as well, that we are genuine in that sense.
With your full-time job and your At The Gate duties, how did you find time to get back into Lockup again?
It’s also due to the pandemic. I recorded an album with Lockup, I recorded with The Lurking Fear, my other band as well. I guess there was just more time to do it because there was no shows. Lockup has been in talks for a while now that we should have a double vocal effect thing going on. I was just curious, how’s this going to work, recording in different parts of the world? I like that, it was a different challenge. It actually came out really cool and probably became very different than if we would have been in the same room writing it. It’s like an experiment, a grindcore experiment.
Is there a timeline for the releases of Lockup and The Lurking Fear?
Sometime this fall. I can’t remember exactly. I think it’s October or November.
I wanted to ask you about the passing of LG Petrov, who you had known for a long time.
That’s a terrible thing. I’ve had close relationships with other people in the music scene that passed away before. Mieszko from Nasum, Jesse Pintado from Napalm Death, Jon from Dissection, Henke the bass player from my other band Disfear. But LG was a person. I’ve known since ’86. We were not daily in contact, but we always were there in the vicinity of each other. It really felt like one of us had passed away. He was born the same year as me. We grew up with the same music taste. It’s hard. I think he’s still going to be there when I turn up for the next European festival, he’s always there. What I will miss the most is probably his laugh and his smile. He was always a very cheerful person. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him angry. Also he was a great listener. He cared about people, genuinely and he will be sorely missed.
I suppose as you’re approaching 50, you start to consider your own mortality when things like this happen.
Yes. I mean, if you’re writing an album about pessimism, you can get it out of your system.
Switching to a lighter topic, the baseball cap has been your trademark for years. How did that all get started?
It started when we came back with At The Gates. My hair was still growing out a little because I hadn’t cut it for a while. I just felt so comfortable having something on there so that it wouldn’t go in all directions. Of course, now, it’s good to have it because the hairline is getting further up. (laughs)
I was reading an article where you gave a list of albums that influenced you. One that surprised me Joy Division – Closer. How did a band like that influence your musical style?
Bands like Joy Division or Killing Joke and that kind of style, that’s very, very emotional music, Joy Division especially. It’s naked, it’s very vulnerable, very true emotions. When I heard them the first time I was very young. I didn’t even know what anxiety or depression was, of course, because I was 12. It still really had an impact on me emotionally, even if I didn’t know what I was feeling. I think when we started playing music, I always had that in the back of my head that I really wanted to get that full emotional impact in whatever I did. Music should have some kind of deep emotional impact. That’s how those bands influenced me.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
I can’t wait until the listeners have the physical copy and actually listen to the whole record and get the full impact of it. I’m intrigued by how they’re going to approach some of the ideas we have on the record, but it takes time. I hope that our listeners have patience to begin to try to understand what we’ve been trying to do here.
(interview published July 2, 2021)