INTERVIEW: Joakim Brodén (SABATON)
Prepare for battle as this July the purveyors of historic heavy metal Sabaton finally release a brand new opus in the form of their ninth studio album The Great War.
For nearly two decades, the heaving Swedish group have intertwined thematic warfare with heaving riffs and sparkling melodics, leaving festivals and venues alike burning in their sonic wake. But what could easily translate as a potent gimmick for some is a refreshing musical weapon when wielded by the Sabaton gents - and their signature version of snappy power metal has become equally as memorable for its historic motifs as it is for its roaring and catchy tunes that transport you to a diverse and daring battlefield.
No strangers to the worlds of warfare and heroics, 2019 finds Sabaton on the cusp of their 20th year in existence and the release of their ninth studio album - a triumph in itself in such a fickle industry. And before their upcoming album 'The Great War' erupts into the world this July, Tiana Speter grabbed some time with frontman and lyricist Joakim Brodén to chat history, twists of fate and the battles they've overcome to better themselves along the way. Interview below.
TIANA SPETER: Hello Joakim, how are you? Where am I speaking to you today, are you in Sweden?
JOAKIM BRODÉN: I'm very well! I am in Germany doing interviews, but you are my first victim of the day so - still fresh!
TIANA: Oh excellent! I'm gonna pounce while you're still fresh then, thank you for chatting, it is truly a massive time for Sabaton, and of course for the fans worldwide...not only are you guys creeping up on your 20th anniversary as a band, but you're also poised on the brink of the release of your ninth studio album 'The Great War' in July! But glancing back nearly two decades ago, did you ever dream you would reach such massive milestones as a musician?
JOAKIM: Well, where is the answer...no! No fucking idea! (laughs). I still remember sitting there drinking beer, listening to 'Keeper of the Seven Keys' by Helloween and Judas Priest's 'Painkiller' when I was a teenager. And I was talking about "yeah, maybe one day we can play Wacken!". Now we're headlining it!
TIANA: It's utterly incredible, you couldn't script that any better. And speaking of 'The Great War', we've obviously been gifted with a few sneak peeks with some of the singles already out and about...I've actually been spoilt very rotten and had a listen to the whole album and - it's truly mesmerising, full of power metal explosions but with elegant tinges and some bigger textures too. I've read you speak about emotional and challenging yet rewarding writing process that comes along with Sabaton - was the process a well-oiled machine this time round considering it's your ninth journey into album territory?
JOAKIM: Hmm, how should I say this....it's always a bitch to write an album because emotionally you really want every Sabaton song, every single one to be the best one we ever did. Intellectually, however, I realise that's impossible because: we're humans! Some songs are gonna be better than the others. And! Some of the songs that I didn't really think turned out that well might be someone else's favourite song. So, there's always a whole bunch of performance anxiety for us, and especially when we're comparing every song that's written, we're thinking: "s this good?". It's being compared to our greatest hits and everything that we've done before. So it's pretty easy to forget that the popular tracks or tracks that we liked that turned out good that we have in our catalogue that we're playing live...we're comparing this one album, or this one song against all of those together. It's getting harder and harder! I guess this goes for any musician in any band who has done more than three albums. From that point, the songwriting was pretty hard...but fun though! As we moved into the recording process, it was probably the smoothest recording ever done!
FIELDS OF VERDUN (SABATON)
TIANA: That's no small feat! And it's no secret you guys always cover very historical elements in your music, and this time you've honed in quite specifically on World War One...and I've decided that it should be taught in high schools, kids should be listening to 'The Great War' to spice up history classes potentially as an option...but what instigated the focus to this slightly narrower concept this time round?
JOAKIM: (laughs) Well, I think the seed for the idea at least was sown back in...2008 when were doing the research and doing 'The Art of War' album. We had two songs regarding World War One on that one, which would be 'The Price of a Mile' and 'Cliffs of Gallopoli'. At that point, of course, we were proving points that Sun Tzu was making in his text about military conflicts. But that's when we thought: "man, there's so much here!". And it was being, well....not forgotten, but compared to World War Two which is by most people's standards, or at least by media standards - a much "sexier" war (laughs). Because there's twenty World War Two movies for every World War One movie, or books, documentaries, video games and everything like that. It's further back in time, of course, but also it's not so clear-cut with who's the bad guy, and who's the good guy in this case.
TIANA: Actually now that you mention it, I'm literally listing all the movies I can in my head, and the ratio is pretty bang on!
JOAKIM: Trust me, we found that out the hard way when we were trying to do the research (laughs).
TIANA: Well, not only are you guys about to unveil the new album, but as I mentioned at the start, it's creeping up to your 20th year...and you'll also be hitting the road later in the year to tour 'The Great War' with the aptly titled 'The Great Tour'. And you mentioned earlier how some of these tracks may or may not turn out to be favourites for other people...but is there a particular track on the album you're especially keen to bust out live at these shows?
JOAKIM: Yeah, there are several, I have a good feeling about it! But, you know, having been there from the songwriting process to all of the recordings...I'm sort of the musical director in the band, so I'm there for every second of everything. Which means: I'm really tired of the album! (laughs) But, I have a good gut feeling about it. Usually the more we suffered during the making of the album, or writing it and the better gut feeling - the better it usually turns out. I'm really looking forward actually to 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom', the second track on the album because it's so basic it's got what I think is Sabaton's best guitar and drum work ever! And it's just so snappy and it's not the most produced song, it's not orchestra, choir or anything. It's just us as a rock band, and classic driving metal.
TIANA: It's gonna sound like I'm just saying this because you said that, but that was actually my favourite one on the album. I've got it written down and everything in front of me, so I can prove it later!!
JOAKIM: (laughs) Yaaaaay!!
TIANA: Woo! Good taste. Now, back to the touring side of things for a moment...you're obviously hitting up some festivals including, as you said earlier, a headline appearance at Wacken (Wacken Open Air), which is just way too exciting. And then on to North America...but you've also hinted to be visiting "possible and impossible corners of the planet" in your press release. Dare I ask, do any of those possible or impossible places include Australia?
JOAKIM: I would hope so, certainly! We don't have the plans exactly set as of now. Or we might do and I'm not even aware of it because at this point now I'm still trying to get back into catching up on what's going on outside of the musical sides. Because I've been basically since May last year up until, I guess, a week or two ago in all of the musical things. We did a show with a choir here as well, so that was my job to make sure that they had the scores and do all of that. I'm hoping, of course, we are gonna do it, we'd be stupid not to go back to Australia.
TIANA: You have played down under in the past too, and obviously you've hurled out your heavy metal all over the globe over the years...you've obliterated festival stages and no doubt a mix of smaller and larger venues along the way too. But is there a particular live moment that's stood out for you after all these years, whether it's been good, bad or potentially other?
JOAKIM: There are so many from all of that spectrum you just mentioned (laughs). I mean, obviously there has been bad times. But we don't believe in calling in sick. We believe that: if the show can physically be done without doing serious permanent harm to our health - we do it anyway. We've had people with pneumonia onstage, I've had a 42°C fever, popping pills having salmonella and wondering if I'm shitting myself when I'm asking the crowd to jump...so, yeah! There are those moments. But to be fair? It's like one show out of a hundred. And for good memories...in a way I think we create a new good memory every time we play songs like 'Primo Victoria' and 'To Hell And Back'.
TIANA: Well now you've got me rethinking what I call in sick to work for! I sound like a bit of a wuss now if I call in with a migraine. You've just upped the ante a bit for me here!
JOAKIM: (laughs) Well, here's the thing though. If we were to call in sick when we are doing a show in Germany, for example, that could be then between six and ten thousand people. Should we really try and reschedule that? I mean, our schedule is pretty busy, so if we actually have time off - we really want time off. So if we reschedule, that's maybe gonna affect the 200 people involved in the show, let's say we're 40 and us and the crew, plus everyone with the promotions. So that's 200. But then there's those six to ten thousand people as well who have booked flights and tickets and hotels.
TIANA SPETER: Yep, the maths definitely checks out! That's an admirable way to look at it. Now, you're obviously one of the founding members of Sabaton, and have no doubt witnessed and experienced so much change and evolution in the music industry over two decades just in this band alone. But rather than asking you what's changed the most, I'm kind of interested to get your perspective on what's perhaps changed the least in the industry over this time?
JOAKIM: The industry is still very good at ass-fucking and ass-raping artists, that definitely hasn't changed very much. Wherever there's money, there's gonna be people sniping for it. And unfortunately in many cases...bands really, really want to play. And in many cases, we have been there too, we're in a position now where we're not really victims of that so much anymore. Because at a certain point, as you grow with the band and if you keep your stuff under control - you are able to sort it out and make some demands of your own, sometimes. But it's really tough, for example, for a young band these days to...well, just to be heard! And to actually to be able to make some money out of their music. And for them, making that money might be the opportunity to pay the bills!
TIANA: Absolutely. And it is a shame, but then at the same time...I suppose it's making some people very creative problem solvers with how they get seen and heard. But it's a sad reality, unfortunately.
JOAKIM: Yeah! I do love that aspect of it. Guerilla marketing and that kind of stuff, that's fucking awesome!
TIANA: Yes, something good can come out, it's great! Now, zoning in a tiny bit on yourself for a minute...I was quite interested to delve into what actually spurred you into becoming the frontman for what can safely be described as one of the most prolific metal bands of this generation. You started off, obviously, as the keyboardist and temporary vocalist for Sabaton...but fate had other plans, and here you are two decades later. Firstly, did you have any significant singing experience prior to this, and then secondly - was there an actual moment when you were officially promoted from temporary vocalist to bonafide frontman?
JOAKIM: Well...(laughs) we don't do things. Things just happen in this band (laughs). We are very ambitious, we do plan to do things. But, you know, all of these things, like the whole thing with the military history. We just had the idea - "let's do an album about military conflict". Because before we wrote about that stuff - writing lyrics was a necessary evil. So, for us, it became interesting when we did it! So it was a solution to a problem, and that's the story of our career (laughs). And we didn't have a singer, so I would sing. I had no experience whatsoever, and no wish whatsoever to be a singer! And a couple of years later they came to me and were like: "heeeeyy! We solved it!". And I was like "oh cool, we found a singer?!". "No! We got a keyboarder!". "....fuck you guys!!" (laughs). "That's my job!". You know?! (laughs) And that was 2005, I think. So, I mean, a lot of those things that have happened, our festival Sabaton Open Air came about because there was no real place for us in our hometown to do a proper show and to have a release party. We were like: "ok! If we're booking someting, we might as well invite some other bands!". So we took some friends and bands we'd played with, plus some younger bands that we thought deserved some extra attention. And we booked a venue, which became our festival! And that's usually how things end up happening for us.
SABATON ONSTAGE AT SABATON OPEN AIR, 2017
TIANA: It's pretty incredible, somehow without plans the best things end up happening. I'm a big believer in that actually myself, even if it seems like a cop-out in hindsight, as some people have told me in the past...I don't care!
JOAKIM: Yes, yes, yes! And most of our good ideas weren't evil master plans of world domination in the beginning. It was something somebody said while we were drinking beer - and then, it was 'hey! Well wait a minute!". You know, it was said as a joke! And also like our cruise! The cruise shipping company when we were transporting our band in Sweden and Finland. We were like: "what the fuck?! How much money do they want for a tour bus and a couple of guys?! What?! You gotta be fucking kidding me! We should just rent the whole fucking boat and put on a show!!....hmm...wait a minute...!". And that became the Sabaton Cruise! It starts out as something crazy like that, but then you start to think about it and actually treat it like it's a part of the real world. And it turns out that these things happen!
TIANA: Well your fans are so glad these things have indeed happened! Now for my last question to wrap things up - conceptually, as we've spoken about earlier, 'The Great War' captures the drama and frantic surroundings of the brutality of battle. And also captures such a huge defining part of human history with World War One. Now, I premise this by warning you that this is a very broad question. But what do you think is one of the greatest battles facing our current generation?
JOAKIM: Oh!! I don't know actually?! I'll try and answer this without going into any kind of politics and religion, because we're controversial enough as it is without dealing with those things (laughs). At the same time, in these days, every artist, actor, whatever person in the media are going to try to tell people what to eat, what to drink, what to vote for, what to believe in...and I'm thinking, how about we be the only band who seems like we don't tell people these things, you know? But - of course! We are facing a lot of challenges. But I can say one thing, though, and that is: in general, every generation has had a better life than the generation before it on this planet. Of course there have been small dips, but the overall trend is that way. It hasn't changed. It might seem worrying for us, but that is only because it's the most worrying time, maybe, in our lifetime. But our lifetime as adults is gonna be a very short span, historically. So, in a sense - I am actually not that worried because now for the first time there's a whole new dynamic in global politics. Nobody wants to be the bad motherfucker starting a conflict because of the repercussions from the rest of the world! You can't really fool people and say "these guys are the bad guys, and we have such and such on our side". Which makes it a bit of a safer place, nobody wants a PR disaster!
TIANA: You know what? That's something I haven't totally considered in my own outlook, and I like that optimism! Well, perhaps we won't have a band like Sabaton writing about our battles later down the track, but at least we have you guys here now. I'm so excited for the upcoming release and adventures, and obviously we would love to see you back down under if you manage to make the long trip out here in the future!
JOAKIM: We absolutely will at some point!
TIANA: Thank you for chatting, and can't wait to continue to watch what happens in 2019 for Sabaton!
JOAKIM: Cool, thank you very much! Bye!
SABATON'S NINTH STUDIO ALBUM 'THE GREAT WAR' IS DUE OUT THIS JULY. FOR ALBUM PRE-ORDERS, HEAD HERE, AND FOR ALL OTHER SABATON INFO, HEAD HERE.
BY TIANA SPETER