Latest release: Surtur Rising (Metal Blade/Riot!)
Swedish death metal band Amon Amarth has toured Australia a couple of times before but fairly recently within the context of their international profile, which has steadily been on the rise. They will soon be back here in support of their most recent album, Surtur Rising, sounding their horns and crushing their foes with uncompromising metal. Many years ago, they were almost sunk by personnel changes and the struggling dramas most bands generally endure but since that time, the line-up has remained intact and their thirst to conquer has put them on a steady course to victory.
Earning a stack of awards, dare we say treasure, from metal media around the world and continuing to sell increasing amounts with each subsequent release, they will soon be plundering Wacken Open Air, amongst numerous other Summer festivals. Before they do, Australia gets a visit from the Norse mythology- and Tolkien literature-immersed metallers. Loud snuck in a quick chat with well spoken frontman Johan Hegg after one of Amon Amarth’s shows in the UK recently, so read on, metal rogues and battle hardened warriors.
Q: You’re on your way down to Australia for the third time. What can fans expect that may be different from previous tours?
A: Hopefully, we’re going to continue delivering good shows. As it is, with fly in fly out shows and special stage setups, that is difficult to do, you know. It’s tricky but we have a new album that we are coming down with so will try to focus on that bringing a slightly different set to what we have done in the past. Still, we’ve got keep songs for the people that recognise and love [in our set].
Q: How does doing your own tours compare with festivals such as Wacken?
A: It is always great but it is a different atmosphere. I love doing festivals as well but when you’ve got a tour, you get a slightly different connection with the audience and the fans. It is a more intimate feeling and that is great in its own way. It is always a lot of fun.
Q: Are you a bit more limited production wise in festivals with heaps of people coming and going?
A: It depends on what kind of position we are in at the festival and what kind of stage size we have, you know, all that kind of stuff. We always try to put extra effort into production when we can but it is not always possible. We try to anyway, so for Wacken this year for instance we are going to be putting together a pretty big set up but then again, we are one of the main bands on the bill, so that is sort of expected.
Q: How do you rehearse for it is you’ve got your standard show which might be two hours but on some festival bills you might only get a one hour set?
A: Ah, that is a good question actually. It is tricky and the way the stage is set up is going to work now is that it is going to be hopefully for us a bit simpler than what we had in the past where we toured with ramps lowering and stuff. So it makes it tricky when you can’t rehearse with it. So this is going to be simpler for us to move around but still looks very impressive hopefully. We have ideas on how to work that thing.
Q: For touring, do you prefer touring with huge names like Slayer or smaller up and coming bands like Skeleton Witch and Holy Grail?
A: Ha, it’s hard to compare. Slayer, for all of us, is one of our favourite bands that we have always all looked up to so to be on tour with them was a fantastic experience. Not only for the fact that we got to play together with Slayer but also to see from the inside, how bigger tours really work. We mainly play clubs whereas they play bigger venues. It is definitely a great experience and also to get to know those guys as well. That tour with Slayer was in Europe. Touring when you headlining yourself and you’ve got younger, smaller bands opening up for you is pretty great as well actually. It is great to get to know up and coming bands and to be able to hang out with people and maybe pass along some of the stuff of things about the business that you know yourself although we haven’t in the business for as long as Slayer.
Q: How do you look after your throat when you’re touring?
A: It depends really, when we do a support tour I can be a bit more relaxed about everything as I don’t have to look after it as much because we do shorter sets. But when we do headline tours, ah, it is pretty strict with limited alcohol, lots of rest, lots of water and proper warm ups before every show. That’s the way it has got to be otherwise it is not going to work.
Q: Yeah, I imagine that touring between cities on planes, breathing in recycled air and so on means you cannot drink copious amounts of alcohol.
A: Too much alcohol is going to fuck your system up right away, that’s the way it is. Normally I wouldn’t be on the phone right now [i.e.: after a show]. I try to limit the amount of time I have to talk to people. I just have to be careful not to strain myself but an interview is not as bad as when you’re drinking, being rowdy with friends and kind of fucking yourself up really badly. It is a balance and you have to be careful not to strain yourself.
Q: When you’re performing, what to do listen for to keep in time with the band?
A: It depends on the part but normally what I need to hear is guitars and snare [drum]. That is the key for me. For my mix that I use, I try to have as much as possible of everything because I like the whole feeling but I put emphasis on certain things. That is guitars, snare, kick [bass drum] and obviously my vocals.
Q: Going back over a decade, with The Avenger album, you had personnel changes and the resulting album was much shorter due to some of those pressures. Do any of those pressures exist today?
A: I think we can work a lot more relaxed these days. First of all, this is our full time job now; we do this for a living. We don’t have to work a full time job as well as doing the band. So it is easier for us to write the albums and obviously with the success that we have had in the last couple of years, it has given us a little bit more breathing space where we don’t have to push it so much. We can relax and make sure that we feel comfortable with the material before we enter the studio and that it is good enough and there is enough material for the album. It is definitely different now to what it was ten or twelve years ago.
Q: It is quite interesting reading the booklet with the re-issue of The Avenger that tells of the experiences that went on and about staying at a sobriety movement run hotel [Saxenborg Hotel].
A: Yeah, that was weird but it was fun. Ha ha.
Q: ‘Thor Arise’ is a bonus song on that release, did the rest of the demo EP [“Thor Arise”] get released anywhere and were you happy with it?
A: Actually we did release the rest of the EP as a bonus on Versus the World. Unfortunately it is pretty horrible. Ha ha.
Q: Does it bother you how people may judge the quality of it?
A: I mean, it was our first effort as a band. We had three days in the studio and we weren’t really prepared. So, you know, it turned out the way it did. The songs weren’t really that great either. I think ‘Thor Arise’ is a pretty great song but the others were kind of crappy. So it was kind of weird. It was one of those things that, I guess, every band has to go through. You record some stuff that maybe you’re not so happy with after having the finished product in your hands.
Q: These days you’re much better at culling ideas, knowing what will and won’t work. So is there a particular process with song writing?
A: Yeah, I mean, I think we work very differently these days than the way we did in the beginning. First of all, Olavi [Mikkonen – guitar] and Johan Soderberg – guitar] now, we have two mina song writers, they won’t bring song ideas to the rehearsal room unless they think they are songs that will probably end up on the album. They are very meticulous and will work on an album or a lot of different ideas but only the really high end stuff will be brought to everybody’s attention. That is good so we don’t waste time on stuff that is not going to end up on the album anyway. So, it is different in that way and we are also more meticulous in arranging the songs.
Q: For the production side of things, do you find the producer, aside from those in the band, will nix ideas during the recording process?
A: Yeah, I mean, in the first couple of albums we produced ourselves entirely and just had a studio engineer. For the past three albums we have worked with a producer [Jens Bogren] who has actually had a say in both sound and songs. It is different in that way but it helped us with was to mainly cut unnecessary stuff out of the songs because a lot of the time you don’t notice it where a part will be too long or a part too explicit and you need to hold back on it a little bit to make it work better. Less is more and for that reason, amongst others, it has been good working with Jens. He has good feelings about it.
Q: So then a Viking mentality doesn’t work?
A: Ha, well it depends on what you mean. The Viking mentality does kind of work I think but, yeah, it is different.
Q: Of course you know where this is going…I know it is not something you’ve labelled yourselves but how did that whole Viking metal thing start up?
A: Ah, it actually began with the song ‘Thor Arise’. We had a couple of other songs about something else and then I wrote ‘Thor Arise’ because Viking mythology and Viking history was and is a big interest of mine. That is where we all realised that we had the same ideas and the same interests about stuff. So that is how that came about really. It wasn’t necessarily meant to be a continued topic for the band, it just kind of happened and now we are stuck with it. Ha ha.
Q: Yeah, the funny thing about it is in the last decade or so all of these sub categories for metal just come across as a marketing angle more than anything else.
A: For me the term Viking metal has never really felt good for our band. I think it puts too much emphasis on the lyrics which is completely bullshit, in my opinion. The music always comes first all the time. So for me it is kind of weird. It is like saying Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath are Viking metal because they also wrote songs about Vikings. On the other hand it doesn’t really matter because people are going to put whatever label they feel they want to put on you and you can’t do anything about it so you might was well just enjoy it. The music is what you should describe not the lyrical content. For me that is the most important thing.
Q: It’s not like you’re going to put out a bunch of power ballads. Just to clarify about the lyrics and song titles, is it based on mythology or is there a level of verifiable history in it?
A: It is a lot of different stuff. A lot of it is mythological and some stuff is historical. Some stuff is kind of written out of a metaphorical point of view where different topics that are kind of more modern are discussed. There are a lot of different angles to it.
Q: Have you ever thought of covering Yngwie Malmsteen’s ‘I Am a Viking’?
A: (Laughs) Ah, no.
Q: Sorry, couldn’t resist. Moving on, how has the way you record changed over time?
A: I mean, with the new techniques, stuff changes. But for us, we have always tried to be in the studio more or less together when we work on the new album. That is not always possible so sometimes you have to se if you can work around it a little bit. The process itself is pretty much the same though; working in the same order and so on.
Q: No emailing of tracks?
A: In the writing process it is changed a little bit but not so much in mailing music files to each other. It is more in that we work full time, we meet up, practice, write stuff intensively then we take a few days break. We try to work on stuff at home, then we come back and see if we have new ideas to work on. That is basically the way we work.
Q: How has illegal downloading affected the band?
A: It is hard to say actually because with every album we have actually sold more albums. So for us it is hard to tell. I think we haven’t been affected so much but it is difficult for a lot of bands out there. I think one of the main problems with it is that people don’t realise that the people that really get hurt in the end are the artists and musicians. They are the ones that are going to suffer, that’s the way it is. It is going to be more difficult for bands to go on tour, for bands to record new albums so yeah it is going to hurt the business that way.
Q: The argument tends to be that labels and bands need to adapt to new methods.
A: Well it depends on the meaning of adapting. It is easy for people that are not in the business to say they need to adapt. You need to adapt to new technology, sure thing but a recording process is a recording process and if you want to make a good sounding album you need to go to a studio and that costs money. Most bands cannot afford that unless they are sponsored by a label and that is the way it is. It is difficult, tricky and lie anything else really. It is tricky to say but it is a product. Obviously we love what we do otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it but it is also difficult because if people stop buying albums bands will stop existing more or less.
Q: Some are starting to appreciate what Lars Ulrich tried to do about it years ago.
A: I don’t really agree with the way he did it but he had a point. I think that he went about it the wrong way. I think that people need to realise that musicians are not, well usually not, greedy bastards. In the metal business, most people just love playing metal and they want to keep doing it but if they cannot record new albums and go on tour then that is not going to be possible for them. That is just the plain facts of it.
Amon Amarth tour Australia with Orpheus on the following dates:
13/4: HiFi Bar, Brisbane QLD (+ Eye of the Enemy)
14/4: HiFi Bar, Sydney NSW (Lic. A/A) (+ Eye of the Enemy)
16/4: Billboard, Melbourne VIC (+ Eye of the Enemy)
17/4: Fowlers Live, Adelaide SA (A/A)
19/4: Capitol Theatre, Perth WA (Amon Amarth only)