An Interview with At The Gates: Fighting The Head Of The Hydra

At The Gates are a death metal band from Gothenburg, Sweden, that formed in 1990. They have five albums to date, including this year’s At War With Reality. At War With Reality is available on Century Media Records, and has a deluxe CD issue including two bonus tracks, which are “Language Of The Dead” and “The Skin Of A Fire.”

I was recently able to speak with At The Gates singer Tomas Lindberg about At War With Reality, the recording differences from 1995’s Slaughter Of The Soul to the new album, the concept of magic realism and more. The transcription is below:

What do you see as the major differences in the recording process between 1995 to 2014, and how do those differences impact what you were able to accomplish when it came to creating the finished product of At War With Reality?

I would say the actual recording process is obviously a bit easier since we are in digital times now. You can cut and paste in the vocals after the first verse is recorded, but you couldn’t really do that back in the day. Back then you had to cut and paste them with scissors. We are an old band and are after the old school vibe. A good take is a good take, and we went into the studio really well prepared. What it really comes down to is the atmosphere in the studio, which is why we went back to Fredman Studios in Gothenburg.

Calling your album At War With Reality, is there any sort of theme to the stories you are trying to share when it comes to the lyrics of this album?

I discovered there is an underlying literary genre called magic realism in some of the countries from South America in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. I would say that the way those novels were constructed intrigued me so much that I wanted to create writing that was along those lines.

The first part of the concept is how the lyrics are written. They are very multilayered, there are subplots and hidden meanings. There is this fevered dream world existing underneath. I created it once by writing it, but you create it again by listening to it. The philosophical aspect of this whole genre inspired and fired me up so much. I started writing, I couldn’t really stop (laughs). The other concept deals more for the war with reality. It’s not like I hate the world, it’s a cruel place, I’m at war with reality—it’s nothing like that. It’s more theoretically grounded in post-modernism and post-structuralist thought. The war is against one model for explaining reality. We are more into the idea that you need to always reconquer reality.

A line in the first song says, “With every dawn, the world deforms,” meaning that everyone’s reality is constantly changing. Everybody’s reality is different from one another depending upon experiences, context, and things of that nature. Having a religious or political viewpoint to explain the world or have one idea for everything is wrong.

I was listening to “Death And The Labyrinth,” the second song on the album, and I really felt like this was the true beginning of the album. What type of feelings and reactions do you hope to invoke in your fans when they are listening to this song for the first time?

We put a lot of effort into the actual tracklisting that you follow to have a good flow. It also follows the lyrical concept a little bit. We really want them to be touched emotionally by these songs because for our last album—1995’s Slaughter Of The Soul—we were pleased with it, it was a good record. We felt it was pretty one-dimensional. It was very aggressive all the way through. With the older records, they had a lot of different emotions in them. We really wanted to bring that back, the melancholy, desperation, frustration—not only just anger all the time. We believe all the songs on the new record individually have a personal depth to them. We have one song where it is dark and almost evil and creepy. We have some melancholic, frustrated songs. The last song on the record even has a spark of triumphant hope to it in the middle of all that darkness.

For the song “The Head Of The Hydra,” you say, “We invoke a monument, a final stand,” and go on like that. Is this about starting a revolution, and if so, are you referring to anything going on in today’s world?

In Norway, that is a very desperate song with a lot of frustration in it. Now you are starting to decipher one of the layers to the lyrics of that song. It has a revolutionary theme, but it also deals with the emotional aspects of a revolution gone wrong—like a stillborn revolution, along with the desperation and frustration that leaves.

One thing that inspired me to write that song was the Arab Spring, especially with what happened in Egypt and Syria where, from the start, there were left wing intellectuals that were starting the revolutions to try to create a better world. In the end, it became something else that they really didn’t want at all. That was the kind of emotion that I was playing with on this track.

On “The Book Of Sand (The Abomination),” “we run like rats around the world” is repeatedly chanted with different verses and has a persistent theme. What are you alluding to with those lyrics?

The Book Of Sand is a novel by Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinean writer from the ‘40s. My starting point was his novel. The Book Of Sand is like a book that never ends, it just goes on. It engulfs you and doesn’t let you go. You kind of go crazy from reading it. That was my starting point from it and then I added the whole kind of media flow in the 2000s where all the knowledge is superficial and out there and doesn’t need to be conquered or learned. Everything is just out there as long as you have an internet connection. This kind of deluded way of perceiving the world is what I am raging against in that song. It’s really about how protectionist we have become in the Western world today and how blind we have become to what is really going on.

Symbolically, what are the two hands holding back on the cover of At War With Reality?

We had an artist, Costin Chioreanu, that worked on the whole theme of the record who is a great friend of ours. He really got into this philosophical concept as well. He was really fired up. He looked at all the lyrics and asked if he could portray all these original lyrics with artwork for every single one. These are his interpretations of the lyrics. So it’s actually his vision. For each of the lyrics in the album, there is a painting for each of the songs. The painting you see on the front cover is for the title-track, “At War With Reality.”

Although this may be premature, what are you planning for At The Gates after the touring cycle for this new album completes?

That is one thing I would rather leave unsaid because of the history we have with statements. We already made two major statements and broken them. In 2008, we said we were never going to come back and then we came back in 2011, and then in 2011, we said we were never going to record another album. We are back in the circus. We feel alive and want to do more. If I say, “Yeah, we are going to record the new record in 2016,” I might have to eat my words, or if I say, “This is the last At The Gates record,” I might have to eat my words as well (laughs). I would rather leave it a bit open, but right now we are an active band. Then again, that might change. We feel very good where we are at right now.

Final Words?

To all our American fans, thanks for sticking around and waiting for this new record. We can’t wait to hear all of your guys’ reactions to it. We got to hear the reactions from all of you journalists out there. For you other fans, this is why we do it.


At The Gates’ new album, At War With Reality, is available now through Century Media. They’ll play next year at Union Transfer in Philadelphia on April 11 and Webster Hall in NYC on April 12. For more information, go to