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Amon Amarth: True Swedish Viking Metal

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Monday, November 3, 2008 @ 3:19 PM

"Vikings are not so much seen as brutal savages anymore, they're seen as what they were, people struggling to survive..."

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Sweden's Amon Amarth may be something of a one-trick pony, but they do that one trick really, really well. The Stockholm-based band's Viking-flavored bluster is undeniably genuine - and not nearly as hokey or overblown as, say Manowar, a bunch of mooks from upstate New York - and their unceasing zeal for Norse mythology, history and legend is certainly infectious. It's definitely something different than the trademark buzz-sawing death metal that put Sweden on the map almost 20 years ago. Despite wallowing in relative obscurity for nearly a decade, Amon Amarth's stick-to-it-iveness has paid off handsomely during the past several years. Since 2004's Fate of Norms, the band's profile has grown dramatically, especially in the states, where they had been touring for years without making much progress. And despite not having had any of their five albums crack the Billboard Top 200, Amon Amarth's 2006 triple-DVD Wrath of the Norsemen was certified gold not only in America, but Canada as well. Perhaps an even bigger honor was having their galloping metal, synchronized headbanging and larger-than-life persona typified by bearded giant frontman Johan Hegg serve as a model - or at least an inspiration - for the cartoon phenonenon Dethklok. All this set the stage for Amon Amarth's seventh album, Twilight of the Thunder God, which was issued in the states Sept. 30. Boasting the familiar racket and themes of conquest, honor and bloodshed on tracks like "Varyags of Miklagaard," "Guardians of Asgaard" and "Tattered Banners and Bloody Flags" - with a few subtle twists and turns - it was well received right out of the gate. It debuted at #48 on Billboard chart, one of the best openings ever for a death metal album, and did even better across Europe. The band - rounded out by guitarists Olavi Mikkonen and Johan Söderberg, bassist Ted Lundström and drummer Fredrik Andersson – just wrapped up a headlining tour here with Ensiferum, Belphegor and The Absence and will embark on the Unholy Alliance tour alongside Slayer, Trivium and Mastodon in Europe this month.

A week prior to coming to the states for the headline tour, Hegg called in from Stockholm to talk about Amon Amarth's signature sound, touring as an underground band during our "economic apocalypse" and how Sweden is slowly coming to grips with its Viking heritage.

KNAC.COM: You guys will be here next week, are you doing any shows at home to warm up first?

HEGG: No, those will be the first gigs of the tour, we'll be launching the album in the states.

KNAC.COM: Why the states, and not at home?

HEGG: Why not (laughs)? We always start over here and then end up in the U.S., this time we decided to start in the U.S. and then play over here. This will give us a chance to start there when the album is fresh and it will give us a chance to get warmed up for the Unholy Alliance tour over here in November.

KNAC.COM: You'll definitely need to be warmed up to play with Slayer. Have you played with them before?

HEGG: We've played with them at festivals, but we've never been on tour with them.

KNAC.COM: I guess it's not nearly as it was back in the day, but any band that opens for them has be be ready for the "Slay-er! Slay-er! bunch.

HEGG: We're usually part of that bunch (laughs). It's not like we stand there and chant "Slay-er, Slay-er" when the other bands are playing. When me and my friends go to see Slayer, we tend to show up quite late. We're not too interested in the opening bands, unfortunately. Hopefully there will be a lot of people there to see us play, though I guess it would serve us right if they aren't (laughs). We open the bill in most countries except Germany and Sweden, when Mastodon opens. It's going to be a tough run, it's a big challenge but it's a great opportunity for us.

KNAC.COM: Thunder God comes out here in a few days, but it's out just about everywhere else, how has the initial reaction been?

HEGG: It's been unbelievable, it came in at #11 on the Swedish charts, which is ridiculous really, it's crazy. In Germany, in the four major German magazines, we won the "soundcheck" they have every month, where they play new releases for journalists and they give them points. That's never happened before where one band has won all four. We're looking at a Top 5 position on the Germany charts, we're Top 18 in Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. We have a pretty good start right now in Europe. If you can crack the top 20 in Luxembourg, you know you're doing something right (laughs).

KNAC.COM: What is your best market, the states or Europe?

HEGG: It's pretty even, but I think the previous album sold more in North America than in Europe, North America has become a bigger market for us than Europe. It's going to be very interesting to see where we end up with this one [ it sold 11,000 copies the first week out in America] that's part of the reason for starting the touring in the states, to support the album right away and give it an extra boost.

KNAC.COM: It's pretty amazing that the Wrath of the Norsemen DVD went gold.

HEGG: Well, you don't need to sell nearly as many DVDs to get that [50,000 units] as you do with an album [500,000], and we were helped by the fact that it was a three-disc set, and each disc counted toward the overall total. So we kind of cheated (laughs). But it's still super cool that it's gold. And from what I hear we're close to making it platinum.

It's a good quality DVD, there's a lot of good material on it, but it's crazy too think that we actually sold gold, and it's even more crazy now that it might go platinum. We've already had it go platinum in Canada.

KNAC.COM: With gas prices so high and the economy having gone down the toilet, how does that affect the way you guys tour? I take it you won't be bringing the longboat stage set with you when you come to the states?

HEGG: No, I'm afraid not. We need to get to a slightly higher level before we can afford to bring a big production with us. We try to do little things to improve the quality of the shows, some extra lights, good sound equipment. We're not really Iron Maiden yet, so we do what we can within reason.

It's tricky to bring a big production. You need a truck and a trailer - so you not only have to factor in gas money, you have to pay for the truck, the trailer and the driver, and that's a lot of money. And if even if you stick a trailer on a tour bus, it makes it drink more gasoline, so it's going to be more expensive that way too.

It's a tricky situation, but it's the same for everybody. We still want to travel fairly comfortably, and we already put a lot of money to make this tour happen and to go on the road and see all the fans, so if that means we can't bring the longboat along, so be it. We'd rather be able to play the shows.

KNAC.COM: At least you're able to tour here. There are a lot of bands from the states who are having a hard time doing that, you see them dropping off bills all the time?

HEGG: We try to tour as much as we can in United States, it's pretty important if you want to stay on top of things and grow as a band to stay on the road, and that's what we try to do. It is difficult to go there, especially if you're not making a lot of money. We've been playing bigger shows every time, but we're still don't make shitloads of money. We don't have day jobs anymore, we can do this for a living, but we're not getting rich, I can tell you that much.

KNAC.COM: When did things start taking off for you here?

HEGG: We could have missed out on every U.S. tour and just done the tour with Children of Bodom and Trivium [in 2005]. If we would have just done that tour it would have been enough for us because we really didn't gain much ground from the others. That was a big turn for us, that was the last tour for Fate of Norms. I think people probably knew about us, and probably had heard us, but they really didn't know what we were about. When they came to the shows with Children of Bodom when we opened up, I think they realized "hey, these guys are pretty fucking heavy, you know." Every night was a great success for us, they were great shows every night and people were very much into it and we felt like we won over a lot of people on that tour.

That tour really gave us a good position for the next album. And when that album - With Oden On Our Side - came out there was a big buzz about Amon Amarth in the states and we did several tours there, supporting Children of Bodom and then Sounds of the Underground and then we did our own headline tour in December of last year, which was a really great tour.

KNAC.COM: You guys pretty much stuck to your signature sound on this album, are you ever tempted to really do something radically different and just don't or are you more of the mindset of if it ain't broke don't fix it?

HEGG: We always stick to what we've always done, but try to evolve a little bit within the style that we have. With this album, what we did was say let's no censor ourselves, let's just do what we think will work. If we like it, we'll do it. Any idea is a good idea, or at least worth trying. So we were a lot more open-minded this time around.

It's always been important for us to keep our identity with our music, but we dared to let go a little bit of the bars that we held for ourselves. I think that was one of the reasons why we wrote this album so quick, it took us three months to write 10 songs. We've never written songs that fast before.

KNAC.COM: You used the strings by Apocalyptica on "Live For The Kill," which sounds really cool. If you wanted to, you really could go nuts and do some huge Wagnerian metal opera thing?

HEGG: But would anyone want to listen to it, would we want to listen to it (laughs)? The strings on this album, on that song, really fit the melody and the overall feeling for song. It's a subtle thing, but it really adds something to the song. And there's a big difference between that and using a whole orchestra, or orchestrating the entire album. That's just not us.

KNAC.COM: L.G. Petrov from Entombed sings on "Guardians of Asgaard," is he someone you know from way back when?

HEGG: Yeah, we've known each other for a long time, I meet him all the time, we're both fans of the same soccer team in Stockholm, so we go to the games. Me and Olavi saw him in Stockholm and we just asked him if he was willing to sing a part on the album, and he said, yes. So we went to the rehearsal room and started writing the song with that in mind, so the song was written with the intention of having L.G. be the guest vocalist. We like his style of singing and we wanted it to be two pretty similar voices, but still a little bit different from each other, and to make it like the lyrics said, "We're brothers of the north."

KNAC.COM: I guess any death metal-style band from Sweden owes some sort of debt to Entombed, since they were the first to break out in early '90s. Did they have much influence on you?

HEGG: Maybe not so much musically, but the fact that they made it, they had an album deal, they toured. They proved that it was possible to get to that point. It's definitely a band who we looked up to when we started out. They are one of the classic death metal bands. And I think they still have it when they want to (laughs).

KNAC.COM: Since Viking lore, legend and history is such a huge part of Amon Amarth, when did you first develop your interest in it? Is it something they teach you in school, or did you pick it up on your own?

HEGG: The first time I got in touch with it was through school, but unfortunately in Sweden they don't teach it too much, or they didn't used to anyways. They didn't teach too much about that part of our history and our roots, I don't know why that is. It's been really weird about that. But about the age of 9 or 10 I got interested in it and as I got older I began reading more about it myself, old books and legends and sagas, I really got into it. So I'm more or less self-educated.

KNAC.COM: Is that heritage acknowledged any more now?

HEGG: It sort of is celebrated more nowadays; there is a bigger interest among people in general. Actually, I should say Swedish people are more allowed to celebrate it nowadays. It used to be considered really bad to celebrate it. But there is a lot of new knowledge and ideas coming out that gives the Viking traditions and history more credibility in general society. Vikings are not so much seen as brutal savages anymore, they're seen as what they were, people struggling to survive, like any people at that time. And they were quite clever, they traveled the world in their boats and they accomplished a lot of things even though they didn't build majestic buildings like the pyramids or anything. To travel to North America like they did 400 years before Christopher Columbus, that's a tough feat by itself. You shouldn't hide that, it's an important part of our country's history and it's important to remember your history and it's important to have the correct history. A lot of the stuff that was written about Vikings was written by Christian people, and obviously they have an interest in making them look like savages and thieves, but that's not really true. They were normal people like anyone, sure they were skilled warriors but they were no more brutal than any other people at that time.

KNAC.COM: I just saw your "Twilight of the Thunder God" video. I don't know if you've seen the Unleashed video for "Black Horizon," but they kind of beat you to the punch with all the Viking battle scenes and whatnot?

HEGG: I heard something like that, but I haven't seen the video myself. Obviously we didn't know anything about their video when we did ours, so it's just coincidence. Still, our bands are somewhat alike, and obviously we were thinking along the same lines when it came to our videos, even though neither of us knew it, which is a little weird.

We know the guys from Unleashed. We rehearse in the same place, so we know them pretty well. They're cool guys to hang out with and have a few glasses of beer. But I guess when we were doing that, the subject of videos never came up. And if it did, apparently we had too many beers to remember (laughs). That's how it goes sometimes.

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