Interviewing Johan Hegg, Amon Amarth’s frontman, is a little like chatting with an old friend. After a solid handshake that threatens to break a few of your servant’s metacarpi and a comment on the weather (“The temperatures are positive here, it’s a nice change compared to the -25°C we have in Sweden at the moment!”), the man settles with formidable ease in a small room at the Swedish Institute, in Paris, to answer our questions with disarming kindness and good humor. And when he points out that he remembers yours truly, whom he’s only briefly met the month before during a signing session on a luxury cruise boat, 6,000 miles from the coast of France, I can’t help thinking that I’m dealing with the sweetest metalhead on the planet.

This interview took place only a few minutes after an exclusive listening session of Amon Amarth’s new album, Surtur Rising. Johan tells us all about the history of this new baby, the metal cruise of the century, the band’s success in the US, and the sad fate of his famous drinking horn.

« We write fairly accessibly death metal, with lots of heavy metal influences. That kind of appeals to people. And there’s the fact that we always try to put on a good live show, no matter what. I think it’s almost as important as writing great albums. »

Radio Metal : First of all, because I was there, I have to ask this question: did you enjoy your experience on board during the 70,000 Tons Of Metal festival ?

Johan Hegg (vocals) : Yeah, I did! I think we all did, it was a lot of fun. I thought it was a really cool atmosphere. All the bands and the fans hanging out together… It was fantastic to see. I must admit that I was a bit skeptical about the whole thing. I thought it would be chaos and mayhem, but it was very laid back, everything worked nicely. We really enjoyed it.

Did you have the opportunity to mingle with your fans during these four days ?

Oh yeah, all the time! Basically, I didn’t have the opportunity not to ! (laughs) I mean, that’s the way it is on a boat. We’ve done cruises like this between Sweden and Finland – obviously, that was smaller. But if you don’t want to hang out in your cabin all the time, you’re gonna run into fans. But that’s cool. People were really cool and nice. I think I met one guy who was super drunk and being obnoxious, but I just told him off and that was that ! Otherwise, everything was really cool.

What happened to your drinking horn ? You didn’t have it with you on stage during the festival. I hope it didn’t fall overboard or something !

(laughs) No, it’s busted, I can’t use it anymore. I’m in the process of getting a new one, but apparently it’s taking longer than I thought. I’m working on it !

The number of Amon Amarth T-shirts I saw on this cruise was very impressive, and so was the number of people who showed up for your meet-and-greet. Amon Amarth literally took over this cruise ! Were you expecting that when you signed up for the festival ?

It’s hard to know. There were so many great bands on that boat. It was, what, 42 bands playing ? But I think it was even more fascinating when you consider we weren’t selling any merchandising on that boat! Everybody brought their own shirts, which is fantastic ! It was really cool to see how many people came to the shows. They made those shows extra special for us, because without the fans, it’s not fun ! (laughs)

I even saw a couple of musicians from other bands with Amon Amarth T-shirts. I thought that was crazy !

Yeah, it’s kinda fun !

So what’s the secret ? What is it about Viking death metal that attracts people so much ?

I have no clue at all ! (laughs) I think it’s not even the Viking part. We write fairly accessibly death metal, with lots of heavy metal influences. That kind of appeals to people. And there’s the fact that we always try to put on a good live show, no matter what. I think it’s almost as important as writing great albums. And also to have a connection with the fans, which we always try to have. For us, this is no big deal, because we’ve always done stuff like this. A couple of years back, when we did the US tour, we had a signing session before every show. Just out the doors, for like half an hour, for the first people who came there. They could have their stuff signed and they didn’t have to wait afterwards. We had a meet-and-greet every night. It’s no big deal for us, and the fans enjoy it. Obviously it’s great to meet the fans, that’s not what I mean when I say it’s no big deal. It just wasn’t a big effort for us to do that. We always try to do something extra for the fans, to spare a few minutes, take a picture and talk to them. Obviously we can’t be there for everyone all the time, but we try to, anyway. I think that kind of contributed to our popularity.

(About his drinking horn) « It’s busted, I can’t use it anymore. I’m in the process of getting a new one, but apparently it’s taking longer than I thought. I’m working on it ! »

In April, you’ll embark on an extensive tour in the US. You just mentioned that you had meet-and-greets before every show you gave there – so this is a big market for you ? What kind of welcome does the American audience give you ?

It’s been really good, actually. We’ve toured there since 2001, but I don’t think it was until maybe 2005 or 2006 that we had a breakthrough. We opened for Children Of Bodom and Trivium in the US. It was six weeks where we had to drive ourselves in a van around the country, but it was still worth it : great shows every night, and a great response from the audience. Since then, it’s been going really well for us in the US. We’ve done some really good tours over there. I mean, it’s a really big country – and it’s so diverse, when you compare it to Europe. Population-wise, I think there’s more people living in Europe than in North America, but on like less than half the space! It’s a huge place to cover, and obviously different places will have different attitudes towards the band. But in general, it’s going really well. We’re able to make a full tour as headliners over there now, so it’s really cool.

Speaking of the US tour, I read on your MySpace that there won’t be any support band and that you’ll be playing two sets each night – and one of them will feature Surtur Rising in its entirety. It sounds a little insane, but also completely brilliant ! How did you come up with this idea ?

Yeah, it’s completely insane ! We were looking at different possible support acts and we had a couple of ideas that fell through. We were like: “This is not gonna work…”, so we discussed what we could do about the whole situation. And we just thought: “Why not do it ourselves ?” (laughs) Then we came up with this plan to do two sets. So basically, we’re gonna be our own opening act, play the full album and then come back and do another 90-minute set.

So you’ll be playing, what – two and a half hours every night ?

Yeah, roughly two hours and fifteen minutes.

Are you going to survive till the end of the tour ?!

I have no idea ! (laughs) We’ll see ! It’s gonna be difficult, it’s definitely a challenge for us. We’ve never done anything quite like it. Obviously there were the Bloodshed Over Bochum shows, where we played four different albums, one for each night, and then a best of set. But the best of set was about an hour – and now we’re gonna do a full 90 minutes. A half hour might not sound like much, but it’s actually kinda rough. In one way, it’s gonna be a lot more stressful for us. But in another way, I think it’s gonna be a bit more relaxed, because there’s gonna be less people that you have to take into consideration on the tour. In that aspect, it’s gonna be less stressful for us. It will be interesting to see how it works !

I read an interview where you said that the American audience was a bit crazy and would always kind of give crap to the opening act. I guess this is not going to happen this time !

I hope not ! (laughs) They don’t always do that. It’s just that they can be very rough on opening acts. I’ve seen that happen to quite a few bands, actually. Fortunately, we’ve never been on the receiving end of that. But yeah, they can be rough : if they don’t like a band, they’ll show it.

« [Surtur] is a very interesting character. […] He was there when the universe was created and he’s gonna be there when the universe is destroyed. In that aspect, he’s a very powerful being. A lot of people see him as an evil being, because he goes to war against the gods. But I don’t particularly perceive him as such. I mean, he’s just being who he is. « 

This new album is called Surtur Rising. For those of us who are not familiar with Norse mythology, would you explain who Surtur is, and why you chose to focus on him this time ?

What ? There are people who are not familiar with Norse mythology ?! Basically, the reason we chose to focus on him kind of explains who he is. He’s a very interesting character. He’s one of the oldest characters in the Norse mythology : he was there when the universe was created and he’s gonna be there when the universe is destroyed. In that aspect, he’s a very powerful being. A lot of people see him as an evil being, because he goes to war against the gods. But I don’t particularly perceive him as such. I mean, he’s just being who he is. He has the power of creation and destruction within him, and at the end of the world, he’s there to just burn everything. To cleanse everything, if you will, before the world can be reborn. So he just has a job to do, and he does it ; no questions asked, that’s his job. The thing that’s portrayed in the lyrics is interesting in quite a few different ways. We chose to do two songs about the same story, really. It’s the final fight between Surtur and Frej. The first song, “Destroyer Of The Universe”, is that fight told from Surtur’s point of view, so it’s a very violent and aggressive song. The other song, “Last Stand Of Frej”, is told from Frej’s point of view, which is more melancholic and epic. The reason for that is that the fury Surtur has, with the flames and everything, is very violent, of course. He needs a more violent song. But Frej is going to face Surtur, and he knows he’s gonna die, but he does it anyway. It’s kind of: “All right, this is it, but I’ll make my stand anyway”. I like the idea of those mirror images, and the emotions that go through both songs.

When I listened to the songs you put on Facebook, and of course when I heard the whole album just a few minutes ago, I couldn’t help thinking that Surtur Rising is the perfect sequel to Twilight Of The Thunder God. Everything is bigger, heavier and more bombastic, but it’s still in the same vein. Is that what you had in mind when you started the writing process ? Take the winning formula that was Twilight Of The Thunder God and make it even better ?

In a way, I guess that’s kind of what we were discussing. We were very happy with the production on Twilight Of The Thunder God, and I still think it’s a great production. But after a while, when you get into it a bit, and you start listening to the older stuff, you realize that maybe it went too much towards a classic heavy metal production. Maybe it drifted a bit too far away from where we come from as a band. So before we even started writing this album, we had a meeting with Jens [Bogren], our producer, and we said: “We’d like the next album to sound a bit more aggressive, angrier, rawer, more like back to old school.” But we also wanted to build on what we created with Jens. Over the last two albums, we reached a production level that was very high quality. It was very rich and full and bombastic, and we wanted to keep those elements, but more aggressive. Taking a step back in the wrong expression, but we definitely made a left-hand turn. We didn’t go softer or more melodic, we went a bit harder. But I think it was important for us, we really wanted to do that. I think that also spilled into our creative process when we wrote the songs. If you listen to the songs on this one, there are more aggressive songs than ever before. It’s a more diverse album in that way. On this album we have the fastest and most aggressive song we’ve ever written, in “A Beast Am I”. We definitely had an idea of what we wanted the album to sound like, production-wise. That’s what we strived for from the beginning. But as I said, because of the creative process being influenced by those moods and those thoughts, maybe it became even more brutal and rich. Jens also played a big part in it : he’s a great producer and he got us what we asked for. He was very open-minded.

You anticipated my next question ! I was going to ask you what Jens brought to this album, in your opinion.

I usually say that Jens doesn’t demand much, just perfection ! (laughs) That’s not much, just one thing ! I mean, he’s very meticulous, he’s very thorough with everything he does. When it comes to the sound and the recordings, it has to be more or less perfect. So that’s what he does. But on top of that, he brings ideas on how to perfect the arrangements of the songs, and how to really make the most of each song. For the first time, we had him come to the rehearsal place a couple of time, to listen to what we had and to come up with ideas on what we should do about the songs even before we went in the studio. He had very good ideas then, and he came up with new ones in the studio. He’s added certain elements in there, like the strings sections and stuff like that. He added some melodies to the songs to spice it up. He’s really good at that. He has a very important part in the production, definitely.

Once again, the artwork for Surtur Rising is very impressive, striking and Viking-y. You’ve been working with the same artist, Tom Thiel, for years now. How does it work ? Do you simply give him the album title and the lyrics and ask him to create something relevant out of it, or do you give him precise hints as to what you want to see on the cover ?

We do give him the album title and the lyrics, but we also give him a rough idea of what we want. But we can’t tell him: “This is what you must do”, so obviously he does it the way he perceives it. If he has an idea he wants to present to us, of course he can. We get a rough sketch, we give him some feedback, and then he’ll do another rough sketch. Then he pretty much makes a complete cover, and he sends it to us. If there’s anything we need to change at that point, he can still do it. It very much about going back and forth and discussing different things. It’s always our ideas that we work with. But Tom is a great artist.

That’s it for me, thank you ! I’ll leave you the last word, if you want to add something.

We’re coming to Paris in May – really looking forward to that one. It’s been a while since we played here in France, so it’ll be nice. For those who can’t make it to Paris, hopefully we’ll have a few more shows going other places in France this fall.

Interview conducted in February 2011 in Paris.

Amon Amarth’s website : amonamarth.com

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