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The Weekly interview: At the Gates vocalist Tomas Lindberg

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At the Gates makes its Las Vegas debut at the House of Blues February 18.
Annie Zaleski

Legendary Swedish death metal band At the Gates will make its Las Vegas debut at the House of Blues on February 18. Vocalist Tomas Lindberg—who says he’s never even been here before—checked in prior to the band’s U.S. tour (and appearance on the 70,000 Tons of Metal Cruise) to talk about At the Gates’ post-breakup life, returning strong with 2014’s At War With Reality and what new music he’s been digging.

At the Gates released At War With Reality, its first record in nearly 20 years, in 2014. Why was that the right time to write and release new music? I think me and Anders [Björler, guitar]—and the other guys as well, were ready at the same time. Before, maybe one of us had been interested in doing something new.

I think we were a little bit scared of jumping on the train, because before we did At War With Reality we were considered a classic band. We probably could go on forever just doing these festivals and whatever. But now, we’re going to be a contemporary band, and we would be on equal messes with all the other contemporary bands. (laughs) We stuck our necks out and lost momentum in the one way, for the sake of being creative. But it actually paid off. It made it even more interesting for people. It was apparently the right time.

I can name a dozen bands that take a break and then return and make a record, and it’s disappointing. It dampens your enthusiasm for the group, which is a bummer as a fan. We’re very picky ourselves. We knew what we didn’t want to do. We’ve seen stuff happen before to other bands. That made it easier for us going into it, once we had decided that we were going to do it. But also we said, “Let’s write it without telling anyone and see if it’s good enough to release.” We didn’t really write it as, “This is going to be a record.” We wrote it for ourselves, and then felt, “Oh, now we actually have a record’s worth of material that we like.” Then we contacted a record label and said, “Hey, we’ve got a record.” That made it easier for us, to write without the pressure.

How did your time away from At the Gates, and then playing in other bands, influence the music you wrote? This sounds like a standard answer, like a politician’s answer, but everything that you do influences the next thing you do. Of course, the stuff we did in between was there inside us when we wrote At War With Reality. But at the same time, we really wanted it to be At the Gates; we were really focused on it sounding like [us]. Through all these years, it grew on us what At the Gates was as well, so there was no question about, is this At the Gates or not?” There was some stuff that came up in the writing session that was great, but we thought, “This is not what we want At the Gates to sound like.” We know what At the Gates is. That’s what’s most important, I think. That’s what you hear on the record.

You recently participated in a documentary on 1995’s Slaughter of the Soul LP as part of the Metal Evolution: Albums series. As you were talking about the record and delving into it, were there any nuances or insights that surprised you? It’s been a few years since we recorded that record. So sometimes someone remembers something that someone else didn’t. (laughs) We fill in the gaps for each other. But it’s not like there’s something totally new, I guess—I’m always amazed at how people still cherish that record so much. It’s so rewarding that it still has that impact on people today.

Your rhythm section, bassist Jonas Björler and drummer Adrian Erlandsson, are members of The Haunted, the band opening for At the Gates on the U.S. tour. Are there any logistical challenges involved with them doing two different sets a night? We have actually tried it in Europe a few times on festivals, with a similar kind of time in between bands. It affects Adrian the most, the drummer, but he has been so focused on managing this, so he’s better than ever. He could probably pull off three sets now. (laughs)

At the Gates really helped set the template for the Gothenburg sound. Where do you see the influence most now? Is it in bands? An approach? An aesthetic? We are very Swedish, very humble. Success is something that you are ashamed of in Sweden. We really try to keep our feet on the ground and not think of ourselves in the third person. We don’t really notice so much of it; we don’t really listen to other bands that way, trying to see how they might be influenced by us or not.

When we started out, our goal was to not be restrained by any limits, really. We wanted to be able to incorporate whatever we wanted to into the extreme metal sound. That was an approach that was not very common in the early ’90s.

Younger bands have a different sphere of influence, worldview and perspective, because they didn’t live through it, so they’re kind of going back to it retroactively. That is when interesting things happen, in terms of how they incorporate sounds. We are very fortunate, in that sense, that when we were [ages] 10 or 12, the new wave of British heavy metal was the sh*t, really, in Sweden. Even on the charts, that was something everybody liked. We were just the right age to embrace that. And then coming into our pre-teens, thrash happened, which was an amazing outlet for that kind of aggression and emotion that we had at that time. After that, right when we were 16 or whatever, being able to think about maybe having your own creative outlet, we discovered the death-metal underground, which was the perfect thing for teenage angst, to be an outsider and embrace that. It was a struggle, because the underground was a lot of hard work back in those days, there was no Internet and all that. But we were also lucky to grow up in the scene in that way.

When I was a kid, Metallica was huge in America. You could see them on MTV, and hear their more commercial stuff—but then you could go back and listen to their earlier albums and have your mind blown. If it hadn’t been so popular, you would never have known about that stuff. You have gateways to the extreme music. I think a band like Slipknot has opened a lot of people’s minds to more extreme death metal that they probably didn’t even know existed. It’s one of those things. You have to be thankful for these bands.

You’re going on the 70,000 Tons of Metal Cruise before this run of U.S. dates. Have you done one of those cruises before? We were on the more extreme version of that a couple years back, it was called the Barge to Hell. So I’ve been on one of the cruises before, but not on the mega one. The one everyone talks about. It’s going to be crazy.

I’ve always wanted to know what it’s like going on one of those cruises. 70,000 Tons of Metal Cruise has, like, 70 bands. It’s like a European festival, but on the water. As a concert-goer, I think it probably is amazing to catch all these great bands at one time, and also get some sun in the middle of winter. It’s an experience, is how I would call it.

After you do the U.S. tour, I see you have some sporadic dates in Europe. What else are you looking at for the rest of 2016? A lot of European festivals for the summer. After that we’ll see if we want to continue touring this one [or] if we want to take a break. We want to live here and now in the moment, because now the moment for us is really great. We don’t want to spoil that by wondering too much about what we’re going to do after the moment. That’s what happened to us after Slaughter of the Soul—we had too much pressure, we focused too much on the wrong things and all of a sudden we weren’t a band anymore. Everything has to be right this time.

I was checking out your Spotify playlists of new things you’re digging, including Bat for Lashes’ cover of Depeche Mode’s “Strangelove.” What are the best things you heard in 2015? Anyone that hasn’t heard the Swedish band Graveyard should go check it out; their stuff’s amazing. There’s an American band Kowloon Walled City, it’s really good. They’re taking the AmRep, noisy rock thing into this metal. It’s amazing stuff. I love the new Grimes record, even if it’s commercial.

I love it, too. I’m waiting for the new Daughter record. Have you heard Mitski? It’s a female singer-songwriter, [and] it’s really good. Grave Ritual came out with a great record, Autopsy came out with a great record. Deafheaven, of course. FKA Twigs came out with a new record as well. There’s so much stuff!

At the Gates With Decapitated, The Haunted, Harm’s Way. February 18, 5:30 p.m., $23. House of Blues, 702-732-7600.

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