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Death Metal, First And Foremost: Talking With At The Gate’s Tomas Lindberg At Maryland Deathfest

When you picture Tomas “Tompa” Lindberg, he is at the front of a stage, crouched, mouth open in an unending scream, hands gnarled into claws, and a fierce wind blowing his hair back while heat waves emanate from him. That’s how he looked — to me, anyway — as At The Gates, the seminal Swedish death metal band he fronts, played Maryland Deathfest for the first time. Even despite some technical difficulties early on in their set, the band blew the doors off Baltimore, and Lindberg was very much the rugged, demonic tormentor the crowd desired.

In the lobby of the Home2 Suites Hilton where I meet him, Lindberg takes on a different but no less welcome personage: that of an old soul. He’s eloquent, easy to talk to, and very human; our conversation begins discussing how rough parts of Baltimore can be, and whether or not I’ve seen The Wire. He mentions that he could see one of the show’s landmarks, the Baltimore Sun building, from the Edison Lot where the festival is taking place, and that he caught himself taking pictures.

“It’s cool, that you can still be a tourist in places like this,” I say.

“Well, and at this festival, also just being a fan,” he responds. “Hanging out with all these bands. It’s good.”

— Scab Casserole

I guess one of the first things I wanted to ask you was, if you were to tell a fan to see one band other than At The Gates, who would it be?

One of the main bands I wanted to see that I missed was The Ruins of Beverast. They were playing just as we got in. But I caught Incantation and they were great. Solstafir and Agalloch were great. Tonight, Dark Angel, Sacrifice of course. . .Hooded Menace, Asphyx. And that [MDF punk/crust venue Baltimore] Soundstage is a bit too far, so I might miss some of the bands there, like Black Breath. It’s too much.

Last night, I had to haul over there to see Impaled. It was a jog.

One of those guys was at our show. You must’ve been jogging right next to each other.

Well, first off, your performance last night was awesome.

It was not the best At The Gates show, with the technical problems and shit like that, but we pulled through. It kind of affected us as well, the momentum and all, but I think we pulled through.

Were the difficulties anything worth mentioning, or just your basic bullshit?

Nah, it was just, like. . .you know, to get into it in detail would be blaming somebody else. I don’t know if it was our road crew or the festival staff, but someone mic’ed the wrong amp. Anders’ guitar was inaudible for the first two songs, or not loud enough anyways. But you know, we’ve dealt with worse stuff. Drum heads breaking. . .what doesn’t kill us.

With playing the live shows and getting ready to record the new album, what’s been the greatest difference between what you’re doing now and how you did it back in the Slaughter of the Soul era?

I guess it’s like coming home. It’s as important as it was back in the day, but back in the day it was stressfully important. Negatively important. These days, it’s like a bunch of really good friends who know each other from the inside out. I mean, this sounds like bullshit, but we are the best of friends. We hang out, we work well together. We hang, and we love it. It makes it so easy and relaxed. We also have this rule: total democracy. And we’re not worried about making money, because we all have steady jobs. We’re down-to-earth normal people, and we do this as a fun thing. So there’s no stress about careers. It’s the perfect situation. That’s what’s changed, man — we can almost do whatever we want. There are two ways of going into it: you can stress about trying to create an album that pleases everybody, and overthink it, or you can just let the music take you, and go with that. It’s natural. It’s easygoing but still important.

It’s interesting you say that — I feel like for a lot of bands who are putting out their first album in this long, there’s this worry of, ‘Well, we have to please the fans of this, the fans of that…’

And I think that idea has been floating around in the back of our heads, on and off. In a way. . .we announced the whole thing when we were done with everything. I mean, we haven’t recorded it yet, but the lyrics, the demos, the writing, the concepts, it was done when we announced it. We announced it when we said, “Yeah, this is going to be an album. This is good enough.” Then we went public. So we were undercover for a bit. Answering questions like, “No, it’s never going to happen,” and then waiting a bit, just to buy time.

That’s tough, having to turn people away when you’ve got something going on behind the scenes!

We did that with Close-Up Magazine, the biggest Swedish extreme music magazine. The guy was actually in my home, on my couch, and I know the guy, and here I am lying to him! They wanted the cover story for the festival they were doing, but we couldn’t talk about that! Of course, then a couple months later, I’m like, “Okay, maybe we can do another interview. . .”

Was there a point where you were like, ‘Hey, it’s time, let’s do another At The Gates record,’ or was it slow-brewing since the 2011 tour?

It was more the latter. I think from Anders standpoint, it might have been more of a conscious issue. When he first came to us with the material, he was like, “Could this be something? Are these…At The Gates songs?” and we came back, “Yeah!” That’s when the whole idea came to life, because we need him. He’s like 70 percent of the song-writing. So I would say, when we thought about it, we thought, we’re a great bunch of friends, we can go anywhere traveling, but there’s one thing we haven’t done together in a while, and that’s be creative together. Because that’s what bands do. This year when we’ve been writing the album has been amazing. We’ve become even closer with each other. That alone was worth it. Even if it’s turned down by everybody else, this process has been amazing.

You’ve said before that you’re not trying to make Slaughter of the Soul II, but last night I noticed a lot of people going nuts for some of the older stuff. Do you ever feel like Slaughter overshadows that material?

I mean, there are always trends in this musical thing. Remember, back in the day, when Slaughter of the Soul came out, we were an underground death metal band. It was a little more accessible, I guess, but not much. It was still pretty heavy and underground. And then the whole other thing happened — the people being inspired by that, In Flames, or whatever — and so the young kids now think of Slaughter of the Soul as part of that, a more commercial album, because it spawned these other dudes. So then they want to go old-school, “Yeah, I like At The Gates, but only the old stuff.” We haven’t really thought about how we want to present it, but we know these songs we have written will fit perfectly into the set. It’s more melodic, melancholic, desperate like the old stuff, and the aggressive thrash stuff of Slaughter. . .mixed together. It sounds like an identity of the band. For us, it’s easy.

I was noticing last night — I think of Slaughter of the Soul as very mainstream breakthrough stuff sometimes, but watching the material live, you remember how much it’s this punishing death metal record.

That’s what it was! I remember a few weeks ago, I was at this festival and [guitarist John] McEntee was there, and he told me he recently had to defend Slaughter of the Soul to these ultra-technical brutal death metal dudes! They were like, “Ugh, it’s so melodic,” and he had to remind them, “No, it’s a death metal album! You weren’t there! You don’t understand!” It’s a death metal album, first and foremost. And this is going to be a death metal album too.

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