This is typical. I’ve been waiting to interview Dan Swanö, all round king of metal, for ages and now the opportunity has actually arisen – he’s behind the stunning new Witherscape album, of which much more later – he appears to be attempting to speak to me whilst covered in several blankets at the bottom of a well… I hate it when this happens; even after thirty years of talking to people about metal I still get a bit nervous when a hero is about to commune with me, and this sort of thing only prolongs the agony. Still, the Skype gods finally see fit to intervene – I assume they are monitoring all this on a Clash of the Titans-style chess board cum telephonic switchboard – and we’re away.
Dan – Witherscape’s new album, The Northern Sanctuary (out now on Century Media records) is what we call in the industry ‘fucking brilliant’. Are you pleased with the reviews you’ve seen so far? “Actually I’m still in shock. We’ve received so many over the past few days and now I’ve just found out that we’re number one in the biggest magazine in Sweden. We were number one in Rock Hard in Germany, and top three in magazines all over Europe, but last time when the first Witherscape record came out we felt on this kind of high, but the greeting in Sweden was really cold. We have a saying here that you can never be a prophet in your own country – Sweden seems to have a bit of a jealousy thing going on, that’s why Yngwie Malmsteen moved to America. You cannot be successful in your own country! Anyone who makes it here in sports, anything, has to go to Monaco, or Canada… so for this jury of people to make us number one was a bit mind-blowing actually. But for me… I gave more than I ever have for this album so it’s a nice payback”.
What do think it is about this record that’s touched a chord with so many people already? How do you explain what’s made this reaction happen? “I don’t know! Sometimes I just feel… I have done a couple of albums in my time that have maybe gone too far even for me. I always make albums for me, and sometimes I have just gone beyond. From this album I’ve got tinnitus. Every night I hear these two notes going on… and that’s from the mixing, the stressing. I went six months over time on this album, and I paid the price for it, but I knew that now technically I’m on a major label – since Century Media was sold to Sony – so it was kind of now or never. I’m not getting any younger, and I don’t know how long I’ll be given this fantastic opportunity to work with this kind of label, with a fantastic budget – it’s all in. So do whatever it takes to make this album the best you ever made! I did not stop until every second of every song was what I wanted. Of the things I’ve done in the past, Unorthodox by Edge of Sanity – that was a ‘give everything’ moment, and Moontower was the same, and in some ways (Edge of Sanity’s) Crimson. Nightingale’s Retribution was eight years in the making; You put so much effort into those records, you feel drained at the end. There’s no thing to do but make the best record you can. All of those records transcend everything I’ve done. People really like (1993 EoS opus) The Spectral Sorrows, but I didn’t put nearly as much effort into that one. It was kind of like ‘well, we had to make a record – here you go’ and I’ll never listen to that record again… Sometimes that works too but for this record I just gave all. And even if people don’t like it, I can say I do, and I’ll listen to it until I die”.
The man is warming to his theme now, so there’s nothing to do but let him roll… “It’s like writing a song like The Northern Sanctuary. It takes a lot out of you. More so than a three and a half minute song, you know? But I’m thinking ‘I have to do this! This album needs a fucking epic!’. And I know it’s going to break everything; Me, the budget, the timeline we’re recording on, but I have to do it! Sorry label, but this album is not complete without that blockbuster at the end. Because this might be the end, and I always see it that way. How many musicians have died in 2016 – has anyone counted? I’m forty three, and I thought ‘don’t play it too safe’! You never know! Stressed out overweight guy, driving all the time on the German Autobahns, I could live a less dangerous life, you know? You don’t have to be old. The drummer from Bolt Thrower (Martin Kearns, who passed away last year) was around my age, so there’s a bit of a legacy thing going on in my mind. It’s not like I sit around being afraid of dying, but when you’re twenty and you don’t do something right you have your whole career to fix that. I have a slot here, a full staff behind me – do your very best! Don’t pretend, feel it! And that’s the only answer I can give”.
So this is maybe your magnum opus, the one you’ll look back on in times to come, and you think the title track is the thing that crowns it all; but for me the song that does this best on the album is Marionette. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about that song, how it came about and how you manage to mix Toto verses with massive melodeath choruses? “The thing is, I still remember writing it. I took the steel strung acoustic guitar which I wrote pretty much all of the album on, sat on the sofa and started retuning it into some sort of weird open tuning. I tuned it all the way down into death metal territory, A or even lower, really deep, and it opened something up, something new that I could work with. I’m strumming and thinking ‘this could be nice’, like on the Moontower record where I growled where there shouldn’t have been growls because I was so pissed off that day, here it’s the opposite, so I then added this major key bombast to the full on growls … If you added James LaBrie’s vocals to that it becomes a major prog metal moment! But I didn’t want that, I wanted to growl my brains out! That was one of the first goosebump moments in the writing process and I thought ‘this will be a special song’. I always knew that that song would strike a chord with my listening base. The whole thing is my tribute to shoegaze. When I was in my twenties for a couple of months in the early nineties I painted my hair purple, wore green jeans, thought I was a member of My Bloody Valentine! There are still a few albums from that time I hold very dear. Just for a Day by Slowdive where you have this extremely dreamy landscape, and I wondered how they got that sound. Then I read an interview and it’s all guitars, no keyboards, just guitars with pedals. It’s an ‘asleep-on-the-water’ vibe, so I want to do something like that, a shoegaze death metal ballad! But it should also have a kind of a positive vibe, uplifting despite the growling, and it should have a super epic solo at the end, like a power ballad solo. But I was really surprised by the reaction at the label – they didn’t mention that song at all, it was all about the first three songs and the title track. I was like ‘what about Marionette?’. I thought that would be the video song! So that kind of took me down a notch. But now I have this reaction from the press, and I’m guessing our followers will feel the same about it. In fact one of the writers at Sweden Rock said it could be the song of the year for him. I guess it touches a special nerve or something because you don’t hear that kind of song everyday”…