Latest release: Hammer of the North (Roadrunner)

Swedish heavy metallers Grand Magus have slowly but steadily gathering momentum during the past decade, culminating with the release of 2008’s Iron Will. With new album Hammer of the North (their first for Roadrunner) now in stores, Brendan Crabb chatted with dry-witted, friendly frontman Janne “JB” Christoffersson (also former vocalist of stoner rock/hard rock “supergroup” Spiritual Beggars) about the new record, touring plans, what he’s listening to at the moment, his departure from Spiritual Beggars and more.

Q: Hello JB, how are you doing?

A: I’m good. I’m looking out my window at home, watching a cat cross my backyard (laughs).

Q: You’re enjoying a break between tours then?

A: Yeah, we’ve been doing the summer festivals here in Europe, almost every weekend and now we have a break until the start of September, when we have two more. Then we’re going to tour, it was just announced today actually that we’re going to tour the UK with Arch Enemy, which is going to be cool.

Q: Indeed. Now, it seems like this record has really built on the momentum that Iron Will established – both fans and critics seem to be responding even more positively. Have you been at all surprised by how well things have been going for Grand Magus of late?

A: No, I’m not really surprised – I was kind of expecting it (laughs). No, we’re very happy about this and it’s extremely gratifying because we put in a lot of hard work with this album. It’s just very nice that we were able to convey the emotions that we wanted to convey and that people really seem to get off on it, you know? So it’s a very gratifying feeling.

Q: Iron Will was a strong record, but in what ways do you feel Hammer of the North is a step up from that?

A: I would say really that we’ve just become a little bit better at making the songs as focused as possible. This is something that you never reach the end level of. I think when you start out you’re just really pleased with the riff that you have and you tend to do a lot of unnecessary things which makes the songs not as hard-hitting as they can get. I mean, we were very pleased with Iron Will, but I feel that this new album, songwriting wise, is simply a bit stronger.

Q: Your lead work and riffing has also noticeably improved on the new album. Was that something you consciously worked on as well?

A: Yes, and also on this album we used a producer called Nico (Elgstrand), who is an old friend who also plays bass in Entombed and he’s mixed a lot of albums and stuff. He is actually a demon on the guitar and he was really, really hard on me, in terms of, you know, “this isn’t good enough, you need to do some serious practicing and you also need to put more into your playing”. So he was a very harsh judge (laughs) of the actual performances. So that really helped and I feel that the lead work is much more confident and much more memorable I think on this album.

Q: Label executives, promotional workers and even critics love to place bands in niches or in a particular category, yet Grand Magus don’t seem to properly fit into any of them. Is that satisfying, making records that people just can’t place within a certain “scene” or genre?

A: Yeah. I mean we’ve always kind of been that type of band. Because obviously we play heavy metal and have a very traditional kind of… it’s very meat and potatoes songwriting. At the same time we have influences and lyrics and things that isn’t very usual for other types of metal and for metal bands. So we are kind of an odd bird, you know, when it comes to genres and stuff. It’s just been very good for us that Roadrunner hasn’t tried to make us in to something else. They’ve just left us alone to create what we’ve been doing for the last ten years, you know? (laughs) I don’t think we’ll ever be part of a movement or anything; we are Grand Magus and we’re going to continue to do exactly what we want to do and not really look at other bands.

Q: There has been somewhat of a push in some overseas publications towards putting so-called “traditional metal” out there and try to turn it in to another fad, which seems rather silly. Still, Grand Magus don’t really slot into that either – have you happily sidestepped that notion as well?

A: Yeah, for me it’s kind of weird. I mean I understand the need to put things into slots and everything. But to me, the whole point of heavy metal has always been to write good songs. If that’s traditional, I guess we are a traditional band. I think it doesn’t really matter what type of music you play; even the most extreme stuff, no one’s going to be interested unless you have good songs. But we don’t really care about what other bands do; we just care about what we do and we want to do it as good as we can. If people want to want to see a resurgence of something traditional or classic, fine, you know?

Q: Great stuff. Changing topics, aside from the remaining festivals and the Arch Enemy tour, what other touring plans do the band have for this album?

A: Well, there are many, many plans being worked on (at) this very moment. I think that for the rest of this year we’re going to a German tour as well with some bands that I can’t reveal at this particular time. And next year, hopefully we’re going to do a shitload of touring and hopefully that will also include Australia and Japan. ‘Cause we’ve never been and I’ve heard so many good things about the Australian metal audience, so we really, really want to come.

Q: How is the composition of your live sets shaping up at the moment?

A: That’s a really difficult one now. I mean, especially when we play festivals we obviously don’t have much time, we usually only (have) like 45, maybe 50 minutes and it’s really tough to find any kind of balance between the albums. But I would say that the emphasis, we will always play some songs from Wolf’s Return, we always play ‘Kingslayer’ from that. We will always play quite a few songs from Iron Will. (But) definitely there’s a focus now on Hammer of the North and the songs on that album.

Q: Good to hear. Shifting subjects again, you also parted ways recently with Spiritual Beggars, who are for mine one of the most under-rated bands in heavy music. Was it just a matter of not being able to fit that band into your schedule these days, with Grand Magus being the priority?

A: Yeah, that was the only reason and it wasn’t an easy decision. I have a lot of feelings for that band and for the people in that band and we had so much fun doing it. It was tough, but that was the only reason. I think I had to make a choice and Magus has always been my priority and my band, so it couldn’t have been any other decision. But it was tough nevertheless, you know?

Q: Have you heard their new record yet?

A: I’ve only heard one song. Michael Amott has promised to send me the album as soon as he gets a couple of copies; I’m pretty curious about it. It’s going to be interesting and probably a bit weird at the same time. It’s like watching your ex fucking with someone else, you know? (laughs) No, I’m kidding. But it’s going to be emotional, I’m sure.

Q: You took over from original vocalist Spice for the On Fire album in 2002 and I think did his songs justice live too. Is it a similar thing for you; you’re pleased to pass the mantle to someone else and hope they can do those songs justice as well?

A: No, I’m going to arm myself with sticky weapons and seek him out if he tries to sing the songs that I sang on (laughs). No I’m not (laughs). Of course, that’s how it works and it’s not easy to take over from someone else, for many reasons. I was a big fan of Spiritual Beggars with Spice and that’s the reason I joined the band. I’m sure Apollo (Papathanasio) will do a great job; he’s an excellent singer, so it’s going to be good.

Q: Spiritual Beggaes has always seemed like somewhat of a musical holiday or summertime fling for the respective members – everyone in that band clearly enjoys themselves.

A: I mean, yeah, that’s the way I guess Spiritual Beggars has been the last… I mean, after Spice left. Because then obviously Arch Enemy exploded and Opeth also. Also for me, the latest couple of times with Beggars, Grand Magus started to happen as well. So Beggars was kind of like a musical vacation for everyone involved, you know? That’s usually a really good setting for making good music and also to have a lot of fun.

Q: On a more personal note, what’s on your iPod, CD player or turntable at the moment?

A: I don’t have an iPod, so I’m actually looking right now at my old Technics turntable. On it now I actually have… let me just check. (*Rummages around*) Yeah, it’s actually Marduk, an old Marduk album called Heaven Shall Burn When We Are Gathered.

Q: Any new bands you’ve heard recently that you’ve heard that you’ve been impressed by?

A: Yes. For the first time, I can actually answer this question, because when I think of new bands I realize that they’ve been around as long as we have, so they’re hardly new (laughs). But I would like to mention a Swedish band called Enforcer. They’re very young and fresh (laughs). But yeah, they’re a great band. I had the pleasure of seeing them live at a festival where we played after them and (they’re) great guys, a lot of fun and great playing. Just the real deal, you know? So they’re definitely worth checking out. Also, another great Swedish band is Bullet. Great heavy metal, you know? So yeah, there’s two recent-ish bands (laughs). They haven’t been around for ten years.

Q: Any famous last words?

A: Don’t eat the yellow snow (laughs).