It’s a grey and drizzly Monday night in the centre of Stockholm. Hammer is in the warm but unremarkable confines of a downtown rock pub known to its regulars and staff as Pub Anchor.
There’s not a lot going on tonight, save for the low-level murmur of post-work conversation and the occasional chink as full glasses become empty and vice versa. But somewhere in the shadows at the back of the bar, seated around a candlelit table, one of the biggest and best metal bands in Europe are settling down for a night of ale and soon-to-be-not-sober reflection.
These five long-haired figures – that, if we didn’t know any better, could be any group of 30-something metalheads on the planet – are poised on the brink of major success that they have worked their collective fingers to the bone for over the last 15 or so years, and it’s time to celebrate the glory to come. Raise a glass, ladies and gentlemen, to Amon Amarth. This is their local and 2009 is going to be their year.
“This is the classic Stockholm rock bar,” states giant frontman Johan Hegg, the man who most precisely embodies his band’s proud, strong Viking-obsessed world-view. “This just became our main pub, and we’ve been coming here since the early 90s. At one time, we were like an institution in here. There could be three lines of people at the bar, but if we wanted to order we’d just put up a hand and we’d get a beer.”
As if to demonstrate, he raises a cleaver-sized hand and within seconds a barmaid appears and takes everyone’s order.
“This place has been around the longest time,” continues Olavi Mikkonen, guitarist and Amon Amarth’s other chief spokesperson. “We were good friends with the bouncers, so it didn’t really matter how drunk we were. They’d always let us in. But then they changed bouncers and it wasn’t quite the same anymore”
“We were supposed to have a launch party for our album The Crusher here,” adds Johan Söderberg, the band’s other six-string wizard. “We all came here, the whole band, and everyone got in except for me because I’d been thrown out before. They were saying, ‘No, you’re not coming in!’ but we were supposed to be playing! We had to speak with some people and eventually they let me in but they said I couldn’t drink! Ha ha ha! In the end, they decided that I could drink, so it was OK.”
“We’ve been let in through the back door before too,” grins Hegg. “When the bouncer closed the front door, the barman must have seen us somehow and he opened this door at the side of the pub and said to the bouncer, ‘These guys are with me!’ So yeah, that kind of thing is pretty cool. I don’t know how many times we’ve been here, but it’s a lot. We came here every Friday and Saturday for many years, maybe six years in a row.”
2008 was a year of many metal milestones, from the triumphant return of Metallica to the ludicrously long-awaited release of Chinese Democracy. But for Amon Amarth – completed by bassist Ted Lungström and drummer Fredrik Andersson, both also present and downing beer with great enthusiasm – the year will be remembered as the time that this most hard-working of bands made that all-important forward step between the worthy but undemanding comfort zone of being revered underground mainstays and the metallic equivalent of mainstream acceptance.
Their eighth album, Twilight Of The Thunder God, had such an impact that the Swedish band’s fanbase seemed to double almost overnight. Its predecessor, With Oden On Our Side, had certainly laid some much deserved groundwork two years previously, but Twilight… finally sealed the deal and enabled the Swedes to finish off their year with a cross-Europe jaunt as an all-conquering opening act on Slayer’s Unholy Alliance tour. Having just returned from those shows, it’s clear that Hegg and his comrades have relished the opportunity to gatecrash the mainstream metal party for the first time, and they’ve been given a powerful confidence boost.
“Everyone knows how difficult Slayer fans can be, and we should know because we are those fans,” chuckles Hegg. “But the whole tour was great. I got a beer thrown in my face in London, but that was about it.”
“The Stockholm show was particularly fantastic for us, of course, but even we were surprised how many friends and fans we had there,” says Olavi. “It was a 50/50 split between Slayer shirts and Amon Amarth shirts. That was a cool feeling. We were so pumped for the Stockholm show because our families were there, our friends were there. It gave us a real boost.”
“We were in Helsinki and I was sitting in the bar alone and everyone else was playing pinball,” recalls Hegg. “And this guy who looks like an older office guy came over and said, ‘Man, that was such a great show in Stockholm! You even kicked Slayer’s ass and that’s fucking impossible!’ Maybe he had had too much to drink or something. Ha ha ha!”
“It was a really big tour for us,” smiles Olavi. “We played to so many thousands of people that we’d never played to before. And it was an amazing experience, to be part of such a huge tour. We got to finally satisfy our own egos by finally touring with Slayer! Now we have done it. All we have left now is supporting Iron Maiden and playing in Japan and then we’re done!”
For many of the people recently won over by Amon Amarth’s bombastic and brutal blend of bone-crunching death metal and stirring traditional metal melody, this band may carry the air of being a new and fresh proposition. Indeed, listening to Twilight Of The Thunder God will give you little indication that this band have, in fact, been around in one form or another since the late 80s and that their current upsurge marks the culmination of nearly two decades of hard work and dedication.
But speaking to the band in person, there is an undeniable sense that these are men motivated not by the careerist concerns that turn many bands from wide-eyed hopefuls to jaded and ruthless hacks, but instead by a fulsome and genuine devotion to and love for the music that they make and the scene that spawned them. Amon Amarth are metalheads through and through, with all the laid back affability and unpretentious charm that you would expect from your own metal-loving buddies. As a result, their rise to prominence is one of our genre’s more heart-warming tales. Put simply, it couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of people.
“I think the main reason that we’ve arrived here is that we always believed in what we were doing,” shrugs Hegg. “We always felt that we had something to contribute and we’ve always been pretty down to earth. I’m still a big fan of all the stuff that I listened to when I was growing up. That’s why it was such a big deal to tour with Slayer. That’s what we are. We’re metalheads. When we started, we were just playing to have fun. All of our friends were playing in bands. It was just to have shows and get drunk together and play for beer!”
“We often got paid with beer in the early days,” Ted chips in. “But not always very much beer!”
It’s great to be reminded of that simpler era, when bands formed just to enjoy themselves and each other’s company rather than because they wanted to become rich and famous. The age of celebrity has rather tarnished that attitude has a pre-requisite for being in a metal band, but Amon Amarth are still flying the flag for that honest and humble ethos, despite their subsequent achievements.
“We never had any great ambition to get signed,” says Olavi. “We were always interested only in having fun. Obviously it was a big dream, to get signed and tour the world, but we weren’t searching for it. When we formed our own band, our policy was that we would never send our demos to record labels. We just waited for them to contact us. That’s why everything took so long for us! Everyone else in the Stockholm scene got signed, but we were just sitting around and waiting. It’s not so smart when you think about it, ha ha ha! Back then, we were proud that we did it that way.”
Having stormed the gates of the music industry palace in a fairly naïve and haphazard fashion, and having subsequently embarked on a forward march towards an enduring career, starting with the release of their debut album Once Sent From The Golden Hall in 1998, Amon Amarth have steadily built up a reputation as underground metal workhorses.
A steady stream of album releases and tours across Europe and the US have garnered them much acclaim and a slowly expanding fanbase, but it’s undeniable that until fairly recently they have never really been considered major players or a band likely to step up to a higher level of popularity. Consistently big in Germany, that unerring bastion of meat ’n’ potatoes metal, Amon Amarth were able to keep afl oat for several years without ever threatening to emulate the commercial clout of fellow countrymen like In Flames and Arch Enemy.
Instead, they’ve long exuded an air of stoic reliability, but it’s not hard to imagine that there may have been many times during the Amon Amarth story when the band have felt that they’ve been banging their Viking helmets against a brick wall, particularly when it comes to the UK. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that they very nearly decided to give it all up.
“When we made the Versus The World album, the working title for it was The End growls Hegg. “We felt really tired. We felt that we’d been treading water and that we weren’t getting anywhere, so we thought that it was probably going to be the last album. I genuinely thought that it was time to quit, but somehow everything started to turn round.”
“The last four or five years have really shown that it pays if you stick with it,” nods Olavi. “If you really have something special to offer to people it’s worth going through the shitty times. All our other albums had lots of fire, but Versus The World was going to be the ashes, because we were burnt out when we made it. During the process, we just got some more energy from somewhere and decided that maybe we could do it for a few more years. Ever since then it’s just been going up and up and getting better and better.”
“We had another low point during the recording of Fate Of Norns,” Hegg continues, referring to the band’s 2004 album. “We toured a lot for Versus The World, but we hadn’t got to the point where we could stop our daytime jobs, so right after the tour we had to go back to work and then we’d have to jump straight into another tour and then back to work again, so there was no time really to take a breath. Then we had to record a new album. We didn’t really have enough songs and it was very hectic and we were fighting a lot in the band. That’s maybe why Fate Of Norns is not as strong as it could have been.”
…And perhaps the reason why With Oden On Our Side, the album that truly cemented Amon Amarth’s status as European metal notables, was such a strong and confident follow-up?
“Exactly,” says Olavi. “After Fate Of Norns we said we’d never record another record like that. Next time we have to record together, as a unit, as a band, and also we’d never try to produce an album on our own again. After we decided that, we went and recorded With Oden On Our Side and it was like a rebirth. Everyone was so hungry and it was really cool to record together again. It really felt like a band again, and the record came out great. I talked to a good friend of mine, who’s also a journalist in Germany, and he said, ‘You know what? You’re never gonna top With Oden On Our Side! I think we did top it with Twilight…, bit it wasn’t easy.”
A few hours have passed, many beers have been consumed and some impressively tasty steaks have been wolfed down by everyone present. It’s no surprise that these men are such easy company. They’ve spent such a colossal amount of time with each other over the last decade, and they are, after all, friends from way, way back in the mists of metal time. But what is most striking is how all those slightly contrived parallels between the life of a metal band and the exploratory existence of their Viking forebears are really beginning to resonate now.
Amon Amarth really are travelling the world, discovering new territories and winning people over, fan by fan, crowd by crowd. Of course, they’re not turning up in a new town brandishing huge, gleaming swords and raping and pillaging their way through the local population, but then this is not a band that needs to cheapen their proud Viking heritage. If you’re going to spend eight albums singing about this stuff, you need to probe a little deeper into the historical material that you plunder along the way.
Johan Hegg is keen to state that while his lyrics may focus on battles and mythological events from the past, he is not averse to expressing his own feelings and beliefs via such allegorical means and that it would be a betrayal of the Viking code to reduce many centuries of culture down to a few froth-lipped psychos on a mindless rampage. As with Amon Amarth’s deceptively sophisticated music, there was so much more beneath the surface of the average Viking warrior than such cartoon reductionism would suggest.
“You have to remember that the Vikings were not just skilled warriors, they were also skilled diplomats, merchants and politicians,” Hegg states. “In the old sagas and legends, there’s a lot of politics and diplomacy, maybe even more than the battles and violence. That’s the way it was. It was a group of people trying to survive in a very harsh environment, and in doing so they had to learn how to trade and how to communicate and it wasn’t just about attacking people.
“Vikings had a really good reputation around the world, especially if you look at somewhere like Constantinople and how they integrated into that culture and society. Not only were they really skilled warriors, they were also incredibly loyal and if they gave their word then it was almost impossible to break that, no matter how much money they were offered. You had to be true to your own, and loyalty was everything. There’s a lot of values that the Vikings had that still have relevance today. It’s about fulfilling obligations and showing loyalty.”
At this, every member of the band nods in agreement. It almost seems a shame to spoil the moment by pointing out the obvious similarities between the Viking ethos of loyalty and truth and the loyalty and pride that exists within the metal scene. But fuck it, we’ve been drinking for several hours and it’s just nice to still be able to talk without drooling. So, Vikings and metalheads… same thing, right? Burp.
“No, you’re right,” grins Hegg. “It is the same thing. When I started writing these lyrics, I just wanted to write about something that I could relate to. Everyone was singing about Satan back then, but I don’t believe in Satan so I needed something that was real to me.”
“The Viking thing is obviously very important for us as a band,” adds Fredrik. “But I don’t think we have to go over the top like a lot of other bands do. We write songs about Vikings, but we don’t feel that we have to arrive at the pub on horseback! Our focus has always been being a great metal band and I think we can always deliver solid albums and do great shows by just playing metal.”
The night is now drawing in and, despite their obvious love for getting hammered in their favourite watering hole, Amon Amarth begin to go their separate ways and head off into the night. They’re rehearsing tomorrow for their forthcoming European tour, and being in this band is a serious business these days, so after six or seven pints it makes sense to call it a night and head home for some much-needed sleep.
Heroically, however, Johan Hegg is made of sterner, boozier stuff and keeps Metal Hammer company for a few more hours and many, many more drinks. Somehow, through a haze of beer and mysterious shots, we team up and take on all-comers in Pub Anchor’s weekly metal quiz. Tonight’s theme: Iron Maiden. When the most metal magazine in the UK joins forces with the most metal band in Sweden, there’s only ever going to be one outcome. We decimate the competition and win ourselves some more booze. Much high-fiving and manly bonding ensues. That’s what happens when you hang out with Amon Amarth. A very metal time is had by all. 2009 is going to be a fucking great year.
“When I joined Amon Amarth, we were happy to make music and hang out with our friends and get drunk,” concludes Hegg, as he drains the dregs of his last pint. “Now we’re still doing that, but we’ve got friends everywhere in the world – in the UK, in South America, in Japan. It’s getting better and better all the time. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but we’re very happy metalheads right now. Cheers!”
This article originally appeared in Metal Hammer #188.
For more on Amon Amarth, not least Johan Hegg’s guide to the Vikings, then click on the link below.