The Avengers' Crushing Comeback
CoC talks to Johan Hegg of Amon Amarth
by: David Rocher
The yarn of death metal Vikings Amon Amarth is an epic one indeed. Plagued with line-up changes, cursed with a failed recording session in the famed Sunlight Studios, this five-piece have nonetheless always made a point of moving on against all odds, delivering quality melodic death all the way along their tumultuous career. One MCD (_Sorrow Throughout the Nine Worlds_, 1996 [CoC #12]) and three full-lengths later (_Once Sent From the Golden Hall_, in 1997 [CoC #29], _The Avenger_, in 1999 [CoC #44], and _The Crusher_, anno 2001 [reviewed in this issue]), it seemed a fine time indeed to have raging vocalist and really, really scary beermonster Johan Hegg tell us the tale of these bloodthirsty Swedes... So hark now to tales of Avengers and Metalwrath!

CoC: So how's everything going?

Johan Hegg: Everything is going really, really fine - I'm sitting here with a small drink in my hand, you know...

CoC: Oh -- testing the local ale?

JH: Exactly, and I bought some vodka on the way down -- I'm in Germany right now --, so I made a fifty/fifty drink of Absolut Vodka and Red Bull... good stuff! <we laugh>

CoC: Cool! So, what's gone on since the _The Crusher_ promos have been shipped out?

JH: Actually, it seems that people really liked it. The reviews I've seen have been very, very good, and the reviews in some major magazines in Germany have given it full points, so that feels really, really good, and it's very promising. I just hope that we'll get the same response everywhere, you know? So, I definitely hope this will be a big boost for us as a band, and that we'll be able to go up a little, as from now on. I'm personally very satisfied with the album.

CoC: Yeah, it sounds great!

JH: Thank you very much!

CoC: It seems to me that as regards various Amon Amarth albums, _The Avenger_ was maybe a bit of a transition album -- the material it featured was quite different from what you usually produce, so what had influenced you at this time?

JH: I have no idea, actually. Olli [Mikkonen, guitarist -- David] creates most of the music, and it just turned into that. I guess all of us are into bands like Deicide, and Morbid Angel, and Six Feet Under at the moment, and maybe something different showed up in our material at the time, but I wouldn't say there were any major influences. But you're right in saying that _The Avenger_ was somehow stepping in another direction, and I think _The Crusher_ is perhaps a more logical follow-up to _Once Sent From the Golden Hall_ than _The Avenger_ was. You're definitely right there, but as I say, it's difficult to say why _The Avenger_ came to be that kind of album. It just turned out that way, and we don't really try to force the songs in a certain way or anything, we just let them develop into whatever they become, and see where it leads us.

CoC: _Sorrow Throughout the Nine Worlds_ was a really confidential release, but it seems that you've gradually picked up speed, especially since you've signed to Metal Blade, and _The Crusher_ is really an album a lot of people are awaiting -- have you felt any pressure in this regard?

JH: Erm... not so much from the fans, actually, as from ourselves, because we didn't want to let the band rest for as long as we did. We wanted to release something pretty fast after _The Avenger_ -- of course, one year and a half is perhaps not fast, but it felt like working fast to us. We really pushed it, and we actually were supposed to record the album in September, but we realised we couldn't make it pretty early on, so we moved our studio time to November, instead. But we really wanted to get going, and since _The Avenger_ got such a quick response for reviews and everything, we figured we had to be out there and get noticed for people to remember us -- so that's what the pressure was about. I think, as you said, since _Sorrow..._, we have been picked up by Metal Blade, and things have been moving faster. The only thing is that unfortunately, we had a bit of bad luck, as the recording of _Sorrow..._ came out about one year too late. We would have liked to release it earlier, if we'd had a contract back then. Then, we had the problem with the recording of _Once Sent From the Golden Hall_, that really set us back.

CoC: What happened with that, exactly?

JH: Definitely everything was wrong in that studio...

CoC: Where was it, Sunlight Studios?

JH: Yeah. I don't know where to begin, but let's just say that there was one person in there that was remotely interested in doing a good job for us, and that was Fred Estby, the drummer from Dismember. But unfortunately, I don't think that at the time he was really qualified to run a whole recording -- at the time, anyway, because I don't know how good he is now. So that's why it didn't really work out, everything was really fucked up, whereas with _The Crusher_, everything went really smoothly.

CoC: There's a bonus track featured on the CD, the "Eyes of Horror" cover, which has a lower sound quality than the rest of _The Crusher_...

JH: It was recorded in Das Boot studios, in Stockholm, a bit more than a year ago, and the reason we did this -- it's a cover version of Possessed's song, obviously -- is that we got contacted by some guy who was going to make a tribute album to Possessed, and he had contacted other bands like Cannibal Corpse, and blah blah blah, and he asked us if we wanted to participate. And we thought that Possessed being a pretty legendary band in the death metal scene, that it would be good, and that it would also be good for us to be seen between albums, on this recording with other people. So we accepted to do this, and we recorded only for one day at Das Boot studios, and of course, in one day, it's very hard to do a good job with people with whom you've never worked before, so I guess that's the main reason why it didn't really turn out very well sound-wise. But still I think it works on that song, because although it sounds like a really crap sound, it fits the song pretty good, I think.

CoC: You said _The Crusher_ is more of a logical follow-up to _Once Sent From the Golden Hall_; is this because you're more into all-out death metal these days?

JH: I wouldn't say we're all into death metal that much... All of us have very different influences, it's very different music we listen to. At the moment, I pretty much listen to Slayer and old Metallica, whereas Oli and Fredrik are very much more into death metal, and Ted as well. But they also listen to black metal and stuff like this. I would say that perhaps we've moved back to what we've always been doing, in a sense -- not that I regret doing _The Avenger_, I think it's a very good album, and I think we did the right thing to record it. It was good for us, and also it was a wider range of material to choose from. So I wouldn't say we've stepped -back- to the way we sounded before, it's just we made a new beginning with it.

CoC: As _The Avenger_ sounds more "warlike" to me than the rest of your material, maybe it expressed the anger you felt at the time with the line-up changes, the recording issues -- it sounds like battle hymns to me.

JH: Yeah, maybe that's true... it's very difficult for us to say ourselves. We just work with the material, and try to create songs which we think reflect the way we feel, you know? And when people read into it, it's more to the people that listen to it than it is for us. I think that perhaps if you analyse it, you're pretty close to the truth -- perhaps it's not the line-up change in itself that pissed us off as much as the trouble we went through with the recording of _Once Sent From the Golden Hall_, which really upset us. We were really pissed off with that, you know, because it set us back nearly one year, which was of course not in our favour.

CoC: Did it actually make you feel apprehensive about further studio recordings?

JH: In a sense, we now know that we don't want to mess around, so that's why we go to Peter's studio [Abyss]. We're very, very sceptical about trying out new studios. What we will do -- not that we're not satisfied with Peter's studio -- but what we will try to do, is record some songs in different studios, and try some others out, because some day, we will have to change, or try something new. But then, maybe Peter's studio will work for us in the future as well, it depends on what we do!

CoC: Is there any reason that you're already considering switching? Maybe because so many bands recording in the Abyss studios tend to have the same sound, nowadays?

JH: In a way, that's so... but not entirely, because I think we managed to go to Peter's studio and get a pretty individual sound, but on the other hand, I think every band thinks they sound very unique -- I don't know, it's up to the listeners to decide, but I think we have found a sound that suits us very well.

CoC: Sure, _The Crusher_ has a really nice, powerful sound...

JH: Peter is a very good sound engineer, and the sound he created for us is clean, but aggressive, and he's very good at getting us that sound. But as you said, a lot of bands go into the studio and have the idea that they want to sound like this and this band, whereas we go in and say "we want the guitars to sound like they're dragging on the floor" -- you know, really raw, and shit --, and he then turns the knobs until we're satisfied. It takes more time, perhaps, but I think it's the best way to go about it.

CoC: How long did _The Crusher_ take to record?

JH: Uh... three weeks -- two weeks recording and one week mixing. We've worked really, really fast, and everything went really smoothly, also because we feel really comfortable in the Abyss studios. We've been there before, it's a nice environment to be in, you can concentrate on the music full-time... because there's nothing else there, except the forest, so it's very calm and soothing to be there. [Have a look at the interview with The Forsaken below if you really want to confirm this. -- Pedro]

CoC: Okay, how did it feel shifting over from Opeth's Martin Lopez to Fredrik Andersson on the drums? I read in an interview that he was the drummer you always wanted for Amon Amarth...

JH: Yeah... When Nico, our first drummer, left, we were considering asking Fredde to play with us, but as it turned out, he was still with A Canorous Quintet, so we figured that we should look for somebody else first, and see where we could get. In fact, we never really had a chance to start looking before we got contacted by Martin, so we decided to try him out, and it worked out really well. Martin being a very good drummer and a very cool guy, we decided to go with him; of course, it was sad when he left, but it turned out that when he left the band, Fredrik was kind of in-between bands -- he was playing with Guidance of Sin, but when we asked him, he immediately said "yes". And I think he suits us better than Martin does.

CoC: I actually felt that on _The Avenger_, Fredde's drumming was very basic compared to Martin's technique...

JH: Exactly. The problem with Martin was that we kind of had to hold him back. He wanted to do too much technical stuff, and that's not really for us, as we're a bit more straightforward than that -- and Fredrik's perfect for that. I mean, Fredrik can do almost anything that Martin does -- when we play the old songs live, he does the same things as Martin did --, so he's technical, but I think Fredrik and Martin improvise in different ways. Still, I think Fredrik is a very good drummer, and he suits the band very well.

CoC: Sure, that's actually something that struck me on _The Crusher_: I was a bit disappointed by his drumming on _The Avenger_, as it seemed kind of uneventful compared to Martin's, but he's more than made up for that on _The Crusher_; his drum work is amazing.

JH: Yeah, I think so too. The biggest problem on _The Avenger_ was that when Fredrik joined the band, Martin had already made most of the drum beats, but hadn't worked on them as much as he would have if he'd stayed in the band. So when Fredrik got in the band, we mainly told him "you should play like this" -- end of story. So he did what we told him to do, and perhaps that was wrong, and perhaps not. We still had to tell him how to go about the songs, as they were already finished, but I think that on the songs on _The Avenger_ which he originally made the drums for, his drumming is better.

CoC: This is maybe why I get the recurring feeling that _The Avenger_ is a transition album...

JH: Hmm, I don't know... We couldn't have lost our drummer at a worse time, because we were almost finished with all the songs, and we had to find a drummer to go into the studio, so he actually only had a couple of months to learn all the songs, plus help us create the last couple of songs.

CoC: How easy is it changing musicians up in Sweden? I get the feeling that there are a hell of a lot of metal musicians for only nine million inhabitants...

JH: There are a lot of musicians, true, but a lot of them play in several bands. We were lucky, actually, because when Martin joined Amon Amarth, he'd just moved back from Uruguay, where he lived with his parents for six or seven years, and he needed a band to play in. He had heard of us and had heard the MCD, so when he saw that we were looking for a drummer, he contacted us and wanted to play with us, so... When we needed a new guitarist, we actually tried six or seven guitarists that absolutely didn't fit, or couldn't play the way we wanted, or couldn't handle the difficult stuff. It seems that a lot of guitarists are good at playing the stuff they know -- "okay, we can play Metallica, we can play blah blah blah" -- but when it comes to playing material you've never heard before, it's like a different story, you know. Luckily, we found Johan; he's an old friend of Olli's and Ted's, from the neighbourhood where they grew up, and he's been playing guitars in different hobby bands and stuff, nothing really serious, helping people out in other bands when they needed something. As it turned out, he'd been wanting to play with us for a while, but he never said anything, and when Olli asked him if he wanted to try out with us, he was really fired up about it. And he worked out really well; he's a really good guitarist, perhaps the best guitarist we have in the band -- Olli will kill me for this! <laughs> Olli always says he's not a good guitarist, he just creates the riffs -- I think that's true. He can play the guitar, and he plays better than he thinks he does, perhaps, but Johan is a more technical guitarist. Anyway, we've been fortunate in that way.

CoC: So you feel confident about your line-up, right now?

JH: I think it's the most stable that we've had during the whole process of Amon Amarth, obviously, because it's been the same for two albums now. But when we started out in 1992, it was actually after the band Scum broke up, which lead to us getting together and recruiting some new members -- so it wasn't all that stable to begin with.

CoC: Where did you get your name, Amon Amarth?

JH: It's taken from J.R.R. Tolkien's novel "Lord of the Rings", though it's not in the actual book, "Lord of the Rings" -- I think it's in the book called "World of the Rings". It's mostly a description of the world and the people who live there. Tolkien was a language professor, as you perhaps know, and he created his own languages; and in one of these languages he created, Amon Amarth means "mountain of doom". So that's where it's taken from.

CoC: Amon Amarth's endemic feature is the really strong Viking image that goes with all your releases, so I'd like to know to what extent you live this in your daily life?

JH: I don't go around with axes and swords, and shit like that, and I don't sacrifice in blood everyday, and stuff like that -- it's just the mentality of the Viking people. The main thing, I think, about the Viking people, is they had integrity, they had honour and they were honest to each other. Of course there are lots of stories of deception and everything, but they were always mainly truthful, and I try to live this, and it's something which has of course affected me in the way I live my life.

CoC: So it's mostly about ethics?

JH: Mainly, yeah. I mean, I sort of believe in the gods you might say, but on the other hand I don't, because I'm too rational and logical for that, unfortunately. I rather believe in the sense of the gods, in what they represent.

CoC: Bathory were the first band to produce this Viking image, and since then, it's been massively overused in time. What do you think of the other tentatively "Viking metal" bands out there?

JH: I don't know, I think it's okay... We're all part of the heritage, you know, so why not? I write my views on it, they write theirs, and basically I don't think there's that much difference between our points of view, in general.

CoC: What do you think of Enslaved, for instance?

JH: I haven't heard the last album, but they had an album a couple of years ago, which was called _Frost_, right? I thought that was pretty good.

CoC: Hmm. That's a -long- time ago!

JH: Yeah! <we laugh> I haven't really followed them, but it's a band that I respect, they've been around for a while.

CoC: Have you spotted any other bands worthy of interest?

JH: Well, I would have to say that one of the newer bands that I was really surprised with was The Crown -- I really got into _Hell Is Here_ [CoC #36]. It's a great album, and the new album, _Deathrace King_ [CoC #47], is also great. I was also a bit impressed by God Dethroned's last album [_Bloody Blasphemy_, CoC #41 -- David], but I haven't heard the new one. The thing is that I work so much with music, that I find it hard to buy new CDs, and CDs are so expensive that you can't really afford to take a chance. It may seem strange that I mentioned two Metal Blade bands right away, but it's just that I get so much from here for free, that I have the opportunity to listen to Metal Blade bands. And I can't say that every band I hear from here is good, but those two are new stuff that really impressed me a lot. But to mention a band that's not on Metal Blade, I started listening to Behemoth's _Satanica_ [CoC #43], and I think that's great album.

CoC: Sure! Okay, last words are yours, Johan!

JH: I would like to say to all our fans and friends that we'll see you on tour, and buy the album! And uh... "salut"!

(article submitted 12/8/2001)

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