HammerFall (2005)

HammerFall:How Swede It Is


Something a little different. Lucas Aykroyd of Vancouver, Canada talks to Sweden's HammerFall. Lucas recently interviewed HammerFall guitarist Oscar Dronjak for a Georgia Straight preview of the band's August 25 concert in Vancouver. There was a ton of left over material, so Lucas kindly sent in the full interview for fans to check out.

HammerFall jumpstarted the European power metal revival with their 1997 release, Glory to the Brave. Since then, they've released four more studio albums (Legacy Of Kings, Renegade, Crimson Thunder, and 2005's Chapter V: Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken). Their hook-laden sound, melding elements of Judas Priest, Europe, and Accept, has resulted in worldwide sales of more than 1 million albums. Interviewer Lucas Aykroyd caught up with guitarist and songwriting mastermind Oscar Dronjak in early August 2005, just after the start of the quintet's Canadian tour.

How did you hook up with fellow power metal artists Edguy for this leg?

Edguy are old friends of ours. We toured together in '99 in Europe. If you play a similar style of music, you tend to end up at the same festivals. So we kept in touch over the years. Most importantly, we have the same booking agency in Europe. When we started looking into options for coming over to North America and doing our own tour, then we asked if Edguy wanted to come with us, because we always said that if we wanted to do a headlining tour, we probably should do it with another band that has some name recognition, too. Give people more for their money, I guess.

What's your main goal for the tour?
Have fun. That's the only thing we can really be sure of. We'll have fun. This is the second show on the tour so far. It's really hard to know what to expect. I really don't know what we're going to expect from the USA. From Canada even less, actually, because we've never been here before. It started out really, really good yesterday. It looks very promising for tonight, too. My hopes are really high, but I keep my expectations low so I won't be disappointed.

What do you think of when you hear the word "Canada"?
Hockey, of course. The [National Hockey League's Toronto] Maple Leafs. Moose.

So will you get your singer, Joacim Cans, to give a shout-out to the fans of the Vancouver Canucks? They've got a Swedish captain with Markus Naslund.
I think we can arrange that. It would be really cool if he said something about that. We were in Toronto yesterday, and Toronto is a classic Swedish team as well with Borje Salming and Mats Sundin. It feels really cool to be in these cities where people are as crazy about hockey as you are yourself.

You were previously supposed to play the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver with Dio on November 6, 2002. What happened?
[laughs] I have absolutely no idea. Dio didn't play there at all, did he?

Nope. And then I understand your equipment didn't arrive in time for you to play the next night in Seattle either.
Right. I have no idea what happened with the Vancouver gig. We were just the support act on that tour. We weren't informed of anything at all. During the tour, we weren't going anywhere. We didn't cancel any shows more than that. With the Seattle thing, we couldn't play, and that's the only thing I remember. I didn't remember anything about a Vancouver gig. I'm sorry I couldn't give you a better answer!

Chapter V: Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken is by far the longest album title HammerFall's used. What's the story behind that?
It comes from a lot of bad feelings, a lot of jealousy aimed toward HammerFall from people who supported us in the beginning. The great mass of fans, of course, they love the albums, because otherwise we would not be here. Most of the people like it. But there are always a vocal minority who go on the air and then blast everything they hear. Those were the people who were with us in the beginning when HammerFall came out with Glory to the Brave, and they thought it was cool because nobody else was doing this at that time. Eventually more and more bands started doing what we were doing, pretty much, and we got more and more recognition and fans all over the world. Not everyone liked that. Now, I don't really care. If you like the music, fine. If you don't, that's fine too. I'm not doing this to please anybody but myself. But the album title is a statement of where the band is right now. There were some things we had to go through. Certain people on the Internet started complaining, saying: "HammerFall is only in it for the money and they're not true to what they're doing. They don't like the music. They're just doing this to make a quick buck." Having fought for what I believed in for so many years before anything ever happened with the band, I took great offense to that. What happens now, and this is what I take such great offense to, is that people sort of conveniently forget about all these hard years we put in. There were ups and downs during those years, but we never stopped believing in what we wanted to. We never stopped playing the music we loved. But then in 1999 or 2000, people started claimed: "HammerFall only does this for the money." I really took offense to that. Then there was an incident that really brought matters to a head. On August 11, 2002, actually, exactly this date three years ago, when Joacim was assaulted in a bar in our hometown. It came out that the only reason for this was that the guy didn't like HammerFall's music. That's when I said: "Enough is enough. This should not happen anywhere, and especially, absolutely not for this reason." So instead of just ignoring all the badmouthing, we decided to respond to the critics with this. For me, the album title represents HammerFall now. No matter what anyone says or does to us or what happens, we're always going to be unbent, unbowed, and unbroken.

You also had about $30,000 stolen by a member of your entourage after your previous American tour in 2002.
Yeah, that was another BS thing that happened. But that's all in the past now. It was very unfortunate and very annoying. But what are you going to do? The guy just disappeared with all the money and there was nothing we could do about it.

How did you react earlier this year when you found out Chapter V had debuted at number four, right behind the new Judas Priest album, on the Swedish charts?
I was a little bit disappointed, actually, because I thought we would beat them in the first week. In the long run, we certainly did, because our album stayed in the Top Ten for four or five weeks, which has never happened to us before, and it certainly didn't happen to Judas Priest this time. But this is only because I know Sweden, and I know what kind of success we have achieved there. If we had ended up one position behind Judas Priest in any other country, I would have been ecstatic. But being from Sweden, we had high hopes for it. Those were actually met, anyway. The position on the chart is just a number. It's the actual number of albums, the number of fans that like your music that really matters. There's nothing to complain about, if you know what I mean.

Is it weird for you to be competing with a band you grew up idolizing?
Of course it is. I would never look at it in terms of "we're competing with them," even if it might sound like that. They are heroes of mine, and I really love them. For me they're always going to be number one.

Coming from Gothenburg, where would you say HammerFall fits into the so-called "Gothenburg sound"?
Not at all, actually. Not for me, anyway. The Gothenburg sound, for me, is what In Flames and Dark Tranquillity originated once. And we don't really have anything to do with that sound-wise. For me, we're just a different thing from that.

Even though Jesper Stromblad of In Flames did a lot of work with HammerFall in the early days?
Jesper has been a friend of mine for 15 years now. He was in the first installation of HammerFall. He was a member. So it was only natural that he continued working on the albums. But there's such a big difference between our musical styles, between In Flames and HammerFall, that I don't think we really have any place in the Gothenburg sound.

There's an incredible amount of melody, of sing-along quality in HammerFall's music. Where does that influence come from?
Partly Judas Priest, for one. When HammerFall started out in 1993, all we tried to do was create the kind of music we'd like to buy or listen to ourselves at concerts. In essence, we tried to create the ultimate heavy metal band, according to what we think and not what anybody else thinks. It would be stupid to listen to other people when you play metal. You should just do what feels right for you. The melodies themselves come from the music that we listened to. The minute I started listening to heavy metal, when I was around ten, I never looked back. I don't have a specific moment when I thought: "This is the music for me." It became clear for me, without me even thinking about it, that heavy metal is what I love. Then I started looking into other bands that I liked. So both Joacim and I have two very extensive 80's heavy metal collections on vinyl, because we were into that very much and still are to a certain extent. That's where the influences come from, everything we listened to in the 80's, which was melodic, most of the stuff.

Just about every well-known band from Sweden has that melodic touch, whether it's ABBA, Roxette or Yngwie Malmsteen.
You're absolutely right. I just don't have a good answer as to why. I think maybe ABBA is to blame a little bit for this, because they were the melody masters, in my opinion. Nobody could write melodies the way they did. I think they set the tone for a lot of the following acts. I'm not influenced by ABBA. I didn't listen to ABBA at all in the 80's or 90's. But in the last couple of years, I started to appreciate the band. I realized what incredible songwriters Benny and Bjorn were. It's unbelievable how they could put together so many melodies and great songs 30 years ago. I have nothing but respect for them. I think they might have had something to do with it. In Sweden, no matter whether you like ABBA or not, you hear their music right from youth. It's just all around.

Your European stage sets include pyrotechnics, castles with drawbridges, giant icebergs, and things like that. How much of that will North American fans get to see?
They'll get to see some icebergs, but only on our backdrop. We have no pyro because it would be too expensive to bring it over here and use it, in terms of the permits. Actually, what the people will get on this tour is just a heavy metal band and 100% energy on stage, with a backdrop. That's about it. We have two sidedrops, too. But otherwise, there isn't anything going on besides us and the music, which I like. I mean this is a big difference from what we normally do. We have a much greater connection with the audience now, because they're much closer.

Did you try to get a work permit for Hector, your warrior mascot?
[laughs] No, we never tried. Actually, Hector isn't really around much anymore. We haven't used him for this whole tour. It's partly because we decided we didn't want to use him, and also because, he's got this breastplate, which is sort of the main element in the costume. But no one has seen it since February 25, 2003, when we played in Oslo. It's probably hanging on somebody's wall somewhere.

In the past, you've been known to wear a long cape on stage. Have you ever had any accidents involving the cape?
I had a really close call once. But it wasn't on stage. We were doing an autograph session for the Renegade album in Gothenburg, and we were driving motorcycles to the record store. It was 100 meters down the street. But we were driving really slowly, and I was in front of [drummer] Anders Johansson, luckily, and he saw my cape had gotten stuck in the wheel. Nothing really happened. He shouted: "Stop, stop!" If I hadn't stopped, it would have probably yanked me backwards off the bike. It was fastened in a way that it would have pulled me with it before it broke. That was really close. Nothing happened except that the cape got a bit dirty. I was really worried after that, because I know from riding a motorcycle what could have happened if we were going faster. But apart from that, no incidents.

What is your explanation for why North Americans are mostly less open to metal music about knights, honor and glory than Europeans are?
I think one of the reasons is that because you had such a major backlash against the melodic music of the 80's, and that's still going strong. It seems like aggressive, attitude-based music is more incorporated with the society over here. That's at least one of the explanations.

Do you ever feel like, "Man, if we'd released Renegade or Crimson Thunder back in the mid-80's, we'd be playing Madison Square Garden now"?
[laughs] No, because we could not have put out those albums in 1983 or 1984, even if we'd been old enough at that time. Our music is so much a product of what we experienced during the 80's that we would never have been able to do that.

AC/DC's Angus Young once said, "The truth is that we've made the same album over and over 14 times!" What do you say to people who claim HammerFall keeps making the same album?
I would say they have no idea what they're talking about. Get into the albums, and you'll realize there is a big difference between them. We're following a path toward somewhere, I don't know where exactly. But we are not going to change our style. I know it's popular to do that in pop music. You go one way with this album, another way with the next. But that's not what heavy metal is about. Heavy metal is such a broad genre for us that I think we still have a lot of stuff within it to explore, and a lot of songs inside us that need to come out. I can admit that the first three albums were similar-sounding in a lot of ways, but also, I think we progressed with each one. But with the two latest ones, Crimson Thunder and Chapter V, I think what we learned with Crimson Thunder is how to put together a complete album instead of just writing ten songs and recording them. Now we write the songs with the album in mind. That gives the album a lot more diversity and variety, which I don't think the first three albums possessed to the same extent.

Can you elaborate on that?
We're just evolving, developing our sound bit by bit. Some artists go by leaps and bounds, but then, they have nowhere to go after that. We're just going in a certain direction, wherever that is. I guess we'll find out on the next album. We work really hard on not repeating ourselves. Of course, we're going to have the same style of songs here and there, but there's not one song that's similar to another one when it comes to the melodies and riffs. The structure may be similar, but what can you do? Sometimes you deviate from it a bit, but it's mostly verse, pre-chorus, and chorus. That's the way you write a good song, in my opinion. Of course, you need variety as well, and that's why we don't use that structure on all the songs. Some of the songs work better that way, but in other cases it's better not to have the chorus after the first pre-chorus or whatever. It's just a matter of what you feel when you write the song.

Is it safe to say HammerFall will never make an all-acoustic album, an album about saving the rainforest, or an album with a guest appearance by a rapper?
I can safely say "it's not very likely" to any of those. The first one might happen [acoustic], and that would be a bonus thing if it was 100% acoustic. The other two I can say with authority that this is never going to happen.

Tell me the craziest HammerFall road story of all time.
The one that immediately comes to mind when I hear this question is something that happened during the Death tour in 1998. We had a different drummer back then, and his name was Patrik Rafling. We pulled a Spinal Tap, actually! We left him at a gas station without realizing it. He was not very happy. I think it was in New Jersey, and we were going to Cleveland or Columbus. What happened was, half of the bus was asleep already, and half of the bus was out eating. So Patrik went to the bus and told the driver: "I'm going to get a Snickers," or something like that, "and then I'm going to bed." And nobody bothered to check for him. But he was still inside the gas station, buying his Snickers, when the bus took off. And Patrik being Patrik, he had no cell phone, no phone number to anyone. Luckily, he had some money. He called his mother in Sweden, who in turn called Nuclear Blast in Germany, who called Nuclear Blast America. When we woke up six hours later, there was about 100 messages on the cell phone from the label rep. Another label rep in New Jersey, luckily there was somebody there, took him to the airport and put him on the plane to Columbus, and so we picked him up there. It was also lucky that we had a day off the next day. We didn't miss a show.

And now Anders Johansson is a solid, permanent member of your band.
Absolutely. I don't think we could live without him anymore. The thing is, Patrik was in the band for two years. Anders has now been in the band for six years: three times as long! But he's still regarded as the new drummer sometimes. What are you going to do? With Anders, he didn't want to tour as much when his kids were really young. So we tried to find a middle ground. Now his kids are 8 and 10 or something like that, so pretty soon they're not going to want to have him around anyway! [laughs] So I think that's not a problem for him anymore. As for Joacim, he's got a little daughter about two years old.

What's one of your favorite memories relating to HammerFall fans?
Well, one of the coolest things I have experienced was when we were in Sao Paolo, Brazil. It was just HammerFall playing, no other bands. Everybody in the venue paid to see us. For us, that made it very special, because we knew it was 100% HammerFall fans there. There was a big curtain in front of the stage, and when the show started, the curtain was lifted and there we were. Before that, I heard there were about 3,000 people in the venue already, and this was about an hour before we started the show. So I took my video camera and Anders and I walked out in front of the curtain, and people just went crazy. I've never heard anything as loud as that. It was unbelievable. It gave me goosebumps. We stood there for about a minute with my camera panning back and forth.

What's the last CD you listened to?
The last album I listened to was Stormwitch, one of my absolute favorite bands. It was their second album, Tales of Terror, from 1985.

You've recorded with personal heroes like Udo Dirkschneider of Accept and Kai Hansen of Helloween. Who else is left on your list of people you'd like to record with?
That's a really long list. If I'm looking at what's feasible, so to speak, it would be having the guitarist from Accept, Wolf Hoffmann, do a solo on our next album. He's my guitar hero. I owe him so much when it comes to musical inspiration, it's ridiculous. He's also a very nice guy. We've met him a lot of times now, and he's almost like a friend. At least every time we see him, we give him a hug, and talk a little bit. He's really nice. That's something I'd love to do. Having someone like Rob Halford do something on the album would be the most awesome experience ever. But I don't think that's going to happen.

The last time you saw Accept, did you try to talk them into making their current reunion a permanent one?
No, I didn't bother with that, because I knew this Accept reunion was just for the festivals this summer. I talked to Udo a lot about this, and he said: "I know Wolf might want to continue with this, and he feels there are certain things we could still do." But Udo said in an interview that as far as he's concerned it's not going to happen, because he has his U.D.O. band. That's where he'll put all his energy after the current reunion is over. Still, I saw them at Wacken, and it was an awesome experience on every level.

Where would you reside if you couldn't live in Sweden?
I would probably move around a bit and find out where I felt at home, where I could root myself, so to speak. I don't really know. I think it would be a place where you have seasons, not just a rainy spring, summer, fall, and winter. [laughs] Sometimes that's what we have where I live in Gothenburg. But apart from that, I don't know. Somewhere that I spoke the language would be really important as well.

What would you do if you weren't playing metal for a living.
Realistically, I would be a teacher, because that's where I was headed before HammerFall started happening. But if I could fantasize, I have two dreams: being a paleontologist or working at a zoo with animals.

Give me your concept of a perfect day.
Well, it doesn't really matter what time I get up as long as I feel rested, because if not, the day's going to be shot to hell after that. Let's say I wake up around 8. I lie around in bed for a little while with my girlfriend, which I don't have right now, but this is a perfect day, so in the perfect world I have one! [laughs] We would enjoy each other for a little while before getting up, and then, because the sun would be shining, we'd go have breakfast in the park, and after that, I'd go home and write a song I was really, really happy with. Then I'd have a few beers and go see the monster lineup of the millennium, which would feature Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Accept, Motley Crue, Alice Cooper, and KISS on the same bill. That would be a really long set, but who cares! [laughs]

What message would you like to give to all the people out there who aren't sure whether they should attend a HammerFall show or not?
I would tell them that if you have any interest in metal and you're open-minded when it comes to melodies, you should not miss this HammerFall/Edguy show. If you do, you'll regret it for the rest of your life. It's never going to happen again on this level. Even if we come back someday with a bigger show, this is something you should not miss. It's going to be a heavy metal party the whole night and something you will never forget. I can guarantee a really good time if you like heavy metal, that's for sure.