Swedish Guitarist Discusses Touring With In Flames, Creating With Engel, Revisiting Former Projects, And His Overall Passion For Music: "It Comes From The Inside"
Band Photo: In Flames (?)
To casual fans, Niclas Engelin may be the new "pledge" in the lineup of Swedish metal giants In Flames, but in truth, he's about as seasoned as new members come. A childhood friend and long-respected fixture of the legendary Gothenburg metal scene, Niclas and the band have crossed professional paths nearly half a dozen times. After temporarily replacing departed guitarist Glenn Ljungström to support "Whoracle" in 1997, Niclas returned intermittently to complete In Flames' lineup as a roiling battle with alcoholism consumed founding guitarist Jesper Strömblad, forcing him off the road. This relationship culminated in the band's February 2011 announcement that Niclas would permanently fill the slot vacated by Jesper a year prior. Later came a new studio album "Sounds Of A Playground Fading" (reviewed here), and now, a massive headlining tour across North America.
Prior to the performance at the Palladium in Worcester, Massachusetts (reviewed here), Niclas and I sat down in a quiet boardroom off the lobby at the nearby Hilton. To his dismay, no coffee was available, but at least the M&M-filled cookies at the front desk were free. For half an hour, Niclas brought Metal Underground completely up to date.
Mike Smith (OverkillExposure): I understand you had to cut your show short recently due to a bomb threat.
Niclas Engelin: Yeah, that was really scary. At least it was really scary to us; we’re not used to that kind of stuff. It doesn’t happen that often – never, really. It was just before the last song, and we were thanking the audience for coming out to rock with us and all that, and our tour manager Biffen came onstage, like “AHHH COME ON, YOU GOTTA COME WITH ME! COME WITH ME!”
Mike: Oh, wow. In front of everyone.
Niclas: Yeah, yeah. It was like… [Makes sweeping evacuation gesture] Phhhwooom! We were like, “What the fuck is going on?” So we went offstage, and heard about this bomb threat. “What the fuck? Is this for real?” We left for the hotel just to chill down and all that, and outside there were lots of police cars and officers, and we realized “This is serious. This is something ELSE!” Over here, you take this kind of stuff seriously. Back home in Sweden, it’d be like: “We’ve got a bomb threat!” [Phone gesture] “Hold on.” [Laughs] It would be like that! Some tired person, “Can you hold on?” “No, I’m missing a leg here!” [Sighs] “Yeah.”
Mike: “Call back in ten minutes.”
Niclas: That’s true, actually. And when we got to chill out for a bit, and take a shower and eat something, we heard it was a very drunk person who got thrown out of the venue. Y’know, like “Grrrrrr, revenge, I’m gonna call in a bomb threat to the whole place.” But in all the sadness, we did get to play almost the full set for the people there. They missed one song, and we’re really sorry for that. Otherwise… it could’ve been four songs in, and then we’d have a riot! [Laughs]
Mike: You recently crossed back over the border from Canada. I see a lot of shows there too, and I’m curious about something. In the past, [frontman Anders Fridén] has stated several times that Canada is In Flames’ favorite place to play. Any thoughts on why that might be? Is there something special about Canadian fans?
Niclas: I think overall, in Canada – if you don’t count the streets in Vancouver near the Commodore Ballroom, because they’re just zombies. [Mimics a vacant, drunken stare] Zombies. That’s creepy; I don’t like that. But overall, the nature of the people, the mood, the culture – and the weather, of course – it all reminds us a little bit of Scandinavia and Europe. So that’s one point. And also, the people seem very keen to their metal, very friendly to metal overall. It’s still Motörhead patches, it’s still Judas Priest, it’s still Scorpions, y’know? That hardcore, old school heavy metal. So I think that Canada has some kind of tradition of heavy metal. It’s not – well, of course it is – but it’s not QUITE as “trend-following” as the U.S. is. What I’ve experienced is that people are more into metal in Canada, that they’re there to really go for it, and we have a really strong fan base there. They just love In Flames, I guess.
Mike: While you’ve toured with In Flames previously, I’m interested in your recent absorption into the band as a permanent member. How was that transition for you? Do you now consider this band your #1 full-time job?
Niclas: Yes, of course I do. I’ve known some of the guys in the band since ’88 or ’89, when we played small clubs in Gothenburg and hung out and drank beer and listened to Morbid Angel and stuff like that. Y’know, kid stuff. Jesper and I went to high school together and formed a band called Poltergeist, where we did like Iron Maiden stuff and just had fun. So we’ve always been around each other. [Guitarist Björn Gelotte] was brought up in the same suburbs, so we kind of knew each other as well. For me, it’s just natural. It’s just hanging out with my buddies, playing some music, having fun, and making a living off it. Of course, I have Engel, which is not “my” band – it’s a band of itself. My heart’s still very into that. I write all the music and I’m with them all the time. Nowadays they’re touring by themselves, which is going down really well, even better than when I’M with them! So it’s like, “Ahhh… all right. Buh-bye!” [Laughs] I kind of have the best of both worlds, so to say. Engel will have a new album out in May, and I think it’s a June release over here in the States. It will be called “Blood Of Saints.” Check it out! We just filmed a new video for the song “Question Your Place,” so please check it out.
Mike: Jesper was quite a beloved member of In Flames. Have you directly experienced any criticism from fans after stepping into his position?
Niclas: Well, I’d been filling in, on and off, when Jesper was ill. And alcoholism is a sickness, a very dangerous sickness to be taken care of. But I never intended to fill anyone’s shoes. I’m just out there being myself as Niclas, as I always do, just playing my guitar and having fun on stage. And I think people can see, “This guy’s having fun with the other guys in the band. Fuck, this is something else!” It’s like, I get the question, “What was your best gig ever?” That’s so hard to tell, because it could be a club the size of this room, and you get attention from the audience that you throw back to them, creating this huge mix of “heavy metal happiness,” you could say. Like, “Wow, this is so FUCKING GOOD!” Which you feel on the stage as well. I want to reach that every night, and it doesn’t matter how big the venue is. We’re there to do this together, because we’re a live band, and the audience is there to listen to us and see us kicking ass live. It’s heavy metal! It’s hard rock! You’re not supposed to stand there like this for the whole song. [Crosses arms] You’re out there fucking kicking it! Rob Halford and K.K. Downing and all those guys, they’re still kicking it, because they’re having fun.
Mike: As far as In Flames goes, which songs do you get most excited to play live?
Niclas: You’ll have a laugh at this. I’m a huge fan of old hard rock; I’m brought up on Motörhead, Mercyful Fate, Judas Priest, and stuff like that. Of course, I do follow new bands, but when I cook dinner or something, it’s “No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith,” because to this day, I love it. So, my favorite track to play live with In Flames is… “Pinball Map!”
Mike: All right!
Niclas: I like the intensity and the positive energy of it. It sounds like Judas Priest on speed! Like something off “Painkiller,” or if we took down the tempo, maybe “Screaming For Vengeance.”
Mike: It’s not on your current setlist. Are you lobbying to bring it back?
Niclas: Well, we did it for so many years, on every tour, so we had to give some other songs a chance. But I will push it if I have to: “I need ‘Pinball Map!’” That’s for sure. Maybe somewhere in the middle of the set, where it’ll be like “Ahhh, new energy!”
Mike: You are, however, doing “Swim” and “The Hive.” Any other deep cuts you want to bring back, or perhaps songs you’ve never played with the band before?
Niclas: Well, we’re here to promote the new album and play stuff from that, but still, we’ve got to keep the classics, of course. A cool thing would be doing it this way: maybe a three-hour show, with just In Flames. No special guests, no nothing. Just In Flames. And then do a pause in the middle to have a breather. That would fucking rule! I think that would go down really well, because we’re ten albums down the line, and it would fucking RULE, doing all those classics, and the acoustic folk music interludes. That could work. I mean, this is just brainstorming, right now, here. But it would be cool. Fans could throw in their wish lists and stuff like that. What you should do is do a check on your readers, take a poll – would you like to see In Flames do this? – just for fun, to see the reaction!
Mike: That’s a great idea for a tour, and it’d be the best way to please as many people as possible, with such a huge catalogue where every album is so different. That leads me to another question. In Flames’ overall sound has ALWAYS been evolving, but at certain points down the line, a number of dissatisfied fans have rejected that evolution and jumped ship. It seems there are people out there who expect and demand that In Flames sound a specific way, and then write you off when you don’t. What’s your reaction to that situation, where some people just can’t seem to accept In Flames as lovers of music who want to do something different every time?
Niclas: I think you put it really well with “love of music.” That’s what it’s all about. We listen to all kinds of stuff, and we’re not fifteen years old anymore, like “I only love AC/DC, fuck you.” [Laughs] You can’t deny good music, whether it’s Depeche Mode or Peter Gabriel or Morbid Angel or the new Van Halen album. You can’t deny that it’s fucking awesome. Nowadays, it’s more like, you have your own style of playing guitar, you’ve got your own style of songwriting and all that. For me as a songwriter, I tend to get inspired by feelings, vibes, and environments – like being here with you tonight. Just chatting and having a relaxed, good time. That’s something that inspires me. Just a comparison: when I wrote the new Engel album, I was really into… I had just Motörhead going on. Y’know, “Bomber” and all that stuff. And “No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith,” AGAIN. So I decided I wanted this to be a rock and roll album, but a rock and roll album in MY world of rock and roll. I wanted to have big beats – boom, boom, boom! – and I built this rock and roll world through beats. That’s what Engel is all about: industrial meets metal. We wanted to go into the studio and just do it, without thinking “Oh, should we do this?” And blah, blah, blah. We had the songs, and we just did them. Wham, bam! “This is rock and roll.” Of course, you’ll be listening and thinking, “OH MAN, THIS IS FUCKING MASSIVE AND HEAVY!” But in my world, it’s rock and roll, because that’s the way I wrote the songs and that’s the way we recorded them. That’s the way it is with In Flames as well, because we get inspired by being out there and kicking it, like here in North America. So it’s not like we’re listening to new stuff and thinking “Oh, we’ve gotta do this or copy that.” Not that at all. We just go with the flow and with what we feel. It comes from the inside. Listening to the new album, I like the fact that it has diversity and dynamics. And the cool thing is that the last song, “Liberation,” reminds me of watching that series “Boardwalk Empire.” Like, “What the fuck? I need the next season NOW, for God’s sake! I need it now!” [Laughs] That feeling, guessing what’s gonna happen, goes with “Liberation.” You wonder, “What’s up next?” That’s part of the love of music.
Mike: Which new songs do you most enjoy playing live, or just listening to?
Niclas: I like the singles, because they’re very simple in shape and form, but still fucking heavy. Also, they’re singalong friendly. Everyone can get into it. And then I like the fast songs on the album. Like I said, it’s so dynamic; there’s so much to it. [Points at my Machine Head beanie] That goes for Machine Head as well. They play around a lot with dynamics as well.
Mike: Now that you’re with In Flames full time, do you have any idea of where you’d like things to go, musically, in the future?
Niclas: It’s too early to say stuff like that, because we’re in the middle of the touring cycle, and we’re out here to put on our best show ever, every night. I write music all the time. The times I don’t play guitar, I write music in my head, just by absorbing stuff. So as soon as we get home for a little time off, we’ll put those ideas on the table and go, “Okay, what do we have here?” And then try to bring it out.
Mike: To put it another way: when you daydream, let’s say, do you imagine creating stuff like the hooky, chorus-based songs you like on the new album, or do you think, “I want to be as fucking heavy as possible and do another ‘Pinball Map!’ or something along those lines?
Niclas: It would be cool to do another song like “Pinball Map,” sure. I mean, I love that song. That’d be cool.
Mike: As far as other projects go, aside from Engel, the band that first introduced us to you was Gardenian.
Niclas: Yes! I was waiting for that to come up. [Laughs]
Mike: Yeah, I miss it!
Niclas: Me too! Me too, actually. I mean, I still meet Jim [Kjell, ex-vocals/guitar] from time to time. Nowadays, we all have kids and all that, and yeah, he plays guitar at home and really wishes to be out there with an album and kicking it, and all that. And I would love to do it. I would LOVE to do a fourth album with Gardenian. That would be really cool. And maybe re-record the first one, “Two Feet Stand.”  It would be so cool to do stuff like that!
Mike: Gardenian popped up around the same time you first started working with In Flames. After so many years, if you were to do another Gardenian album, do you imagine picking up right where you left off musically, or do you think some influence would bleed over from Engel?
Niclas: No, Engel is something else. Engel is supposed to be simple, straightforward, industrial heavy metal, just going for it. Gardenian would be fucking… Yeah, that’s a good question! [Points] You’ve brought something to life. [Laughs] I think we would aim for the brutal. Of course, there’d be choruses, but not clean or anything like that. It would be full-on death metal.
Mike: So we have Gardenian and we have In Flames. Put them together and we have Passenger, your project with Anders. Are we going to hear anything from Passenger again?
Niclas: [Laughs] It’s the same thing, I’d love… Nowadays it’s more of a time thing. We’ve got wives and kids at home, and we’re out here now, and I’m doing all this Engel stuff and all that. The thing is, we recorded fourteen or fifteen songs for the second Passenger album at Studio Fredman, and you know what? We tore it apart. We didn’t think it would stand the test of time against the first one. And then Anders and I went out to tour, and we wrote like ten more songs. We’ve had a bunch of songs, just waiting to do something with them. It would be really cool, because “Passenger”  was really well received. The critics liked it and people seemed to like it as well. It seemed to make some sort of an impact, and for us, recording it was a huge pleasure. It was like, “Let’s dive into something we’ve never been into,” and we just went for it. Like, “Do we need that much distortion on the guitar?” “Yeah!” “No.” [Laughs] Like that.
Mike: I’m dying here, thinking about those fourteen or fifteen songs you wrote and then tore apart!
Niclas: We had all the drums on tape. I did the guitars, and I was supposed to add all the leads and melodies, and then we were like, “Hey, let’s reflect on this. No, we can’t do it. We have to wait.” But I WOULD love to do a second one. And until then, at least you’ll have Engel instead!
Mike: And In Flames, of course – which leads me to a question I like to ask a lot. I use the word “message,” and some people take it the wrong way and assume I’m talking about politics, and I’m really not. I’m just curious if there’s a certain overall vibe, feeling, or attitude you most wish to impart to your audience – whether when writing, recording, or performing?
Niclas: Well, since we’re out here on this six-week North American tour, I can only speak for what I feel today. And that is: I want this to be a fucking metal heaven tonight. Y’know, where we’re giving a hundred percent and getting it back from the audience, and they feel, “Hey, they’re here to play for US. This is not just another gig for them. They’re here to deliver.”
Mike: “Deliver Us.”
Niclas: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah, exactly. We get happy about that, and feel that everybody has something to take with them when they leave the venue, like, “Fuck, this an was amazing night. Hope to see you soon again!” That’s what I feel right now.
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