Latest release: (r)Evolution (Nuclear Blast)
Sweden has churned out some exceptional metal bands amongst various genres that in some cases, really did set trends. For those into the traditional heavy metal sound with twin guitars, thematic vocals and thumping drum and bass power, Hammerfall certainly deliver the goods and have done so for around two decades, remaining sonically loyal to their ever growing fan base on each new release. Following a well earned hiatus, the band recently recorded an album that hit number one in their home country’s album charts, following release. Loud managed to have a conversation with founding guitarist Oscar Dronjak about anything and everything a power metal guitar legend could fit into a twenty minute chat.
On listening to the latest album [(r)Evolution], the songs are fairly unrestrained. Do you still need to think about writing a single anymore?
I never think about it when I am actually writing the song but when it is done and you have the song ready, you start thinking about if it might work for a single. For this album I didn’t think about it at all. A single always has to be a certain length. If you release a single for any airplay in Sweden, it has to 3:30 [mm:ss] or 3:40, tops. That is just not the way to write a heavy metal song, in my opinion. It is the song that matters, not the time of it. So, on this album I said, ‘fuck it, I am not going to care about that at all’ and that is why there is only one song that is under four minutes on this album. Everybody was then championing different songs as a favourite for a single. The only one that Joacim [Cans – singer] and I could agree on was ‘Bushido’, so that is the one we used.
When you are recording, do you use the engineering skills of Pontus [Norgren – guitar]?
Yes, absolutely. We recorded this album in my studio that I built on my property. Fredrik Nordström is the producer of the album but he was more involved in the making of the sounds such as recording the drums and also in setting up the sounds for the guitars and the bass. We did that under his supervision, so to speak, so that is why I like to say that he was more of a consultant when it came to that part. All of the recordings were handled by Pontus and me as engineers but then of course, the mix was done by Fredrik. That and the drum sounds are his real strong points. The parts that he did well were the parts that we needed help with so that was perfect for us.
How does Fredrik compare as a producer to someone like Michael Wagener, given that you didn’t use Fredrik’s services for a while?
Ah, I haven’t thought about that but people are inherently different. Both are German, even if one has lived in the U.S. for a long time. If you are going to work with different bands and just get invested in the sounds, not the emotions of the band, I think you have to be a special person. I am not sure I could do what they do for as long as they have done it so I have all respect for that. But they are different people and it is just a matter of chemistry when you are in the studio. It worked well with all three we’ve worked with; we had a blast recording with Wagener and Charlie Bauerfeind did four albums for us but the way we’d done this with Fredrik now is just perfect. We are at the point in our careers where we have accumulated a lot of knowledge so we don’t need anybody to handle all of the stuff anymore, especially with Pontus in the band because he knows all of this shit already. So we did the best out of the situation by using Fredrik as a consultant and just having him come with pointers throughout recording rather than doing the tedious work that it is during recording the songs. It also meant that in my studio we had all the time we wanted to do it and could do so whenever we wanted which was helpful in alleviating stress. There was no time pressure and that was easier on the psyche. Recording an album has to be done as well as it possibly can be but sitting there recording is not the most fun part of being in a band to get the end results you need.
Having Pontus in the band and also being part of the mixing and engineering process must impact on your instrumentation when recording guitars. Does that also impact on your live playing choice of gear at all?
Yes, he has been in the band for six years and came into the band when all the songs were written about a month or two away from recording. That recording was done the same way as we had always done it. From there, he was involved in how we mic the guitars. It was brilliant to get him in because I feel secure with it and know he is never going to judge me if I make a mistake. He knows I am not as good as he is but that is just the way it is. I never get nervous or wonder what he’ll think if I make a mistake, as he is not that type of person. If you are relaxed when you are playing, that helps a lot with the performance. We wanted an edge so instead of worrying about making a mistake, we’d just play the songs with energy and as powerfully as possible. That was the whole deal. We had a motto with every time we did a take to see if it was good enough. We’d ask if it was ‘hungry enough’ and if it wasn’t then we did it again. We were hungry this time as well, given the break we had.
The harmony guitars are quite strong. Is it the case that Pontus does the more expressive solos whilst you’re doing the more meticulous or articulate guitar solos?
Yeah, I guess you could say that. He does some melodies as well but generally my solos are melodies with harmonies whereas his are more like regular solos with fast shredding. I can’t really do that so that is how we complement each other. I have never been a great shredder so I have always been; like the K.K. Downing [Judas Priest] of Hammerfall whilst Stefan [Elmgren – previous guitarist] and now Pontus are the Glenn Tipton for me. KK comes up with wah wah and tremolo bar, makes a lot of noise and then some notes before Glenn takes over and does the shredding part. That is how I have always looked at it because Judas Priest is one my biggest influences so it is easy to go in that direction.
Has your rhythm guitar style changed a lot over the years since you started playing?
I think it as changed quite a lot. I started playing when I was fourteen which was in 1986. I started playing for fun because I loved listening to heavy metal and I wanted to play an instrument. I had been playing trombone before for four years and then I switched to guitar because I wasn’t listening to any trombone music, I was just playing it. I am self taught from listening to bands I love and copied them to learn to play guitar. I had two major things that happened in my life as I broke my arms twice. In 1993, I broke my right arm and then ten years later I broke left arm. Both those issues impacted on my playing a lot, especially the right arm. Back then, I was twenty one and playing everyday, so focused on building the band that I was in at that time when I broke the right forearm before the elbow. That meant I had a cast on and couldn’t move the elbow at all for three and a half weeks. When I got the cast off, the physical therapist told me to do some stuff for a couple of times everyday. I couldn’t really move the arm properly so when I came back after a couple of weeks, the new therapist there said, ‘What are you doing? Whoever gave you this is giving you the wrong information’. So, say you are supposed to keep your palms level if you turn your palms up. My right arm is so bad that if I pay for something and get change back, the change just falls out of my hand because I have to compensate with the elbow to get the palm flat with the palm up, properly. That did impact upon my playing because when you are playing metal guitar, you always have the part of your palm that is underneath your little finger [muting], to put on the strings to stop them ringing a little when you’re playing. It took me a while to get it back and I had to force the arm down and bend it in differently to what I did before. Playing guitar was my life back then so I just made it work somehow. That changed my style.
Did it change the type of rhythm figures you wrote?
Possibly in some ways but I have never been a shredding guitar player. I picked up the guitar to play rhythm guitar with a little bit of solos blended in there. I want to play in a band that has twin guitar solos. But, I’ve always relied on having the second guitar player as being the lead guitar player. When I pick up the guitar, I play a couple of riffs, whereas when Pontus picks it up, he plays licks or solo stuff. That’s what he wants to do and he plays across the whole fret board whereas I might just do some Accept riffs because those are the type of riffs that I really like. That has never changed as the reason I started playing guitar so I don’t think that’s impacted on the way I write music. Maybe on the way I play it but I was still in the developing stages when this happened anyway.
How did you get into the ESP guitars? Was that a natural progression from the Jackson Randy Rhoads guitars?
Yeah, I had an endorsement deal with ESP Japan in 1999 for a couple of years but it was difficult keeping the communication going plus we didn’t go there in 2001 either so then it fell apart. I had the chance to do it again a couple of years ago but it didn’t materialise for some reason. Since 2010 I have been playing whatever guitars that I want; as in whatever guitars I have and whatever feels comfortable for me to play. From this point on we are going to be using Sandberg [German based company] guitars. They are more focused on basses but are doing guitars as well. Both Pontus and I are going to play their guitars in the future. Fredrik [Larsson – bass] already plays their basses. It feels really good. The guitars I have already tried out feel fantastic and they build them for us.
Having Anders [Johansson – drums] in the band and given that he has played with Yngwie Malmsteen must have had some sort of impact on yourself and Pontus? [note: Anders has since left Hammerfall due to ‘increasing musical differences’ and is replaced by David Wallin from industrial Swedish band Pain].
Ah, probably more for me than for Pontus because he hasn’t been in the band for so long. I had started playing with Anders in 1999 and was in a very formative phase of my maturity, let’s put it that way. Anders has changed me more with what happens offstage than with what happens onstage. We always listened to Malmsteen in the eighties so having the drummer on those records in our band was pretty cool. That was the initial feeling and Anders has a lot of impact on the music and the way that it is performed live. Regrettably I don’t think he has that much impact on how it was performed in the studio or at least as much as he would have wanted, over the years. I am beginning to realise now and this is what we have done this time. I have definitely been trying to leave the drums up to him because when I write a song it is easy to get into the details of a song and then when done, ask him to play it the way that I came up with it, instead of letting Anders shine through. That is why this album sounds the way it does as we have let him do that more. We have let him do it more and more for each album but this time it is much more. I think he feels more comfortable with this album than the previous ones from his personal point of view as what he listens for is the playing.
Have you had a chance to sit down and listen to previous albums on vinyl and compare?
Ah, fantastic question. No, I haven’t but I might do that soon. It’s a good thing to compare because all I have heard are the CD versions. I do have the all the records on vinyl but I am yet to play them. So, I haven’t but now I probably will.
Any chance of a tour to Australia?
Yes but it is not certain. We did have an offer this year but it didn’t materialise because it didn’t fit into our planning for this year. I am really hoping we can do that next year. I think there is a strong possibility without saying too much but I am pretty sure that we will make it down there, probably next year.