Exclusive interview for hellfest.fr: Johan Hegg (AMON AMARTH)
“I’m so impressed with all the work that everybody has done at Hellfest” – Johan Hegg –Paris – 01/19/2016
What was the last bit of music you chose to listen before doing that interview?
I think it was Primordial the other day. It was, I think, the To The Nameless Dead album. I don’t remember which track it was when I stopped listening but it was that album. It’s one of my favourite band and that album and Gathering Wilderness are exceptional albums. It’s an absolutely amazing band that more people should absolutely listen to.
How has been your day so far? I guess that was an occasion to gather a few reviews and critics about the new album to be released. So how has it been so far?
Overwhelming and positive, actually. Yeah! (smiles) Because you always expect somebody to say “I like this song but this other song not so much blah-blah-blah…“ But people said there were good songs through and through, so that sounds great. It’s overwhelming for us. It’s been very positive and I think we feel very strongly about this album but it’s not until you talk to people that you really know what you have on your hands, you know? So yeah, it’s been good so far.
To you, what’s the real added value of that album?
I think that what we’ve managed to do is to evolve our music a little bit to, maybe, step outside the box. It seems that we are surprising people a little bit with the music, even though you can still hear that it’s very Amon Amarth. There are definitely new influences in there. There are new takes on music and there is an epicness to all the songs that kind of gives the album a certain flow. I think that one of the reasons for that is because lyrically we decided to work with this as a concept album. Technically we are writing what is a movie score, like the music for a movie. That kind of gave that development, I think. I think that no fan of Amon Amarth will be disappointed with that album. But I think that they will be surprised about certain things. It’s an interesting album because there are so much stuff that is familiar and so much stuff that is new. It’s an interesting take on our sound.
Are you already projecting yourselves in live conditions, like thinking about which tracks of it you will incorporate in the new setlist? Have you already picked the one you will try out?
We picked a few that we are kind of certain that we are going to play live and we picked a few that we are probably going to rotate. Always when you have a new album, you feel strongly about all the songs like “This is gonna be good etc.” but it’s not until you try them out live that you know if they’re going to work or not. Personally, from the top of my head, I can think of 6-7 songs on the album that will work perfectly live. But if we play many songs of the new album, there won’t be enough room for the whole material (smiles) and people wanna hear that as well. So we will probably aim for 3 songs from the new album in the set, plus about 4 songs we are going to rotate or something. We will see how we’ll work that out.
How did the idea of a concept album arise? And why the choice of the Jomsvikings?
I had a story in my mind and I decided that I wanted to write something. So I started writing a story about this young man who becomes a Jomsviking – or joins the Jomsvikings and becomes one. I was doing that on tour basically, to kill some time. And then we started talking about what to do for the next album, what steps to take and I was like “Well, I have an idea: I’m writing a story and I’m sending it to you to see what you think”. So I sent what I had written to the guys and I explained how I wanted the rest of the story to develop and what I wanted the end to be. They thought there was something to work on so we thought that maybe we should try to do a concept album because we had never done that before. It’s a good challenge for us, as I said earlier, to step outside the box and do something new, something different, something that the people don’t expect. So that’s how the whole idea came about to do that. But the whole idea to do a concept album has always been there somehow on one way or another. We’ve never really had an idea good enough to pull it through.
There’s a particular song on Jomsviking called “A Dream That Cannot Be“. It’s a duet with a familiar female voice, isn’t it? Could you tell me more about that collaboration?
(smiles) It’s because of the concept obviously. Just to simply explain the story: it’s about a young man who’s in love with a woman, a young girl, but she’s been married off to someone else and when that happens he tries to persuade her to run away with him. But as it happens someone catches them in the act and he accidentally kills this man. So he has to run as an outlaw. And he tries to find a way out of the country to save his live but also, he wants to come back for revenge and to win her back. So he joins the Jomsvikings and through that he gets a chance to come back and, when he comes back – maybe 10 years later – he meets her but she doesn’t want him. She has a new life now, she knows about what she wants, she’s very confident while he’s stuck in his old days and she moved on. So when we came to this part of the story, we decided that we wanted to do a duet kind of thing. The whole song is written as a conversation but they’re not really talking to each other. So it’s kind of a him and her perspective. Since the female character was so specific, that she had to be head-strong, self-confident… More or less a self-reliant woman, an independent woman, we felt that we needed a voice that was strong, charismatic… And the only person that we kind of immediately think of was Doro Pesch. So we asked her and she said: “Sure!” (laughs). So it was great, it was a great experience to work with her since she’s an amazing person. It was lovely to work with her. I think she did a great job with that song.
It looks like you’ve been quite secretive about the writing and recording of the album… Why so?
It looks like the general idea is that… We’re Scandinavian, you know?! (laughs) If we don’t have anything to say about things, then we just shut up! (laughs) So many bands talk: “we’re heading to the studio, we’re doing this now, we’re doing that now, here’s a sneak preview of this, here’s a sneak preview of that, etc“. And they go on for about a year and when the time comes for the album to be released, it’s like you’re already bored with it. That’s not our thing. Personally, I think it’s better for us to be quiet and focus on what we’re doing rather than spending a lot of time talking to media or social media about what we’re doing or not doing. To constantly inform people can be kind of contra-productive sometimes. As I said, we’re Scandinavian: we’re not used to talk to people too much! (laughs)
In early 2015, Fredrick Andrersson left the band. What’s current the situation drummer-wise?
We enlisted the help of our friend Tobias Gustafsson from Vomitory and Cut Up to write and record the album. But he’s not a permanent solution so we’re currently auditioning some other potential drummers but we don’t want to rush that because we’re not just looking for a session drummer. We want a permanent member so it’s important that he fits the band as well. Having said that, obviously, if it comes to that, that we can’t find one before we really need one, we’ll just have a session drummer until we find somebody who fits the bill. You never know: if you get a session drummer, maybe it works out. It’s a decision we really need to be careful with. We tour so much and basically live on top of each other for 8 months of the year, you know! (laughs) So it’s important it’s the right person as well as a good drummer.
To me, Amon Amarth plays a very distinctive type of metal. Some calls it “Viking metal”, others go for “melodic death metal”… I’d rather go for “Amon Amarth metal”. What about you: do you still feel that you’re related to death metal?
In a way, we are. But it’s weird because we have a foot in each world, I would say. We are children of heavy metal: we grew up listening to bands such as Iron Maiden, Accept, Judas Priest, all the classic heavy metal acts… But also, in our teens, we were deeply influenced by death metal and stuff like that. Those two genres have heavily influenced us but there’s been a slight shift: the heavy metal influences are more prominent than they used to be, which I don’t necessarily think is a bad thing. It’s good thing because it gives an extra-dimension to the music. I would agree with you that we have a very distinctive sound. We’re really happy about that. We don’t really want to lose that so we try to stick to our guns: that’s the music that we love and we always try to be honest with ourselves and write what we wanna listen to ourselves basically. It’s important for us to have integrity and that the music is something that we can stand for. Having said that, you always want to develop more and come up with new ways of looking at your stuff. We definitely have roots in death metal even though it’s not as prominent as it used to be…
You’re definitely very proud of your Viking heritage. That might sound cliché but do you see yourself as a Viking of the modern age? If so, what would that entail?
In a way, I guess we are… We do travel the world, make stops, plunder and pillage, and we have a good time, drink beer! (laughs) To me, the Viking mythology is almost a philosophy of life. It’s something that really strikes a chord within me. It’s been an interest of mine for so long. I don’t have to think about it these days: it’s in here, that’s part of me. But I wouldn’t privately say that I see myself as a Viking, I don’t, not in that way. I prefer to see myself as a musician, you know? (laughs)
Can you remember your very first positive memories of music as a child?
Elvis Presley! (smiles) Definitely so! My favourite, favourite tape was Elvis Presley 1974. It was also the crappy days of Elvis: the 70s… But I loved that tape! I thig that’s something I listened to over and over again when I was a kid. Then I started to listen to my Dad’s records. Apart from Elvis, he had The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, stuffs like that. Then, my best friend who was living next door had an older brother who was into Kiss, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple… And that’s how I got into heavier music very early, like when I was 5 or 6. I think the very first heavier music – if you can call it like that – that I taped was Rock N’Roll Over from Kiss. But definitely, Elvis is absolutely the 1st artist that I remember listening to a lot. I loved that when I was a kid.
Somehow, you started answering my next question as I wanted to know how extreme music entered your life…
At the same time than Kiss, I started with Black Sabbath, The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal came out… But I was more into Accept and Judas Priest, I guess. I remember well Judas Priest’s Screaming For Vengeance. Also Iron Maiden came in. I remember buying Venom’s Welcome To Hell and… (whispering) It was not really what I hope it would be! (laughs) So I sold it to a friend! And then, I listened to a lot of Metallica: I bought Kill’Em All, Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets, … And Justice For All… Then I went to Slayer by the end of the 80s and met the guys who played in the band Scum, which later became Amon Amarth. They introduced me to the whole death metal scene so the ball kept rolling, you know (smiles). It didn’t happen overnight, for sure! (laughs)
Two great artists passed away recently: Lemmy Kilmister and David Bowie. As an artist, have you been inspired by them to some extent?
Lemmy, definitely. He was an icon, a legend in the rock n’ roll world. I love Motörhead. In a way, it was not really a shock but it’s still terribly sad. The whole rock n’ roll world will miss him. Such a character, such a fascinating guy, really. How more rock n’roll could he have been: he used to be a roadie for The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, for fuck’s sake, you know? (laughs) So he’s been there and done everything: you have to respect a guy like that. David Bowie, I was obviously never a fan, really. But I’ve heard a lot of stuff anyway, because everybody does. He was very popular and even if you’re not a fan, you have to respect a man like that with his amazing artistic qualities. He created something unique and he was in his own way. As far as I understand with my limited knowledge of David Bowie, he was very unique and he always followed his own path. He never really succumbed to any trends or anything: he was really creative and came up with new stuffs and ideas. You have to respect that, even if you’re not a fan of the music, I think.
Let’s talk about Hellfest now. That’s gonna be your 4th appearance this year. Any specific memories of the first three ones?
Good and bad! (laughs) Most good, not so negative stuffs really. I just remember the 1st time we played there (2007), there were 3 toilets in the backstage area, which was not really enough! (smiles) It’s amazing how quickly it became one of the best festivals in Europe. I’m so impressed with all the work that everybody has done at Hellfest. When we played there in 2007, it was a young festival and I totally understand that you can’t get everything right the first time. So I cannot really say anything about it. I’ve played a lot worse festivals than that. I remember when we came back to Hellfest: it was a completely different festival. Nowadays, It is so well organised and one of the best festivals to play in Europe. The past couple of years, the line-up has been absolutely mind-blowing, you know. It’s always a great pleasure to play there. And we always have a great time: the whole experience for us, bands, is brilliant. And the crowd is always fantastic so it’s always a pleasure to go there. We are really looking forward to this once again.
There’s gonna be a new challenge for you this year as you won’t be playing in a tent: you will be playing on a Mainstage!
Yes, we will! That’s fantastic. We’re really looking forward to that. Because I think it will be nice to be able to bring a bigger production to the stage and to show the fans what we can do when we get the chance. It’s gonna be fantastic. As I said, Hellfest is a great festival and it’s a great opportunity for us to play that big stage in France in front of so many people with an appropriate production. That’s really cool: that’s gonna be fun.
Here’s the line-up: any bands you’d like to check out in particular?
Black Sabbath, Rammstein, Slayer… Gojira, of course. King Diamond… AMON AMARTH! (laughs) Twisted Sister is always fun. Dropkick Murphys… Testament: brilliant. Abbath is gonna be interesting. Audrey Horne: I love that band, actually. I haven’t looked at the entire line-up but it’s pretty damn good. And Primordial, of course! I hope we’re playing on the same day. Entombed, obviously. Enslaved for fuck’s sake! Katatonia is always great. Deicide. Ho! Grand Magus! Fuck, man! Definitely one of my favourite bands. Dammit!
I have a very last question, which can also be a difficult one to answer. I will start a sentence and you will have to finish it. It starts like this: “This is a story I’ve never been told before and I probably shouldn’t but…”
(laughs) Oh, man! That’s a difficult one! (laughs) I’m trying to find something very saucy… (laughs) Well, I’m not sure whether I’ve told this one before but… I remember that very first day of tour with Amon Amarth. It was a festival tour with Deicide, Six Feet Under, Brutal Truth and a bunch of other bands. We landed and were picked up in Amsterdam. So we landed there and we were pissed runk, our of our minds… We got on the tour bus that we were sharing with Brutal Truth and Naglfar, also from Sweden. But as it turned out, Deicide was on the tour bus as well because their flight was delayed. So we got on the tour bus and we started being complete wrecks, our bass player puked in the sink… It was a mess. So we were on the tourbus and the tourbus was going to Dynamo (Eindhoven-based festival). Deicide was to play there and they promised us that we were going to have passed to go to the festival. As we were waiting for it, we were getting a little bit impatient… (laughs) So all of a sudden, drunk as a skunk, our guitar player just decided that he had enough and started screaming and behaving like a complete dick. (laughs) Then a woman came in and said: “Calm down, please, we’re fixing it”. The he answered: “Who the fuck are you, bitch? Get the fuck out of here!”. And it turned out to be the tour promoter’s wife… (sighs then laughs) We were about that close of being kicked out of the tour. Our label in Europe was made to apologise… When our guitar plyer found out about it, he was devastated and apologised. But the tour promoter still never forgave us even though we were allowed to do the complete tour. We were gonna do another tour with the same tour promoter for the next album and he didn’t want us to do it… Then, our record label guy, Michael Trengert, who unfortunately is not with us anymore, had convinced him to do it. And the only way to allow us on that tour – headlined by Morbid Angel and Gorgoroth – was if we split the band into 2 different buses… So 2 of us had to go in one bus and the other 3 had to go in another bus! (laughs) That was the only we way we were allowed to do that! (laughs)
@Sony Music, Paris – 01/19/2016
Many thanks to Roger (Replica).