Guitarist/vocalist Christopher Amott is speaking to me over WhatsApp. It’s March 2 and the New York City-based Swede is on the line from his homeland. He’s returned to Sweden to record guitar parts for Gothenburg melodic death metal band Dark Tranquility’s much-anticipated upcoming album. Later in the month, the band will announce that Christopher, who has toured with the group since 2017, has joined as a full-time member.
As for myself, I’m preparing to enter lockdown in New York. Amid grim predictions about the havoc coronavirus will wreak on the U.S. and the world, we’re both doing our best to manage our anxiety.
The new decade wasn’t supposed to be like this, but here we are. At least the horrific year began in a promising way for Amott.
Known for his guitar mastery and former membership in Arch Enemy (he left in 2012 to pursue a solo career) — among his many contributions to the band, Christopher envisioned the band’s 2003 anthem “We Will Rise” — he took a musical leap of faith by releasing Electric Twilight, a captivating synthwave album at the end of January.
Instead of composing an album flaunting his shredding skills, Christopher went in a new direction and crafted a ten-track collection of synth-driven, retro-flavored soundscapes embedded with pop melodies.
On Electric Twilight, he plays all of the instruments and sings lead vocals (he proves once again that he has a really good voice!). Three songs (“Agenda,” “Symphony Of Home” and “Stellar Paths”) were co-written with his older brother Michael, who he used to play with in Arch Enemy.
As the conversation begins, I tell Christopher how much I enjoyed Electric Twilight. He sounds flattered and surprised.
“I’m a metal guitar player, really,” he laughs.“But I don’t think anyone dislikes synthwave. It’s such a chill genre. I don’t think anybody dislikes the style of music.”
I think he’s right. Synthwave is the soundtrack of so many beloved movies. It’s often in the music bed of commercials and video games. The genre is ubiquitous yet unassuming.
“It’s also the time we’re living in,” Christopher continues. “I see people wanting to escape reality more than ever through their phones. At least my Instagram feed is very [full of] retro stuff, like from the ‘80s. I think people want to drift away and synthwave does that. Maybe it’s the opposite of punk rock that tried to change the world and be mad. Synthwave is about escaping reality for a while.”
Read on to learn about Christopher Amott’s five-year odyssey to realize Electric Twilight and how the album has empowered him to investigate new musical possibilities.
I’m a big fan of your guitar playing, especially your work in Arch Enemy. I also respect anyone who’s doing something that they aren’t known for. I mean, if Yngwie Malmsteen came out with an ambient album, I would certainly be curious to listen. [Laughs]
Christopher Amott: I don’t really have that much of an audience. I’m out here on my own a little, you know. I’m just doing what I like artistically. I’ve got a little bit of a fanbase, I suppose. I’m pretty much doing what I like.
How did you put together this album? Was exploring synthwave something you had been thinking about doing for a while or did the concept present itself randomly?
Obviously there was the movie Drive. The soundtrack was great. I don’t know what year I saw that movie, but I feel like that was kind of the beginning with synthwave. I know the movie came out in 2011. I grew up in the ‘80s so it was always inside of me, I guess. I started messing around with some MIDI synths. I’m not much of a keyboard player, and I don’t have a lot of synthesizers. I’m mostly using MIDI notes in Pro Tools. I started messing around with it, and I felt that it [sounded] so clean and nice. It was easy to be creative and more experimental. I’m pretty good at guitar, you know. When I fall into these old patterns I let my fingers do the work. With the keyboard thing, it was more pure — just really thinking about what the song needs. I also like the minimalistic kick and snare and that pumping bass with pads on top of that. Honestly, I wasn’t thinking about synthwave in the beginning. I started doing this stuff five years ago. I was just checking out weird, cheesy ‘80s Italian disco songs.
Yeah, the music is so great. I like this kind of stuff. I was a little over metal because it is so serious and powerful and there’s no humor in it. Every photo session you’ve got to look really tough. It’s just about being strong. I think I’m more like an indie-pop guy with more of a hipster mentality. I don’t mind things bit a bit out of tune or more relaxed, ironic or whatever. It attracts me. I mostly listen to pop music. I never really listen to metal. If I listen to metal I’ll put on old Iron Maiden, [Metallica’s] “Ride the Lightning” or Slayer or Judas Priest.
I don’t really like a lot of new metal. I haven’t really done that since we started with Arch Enemy. When we got really into that we were just focused on making our own music, so I didn’t really keep up with metal. But also these days metal is like electronic music in itself, or it has been for a few years at least. I feel like it’s changing a little bit and going a bit retro so metal people are putting more reverb on their albums and mixes. It’s been so snapped-to-the-grid — all of the drums are perfect, copying and pasting guitar riffs …. I do that on recordings myself and it almost becomes like samples you move around. So I think I miss this kind of ‘70s/‘80s metal. But anyway, back to synthwave, I’m going off-track!
“I started out wanting to be the world’s fastest guitarists. With age and maturity, my interests evolved. Now I just want to make good music, whatever the style that may be.”
I do think there’s a formula in a lot of metal, at least what I listen to.
You know Neil Young did ….
I did a deep dive on that album a few months ago.
It’s cool, right?
It is. I remember as a kid everyone hating it.
I was looking on YouTube a few years ago at interviews and I found one from that era. It was in [Neil’s] studio, and he was talking about the album. He has this idea how synth music or computerized music is very soothing because it’s produced with a machine and there’s no room for human error … You know there won’t be a drummer who is out of time or a guitar player who will play the wrong note. It soothes and relaxes you. It’s an open canvas for thought.
From someone who listens to a lot of electronic music, I can honestly say your album is really great. All killer, no filler.
[Laughs]: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. It took a long time because I wasn’t really working on it nonstop for five years. I would put it down, then pick it back up. Maybe that was good, you know. In the end, I was so sick of it because the songs I had written first I had heard so many times. I started second-guessing it.
Not having a deadline is a great luxury.
Yeah, it was weird because there was no audience for this. Nobody was waiting for this album. It was just up to me and that was a weird feeling. So I kept polishing it. I was also looking for a vocalist. I wanted someone else to sing, maybe a female vocalist. In the end, I decided to do it myself. And also my wife helped with the lyrics.
I was about to ask you about the lyrics. What inspired your wife?
I had the framework or a vibe and then she’d take it from there. My English is pretty good but it’s not my native language. Sometimes my choice of words can be kind of cliché, and I’ll go with the first line that comes up. She’s a writer so what she knows is a bit deeper.
Your brother, Michael, plays on three songs.
Yeah. We sometimes meet up and mess around with song ideas. I don’t exactly know how it started. I started showing him some keyboard sounds and we got inspired. In the end, what I’m doing is pop with a synthwave style. A lot of synthwave is instrumental and I don’t know if I can compare it to anything. There are a few bands that are pretty big now like FM-84. They’re pretty slick, though. They are straight-ahead pop. Then there are bands that are more dance-y, I guess. It’s kind of a mix. I don’t know where I fit in … I’ve never wanted to be part of any genre or scene. Now I feel like it’s helpful and I really wanted to market it. I made sure the cover had neon and pink on it. I wanted [the cover] to be [a] really clear [representation] about what this is supposed to mean [musically].
Good packaging! A lot of pop music from the ‘80s has really interesting guitar parts. I remember a lot of those songs would have a cool lead break.
The synth is an amazing thing. I don’t own a lot of synths, and I’ve come to terms that the sounds from the plugins aren’t pure. I think it’s all about creativity. In the ‘80s you were recording on tape using drum machines and sequencers and all that. We’re doing a take on that style of music. I’m not really into retro in that way. I think it’s pointless to have the right gear from the ‘80s. I don’t want to go down that road.
Electric Twilight album is entirely self-released, right?
Right. I didn’t really want to bother contacting any labels. I didn’t want to delay [the release of the album] anymore and I didn’t know what any label could do for me. They’re just going to promote it on their Instagram anyway. I don’t know what labels there are these days but the music business has changed. I don’t even know what labels I could have approached. I figured I would put it out there and promote it a little bit.
What has been the reaction to the album overall?
It’s been all positive. That’s the weird thing. I think that’s because I’m an underdog now and not famous anymore [laughs]. If I would’ve put this album out when I was in Arch Enemy, a lot of people would say it sucks or whatever. That’s when you know you’re famous — if you get a lot of mean comments from people who are sick of seeing your face or whatever.
Sounds to me like you’ve gotten creative satisfaction from this project. Do you plan to investigate synthwave a bit deeper in the future or even other genres?
It’s definitely been a huge creative release for me to not work with a drummer and not worry so much about the guitar playing or trying to appeal to a metal audience. That’s been huge. I still love the sound of this album. When you were talking about guitar playing in the ‘80s, I love that processed tone with a lot of reverb and chorus. I like all of the effects and that kind of music. It’s definitely going to affect whatever I do in the future. It’s going to spill over. If I do a metal album it’s going to be more retro-sounding. Now I have the confidence to do that.
Exactly two months later I email Christopher to apologize for the delay in putting the story together. Life in New York has been challenging. He understands. Over email, he tells me he’s still in Sweden and his wife remains in New York. She’s been keeping him updated on the coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged the city and America. Christopher has been practicing social distancing, washing his hands frequently and wearing a mask in public.
I ask him about the status of Dark Tranquility’s album — it’s still a work in progress. “I have yet to record my parts,” he says. “I think it’s going well. They have their own studio, so they are working at their own pace. I don’t really know when the release will be, but this summer I’m guessing.”
For my final follow-up question, I ask Christopher to think back to his earliest musical goals. Looking at the arc of his career — six-string metal shredder to synthwave scientist — I wonder if they have changed.
“Well, I started out wanting to be the world’s fastest guitarist,” he replies. “With age and maturity, my interests evolved. Now I just want to make good music, whatever the style that may be.”
Top image by Nick Ziros