Interview by Raymond Westland
Raymond: How did you and Ragnar Widerberg meet and start Witherscape together?
Dan Swanö: Ragnar used to work in a rival music shop and when they were forced to quit their business he came over and asked for a job at the music shop I worked for at the time. He got the job and I knew he was a guitarist for a local Judas Priest tribute band. I’m a big Judas Priest fan, so I thought he was the coolest guy on the planet. I worked very long days so I didn’t had time for any kind of social life. Occasionally he played guitar and I really liked what I was hearing, so I asked whether he was in a band. Ragnar was in a couple of different bands that weren’t going anywhere, but he said he had a lot of music ready but no plans to really use it. I was suffering from a huge writing block at the time and I really wanted to get back in the playing and writing music game again, so I asked him to send over some of his ideas. I really liked what I heard, so I told him that we should join forces. In May 2010 we rehearsed a couple of times where he played guitar and I played drums and vice versa. We really had a good chemistry going on. We decided to practise every weekend and after some time the material for the Witherscape album started to take form.
Raymond: Can you describe the chemistry Ragnar and you have going on?
Dan Swanö: Ragnar is really positive person and he can see a silver lining on even the blackest cloud and I’m more of a pessimist. I really fed of his positive energy. He kept on writing new music and I was suffering from a massive writing block. It was very inspiring. At some point I looked for old guitar riffs I had laying around on an back-up hard drive and bring those to the table as well. Due to family obligations practising on a weekly basis was really hard and nothing really happened at first, but at some point he quit his dayjob and pick up a study and I did pretty much the same. I wanted to have my freedom as a musician back, so I became a producer/studio engineer once again. I could set my own schedule again, so at this point we could rehearse together and make Witherscape work. Century Media showed interested in the music, so things became really serious. We decided to record the album and go from there.
Raymond: So how much of each others ideas made the cut?
Dan Swanö: The coolest thing about the creative process we had is that we used each others ideas and guitar riffs as a base, work from there and turn into something completely fresh and different.That’s the greatest thing when you have a connection with a fellow musician. This could never happen when you’re working alone in your room behind a computer programming things in Cubase. I didn’t want to have any boring passages on the record, so when a certain part didn’t work it had to go. So in the end I wrote 55 percent of the record and Ragnar wrote 45 percent. Creating this record was a fantastic experience. I really wanted to have that record out and Ragnar was just happy to be a part of it, because this was his first real recording experience. This kind of innocence really brought me back to my early days as a musician and a producer. I’m a veteran who produced so many record that I lost count ten years ago. It was a such a cool clash!
Raymond: You and Ragnar are very inspired by seventies prog (King Crimson and Gentle Giant) and 80’s metal bands like Judas Priest and Merciful Fate. What do you find so enthralling about those musical eras?
Dan Swanö: There’s a certain mystique about the early Judas Priest and Voivod albums. I still think to this very day Sad Wings Of Destiny and Sin After Sin are still very scary records in still very much same way that Melissa and Don’t Break The Oath by Merciful Fate are scary records. When listening to those records you enter another dimension. It’s all about you and the music and nothing else. You really get sucked into the music and you hear and see things beyond the music. With Witherscape I wanted to make a record that give me that vibe again. I didn’t want to have only songs on there, but also wanted to have a compelling story line in there to really suck the listener in. It was a really big undertaking, believe me. In a way the record is modelled after Sad Wings Of Destiny. If that record would have been made today, it would sound like Witherscape. If you take the growling away, it’s almost a pure heavy metal record. Still, the growling is really important to me. It acts as the spice so to speak.
Raymond: Besides suffering from a writer’s block you lost your voice as well, due to growling. How did you work around this?
Dan Swanö: That’s true and I haven’t overcome that at all. Because we didn’t had any deadlines I had all the time to record my growls to the point that my head exploded. This isn’t a joke. It was like a work out in the gym. I used every muscle in my body to get the best performance possible. I’m completely out of out shape, so after a couple of lines my growls became less powerful. I really wanted to put my heart into there and give the performance of my life, after “officially” losing my ability to growl some twenty years ago. Back then I could do a whole gig and have a normal conversation. Nowadays, I lose my voice after a couple of minutes of extended growling. When I get back home again my girlfriend instantly notices when I growled again, because my head all red and sweaty and I don’t have a voice left. It took me the better part of of a few months to record all the growls for the Witherscape album. Recording those vocals was a labour of pain. There’s only one king of growling and that was Chuck Schuldiner on Leprosy. He’s my benchmark. If it doesn’t like him and it doesn’t physically hurt, I haven’t done my work properly.
Raymond: Do you have any plans to take Witherscape on the road?
Dan Swanö: The funny thing is that Witherscape started as a project with two guys rehearsing together in a room. So at some point Ragnar and I discussed the idea of getting some more guys in to form an actual band for live performances.The likelihood of this coming into being as way bigger than we ever had when I did Bloodbath. Some of the drumming on the Bloodbath album isn’t how I normally play and I admit that I have cheated a little bit here with samples and looping. Witherscape on the other hand doesn’t use any studio trickery and requires real drumming. I did a good job in the drumming department and Ragnar recorded all the guitar parts. We didn’t use secretly use a guitarist from Russia for the tricky parts, haha.
The one thing that seperates Witherscape from becoming an on stage production is a sponsor. Someone who would bankroll such a venture. To really capture the ambience of The Inheritence we should have stage props, proper lighting and whatnot. The show should be an extension of the record, but in a visual form. To do something like this it would cost a small fortune. If, for some reason the album will turn into a massive hit just like the Bloodbath record I’d be the first one to put the whole operation on the road, but there must be money involved to cover our expenses. Ragnar and I would be away from our regular jobs for an extensive period of time and have our families to feed. It’s because of that very mundane reason that we can’t Witherscape to the road, unless there are substantial financial recourses involved.
Raymond: A band like Ghost are cutting themselves a nice piece of the action nowadays..
Dan Swanö: Yes, I watched them develop from a small band into this huge musical entity. That’s because they stole the band name from one of my projects. I used that name back in 1983. We have a 30 year anniversary this year. This is the real Ghost, haha. If they take their make up off I’d probably know the most of their members. The main thing is that Ragnar and I have all lots of commitments to both our families and our day jobs. Witherscape started out as an outlet, something to have a bit of fun with. It could never grow into something big like Ghost. We could do a few select shows, like I did with Bloodbath at Wacken Open Air some years ago, but it would involve a big sack of money. People seem to think that I make a lot of money from being a musician and my producer job. This is far from the truth, because I made some very poor business decisions in the past. Nowadays, the money you make from work in the music industry hardly cover your hotel expenses, let alone pay the rest of your bills and have something of a comfortable existence. I’m always amazed when bands are proud when they sell 200 copies in America and put that on Blabbermouth. If I sold those amounts I’d probably shoot myself in the head first. Such is the state of the music industry nowadays.
Raymond: Touring used to be a method to support and promote a new album. Nowadays, putting out a record is a good excuse to hit the road again…
Dan Swanö: Touring is how bands make money and the current situation doesn’t make for better records I’m afraid. So what will happen when bands produce five or six shit records and they become too old for the touring lifestyle? What kind of legacy would they leave behind? A band like Candlemass only play select dates and they don’t make any more new records, because they don’t want to tarnish their musical legacy by putting out sub-par records. I think that’s the honourable way to do it. Back in the day I really didn’t like it when bands put out a new record and they only play one new song and the rest of the set is just filled with the same old stuff. These days I’d rather have a band sticking to their old material, than to play anything new.
Raymond: Back in the nineties you were a very prolific death metal producer. You suddenly stopped, but you’re back again. Did this have anything to do with the writer’s block you were suffering from?
Dan Swanö: I don’t clearly remember on which occasion I really stopped being a producer. At the time I really had the feeling that I shouldn’t do things which could affect other people’s careers when you’re not really up for it. When you’re a producer and you run a studio a band expects you to be as inspired as you were the last time they came to record an album and you really pushed them in order to capture their best performance possible. I felt that I really lost that spark and the fun of being a producer. I overextended myself. I simply did too much in a short period of time and trying to have something of a family and a social life going. It was overkill. It was time for me to pull out, because I didn’t want to work with myself in that state of mind any more. Bands that otherwise would go to the Abyss Studios and Fredman Studios found a true home with me. It’s very easy to return to the guy you know, instead of finding someone new to work with and have that nagging doubt
Bands came back time after time when I was on top of my game, but when I was losing my edge I felt like a betrayer when I would work with them again, take their money and deliver nothing in return. Quitting was the right thing to do. I didn’t have a writer’s block per se, because I wrote some of the best material of my life at that time, which is my Moontower album. I also wrote the vocal harmonies for the Godsend record and I produced a couple of Diabolical Masquerade albums back then. I was just sick and tired of not being able to work on my own music, because I was overbooked all the time. I didn’t have the time to see my son grow up, so I really had to stop and get something of a normal life combined with a regular dayjob, but now I’m back again in the music game again, haha.
Raymond: So what are the more memorable producing experiences for you, past and present?
Dan Swanö: There are a few records that mean a lot to me, because of various reasons. Some of them are classics, like the Somberlain album by Dissection. Orchid by Opeth is another one. Back in 1993/94 when I was basically a kid with some recording equipment in a rehearsal space people came to me and trust me with recording their first and second full length albums, which would steer the rest of their career is in itself is a special memory for me, you know. All the stuff I did with Millencolin is very dear to me, because we kind of grew up together. We recorded a couple of full length albums together, but also lots of EPs and bonus tracks. They kept coming back to me. I helped them becoming a better band by secretly producing them a little bit. I didn’t have to, because I get paid the same money as a studio engineer anyway. One of cooler things I did after my comeback was joining into the whole Hail Of Bullets concept. I received an email from Ed Warby telling me he had this cool project together and whether I wanted to mix their promo for almost no money. When they would get a label deal I would produce their first album. I took the deal and as as we speak I’m mixing their third album. Novembers Doom are also extremely loyal. I’ll mix their new album and the one after that. I really like those kind of long term working relationships. I think it’s important to leave my clients 101 percent satisfied. This could never happen back in the nineties. When I got back in the game again I swore an oath to none of my customers would be unsatisfied with the things I’ve done for them.
Raymond: Finally, you’re also the guy who gave Jens Bogren his big break. What’s the story on that?
Dan Swanö: I always get a special vibe when I mix or master an album that is produced by Jens. I was actually one of the first people that believed in him. I don’t take any credit in what he has become right now, because it would have happened sooner or later. I may have speed up a few things for him. Quality always finds its customers. What happened is that he got in touch with me at the place I worked at the time that he would take over this studio where I’ve done some mixing jobs for 59 Times The Pain and Voice Of A Generation. It was a really big studio in Orobro and it was a huge undertaking. The electric bill from that place alone was a nightmare haha. I really wanted to help Jens in every way possible, because that place is too good to be turned into some garage or a storage room for car parts or whatever. At first I helped him getting some good deals on equipment. I also had a deal with a previous owner to record vocals for a Nightingale album in the little studio in the loft for dirt cheap. Jens is just the greatest guy around. He’s really into Paradise Lost and Sisters Of Mercy and here he was feeling miserable because he recording some bebop shit, so I thought he could use a break.
At the same time Katatonia was recording their album in Stockholm without a studio engineer thinking a studio would do the work for them. They didn’t know how to get a good guitar tone so they asked me to help them out. It turned out they made a mess out of the drum recordings, so I volunteered to shape up the drum sound. I could mix their record, but I didn’t have the time to do it, so I asked Jens to do it for me. I heard some of his work and he really knows how to get this fresh sound, without being genre-based. It was just a good sound. That was the end of it, so I asked Jens whether he wanted to mix Katatonia. He was really seeking for work and when I told him it was Katatonia he was completely over the moon. I set up a meeting for them and they end up working together. We also asked him to record the second Bloodbath album. That record was quite a success for Bloodbath and it opened a lot of doors for Jens, because the Katatonia guys wanted to work with again and also the Opeth guys caught wind of him and the same goes for Amon Amarth. It spread like wild fire.
I have to say that in the beginning I was a bit jealous, but nowadays I’m just amazed how things that went on in my life helped to give his career an extra boost. At the time death metal and metal in general needed a fresh new sound. You had the Fredman and The Abyss studio. When I drove to the Witherscape rehearsal room the only record that sounded good on my car stereo was the last Symphony X album was mixed by, you guessed it, Jens Bogren. I wanted the Witherscape album to sound that good when I mixed and mastered it. Funny how things come full circle…