An Evening with At the Gates

author EW date 17/01/10

Once upon a time there was a region in northern Europe which felt that it wanted to get involved in this ‘heavy metal’ craze which had been making some big noises in the middle years of the 1980s. It had seen NWoBHM in the early ‘80s, Bay Area thrash and Floridian death metal in the decades’ later years but now it was the time for it to make some noises of it’s own. From this desire of true and honest underground energies did the sheer quality and quantity of bands emerge in Norway and Sweden in the late 80s and early 90s in both the death and black metal fields, with countless legacies today still dominating the fields they developed nigh on two decades later. One of those names most universally respected and admired go by the name of At the Gates and it was with great pleasure I was presented with an opportunity recently that I just could not refuse in the name of the band’s upcoming career retrospective DVD, "The Flames Of The End".

Slaughter of the History

Formed in 1990 in the Gothenburg region of Sweden, At the Gates soon developed a sound that was distinctly different from the harsher noises coming from Stockholm and the likes of Nihilist, and later Entombed and Dismember. Emerging from the ashes of Grotesque, At the Gates comprised frontman Tomas 'Tompa', well-known in the scene at the time, with Björler brothers Anders (guitar) and Jonas (bass), Adrian Erlandsson (drums) and Alf Svensson (guitar). The "Gardens of Grief" demo in 1991 aided towards a signing with the British Peaceville records and later "The Red in the Sky Is Ours" (1992) and "With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness" (1993) before Svensson left to concentrate on a tattooing business he had been developing at the time. In stepped Martin Larsson to replace him with the band continuing unabated and soon releasing "Terminal Spirit Disease" (1994) and finally their most critically-acclaimed and successful record to date, "Slaughter of the Soul" (1995).

With the Björler brothers going separate ways in 1996 the band were left with no option but to call it a day on a highly productive and successful six years together. The Björler's and Erlandsson went on to form The Haunted with Tompa getting involved in all manner of bands (Lock Up, The Crown, Disfear) as At the Gates' legacy grew exponentially over the years to that of 'legendary' status until in late 2007 it was announced the band were reforming for a reunion tour in 2008 taking in festivals like Wacken, Bloodstock, Roskilde and Hellfest. With the reunion officially over and At the Gates laid to rest for the final time, "The Flames of the End" ties together the whole story of the band, serving as a retrospective that any fan of the band is implored to purchase after it's release on February 22nd.

The Flames of the End

Without wanting to give the game away too much, the 2 hour documentary "Under a Serpent Sun - the Story of At the Gates" comprising disc 1 of this three disc set is superlative in it's detailed foray into every aspect of the band's history. Comprised of footage filmed by Anders Björler and Alf Svensson in the early years with countless photos, anecdotes and some truly funny moments thrown into the mix I recommend this box set as much as I would any of their past albums. Picking out highlights from the exclusive cinema-screening I had the other day is difficult, but among those you could count include seeing pictures of the band members as young children and then unruly teenagers, what the hell was going on behind some dodgy album covers, and a few of the band's stories and tribulations from past tours with the likes of Napalm Death and My Dying Bride. Anyone too who has gone through the classic metal ritual of hanging out with mates drinking beer and headbanging to tunes being blasting out of a crappy stereo will feel at one with AtG's formative years, and when you consider that this is just disc 1, with the entire Wacken 2008 performance and 26 rare and archive live performances between 1991 and 2008 making up discs 2 and 3 respectively, more comprehensive "The Flames of the End" could not be.

Following the film's showing I sat down with Anders Björler and Adrian Erlandsson to ask them about it's construction, the reformation tour and all manner of other topics. The duo were so polite and forthcoming with their answers much of the 'interview' became a 'chat' and thus I never got round to asking half my planned questions, but for the full lowdown of what I did spit out, read on…

Terminal Interview Disease

EW: How's the evening been so far?
AB: It’s been great, it’s the first time I've seen the full version of the film.

EW: Ah, I heard you two nattering at the front but I thought you'd have seen it AB by now. I assume you hadn't too Anders?

AE: I saw most of it but there were some late content changes to it I hadn't.

AB: Like the porn stuff!

EW: It was brilliantly well done, I really enjoyed it.

AE: It's right up there with the Anvil documentary. I'm an avid fan of Anvil and especially their documentary.

AB: We love Spinal Tap and we love Anvil and the references there were spot on there with the life of touring and everything.

EW: The clip in the DVD of when your coach broke down on the tour with My Dying Bride and you had to pile into that tiny little car was pure Spinal Tap!

AE: That was a terrible reality!

AB: It was a terrible terrible reality back then but now we can laugh at it.

EW: I've done similar journeys myself crammed into vans and its not comfortable but it's something you've gotta experience isn't it...

AB: It's for the love of music.

AE: It was coming close to what happened in the World War trenches. Ok it was not that bad but it was close! There was no food..

AB: .. and nobody had the money to go home, there was no option at all. What could we do?

EW: What are your thoughts on the film now it's done and it's one final piece? I guess it's something you've worked towards for almost two decades?
AB: It's a big stone for my chest because it’s been a lot of emotional involvement and a lot of work - 3 years almost. There's been a lot of problems with the authoring so it's a big relief now.

EW: Why did you chose to record everything from day one?

AB: I didn't actually, I was lucky enough to get much old stuff from Alf so it's actually him filming. I was trying to reach him to get the old stuff as I kinda figured he had some film, especially rehearsal footage, but he was in China on vacation for 3 months so I was very lucky to get that footage one week before the deadline.

EW: I see. I'd read in the press release that you'd filmed a lot of it...

AB: Yes I had some footage, like a Grotesque rehearsal [Tompa's pre-AtG band] and then you have hundreds of pictures to go through from all the band members and the close circuit around us.

EW: I'm guessing it was a long process that brought back a lot of memories?

AB: Yep, we delved deeper and deeper, coming up with new ideas to portray in it.

EW: It was really good, but as was evidenced by Tompa in the film are we to take this as a final release ever by the band?
AB: Probably yes, a label might release something else but in terms of recording new stuff thats it.

EW: So you're not going to do as other reformed bands have done and record any new albums?

AB: Maybe a black metal album!

EW: You formed in the late 80's/early 90's just as Swedish extreme metal was really getting going, but I want to know what were your personal inspirations for forming a band back then?
AB: Tompa was a big driving force in the death metal scene so getting in contact with him in combination with listening to Metallica and Slayer, that was what inspired me to pick up a guitar in the first place. A friend of mine had the "Master of Puppets" tablature books so I started to learn a lot of Metallica things. That was in '89 I think. Then after meeting Tomas and listening to more and more underground death metal like Morbid Angel we wanted to form our own band, and that became Infestation.

EW: I guess it was always your intention to play with your brother?

AB: That kinda just happened. He actually played bass in Demolition, an old band, that was without me so he played an instrument before me. I started in February '90, which was four months before we formed At the Gates so I wasn't very skilled.

EW: I guess with you Adrian it was somewhat out the question playing with your brother both being drummers? How did that happen?

AE: I started playing to AC/DC "Back in Black" and Judas Priest "Screaming for Vengeance" and I just coerced my parents into buying me a kit. And then my brother [Daniel Erlandsson, now with Carcass & Arch Enemy] was playing tennis and he hated music. Then one day he fell out of a tree, climbing as kids do, broke his arm so he couldn't play tennis and came down and sat listening to me, day after day for about a week while I was practising really primal basic stuff. But he got really hooked and when his hand healed he never went back to playing tennis, he wanted to play drums instead and formed a band. We've both been an inspiration for each other ever since.

EW: What were your parents reactions as you grew up to playing in extreme metal bands?

AE: There was no music at all in my family but they were pretty supportive, especially my dad who was relly supprotive - he bought me a snare drum with a splash cymbal and enrolled me in snare drum classes. I couldn't make any sense of it but still, he persevered and bought me a drumkit and tuned all the drums up with his adjustable wrench. They sounded like shit but I wanted to be some combination of Phil Rudd and Tommy Lee and just kept playing and kinda smitten my brother I guess in some weird way.

EW: It was that dedication that got you there in the end...

AE: I get really easily obsessed with things and music is really easy to get obsessed with and especially if you start playing and you make tiny progress steps. Mine were really tiny in the beginning but enough to keep me totally obsessed with it and I guessed that rubbed off on my brother. To a certain extent I'm equally obsessed today. I'm gonna be 40 in 10 months or something and I've just joined Paradise Lost a year ago and I said to Nick [Holmes, PL vocalist] jokingly on the tour, "If PL split up would you form another band?" and he said "Hell no! No fucking way!". I dont know how many bands I've been in uptil this point but quite a few and we [pointing at his wife Amber sat next to him] formed a band together, Nemhain, a new rock band and I'm willing to go through all the shit clubs again. It's kind of a driving force.

EW: What was the thought process behind the reformation in 2008? Was it always intended to be a short-term thing, did you ever envisage recording new albums in a year or two?
AB: I don't know why people have this perception, we always made it very clear that this was all we were going to do. We had it outlined, I can't see why people were getting the wrong impression.

EW: What was your reason for the reformation? From the DVD Tompa was saying of unfinished business..

AB: Yeh, we have agendas with other bands, The Haunted were releasing the "Versus" album in October and we started touring the world for around 8 months. It was basically all about the planning.

EW: What were your feelings with regards to the Wacken performance in front of up to 60,000 people? How did that feel as a climax to the band's career?

AB: We were pretty much overwhelmed by the whole reunion tour, we didn't expect that so we were very happy. If you look back over the shows we did in '96 there was maybe 200-300 people and then there were 30,000 or something, weird!

EW: I was at that Wacken show and with the amount of people it didn't seem any different to when Maiden were performing there.

AB: Surreal!

AE: In the beginning I was mostly worried that everything wasn't going to work cos it was in front of such a huge amount of people but then as the sun set and it was getting darker it was "this is really amazing". The vibe was so cool and the reaction from the crowd...it was magic.

EW: You were on the same year as Carcass right?

AB: Yeh they played earlier in the day.

AE: They played just before us on the same stage. I just took a tom and a cymbal off my brother's drum kit and shifted it into my shape...it went well.

EW: During the original six years you were very busy releasing four albums and spearheading a new form of death metal. What's are your overriding memories of those few years and would have you done anything differently now you look back on it 15 years later?
AB: That's an impossible question. We did what we did and those were the circumstances we had. When Alf left we had the possibility of maybe quitting or getting another guitar player but everything leads on to another and that's just the way it is so why change it? We're very proud of all the albums in their certain way as they're a timestamp in history. Of course professionally you want to change everything like the production or the artwork on the albums.

AE: Also as a band, from releasing our first CD to the last each propelled us to do the next one and try to outdo the one prior to it in songwriting, melodies, production. If I went back in time knowing what I know now I probably wouldn't have done everything the same. I fucked up so bad on this reunion tour on a few gigs but there's no point looking back, of course you'd do some things differently but you can't which is the beauty of life.

EW: Of all the releases you've had is there any one you personally prefer now?
AB: Actually I have no favourite; I haven't really listened to the albums a lot y'know? If I go back and listen to "The Red in the Sky is Ours" it's pretty funny and then you listen to "With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness", its 'wow the riffs are very cool but the production sucks', so you have different opinions. We were so involved with those albums and I'm still very proud of what we did.

EW: At what point did you realise the influence At the Gates had had on newer bands and whole genres of music?
AB: When I talk to bands who've actually said it to me, anyone from Black Dahlia Murder to Killswitch Engage to All That Remains, it doesn't mean we were the only influence for those people. I think there's an exaggeration about At the Gates' importance to those bands as we were just a part of it and those bands were very much influenced by In Flames and Soilwork.

EW: That's honourable of you to say so...

AB: I think In Flames took over from At the Gates actually. They were just about to break when we were on our top.

EW: What does it feel like to have so many people take an influence from you?

AB: I'm just flattered that people like what we do and make it into something new. People say that some bands sound like At the Gates but I don't think so; no band sounds like At the Gates. It's not just a riff here or there; its vocals, its drums, its bass and two guitars; its impossible to do a copy of At the Gates.

EW: Finally then what's next on the horizon for you guys?
AB: We talked about killing ourselves!

EW: That'd be a headline haha!

AE: There's gonna be a mixture album between The Haunted/At the Gates/Paradise Lost and Nemhain members... We're releasing a Nemhain album which is going to be great, and The Haunted are writing and recording a new album which is gonna be great but the next year there will not be another At the Gates album.

EW: Definitely?!

AE: Definitely not!

AB: Be sure to wait around for next year, there will be nothing! Tomas is studying to be a teacher and he's enjoying that, and does some things with Disfear so everybody's pretty much involved in music still, which is a great part of our lives.

EW: Ok well thank you very much it's been a pleasure!
AE: Thank you very much, and sorry about the drunken answers!

"The Flames of the End" is released on February 22nd via Earache Records.

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