SOILWORK – Interview with Björn “Speed” Strid
By Peter Atkinson
Photos from facebook.com/soilwork
The first time Swedish (with a bit of French and Belgian) stalwarts Soilwork found themselves forging ahead without guitarist/songwriter Peter Wichers, after he left in 2005, there was a bit of rough sailing in his wake. The band’s seventh studio album, 2007’s Sworn To A Great Divide, was uneven and uncomfortably commercial sounding – despite its roughshod production.
But it was a learning experience and confidence builder, and led the band to part company with long-time guitarist Ola Frenning, who handled the bulk of Sworn’s songwriting, in an effort to steer their musical direction back to its melodic death/thrash metal foundation. Wichers returned in 2008, only to leave again last year after having recorded and produced 2010’s The Panic Broadcast.
This time, however, Soilwork weren’t about to repeat the mistakes of Sworn. Empowered instead of tentative, they set to work on their most expansive, expressive and epic effort yet. Released March 5, their ninth full-length, which features the recording debut of Wichers’ replacement David Andersson, is an honest-to-goodness double album brimming with 20 songs that run the gamut from the rampaging opener “Spectrum of Eternity” to the haunting closer “Owls Predict, Oracles Stand Guard” and just about everything in between. Its rich, thunderous production equals is ambitious scale and prove that when they are their best, the sextet – frontman Björn “Speed” Strid, Andersson, guitarist Sylvain Coudret, bassist Ola Flink, keyboardist Sven Karlsson and drummer Dirk Verbeuren – really are a sum of their respective parts.
On the eve of what was shaping up to be a punishing two-month North American tour, Strid offered the following on Soilwork’s resilience and their desire to really make a statement this time around, after an already respectable nearly 20-year career.
I know you’ve been doing these all day, so apologies if you’ve heard a lot of these questions already?
Björn “Speed” Strid: Not a problem. It’s all good. They [Nuclear Blast] actually had to add some time slots to accommodate everyone. I appreciate the interest, believe me.
I saw something on the band Facebook page that you were heading to Toronto, is that where you are now?
Björn: Yes, I’m in Toronto. My girlfriend is from here so I kind of live half-time here.
Aha. Well that’s a good reason to come over a bit early before the tour starts.
Björn: For sure. I’ll be here until we start rehearsing in Baltimore next week [March 5].
If memory serves, another tour you did here also launched [at Jaxx, now Empire] in Springfield, Va., which is right near me, and you did the same thing, got ready in Baltimore first.
Björn: Yeah, we did that last time for The Panic Broadcast. We have some contacts there, our sound tech, who is not doing this tour by the way, he was doing that last tour and he’s from Baltimore and he worked at Sonar [a club in Baltimore that closed last year] and that’s how that worked out. So we’re doing rehearsals at a studio there, and then we’re doing preproduction at a club, rehearsing with lights and full sound.
I just read that a couple of the bands dropped off the bill [The Browning and Wretched], are you gonna to try to scare up some replacements, or just go with Jeff Loomis and Blackguard opening?
Björn: As far as I know, our booking agent has two bands that he added, I don’t know who it is, I guess I’ll find out when I get to Baltimore or on the first night of the tour (laughs). [Turns out it is Bonded By Blood and Hatchet who are joining the tour.]
Since you’ve been talking about the new album all day, hopefully people have had nice things to say about it.
Björn: For sure, yeah. It’s been really good. It makes more sense now that people have heard the music and can see what we were trying accomplish. It was kind of hard to convince people before the album was presented to the media, but we knew it was going to make sense. Trying to explain it to someone who’s never heard it is not easy: “A double album? Really?”
I think a lot of people’s first reactions might have been that you were going the way of Genesis or Yes and making some prog-rock epic?
Björn: It is a pretty progressive piece, but in a much different way than Yes or Genesis. But that’s kind of the vibe we wanted to create; having a double album that’s going to take you on a journey. That’s what I wanted it be. When you open it up, you see all the lyrics and you have all the artwork on the sleeve, you know you’re going to be taken on a journey. There’s going to be a lot of detail and surprises here and there. That’s what I wanted, something really exciting.
But you don’t have the intros and outros and interludes, or some high-faluting concept people typically equate with something like that?
Björn: It is, in a way, conceptual-like lyrically, dealing with a lot of existential questions and matters. You can play it song by song, or play them out of order, but I think it’s best if you play through the entire album, because it has a really nice flow. There’s not a story there, per se, but the songs do connect.
It’s the first time I haven’t decided the track order, it’s actually Dirk who did that. And I think he did a really good job. At first when I took a listen through it it was like, “What? That song? There?” But after a while it was like, “Yeah, this is making sense.”
As the drummer, he’s all about flow and pace, so I could see where that would be key when you’re dealing with 85 minutes of music as opposed to 45?
Björn: Oh yeah, for sure. The flow was very important because, like I was saying before, we wanted this to feel like you were going on a journey. And I think the album really does that, from start to finish.
I guess the obvious question is, where did the idea for all this come from?
Björn: I came up with the idea in 2011 and I had the title at the time as well and I had a vision of making more than just a regular album. It’s our ninth album and I kind of got sick of just, “here’s another album, 11 or 12 songs.” I wanted to do something a bit different, something maybe more epic and maybe bring back some of the melancholy that we had on our first albums, that Scandinavian melancholy, and I thought that would work really well in a double album.
Plus, I think we really needed that challenge as a band, after Peter left for a second time, to turn things into something really positive. And I think we needed to prove to ourselves and to our fans that there are other amazing songwriters in the band. It really became a band effort. Every member of the band was involved in the songwriting of this album.
Was that the approach you were looking for the first time Peter left, involving more members in the songwriting, because it didn’t end up working out that way on Sworn To A Great Divide?
Björn: I think so, but as you say that’s not how things ended up. A couple members did get involved, and I did write some songs for that album as well, but they ended up as bonus tracks, by the way (laughs). But we ended up going from one main songwriter to another, because it was mostly Ola Frenning. Daniel [Antonsson], who was in the band at time, wrote a few too.
It was different this time around. As soon as people heard Peter was jumping off again, they were like, “Oh, it’s going to be another Sworn To A Great Divide.” And we knew that it was different now, more together. At that time, Ola Frenning was really trying to chase a hit. Nothing wrong with that, if you want to do that I respect that too, but even though we as Soilwork really like catchy stuff, it’s got to be natural, you can’t force that. That led to tension between Ola and the rest of the band, which is why he is no longer with us. What we’ve done here feels a lot more natural.
Were the other guys receptive to being part of the songwriting, or did you have to coax some of them along?
Björn: I think everybody was on the same level. They knew it was going to be a double album, and people felt pretty free, like “we have not only one but two discs to express ourselves. We can break the boundaries here a little bit and be more progressive and maybe some of those things I haven’t expressed before will fit in to this album.” And that’s really what happened. There was room for everybody here.
Had it turned out that you weren’t going to be able to come up with the number of songs you needed, or the quality just wasn’t there, were you prepared to scale things back to a single album?
Björn: If we ended up like, “no this isn’t gonna cut it,” we wouldn’t have made a double album, but we were really focused on that, and we were all in that mindset since 2011 about creating a double album, so I think we would have made it happen one way or another. If we had really hit a wall, we wouldn’t have tried to force things, that would have been stupid, but we all had this goal and I think that really made people step it up, because we never had to consider any other option.
Did you end up getting on such a roll that you had songs leftover?
Björn: Yeah, we recorded 26 songs total. It’s insane. We have six songs, I don’t know what’s going to happen to them. Put out a super deluxe edition with them or something, release an EP. It would be a shame for them to go to waste.
I’m assuming you’re not going to be able to play this thing all the way through live, but how will you go about introducing the new material into your set, since, as you mentioned, things do tie together?
Björn: I would love to play the whole album in it’s entirety, but I don’t think that’s gonna happen. Possibly we could do disc 1 on one night and disc 2 on another, something like that. But starting with this tour of North America, the album’s coming out the week before it starts, so people aren’t going to be too familiar with the songs. From a promotional perspective, I guess we have to do four or five songs from the new album, and then the rest have kind of like a mixed set. And then when we come back again, we can probably do more of the new songs, possibly like I mentioned, do one disc all the way through and the other the next night.
50-some shows over two months with like two or three days off, that’s a pretty brutal tour. Are you guys ready for it?
Björn: I think so (laughs). It’s easy for me to say that now. Ask me again one and a half months into to tour I might tell you different (laughs).
Yeah, you’re the one who’s gotta sing every night?
Björn: Yeah, but that’s fine. I take better care of myself than I used to. I don’t drink as much as I used to, and that’s really important to not kill the vibe by drinking too much because going onstage each night, it’s hard sometimes and when you drink too much you don’t feel very motivated.
You mentioned coming back to the states, is that something you’re planning around the time you play the Prog Power Festival here in September?
Björn: It’ll probably be later in the year than that. We are doing the European festivals in the summer. And it all depends on what happens with Australia and Japan, and we obviously need to do a European full tour as well. It’s hard to say, but there will be more tours of North America for this album than we had for Panic Broadcast for sure.
Peter’s health issues caused to you cancel the second Panic Broadcast tour here and then bowed out of more shows and then eventually just left again, in retrospect was his rejoining the band an instance of trying to make something work that just wasn’t going to?
Björn: Yeah, it was that kind of feel. Going into the studio with him as awesome and he was really excited about recording the new album, but as soon as we started touring we could see the same thing happening once again and it was like, “Uh oh!” So we weren’t that surprised when he announced his departure the second time around. We gave it a shot, and I think the album really turned out well, but we’re a band that needs to tour and when you have someone who is unwilling to tour or doesn’t like to tour, it’s best to move on with someone else who does. Otherwise it holds the whole band back.
David, we’ve known since 2006, he’s been touring with us before as a session guitarist. He saved us for Panic Broadcast as much as he could because he’s a PhD, a doctor, so he could only get away from work so much, but he managed to jump in. It came to a point where Peter said “No, just do the tour with David, I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to make it,” it was like “yeah, we see where this heading.”
Is David committed to you guys for the long haul?
Björn: Yeah, he’s a permanent member and he’s really passionate about Soilwork and touring and everything, but he’s still going to work as a doctor when he’s at home. That pays a little better than Soilwork (laughs).
On this tour, and I guess this is something you’ve done before, you’re going to be offering vocals tips before shows?
Björn: Yeah, I did it during a tour a couple years back and I thought it was cool to be able to inspire people face to face, and I also started doing workshops at schools in Sweden, which was really rewarding. I decided to try that again on this tour.
I think it’s a great thing because in the afternoons, that’s the worst thing about touring, there’s nothing to do then. You’re just waiting around to do that damn soundcheck, so you might as well meet up with people, try to inspire and make a little extra cash on the side. Nothing wrong with that. It’s a great kick to be able to see somebody pull something off that they didn’t think they had in them.
Did you get help along the way developing your voice and technique, or was it pretty much trial and error?
Björn: In the beginning, I really had my idols. I wanted to sound like Mille Petrozza from Kreator and I really liked Jeff Walker from Carcass and Tomas Lindberg from At The Gates, that’s how I wanted to sound, so I tried to imitate that sound instead of finding my own range and where I had the most power and develop the voice from there. That’s what I always try to tell people, to try to find where they have the most support and the most power and then take it from there.
But I did have some vocal coaching before A Predator’s Portrait in 2001 and since then I worked with Devin Townsend and I’ve been practicing on my own and doing different ventures, even singing with a Motown band. So that helps a lot. I’ve gotten to know my voice a whole lot better.
Was incorporating the cleaner singing and really using your range something the band had to convince you to try, or was it just you finally getting the confidence to bring to the table?
Björn: It was something that I really wanted to do. As much as I enjoy doing screaming vocals, I didn’t want to get stuck just doing them. I felt I was going to feel limited in the long run. Just like the other guys in the band develop on their instruments, I wanted to take my vocals to another level.
I guess people automatically think you want to sell more records as soon as you start adding clean or melodic singing, but that was never the main reason for me. It was because I wanted to find different ways of expressing myself. And I am a musical chameleon, I like all kinds of music, even though my backbone is made of metal, so it was a natural step for me.
In the beginning, for sure, I had a hard time listening to my own voice. I thought I sounded like a 12 year old (laughs). It takes time and that’s what you need to do, you need to work on that to be able to really like your own voice and accepting it just like everything else.
You mentioned the Motown group, but what about The Night Flight Orchestra? Will you be continuing that? It seems a bit more serious since you released an album and all?
Björn: That’s definitely a band, for sure. We had some much fun doing that album, me and David along with Sharlee D’Angelo [bassist from Arch Enemy] as well. The Motown band is a whole different thing that I was singing for a couple of years. That band is no more, I think.
Night Flight has kind of replaced that in a way. That has more of a Journey/Boston feel mixed with a little bit of Motown and a little bit of Jackson Brown and Fleetwood Mac and stuff that like, Steely Dan. I know it may come as a surprise, but I don’t just listen to metal. I think you’ll be hearing more from that group at some point.