AMON AMARTH – Interview with Johan Hegg
By Peter Atkinson
Photos from www.facebook.com/OfficialAmonAmarth
Swedish behemoths Amon Amarth will unleash their ninth studio album Deceiver Of The Gods June 25, just a few days before they invade American shores again to be part of the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival, where they will be first death metal act to be featured on the main stage lineup.
Amon Amarth have enjoyed a steady rise in popularity in the states since 2006’s With Oden On Our Side, cracking the Billboard Top 200 for the first time with 2008’s Twilight Of The Thunder God and the Top 40 with 2011’s Surtur Rising. And there’s no reason to see why that trend won’t continue.
Deceiver is the band’s most relentlessly aggressive album since 2002’s Versus The World, and continues their long tradition of draping the material in the violent, vivid lore of Norse mythology – all of which is driven home by the throaty roar of frontman Johan Hegg.
On the phone from Sweden, Hegg spoke of Amon Amarth’s signature, yet never static, sound, their gradual conquest of the American market and, of all things, half-term Alaska Governor/failed vice presidential candidate and professional – if often ill-informed – provocateur Sarah Palin.
Before we get rolling, how is it in Sweden now? I was in Ireland three weeks ago (the last week of March) and it was really cold, and had been for a while, and was going to stay cold. I guess it was like that in most of Northern Europe. Are you finally getting spring?
Johan Hegg: Yeah, finally. It’s been a long time coming, but last weekend it was like flipping a switch. It got warm. It went from being like roughly around freezing to be like almost in the 50s. So that actually felt really warm for a change, which was nice. It was like winter didn’t want to end.
It was pretty horrible for a while here, definitely, really weird weather though. Because it was really, really cold, but the weather was exceptionally nice. We had three weeks of sunshine every day. I’ve never experienced anything like it.
I was reading your Twitter updates yesterday, and you mentioned your voice was tired from all the interviews. How’s it holding up today?
Johan: It’s not too bad. I’ve got three more to get through today, so it could be worse (laughs). It’s kind of strange. When you do interviews, you talk in a different way and I always forget to drink and your throat dries up and it gets fucked up. But it was all right, I drank a little bit more water and everything was fine.
You had sort of a running commentary about being hungry and needing beer, if you’re doing these one right after the other I guess you really don’t have time for anything else?
Johan: Yeah, it’s hard because you don’t want to let the phone ring but you have to go to the bathroom or make dinner. It’s like when am I gonna eat? But it’s cool. Because of yesterday, I’m more ready for today.
There was also a bunch of stuff about Sarah Palin on there, which is about the last thing I expected?
Johan: (Laughs) Yeah, I felt a little bit embarrassed by that. I got this article from a friend on Facebook [from the satirical news site The Daily Currant, which claimed Palin was calling for an invasion of the Czech Republic after learning the Boston marathon bombing suspects were Chechen – a mistake she certainly could have made, given her relative ignorance of foreign affairs and even basic geography, but one the site made up]. She’s usually pretty reliable about these things, but she didn’t pick up on the joke either, so I just immediately trusted that it was something that had actually happened.
And knowing Sarah Palin and her comments about being able to see Russia from where she lived [in Alaska] in the past, I totally bought into it. But when I looked at the page today and all the other stuff surrounding the articles, it was like OK, this is obviously satire. So the filter wasn’t on (laughs).
That’s the thing now, there’s so many mock news sites, especially clever ones like The Onion, that they fool people all the time?
Johan: Exactly. And the problem is, a lot of people do like I did. They read the mock news and they don’t question it. Even though it sounded stupid, since she’s made comments like that before, I wouldn’t put it past her.
Yeah, it’s something you could certainly envision her saying. And this coming from someone who could have been vice president.
Johan: It was a bit over the top, obviously, but still. Maybe I was a bit tired, normally I would have picked up on that just be reading the stuff around it, but I didn’t. I just went with it. Whoops (laughs).
Oh well, no harm, no foul. To actually get to band stuff now, since the album’s not going to be out for a couple more months, do you have much planned from now until then or are you just gonna lay low until the touring starts?
Johan: Basically, we’re doing press right and then, yeah, getting ourselves ready for a lot of touring and being away from home. In June, we start our tour season. Basically on June 1st. We’re doing a bunch of festivals in Europe up until the album release, a bunch of festivals this year that we didn’t do last year, and then we head to the U.S. right after that.
And you’ll be part of a traveling festival here when it’s nice and hot?
Johan: Yeah (laughs). I worry a little bit about that, I hope the air conditioning on the bus works every night. It can be tricky touring in the states in the summer, especially for a person like me or people like us who are from a little bit cooler climate.
You guys did the Sounds of the Underground tour here in 2007, but the Mayhem Festival would seem like a bigger deal.
Johan: From what I understand, it’s like double or triple the size of Sounds of the Underground, so yeah. It’s a pretty high-profile gig, especially since I don’t think there is an Ozzfest anymore, it’s the biggest metal tour of the states, so that should be cool. We’re looking forward to the opportunity to make some new fans.
I think you’ll be the first death metal band to have a slot on the main stage for the whole tour?
Johan: Oh yeah? I didn’t know that. That’s kind of cool. I’m really happy to be on the main stage in the first place. It’s a really good position that we got and even though we are the opening act, it gives us the opportunity to bring a good show to the festival. It’s definitely going to be a challenge, but also very inspiring and hopefully people are going to enjoy what we bring to the stage.
It’s an interesting, if that’s the right word, bunch of bands on the main stage. There’s Rob Zombie, Five Finger Death Punch, Mastodon and you guys, so four very different kinds of bands.
Johan: Yeah, I know. It’s kind of a strange lineup there, but for the festival in general, when you take into consideration the other stages, I think there is a really good balance of bands. A good festival lineup with really good bands.
When I saw the lineup, I thought it was really good. It doesn’t hurt that we have toured with a bunch of these bands before, like Behemoth [who had to drop off the tour because of drummer Orion’s appendix surgery], Children of Bodom and Mastodon, and we’re good friends with them.
Amon Amarth has done phenomenally well in the states, especially with the last couple albums, are you surprised at all by that?
Johan: I wouldn’t say I’m surprised. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s been a gradual buildup with each release basically since Fate of Norms we’ve been building a bigger audience and we’ve been doing better and better tours and gradually build a name for ourselves.
Even tours where we had difficulties getting a support act went really well, where we basically went out by ourselves and did a full evening of Amon Amarth playing for two and a half hours. It’s been building slowly but steady. It’s hard to say if we’ve made a breakthrough, per se, we’ve slowly passed the obstacles (laughs).
This time you’ll be here right as the album comes out, so that will be perfect timing.
Johan: I think so too. I think it will be a great opportunity. To make an appearance on an extensive festival-type tour, hopefully a lot of people who haven’t seen us or heard us before will get a chance to see us play and pick up the album and hopefully that will help us out in the future as well. I’m really looking forward to it, I’m really excited.
Will you be playing any new stuff on the tour, or is this a situation where you’ve gotta run out the classics since you won’t have the luxury of a long set and the new material will be so “new?”
Johan: I think what we are going to aim for is putting a few of the new songs on there and mix it up with some of the older ones to make it a little more than a “best of” set. We do want to play some of the songs that have worked for us before and that we know a lot of our fans enjoy hearing.
But, having said that, we might throw things around as well just for the hell of it. You never know (laughs). We want to put a little bit of everything in there. I’m pretty sure we can put a really interesting set together, especially with the new songs that we have.
Was the idea going into this album to do something really aggressive, or is that just what you ended up with when the songs were finished?
Johan: We kind of had an idea that we wanted to go this way. One of the main reasons why we chose to change producers [from Jens Bogren, who had produced the band’s last three albums, to Andy Sneap] was we wanted a more aggressive, gritty and angry sound. We had that mentality going into the writing process, definitely.
But at the same time, we didn’t want to force anything. We wanted each song to take it’s path naturally, not say “we need to do this, we need to do that.” Instead, just let the ideas that come to us and feel strong grow naturally and come out the way they come out and try to make the best of them in that sense. I think that’s an important factor why I think that the songs came out as good as they did on this album.
And even though the aggression harks back to some of your earlier albums, the guitar work on here is really cool and fresh. There’s a lot of harmonizing, you can almost hear a little bit of an Iron Maiden or Thin Lizzy influence in there.
Johan: That’s another thing we kind of had in mind when we went into the studio. We’ve always been kind of self-censoring ourselves. If a riff would sound too much like Iron Maiden or Slayer, for instance, we say “all right, we can’t use that, or we have to rewrite that” because we were always very, very focused on “it should sound Amon Amarth and nothing else.” And that is, unfortunately, a bit limiting when it comes to the creative process because sometimes you have a riff that is just fucking phenomenal, but it sounds a bit like Iron Maiden or whatever and you feel like you can’t use it.
And this time around, we said “fuck that. If it’s a great riff, if we like the riff and it makes the song better, let’s use it. Let’s go with it.” We almost tried to make a point of letting the influences that we’ve always had shine through in these songs, because at the end of the day, when everything is recorded and everything is done, the influences are going to be there but it’s still going to sound like Amon Amarth.
It’s just another level to our music and it gives the songs a little bit more variety between them. I think it was an important thing for us to do to keep our sound fresh and also add to the whole feel of the album.
The last album, Surtur Rising, had something of a concept to it, does this one have the same sort of premise?
Johan: Sort of (laughs). All the song are standalone songs, but four of the songs have the same character, but they are not exactly connected in any other way. These four songs are about Loki in one way or the other, different perspectives on that.
When I went into writing the lyrics to this album I felt that I wanted to do it very relaxed. I went into the writing process with an almost cinematic point of view. I would listen to the music and think, “If this was the music for a movie, what would that movie be about? What would the character do when the song came in? How would he react, what would happen?”
Instead of trying to force stuff into a formula or a concept that wouldn’t feel natural, just let each song have it’s natural course with the lyrics and go with the flow. I must say that I feel very happy with the way the lyrics came out. It almost felt a bit liberating, not having to think so much (laughs).
When you are writing lyrics do you work from reference material? Do you have books of subjects, or events or characters from history or mythology as a guide? Or do you basically just wing it?
Johan: It’s a bit of both actually. I can get inspiration from just about anywhere. I read a lot of books, not only about Viking mythology, although I read stuff about that as well, but it can any book or anything where you can get some inspiration.
Two ideas on this album came from Olavi [Mikkonen, guitarist – the rest of the band’s longstanding lineup is made up of guitarist Johan Söderberg, bassist Ted Lundström and drummer Fredrik Andersson], actually, from a couple of books that he had read. One of them was about Vikings, but one of them was something completely different, but the idea was cool and he thought I could make something cool of it. So I had those ideas in the back of my mind and when the right songs came along I just picked those ideas up and went from there.
On other places, for instance, “Shapeshifter,” that was something I did a lot of research on in mythology, but when it came to writing the song, it’s not completely accurate or follows the story completely. The idea was there, and I did the research, but then I wrote my own story to fit the music.
This song refers to Loki because one of his traits is that he can transform himself into almost any creature. But it’s also got something of a double meaning because as the shapeshifter he’s both good and evil. He does good deeds, but he can also do real heinous deeds. So he’s got almost a double nature. He’ll change into an evil guy when that suits his purposes and a good guy when that suits his purposes.
You don’t feel pigeon-holed at all by having Viking mythology as the go-to subject matter?
Johan: No, not at all. I feel comfortable working in this element because it inspires me a lot. I can draw parallels to a lot of stuff around me or in the world in general, as well. And I can use that as an inspiration and use the mythology and history to write cool stories about it.
I personally think I could write about anything at anytime I wanted to, I’m not sure our fans would agree. But as long as it’s cool lyrics that work with the song I think most people would be OK with it.
I’ve always said this, I always thought the lyrics were kind of secondary in our band anyway. It’s always been about the music first and the lyrics second. Although there always has been a lot of focus about the lyrics for some reason. But I definitely think that the music is the most important thing in this band by far. Whatever I write about, in my opinion, wouldn’t make a difference.
Still, if you started singing about cowboys or astronauts, you’d probably get a lot of grief.
Johan: (Laughs) Oh yeah, for sure. But then again, that doesn’t really interest me. So you don’t have to worry.