Jonas Åkerlund is best-known as the visionary director behind iconic promo clips for the likes of Madonna, Metallica and The Prodigy, and movies such as Lords Of Chaos and Spin.
Before he got behind the camera, Åkerlund was the original drummer with Bathory, the cult Swedish proto-black metal band led by the late Thomas ‘Quorthon’ Forsberg, aka Ace – a nickname inspired by his idol, Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley.
Here, he looks back at his time in Bathory, the unsung genius of Quorthon and why he just might be sitting on a goldmine of unreleased Bathory tapes.
How did you end up in Bathory?
I didn't end up in Bathory, I was in the first line up. Everybody I knew was in different bands, with different formations. The one guy I kept playing with was Frederick Melander, who was my cousin, and who played bass. We never really felt like we had a guitarist or singer who was good enough, so we were always looking for someone. We ended up putting something up in an instrument store, where we basically advertised that we were looking for a guitarist and singer. That’s where we met Ace.
He gave my mother a call, cos I lived at home then. We ended up meeting in that same music store that first day. Literally the first time we met him, we saw this guy with chicken bones hanging from his neck, he had ballet tights on, kind of pink and black striped. Me and Frederik were, like, ‘Oh man, I hope it's not that guy.
Our rehearsal space was literally a block away from the music store, and we went straight up there to play. Me and Frederick had never played with such a good musician, ever. We were blown by this guy who was an amazing musician but quite weird.
Why was he weird?
I guess all teenagers are weirdos. But for us, there was a specific style of being a metalhead back then - you had your patches and you went to see the same bands, and you listened to the same music. He was a bit of an oddball, a loner. But he had a lot of integrity from the get-go - he was totally his own person. I’m telling you, the guy had probably been locked in his apartment his whole life, just playing guitar, but he was a smart guy, he had a lot of thoughts and opinions. It felt like he was a man of the world, but I don’t know where the hell he was picking it up from. And he was a really fucking good musician.
You call him Ace, though he was better known as Quorthon. Did you ever call him Thomas, his real name?
We called hom Thomas sometimes, but he was always Ace in Stockholm. Kiss was his favouroite band. We liked Kiss, of course, but he loved Kiss.
What were Bathory’s early rehearsals like?
We played Kiss covers, Uriah Heep covers, Motörhead and Sabbath covers, and of course Ace was writing his own songs. Me and Frederick were not even close to his level of a being a musician. But the idea was to become a four-piece and have a singer. We were actually rehearsing other singers back then, which wasn’t easy, so when we rehearsed, Ace always ended up singing anyway.
Where did the name Bathory come from?
I don’t know. We were actually called Countess Bathory at first – I didn’t really know anything about [the real] Countess Bathory or the Bathory family. Maybe Ace picked up the Venom album and got it there [the British band’s 1982 album Black Metal featured the track Countess Bathory]. I thought it was embarrassing to have a name that was the same as one of their songs.
Frederick’s father was a graphic designer, and he did a logo for us with a stencil, where you scratch a piece of plastic and it becomes a letter. The first logo actually said Countess Bathory – the same type and everything. We just took ‘Countess’ off and kept ‘Bathory’.
Quorthon’s father, Börje ‘Boss’ Forsberg, was an important figure in his life, and Bathory’s career - he set up the band’s label, Black Mark Productions. What was he like?
Ace lived with his father, his mother wasn’t around. We didn’t go to his apartment that often, but we were there a few times, and Börje – Boss – was always there. That’s kind of where we got to know him.
I don’t know if he took us seriously back then, but when we recorded Boss gave us spare hours in the studio when other bands on his label weren’t using it. He was not like our dads, he was a different kind of guy.
Where did Bathory’s sound come from?
It came out of us digging different things. I was listening to Sabbath, the dark side of shit, but at the time there was also a lot of fast music in there – punk rock was always in the back of our heads, and Motörhead too. We didn't really have a name for it, it just became what it became.
The original Bathory line-up recorded two songs, Sacrifice and The Return of Darkness And Evil, for the Scandinavian Metal Attack compilation in 1984. Did you record anything else?
No, we didn’t record anything else - nothing professional But we did have a lot of songs. Basically, the first full album that Ace later released [1985’s self-titled debut album], we had played all of those songs.
I have tapes and stuff of recordings in a rehearsal studio, and I'm probably gonna put them on YouTube or something one day. Something for people to listen to.
There are rumours that Bathory played a handful of shows in the early days. Is that true?
This is where it becomes a little complicated. We kind of did. We played at an after-party, if you want to call that a gig. And we always had people hanging in the rehearsal studio - we kind of did shows. But we didn't do any official gigs.
Why did you leave?
Being honest, I wasn’t that good a drummer. I left when I discovered film-making, because I realised I'm a much better editor of film and sound and music than I ever was at playing drums.
Did you stay in touch with Quorthon after you left?
Yeah, we did. He did ask me several times to do music videos for Bathory – it's actually one of the only regrets that I have in my life, that I didn’t do that.
I spoke to Börje about six months before he died, because I was making Lords Of Chaos. I wanted to have Bathory music in the film, and also because the logo on the T-shirt, I needed his approval. Borje said yes, of course. We talked about the black metal scene in general, and how Ace never really liked the Norwegian black metal scene – he didn't like the idea of not being able to separate the fantasy from the reality.
Bathory never played live after you left. It wasn’t even clear if there was actually anyone in the band other than Quorthon, or whether he played everything himself…
This is my take on it: I don’t think there ever was anybody else in the band. I know he had pictures of himself with other band members – I think one of them is actually his brother – but there was never anybody else in the band. It was always Ace. I don't think there was ever any other musician in Bathory.
Quorthon died in 2004 of an undiagnosed heart condition. How did you feel when you heard about it?
It was sad. I didn’t know anything about his heart disease. Creatively, he had so much more to give – there was no stopping that guy. His creativity was fantastic.
Does it surprise you how important this band you helped start became?
When I started to work in film-making, I didn't think about Bathory for, like, 10 years. Then I started to see these T-shirts and people with tattoos. People started asking me about it, and it came back to me.
I'm actually more proud of it now than I ever was before. To meet somebody like Ace, and for him to create what he created – and I give him full credit for it – is so rare. I work with all types of different artists, and it’s rare to see that type of integrity. Iggy Pop, Madonna, they have it – I’m not comparing Madonna and Ace, but Ace never cared about the size of his career, it was all about the creativity. I wish that's one of the things I could tell him now: ‘Dude, you're fucking brilliant.’