At The Gates’ Tomas Lindberg: “The death metal scene was stagnating. We thought, ‘Let’s make something important’”
By the early-to-mid-’90s death metal was in the doldrums, with hordes of bands regurgitating the same well-chewed body parts and screaming bloody gore. Then came Sweden’s At The Gates, who took the form to fascinating new places. More experimental and with an ear for melody that their American peers lacked, they spearheaded the small but massively influential Gothenburg scene that would birth melodic death metal. Guitarists Alf Svensson and Anders Björler were the chief sonic architects, but vocalist Tomas ‘Tompa’ Lindberg was integral to the band, providing thoughtful, often literary lyrics and a versatile, emotional vocal delivery that helped set them apart from the deathly masses.
At The Gates’ fourth album, Slaughter Of The Soul, released in 1995, is still held up as an all-time classic. It paved the way for international stardom but instead the band imploded, splitting up at the height of their success. Tomas threw himself into numerous projects including the more rampant crust-punk of Disfear and grindcore supergroup Lock Up, featuring members of Napalm Death and Cradle Of Filth. For many fans though, he ended up where he belonged when At The Gates reformed a decade ago. He now juggles his day-job as a teacher with being a death metal legend, which might answer how he manages to be one of the most grounded men in rock music…
What first got you into music and metal in particular?
“The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal hit Sweden very hard; everywhere you looked there were metalheads and Iron Maiden and Judas Priest records. It was hard not to be exposed to it as a teenager and when you’re that age the whole atmosphere of metal music speaks to you. As far as playing music, it was when I went deeper into the underground through tape trading and things like that. Then I heard bands that were more rudimentary like Hellhammer and thought, ‘Maybe this is doable, maybe I could do this myself.’”
You were just 16 when you started your first band Grotesque and you went by the name Goatspell – where did that come from?
“At one point we were super intrigued by the Brazilian death metal bands like Sarcófago. They had names like Antichrist and we thought that was a route we should go down. In Sweden we had Bathory with Quorthon and some bands that were more Satanic or whatever, but most of the bands around at the same time as us were more like American death metal and singing about gore. We wanted to stick out and do a cross between the Swedish sound and the more obscure occult stuff.”
At The Gates were part of what’s been called the Gothenburg scene with bands like In Flames and Dark Tranquillity. Was there an actual scene and did you all know each other?
“At The Gates started a couple of years before the other bands, but we were all the same age group so there was a lot of hanging out watching horror movies and stuff like that. There was definitely a scene, but when you talk about the ‘Gothenburg sound’, everybody shied away from that a little bit because no-one wants to be lumped in as part of a sound. We did it in different ways but I think we all had the same idea of wanting to make something more of death metal. Not just what had been done before but reaching out a bit further, adding more classical melodies.”
Did it feel like you were at the forefront of something, pioneering a new sound?
“With At The Gates – even when we were naive teenagers – we just kept to ourselves and tried not to compare ourselves too much to other people and look at it as a career. We just wanted to make music we wanted to hear, although we knew that was different to most of the stuff that was happening.”
Did Slaughter Of The Soul feel like it was something special?
“With Slaughter we wanted to make a record that would – in our minds – make some sort of impact. Because I think at that point in the death metal scene there was a little bit of stagnation. We thought, ‘Let’s make something important here.’ Our idea was to compress the stuff we had done before to shorter, sharper songs and rehearse them so they were tighter. There was a lot of hard work behind it, but we felt it was now or never because we had some harsh touring situations right before, and Earache [Records] had picked us up from the gutter basically.”
If that was compressed At The Gates, the sound has been expanding again since you got back together. Is that something you needed time away from to be able to do?
“Definitely. We had compressed it as much as we could at that point and we were not mature enough to know where to go after it. That’s part of what broke the band up – we didn’t know where to go next. We could probably have released another album that sounded like Slaughter Of The Soul, but we were not that kind of band. We wanted to move on constantly and at that point, with the knowledge we had, there was nowhere to go. But having worked with other projects for 10 years, now I have a better idea of how to make a full At The Gates record. That’s where we are and where we are headed – we have a broader perspective of where we can go with the band than when we were 22-year-olds.”
You’d had your biggest success with Slaughter and suddenly it was all over. Did you understand why Anders and bassist Jonas Bjorler walked away from the band?
“We all understood it after a few years because we were very young when it happened and compromises were not a big thing. Everybody had a very strong will. When we were working on Slaughter Of The Soul, we all had the same goal, but then everyone wanted to go this way and that way, and everybody was like, ‘No, it’s my way or the highway.’ We weren’t the best listeners at that age and it was also fuelled by Anders’ frustration at coming up with a follow-up, the frustration of touring – there were a lot of things. After a few years we came to realise that maybe it was a good decision because we could still be friends and eventually, of course, we could come back together. But at that point, it was not a good situation. There was pressure from all sides and from within as well.”
Was it a difficult time for you personally?
“Oh yeah. You can look at it like we formed in 1990 and broke up in 1996. But those years were from 19 to our early 20s, so it’s formative. I was Tomas from At The Gates – that’s how I saw myself. Now we have a broader perspective of who we are as people but at the time I was a little more narrow-minded. It took some effort to get over that and look at it more maturely.”
You’ve always had a number of projects on the go, though. Is music something you have to do?
“I think so. I’ve got several people around me saying, ‘When you’re not working on a project you’re a more lousy person!’ Of course when I’m working on the final stages, I’m a pretty boring person to be around because I’m so focused, but at least I’m happy. Whenever we finally call it quits I would have to find another outlet to be creative.”
Are you a political animal as punkier projects like Disfear and Skitsystem might suggest?
“Yes, but the main thing I’ve learned from getting older is that I don’t know everything. As a 20-year-old, I did – ‘This is my world view and everybody else can fuck off.’ Now I understand a little bit more that people have differing perspectives. I work as a teacher as well, so I have to work with that all the time. Why, for example, is this person so right-wing and racist? What has made him into that person? And that’s what I try to figure out all the time. I don’t believe there’s one solution for everything.”
At The Gates’ lyrics tended to be quite deep and reflective. Did that influence your vocal style?
“We always thought about that even when we started back in the ’90s. With Grotesque we took Satanic death metal as far as we could then when we formed At The Gates I thought, ‘This band has to express more emotions than just aggression.’ There’s so much more out there and it’s more interesting to paint with more colours. When we got back together I realised that was what was so special about At The Gates for me: there was a wider emotional palette, especially things like desperation and melancholy, and that speaks to the listener pretty openly. That’s what I try to put into my lyrics and vocals as well. Pure aggressive death metal vocals are hard to do well, but it’s even harder to do it with soul in death metal. That’s what I try to do: put myself on the dissection table of my emotions!”
You mentioned being a teacher. Is that hard to juggle with all your various bands?
“Logistically sometimes yes, but I have three things: I have a very understanding principal at work, a very understanding wife, and very understanding bandmates. When we put together the reunion shows we talked a lot about things like that. Everyone has to be onboard with everything and if someone says, ‘No, I’m having dinner with my dad, he’s turning 70’ or whatever, then we don’t play Wacken that year. It has to be important for the right reasons, not just a business. Sometimes it’s hard. I’ve been on tours correcting tests and essays and putting together lessons for the classroom.”
Do you have kids or parents who are fans of the band?
“I teach in what you would call socially and economically challenged neighbourhoods and the kids mostly listen to hip-hop. They know about the band and sometimes they’re intrigued by how many likes we get or whatever, which I don’t know about. But they go, ‘Yeah, it’s cool that you do it Tomas, but I don’t really like it.’”
What’s more satisfying: having thousands of fans screaming your lyrics or helping a challenged kid to a qualification?
“That’s a thing I never want to choose between. Those two things are very gratifying. They’re rewarding moments and as long as I can keep it up I’ll keep doing both.”
Back to At The Gates’ present, is new album The Nightmare Of Being your most progressive and experimental so far?
“I think it’s the most accomplished progressive thing we’ve done so far. On the early albums we were super-experimental as well, but we were just pretentious young kids. We didn’t know anything about musical theory or song arrangement. We know now. So we’ve traded the youthful obnoxiousness for mature songwriting capability, I guess. I feel that now we can incorporate a King Crimson idea into what At The Gates is doing, but it still feels like At The Gates. Before it would have been just thrown in there and more chaotic. Now it has a flow and it makes sense, for us at least.”
All the albums have been different. Is that important to keep yourselves interested?
“Exactly. At this age At The Gates is as important to us as it was in our late teens and early 20s, but for a different reason. We invest a lot of time and effort in this to produce an album like we just did. It took a tremendous amount of effort and to do that it has to be important. It has to be a challenge to us to make it interesting, as you say. And that’s what drives the band: you have to show that this is important to the people who are doing it. And it absolutely still is.”
At The Gates’ new album The Nightmare Of Being is out now via Century Media. Get your copy here.
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