As the lead vocalist, main songwriter, and all-around guiding force of Sweden's Pain of Salvation, Daniel Gildenlöw has spent the last twenty-five years or so spearheading one of the most dependable, multifaceted, and characteristic bands in progressive metal. Brimming with insightful social commentaries, heartfelt personal revelations, fascinating narratives, and mind-boggling instrumentation, their records are consistently surprising yet familiar, justifying why the group has become such a beloved force within the subgenre.
Luckily, their latest studio album, Panther, is no exception, and I recently spoke with Gildenlöw about how the record was created and how it continues from where 2017's In the Passing Light of Day left off. Plus, we dig deeply into abstract yet relatable concepts regarding what's considered "normal" in modern society; how method-rationality differs from goal-rationality [as proposed by sociologist Randall Collins]; how the current pandemic has affected the band; and much more!
What can you tell me about the title Panther and the overarching message/narrative of the record? In the press release, you describe it as relating to people who are “not . . . part of the norm of society.” You add: “[W]e live in a time where we’re more aware of people not fitting the norm and we’re doing everything we can as a society to acknowledge all of these individuals, but at the same time, they’re more disowned than ever, more medicated than ever.”
A lot of people have asked, “Why Panther?” and I usually start by saying that the other option would’ve been Cars [laughs]. That’s way less catchy; it’d make a good cartoon movie, though, bar the copyright problems. The first analogy I was working with, long before the album, was related to cars; specifically, how people on the [autism] spectrum—well, all people could be compared to cars. There would be a range between, maybe, a Nissan Micra and a Formula 1 car. All of them would be good in their own context and for what they’re made for, but obviously if you put a Micra on a racetrack, it will be eaten alive by the F1 car. Yet, society has increasingly become like a suburban community concerned with safety and small roads and lots of red lights. You’re supposed to drive smoothly and safely and use your blinkers properly; it’s very controlled and method-rational.
That’s an interesting metaphor to use. I see what you mean.
Oh, good. Obviously, when you place an F1 car in that environment, it will fail constantly because it wasn’t meant to be driven that way. That was my initial analogy when it came to people on the spectrum, and especially people who have ADHD. As a teacher, I’ve seen that a lot of these Formula 1 kind of kids will start to doubt themselves a lot by 3rd or 4th grade. They constantly fail to meet expectations, and they will start to look down on themselves. Obviously, F1 cars aren’t crappy cars, but in the wrong context, their functions become dysfunctions. That’s what was on my mind when I started working on this album; really, it was there subconsciously on the last album, with “Full Throttle Tribe.” That was a starting point: looking at myself through that lens, having grown up in an era when diagnosing things like that wasn’t as common and medication wasn’t possible or desirable in any real way. I wanted something more organic, and the panther was a natural way to go.
Everyone can relate to the idea of cat people vs. dog people. Plus, when I was in my older teens, I was at the local zoo—if I ever doubt how weird it is to be a part of mankind, that’s one of those places where I really feel torn about the situation. It’d odd to be a part of a species that locks up other species and just looks at them. On the other hand, I can see that so many people are so out of touch with the planet and nature in general. Zoos are a good way to get in touch with those things, but it’s definitely weird. Anyway, this zoo still focuses on big cats, so of course they built really big and nice habitats for all of the animals. They have tigers pacing back and forth, and lions lying around as they do. They’re powerful but lazy. I’ve always liked panthers; who wouldn’t? They’re big and agile. Plus, they’re black, and as a metalhead, I always thought they were cool. This time, the habitat was empty, and I couldn’t see the panther. Then, I spotted it. It had this huge space with trees and a little lake and other jungle stuff, but it was actually above all of that, in a small square cement room leading into the night quarters or wherever they go to get fed. It was as if it was protesting where it should’ve been since it wasn’t in the habitat or the other room. It was in the middle, like it was saying, “Yeah, I know what you’re trying to do with all of this but I’m not buying it.”
Animals are way smarter and more intuitive than a lot of people think.
Totally. I walked over to the glass in-between us and it met my eyes with the calmest yet most intense stare I’ve ever seen. There was this mutual, silent understanding between two species, as if it were saying, “Yeah, I know that you’re a part of the ‘powerful’ species that put me here, but I know—and you know—perfectly well who’d really be in charge if we removed this glass.” It was so calm, though. It wasn’t trying to prove anything, like the other big cats in the zoo. It was just confident. I’ve never seen anything like that, and it stayed with me, so naturally, that’s where I landed with Panther. This authoritative creature now rendered powerless because of a change in context.
It’s fascinating how much context alters things, for better or worse.
Yeah, so that became my new analogy so that I could avoid getting sued by Disney and Pixar [laughs]. Also, the artwork would look shitty if it had F1 cars all over it. From there, I basically sorted society into binary groups of method-rationalists and goal-rationalists. Or, administrative people vs. passion people. Dogs vs. panthers. Normal vs. spectrum. As soon as I figured that out, a lot of the other things came naturally. For example, I’ve wanted to use a comic book style of artwork for many albums now, but it never seemed right until this one. It’s about a world boiled down to symbolism and simplification, and a lot of comics are about that. Through that simplification, they can make rather complex suggestions about real life.
I guess the most common example of that is how X-Men is really about racism, with Magneto and Professor X representing Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., respectively. As with a lot of popular culture, people who aren’t actively engaging with it and are only judging from the outside seem to dismiss how deep and pertinent a lot of the social commentary can be.
Yeah, right. In that respect, a lot of the artistic areas where you boil things down to a smaller scene results in the perfect stage for looking at humanity. Star Trek is like that. When I grew up, I was deeply into Star Wars and I never got into Star Trek. I thought it was too nerdy somehow. But, then I got into it and realized how much it’s like theater. They take a very strict universe, with very overdriven characters, and use them to deal with all intellectual conundrums about what it is to be human.
Absolutely. What I’ve noticed is that while Panther is the most overt allusion you’ve made to the animal kingdom and how that represents different kinds of people, but there’s always been an element of animalism in Pain of Salvation. Things like dominance and sexuality. You’re doing it differently here, but the idea of outcasts or marginalized people in society goes back to Scarsick and The Perfect Element. It’s an ongoing link between albums.
I can see that. The thing is that I was diagnosed as an adult with ADHD, like so many people today. As you grow up, you find your methodologies and your ways around what could be seen as weaknesses in the wrong context. You find a way to either blur that weakness or cancel it out; you create tools to mend those slightly dysfunctional interfaces between your world and the outside world. It’s not a different world by choice but by birth. What happened for me is that as I grew older, these things were constantly becoming less and less of a problem. That is, until I got kids because a lot of the ways that I have functioned throughout my life has been to be hyper-focused and govern my own time. You see, I have endless energy, so my way has been to overload the inputs and be able to, like, be a Formula 1 car who knew my way to the highway every once in a while so that I could use my engine and get that out of my system and then go back to the small streets. Also, being able to take time away.
It's good that you recognize that about yourself and can channel it in a healthy way.
Exactly. I remember with Remedy Lane , I would sit for sixteen or seventeen hours straight and just work. I’d write and record and forget to eat or do other things. That works as long as I have that give and take within my system. As soon as we had kids, of course, we had new schedules around them that weren’t flexible in the same way. Their school day starts at a certain point and there are the logistics of driving back and forth and not forgetting things, etc. It got more and more difficult for me to function; I’d forget more things and I’d have problems getting to the point where I could start the music process and have good stuff happening. It was like a sudoku puzzle: you sit down, and the first hours will be about mental ways of sorting blocks until you find the right starting block. Then, you might get into a problem and start over again. It’s not until you’ve managed to do that that you can speed up and get everything done. Increasingly, I’d find myself sitting there and starting the sudoku, but not getting to the point where I could lay everything out. I’d have to stop and get back to it the next time and start over. By that point, everything was in my head and I’d mixed it up with something else.
That makes sense. It’s often hard for me to decide what to focus on first when I have several things that I need or want to get done at once.
It’s frustrating. Then, we had our third child and he came with Down syndrome and autism. Obviously, that was a lot to handle at once, and it made my everyday life shift into totally different gears. It’s still like that, and that’s when the malfunctioning of my system came to a point where I had to look into whether or not this was something that needed a diagnosis. Looking back from this perspective, I still maintain that it’s in certain contexts that this becomes a problem. You cannot be without context, so you have to make a choice and I chose to accept it. I wouldn’t want to change that; it’s my family and the people I love. I had to learn a lot about finding new ways of finding highways, to go back to that metaphor, and new methods to get those sudoku parts down on paper even if I'm not ready.
You have to rewire your brain.
Yes, and come to terms with the reality of things. It’s fascinating to pinpoint those things; for instance, throughout our entire career as a band, whenever we’ve gone on a tour bus and something happens to the tour bus—which is remarkably often—you have to change the bus. Or, maybe you have a new bus for the next tour. I’ve noticed that when we get a new bus, it will really drain my energy and I’ll be annoyed with all of these little things, like if the power outlets are placed in a stupid position or if the curtain of the bunk is shaped badly. It took me many years to realize that it was never the buses, it was me. I’ve had shitty buses before and I know that a few weeks into the tour, I’m fine with it. Once I learned that, I could tell everyone that I might need to get a bit introspective sometimes and deal with things for a few days. I’d be cranky and annoyed, and obviously, when you’re like that, you can either spread that to other people or just internalize it and wait for it to pass.
I can definitely relate to that, man. I should take your advice.
Definitely. Anyway, what I was getting to is that looking back now, I can see that almost all of my albums have that element in there to some level. Whether you want to call it “diagnosis” or “different personalities” or whatever system you want to apply, it’s there. It’s about being an individual and working on your interface toward the rest of mankind. Try to understand which of your processes you can change and which ones are so rigid that you need to adapt to them. All of that is there, going back even to before the first album [Entropia, 1997]. Looking at the music industry, and especially artists—the panther part of the industry—I can definitely see that 99.9% of all good musicians I’ve ever met should be diagnosed in some way. I’ve yet to meet a “normal” good musician; they all seem to share a certain combination of OCD-like qualities. Attention to detail and quality. They’re relentless with it. Then, there’s a part that has wild and crazy problems with authority. It’s like when you have a little bit of Asperger’s and a little bit of ADHD, you can become a great musician.
I’ve found that pretty much every creative person I know, including myself, has some degree of anxiety and impostor syndrome. I try to normalize that. It’s just part of the deal.
It is. I’ve been called in a few times to talk to kids about the music industry, and usually, a lot of them will be restless and jumpy. I’ll say, “How many of you are feeling restless and jumpy right now?” and everyone raises their hands. I say, “That’s good! You might be great musicians one day.” To get back to where we started, whatever the context has been, that factor has been there from album to album, especially with my lyrics and concepts. The last album was so much about how you see yourself at a certain point in life and see common denominators and you pull out a few scenes or situations from your life that will paint a stylistic picture of who you are. Writing “Full Throttle Tribe” was the first time I really wrote about that part of me that got diagnosed, right or not. It’s the part that’s been restless and very quick to make associations. In many ways, the brilliant side of my mind: the side that makes me score tremendously well on anything related to intelligence. That’s the same part that was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult. It was so obvious to me, and the song allowed me to look at the pros and cons of that.
It was very therapeutic. If you’re a different personality, it can be very draining to be around me. I don’t tire as most people do. I remember that when I was in the hospital a few years ago, I was in such a shitty condition that I could barely walk. I had a pump installed in my back, basically all the way into my spine, and I’d lost a lot of weight. I was heavily medicated on anti-biotics and stuff. We came to a point where we were going to be doing Progressive Nation At Sea 2014 and obviously, I couldn’t travel. Although, I did say to the doctors, “Maybe when I get this pump, if we could put a lot of plastic around me so that it’s watertight and you give me a basic course in how to handle it, I could go on this cruise?” They were looking at me like I was mad. We sorted it out with a solution that must’ve been interesting. I wish I could’ve seen it.
What’d you do?
It's the only show we’ve ever done without me on stage; I was back at the hospital, and the other guys were filling in by singing lead on different songs. We were going to rehearse the songs and I managed to get to the rehearsal room to help out with whatever they needed. Harmonies and things like that. We were there for many hours and at the end, Gustaf [Hielm, bass] was like, “Life is so unfair. You’re on the brink of death and you still have more energy than I do! How is that possible?” That is definitely a strength. In context, it can definitely turn into a problem, though, or something that needs to be toned down.
As you’re speaking about all of this, especially in regard to your children, it made me think of a YouTube channel called “Special Books by Special Kids.” Have you heard of it?
Oh, no. If it’s YouTube, my kids probably know of it, though [laughs].
It's something you might be get absorbed in. From what I understand, it was started by a guy named Chris Ulmer, a former special education teacher who now conducts video interviews with people from all walks of life who have some sort of mental/emotional or physical complications. It’s very insightful and heartwarming, as he’s doing great things to normalize those conditions.
I’ll check it out. I haven’t talked a lot with my kids about these things, and I’m torn about how to address it because—I’m still happy even though I’ve been going through all of these investigations and diagnoses. That’s granted me knowledge of my own shortcomings and strengths that I didn’t have before, but I’m still happy that I didn’t grow up in an era where you diagnose kids so easily. As a society, we flatter ourselves as being more tolerant and open to people being able to try what they want and be taught in their own way, but the problem is that we still don’t make them feel “normal.” We single them out even more than before. Kids, especially, need time to find themselves before someone else says, “I think this is going on with you,” or even worse, medicate them. At the same time, as a teacher, I know that we’re teaching them about all of these wonderful historical figures who were on the spectrum. We raise them to the skies without giving attention to [their impairments].
That’s a fair point.
It's like, “Sure, Sir Isaac Newton did a bunch of great stuff, but he couldn’t even talk to people.” If you wanted to talk to him, you’d have to stand at the other side of the room and ask the question to the wall or to someone else. If you’re lucky, he’ll respond but he won’t look you in the eye or get close to you. That’s the level that they were on, all of these brilliant people. There was a huge discrepancy between their cognitive abilities and their social abilities. Now, we’re trying to get rid of that [distinction], and I fear that we’ll also get rid of the good stuff in the process. Going back to kids, it’s like saying, “You’re dysfunctional but we love you anyway and we’ll get you a personal assistant,” but then in 3rd grade, they tell the teacher that they have ADHD so there’s no point because they won’t be able to understand any of it. We’ve won nothing; it feels like a big part of the problem is that it takes more energy, yet as a special and culture, we’ve never had less energy. We’re so focused on making everything “right,” so we’ve built a society that is based on method-rationality. That’s stupid.
It's somewhat counterintuitive to how people really think and function.
Yes. It’s good as a tool, but it’s not supposed to be a foundation. I don’t know if you’ve encountered the different types of rationalism, but method-rationalism is when every step in a process must be rational. It must be measured so that every investment you make—whether that be mental, time, social, emotional, financial, etc.—has a return of equal value or more; otherwise, it’s deemed irrational. Obviously, being in the creative field, we know that that’s not how things work. We’ll never get to our goal if we use that methodology. The same goes for society: when you use that methodology, you’ll always miss your goal. If you have an administrative system where every step needs to be fully controlled, it won’t work. Every system needs to have some give and take. People think that if they keep applying more and more control, eventually everything will make sense. It won’t.
If people are calling somewhere for help, they may only get an automated response with three choices. If none of those choices work, it won’t help to keep adding more choices. Soon, you’ll have so many choices that you won’t know where you’re going. That, to me, is how you can think of method-rationality. It’s annoying at best, and at worst, it’s dangerous. What happened in Germany during WWII is a perfect example of that. Every step was controlled, and they lost sight of what the hell they were doing. Unfortunately, they were led by a spectrum person, but he wouldn’t have had a chance if those “normal” people didn’t follow him. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say in “Accelerator.” In contrast, the goal-rationalists will be driven by passion and they’ll have problems being a part of the herd. That can be good and bad, of course, depending on the situation.
I get that. That brings me to something I wanted to ask anyway, about why “Accelerator” was chosen not only as the opening track but also as the lead single and first music video. It sounds like it’s because it encompasses something important that you needed to express.
Yeah, but it’s also because of how there’s almost always a compromise with the track order. I can really drown in that, and I’m still not entirely sure that we got it right here. I did an interview a few weeks ago and the interviewer was totally beside himself about how Panther is by far the best Pain of Salvation album and totally obliterated Remedy Lane as his favorite. The funny thing is, when he first heard it, he heard the last track [“Icon”] first. Then, he played the rest of it in the right order. I wouldn’t have even thought of starting the record with “Icon,” but it made an impression on him, so maybe it would’ve been a good start. It’s always a compromise between us, and between the record company and management, too.
That’s interesting because “Icon” feels like a natural closer, not only because it’s the lengthiest and most weighty statement, but also because of how it sort of mirrors the closing title track from the last album. I thought that there was an intentional connection between “Icon” and “The Passing Light of Day.”
That’s what I was aiming for. Going as far back as I remember, it’s been a preference for me to end a Pain of Salvation album with a grander song. There’s a bit of theatricality to it, and the rest of the album leads to this kind of huge ending chapter. It feels like that’s an inherent part of what we do. With Passing Light, there was the problem of having two long songs, because there’s also the opening one, “On a Tuesday.” We were looking at organizing the songs into two distinct sections, like two sides of a vinyl. “On a Tuesday” would’ve been the end of the first batch, so maybe track 5, and “The Passing Light of Day” being the obvious ending to it all. It had the emotion that we wanted to land in: this sad but still accepting and beautiful and unknowing entry into the night. There’s this friend I’ve had since we were both fifteen-years-old, and he’s been listening to the demos of every record I’ve ever written. He’ll see the songs grow and give me feedback. I sent him the first batch for Passing Light, when “On a Tuesday” had only a few vocal passages if any. He called me and said, “You have to promise me one thing: ‘On a Tuesday’ needs to be the first track.”
Good call on his part.
A first, though, I was like, “What are you talking about? It’s more than ten minutes long. The first song should be something that invites the listeners in and transitions into the album.” This was anything but that. It’s a lot of different passages and ugliness and everything that an opening song shouldn’t be. I couldn’t let go of that thought, though; it was planted in my mind like a seed. It would solve so many other problems with the flow of tracks, so I talked to the other guys. At first, they weren’t into the idea so much, either, but then they wanted to try it. It became sort of like a trial by fire: “If you can’t get past this first one, you’re not invited to the rest of the album.” It ended up being a great decision and I was eager to call my friend again and tell him the good news; however, the first thing he said—before I even had the chance to mention it—was that he now agreed that putting “On a Tuesday” first would be a bad choice [laughs]. Then I told him that it is happening because of him. Anyway, maybe we should’ve started with “Icon” after all. Who knows?
I always assumed that “On a Tuesday” was meant to be the opener from the start since it and the last track bookend In the Passing Light of Day as the two lengthiest and seemingly most autobiographical pieces. They help connect everything in-between.
True. That’s goal-rationalism in a nutshell. Those are ideas that aren’t planned, they just happen. Another good example is “Restless Boy” on this new one. After having spent so much time with all of these songs, it’s grown to be my favorite track. I don’t think anyone feels that way the first time they hear it all. Despite its small size and few elements, it is somehow a grower. The funny thing is, I had the idea for the song, and I recorded the instruments and I knew how I wanted the vocals to be. But, I didn’t have a lyric, and I knew that I needed to record something so that I didn’t forget it all. In the past, I would’ve let it go and I would’ve waited, but at that moment, I had to work with the few pieces of sudoku that I had, you know? In an unorderly fashion, I had papers lying around my computer from In the Passing Light of Day. Usually, I write more lyrics that I need, and I’ll change things around a lot, so there are often leftovers. One of those papers was from “Full Throttle Tribe,” so I decided to just sing whatever I could just to save the idea and have a draft to show the other guys. I pulled out that paper and found this one verse that wasn’t used, which is the “restless boy” part. I sang it straight-through, and for the three verses, I sang the same thing. Then, I came to the hard part at the end. I didn’t have anything, so I just said, “This is just a test” because that’s literally what it was.
That’s funny. You never know what will make it to the finished product, I guess.
Yeah! Months later, that is what ends up on the album: this first take from start to finish, without a proper lyric. Obviously, I came to a point later on where I considered sitting down and rerecording it with better words, but by that point, the entire album started revolving around those things that I mentioned before. This part was supposed to be the first section of “Full Throttle Tribe,” not musically but lyrically, and it felt like it ended up being the perfect lyric for “Restless Boy.” Also, I realized how much I really enjoyed how that same phrase was repeating like a mantra. I would never have made that choice if I’d originally sat down and tried to write a lyric. Intellectually, it wouldn’t have made sense to just have the same thing repeat three times.
It was a happy accident, in a way.
Exactly. Those small aspects of haphazard chance are the steps that you can’t measure. You have no idea if they’re going to pay off or just be wrong and lead to wasted energy and nothing more. Through those goal-rational searching steps, we find the golden nuggets. A method-rational viewpoint wouldn’t get you that because you’d immediately not see anything worthwhile coming back after the first step. It would just be considered nonsensical. Not only did method-rationalists steal society from the goal-rationalists who started it, but they also made goal-rationalism sound illogical. That’s my biggest annoyance of life.
It doesn’t seem like there’s an equal amount of room for both in the world. They can’t just agree to disagree but also work together.
You should use goal-rationalism when you first start out toward something, and you measure it every once in a while using the tool of method-rationalism. Every person whom I can respect and read about throughout the history of mankind behaved in a way that, today, would be seen as irrational. They kept going way past the point of sanity when they believed in something so passionately. To me, that’s where mankind becomes the most beautiful version of itself. We do so much crap, to be honest, if you look at what goes on around the world. Many times a week, I wish I could sign something that says, “I am not a part of this species anymore.”
Then again, we have all of these wonderful features, so I just wish that they’d not be looked upon as nonsensical but rather as investments into something that might happen. That investment is riskier, but the payoff is pure beauty.
Absolutely. I’m glad that you brought up how this all links to the last album, too, because I noticed that the tribal symbol that you had on your back last time is now on the shoulder of the panther on the front cover this time.
That also relates to how Panther is a continuation of In the Passing Light of Day. The starting point of this record is “Full Throttle Tribe,” but it’s also a continuation of the whole sequence in that it’s still my story somehow. It’s still about what it means to be a certain kind of human in a certain kind of world. Looking at the pros and cons, and at collecting that tribe of panthers (specifically, the band, but also other people around the world). Early on, I went to Daniel Bergstrand (Devin Townsend, Meshuggah, In Flames) to record drums. In the car, sometimes I’ll come up with songs or I’ll record monologues—speaking of being normal, right?—and on this ride up to him, I had an amusing idea. First the first time ever, the spectrum people in the world will gather behind a mutual cause. They decided that it’s necessary to have a press conference for the “normal” people that laid out the foundation for some of the ideas that I’m using in a less comical way on Panther. It’s like one unfortunate and nervous spectrum person was chosen to be the spokesperson at this conference, and he goes up to the podium, and he says, “Um, we feel really sorry about this but, for the safety of the planet, we’ll have to get rid of all you normal people.”
Thank you. They also pull out history books and declare, “Look! It’s full of us.” So, yes, there is a pronounced divide there that isn’t so much there in real life. It’s not a binary world of “normal” vs. spectrum people, but that’s the point I’m trying to make. It is a gliding scale, but everyone is functional and dysfunctional depending on the context, just like the two cars I mentioned before. We just happen to live in an era where the window of normality is kind of narrow; it’s a bit too sharp around the edges.
It's the idea that the vast majority of people, in one way or another, are not “normal,” so what is actual normality? Like, are the “normal” people actually abnormal because they’re the minority and they’re exceptions to the standard?
Right. The majority of us aren’t “normal”; we all have so many variables that would fall outside of that window. In your everyday life, you’re usually able to balance it all or mask it somehow, to the point where you can still maintain the image of normality.
Totally. Continuing with how Panther connects to its predecessor(s), did you look back at any prior LPs for stylistic similarities? Oddly enough, this one feels like you’re mixing the variety of Scarsick with the earthy grittiness of One Hour By the Concrete Lake.
I can spot some BE sounds in there, and some Entropia on “Species.” I didn’t intentionally try to do that, but I guess I’m always doing that in a way. All of those albums are a part of who I am; I invest myself into all of it, so it’s only natural that it happens. Those similarities can be hidden more or less depending on production or when they’re released. Some people will always see the similarities and calculate the offset, if you will; others will just hear one album and only notice the production or other elements, but they won’t see the common roots between the records. Some fans love the albums independently; they feel that every one is totally different and they have nothing to do with each other, whereas others will comment, “I love how the Pain of Salvation spirit is always the same, no matter who’s in the band.” It all depends on how you listen to music, and I appreciate both outlooks. There are a lot of roots from other LPs in there.
You guys definitely have a certain DNA that permeates all of the records, but that’s really a testament to your vision as the leader. No matter how the line-up changes, you maintain a certain essence that makes the music feel united without feeling repetitious or lazy.
Thanks. I think so, too. Production-wise, I started Panther in the neighborhood of In the Passing Light of Day. I had a lot of songs already, and Ragnar [Zolberg, guitars] and I were recording new stuff. I started running fuzz pedals through noise suppressors and playing around with thresholds. Detuning keyboards, too. It took us into interesting places, so we pulled other songs into that area of sound. In a way, it was like having sound as the neighborhood and then moving the songs into it like houses. Fans will see Passing Light as something that happened three years ago and now, we’re onto Panther, but for me, it’s like once you’re done writing one record, you’re already working on the next one. You don’t stop writing, and I wanted to continue in the same direction we were heading naturally.
That automatically brings unity between them.
I was still itching to play around with sounds and find new ways of, like, expressing guitars. One of the strengths of progressive music—and of metal—was always the bravery. As a kid, it always felt fresh and new and bold. Obviously, a lot of that was due to the image, but what did we know? We were kids. I’ve had that need in me ever since, and I guess that when people listen to the earlier albums today, they can hear how they sounded a bit off back then in the same way that our albums will continue to feel as they’re released into new eras. We’re always trying to be where we want to be, not where other things around us are. There are already plenty of those kinds of songs around, so why add to them? It’s better to keep moving by blending styles and staying true to our roots.
That’s what artistic integrity is all about. Panther feels like a fascinating blend of already established templates. Speaking of recent line-up changes, have they affected the creation or production of it?
I guess it always does. It’s hard to pinpoint, though. Maybe the most obvious thing is that I’m playing bass here. Bass lines would’ve been pretty much the same, so I don’t know if there would’ve been a huge difference sound-wise. I was really sad about how things went with Ragnar, who left in 2017. I’m still confused about it. I think we all are. I’m not sure if that’s manifested itself on the album, but it’s definitely something that’s been with me. The thing I liked most was having someone to write music with; a lot of it was written by me, on my own, but I could also be, say, playing drums in the rehearsal room and he’d pick up a guitar. That’s a fairly rare thing to have in my experience. It seems like a lot of people who aren’t musicians think that every musician really wants to compose, like it’s a natural goal. I don’t think that’s true; it’s like assuming that every actor wants to be a scriptwriter.
I see what you mean.
There are definitely actors who do want that, but a lot more probably don’t want to do that. They just want to perfect their ability to act. Every once in awhile, there’s been someone who wanted to write alongside me. I was sad to lose that with him, and as a friend, too. With Gustaf, it was different. He left for his own good. He was working himself into a place where he’d be burnt out. We talked and decided that his health was way more important than anything else. I’d rather have Gustaf around than a bass player around. Of course, that caused me to worry, too, because I’m always worried when there’s a line-up change. Any sane person would’ve given up a long time ago, but I just don’t have that in me; as a result, people will quit and I’ll remain, which leads other people to think that those people left because of me. I’m always prepared to read or hear some ugly remarks about who I am as a person from people who’ve never met me.
Such is the nature of fandom and bad music journalism.
I suppose so. I try not to let that stuff get to me, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to. Intellectually, maybe, but it still hurts emotionally.
In a way, it’s a positive thing because, again, it shows how well you can carry on in spite of things sort of falling down around you.
I think that’s because I’m really good at forgetting [laughs]. At the end of every production, I start to worry about people’s opinions. Luckily, I’m able to forget that part of it when I start on the next album. I always begin by saying to myself, “Alright, I’m going to write exactly what I want” and I don’t care so much about what other people might think. We are the band and we decide how it goes; if they don’t like it, it’ll just be their loss. It’s easy to feel that way at first because it’s still hypothetical; we’re still two or three years away from having to actually face the reception. We start from that perspective, feeling very passionate and curious and hungry. There’s a slight defiance to authority there, too, that was born in the hard rock era of the early 1980s. It’s still a part of me.
That’s not a bad attitude to have, though. Creators should create for themselves first and foremost.
True, but the closer you get to having the finished album, the more you start to wonder if it’ll be appreciated. I remember that when we sent the demos for “Panther” to the record label and our manager, they both responded the same way: “Maybe you should have more guitars for the fans.” I was like, “You mean on top of the sixteen that are already there?!” Most people will not realize that half of those sounds are guitars; I can’t remember any other song in our history that has as many guitars. At that point, I was so sure that it was a great song, so why add to it? That’s going to change what the song is. We all felt confident in that decision, but now we’re sitting here, thinking, “Well, maybe we should have added more guitars to ‘Panther.’ Maybe they’ll think we’ve become this weird band without guitars now.” It’s funny how all of those parts of you will come to the podium at different times of the production. I’m still really happy that the guy who starts it starts it; fear and anxiety are perfectly good feelings and they could be applied usefully to certain situations.
Undoubtedly. Some fans can be a bit too entitled and feel too much ownership over the music they love. Like, if you don’t like what an artist does next, that’s fine, but you don’t need to go into social media groups and declare your disappointment and disapproval as if it’s the gospel. If someone doesn’t like Panther, that hurts, but they don’t need to declare some grand statement about how Pain of Salvation has gone downhill or something, like their opinion has weight. Just listen to what you do like and let the artists make what they want to make. You know what I mean?
Sure. In the past, you’d have to write a letter to the artist in order to reach them. A lot of those people wouldn’t have done that; it would’ve been too much of an effort for such a small piece of disappointment that they feel. Today, the entire world is so open to opinions, so they’ll resonate louder than they think. Of course, we can learn to live with that, but that would also mean that we’d have to put another layer of thick skin on ourselves. It’d be better to realize that everyone out there is still human, regardless of who it is. Those words will hurt and they’re unnecessary. Why do that?
I don’t know, but it’s fascinating. One last question, and an inevitable one, I suppose. How has the pandemic and quarantine affected Panther, and you on a personal level if you want to say?
There are a bunch of different aspects of that jumbled into this weird emotional state. We can all feel it. With the band, we’re very far from method-rationalists, so our plans are usually made to be adaptive. More often than not, we benefit from that because the music industry is wildly weird and so many things can go wrong. The few times when we have had rigid plans usually blew up in our faces anyway. With the pandemic, we were in the middle of finishing the album; we weren’t on tour, luckily. That would’ve been much more of a problem. We’d planned tours but hadn’t invested in them yet, so we didn’t stand to lose a lot of money. Obviously, we saw a year without touring ahead, but on the other hand, we’d already had problems with making those tours happen. There were changing family situations for some people in the band and crew—I’m not going to mention any names—so we were already wondering how we’d pull of the tours. It would’ve been bad timing.
On top of that, Gustaf said that he couldn’t really deal with all of the different jobs he had and he needed a break. We decided to just finish the album and work out the rest later. Whatever happens, happens. Then, the pandemic hit, and I could see it hitting long before it did. The hyper-focused part of me started researching viruses and extrapolations, so I guessed that it would hit America while we were on Cruise to the Edge, which would mean that a lot of the most susceptible people—males, the elderly, and the overweight—would probably be there. There’d be 3,000 people on there, including bands from Italy and Spain and all over the place, stuck together on a boat. I mean no offense to anyone, but there wouldn’t be a lot of fifteen-year-old skinny girls on a prog rock cruise, right? [Laughs]
No, probably not. You’re not wrong.
We hoped and waited for it to be canceled because we realized that if we did go, we’d get stuck on the boat or in the U.S. They’d certainly close the borders and there’d be trouble getting back. Luckily, they did cancel it, which was a sane decision.
Another good thing was that I had too much material, and for some reason, that’s never happened before. Everyone was telling us not to record more than we had to, but I wanted to record all of it anyway. That meant that once Panther was done, it was in the middle of the pandemic, so I couldn’t go to Stockholm for mixing. We had to mix over the phone, using stems. That’s really how the pandemic influenced the final stages of the album. Then, they asked me—I always feel like I want to keep making music when I’m done an album. I’m already in that world mentally. All of a sudden, the label and management asked me to consider writing a new album. I said, “Yeah, I can do that instead. I have half of an album done; that’s how quick I am.” That was nice. Logistically, it didn’t affect us a lot.
As for myself, well, you’ve probably heard a lot about Sweden over there. I’ve seen how we get depicted in international media. In other countries, they seem to think that just because we’re not having a lockdown, we’re not careful. We really have rigid social restrictions, though. They played it perfectly because they knew their population and they based their decisions on experts, not politicians. Politicians asked us for our cooperation. That’s the best way you can get a Swede on your side: don’t tell them what to do, but say, “We’re in this together so why not take care of each other?” All of a sudden, people started doing that because there weren’t restrictions that were so harsh that people started to protest or gather in anger. Also, I’ve seen that around the world, religion can cause issues, too, if people think that the virus won’t touch them because their religion protects them. At this point, we’re down to 10 – 15 deaths per day, which is still sad, of course, but very far from the disasters in other countries.
I’m glad to hear it. I’ll save you my rant on how America has been handling all of this. It was great to speak with you again, Daniel, and congrats on Panther. As a longtime fan of Pain of Salvation, I can tell you that it’s very enjoyable and thought-provoking.
Thanks, Jordan. Be well.