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Crystal Eyes' Mikael Dahl: "I can only speak for myself, but for me the songs and the melodies disappeared after the eighties when Grunge ruined everything..."

Interview with Mikael Dahl from Crystal Eyes
by Lior "Steinmetal" Stein at 04 November 2019, 11:25 PM

It really doesn't matter what is currently trendy, what works financially and what can get more folks to appreciate one's efforts, the only thing that does matter is where the heart is. For the past two decades, Crystal Eyes have been drawn into the marvellous pits of 80s Heavy Metal. Whether they crush with speed or sweat in ballads, the golden age of Metal is always there for them. With the upcoming release of “Starbourne Traveler”, and 20th anniversary, Steinmetal talked with the band's veteran, Mikael Dahl, about inspirations, the 80s, new band members, changes and more…

Hello Mikael, I hope that I caught you in the right moment for this interview for Metal Temple online Magazine, how have you been doing sir?

I'm doing just fine and after reading all great comments on our new video “Side By Side”. I'm really excited to hear what people think of the whole album. I'm just dying to get it out.

Crystal Eyes has been in and out of my radar in the past, with “Chained” being the last album that I had the chance to listen up until now. You guys are back after five years, I guess you took your time to write your new record, perhaps a little time off or other unrelated reasons?

Sometime after releasing “Killer” in 2014 the chemistry of the latest line up wasn't working and we couldn't agree on anything. We had just got a new drummer who actually was a previous member from back in 1995 and Niclas, whom I started the band with, was back for the third time. It felt like me and Claes against the other 2 and it came to a point we're no one enjoyed playing so I decided to split the line up and put the band on ice. The band didn't exist for a year until Claes and I realized that we actually could have a drummer in our other band which was a Judas Priest tribute band called Defenders Of The Faith. So we tried Henrik Birgersson on the drums and he was just what we needed and gave me back my inspiration for song writing which slowly began when he joined in 2016. Since this was a new start with the intention of just having fun I didn't force anything but it just felt right so the song ideas just kept coming and 2 years later we had enough to make a new album.

Your new album, “Starbourne Traveler”, via your label Massacre Records, proves that Crystal Eyes is a band that is pro for the sanctity of the song. A band that goes for the money time to achieve the best result that would remain memorable. As far as your songwriting method goes, what keeps you motivated to cling to it? What lights your fire to constantly reach for the sky, as it was broadly done in the 80s, yet we aren’t in the 80s anymore, aren't we?

I'm still stuck in the eighties and I always try to make my songs sound like they are from the eighties because that's the golden era of music. I could never get motivation to write a song just for money and I would probably fail completely if I tried. The melodies just have to come naturally but most of the time they show up in my head when I'm far away from my guitar or studio. It could be in the car, the shower, at a concert or whatever and those are always the best ideas. I always write songs that I want to hear myself on record and the most important thing is that I like it.

In overall, would you say that “Starbourne Traveler” was traditionally arranged to be a sort of a hit machine? It had me thinking of that scene in the Def Leppard movie, where they were told that they had to have at least four hits on the “High & Dry” album for it to make it through the market. Was it something of the same?

I guess you mean the “Historia” movie which I love and yes that's pretty close to the truth. I never think in terms of writing a whole album, I just write song after song and hopefully end up with a couple of hits. We've never been told by any record company about how we should sound or how many hits we should have but I force myself instead. Of course I would love to have as many hits as on the “Hysteria” album. =)

Regarding the sanctity of the song, though the last decade or so, there have been rising branches within Metal music, subgenres that have been crossing swords with the showcasing of technical abilities as a main feature in their material, other than paying much notice to the actual song. Do you believe that nowadays the souls of the songs are in a fear of extinction?

I can only speak for myself, but for me the songs and the melodies disappeared after the eighties when Grunge ruined everything. Even if Heavy Metal got big again 20 years ago, the melodies and the songs were gone. I'm still a metal fan searching for new music but it's very rare to find a really good song these days.
“Starbourne Traveler” also marks the official presentation of the newer half of the band, skinman Henrik Birgersson, which also plays with you on Defenders Of The Faith, and guitar ripper Jonatan Hallberg. I guess minds think alike when it comes to Crystal Eyes unchanged musical direction. What is your appreciation of their abilities and their contribution to the musical spirit of Crystal Eyes?

I met Henrik at work in 2014 and we just clicked. We had the same musical taste and loved the same bands and musicians. Even though I'd never heard him play I invited him for an audition with Defenders Of The Faith and he just blew me away. Without any doubt the best drummer I've ever played with and then he was of course perfect for Crystal Eyes. I've always programmed the drums while writing demo songs but this time we could try things in the rehearsal room and he just knew what to do. Sometimes I could ask him to do something like Cozy Powell, Ian Paice or Vinny Appice or whatever and he knew exactly what I was talking about.

The first time I met Jonatan he was recording a demo with his band Amnesia in our studio and it felt like I just met myself 20 years ago. He was a young hungry guitar player and just like me he thought the song and the melodies were the most important thing. I had his name on my mind the whole time and when we needed a new guitar player for Crystal Eyes he was our only choice. He has a great taste for melodies and his solos fits right in with mine and the fact that he's 1 year younger then the band itself just makes the rest of us feel younger. And of course his great sense of humour makes everything a little easier.

What would you say changed in the songwriting process of “Starbourne Traveler”? Now with the new members I guess that things got a bit interesting, since you have been the main songwriter for years. Do you believe that you would continue onwards with the same pattern of the songwriting on the next adventures of Crystal Eyes?

I've always recorded complete demo versions of the songs with guitar, bass, vocals and programmed drums. So the band always heard a finished version first and then maybe we would change a part here and there. This time I presented parts and ideas of songs and everyone could have input on the arrangements and we tried different versions of my ideas live during rehearsals and this had not been done for at least 20 years in Crystal Eyes. It felt great to work together while arranging everything and we'll definitely work more like this in the future.

Even though “Starbourne Traveler” is a traditional Crystal Eyes album, what would you say were the musical elements that were awarded with a special attention this time around?

We focused on taking away everything unnecessary and just do what's best for the song and always keep the melodies in the centre. The musical direction is nothing I think about because the songs just have to come naturally and I try whatever comes to my head. It's still a traditional Crystal Eyes album but even more varied than before. For me anything in the style between Judas Priest's “Painkiller” to Def Leppard's “Pyromania” would fit on a Crystal Eyes album and songs like “Paradise Powerlord” and “Midnight Radio” are definitely leaning more towards the melodic radio-hits of the eighties but fits perfect with the rest of the traditional Heavy Metal style on the rest of the album.

Overall, how would describe your approach towards writing a song, music and arrangements? Have you been led by the riffs or rather by the vocal melodies?

That's different from time to time. Usually it starts with a vocal melody for a chorus or a verse in my head and I grab the guitar to see what fits but sometimes I come up with guitar melodies or riffs first. If I'm really lucky the verse, pre-chorus and chorus including the music pops up in my head and I just have to record it right away. I always record every single thing that turns up and there's almost 6 hours of unused Crystal Eyes songs and ideas in the vault which I go back to from time to time.

On this record I used really old demo stuff for “Into The Fire” and the guitar melody in the middle of “Starbourne Traveler” is from our first official demo tape from 1994. The chorus in “Midnight Radio” is about 15 years old but I never had any idea what to do with it until I tried it with a verse from another demo song from almost 10 years ago and then suddenly I had another hit. =)

It was hard for me to select my number one song, I’d tell you that, yet I would like to ask about the nature of “In the Empire of Saints”. Like any 80s oriented album, there is the sweaty power ballad. However, it didn’t quite feel like that on this song, as it wasn’t sweaty and sounded quite honest. What is the background story behind it? What can you tell about its creation process?

This song is dedicated to an old friend of mine who died in cancer 2 years ago. He was the singer of a band called Empire Saint and that was the first band I ever saw live and it had a big impact on me. Later we became very close friends and had a cover band together playing the songs we both loved from the eighties. He also recorded a solo album which I recorded the guitars too and ended up mixing. He meant a lot to me so it was really hard to sing this song without tears. He loved big ballads so I wanted to make a huge ending of the song and thought about the choir in “We Are The World” and invited close friends to me and him and a choir to sing the outro. I think it turned out great and I can't listen to that part without crying.

In order to properly commemorate the 20th anniversary of your debut “World of Black and Silver”, you re-recorded two tracks, “Extreme Paranoia” and “Rage on the Sea”. Weren’t there considerations to re-record the entire album and perhaps releasing it as a double album with “Starbourne Traveler”? Why these two were chosen in particular? To be honest, my top track out of that album is “Gods Of The World”.

We talked about re-recording the first 2 albums for years because we were not happy with the production but this would have turned into a big project and we could never find the time to do it. Before recording the new album, we realized it would be released 20 years after our debut album and thought the time was perfect for re-recording 1 song and we picked “Rage On The Sea” since it had remained in our live-set since day one. With a couple of months left to the recording Claes came up with the idea to also record “Extreme Paranoia” for a possible bonus track or B-side since that was another track that have remained in the live-set but when we heard the final result we just couldn't leave it out. I love the re-recordings as they sound just how it was meant to be and I can only dream of how the rest of the songs would sound. I agree with you on "Gods Of The World" and it's one of my favourites too so maybe we'll do a re-recording of that one in the future.

Returning back to “Starbourne Traveler”, and I can only assume that it would be a little tough for you, which song of the album do you find as a totem, both musically and lyrically?

That's a hard one but I think I will choose “Side By Side” since that song sounds 100% Crystal Eyes and could fit one any of our albums. Lyrically it turned into our own fighting song and with the new line-up it feels like we're ready to take on the world Side By side.

You recently started to promote the video for “Side By Side”. You scored with the choice no doubt, one of the album’s strongest. What can you tell about the process of making the video? Generally, do you prefer actual videos or the rising demand for Lyric videos?

It's our first video and we knew which song to do but could not come up with a filming concept that would work with our small budget so we decided to just film it live on stage. Luckily a close friend and a former member of Crystal Eyes work at the theatre as a light engineer in our home town and he arranged so we could film everything there and he could handle the lights. I think the stage and the lights in combination with god looking men was just a hit. I really don't like lyric videos but since we couldn't afford 2 real videos we spent the rest of our budget on a lyric video. It's not finished yet but I think it will turn out great since we found a really talented guy for this.

The album’s sound is so neatly clean, polished, yet crunchy enough to crack a Heavy Metal enthusiastic by a split second. Unlike most of his works that end up with a depth, meaty heaviness, Fredrik Nordstrom did something different and I enjoyed it. What is your viewpoint of his work?

This is the 4th album Fredrik mixes for us and he always know how we should sound because he also loves real Heavy Metal from the eighties. The music he usually mixes are with completely different bands than Crystal Eyes but it's way too heavy for me so I really can't comment on those mixes since I don't listen to them. The great thing about Fredrik is that he works fast, has a great sense of humour and knows right away what sounds and effects we are looking for. I actually don't see the point for us to work with anyone else.

A general question for you. It has been widely argued that Metal music is more than just music, it is a religion, a way of life, even as a sort of calming the nerves kind of thing. Do you believe that Metal as a way of life nowadays is still relevant? And since most of it is anti-religion, why call it a religion?

For me music is my life but I'm in no way a true Metal warrior. It's all about writing, playing and having fun. Religion and politics is nothing I'm interested in while listening to good music.

Before we sign off, how do you intend to support “Starbourne Traveler” in the remaining months of 2019? What about 2020?

We're working hard on getting gigs right now and hopefully we'll have the calendar fully booked for next year.

Mikael, many thanks for taking the time for this interview, it is much appreciated. Personally I enjoyed “Starbourne Traveler” very much and I hope it will bring you to the gold. Cheers.

Thank you. Rock Hard Ride Free!



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