One fronts a melodic death metal band who sing about Vikings and park enormous battleships on stages. The other commands the most significant extreme metal band of modern times. The thing that undeniably unites them both? Johan Hegg and Nergal are as metal as it gets. We brought the two cornerstones of heavy metal thunder together to talk about what it means to be a metal band right now, and whether our scene is as judgmental as people would have us believe.
What do the words ‘heavy metal’ mean to you?
Johan: “I mean, there’s so much stuff that goes into heavy metal in my opinion, but for me, the key element is having fun. A good time, a good party. But also, honesty, camaraderie – it’s a community, you know? And it’s been great to have been a part of it!”
Nergal: “Yeah, I totally agree. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been into metal, so I know what it sounds like! And it means that metal is equal to life to me. I can go into different genres, but I always go back to where I started. It’s my raison d’être, it’s the very root of who I am.”
Do you agree with the argument that there’s a distinction between ‘heavy metal’ and ‘metal’?
Johan: “I don’t think so. I think ‘metal’ and ‘heavy metal’ go hand-in-hand. I mean, sure, you can go into tons of sub-genres, but when it really comes down to it, most of us who are in this business kinda have the same backgrounds and listen to the same bands. It’s still very much one community, just with different families inside it.”
Nergal: “When we were younger, we would probably pay more attention to sub-genres and groups, and we would fight with each other, but the older you get, the smarter you get, and you know that it all just comes down to metal! Which is heavy metal. Which is rock’n’roll, you know what I mean? So you might as well say it’s all about rock’n’roll.”
Is ‘heavy metal’ becoming an old-fashioned phrase?
Nergal: “It can be, but it’s really about your perspective. You can pretty much define it any way you want, but it all comes down to heavy music. That’s it.”
Why do some bands still get rejected so harshly by the metal community?
Nergal: “Let them do whatever they want with it. We’re not here to preach, we’re not here to say what is true or untrue...”
But a lot of fans do seem to take that role themselves…
Nergal: “That’s just kids, you know? That’s their right, the privilege of the age we’re in now. When I see that all over the internet, I’m like, ‘OK, I’ve been there, I’ve done that.’ Let them fucking struggle! Let them battle over this stuff. For them, this is their life. When they see their idols change, they freak out. From our perspective, we see it differently.”
Johan: “Yeah, I think that’s very well put. We’ve all been there. We as a band were there!”
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Were you the guys shaking their fists at Metallica for cutting their hair?
Johan: “I mean, obviously we never said that about Metallica – they’re one of my favourite bands – but we used to take the piss out of, for instance, Hammerfall. Even on our albums! Looking back, that was immature, but that’s where we were. And it’s the same with kids; they have their music, they have their favourite bands, and they want to build an identity around the music they listen to. Eventually they’ll probably learn that there’s room for everyone here. You don’t have to like everything.”
Nergal: “I cannot really imagine fucking Kerry King or James Hetfield bashing any bands now. If you really achieve something in your life, if you get successful, and you get a strong sense of who you are and what you’ve achieved, if you don’t like something you just shut the fuck up.”
Johan: “It takes humility to be successful sometimes.”
Behemoth: “Exactly. Even at festivals we play, there are bands that can fucking burn. I can’t fucking listen to it, but hey, they’re big, they made it, respect. I’m not gonna listen to them, because it’s not my fucking cup of tea, but I won’t spend a single fucking bit of my energy on hating someone, or even talking about it.”
You’re both from bands that have a strong visual aesthetic – as soon as people look at you, they can probably guess what you do. How important is the visual side of metal culture to you?
Nergal: “I think it’s amazing, personally. I go and watch Clutch, and it’s fine the way they look, I love the band and the look suits their music, but if I go to see a metal band... I grew up on fucking W.A.S.P., Venom, Sabbath, Maiden, all the classics, and it wasn’t just guys from your neighbourhood wearing jeans and shirts. There were bands like Anthrax and Nuclear Assault, but I was really attracted to aesthetics, which later on I brought in and I developed in my own way. Fucking hell, that is metal. That is my definition of what metal is. I love it!”
Johan: “I totally agree. There’s always been that notion of aesthetic, not only to look ‘cool’ or whatever, but to show people that we are a unity. We are a team here.”
You see someone on the street with long hair and a black shirt and you think, ‘We’ve got something in common here!’
Johan: “Yeah, exactly.”
Nergal: “There’s a very conceptual approach to what we all do. Amon Amarth have that, Behemoth have that, plenty of other bands have that, which is good. It means you have to think about details. You can’t have a great vision but look like shit on stage. You can’t have a great persona on stage but have a shitty album cover. You’ve got to think about your whole aesthetic so there’s quality everywhere.”
Johan: “Right. We don’t pretend that we’ve always made the right decisions, but we make decisions, and we learn from our mistakes. That’s a key element of success for any band.”
What do you think of Ghost? You don’t think they’re gonna sound the way they do when you first see them.
Nergal: “To me, Ghost is like Mercyful Fate with Blue Oyster Cult, with a bit more of a poppy approach. But I dig it! I think it’s cool, and it’s really well structured, very conceptual. I went to a couple of shows recently, and I really loved the whole vision they have.”
Johan: “I had ambiguous feelings about them in the beginning. They’re one of those bands where I grew to enjoy it. I liked the first album, but the most recent one I thought it was a little bit too poppy. But then it really grew on me!”
What about the other side of the coin – bands that sound heavy but don’t look ‘metal enough’?
Johan: “I can’t think of a band I would project that on…”
Well, the most obvious modern example is Bring Me The Horizon, who were heavy when they started but were soundly cussed out by ‘traditional’ metal fans because of how they looked.
Nergal: “But they’re solid!”
Johan: “It’s not all about aesthetics. If the music is there, then obviously you are gonna like it, but in my opinion, aesthetics is an important part of metal. Maybe I wouldn’t follow some bands as much [if they looked a certain way]. Maybe I would still like it, but they wouldn’t be my favourite band because you want the whole package.”
Nergal: “I have this attitude where if I see everyone bashing one band, I’ll look for some justice for them. Like, ‘Fuck you, they’re actually good!’ You know what I mean? Although I do have problems with proportions. You get these big dudes in bands that are really well built, they’re massive, but they have tiny legs!”
So as long as you don’t skip leg day, you’re welcome here?
Nergal: “Ha ha, yeah! I’ve an aesthetic problem with that. But I have no problems with being a fan of fire and blood, but then the next day I’ll be like, ‘Hey, Blondie have a great new record!’ And that new Blondie record is awesome...”
This article originally appeared in Metal Hammer issue 300