Dan Swanö, a charismatic figure in metal, who begun his career as a drummer to evolve into a successful composer and producer, as a well as a musician who can play everything by himself. The opportunity for this conversation, which broke every time slot rule lasting more than 45 minutes, was given by Nightingale’s recent album release of “Retribution”. However, out talk goes way beyond this, since Dan is talkative, unstoppable as well as excited like a little kid about everything we talk about, while he is also a big fan of AOR, Giant, Toto and Styx, that influenced his music. Plus, he talks about the way he works and how he manages all those projects, he shares his ecologic sensitivities, he analyzes his relationship with his older brother Dag and makes his prediction about the future of music and the industry that follows it. Interview: Yiannis Dolas
Dan Swanö: I finally get a cup of coffee!
Rockpages.gr: Is it your first today, or did you have another one before?
Dan Swanö: I had two before this!
Rockpages.gr: Well, I guess the very first question I am going to ask you isn’t the most unexpected one! So, why there was such a big gap between the two albums in 2007 and this year?
Dan Swanö: I would say that life happens to me and the other members. This new incarnation of Nightingale rehearsed for the first time around the millennium. We had been going on for such a long time nonstop, writing, recording and doing gigs, going back and forth, like a circle. Eventually, I knew that some day we should stop this good thing we were on. After the release of the “White Darkness” album I just didn’t feel the need to go back in to the cycle one more time. I just felt that there must be some other things that I can do with my time. And, the songs that I came up with, and the songs that my brother came up with, I didn’t hear –and I know that he didn’t hear- that were good enough to even compete with “White Darkness”. I am of this view that when you have to record an album because of a contract, because you have to go on tour, or whatever, then you do it… We don’t! We have to make sure that the album we do feels like it’s the best album we could do, otherwise we don’t make the album at all. And at that point around 2008 or so, it didn’t feel like the material was good enough to be even as bonus tracks on “White Darkness”. There was no reason to go on. So, we had an album, with a gun to our heads we could have released an album in 2009, but it would have sucked pretty hard! So, there was no reason to do that. Because, we didn’t have to. We threw a whole record in the garbage, rescued a few ideas and a song actually, “Chasing The Storm Away”, it was a part of that session. That was the one that survived, so we had to start all over again and that took another two, or three years, and the process is really slow. I live in Germnay, the guys live in Sweden, so we could rehearse like only once a month and only for a couple of hours. So, it was a slow process but to me, once I started getting really good material together in 2011, that was when it started. Time flies when you have fun as they say!
Rockpages.gr: And a lot of projects like yourself, right?
Dan Swanö: Yeah! I am too bored with everything to only have one project! I have seen a lot of bands throughout history change kind of hard metal bands become gothic bands, or whatever keeping the same name. I was never about that. I was always so confused when a band I used to love sounded completely different. So, I told myself that if there was an evolution it had to be slow, and there was always going to be something on every record for the die-hard fan. Then, you can have a few songs that can be strange, but don’t go changing from a hard rock band, and become a goth rock band keeping the logo! That’s a no-go! So, rather than having this with one band, now I have Nightingale, Witherscape, Second Sky… I have a future solo project, I was involved in Bloodbath for a while… every time I wanted to try something weird I started a new project. It’s like writing a book, if you wrote three books using the same word processor. I am not all about that and that’s important for me to have four different projects in my life. Soft, harder, a little bit harder, and super hard! That’s what I need! I have it and I am super happy!
Rockpages.gr: The new album is called “Retribution” which means that it’s something like a punishment. So, is there somebody that you are going to punish with this? Is there something behind that?
Dan Swanö: I’d say that doing the album was a punishment for myself as I suffered a lot through the recording process, because I am my own boss. But, no, the title is connected to the album cover. It’s a tidal wave, it’s the end of the world through water. The earth is already a lot more water than land. It only takes a bad ass eruption in one of those big fucking oceans to create a wave that is so high that the highest mountain is nothing. Then, we are all history, then it’s all gone! And it would be really quick. The way I see it, we have been taking advantage of Mother Nature for so long now. Since humans knew how to fuck the earth up with oil spills, or whatever we do that it’s human based, like the nuclear power and the power plants. Sometimes she is giving us a warning, like these bad ass waves, or on Iceland you have the volcanos going totally crazy and completely killed the air traffic. But, we go on! Exploiting… of course there are movements out there like Greenpeace, or we have to rescue the world. But, they are so small, next to the big fucking corporations that are exploiting the oil tankers who have trillions of oil killing all animal life. At one point I see Mother Nature as an entity she will say “fuck you, that’s enough! I will make an explosion over here in the ocean and you are all gone, and finally I have some fucking rest here! Goddamn! I am tired of cleaning up your fucking mess!” and we are all history. For me, on our honeymoon with my wife we went to Northern Norway in a little place in the Atlantic Ocean, which is a series of little islands. So, one day we are on a trekking trip with our dog and we went up on a bad ass mountain, and then we got down to the ocean. It was a really surrealistic thing, to climb a mountain and then go to the ocean. And all of the sudden I saw that the clouds were together with somehow the ocean, which probably is normal there, and it looked like a bad-ass wave coming at you. There was no sky, only water that looked like it was coming together with the cloud. The first time I saw it I was playing with our dog and I thought it was a big wave, and I was going to die for a nano second! But it looks cool, and then I thought that this might be the way things are going down. And I did some research online for this huge tidal wave, and I think that it’s the Japanese who say that a big wave like that will come for our sins. And that’s a bit more logical to me, because there’s been so many terrible water related accidents related with flooding in the past 5 to 10 years, rather some evil spreading all over the world, or some other theory, like “the sun will explode” together with the song “Shaking The Storm Away” this is what we do all the time. We are throwing our problems under the carpet, we’re not really taking care of the root to the problem, but we only say “yeah, yeah go away! Don’t come back for the next 15 years, but it will, and then we have the same shit again. On and on, and on. At one point it will be enough, mother nature will say: “Go to hell!” And that’s the retribution from Mother Nature to mankind.
Rockpages.gr: Listening to the album, I have some favourite tracks. I’d like you to make some comments about them. Definitely “Forevermore”…
Dan Swanö: Good! That song for me… I don’t know if you know the band Giant… I had this problem with my personality sometimes, I make my mind about a band about something I read, and then I refuse to listen to them. And everything they do must suck! I read somewhere that they are a Christian band, and I think that Christian music sucks! And people would often come to me and say: “Oh, you like that kind of music, you like Asia, FM, and Journey… you would love Giant”. And I go “fuck, they are Christian”. I would never listen to Giant, ever, and then one day out of the blue I received the Giant “III” album, which was a post-modern release with some left over tracks from “Time To Burn” and some demos and stuff. And the first song on that album just hit me in the face. I thought this is the best shit I’ve ever heard in ten years. What the fuck is going on here? This is Giant? They are so good! Dan Huff is the best guitarist, and the best singer I’ve ever heard, the production is great… and there’s no Christian lyrics here! What the fuck? So, I spent so many years ditching them, and then I just went back. A friend of mine gave me a copy of “The Last Of The Runaways”… I was on a… Giant high, you know? I remember going on a trip alone and listening to Giant non-stop for a week, and out of this it was the birth of the song “Glory Days” from the “Alive Again: The Breathing Shadow Part IV “record. And then, Giant became a part of the Nightingale musical DNA. They kind of made their way into this. Probably, as AOR as we ever go, that’s when I bring out the Giant vibe. And for me “Forevermore” has kind of a Giant vibe, mixed a little bit with progressive pomp rock because of the piano break, which sounds like a really progressive Toto moment. That piano part was inspired from a song called “Dave’s Gone Skiing” from Toto, where they had this instrumental section, kind of a jamming vibe to it, so it’s a kind of a Giant meets Toto musically, and lyrically is dealing with the Jim Jones cause. You know, “People’s Temple” where he killed all the followers with poisoned wine. And Eric, our bass player took up on the story and he wrote the lyrics from the eyes of a follower. For me, I see the lyrics as a victim of Jim Jones and his woman, but also as a follower of any religious leader. There is so much of that going on in the world right now, where people lead their country and connect with some religious fanatics. And it’s all about re-sell our fuel. We don’t care if you die… you know all these, from 9/11 are coming together. It’s really about the Jim Jones code, but I see it as well about following religious leaders, or any kind of leader.
Rockpages.gr: You mentioned Toto earlier, and while I was listening to the album I found a lot of Toto ideas on the keyboard breaks, which is more like a piano sound that comes totally ‘80s AOR like Toto might have done. I found it very cool that you can combine this with a heavier, more progressive kind of music, which could not be pinpointed just as heavy metal, because it’s something wider…
Dan Swanö: I don’t know if you listened to the last Toto record, “Falling Into Infinity”… it’s weird but all my favourite bands are gone, but when they make a comeback is not really that good. I was a really late Toto fan, another example that I hated Toto, but never heard them. I heard “Hold The Line” and I thought Toto sucked! Then, all of the sudden I heard Toto with Simon Phillips, who is my favorite drummer, when they were not doing this kind of west coast stuff. I heard them on the “Tambu” record, and I said “fuck this is good!” I thought it was amazing. And I went backwards… I discovered so many good Toto songs. There are few on so many records, and then there are some songs that I cannot relate to at all! Toto is definitely part of my musical DNA these days, and “Falling In Between” has those completely heavy guitars. There is the piano stuff, it’s progressive and the chorus has an oriental vibe to it! And then the guitars go chang-chang-cha-cha-chang! Fuck, that’s Toto! That’s heavy! And then you have “The Bottom Of Your Soul”, and all this… I think that Toto came back for an album and nobody gave a flying fuck, they wanted to listen to “Hold The Line” and “Africa”, while this album kicks my ass! I’ve been listening to it in my car for six months straight, and I think that this is one of the best Toto albums, and they do it now, so many years into their career! So, if Nightingale ever made a comeback it has to be like that! Like the Toto comeback! It’s like Styx did “Cyclorama”. Out of the blue, maybe one of the best Styx records ever! With all the other ones involved…
Rockpages.gr: That’s my retribution, because I never liked Styx, and as the years go by I discover Styx through great albums and it’s like you, I realize I should have listened to them more. Or try to explore more, instead of being biased, by one or two songs, obviously “Mr. Roboto” and saying “oh, this sucks”!
Dan Swanö: Hahaha! It was the ballads… “Babe” and all that… “Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaabe” fuck that! Sheize! All that theatre bullshit, but my brothers were always all about Styx, then I once told my brother, please put together a tape for me, like 5 best Styx songs and he gave me “Man On The Wilderness”, “Come Sail Away” and all these rocky progressive songs. Fuck, this is the best shit ever! Then my brother told me that Styx is a band that has a few good songs on every record, it’s really good. But, when you accidentally listen to all “the other” songs… they suck! It’s really a 70% chance that you will find them sucky, because you will hear the seven bad songs, and not the three perfect ones! So, I am a real late bloomer for Styx, because it was around the time when I was doing the vocals for “Alive Again…” I did a long bike ride every day to the studio, which was on the other side of town and I had a Styx compilation that my brother gave to me along with music from New England, and some other stuff, Stars for example, and it was the only music I was listening to. It was stuck in my CD Walkman, and I’d listen to it for one week, for one hour on repeat, and that made me a Styx fan. I discovered that you had to listen to your favorite songs, not the whole record. This the thing for me and Toto. I like so much of their music. I think “The Seventh One” is my favorite, but there is so much good stuff also from all the other records, even the first one has some really great anthems inside, super! I saw them live on the Lorelei festival here in Germany, near where I lived, with my other favourite band, FM, they all played there. For me is FM, and then Toto…wow! I’m in heaven! That gig was so good, it was scary! It was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen!
Rockpages.gr: Also, one of the other songs that I liked from “Retribution” is the opening track, “On Stolen Wings”, can you tell us a few things about it?
Dan Swanö: That’s the first real song that I put together for the album, and it went through a lot of different arrangements, a lot of changes. I knew that I had a song chorus, a verse, and a good riff, and a melody line from the beginning, but I tried a little bit too hard to make it more into a progressive rock track. I tried it to be 7-8 minutes, with a lot of different tempos, key changes, and the song always somehow imploded! It was never really working, and at one point the songs just told me “hey, I’m a normal song!” “No fucking intro, find the verse, find the bridge, give me a fucking chorus and four minutes is ENOUGH! Don’t do this aerial attempt. I am not that kind of material”. The lyrics are by our bass player, Eric, and it’s about scam and invention. There are some great inventions in the world, where you hear that someone with a really bright mind invented something, which is really important for humanity, the way we communicate today, but he never took the patent. And some other guy got the idea, he stole it right off, got straight to the patent thing and said: “this is my invention, I invented this and that”. And the other poor guy who has a smart brain, but no social skills, and he didn’t know what to do is like “ah, this guy invented something, you are insane! You haven’t invented anything you fucking loser!” So the imagery is this guy, a guy in a suit, who is really good with people, has a charisma, he echoes the room, he is like “trust me I will make you famous and rich” and he takes the wings from the really smarter, he rips them off, and he puts them on his own back, which is “flying high on stolen wings”, it means that he takes credit for shit that he had no reason to take credit for. It can be anything from the bass player in a band who never ever wrote a song saying in an interview “I wrote the album – no, you didn’t”. It could be some other megalomaniac who’d say “this is my band”, or “this is my album”, but they have nothing to do with it. They are everywhere! In any part of the world! And they take credit for everything, like a big business deal. Just because you are the guy with the handshake it doesn’t mean you did all the work! It’s pretty unusual topic for a progressive rock band, but I think that kind of person exist in any workspace, and every social community where you find people that only take, they don’t invent anything. They steal when they can, and then they sign a deal and eventually, just like Steve Jobs got kicked out of Apple. Hey, how weird is that? They took his vision, fucked it up and kicked him out on the street. It’s about nobody really, but that kind of scenario where you take somebody’s wins and pretend they are your own.
Rockpages.gr: Well, I don’t want to imply anything, after you told me the story about “On Stolen Wings” song, but how much would you say that Nightingale became from a one man’s project, since you were all by yourself on the first album, to a band? And how would you say that Nightingale is a team effort?
Dan Swanö: I would say that there are two Nightingales! There is the recording act, and then there is the rehearsal and live act. When it comes to the song writing time around it’s been all my songs, except one, which was my brother’s, and then we are the producers that run the ship. I am telling you play this, play that. I know what I want, and my brother is the same with his songs. I never fuck with any of them! When he writes something it’s his vision, he is the producer, he tells me what to do, I sing his vocal lines exactly the way he wants and it’s democracy of two. The other guys contribute all the time with lyrics. When it comes to put the four people together in one room, there is so much experience and so much knowledge from my brother, he is such an awesome performer and Eric is the same, and Tom also, they are so mild as stage performers who play in a rehearsal room to be in a social situation together with more people. I still feel really happy to be a part of such an amazing rehearsal and live band. I am the loser almost! I am the guy who forgets the lyrics, how to play, I have problems with my pedals, I am the guy who need a fucking tele-prompter to remember the lyrics, I am the guy who is shaking of neurosity, don’t know what to say before the songs, don’t look the audience in the eye… they are rocking their brains out! They are the heroes, they are the rockstars in this scenario! Where I can be based here in my studio doing the vocal lines 50 times until I’m happy, but when it comes to the live environment Nightingale are so much a band! I feel that I am not even like the boss in the band, and the other guys my backing band, I would rather think that they are a tight unit, and I am the guy who’s fucking shit up! So, it’s a very different scenario actually!
Rockpages.gr: How is it for you and your brother to work together as brothers? Is it easy, difficult because you know each other since childhood, or you have your own code, or special relationship being brothers?
Dan Swanö: I would say that there have been a few brother in action in the studio, like a band called Novembre from Italy, they are two brothers who were running the ship and they were fighting and they were hugging, but they are pretty close in age. Me and my brother we have ten years apart. He has ten years of life knowledge more than I have in any point. And I’d say that the way me and my brother work is that we don’t really collaborate at all. I write my stuff, then I am the boss and he has a vibe that he can be a passenger on. I am driving the train. And I have learned since my days when I was only a drummer from a local hardcore band that already had released one EP, and I was like “wow! You have an album out!”, while I was only the drummer. I was told what to play, told what not to play, and I have that too, I can be the passenger too. I can completely be the captain, or the passenger. Even in the worst seat! I have no problem as long as the captain knows what the fuck he is doing. The way I communicate with people my brother is sometimes pretty hard for me because we are so similar on so many levels that I know already from the vibe in the room that today I am not gonna get any good solos out of him. I just know! And sometimes when he is in a special mood I feel the electricity and think that it’s a good day for takes, or a good day for rehearsal. I can read that, it’s hard with other people, but he is my brother he is ten years older and that’s a lot in a way that we are so similar. But, when you have only like ten months with your brother or sister, then you are closer together because you grew up together, were teenagers together. Me and my brother are not all that stuff! When I was 8 he was 18. He still is my biggest hero! I still respect his opinion more than most other people’s opinion about stuff. He is brutally honest. And there is no way that you can get him to agree to something… I mean you could, but he will always tell you how this part sucks, or how much he hated. He is really an open person, while I am the guy who says “OK…OK” and then suffers in silence, rather than speak my mind. That’s good with him, he would never agree to something that is such a metal cliché. If I’d sing like (he makes a screeching voice) “Metaaaaaaaaaaaaaaall” he’d say “fuck off, don’t do that!” And I would never do it because I respect his opinion, not that I would ever do it, but it’s an example. So, there is a lot of respect from me. Still at some point when I was 10 and he was 20 the idea that we would be together in a band… boring! Playing Russia, America, Cyprus… that would be like “hey, he is my brother we’are in the same band” and people think that I am cooler than him, because I sing lead vocals, how crazy is that?
Rockpages.gr: You’ve also worked with a lot of bands, you’ve been a part of lots of projects and you’ve worked with a lot of people during all those years. How much you would you say that this influenced your own vision on doing things, your own music, and your own projects? Did you learn from other people’s mistakes? Did you something that was right, you approved and you did the same? How much was that?
Dan Swanö: I’d say that every once in a while I worked with a band in the studio, especially in the mid 90s that completely changed my view on things. I remember working with Opeth the first time. I was so blown away by the “Orchid” record, being a part of it, that I ended up doing “Crimson” (ed Edge Of Sanity album) , which is pretty much an Opeth ripp-off for me, but nobody understood it really! Hahaha! And Mike (Akerfeldt) is even on it singing and playing guitar, and then also the Italian band I mentioned earlier, Novembre. I worked with them at a point where they were repeating ideas for too long, but they had that kind of quality that they could, it became almost like a mantra, a weird thing. And I remember being very inspired by that when I did the “Moontower” record (Ed, Dan Swano solo album)… to mention bands that I have actually worked with. Then of course, these days I must say that I get more… I am inspired is not the right words, but sometimes I think I will make the best death metal solo record ever. I have this super cool idea, and then you end up mixing an album like with Deserted Fear, and it’s so fucking good! And it’s all old school death metal, and it completely changes you. Because they did this, what you thought you were doing, but so much better and they are like…20! Aahhh fuck! I have to up my game even more! So, sometimes it un-inspires me because I just feel that there is no way in hell that I can compete with that! And that’s the sad part of being in my work. Right now I am mixing the new album of “Project Hate” and these guys are putting together 12-minute songs that feel like they are 4 minutes, because everything is perfect! They have the drummer from Soilwork, a really good growling singing, and good normal singing, and fuck! This is good shit! And it makes me just wanna go and watch TV! Hahaha! Then I get over it, I forget the experience and I go back to writing. But, sometimes you really get killed. You listen to something that is so good that you think: “I could never compete with that!” And then you give it up!
Rockpages.gr: You once said that it’s not easy to write simple music that’s good. Would you say that the opposite is easier? I mean write more complex music that is good?
Dan Swanö: I’d say that complex music is good when it’s complicated and full of strange things. Where some personalities might say “this will take me a thousand times to understand the chorus”, while some others might say “oh, this is so cool!” The thing is that playing different all the time… I hate this fucking stuff you know… even when I am the biggest fan of a band like Gentle Giant for example, I like them when they play strange stuff, but there is melody there that I can remember. And there is a rhythm there to surprise, being a different rhythm than I thought. But, if it’s a good rhythm I could whistle the song and almost play it on an acoustic guitar. But, if it’s a complicated renaissance song, it’s weird music you know? And I think for me to write a song like “On Stolen Wings” and make it really simple, break it down and have the guts to not overplay it with complicated stuff all the time, is really hard. Also, from how can it be so simple and still good? A few of the riffs on “Retribution” has it. They are dead simple! The melody from “Forevermore” is just a few notes and they work together. They bring me a vibe rather than making it too complicated. I think simple is good. But, simple can also be horribly bad! Like those annoying little melodies that you hear on the commercials for example. This is bad simple! I like my music direct, something that sticks and then you can go on and explore beyond this. There might be some textures, or the drummer might play a few cool stuff, or the backing vocals, but I want the first time that I hear a song, no matter the genre, to stick. I want the melody to be in my head non-stop, I want the rhythm to make me wanna play air drums. That’s the way I work!
Rockpages.gr: You play I guess almost everything. Bass, guitar, drums, you also sing and produce, and maybe you are doing some other stuff that we don’t know! Is this good, or bad when you are making your music? I mean do you leave stuff open for the others to tell you, suggest ideas? Or, since you have the talent and the experience as well as the ability to do everything by yourself, you actually don’t need anybody else, could this be a bad thing for you, your band and your project?
Dan Swanö: That’s a really good question! And I think that when it comes to a band like Nightingale or Witherscape where there is no time for us to sit in the same room and just jam and do stuff and then go like “oh, that didn’t really work out”. Every time I fly to Sweden we need to have something recorded. It needs to be finalized and I am not allowing myself to fly to Sweden and work on my guitar parts, or bass, without knowing what the band could play and make me happy. But, a guy like Ragnar that I work with in Witherscape he can come up with such great ideas… he’s like “yeah, you can play like this the first time, but then you can go like that” and I am like “wow! I’ve never thought of that, it’s so good!” And that’s why these guys are in my project, because Tom and Erik have great ideas but I want the version of the song that works for me. I do all the decisions and when they have nothing better to do than to play what I tell them to play the song is going to work. But, when sometimes they have paid attention to little details they can add, that’s the organic process that I am open to it, as long as I like it more, or just as I like my idea. I don’t want musicians that don’t like anything I do… (I want musicians) that take me “no” really well. I am happy to being able to put together demos that sound like the record, but only with lyrics that are about nonsense. And then, once the song comes into shape there are small differences between the prototype and the finished product but sometimes extremely close, but the attention to detail is different. Little melody lines on the bass that nobody really thinks about maybe the first time, if the bass player is bored and decides to play something different, and then I say “no, this didn’t work”, then it’s not there. I am not doing anything to make the members happy. “Oh, you can have that fucking note, you invented it!”… that’s not happening! I am the producer, I am the one in charge, I will take all the heat when something is not good enough. I hope that answers your question… a little bit!
Rockpages.gr: How did you become such a mutli tasking individual? From playing drums to play guitar and everything?
Dan Swanö: Because, I was tired of having my songs… normally, when you are a songwriter like me you have a vision of the song. It’s all there in your head. It’s mixed, mastered and released…in my head! And the only way to hear this song is to try to teach it to four other members who are more interested in practicing football, or hang out with their girlfriends than to listen to me explaining how to play that song. My song! I have to teach the piano parts, guitar, bass and everything. And then I had to record my vision. I need to hear me playing everything and then maybe I realize that what I am trying to teach them really suck ass! So, I bought this 4-channel machine with my bandmates in Unicorn, my old band, and I just recorded me on everything. And, eventually I became a better player. I play the guitar upside down, which is extremely unusual and strange, but I don’t care! But, I still don’t see me as a guitar, or bass player really. I am just doing this because I don’t want to teach anyone my ideas to make a demo, so I can win some more time. I play the shit the way I play it and then in the end in the case of Witherscape there will be another person, a normal right-handed person playing the guitars and bass parts. And Ragnar is also good at learning pretty quick, which is also a criteria for me, musicians that can learn my songs, even faster than I do! I forget the songs and they