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Interview: Dan Swano from Witherscape

Witherscape press shot

Swedish progressive death metallers Witherscape have just released the next instalment in their bone-chilling haunted mansion saga and it’s not for the faint of heart! Their sophomore album ‘The Northern Sanctuary’ picks up right where 2014 EP ‘The New Tomorrow’ left off, in other words: hell is literally about to break loose! We chatted to Witherscape founder Dan Swano who revealed juicy album spoilers, the origin of his legendary producer status, and why Witherscape will NEVER tour.

Congratulations on the new album! Could you explain a little about the original concept and how this new album fits into it?

The storyline starts in the early 1900s. In the beginning we’re following a family in Stockholm, Sweden. There’s this kid and all of a sudden the members of his family are just dying off one by one in a strange way and no one can explain what’s going on. He’s actually the sole survivor of this whole thing.

One day a loner from a family shows up and because he’s the only one left he gets a mansion in the North of Sweden he had no idea even existed. You get the vibe that he was from a very open family and they talk about everything but for some reason they kept this hidden from him. Of course this makes him a little bit suspicious but he’s given the keys to the mansion and the description of how to get there. Once he gets there all weird kinds of things happen. It all ends pretty unwell for the main character. There is this evil entity lurking around, possessing everyone and making them ill.

So then what happens is we released the EP ‘The New Tomorrow’, where we suddenly make a time jump of 50 years. We find a man, deeply religious and who has an exceptionally clean-spirited mind. He reads the paper and finds the same mansion 50 years later on an auction. He just feels a strange sensation that there’s something about this house, even though it’s far away from where he lives, that it’s a place where he must go.

He has this idea to build a sanctuary for the people around him who suffer from the perplexity of chaos. There’s also a nice spot for blind, deaf, and disabled people, or just dreamers who want to spend the rest of their life in the North of Sweden, which is an extremely peaceful environment. He buys this place at the auction.

At the beginning of this record ‘The Northern Sanctuary’ he’s actually moved in, started the renovation and has a sanctuary up for business. He doesn’t get why his dog won’t enter the door, or even sleep on the porch, but he doesn’t care. He still thinks there’s nothing wrong with this place! The guests start coming and you eventually discover this entity has been trapped in our dimension since the creation of time and has been looking for the perfect human host ever since.

He’s never found anyone so pure in spirit that he could take over and perform a ritual to open up a portal to take him to his home dimension. But this man is so clean and pure that this entity can fully manifest itself and performs the ritual.

One of the reasons there is so much craziness going on is because the house is built on one of the gates to hell, which means there is always strange activity going on. This turns out to be one of the key ingredients for this ritual. The album cover shows what happens when you open a portal to a hell dimension. Then of course there’s this biblical reference to rapture, of the Armageddon among us, which is kind of an exchange between dimensions. The end of the world here instantly turns into another hell dimension, that’s pretty much the entire story!

How wickedly cool! How did you and Paul first come up with the story? 

For me it was always something I liked to dream up. Ragnar Widerberg (the second half of Witherscape) also liked this. We wrote the main ingredient together, I think they call it a synopsis. We didn’t have to write the actual script. We only had to dream up crazy stuff and then someone else would write the lyrics. In so many ways it opened up the floodgates for us to come up with those storyline milestones.

Lets face it. This isn’t anything original, but musically we had like 10 reference points…just cherry picking our favourite moments from all our inspirations including some of my older bands. We put it into a unique mix. We also used different movies, different books, and different vibes that we wanted with the story. There are influences from every movie about a haunted house. I wanted it to be a plain horror story that it should be possible to get a pretty decent low budget horror flick out of it in the end…

I know you’ve also adopted components from 70s/80s hard rock bands. Were there any that especially influenced the album?  

I think one of the things artists often say in interviews that can come up a little bit cocky or megalomaniac is they’re only inspired by their own stuff. Of course I love my own music, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it, so what I do with every project is I have some kind of beginning. Just like when you build a product like an MP3 player. You put together a business line and when you’re selling it you get feedback. You’re not like, “Ah this is crap, let’s start over. Let’s build a completely different one”.

That’s only when there’s complete failure, but in this case (debut album) ‘The Inheritance’ was a complete success so we just used it as a starting point, and asked, “What is this?”. This was some kind of music square and in every corner we have this thing and I said, “Okay, let’s just make this wider”. Just expand it and carefully put a few more things in there that may not have been so prominent on ‘The Inheritance’.

There are bands that try to reinvent themselves too often or take too much of a sudden left turn musically. That’s not what I’m after. This time it’s all been more Witherscapified, our own version of Judas Priest or Marillion. What we did with their influence already has matured and we know now what it is we’re after. So technically we’re inspired by our own music, our own catalogue. We just sat down and found what we could do to make this even better.

I don’t want people to have to listen to a song seven times to know if they like it or not. I want them to know the first time around. After they’ve heard the first chorus I want them to sing along in the next one. But still, progressive [metal] also means sometimes you expect some weird tempo changes and shifts. It can also means you make things simpler. It can’t be a progression if the shift was too complicated to begin with. This is the complicated answer! (laughs)

You’re known as a legendary producer, working with bands such as Katatonia, Nightingale, and October Tide. How did you first get into the field?

Ever since my first band with my two brothers when I was six or seven we were always recording. It was always about recording [rehearsals] and listening to them endlessly. For me I was more excited about listening to it later than actually playing in the moment. Somehow that kind of stuck with every band, and with every project it was always important to record.

We bought what we could afford in tape cassette-based recording studios and we did what we could. There’s actually a vast treasure of recorded stuff from up until one point where not as much recording was going on and I regret that. That for me was always a black hole in my musicology.

Sometimes we made tracks just for the recording of it, never rehearsed and never played live. We would record them, forgot them, write the next one, and so forth. It wasn’t really serious until one guy in one project said, “I have my other band, could we come here and record it?” I said, Yeah, why not?”. I was really trying to find ways to record better and I thought sometimes not playing myself or being too emotionally connected to the material would make me a better engineer.

At the end of the day I recorded demos with Katatonia and all these other guys in the early 90s. I guess it was right for their music and they all got signed within months, and of course they came back to me for their albums. Sometimes I didn’t want money, instead I would just want a can of beer or whatever. I did this for fun, but all of a sudden I came to a crossroads: Either I get a decent education and a day job at a factory or I give up that thought and start a studio full-on, and that’s what I did!

I quit school during my third year of college where I was studying to become a mechanical engineer and said, “F*ck you! I’m going with studio recording instead of this crap,” and I’ve been there ever since. I had a break for a couple of years because it had taken it’s toll to keep that kind of tempo but now I’m back only doing the mixing because for me, that is always the fun part. The recording with people and that psychological drama between people who cannot play or cannot communicate, that was not for me.

Is an Aussie tour on the cards in the near future? 

I would say no (laughs). We actually designed this new record on purpose to not be able to play live at all. The way I write my riffs…sometimes I tune my guitar completely differently. With some of the riffs you would need some strange digital device or like four guitar players to pull it off in sequence on stage, and I thought “That’s perfect! I don’t want anyone telling me I have to play live”. I’m all about it being strictly studio.

The problem is there was a time where I could probably have pulled it off and gotten a decent development batted for a live show. But, I mean we’re competing with bands who have done this for like 20 years straight. They have everything set up for them. They struggle in the record market but live they rule. I mean we’re a duo! We would have to find three additional members…

At one point I told someone “Yeah, lets see what happens”. If someone made a request saying they wanted Witherscape to play at a certain festival, I would say yes and then we would negotiate a fair amount of money, but we got zero offers…and still we were number one in magazine reviews and sales. It’s just a different climate now in the touring circuit. The big guys are desperate to make money so they’re touring too often and putting out records too often. There’s no room for us, so I’m not even thinking about maybe.

But me and my wife will one day come to Australia. I think it’s one of those places where you need to go in your life (laughs). I know the flight [to Australia is] a nightmare. I actually live in Germany, so it’s a little bit closer but I know from my friends Millencolin…tend to visit pretty often and the flight is sometimes not the nicest, but we would make it.

I guess it just means everyone in Australia needs to get a copy of the album!

Yeah, they do! And I always tell everyone to put a couple of dogs on a stage, turn up the album loud in the PA system, get drunk, and you won’t notice the difference!