HAMMERFALL – When Sweden Rocks…
September 8, 2019, 10 months ago
Settling in with HammerFall frontman Joacim Cans to discuss the band's new album, Dominion, our chat begins with a shot of time travel back to 1997 and the release of the band's massive debut, Glory To The Brave. They boasted a line-up featuring some familiar faces (more on that later) playing music that was strictly taboo in the age of grunge and teen angst, pushed by a label (Nuclear Blast) celebrating its 10th Anniversary on its way to world domination. To say that Glory To The Brave exploded is an understatement, and while the shockwaves took some time to hit North America, the album took Europe by storm and was responsible for shoving full-on old school power metal back into the spotlight. It was impossible, for example, get away from the songs "HammerFall" and "The Dragon Lies Bleeding", which had somehow infiltrated rock club playlists everywhere. Nobody saw it coming, not even the record label and certainly not the band. Asked if he's aware of just how important the debut album was in terms of re-igniting interest in and ultimately the pursuit of metal for many fans, Joacim is characteristically modest but grateful for the accolades.
"It's hard for me to say yes to that because I'm from Sweden, and we're more used to saying things like 'No, that was pure fucking luck...'" laughs Joacim. "But, I'm honoured to hear it and I appreciate you telling me that. I've heard it a couple times before and it makes me so proud because we came from out of nowhere with an album in the middle of the '90s, and the attitude from a lot of people was 'This will never work.' It was sort of like the second coming of the second coming of New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. And what happened then was every label wanted to have their own HammerFall. Labels went crazy signing every band playing heavy metal or power metal or whatever it was called. That was the one big negative thing that happened leading up to 2000; the market was oversaturated with our kind of sound. I think this genre of metal is in much better shape nowadays, absolutely."
Nobody predicts the end when they're starting out, and Joacim admits he didn't give any thought to HammerFall lasting 20+ years, never mind putting out 11 albums and having a loyal international fanbase.
"Yeah, that's weird. Twenty-two years since the release of Glory To The Brave, and I'm going to talk about an album that is in my opinion that HammerFall has done to this day. We don't write songs, we write albums, so people should listen to Dominion from beginning to end and then you'll get the whole picture."
Dominion doesn't break new ground for HammerFall, but it most certainly gives the diehard fans what they want with regards to power metal bombast. And for those of us who have been sitting on the fence for the last several years, it has to be said that HammerFall has delivered a record that is worthy of several listens before passing sentence on it.
"That was the intention we had," says Joacim. "We wanted to put out something strong because you never know when your well of songs will dry out. I don't know how many songs I've written in the past, but sometimes it's hard to come up with something new. It can feel like that blank piece of paper is just getting bigger and bigger with every album, but not this time. It was a treat working on Dominion."
As for what made it that way, Joacim says it's necessary to turn back time again for a full understanding of where HammerFall is in 2019.
"After we released Infected (in 2011), HammerFall was in a bad place. We didn't have fun on tour - personally, I didn't have fun at all - so we decided to take a break. We needed to take a break, and that break was the game changer. It gave us a new spark, a new fire to do this for everyone in the band. When we did Built To Last (2016) we finally had the chance to go back to North America; we had given up on your continent way back because it just didn't work for us. It was hard go there for six weeks and then come home with $200 in the pocket. But, we found people that truly believed in us and sent us over to co-headline with Delain, and because we had a couple good tours (earnings) going on in Europe we figured we had nothing to lose. We decided to give it one last try touring North America, and that tour was by far the most fun I've had on a tour in my 22 year career. We didn't play arenas but it was great; good set-up, good following, and we got closer as a band. That created a momentum, and we took that with us into the next tour cycles. And it resulted in us thinking outside the box when it came to writing new music."
"In the past we always set periods of time where we would compose new music, record the album, release the album, go on tour. That cycle repeated itself over and over again. That frustrated Oscar (Dronjak / guitars) a little bit because he said that he couldn't write new music on tour. We told him he should give it a try, and all of a sudden he was bringing his guitar everywhere. He set up a portable studio in the back of the bus, and after a show he would have a shower, then run to the bus to get back to his studio (laughs). Oscar took all the energy and adrenaline from playing on stage and brought it to the songwriting process. We ended up with a motto as we were making Dominion: 'Good is not good enough. It has to be great.' I think every song took a little bit longer to write, but I think every song on the album is there for a reason."
The song "(We Make) Sweden Rock" is Dominion's big power metal anthem that led the charge gearing up to the album's release, but it's definitely on the lighter side compared to most of the other tracks. And the lyrics... let's call them unashamedly cheesy.
"The lyrics have to be cheesy," Joacim counters. "It's a tribute to Swedish hard rock and heavy metal bands. The whole lyrical concept... it's not brain surgery (laughs)."
The song effectively makes HammerFall spokesmen for what is widely regarded as a one of the most vibrant metal territories on the planet, having earned the country it's very own genre in Swedish melodic death metal. Joacim is all about national pride.
"We're a part of that whole Gothenburg melodic death metal buzz even if we don't play death metal. There were death metal band members in HammerFall when we started - Jesper Strömblad (In Flames), Mikael Stanne (Dark Tranquillity), Niklas Sundin (Dark Tranquillity)
Johan Larsson (In Flames) - and our producer (Fredrik Nordström) was also heavily involved in that scene. I was there when bands like At The Gates, In Flames and Dark Tranquillity released their first demos. I had them playing at the club I was managing at the time."
The bulk of songwriting for Dominion was done by Joacim and Oscar, which has been the case since Day 1. With the aforementioned momentum from the previous tour pushing them forward, Joacim says there was no chance of same old same old stagnation even though HammerFall does have a successful formula at this point
"The older you get, you really hate change, but my mission on this album was to challenge myself. With my writing in the past, I think I wrote the melodies for me in my comfort zone. Now, I've been writing melodies that are perfect for the songs, and that was a challenge because there are some really high-pitched motherfuckers on this album (laughs). I challenged Oscar a little bit on this album as well. He hates writing with someone else; he's just not comfortable with it. I suggested we fly to Los Angeles and sit down with (producer / Sixx:A.M. vocalist) James Michael at his studio and try to write a song together over a weekend. I told Oscar the worst thing that could happen is that we go over, have a great weekend, and come home with nothing. We came back with 'Second To One' for the album just before we started to record it. I'm so happy that I challenged him to do that, and I have to admit I'm not that comfortable with writing with other people, either. It was a bit awkward at first, but I'm so happy with the way things turned out. We had so many ideas, and when you're in a relaxed environment and in a good place mentally, great things can happen. There are always new ways to find inspiration; you've just got to get out of the house sometimes."