Stand on Visby’s rocky beach and gaze out across the roiling sea, and it’s easy to imagine a fleet of wooden ships heaving into view over the horizon, bearing an army of snarling invaders ready to subjugate its inhabitants, or worse.
Dating from the Viking Age, this picture-postcard medieval town is the biggest settlement on the Swedish island of Gotland – a hunk of rock measuring 100 miles by 30 miles, located halfway between mainland Sweden to the west and Latvia to the east. Visby has been fought over down the centuries by the Swedes, the Danes, the Hanseatic League and more, and it has the ruined city walls to prove it.
Another army has invaded Gotland today. This one numbers just five people, and furs and armour have been replaced by puffer jackets and beanie hats to protect against the fearsome wind battering them. They’ve been standing with their backs to the waves for the last 15 minutes for a photoshoot, and the cold is getting to them.
Sabaton may be the most successful Swedish metal band of the 21st Century, but they clearly haven’t inherited their ancestors’ hardy genes. “I think we’ve done enough,” says the band’s usually laidback bassist and Joint Chief Of Staff Pär Sundström tetchily. “We have a show to play.”
A gig is fairly unusual in Gotland. In a few hours, Sabaton will play the local ice hockey arena, the fourth gig of a 20-date tour of some of Sweden’s furthest-flung outposts. The last vaguely famous rock group to come to Visby were Swedish glam-metal C-listers Hardcore Superstar. That was in 2021. The next one is… well, there is no ‘next one’, beyond a few low-level Swedish bar acts.
“We called the people who ran the venue and said, ‘We want to do a show,’” says Pär, grumpiness gone. “They said, ‘When?’ and we said, ‘February.’ They said, ‘Why would you want to be here in February? Nothing happens!’”
So why do you want to be here in February? “Why not?” he says, with the grin of man who has made it this far without other people telling him how to do things, and isn’t about to start listening to them now.
A 2,000-capacity ice hockey hall on a windswept Baltic island is a long way from the kind of places that Sabaton normally play these days. In April, they kick off a full European tour with four UK arena dates, featuring support from Babymetal and Finnish panto-metallers Lordi.
“We’re only the third Swedish band to headline Wembley Arena, after Abba and Roxette,” says singer Joakim Brodén proudly, as we sit in the lobby of the waterfront hotel that has been commandeered as a temporary barracks by the band and several of their 50-strong crew and entourage.
They arrived here yesterday via ferry from the Swedish mainland. This is a scaled-down operation by their standards: just the three articulated trucks and two tour buses carrying the band, their equipment and their stage set. The crew for their upcoming UK shows and the European arena tour that follows currently numbers 141, including drivers, caterers and the people who take care of the laundry.
Visby itself is a beautiful town. A cathedral whose origins date back to the 13th century looms over cobbled streets and charming old buildings. Crumbling fortifications and the ruins of churches offer glimpses of past glories and the fates that befell them. Still, the people who said that nothing happens in Visby in February weren’t lying. Aside from the odd bar and restaurant, pretty much everything else is closed.
This the first time Joakim has been to the island, but Pär came here regularly as a teenager. Every summer, Visby holds one of the biggest medieval events in Europe, its population of 24,000 swelling to upwards of 100,000 for one epic week of fighting, jousting and drinking. The young Pär’s interest in live action role-playing drew him to medieval re-enactment circles, which in turn brought him here as a teenager.
“I came here for several years,” he says, sitting on the tour bus a couple of hours before the show. “I didn’t know anybody, I came over on the ferry on my own. There was so much going on. There were knights jousting in the moat next to the walls. It’s a party island in the summer. I’ve spent more than a month of my life here, but I’ve never been sober before.”
History and location aside, Visby is a typical stop-off on this tour. Eighty per cent of Sweden’s population of 10 million lives in the lower third of a country that measures almost 1,000 miles from top to bottom but just 300 miles at its widest point. Most bands play Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmö and maybe a couple of other medium-sized cities in the south and call it a tour. This run of shows is the polar opposite of that.
The idea was to bring the Sabaton show to people who might not otherwise be willing or able to travel see them. The first gig of this leg was in Övertorneå, a tiny town in the far north of the country on the border with Finland. The population of Övertorneå is 1,900, and 1,500 turned up to the gig.
“Nothing has ever happened up there on that scale,” says Pär. “It was lovely, we had the whole city backing us up.” This is actually the second leg of a similar, 30-date tour of off-the-beaten-track Swedish towns that Sabaton played in 2022. According to Pär, that original run was a direct response to being unable to tour internationally during the pandemic. They decided to do this second leg the day they played the final show of the first run.
“It was the best tour we’ve ever done,” says the bassist, who lives in Cyprus for much of the year. “We did it after being locked in for so long. That last night was emotional, people were crying. I didn’t want it to end.”
By the time this second leg finishes, they’ll have hit such second- and third-tier towns as Kiruna (pop. 20,000), Eskjö (pop. 9,000) and Uddevalla (pop. 35,000). As the band’s de facto manager, Pär took a hands-on approach, working with their booking agent on everything from routing the tour to booking the venues – something that keeps costs down, and also allows the band to retain control over what they do.
“It’s a lot of work,” he concedes. “But at the same time you get so much out of it. We’ve got no one telling us, ‘No, you shouldn’t play in this place or that place, you can’t do this or that.’ It’s the way we’ve done things for our entire career.”
Rock and metal bands can follow one of two career paths these days. The most familiar, and clichéd, path is to take the traditional swashbuckling approach, heavy on the sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll, hoping charisma and the odd half-decent tune can magically translate into record sales, streams and YouTube views (spoiler: it rarely does). The other is to recognise the music business for what it is – i.e. a business – and approach it accordingly.
In Sabaton’s case, this has meant everything from teaming up with videogame company World Of Tanks to launching a range of band-branded of underpants. This way of doing things may lack rock’n’roll’s traditional pirate glamour but, as Sabaton have proved, it’s far more likely to result in a successful and sustained career (in fairness, it does help that they write epic tunes with the kick of a howitzer too).
This tour is part of that approach. It’s hard to think of any other band who would spent several weeks schlepping around the backwaters of Sweden, but then Sabaton seem to relish challenges – and Pär Sundström especially. Like Gene Simmons in camo trousers, the bassist has essentially willed his band to success.
The most unlikely thing about Sabaton’s upcoming UK tour isn’t that Babymetal are supporting Sabaton in the UK – there’s a long-standing mutual respect there, with the Swedes supporting their Japanese counterparts in Tokyo in 2018 and Joakim appearing on Babymetal’s 2019 song Oh! MAJINAI.
No, the most unlikely thing is that Sabaton are headlining multiple arenas in Britain in the first place. The idea of a power metal band playing such large venues in the UK would have been unthinkable in 2006, when they first toured the country as unknown openers on a three-band bill featuring Edguy and headliners Dragonforce.
“I’d never heard of them before we played with them the first time,” says Dragonforce guitarist Herman Li, talking to Hammer from his adopted home of LA via Zoom. “The UK media wanted nothing to do with the kind of music we both played, but I could see they had something about them.”
Sabaton were never Mötley Crüe, though they had fun on the road. They’d guzzle vodka and Red Bull then wonder why they couldn’t get to sleep. “We were in party mode, going out every night after the show, trying to find an afterparty with the fans,” says Pär.
There were moments of drunken foolishness, naturally, like the time Joakim and Pär crashed on a fan’s couch after getting turned away from a party in a hotel after a gig in Glasgow. As if it wasn’t bad enough waking up the next day to a row between the fan and his wife, who wanted to know who the hell these hairy Swedes were and why they were sleeping on her floor, they realised that their bus had left for the next gig in Inverness without them. Cue a wallet-emptying £280 cab ride to ensure they made the show on time. For musicians as ambitious as Sabaton were even back then, that kind of behaviour simply wasn’t sustainable.
“There’s nothing wrong with having a great party after every gig when you do 15 shows a year, but all of a sudden you find yourself doing 170 shows in 12 months, and it’s not so smart anymore,” explains Joakim. The tipping point for the singer came during a gig in the late 2000s. “I was super-hungover and I was puking between the songs,” he says. “That was when I thought, ‘No, I can’t do this anymore.’”
Even before that, Joakim and Pär had realised that the old rock’n’roll clichés weren’t conducive to a career in the increasingly tough post-Napster world of 2000s metal. “Even on that first tour, Pär had a laptop,” says Herman Li, whose band toured with Sabaton for a second time in 2009. “I was pretty much managing Dragonforce, and we’d both spend all our time looking for somewhere we could plug in and get online. No other musicians apart from us were doing that at that point.”
Some things haven’t changed. Anyone stepping into Sabaton’s dressing room at the ICA Maxi Arena today will be greeted by the sight of five men tapping away on their laptops. No one is vomiting in the corner or falling face-first into a pile of drugs; instead guitarist Chris Rörland is working on designs for new guitar picks. The vibe is less ‘Bacchanalian rock’n’roll orgy’, more ‘slightly odd IT company who are a month behind on the office rent’.
Something stranger is happening a few doors down. Half a dozen people wearing assorted olde worlde costumes are sneaking into a small storage room. There’s a woman dressed in a flowing peasant dress and a couple of guys in what look like handmade tunics. Someone else is in the regalia of a medieval Christian priest, replete with robes and crucifix. In the middle of them all is a man in a chair, having black warpaint applied to his face.
These are a bunch of local medieval re-enactors who have been roped in to spring a surprise on the support band, Hulkoff, by lining up behind them onstage and dancing at the conclusion of their set.
“It is a big deal that Sabaton are playing Visby,” says one of the re-enactors. His name is Richard, and he’s a big fan of the band. “It’s weird that they’ve come here now, because no bands come here in the winter. But I’d say there are plenty of people here who will come to the gig who don’t like metal but know Sabaton.”
Much of Sabaton’s popularity in their homeland stems from 2012’s Carolus Rex, a concept album inspired by the 18th-century Swedish king Charles XII released in both English- and Swedish-language editions. The latter was novel enough to reach beyond the boundaries of the metal scene, ultimately ensuring a tour like this can happen now.
“In Sweden, there are enough people who aren’t metalheads who would come to our shows, but I don’t think there are too many countries like that,” Joakim reasons. “Finland, maybe, but nowhere else. Not the UK.”
Sabaton’s high profile in their home country has its downsides. In January 2023, Swedish Sceptics Association, an organisation founded in the early 80s and dedicated to promoting the veracity of scientific research, announced that they were honouring Sabaton with their Enlightener Of The Year award in recognition of the band “[combining] its artistic work with public education” - a reference to the factual accuracy of their lyrics and videos.
Yet within days the organisation announced that the award was being “reviewed”. It transpired that they had been made aware of an interview Pär had given after playing Crimea in 2015, in the wake of Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula. “If you go to [Crimean city] Sevastopol, you hardly feel they feel occupied,” the bassist told Sweden Rock magazine in 2016, adding, “All these years they’ve felt like Russians but treated like a small piece of Ukraine.”
Unsurprisingly given recent events, this unearthed quote caused a media furore, prompting Pär to issue a statement saying that his original quotes were referring to “how I experienced the situation there and then”, adding, “That someone invades or occupies another country is against international law.”
It was a clear response, but one that could have gone further in condemning Vladimir Putin’s illegal occupation of the country. This may be coloured by the fact that Sabaton have a sizable Russian following. “Yeah, we have a lot of fans in Russia,” says Pär now. “But we have a lot of fans in Ukraine too, and I can see from Spotify they are listening to our songs while their country is at war. I have friends on both sides, fans who are being called up to fight. A lot of fans [in Ukraine] have asked us to write about this battle.”
And will you? “Not now. It’s a current event, we don’t write about active politics. Maybe in the future, but now not now. It’s extremely heavy.”
The Swedish Sceptics Association completed their review and decided to stick to their original plan and give the band their award. “When the media in Sweden write about Sabaton, they get shitloads of traffic,” says Pär. “Five guys singing about war, wearing camouflage, it was the perfect thing to write about. It’s a storm in a teacup.”
Sabaton have a warehouse containing all their old stage props. This includes their very first stage set, a riser with ramps, pillars, ladders and room for drums and keyboards that they bought from a long-forgotten Swedish band and was used for three shows and the video for 2009’s single 40:1. “It looked huge when we got it,” says Joakim. “Today, it’s like, ‘OK, not so big.’”
Their most famous prop is the two-ton tank that’s been used as a riser used by drummer Hannes Van Dahl since 2015. There are actually two tanks, nicknamed Walther and Audie – the former after German WWII General Walther Wenck, the latter after decorated US soldier-turned-Hollywood actor Audie Murphy, subjects of the Sabaton songs Hearts Of Iron and To Hell And Back respectively.
Two tank risers may seem like overkill to some, but it enables the band to send one ahead to the next gig in classic military fashion. The tank(s) will naturally be part of their upcoming arena shows, but Pär and Joakim are cagey about what else the gigs involve. The bassist dangles the words “theatrics” and “drama”.
“We want to bring in a bit of real acting,” he says. “We want to bring in real humans to the show to illustrate the subjects of the songs a bit more.”
There’s no tank here in the ICA Maxi Arena and certainly no actors hamming it up, just museum-style figures dressed in the livery of Caroleans – 17th- and 18th-century Swedish soldiers – dotted between the pillars that circle the stage and Sabaton themselves. This is a scaled-down performance by Sabaton standards.
“It doesn’t make sense financially to bring all that stuff on this tour,” says Joakim. “But we’re giving people a different kind of Sabaton show.”
The 2,000-odd Gotlanders here tonight don’t seem to miss the heavy ordnance onstage. The arrival of a band whose last four albums all reached No.1 in the Swedish charts is a big deal.
“The last band I saw play here was Europe about 10 years ago,” an audience member named Anna tells Hammer. Her sparkly high street top and high-heeled boots would put her in a very small minority at a regular Sabaton gig, but the crowd here is split 60-40 between people who look like metal fans and people who don’t.
“I knew the name Sabaton, but I’m not that familiar with their music. He likes them, though,” she adds, gesturing to her boyfriend, whose Sabaton-branded tricorn hat suggests he’s very much in the metal-loving 60% of this audience.
The presentation may be stripped down, but anthems such as The Lion From The North, The Red Baron and Bismarck remain as brilliant and bombastic as always, even if half a dozen songs and all of Joakim’s between-song banter is delivered in Swedish and goes over our heads. Still, their gig, their rules.
An hour after the show, the arena has emptied and Sabaton’s crew are packing up their gear. The band themselves are in various states of undress backstage, the prospect of a 6am alarm call to catch the ferry back to the mainland hanging over them. There are three more weeks of this tour left before it winds up in the city of Lund, a bustling metropolis of 90,000 people.
“And then there’ll be no more places left for us to play in Sweden,” booms Joakim, only half joking. And after that? There’s one more standalone single scheduled around the UK tour in April (Joakim and Pär refuse to say what it’s called, though the singer says it will “surprise people”), plus a movie (they’re equally tight-lipped about details for this).
The follow-up to 2109’s The Great War and its 2022 companion, The War To End All Wars, is a way off yet, but it’s unlikely to complete a World War I-themed trilogy of albums.
“I’d be surprised if we never touched WWI again, but I’d also be very surprised if our next album was another WWI album,” says Joakim.
And what of a potential collaboration with their soon-tobe touring partners Babymetal? It’s a rare moment where Joakim and Pär don’t present a united front.
“Musically, it would be hard because of what we do and what they do,” says Joakim. “It can be done, definitely,” counters his bandmate, “we just need to find the right time.” All of that’s in the future. Gotland has been taken, but there are more far-flung towns to conquer, more audiences to pound into submission, and anyway, those tanks won’t roll themselves out of storage. It’s all quiet on the Baltic front right now, but that peace won’t last.
Stories From The Western Front is out now via Nuclea