Dan Swano Talks New Project Witherscape And Upcoming Album "The Inheritance"
A legend in the European metal scene, Dan Swanö has been involved in dozens of albums and projects on both the producing side and the performing side.
In years gone by, Swanö's musical credits included underground gems like Edge of Sanity and Nightingale, along with being involved with acts such as Bloodbath, Diabolical Masquerade, and many more. Over the last decade his focus shifted much more to a behind-the-scenes role, creating a build up of creativity that now finally sees its outlet: Witherscape.
Dan came together with Swedish multi-instrumentalist Ragnar Widerberg to form Witherscape, which will release debut album "The Inheritance" on July 29th in Europe and August 6th in North America via Century Media Records.
In our new interview with Dan Swanö, he explains the concept behind the album's story line, what it was like to switch from producer to musician, and how getting back into drumming and growling was a physically taxing experience. Read on to see Dan's thoughts on these issues and much more.
xFiruath: This is your third straight day of interviews for Witherscape, isn’t it?
Dan: Yeah I get a few every day and we try to keep it down to around 25 minutes. For me it’s OK though because I’m a talkative guy. I once did an interview for eight hours with a guy. This is pretty cool, I’m getting warmed up.
xFiruath: To get started, tell me about the concept behind the album with the creepy old house.
Dan: Well, I can’t tell you that much, we’ve chosen to kind of keep it away from a talking thing, because it’s not so dark and evil over the phone, you know what I mean? We want it to come more through the music, but I can give you an introduction to it. It’s set in Stockholm in 1880 with a wealthy family were everything is super nice and happy, but all of a sudden the family members start dying one by one from this extremely strange disease. They have hallucinations and hear crickets and see a ghost-like figure. The only one to survive is one son of the family. After all the funerals, the lawyer comes to him and tells him about a house and gives him keys to the estate. But the guy is like “what estate?” because he’s never heard of it before. So he wonders how the family could keep that from him. So he goes there and eventually he finds his way through this old strange village and sees the house, which you see on the record cover, and that’s about as far as I want to go with the story. I think you can imagine what’s happening in this sort of thing when a guy shows up at an old house and things aren’t as they should be. I love that kind of movie, where there’s a strange child or being, or a shadow moves by, or there’s a face in the window and you get goosebumps. The songs aren’t really like something jumps out of the shadows and splits your skull open, it’s more a strange vibe to the whole thing, and that’s why we chose to have the sound of crickets throughout the album. I think they’re a pretty weird animal. They just sit around all day making that sick noise.
xFiruath: Who did the artwork of the house on the album’s cover?
Dan: Travis Smith, it was a pleasure working with him. He’s one of the best graphic artists of our generation. He’s not like “oh fuck, I won’t do that, I’m Travis Smith and this is my style, fuck off.” We had specifics we wanted, the house must be on the right, and this must go up there, more trees, more clouds, etc. and he’s just like “OK, I’m on it.” It’s like the way I mix and master for other bands. They are the boss, if they want more kick drum and I think it’s loud enough already, they still get more kick drum. They will listen to their record until they die, but maybe I won’t. So this way he was kind of the vessel for our weird ideas and he made them come to life.
xFiruath: For this album you’ve moved from your traditional producer role to the creative musician role. Is that difficult for you or did it come easily?
Dan: If you would have asked me when I made my first attempts at playing drums again I probably would have screamed. I remember going to the rehearsal room and trying to get back on the drum stool and I had blisters all over my hands. I woke up the next morning and it was like someone was pounding my arms and legs all night. I’m not really in shape, I’m an out of shape kind of guy, so I had to kind of re-learn the whole process. I did not want to program the drums or bring in a session drummer, I wanted to play the drums myself, so it was boot camp learning how to do it again. Early on in the process we decided not to use a click track, which is very normal in metal today, all the songs have the same fucking tempo all the way through. So we did the pre-production without the click track and I analyzed where it was cool for the material to slow in tempo and where it was sucky and I still wasn’t 100% there in the tempo, so at the end of the record I’d say that there was a lot of physical pain for me, and Ragnar my co-pilot in this project suffered a lot because I can be quite the asshole actually. He did it perfectly, he just knew it wasn’t a personal thing, I just wanted the riffs to be presented in the way they were supposed to and be eternalized on this album. I don’t want to hear it later and think “fuck, why didn’t we play it this way instead?”
xFiruath: You are also doing harsh and clean vocals on this album, so how is your throat treating you?
Dan: Horrible. Actually the most painful thing of the whole recording was the lines of growling. I went to work in the studio and an hour before going home I was doing a few lines of growling, but my voice just completely gave out. I couldn’t talk after like two verses. Then when my voice was healing I’d go at it again for a few choruses or verses, and eventually I got this virgin kind of raspiness in my voice from when I did my first growls, but I still have the stomach power. I’m very loud when I growl, I’d say it’s like 100 decibels, it’s super loud. My whole body is fucked up, it’s not like I could sit down and growl here and now and then go talk to someone, it doesn’t work that way. So I had to plan it carefully and there’s no way I could ever perform it on stage, I mean I’d do a few lines and then they’d take me to the hospital. The clean singing on the other hand was extremely painless, I practiced so much and found out a few things about monitoring music while singing to make the pitch right on from the beginning. So there’s no tuning or faking, it’s all takes. When the take wasn’t what I wanted I just did it again. 50 takes and I put the best pieces together, so it’s all me when I was super inspired.
xFiruath: What’s the balance on the album between the heavy and atmospheric parts? Is it 50/50 or more skewed towards one or the other?
Dan: I would say all the songs but one have a slow, soft part that lets you come down a little bit from all the metal. But the album never really goes beyond what you hear on the already released track “Astrid Falls,” it was the perfect pilot track for the record. There’s not any blast beats or anything like that, it’s a hard rock record with some growling and metal riffs thrown in, that’s what I wanted to do. I wasn’t after the death metal sound, I wanted it to have some growling because I like that dark twist. One of the first death metal growls is on the track “Victim of Changes” from Judas Priest. I thought, why didn’t they do more of that? They could have been pioneers of death metal.
xFiruath: How did you end up with Century Media for this album’s release?
Dan: I started working with Century Media through some tribute things, I did a song with Peter from Hypocrisy and Pain on the Dio tribute. I worked with Century Media on that tribute and I thought these guys were more serious about this one track on this sampler than the other record labels I’d been on had been for full-length albums. Then they did the Bloodbath mini-album, and we saw publishing money and everything so it was like “this is what it’s like to be a on a real label, cool!” I wanted to quit all other labels and sign fresh with a new label. There’s so many personal connections for me with Century Media, so it turned out I could use this A&R guy I’ve known for years, which is important, because if you work with an asshole at a big label, you won’t be happy there. So I’m super happy with my A&R guy because he was involved at just the right moment. The owner is a friend of the family, and the woman who runs Century Media Europe used to run Black Mark back when Edge of Sanity was actually working, so there were so many things aligning. We drew up all the paper work like a year ago and they bought some old catalog stuff, so they will also be re-introducing me to the metal scene again, but through bigger channels.
xFiruath: Something I wasn’t clear about on Witherscape was the lineup. You made it sound like it’s just you and Ragnar. Are there other guest musicians on the album?
Dan: Yes, there were guest musicians, but they are still secret. I think they will be revealed soon. Century Media knows how to build up the vibe for the new release, and I’m not going to interfere with that. They know their stuff. I think they will present them in a few weeks along with another single from the record.
xFiruath: Are there extra songs not on the album that will show up later?
Dan: Not Witherscape material, but we did record two cover songs because we thought it would be funny. It was something we did in the pre-production. Nobody was expecting anything out of these two songs, but they turned out great so we decided to record them for the album. We were thinking maybe when we got a good label we could release a picture vinyl or whatever, but it turned out there would be a need for bonus material on the deluxe version, so there’s two covers totally Witherscape-ified. The special edition includes those, along with a short story about the concept and some additional pictures.
xFiruath: So I’m guessing with the vocal issues this will only be a studio project and won’t see live appearances?
Dan: I know that “no” is a really strong word, and way back when we said Bloodbath would never play live, and sometimes things just happen. Bloodbath turned into this weird phenomenon where everyone was hyping it and promoters were saying, “here’s a shitload of money, get on that stage and make a DVD or whatever.” I would never have thought about that ever in the first days of Bloodbath, it was just for fun. Witherscape, I would want this to look and sound as good on stage as on the album. I want the stage to be properly lit with cool stuff, and to transform all the record into a live thing. I mean I’m not an octopus. We only have two arms. I would do drums and sing clean, we’d need a growling guy who sounds like me, Ragnar would need to find another guitar play and bass player, there would be a lot of hard work. That kind of work costs money. The fact that I’m living in Germany and Ragnar is living in Sweden, it’s a whole big thing just to meet up. At this point I’d say it’s not happening for this record, not in this time frame when the record is still out and hot. But maybe for the next festival season or for the next record when we’re well known. We still don’t know what the reaction will be and how the sales will be.
xFiruath: Do you get to shows often and how’s your local metal scene there in Germany?
Dan: The local scene I think has one band really, Blind Guardian. That’s the “local” band here, apart from that we have some cool studios. I think when you go out a bit to like Dusseldorf or Dortmund or those you have really cool stuff going on. I like going to Holland, I saw a band there which was a two hour car drive. But in Sweden it would be a two hour car drive to the fucking airport, then you sit on the airplane and drive to the show. One of my favorite bands Toto played in Lorelei, which was a two and a half hour drive to see them. I love that about Germany, so many cool bands show up here. You get a little bit spoiled, it’s like “Amorphis is playing a few hours away, nah, let’s watch TV.” I love it here.
xFiruath: With the work going on for Witherscape, are you still doing your mixing and producing for other bands, and have you heard anything really interesting lately?
Dan: Witherscape for me is a hobby thing that is finally getting released, it was cooking for three years and I wasn’t really sure it would ever get released. If it had been refused by Century Media for some reason I probably would have just not released it. At the moment I’m working with Hail of Bullets, the next record from those guys I’m mixing it. There’s lots of cool work coming up from unknown bands to bigger names. I’m working with Pain of Salvation for a bonus DVD. Any kind of stuff I get involved with is full on and super serious. I do have a shitload of work, that’s for sure.
xFiruath: Anything else you’d like to add?
Dan: I just want to thank all the people who have supported me and my bands from 1990 to the point where I disappeared off the radar for a few years, and the people who are deciding to come back with me on this new journey. I don’t know how many years it can go on, but I see some death metal guys in their ‘50s, so it will go on forever in this genre. I feel revitalized. I think a lot of musicians should take a few years off, but they cannot because you can’t say “I’m tired of working in the factory, I’ll have a few years off.” You can’t do that. But I could tell my musician to have a rest. There were hundreds of songs written and now the engineering guy in me knows his shit enough and the musician in me needed to be revitalized. It just flew out of my fingers and I have material for lots of other things, I have a whole new Nightingale record just from being inspired by the Witherscape writing. So I’ve written some other more brutal stuff. The musician is alive now and it’s great to jump from being the mixing guy to the music guy. It’s what I’ve always dreamed off, doing both things well and having a secure outlet. I have a good label for music, and I have a good thing going on with the mixing and the business side of it works out.
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