Interview: Robert Stjarnstrom Discusses Record Labels, Electronic Vs. Metal Audiences & International Touring

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Emerging onto the scene in 2000, SID/8-bit-alt-power metal group, Sweden’s own Machinae Supremacy have been in the game (pun intended), honing their signature sound for quite some time. Upon their 2016 record release, “Into The Night World,” their current hit single, “My Dragons Will Decimate” has received international praise from metal and electronic enthusiasts alike.

In a recent interview, their lead vocalist, Robert Stjarnstrom took me first-hand into their world of video game inspired guitar virtuosity. From performing live Final Fantasy VI compositions at Play! A Video Game Symphony and MagFest 13 to touring with Children of Bodom, starring in a hockey commercial and consistenly releasing a new album every two years, Machinae Supremacy have defined the very meaning of determination.

Can you elaborate on what led to the transition from Spinefarm Records (2006-2014) To your current label, Hubnester Records/BD Pop?

Well, the current label is our own. We started out making our own albums. I guess in the beginning we just sort of made a song here and there and we put them online. Then we decided to make albums. We did two albums on our own before Spinefarm discovered us, so to speak. I guess in the beginning when we made music, I don’t know if we didn’t have the confidence or whatever, but we didn’t think that we’d end up in the music industry, but we did. It’s been a good journey. I think what happened was we were doing a lot more than just musical albums. Like, we do soundtracks and a bunch of weird stuff. It’s been a good journey with them (Spinefarm), but there was a lot of friction too. Certain things were complicated and I guess piracy and such kind of immediately died with some people.

In the end, I think it was pretty much mutual with us and our former label. It’s been a good journey, but it was time we perhaps went our separate ways. So, it’s not super dramatic in any way. I would still say it’s been a good journey with them, but it’s time for something else now. We released our own stuff when we were really unknown and now things are a bit different. It’s going to be interesting to see how this all goes.

 As Metal Hammer has praised Machinae Supremacy as “one of the most interesting bands of the current era,” what aspects of your sound do you believe has contributed to Metal Hammer revering you with such high praise?

A lot of our fans attribute our uniqueness to our video game elements and I definitely think that’s part of it. We brought this up with our label, Spinefarm Records and there was this one party we had in London. Label execs were there. Funny enough, they didn’t really think that much about our electronic elements. They actually said that the vocals were such a big thing. This was told to me by three different bosses there, independent of each other and said, “Do you know how rare it is with a band whose vocalist sounds completely unique in the world”? They knew that we hadn’t really broken through yet, but I guess they were waiting for that to happen.

I guess that part was taking longer to happen then they (Spinefarm) had hoped. The album we did last, Phantom Shadow, I think they wanted us to do another “View From The End of The World,” but we decided to not make a super accessible album, let’s make an album for people who are already fans. So, we kind of made a complicated album reminiscent of the big one, “Redeemer” (2006-2007), the one Spinefarm signed us for.

I don’t know if we pissed them off or something. They would’ve loved to have seen us do something a little more accessible, but we made something a bit more difficult. As far as our sound, it’s hard to put your finger on it. It’s more than the vocals obviously. Part of it is how we do the riffs and obviously the vocals. I don’t know a lot bands that do the video gamey sounds that we do. Our sound might not be what people think. Like a lot of people would say our sound has video game elements, but I think there is a lot more to it.

 Your newest hit single, “My Dragons Will Decimate” is doing very well and receiving much attention from music fans internationally. Can you shed some light on the theme of the song, the title and how this song inevitably was chosen as the hit single to best represent the band’s upcoming record?

One thing about that song is that it’s the most metal song on the album. The way we work is usually very genre transcendent in a way. There’s a pretty wide range of styles within one single album. Dragons”, we chose that song to open for the album and as a single just because of the sheer power of that song. The message is part of a story just like our previous album, but at the same time it’s kind of a fight song. Something we love to do is to get people pumped up. We have slow songs of course and softer stuff, but there’s something really rewarding of just getting people going.

This song is also very representative of us because it’s one of those songs that feels like not just any band could have written it. It’s very characteristic even though it still doesn’t sound like everything we do, but at the same time it represents what we do. We all just knew that this is the song we fought with. As we are that kind of band that has a wide range of stuff, there are a lot of fans that prefer a certain type of song we make. We know we can’t please everyone, but it still felt like the right song to go with. It’s a powerful start and it sends a message.

I think it’s very hard for us and we obviously know we can’t please everyone. So, our only barometer if we’re doing something right is if we like it ourselves. I don’t know what else to do. We make music that we want to listen to. That’s the only way to know if it’s good. Luckily, we had a lot of people who shared our taste in that way. We don’t try to cater to anyone in particular, but we hope that people will feel the same way when we release something.

Your band has performed songs from the Final Fantasy soundtrack catalog alongside the Royal Philharmonic in Stockholm. You also appeared in an official Ice Hockey World Championship TV commercial, and you produced the original soundtrack to the video game Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams together with video music legend Chris Hülsbeck. How does Machinae Supremacy feel to have been involved to different capacities contributing your music on different platforms?

A lot of bands will do their albums and they’ll be lucky enough to have their music licensed into games and such, but we contribute in different ways. Like the Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams isn’t the only soundtrack we’ve made. We want to make music in more ways than one and now that we’re independent again, I feel we’ll do more of this again now. Playing with a symphony orchestra is something that’s really hard to describe and it can’t really be conveyed in a recording the way it feels and sounds when you’re there.

Also, when you’re growing up playing these video games at a time when you didn’t know who the writer was of the music and such, but when you get older you realize these are legendary kinds of people who made many of those songs for these video games. Before you know it, something happens, like a butterfly effect where you do something, someone notices and you find yourself working side-by-side with the legends you used to look up to. You feel like you really grew up now. We’re being these people, we’re doing this work with these incredible people. We’re incredibly grateful to have these opportunities.

You know the Swedish band, Entombed? They were supposed to be the ones in the hockey commercial, but someone decided that their music was too heavy. So, they looked around wondering who else they knew that could do this. Again, we make the kind of music that will pump people up with an anthemy-kind of approach.

Fortunately, Overworld, the album that we had released, the opening track on that album became the song for the commercial. They just loved it and we got to go down there and be part of the commercial in the hockey arena where they’re training before the championships. Our band next to the hockey rink is playing and it’s just a bit surreal. Especially for the people in the band who are true hockey fans. They get to meet their heroes and it’s just something to be truly grateful for.

Can you tell us about some history regarding the early days of the band. How many originals members are in the group, if any? What was the original mission of Machinae Supremacy & what was the original mission or goals you were looking to achieve?

There are three original members still. I think when we started, we just wanted to make music. You looked at these real bands and we were just this local band, but we didn’t do anything on the local level either. We sat at home and made music. That was our thing, our project. We didn’t have a mission beyond making music, but we started putting our music online. This was before file sharing. I guess there was direct connect and such, but you didn’t have streaming services, these obvious ways to find music or anything else. We didn’t even have a website, we put them in a directory online. So, you went to our website online and they were just the files and not the album.

So, we sort of discovered that these songs had been downloaded 10,000 times. That’s a bit more than just our friends, obviously. It’s funny because we had this idea that when it reaches 20,000, we’ll celebrate and have a party or something. It took a few years, but then when it was 3 million downloads, it just kept spreading. We were fortunate at the time to get distribution just by word of mouth. People were excited to discover and hear our music. I guess the recognition we got came creeping down our backs. We didn’t really expect it or that we were worthy of it, but there it was.

Then we decided to do something difficult or more challenging. Let’s try to make an album, so we came from not really thinking we were worthy to just standing taller in our heads. We just aim for higher ground all the time, found it and it’s led to some really great things. Again, I say the word “grateful” because we used to look at bands that are bigger and think to ourselves that we’re not that successful, but then again, there aren’t a lot of people that can do the stuff we’ve done. It’s something that’s remarkable and we’re really happy about. Hopefully we’ve got a long way to go still.

Now you’re known as a Swedish SID/8-bit-inspired alt-power metal group. Some bands want to be tied to a sub-genre of rock music. Your fan-base considers you an alt-power metal group, but what do you consider your sound to be?

I think that’s probably correct. We try to narrow it down. We kind of say SID Metal. In a way, it’s a curse and a blessing to sound a bit different because it’s hard for people to really place you. I don’t know if we want to be that specific ourselves because we know that we cannot meander between genres. Are we Alternative Metal? Probably not. It’s hard for me to say because I’m too close to it, so it’s really hard for me to make that judgment. We don’t want to shy away from the Power Metal genre. We feel that’s ok.

If you could tour with any national act, who would it be and why?
There are a lot of good Swedish bands, but the problem for us is who do we fit with? You have bands like Katatonia, Sabaton and Soilwork. I think Sabaton would be a good choice because like us, they have a few things in common with us. They’re very thematic and we’d probably attract the same audience.

We’ve found that when we tour with bands, they’re much heavier than we are. People tastes are usually different and aren’t that bound to one single thing. If I had to choose a band, I would go with Sabaton actually. I think they’d be a good choice. We’ve been fans for a long time, but we’ve never met them.  

Who are some of your guitar heroes and in general, musical influences that have contributed to the Machinae Supremacy sound?

Both of our guitarists are very inspired by Marty Friedman’s playing style. It’s more Marty Friedman than Megadeth itself, but obviously Megadeth as well. Tomi Luoma is also a big KISS fan and we’re also into Queensryche. Through my bandmates, I’ve discovered them. For me, it’s a lot of Swedish Punk Rock and obviously, especially for me it’s been a lot of video games. Not just the old-school stuff, even new stuff that comes out, we pay extra attention to that stuff.

It’s just natural that we play a lot of games. I guess now that we’re more grown up, so maybe it’s not the same amount as it used to be. When it comes to music and games, you realize you’re paying extra attention and have this awareness of the music in games. I’m sure that for a lot of people, the music is in the back of their heads and it doesn’t affect them consciously

Now, you’re set to perform with Psychostick in Indiana and Illinois. What do you think of them as a group and are you looking forward to sharing a stage with them?

It’s funny because one of my friends makes their graphics and merch-stuff. It’s just a funny coincidence how you know someone who knows them already. But I never really explored. She started talking about Psychostick and I was like, “What’s that?” Once we realized we were going to be meeting them, we started checking them out. Like you said, we like that these guys are hilarious and I’ve been told that it would be a crime to miss their live show, so I’m going to make sure I don’t. I look forward to it a lot. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.

You’re also on tour with Urizon & Danimal Cannon? Are these bands your label paired you up with for the tour or did your band have a say in who you wanted to be on the road with?

Actually, we met Urizon primarily and Danimal Cannon at MagFest. It’s a nerd convention they have in National Harbor, Maryland. We’ve played there twice and met Urizon the second time we performed. We brought Urizon over to Europe to tour with us and after that, they wanted us to tour with them as well. They have Continental Concerts who does their bookings. Obviously, we don’t know how to book a tour in the U.S. We wouldn’t even try that. This all happened because Urizon made it happen and of course Continental Concerts. Originally, we only knew we’d be touring with Urizon, but these other bands we get to tour with is a bonus.

What do you feel is different about touring in Europe vs. The U.S. and which countries do you prefer performing in the most?

Well, I can’t say yet (laughs) about the U.S. We’ve had fun playing at MagFest, but that’s a festival. It’s hard to say what it will be like touring the U.S. Maybe we can talk about this after the tour? Countries like Poland and Russia that maybe aren’t as well off as others seem to be a bit better at having fun. Russians and Polish people are enthusiastic and really love metal. It’s really fun to be in Finland, Poland and Russia. We obviously do enjoy all of it, but those types of countries bring something extra to the show. They just enjoy it more.

What initially inspired your group to take the 8-Bit sounding musical approach?

When we started, we didn’t even know we were going to do metal. Me and the original bass player, we were playing along with electronic music at the time. I bought this synthesizer that used the old sound chip from the Commodore64 and I was making music with that. So, he came over to my place and I had this song I was working on. As was working on the beat and synth electronics for this song, he brings an amp to my apartment and starts riffing on what I had done.

It became this thing where you just sort of realized how well it blends and works. We looked at each other and realized we discovered something. You have this pure gold kind of look between two people. From that point, we didn’t even look for it, we just found our identity. You bring two people together and there it is. You didn’t have to search or figure something out. It was the first thing that happened when we did anything together. When we first started the band, we realized there was the possibility to take the band in a metal direction and I think we wanted that, we just didn’t think of it as a possibility before.

Even the old songs that are more metal still sound kind of electronic, but it still walks toward metal more. I suppose some albums are more metal than others. The electronic elements have always been there. There are those times where we realizing we’re kind of fleeing back and forth between electronic and metal. We like working outside our comfort zone a little bit. The question is I don’t know what is the comfort zone? Is metal or electronic the comfort zone? I’m not really sure. We really go back and forth and explore what really makes a good song.

What are some of your favorite rock or metal vocalists

Claudio Sanchez of Coheed and Cambria, Dave Mustaine of Megadeth and Joakim Broaden of Sabaton. There are of course people outside rock and metal. There used to be this band called Switchblade Symphony with their singer, Tina Root. She’s definitely one of my favorite singers.

What is your outlook on the current state of hard rock and heavy metal music?

We’re obviously witnessing a lot of really successful metal bands. You still have In Flames and a lot of really big ones that keep going. I wonder what the state is for everyone else. I sort of get the feeling that metal has taken a back seat a little bit. I still believe that metal fans are still some of the most loyal and enthusiastic fans of music. I think that is still true, but I think we live in a world where people don’t really go out as much. So, you will still get a bit fewer people at a concert than you would typically get. I don’t know if the bigger bands notice this, but maybe they do. At the same time, I think you see bands charging massive prices for tickets. That kind of bugs me. When you’re topping sixty, seventy or eighty dollars for a ticket, I think you’re charging too much. Of course, it might be worth what people want to pay for it.

One thing that’s happening also is bands are touring more and that means all bands are touring more. Even if you’re a fan of many bands that are touring, as a listener you might choose not to go to all of these concerts. Even touring becomes like a free market competition in a way. Time is going to matter, when someone comes. So, you might go to two of the bands in one month that you really want to see, but especially with such high prices, the third band that you really want to see, you might not end up going.

The extra touring leads to a competition that perhaps wasn’t there before. I’m just speculating, but I think that’s one thing that’s going on. Even though bands are touring more, it’s not necessarily doing it always because people will not choose to go to every concert. For us, we have jobs, we don’t make a living doing only this. We definitely found our venture, so we don’t have to put any money into the band, so it’s still a good deal. We decided to keep working just because we don’t have to sacrifice our integrity or comfort to do what we do. I’ve been told that we’re quite prolific for still having day jobs because we still put out an album every other year. I’ve been told that’s rare. I mean, musicians who spend all their days doing it, they can’t do that, but it’s rare for people in our position. I’ve heard. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ve been told and we work quite hard for someone in our position.