Interview with Interview with guitarist Anders Björler
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: December 27, 2014
Swedish Melodic Death Metal pioneers At The Gates reformed in 2008 for some shows and nobody really knew what else this reunion might produce. The showball effect resulted in more shows and now, in 2014, a new album titled At War with Reality, released by Century Media at the end of October, 2014. This naturally made At The Gates fans worldwide excited. At War with Reality was done completely in secret. Nobody even new there was a new At The Gates album in the works until they made the announcement.
The Metal Crypt had the opportunity to interview guitarist and songwriter Anders Björler in Helsinki, Finland on November 22nd and we talked about the new record, all the reasons behind the band's reformation other things At The Gates related as well.
Luxi: Welcome to Finland, Anders. The last time we spoke was at Ruisrock, the oldest festival in Europe, in 2008. You had agreed to play a bunch of shows with At The Gates and one of the stops was Ruisrock. Did you ever think things would lead this far? Eight years later you have a new At The Gates album out and you are touring the world again.
Anders: Yes. Kind of unbelievable, isn't it? As for Ruisrock in 2008 it was a pretty nice festival. I mean, it was an independent festival with lots of Pop and Rock bands; very mixed bands and crowds. There was a very positive ambiance at that festival. It kind of reminded me of Roskilde festival but a smaller version. The whole At The Gates reunion in 2008 was something that we had no idea would lead this far. We were overwhelmed by all the positive responses we got at the shows back then. We did some clubs shows in Japan, some festival shows and, of course Ruisrock was a great experience for us. Overall, 2008 was a positive summer for us.
Luxi: In that very same interview in 2008 you told me that it would be pointless to release a new At The Gates album after being away from the music scene for 12 years. Well, never say never...
Anders: Yes, I think I remember you from there. We did the interview at that one tent. But back to your question; true, making a new At The Gates album was not something we planned. What I said at that time was something I meant. But, as so many positive things happened, we just carried on. The last show of the reunion tour that we did with At The Gates happened in Athens, Greece, in September 2008 and we felt like we didn't get a chance to play everywhere we wanted. That's why we continued doing more gigs in 2011 and played in South America, Australia and so on and we tried to get more shows done in China, Asia, everywhere. We had a really optimistic plan in 2008 and we couldn't do everything we wanted so that's why we continued. Then we played a set of summer festival shows during 2011-2013 and we still had this very positive vibe within the band. We have known each other since we were 15-16 years old, you know, and we grew up with the whole Metal scene and became close to it. We sort of re-discovered this whole friendship thing and it was very fun. When I left The Haunted, At The Gates was pretty much lying there and I had this creative and open feeling ready to be re-discovered in At The Gates. It wasn't that that big a deal really. Thomas (Lindberg) had an idea to do an album of cover songs or something like that but maybe my way of saying "no" to him was to start seriously thinking of doing completely new songs for At The Gates. Eventually I sent a couple of raw demo tracks to both Thomas and Jonas. That was last summer as far as I can remember.
Luxi: At War with Reality, which is At The Gates' fifth studio album, was released on Century Media just recently and marks a return to the trademark At The Gates sound. Once people hear the album they will know right off the bat that this is At The Gates. Was it easy to find the same vibe and feeling for the new songs that you had on your previous releases after so many years?
Anders: When we had the first couple of songs ready we really weren't thinking of doing a new At The Gates album. We told ourselves that if there's not enough album-worthy material, that's fine then; we accept it. Let's try to do more just for the fun of it. So we kept everything secret and there were only around 20 people in the whole world who knew what was going on in the At The Gates camp. Our new guys, crew guys, families and some friends but that's about it. This created a stress-free environment for us to start working on new material for the band. There were no outsiders' expectations or anything like that, so we wrote the whole record in secret, you know. Nobody knew we were making a new record and that was a very positive thing from our perspective as we were able to focus on making new music for At The Gates. When we announced it in January 2014, we had the whole album ready. It was super-important for us to work this way because we didn't want any stress and we really took our time with these new songs. Even though all the songs were done in January-February, we didn't book a studio until June. We just kept on working with the songs to get them perfect, you know.
Luxi: Can you remember when the first songs for At War with Reality came into existence?
Anders: I think it was around May of last year, right after I had finished my own solo album, Antikythera. After that I wanted to write some Metal songs again. That's what I said when I left The Haunted in 2012. At The Gates was a pretty obvious choice for me. It was around in April or May last year, I guess.
Luxi: When did you actually started thinking seriously about going back to the studio and recording the next At The Gates album? People remember Slaughter of the Soul, At The Gates' last album, and it set the bar very high. I'm sure going to the studio again was not something the band took lightly...
Anders: No, not at all. I felt like we didn't push any limits with this record and I wasn't pushing myself to get something done for this album either, even if I am super self-critical about my music. Everything I do, I take very seriously. It has to be 100% dedication from me, otherwise I don't do it. After two or three songs we all felt we had something special going on. From then on we really started focusing on getting the remaining songs together. I personally thought that three or four songs ready would satisfy me but then you start looking at what should be next, you know. This time, I wanted a more musically varied approach to our stuff. I mean, Slaughter of the Soul is too one-dimensional, in a way. It's still a good album but this time I wanted a bit more diversity for the songs.
Luxi: Did you feel like the material for At War with Reality came together relatively easy and did you know right away that this album was going to sound great because it actually sounds like the band never broke up in the first place?
Anders: Yes, and the reason for that is because we were close friends in the past so it was very natural for us to be on the same page right away. It's like there was this unexplained bond between us that is hard to break. It was as easy as snapping our fingers. We found that creative state almost immediately, especially for Thomas and me as we talked daily about the songs and all things related to this album.
Luxi: In the other words the right chemistry was there instantly...?
Anders: Yeah, it's always been there except maybe after the break-up of the band in the 90's. At that time it wasn't so good for obvious reasons but when we got back together in 2000 some of it came back.
Luxi: At War with Reality starts with a 1-minute intro called "El Altar del Dios Desconocido," which roughly translates to "The Altar of the Unknown God.". What is being told in this intro and whose idea was it to have it something like that included at the beginning of At War with Reality?
Anders: Firstly, we wanted a very filmic intro to the start of the album and the lyrics for the intro are taken from Ernesto Sabato's novel Sobre Héroes y Tumbas (On Heroes and Tombs), one of Thomas' favorite authors. Ernesto is an Argentine writer. We wanted to introduce the listeners to this At The Gates album in a filmic way because as Thomas told me about the whole concept and the idea he had in his mind for this record it inspired me hugely and I had pictures in my head of his ideas. We also tried to build up an intro around those ideas as well as with the artwork guy Costin (Chioreanu). We let him know about the concept we had been thinking of pretty early. He has hand-illustrated every song on this new At The Gates album with his individual artwork.
Luxi: There are 12 songs plus the intro on At War with Reality. It seems you had a pretty strong creative period going on while you were working with the songs for this album, correct?
Anders: Yes, we did indeed. Like you I told you earlier, when you have 2-3 songs ready that you are completely happy with, it tends to lead you toward the next songs in some way. I personally didn't feel any pressure or stress because we were not initially talking about a full album so that kind of triggered me to impress the other guys somehow. I wrote the main part of this album and Jonas wrote perhaps 30%. Jonas was busy with work and, since he was also writing songs for The Haunted, I am glad he still managed to help me out with parts of some songs while I focused on the skeletons of the other songs.
Luxi: Do you think the way At War with Reality turned out represents a cross-section of all previous At The Gates albums?
Anders: Yes, it's a part of you as a musician. I am proud of our old stuff even if they are not the best possible recordings and we weren't so good at playing our instruments back then. But I like some of the song arrangements and some of the melodic stuff we did especially the stuff Alf Svensson, our ex-guitarist, did in the early days. Of course that inspires you. But we haven't changed that much over the years. We have the same influences now that we had back then when it comes down to classical composers and ambient music. The same goes for experimental music. We were actually very open-minded when we started out in the early 90's and that's perhaps one of the things that set us apart from other Death Metal bands at that time. Back then we were not influenced by only Death Metal but also Classical, Folk, everything really. As I said, I wanted to get some more diversity into the songs on At War with Reality as compared to the Slaughter album, especially in terms of being more melodic sounding. I wanted to have more dissonant and strange sounding melodies here and there and not just the most obvious kind of melodic Death Metal.
Luxi: When the time came to make decisions on which riffs, drum fills, song arrangements and so on were meant to form what became At War with Reality, was it a collective decision made by the whole band?
Anders: Yeah, I think so. It wasn't much of a struggle for us to make this album because we all were on the same page. Everybody was happy with everything on this record. I didn't have to fight for my ideas because everybody liked them right from the beginning. But it was mostly me and Thomas who started to put this album together at first; me building up the songs and Thomas writing the lyrics then we worked arrangements together. We even made demos of some songs and sent them to the other guys and they had some ideas for the song arrangements, of course. The final step was to gather in our rehearsal room to figure out if anything in any of the songs should be changed. When I think back in time, we learned the whole song first and then recorded it at the rehearsal room and listened to it over and over to pick out what could be done better or what needed to be improved. Nowadays you can just do some simple sketches of the songs on qbase or whatever and it sounds perfect, for a song sketch. You can hear how the song is supposed to sound. Back to your original question, At War with Reality was a very democratic effort from us, all in all, and we are very happy about it.
Luxi: The album artwork for At War with Reality has already created some controversy among the fans (for being too abstract for your kind of band or whatever) as has the logo with people asking why you didn't you use the old A.T.G. logo and blah blah blah. I suppose every decision that you make has a purpose so can you shed some light on these issues?
Anders: People should know At The Gates better; we never do the same thing twice. If you look at the other album covers, they look really avant-garde and we are always trying to seek different ways to present At The Gates, even through our artwork. I think people should know that by now. They shouldn't be that disappointed by the album artwork of our new album either. This is the artistic view that we have in At The Gates; our own perception of the album. It's not by chance. We have chosen this style and we have chosen Costin to do the artwork. This is what we wanted to present. I understand everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion, especially about Death Metal. Death Metal is supposed to be a certain way but we have always tried to get away from that, the narrow way kind of thinking, both musically and artistically. Sometimes it's good and sometimes it's not so good. If you take the cover of The Red in the Sky Is Ours album, for example, it's not so good, ha ha!! But things like that happen for a reason. We originally had a good idea for the cover of The Red in the Sky is Ours but we couldn't get the copyrights. That's why we ended up using an alternative cover. There's always a reason for everything. But this time around we got exactly what we wanted so we are very happy with the album cover and everything.
Luxi: As was mentioned already, it was Costin Chioreanu from Twilight 13 Media who not only designed the artwork for At War with Reality but also created a stunning animated video for the song "Heroes and Tombs." What are your thoughts about Costin's work on this video?
Anders: When we started designing this whole artwork thing, at very early stages actually, during March or April I believe, after we received the first sketches from Costin, we realized that wanted him to do some animated videos for us as well. We had seen some work that he had done earlier. He has done a short movie for his own band, which is some sort of experimental music, and he also did a video for my solo album. So since we already knew his style, he was the perfect guy to work with us. We started working on the video in August and it took him two months to get it ready. He worked on it a lot, I can tell you. The video itself is based on the album's cover artwork and it represents a journey. The same goes with the album cover; if you pick up the album you see the cover looks simplistic and iconic but when you open it up, you basically enter a whole new world. That's what we wanted to achieve with the animated videos for this album as well. There are some very dark landscapes shown in the "Heroes and Tombs."
Luxi: You have a long road ahead in support of At The Gates' fifth studio album. You started your tour in Finland and did two shows here already? How did they go?
Anders: Yeah, I think so. We were actually very surprised ourselves at how well they went actually. I mean, the new songs worked very well. We have been rehearsing a lot for this tour and it was nice to see that people got into them as well. For us, personally, it's very refreshing to have some new material in the set. We played songs both 25 years old and these new songs that we have on At War with Reality so it's a good balance for us. Jonas and Thomas still have their day jobs so this is like a "professional hobby." We all have our feet firmly in reality with wives, kids and work, so we do this for fun and we intend to keep it that way. We don't tour that extensively; as much as we can within certain frames of life, you know.
Luxi: I just looked at your gig calendar and noticed that you have at least 50 shows booked after Finland. Besides some shows in your home country of Sweden you'll also be touring in Italy, Germany, Greece, Japan, the USA, Canada and so on. How do you prepare for such long tours, mentally and physically? How do you prepare for surviving these long tours and getting back home in one piece?
Anders: Yes, it looks like a long tour with all those dates but it's not like seven weeks in a row. We do have a pretty long UK tour and a pretty long US tour to be done but the rest of this tour is done mostly on weekends. As for preparing myself for tours, I am not really doing it at all. Each of us basically marks our own calendar when we are touring and with what band and we just get all together to go out on tour. We plan everything in advance; months or even a year. We already know what we are doing in October next year. You constantly have to pre-plan so that things can be done. Pre-planning is really important to make things work for us.
Luxi: Is there are a possible continuation for At War with Reality recording-wise?
Anders: We could say to each other that we are happy where we are at the moment and we are of course very proud of the album and we like playing live, but if somebody isn't into what we do within a year or so, we'll see what happens. Right now it feels very good, which is all that matters. Personally, I'd easily do another album if it's still fun in a year or two, so...
Luxi: Your brother Jonas and Adrian Erlandsson also play actively in The Haunted, a band that released a new album, Exit Wounds, at the end of August this year. Is it hard for them to balance between these two active bands?
Anders: Not really. We made a deal pretty early about certain things. In other words, the one that gets shows booked first gets the priority. If The Haunted has a gig, they book it first. This was decided very early.
Luxi: What about the bigger picture; what would you still like to achieve with At The Gates, besides the fame and fortune thing, of course?
Anders: Well, we have pretty much left our dreams of becoming big and all that kind of stuff, you know. It's not about career for us; it's about having a good time, keeping everybody happy in the band and only doing the shows that we want to do. As long as everybody is happy with how things are going and we make music and play live for our fans. That's about it. That's the most important thing for us as a band.
Luxi: I went a bit overtime so I guess I'll wrap it up. Thank you for your time Anders and good luck for tonight's show.
Anders: No problem, thanks to you too. It was a pleasure.
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|Review: Slaughter of the Soul|
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