The Lightning that Sparks a Blaze - Amon Amarth

Amon Amarth are pure-bred Norse metal warriors that have conquered the world with their hard-driving, destructive and infectious Viking death metal. With their metal quest eying not only their homeland but the Great Southern Land, vocalist Johan Hegg talks to Metal as Fuck.

Mammoth longboats set sail for the lands afar; destruction rains down from the gangplank as Norse warriors swarm across the northernmost plains, hacking at their enemies and razing the towns in an orgy of victorious wrath. Scenes like these are the inspiration behind the hugely successful Swedish death metal outfit, Amon Amarth. Originally billed as a Viking metal band, they were most recently on tour with thrash metallers Evile who, as you may know, lost their bassist, Mike Alexander, while on the tour, to a freak illness. Johan Hegg, the massive, barbarian-like vocalist of the group paid his respects as I offered my condolences.

“I really don’t know what to say,” he replies, mournfully. “Its kind of hard to wrap your head around. It’s really sad when stuff like that happens. I feel really sorry for his family of course. We all do. It's so hard to describe,” he says with a thoughtful pause. “Did this really happen?”

Amon Amarth has a huge following around the world – and their fans are as equally dedicated to their flesh-tearing, Norse-themed, muscular yet still supremely melodic sound, traveling all over the world to attend their shows. In Australia, fans are being spoiled – in a rare move for an international metal act, Johan and the boys are touring yet again within the space of twelve months. Why?

“Because we love it there,” he cheerfully replies. “We really enjoy Australia and we wanted to go back with the new album, of course. That’s the main reason why we tried so hard to work towards going back. It’s as simple as that. We had a good time.”  

Johan even loves the Australian metal scene, as he jokingly tells us.

“Oh yeah, there’s this really cool band called ABCD, they were fucking awesome,” he laughs. “But seriously, when it comes to Australia, AC/DC was one of the first bands I ever started listening to of course, but I’m also into Destroyer 666 and Airbourne. I don’t know much, but I do know there’s a lot of metalheads in Australia, and that’s a good start.”

Although Australia could be described as the exact opposite of the Scandinavian tundras, there is a fascination with their Viking themes. The band originally formed in 1988 as Scum with some friends, playing grindcore. They broke up in 1991 and reformed a year later with some new members, just as Johan entered the mix.

“Well, after I joined we had gotten some new members and it completely changed the band,” he recounts. We had a few ideas of where we wanted to go musically and that kind of stuff. We sort of realized that it was almost like a new band; a fresh start.

“We never set out with a goal to do Viking themed lyrics or songs, its something we grew into the first couple of years. It kind of stuck to us. The lyrical theme really fit the music well. It was an interest of mine as well as the other guys in the band as well. We also felt it was something that we could stand for.”

Despite having this fervour for one’s birthright, the band has never tackled an all-Swedish or all-Norse language album, although they have produced a version of one of their songs, Victorious March, performed entirely in German. As principal lyricist for the band, Johan doesn’t think its something that he’ll attempt.

“We have had parts that were in Swedish,” Hegg recalls, “and we did do [that] track that was a salute to our German fans, but as for writing in Swedish, I’ve never thought about it. I’ve never really felt comfortable with it either. I’m not ruling it out, but spontaneously, I don’t think I’ll do that.”

The themes stemmed from a curiosity for the Norse mythology and their common heritage, as Hegg explains.

“We are all Scandinavians, so we all have that ancestry of course. But the main part of it is the interest in the mythology and the history. For me, it’s not a religious belief or anything. It’s more a way of thinking and a view on what it is to be human that kind of appeals to me. It’s more like a philosophy, if you want. It inspires me to be who I am.”

Curiously, the band, while acting larger than life, channelling the power of the Thunder God through their instruments, don’t think they do justice to them – or rather claimed that in an interview done several years ago saying they were “bad musicians.” Johan explains the rush of modesty that washed over them was just a misunderstanding.

He laughs before answering. “I didn’t say we were bad musicians, we just aren’t super technical musicians. I mean there are guitar players technically better than Oli [Mikkonen] and Johan [Soderberg] but, on the other hand are really good at writing songs. Other technically skilled guitarists can play faster than the speed of light like their lives depended on it, but our talents lie in not being the most technically skilled in our instruments but writing songs and riffs and stuff like that.”

Interestingly enough, and much to the chagrin of some, Sweden has become a veritable breeding ground for premier heavy metal acts; some of the hugest and most popular acts in heavy metal history have cut their teeth in Sweden and have garnered international success – and it's thanks, in part, to programs provided by the state, explains Johan.

“In the past twenty years, Sweden has had a lot of great bands coming out of it. We have bands from the Stockholm scene such as Entombed, Dismember, Unleashed and so on. Then growing up we had the Gothenburg scene with At the Gates starting up and Dark Tranquillity, In Flames; you know, great acts like that. Sweden has had a great environment for young kids to start bands.”

“When we started out we were part of a youth organisation that was available everywhere in Sweden; you can borrow equipment, take guitar lessons and do stuff like that for free. You can rent a rehearsal room for very cheap, record there, all that sort of stuff. That gives a band a lot of experience, a lot of opportunity that kids in other countries might not have. I think we’re very fortunate to have grown up in Sweden. The system is much the same in all of the Scandinavian countries and that’s the reason why so many bands are able to get out and get signed to labels and play abroad.

“I think there’s definitely something happening in Sweden; they’re willing to experiment and come up with new ideas. I think that’s important. I think some of the most influential bands [for us] in the past twenty years have come out of Sweden, in terms of metal.”

In the United States as a contrast, heavy metal has become intensely “re-branded” as video games and cartoons such as Brutal Legend and Metalocalypse have entered onto the scene. Johan thinks it’s a “good thing if it spreads metal music.”

“It’s a beneficial thing for everyone, I think. Anything that brings more people into the scene is good. It doesn’t matter what you’re into because it [opens up] the possibility for bands to go to Australia, for instance.

"But then there’s the danger of over-exploitation, a case of money becoming more important than the substance. I mean, money is important; this is our living now. We need to make money to pay the bills; we don’t want to become millionaires or anything. We just need enough to keep going, to do keep on doing what we love to do. 

“We don’t want to change our music just to make more money, that’s not our thing. The artistic thing comes first; we have to write music that we love and we want to perform.”

Performing is their mainstay as the band regularly tours Europe and the United States as well as Asia. Like many bands, the thrill of playing music on stage outweighs the sometimes grueling touring schedules and distances.

“Like any tight knit group we do have our falling out from time to time, but the guys and I get on pretty well. I mean, playing the shows is great but the touring is pretty brutal – it can get pretty rough.” He says.

“I think the worst part about touring is being away from our families; I mean you can call and you can talk on the internet, but when you’re half-way around the world, it’s difficult. Especially for the guys in the band who have kids. I mean, we’re touring a lot. But we make up for it when we get home because this is our living now; it’s our job. Over this past year we’ve had over 200 shows.”

Even with the colossal amount of touring, that’s the band’s focus for the foreseeable future; more and more tours.

“Yeah, we’ve got more tours planned,” Hegg says. “Especially to support our new album [Twilight of the Thunder God]. One we’ve finished that we’re going to take a well deserved rest for a few months and maybe we’ll work on new material.”

“Well, that’s the plan, anyway,” he adds.

Here’s the question that I’m sure every Amon Amarth fan has been dying to ask Johan since the beginning; “Why do you like fire so much?”

“Well,” he says, chuckling, “we were doing the media for a small label in Singapore back in ’97, we thought fire was such a powerful element. It was like a metaphor for our music. Its very powerful, it’s violent but at the same time kind of beautiful and warm. 

“That’s the kind of element we want to portray in our music. That’s the image that kind of stuck with us for our entire career.”

Here’s hoping it never goes out.