Interview: Fred Estby (Dismember)
The audio industry is a field filled with metalheads. Technical music and technical work go hand in hand.
A few nights ago, I met another metalhead engineer. Unlike many of his peers, he didn’t establish his legend purely from producing great records, though he has done plenty of that. I’m talking about Fred Estby, the former drummer of Swedish death metal legends, winner of the 1991 Swedish Death Metal Championship, Dismember. Estby now runs front-of-house sound for various touring bands.
I had an impromptu chat with Estby after he finished his night of work with Tribulation. We explored his history with sound engineering, the early roots of Dismember and what the future holds for the band’s legacy.
Can you tell me about when you first got into sound?
You know, we recorded demos at Sunlight and then we did the first album there. Tomas [Skogsberg, producer] was really nice. Back then the boards had small knobs and everyone had to help out. When we did the mixes he was like, “You understand this shit, maybe you should look into this.” So I got an apprenticeship kind of thing with him.
You interned at Sunlight? I had no idea.
Yeah, he was so encouraging. “Oh great! Awesome.” I liked it so much, I got very involved.
So there was no mix automation on Like An Everflowing Stream? It was mixed in real-time?
It was like this! [Jabs an imaginary board with his hands] Sometimes you had to mute 16 channels, or have a ruler or something.
Did you record that album on an analog console? Do you remember the model?
I don’t remember the actual series, but I had never seen it before or after. It was a transistor design, not a valve-based one. It was good!
Do you remember the number of tracks it had on it?
I remember he had one 16 track and another 16 track chained together, and then he had another Fostex 16 track. After that when we needed more channels, once I started working there we synced them together. So we’d have to have a sync tone between the two.
One thing I think a lot of modern recording screws up is that everyone records a million tracks when they should just stick to a few and make good decisions. Do you remember how many tracks were used for your drums on Like an Everflowing Stream?
Kick, snare, three toms and overheads, so not that much.
Eight tracks then I guess: snare top, snare bottom--
Not even bottom! The thing was that the space he had back then was so small, so we couldn’t have a real drum kit. We had a real snare, but the rest was ddrums actually. The cymbals and the snare were the only real drum pieces. Same for the first Entombed album, the second Entombed album, the first Grave album. That’s how it was, it was just a small space.
Was the first album that you engineered Death Metal?
Yes. That time we got a new space in the same house, so we had a bigger recording studio. We sort of had two studios up and running, so I did everything myself. It’s kind of harsh, but you know…
“Harsh” in what regard?
Eh, the sound. I love that album. It’s my favorite Dismember album. It was a good time in a way, after Massive Killing Capacity I was like “We shouldn’t listen to labels, we shouldn’t listen to people telling us to go this or that way, let’s just fucking do it the way we should.” I took on the whole recording myself, so it was a proud kind of moment but now I realize that I made some mistakes.
I’m a mix engineer too, and I feel like it’s totally normal to feel that way about just about every project we take on. You listen back and you only think about what you should have done differently.
I know, but today it doesn’t matter what kind of studio I’m in, I know if this is good or this is bad. Now I know that if I’m not sure, I need a second test somewhere else. But back then, you sat there and did everything there and it would sound great there, but you take it somewhere else…You hear those things in hindsight.
You did Hate Campaign and then Where Iron Crosses Grow too. What kind of lessons did you pick up as you progressed as an engineer?
With Hate Campaign, I realized you have to have a really good setting. That album sounds kind of weird, I don’t know what happened there. I think I had bad monitor settings or something. I had new Genelec monitors, they felt good but something was probably wrong with the whole setup.
Like An Everflowing Stream turned 25 back in May. Dismember had actually broken up before that album came out, right? Was there a point when you were seeing your peers, guys like Entombed, making these albums and feeling like you needed to catch up?
Absolutely. Carnage was like…We were super young right? I kind of stopped school to play music and David [Blomqvist, guitar] and Robert [Senneback, guitar], who were also in Dismember at the time, they were one year younger but at the time that made a big difference. They were still in school and let’s put it this way- I was more driven. Being 16, 17 years old for me that was a big thing. I met Michael Amott, he was also driven and he was also older than me. I wanted to go on tour and make albums, I didn’t want to be stuck in a rehearsal space and wait for the other guys to finish school. So for Carnage it was like, “Let’s do this” and he was fine. But after the Carnage album he was off to London to do Carcass, so by that time the guys in Dismember were like “We’ve got one year left in school, so we want to do it.”
That album is now seen as pretty special. A lot of people look back on their first record, especially ones made back when they were kids like you did, and think of what they should have done differently. Considering that album is so highly regarded, what do you think of Like An Everflowing Stream 25 years later?
Let’s put it this way—the Carnage album we could have done a little bit better, but we took Dismember songs and put it on there. Johan [Liiva, vocals ex-Carnage, ex-Arch Enemy] was not able to move up to Stockholm, so we brought in Matti [Kärki, vocals]. We made fast decisions for that album. For Dismember, for the time being at least, we were more planned out. “We’re going to make this album, we have a label and we have a studio.” Everything was planned out even though by today’s measures, it was probably pretty quick. We had all the time that we needed to make the songs happen. We went into the studio for 12 days and it worked fine. We got what we needed from Tomas and he was so cool and helpful. We just put everything we had into that: the photos for the album, the artwork by Dan Seagrave, everything just luckily fell into place. I wouldn’t do anything differently if I could go back in time.
I just felt that…one side of us were getting pissed off with people doing bootlegs and shit. We’ve never made any money, I don’t expect us to make money from Dismember but I kind of feel bad about someone else making money from us for no reason. It’s so easy to just take a design, spend no time and print shirts. People that really want a Dismember shirt would get it from someone providing it, so therefore they’re going to buy it from whoever that is. The time has come for us to settle the score and actually do it ourselves. It’s a little bit like things coming full circle. People seem to be enjoying old-school death metal in a genuine way, which makes me feel like the energy is coming back.
I tried to buy a shirt this morning, but they were all sold out.
I’m doing it totally by myself out of New York. I got married last summer to a woman from the states, so I’d been going back and forth for two and a half years since I met her. Since December last year, I moved here.
Did you expect this reaction to just some t-shirts? That everyone would eat them all up?
No! I mean whoa, people are that interested in it? Henry [Yuan], who’s tour managing for Tribulation, he’s helped me out a lot. We have a friend doing the printing as well, so it’s just like “Thank you guys, for helping me out here!” We never had a shirt for the demo design, so I was stoked to do that in a nice way. Now we’re going to continue doing everything ourselves from now on. I’m doing all the merch from my apartment.
You actually left Dismember before they broke up, back in ’07. What prompted you to get back in the business of the band?
Me and David and Tobias, we did The Dagger together. That didn’t really work out. Starting a new band is hard, not that many people cared and we were on square-one. I’ve always been working in the music industry but the rest of the guys have day jobs. I’m usually down to work, but I started to go back and forth between America and Sweden and also be on tour doing sound for different bands. It made it totally impossible for The Dagger to keep on doing it. I felt like, “You know what, it seems like there is some interest for Dismember.” People were telling me that all the time. So maybe we should try to do some shows and get everything back. We always owned our rights to the albums and shirts, but there’s still loose ends to tie up. I just wanted to set the record straight and hopefully do some shows in the future.
You really want to play some shows?
Yeah, I’m totally psyched because I want to play. I love those guys. They’ve been my fucking dudes since we were 16, 15 even. I really want to do it, but we’ll see what happens. If it works out, it would be awesome. I’ve been talking to Richard [Cabeza, bass], he lives in Texas. Since I moved here, it’s been easier for us to talk. He’s also super psyched to do something. That kind of sparked me too, I was on tour doing sound for Millencolin, a Swedish skate punk band. We were in Texas and I hit him up asking if he wanted to come to the show. “I can’t, but dude it’s so nice talking to you,” so we’re on the phone for like an hour. “We should actually play together again, it would be so awesome.” “Dude, you’re fucking right.”
When was the last time you had talked to Matti?
You know, I’ve been texting a little bit with him but he’s been working a lot in Stockholm. I actually texted him yesterday and I haven’t heard back, but I hope he wants to do it. I hope the rest of the guys want to do it too, just for the fun of it.