Nathan T. Birk
For as unjustifiably maligned as the heavy-metal world may be by the non-metal press, few of those naysayers could deny – if given a proper introduction – the power and ingenuity of In Flames, quite possibly the metal band destined to break more boundaries and barriers between the two worlds without comprising their integrity or credibility. And thus far, the Gothenburg, Sweden quintet has managed to work their way toward that Holy Grail, each successive record of theirs upping the ante for true heavy metal that pushes envelopes while simultaneously remaining the logical next step in the band’s impressive, still-unfolding catalog.
Formed in 1990 by über-guitarist Jesper Stromblad (previously of Ceremonial Oath, and along with vocalist Anders Friden, the only original member still in the band today), In Flames have seen a slew of lineups come and go, but at each step of the way, every lineup served as an integral part in the ongoing puzzle. In Flames’ first two records – the Lunar Strain album and the Subterranean EP, both from 1994 – were the band’s humble origins, both releases displaying an at-the-time unique mix of Swedish death metal and NWOBHM-inspired melody. The following year, however, saw the release of the band’s first truly classic record, The Jester Race. Almost as if the previous two records hadn’t existed, the album served as the foundation for the modern In Flames sound: Friden’s emotional, multi-dimensional vocals, which juggle decipherable growls and screeches with cleanly sung vox; guitar work that makes full use of two six-stringers, balancing instantly ingraining melodies and harmonies with thoughtful aggression and unparalleled intensity, perpetually walking the line between jaw-dropping lead work and crushing riffery; and a booming rhythm section who keenly knows the power of dynamics, often peppering faster tempos with fist-pumping down-tempo shifts. In sum, extremely aggressive and complicated music has never been so infectiously catchy and accessible, or vice versa, as In Flames have.
After The Jester Race, In Flames rose like a phoenix out of the underground and landed themselves much critical success, brisk record sales, and hectic tour schedules – above all, the band inspired countless death-metal bands to go in a more-melodic direction, if not to totally rip them off (this style-jacking continues today). The attendant buzz culminated in 1997’s Whoracle, another ruby in the In Flames crown that found the band experimenting with more-ambitious sonics and, at the same time, more accessibility. Another two years went by before the next album saw the light of day, but what a landmark album it was. Last year, as the band’s name found its way onto every metalhead’s tongue, Colony firmly established In Flames as the new kings of modern metal, the new breed of aggressive perfection – and, finally, it found the band a stable lineup.
With the band’s newest album, the thoroughly astounding Clayman, hitting the streets weeks ago after a mere 10 months (and, once again, much touring) since the release of Colony, In Flames are once again set to conquer the world – and, especially, America. Gearing up for an extensive tour of the States with Earth Crisis and Skinlab set for this month, drummer cumguitarist and long-time member Bjorn Gelotte gave the lowdown on setting the world aflame.
Though every In Flames record has maintained the band’s unique style, each one up to Clayman possesses a unique aura unlike the one before it. Yet, there seems to be a certain consistency between Colony and Clayman. What would you attribute this to?
The big thing is that we have a same lineup. I think that (was) very important for how this one [Clayman] turned out, because we toured so much together for a year, both Europe and then the U.S., and learned so much about each other and got really tight as a family, and I think that really reflects in the album. Also, the fact that we played with such great bands, such as Arch Enemy, one of my favorite bands, and Dark Tranquility and then Moonspell in the States. And, of course, everybody now is very comfortable with what they’re doing, so we get better as we tour and play and other things.
What would you say your satisfaction level with Clayman is compared to the previous albums?
The latest one is always the highest, knowing that it was the most fresh – the songs you haven’t played live yet. It’s… the best so far, for more reasons because, as I said, the lineup is the same. Everything we wrote this time (was) as a group and then (we) threw it all together – the music, the lyrics, those sorts of things. When we came home from the tour, we had all the energy, the inspiration and started making the songs, and it took about a month to complete the songs. We definitely did it all together, the production and everything, and it gives you a better perspective.
Speaking of the consistent lineup for once – and I don’t mean that as slight – how is the chemistry in the band now, not only from a songwriting standpoint, but especially, live?
I don’t think it’s been any better than it is now because, first, you have all this touring and stuff, and now everybody knows their spot in the band, that they’re equal and important as everyone else, if it is vocals, bass, drums or guitar. Everybody’s grown so tight together, and, in fact, I think a lot of the credit should be given to Daniel [Svensson, drums] and Peter [Iwers, bass]. Without them, there would probably be no live show at all – there’d be no In Flames, really. And even though they are the rhythm guys, it pretty much goes to show you that chemistry, the kind of vibe we have right now.
Except for one instrumental interlude [“Pallar Anders Visa”], ever since Colony you guys have abandoned, for the most part, the use of acoustic guitars. Was this a conscious decision, maybe?
No, like everything instrumentally, it’s just natural. Except for that track, it wasn’t a conscious decision. They’ll probably appear in the future, as well, but it didn’t feel natural, like “we’ve got to do that” – it didn’t feel like it fitted in. So, we did that during Colony instead of going with our “traditions.” It didn’t feel like it needed that option because this one, we think, is so diverse as it is and also very dynamic – it didn’t need an instrumental song or it didn’t need an acoustic guitar song.
Relating to that, also since Colony, you guys have used keyboards more prominently, usually for an added atmosphere.
We don’t really look at it as atmosphere – we view it more as an added dimension. We put all the keyboards pretty much in the background, just (enough) so you can’t really tell what’s going on in the song.
More as added texture, then.
Yeah, yeah, texture – that’s the right word, but also just to keep rolling with the music. And sometimes, very much since Colony, we follow the chorus line or the guitar riffs and go somewhere with them – that, and it’s very important to add (other parts). Otherwise, you’re just nipping the album without much trouble or whatnot. It’s just an extra dimension, really.
Following up on Clayman, there’s one song in particular that, to me, is one of the band’s finest moments, and that is “Swim.” How the hell did you guys think of that guitar lead?! I mean, it’s utterly unbelievable!
I think… the riff is actually Jesper’s and the solo is mine. I mean, we always do the music; it’s always like that. He’ll come up with an idea and I’ll fill it, or the other way around – I’ll come up with the music and he’ll fill it in. It’s always like that in a band, so it’s really hard to tell where it comes from. Sooner or later you’ll guess who did it, but it really doesn’t matter then [laughs]. Then also, of course, the way we arranged it was very important – the whole group did it. So that’s a big difference from our previous records.
So, eventually, when you guys are more rich and famous than Metallica, there won’t be any squabbling over song royalties, eh?
Nah, nah, nah – we won’t have to worry about that [laughs] ever.
In the context of the In Flames sound, how was your transition – both as a musician and as a songwriter – from playing drums to playing guitar?
It was really big because every guitarist has their own sound. It’s in their fingers; it’s nothing like taking from someone or copying from someone or something technical. I think that changed, of course, when I finally got to play the guitar instead, taking over for Glenn [Ljungstrom, rhythm guitarist; departed in 1997, during the recording of Whoracle]. I think I was a bit more rock-ish, like Zakk Wylde and stuff, if that tells you something [laughs], and you get influenced by that. Of course, I haven’t been more rockin’… how do you say it? Rock-ish?
Rock n’ roll?
Yeah, a bit more of that than Glenn had, and it definitely shows.
Yeah, it’s definitely shown since Colony. Without a doubt, it’s a metal album, yet it appeals on so many more levels than just that. It has a strong rock n’ roll punch to it.
Of course, that was a big difference, but the main difference was that I didn’t play drums any more [laughs], because Dan is so much better than I ever was, and he works really, really well with Peter. I think that’s the main difference – it’s not me, it’s them.
So, live, do you have more fun playing guitar?
Yeah, definitely. I feel like I learn something new every day, actually. I didn’t do that when I played the drums. So that’s why chose to do this instead -it was much easier for us. But then, also, I was more comfortable with the whole group, and the whole group was more comfortable being together. We didn’t have to teach another guitarist or emergency member – actually, we did, but only a few times.
Where do you see the band in 10 years? And, relatingly, 10 years after you break up? How would you want people to appreciate In Flames?
10 years, huh? [Pauses] Old, old… beer bellies, playing the same old crappy instruments [laughs]. I don’t know… I don’t know. We always do it like this – we take one step at a time. That goes both for our so-called success and for our music. We take a small step every time, just (enough) not to lose our … bearings, y’know, just to know we are old. It’s hard to tell – it’s really hard to tell where we’ll be in 10 years. Hopefully, we’ll be still be playing in this band. And if we’re not in 10 years, then I would like for In Flames to be a part of heavy-metal history – y’know, Gothenburg, death metal, Swedish.
That’s interesting that you brought up Gothenburg, because many people in the metal world saw you guys and At the Gates as the leaders of that scene, as its foremost innovators. But because, obviously, you guys have stuck around longer and, more so, have achieved a relative wealth of commercial success, many people see In Flames as somehow being less “true.” How would you counter such allegations?
Of course, we weren’t necessarily the ones who started it all – there was Dark Tranquility, as well. And, of course, the first few (In Flames) albums … they’re very similar, y’know, very much influenced by the same things. But after that, every band took a step in their own direction. And I think that’s natural, as well, because you don’t want to be compared to everybody else. Then you find your own musical identity. [Long pause] If you don’t do that, I don’t think anything will happen to you – nothing will happen for you.
And you’ll be playing to the same people all the time, too.
Yeah, yeah, and also, it’s not like you have to change – it’s that you take the music you’ve found and then bring it to the next level. It’s not like you have to follow trends or anything like that. Any of the great bands that still exist today (are still around because they) haven’t followed trends
Relating to that, do you see In Flames as even remotely related to death metal anymore? Or maybe as a metal band with death-metal influences?
I don’t know. I mean, we listen to all different kinds of music, but there are people with differing opinions about what death metal is. The thing is, I don’t think we play death metal in any way. The only thing that is, y’know, even remotely close to death metal is (Anders Friden’s) vocals, and they’re not even death metal either. So, I mean… we don’t sing about the same things, the same concepts. I don’t know, maybe. It definitely feels like death metal, but, personally, I think we’re heavy metal – aggressive heavy metal.
In parting, Bjorn intimated that if this upcoming tour goes as well as the band expects, a live album (which would be In Flames’ first one) could be in the works, especially since a few bootleg live CDs have been floating around here and there on eBay.