In the final part of our in-depth chat with Witherscape's Dan Swanö, our hero discusses shoegaze, concept albums and his fears for the health of the music industry...
Welcome back – you’ll remember I was chatting with Dan Swanö before the break about Marionette, my favourite song from the new Witherscape album and a track with a link back to Dan’s shoegaze-loving early nineties alter ego. Being the incorrigible name dropper that I am, I mention that I used to work with Slowdive’s bassist Nick Chaplin in a record shop in England in the late eighties, just as the band were beginning to make a name for themselves.
“Really? Seriously? Where was that then?” Our Price Records in Maidenhead. “Around their prime! Wow! I actually introduced Jonas (Renske) from Katatonia to Slowdive! I gave him my longsleeve shirt which he wears in some of their early photos. In some of their earlier stuff, when they went all clean, you can hear Slowdive in that.”
Anyway, we’re not here to talk about other bands, we’re here to talk about Witherscape… The concept that you started off on first album The Inheritance continues here on The Northern Sanctuary. Is Witherscape going to be devoted in perpetuity to telling this story or can you see a time when the band might record other, non-conceptual albums? “We’ve been discussing this back and forth. I’ve always seen Witherscape as being a project that progresses in some way, that doesn’t simply repeat something that went on from the previous albums. So we tried to stay somewhat in the same area with The Northern Sanctuary because we thought that there was a nice twist there. But to go ahead with some sort of Star Wars type trilogy… I’ve already done that with Nightingale. It reeks of desperation, of ‘oh I can’t come up with another concept…let’s dig up the guy’s neighbour!’ What I have said is that Paul (Kuhr, the Novembers Doom vocalist who acted as a librettist/lyricist on both Witherscape albums) has grown from someone who came in on the first album with pretty significant instructions for what we wanted to happen lyrically – almost line for line – to someone who we just gave the beginning and the end of the story to on The Northern Sanctuary. So I’m thinking on the next album I will just give him the songs and say ‘Do what you want. If you come up with a new concept just do it!’ I respected him, but I did not know how good he would become at being ‘the Witherscape lyricist’. He’s super. He’s done so much good stuff with Novembers Doom and These Are They, his side project, that I know he can come up with some sort of whacko strange concept, whether it’s like a 2112 style thing with one song connected together on side one with freebasing on side 2, or just one long song. It’ll all be up to him and maybe I won’t even know what it’s about!”
So is 2112 by Rush your favourite concept album? “Well, it’s not a concept album actually. I was just asked a similar question by another magazine who asked me to name my top 5 concept albums and I had to google ‘concept album’ to see what it actually was! So what I’d come up with – Oxygene by Jean Michel Jarre, Incantations by Mike Oldfield – they are albums with one long song, instrumental, there’s no fucking lyrics so they’re not concept albums! Then you have Misplaced Childhood by Marillion of course, but then I realised that some of the albums I really like are ones that I don’t see as concept albums, like Into the Electric Castle by Ayreon, which is so good but too bombastic for me to sit through it from beginning to end… then back to Misplaced Childhood which I could listen to five times in a row… Then of course you have Operation: Mindcrime, where everything just fits perfectly. So there’s a bunch I like. And I also found out that The New Mythology Suite by Symphony X, which is the album by them, is a concept album, and I never really thought about it like that. But it’s one hell of an album”.
I guess the key to those records you mentioned though is that they are so good, song-wise, that you can just listen to them like that – as stand-alone songs. It doesn’t really matter if you’re following the story they’re telling or not. “Yes, exactly, and that’s what I tried to do with The Northern Sanctuary. I wanted a similar setup, but I kind of nicked it from Keeper of the Seven Keys Part One by Helloween, where you have Side A also closing with a ballad, then you give them some normal stuff and then hit them with the big one and just finish with a little bit of noodling. And I thought that was always a good flow for a record. And you also have to remember that this might be the first Witherscape record for some people, so they don’t have the first album or the EP as reference points. And every song has to work on its own. Because they will be divided on people’s playlists, or on Spotify or whatever. I have Operation: Mindcrime chopped up of course, and sometimes you get those little bits popping up that sound a bit weird, so maybe it is a beginning-to-end kind of record – lights out, headphones on – but it does work equally well either way and I think The Northern Sanctuary does also”.
Are there any plans to perform this live? “No, none at all. I was actually signed to Century Media to do this as an Ayreon-style studio project. The touring circuit is a different beast. In the four years I’ve been with Century Media the difference between touring and studio work has become exaggerated like you wouldn’t believe. Bands are touring all the time! I just had a meeting with a band that I work closely with and they just had a meeting with their label, and the label are pushing them back to 1973… Every year an album! And soon we’ll be going back to two albums a year, one in February and one in November, Kiss– style and touring, touring in between, which is nothing I want to be a part of. We’re not going to get a headline slot at Wacken, so are we going to go and play in a tent somewhere for twenty Euros? No”.
Dan Swanö – no compromise!
The Northern Sanctuary is out now on Century Media Records.