"This is not an act": how Sabaton's odd couple conquered the world

(Image credit: Tim Tronckoe)

Editor's note: This article originally featured in Metal Hammer 359 and was written before the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Sabaton had just kicked off a 17-date tour of Russia when nations began to fall around them. If this was a war movie, there would have been a map of the world behind them covered in red lights gradually blinking out one by one.

As it was, Sabaton’s bassist, Pär Sundström, was sitting in a hotel bar every night, glued to the news on his mobile phone. It was March 2020, and countries around the world were closing their borders as a contagious new virus named Covid-19 swept the globe. Yet here in Russia, life was carrying on as normal. 

“The government had stated there was no virus in Russia, so if we’d gone home we’d have faced a shitload of costs,” says Pär. “We were landing in new cities and the airports were full of fans. Everybody was like, ‘Is this OK?’”

As the man who essentially manages Sabaton, Pär was the one people were coming to and asking what the hell was going on. There was little he could do except tell them that the tour had to go on. But, he added, any crew members who wanted to go home were free to go home on full salary. “Everybody stayed,” he says proudly.

They had played nine dates before the Russian authorities woke up to the seriousness of the situation, allowing the band to cancel the tour without financial penalty. But for Pär it had been a stressful time – and things wouldn’t get any easier in the months that followed.

“The past two years have been anything but good,” he says. “We’re seeing positive signs now, but we have also learned that things can still change even when they look positive.”

It’s late January 2022, and Pär is sitting in a Sabaton-branded gaming chair in his office in Cyprus. The shelves behind him contain everything from the recently released Sabaton board game to a Lego-style Sabaton model tank to a limited-edition Sabaton olive oil. It wouldn’t be remotely surprising if he’s wearing Sabaton underpants (yes, they exist).

Pär has lived in Cyprus since the end of 2017. He says he never felt properly at home in Falun, the town in which Sabaton formed in 1999. “It was pretty lonely there,” he
says. “It didn’t offer me all the things I wanted. I want the opportunity to go to a bar and meet cool people at any time. There was none of that in my hometown.”

He’s usually the band’s cheerleader, pitchman and business brain all in one, but today the usually talkative musician seems rather quiet and a little glum. This is
partly because he’s under the weather, as illustrated by the sniffs that punctuate his conversation. “I’ve been better,” he says. “I’ve had this stupid fucking cold since October last year and it doesn’t give up.” 

All the Covid tests he’s taken have come back negative, he says. “I’ve been to the doctors, but they can’t find anything: ‘Sorry, dude. You have a cold.’”

There may be another reason for his subdued mood beyond an underpowered immune system. In December 2021, his business partner and mentor Tomas Sunmo
passed away from “a combination of different things, including Covid, that his body couldn’t handle any more.” The two of them were a tight team, Pär explains. Management, marketing, licensing, deals – they worked on it all together. 

“I have good friends and stuff but this was probably the guy that was closest to me,” he says. “For me, it’s like I don’t know where to find my space in the world anymore a little bit.” He offers a sad shrug. “So I’m quite lost.”

Metal Hammer line break

Two thousand miles away, in his adopted hometown in Norway, Joakim Brodén sounds anything but lost. Even via a laptop speaker, Sabaton’s mohawked frontman booms like a howitzer and laughs like a burst of machine-gun fire. Amusingly, this is a man who claims he’s “not an extroverted person”.

“Me onstage is kind of a caricature of myself,” he insists. “The silly humour and everything… it’s not an act, but I wouldn’t behave like that sober among strangers.”

This odd couple have been at the heart of Sabaton since they met at a party in their hometown of Falun in 1999. Pär and his then-bandmates were looking for a keyboard player to add some epicness to their sound. When they heard that Joakim had been playing the Hammond and church organ since he was a kid, they asked him to join.

“They didn’t have any songs, so I wrote some songs,” the latter says. “Then they wanted me to sing so they could hear the melody. They said, ‘You sing until we find a singer.’” There’s that crack of laughter. “The lazy bastards.”

Ironically, given the partnership that would go on to turn Sabaton into one of the biggest Swedish metal bands in history, the pair weren’t especially close at first. “I was closer to the other guys in the band, definitely,” says Pär. “Me and my friends were a diehard metal community, and Joakim came from outside our little community.”

It didn’t take long for the two to realise they worked well together. Some of it was down to a common us-against-the-world spirit, something put to the test when their original label refused to release the album they’d recorded in 2002, Metalizer, because “heavy metal was dead” (it eventually came out in 2007). 

But there were also the shared “Eureka!” moments, such as the time Joakim has a “crazy idea” for choir arrangements on the title track of 2005’s debut album proper, Primo Victoria. “That was when we both knew this was special,” says the singer. “We knew we weren’t copying other bands.”

They’ve endured a few tough times together, though the toughest nearly ended the band. That came in 2011, when the rest of Sabaton left during the recording of their breakthrough album, Carolus Rex, leaving Joakim and Pär holding the baby.

“That’s the closest I’ve come to quitting,” says Joakim. “I didn’t know if I had the energy to keep it up when we were going our separate ways with the old members.”

Pär had the opposite reaction. “I knew if we could get past this, there’d be no stopping us,” he says. “I could see it.” 

He says it with the conviction of someone who wasn’t short on self-belief back then. “Of course not,” he says. “If I don’t believe in something, how can I ever get anybody else to believe in it?”

Sabaton Pär Sundström

(Image credit: Tim Tronckoe)

It’s not strictly true when Pär says the last two years haven’t been good. Like many bands, Sabaton used the unexpected downtime provided by the pandemic to work on a brand new album, The War To End All Wars. A direct follow-up to 2019’s WWI-themed blockbuster The Great War, it follows the same pattern as its predecessor: tales of heroism and tragedy delivered with the subtlety of an approaching tank regiment. 

The decision to make what’s effectively a sequel was partly artistic. They had stories left over from the previous album that they hadn’t had time to turn into songs, and fans had subsequently contacted them with WWI-related tales the band had never heard before. There was undoubtedly a commercial reason too: The Great War took them into more arenas. But there was the matter of the Great War album and subsequent tour feeling like unfinished business. 

“We felt we could do all those stories we had to abandon, all the stories we didn’t know, and we could turn the show into a whole World War I set,” says Joakim. “How much of a four-year conflict can you cover in one album anyway?”

“We wanted to do something,” says Pär. “We’d just had an involuntary holiday.”

Recently Joakim sold his AC/DC pinball machine to make some space at home. He’s an avid player, even entering the Swedish national championship a couple of times. “But I never got higher than 112th,” he says. “I like pinball because it takes my mind off everything.”

It’s a surprise there’s never been a Sabaton pinball machine, though naturally Joakim has thought about it. “I have some notes and ideas of what kind of things could be done,” he says. “You could have tanks, submarines, different gadgets.”

If anyone can turn a few sketches of a pinball machine into reality, it’s Pär Sündström. While Joakim writes Sabaton’s music, and both work on the lyrics and concepts, it’s Pär who largely steers the business side of things, bringing the more outlandish ideas other bands wouldn’t have – a desk-sized mouse mat! A festival! A YouTube History Channel! – to life. 

This clear division of labour was a groove they settled into years ago. Yet Pär took pains to hide it early on, to the point where he set up a separate email account under a different name to deal with band business. 

“I was trying to present myself as a simple rock’n’roll guy, hiding the part of me that took care of this other stuff,” he says. “But I feel like I don’t need to hide that I’m thinking about management or economic stuff anymore. What good does it do hiding? It doesn’t hurt the fans, and it doesn’t benefit me.”

The bassist admits he lives and breathes the band 24/7. “Sabaton is such a big portion of my identity,” he says. “It’s how it turns my head emotionally. If it goes well for Sabaton, I feel good. I don’t need any other hobby.”

It was stressful during lockdown, he says, having to cancel and reschedule tours (March’s UK and European tour was a recent casualty, lingering uncertainty forcing
the band to postpone the dates). And now, with his business partner Tomas gone, much of the responsibility for running the operation falls on his shoulders alone. 

“Going to the office and clearing out everything that was his was something I never asked for,” he says, sadly. “That was tough. I collected the unfinished paperwork and spread it out on his desk. It’s like, ‘How do I do this without you?’”

But he knows he’ll get through it, not least because of the partnership that’s central to Sabaton. “Even our parents are super-tight with each other,” says Pär. “They have the same kind of background: you work hard, you don’t rely on other people, you get your shit together if something needs done. And so we both have that mentality in us too.”

It’s a mentality that hasn’t just got Sabaton this far, it’s turned these tank-loving Swedes into one of modern metal’s most unlikely success stories. There have been obstacles, sure, and there will be more obstacles to come, but Sabaton will roll on over them, relentless and unstoppable. 

The War To End All Wars is out now via Napalm

Metal Hammer line break

Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.