Swedish headbangers In Flames find a different way to rock on new album
By Gary Graff
November 25, 2016
It’s been 26 years since In Flames came blazing out of Gothenburg, Sweden, with its particular brand of rock — melodic death metal that over the course of 12 studio albums has morphed into a more mainstream kind of “alternative” metal. Along the way the quintet has kept four of the members of its original lineup intact and won two of its homeland’s Grammis Awards.
This month, it released the new Battles, which found guitarist and primary songwriter Bjorn Gelotte and company setting up shop in southern California to work with Howard Benson for a decidedly different kind of recording experience. The album has been warmly received, debuting at No. 2 in In Flames’ homeland in the Top 10 in Germany and Austria. We caught up with Gelotte — who actually started out as In Flames’ drummer before switching to lead guitar in 1998 — during a tour stop in Montreal, where he was braving the snow for a quick afternoon beer in a sports bar.
FGPO: So what did you set out to do with Battles?
Gelotte: I think our approach to the writing of the music is always the same. We look for strong melodies, melodies that stick to your head and we really enjoy. That’s the foundation of what we do.
FGPO: The real difference this time is working in California, and with Howard Benson producing. What led you there?
Gelotte: We did [2014’s] Siren Charms in Germany, with all that entails — cold, dark and gray. It was in the winter time and all that sort of trickled into the actual sound of the record, I think. It turned a little bit melancholic in a way. So when we started talking to producers for [Battles] we thought that, geographically, it was important for us to try something different this time, and L.A. sounded awesome, to be honest. So it was a lot of beer, a lot of barbecue, a lot of sun. I think that vibe sort of trickled into the feel of the record. I’d say it has a more sort of positive energy than Siren Charms had. It was interesting to see how [location] affected the overall sound and vibe.
FGPO: How was working with Benson different than what you’d done before?
Gelotte: He’s an amazing producer who filtered everything we did. He wanted to make sure we stayed true to who we are. He also put some very high standards on our demos; he wanted us to do it properly so that he understood what we wanted to say and what we wanted to do. That put us in a position where we really needed to be together, me and Anders [Friden, In Flames’ vocalist] especially. I was able to work with him on vocal lines, which we never did before. That was very different for us, not normally how we do things. And then I was working primarily with [engineer] Mike Plotnikoff; him and his assistants were very efficient. We only did six- seven-hour [sessions] per day and got done what we normally do in 14 hours. So we had energy left to go back to the house and write more demos and present more stuff to Howard. It was extremely efficient, very inspirational, very creative, extremely productive. We usually do 11 songs and we wound up recording 16 — that’s how productive it was.
FGPO: You’re the riffs guy in the band. What’s the secret to coming up with a good one?
Gelotte: I don’t know! [laughs] For me, it’s a combination of, if it sort of grooves and at the same time, is it melodic enough? Is it something I can hear and see us doing on stage? Is it interesting to me and challenging at the same time? I just mess around with the guitar and eventually stuff comes up. A lot of times it’s just melodies that are in my head already; I have an idea I think might work and then I start playing it, and if it feels right I add some drums and bass to it, and if it still feels right it’s probably a keeper. I don’t think about it, really. I just do it.
FGPO: Do you have a high batting average for coming up with riffs that eventually become songs?
Gelotte: My batting average is pretty high. I usually don’t put energy into stuff that doesn’t feel right; that’s sort of like polishing a turd, in a way. If it doesn’t feel right right away, then screw it. And it’s supposed to be efficient; we’re not that kind of band that writes 35 songs and picks 12. That’s such a waste. It needs to be important to me and hopefully will pass the guys’ filter as well. I try to arrange everything so they understand exactly what I want to do and how I want them to add their stuff to it.
FGPO: What did you get to do differently, guitar-wise, on Battles?
Gelotte: I was mostly working with Mike, who’s done everything from Kiss to Aerosmith to fucking Van Halen, so he’s sort of a hero of mine already. And he’s so efficient. He had 20 amps already rigged and set up; we just had to patch them in if we wanted to try something different, and within one minute we could have a totally different rig than we had before. That’s something really new; usually producers go in there, change the amp, change the speaker, the mic positioning, the EQ and it’s 45 minutes before you can start recording something else. You lose your energy. He just patched it in; I couldn’t even take a five-minute break without feeling like I was wasting time. It was very efficient.
FGPO: What kind of gear did you use?
Gelotte: Oh, he had some really cool amps. I used, of course, my own, a prototype Marshall I’ve been playing that I’m not even sure what it’s called. We also used an Orange that he took in especially for this occasion; it sounded great. He actually got me the signature sound from the Balance album ’cause he did that with album with Van Halen — he even called it the Van Halen sound. It’s done with a harmonizer and studio tricks he knows about, but it sounded awesome so we had to use it.
FGPO: How about instruments?
Gelotte: I used my signature guitar, my first custom Les Paul, ’cause I’m super proud of it and it plays as good as my original first custom Les Paul. So I was using that mainly for all the riffs. We used a little bit of lap steel that another guy came in and played for “Wallflower.” I used a baritone guitar, too, one of Mike’s. But I always try to keep it very simple, just my guitar straight through the amps.
FGPO: What’s your sense of where In Flames is now and the band’s evolution? It’s a group with a real history at this point?
Gelotte: I think we’re exactly where we should be. We’re sort of easily understandable, really passionate about what we do, in my opinion pretty good about what we do. It’s all about melody, and a combination of melody and aggression. It’s something we had from the start. It takes a couple of years to develop a sound and to sort of understand what it is you want to do. That takes a couple of albums. We did so much touring, and you learn a lot from that, too. So I think it’s evolved into something that is bigger and better than, of course, we were at the beginning, but stayed true to what we were in the beginning. The same principles apply today as in the beginning — Does it sound good? Does it feel right? Do the five of us like it? Can you play it live? The same things apply. Being true to that just makes life very easy. You like what you do. You enjoy what you hear and play. That’s where we’re at.
FGPO: Does it feel like it’s been 26 years — or more or less?
Gelotte: To be honest, it just flew by. I see pictures sometimes that I haven’t seen in awhile, like the first time we came over to the U.S. in ’99, ’98, and I look so fucking young! [laughs] But it feels like yesterday. I remember most of it. I’ve enjoyed the journey so far. We’re so fortunate we can travel the world and people are interested in what we do and support us and enjoy our music. We can make a living out of it and do only this, music. So life is good and time flies.
FGPO: What’s on the horizon for In Flames?
Gelotte: Well, we do this tour all the way up until Christmas, then we have a week or two off and then go to the U.K. to support Avenged Sevenfold and Disturbed. That’ll be fun. After that we have some mainland Europe shows, special intimate shows; we want to do something different than we normally do, not the big pyro and lights thingy. And then it’s time for my guys to do some more touring over here, festivals, then back to Europe and do all those festivals, and then a bigger tour later on, both here and Europe. So it’s going to be a very busy two or three years.
FGPO: When you’re in tour mode, what do you do with the riffs and ideas that pop up?
Gelotte: To be honest, I am lazy. I sort of need to have a studio date in order to start writing. I need to be pushed. And as weird as it sounds, it’s not very inspirational and creative to be on tour. Your mind is set on playing live, not in recording mode. I’ve tried a couple of times but nothing really good comes out. I write when we decide we need to have an album out by a certain time, and that fits whatever touring plan we have. You count backwards and find out when you need to have an album out and start writing from there.