UNLEASHED - Viking Blood On The Ice
June 5, 2017, a year ago
What began as a formal interview, turned out to be sports-loving, death metal history lesson courtesy of Unleashed legend Johnny Hedlund. Of course, the Stockholm-based band are part of the Big Four of Swedish death metal, along with Entombed, Grave and Dismember. And some extremists would argue, had a bigger impact than the original Big Four across the pond. So on the recent 70000 Tons Of Metal Cruise, BraveWords had the rare opportunity of presenting Hedlund with the Band That Built BraveWords obligatory personalized hockey jersey. They rarely perform on these shores, so to witness their Viking-inspired juggernaut on a cruise ship was yet another key moment in metal history! So lace up those blades and get ready to skate with this friendly giant!
BraveWords: Are you a hockey fan?
Hedlund: "Oh yeah! My son and I go to hockey games all the time. I lose weight (laughs).”
BraveWords: I still play three/four times a week.
Hedlund: "You do?”
BraveWords: Yeah, and I turned fifty recently.
Hedlund: "I'm 48. I play because my kid plays - otherwise, I probably wouldn't do it. I played when I was kid as well.”
BraveWords: When was the last time you had skates on?
Hedlund: "Hmmmm, what's today's date? I would say it's been eight to ten days? We play once or twice a week.”
BraveWords: Do you play by yourself as well, or only with your son?
Hedlund: "Only with my son. He is six years old and wants to try everything. He really is a soccer player, but he wants to try anything that is sports. As the role of the father, you have to be there and make sure he has a good time. When children are small you have to be there to allow them a taste of all things.”
BraveWords: What a coincidence. Growing up in Canada it was soccer in the summer, and then trading in the ball for a stick and skates in the winter.
Hedlund: "Exactly. I mean hockey is big in Sweden - ice hockey and soccer are the biggest in Sweden. We also have a thing called Bandy. My son likes that as well, but my guess is that he is going to go for ice hockey or soccer, those are the two things he loves most at this point. I was the same when I was his age - I was on different teams for things like handball, soccer, and hockey.”
BraveWords: I've spoke to many bands from Scandinavia, and there have been many Scandinavian hockey players that have infiltrated North American hockey teams in the NHL. Many of them are big metal fans. Have you met any of these guys?
Hedlund: "Not really. Both Canadian and American hockey teams are really big in Sweden. You can talk to anybody over there and they have their own favorite teams. Just like in soccer they have their favorite teams - maybe France or Italy. So, as it relates to hockey, most Swedes like one Swedish team and then something like the Toronto Maple Leafs, or whatever it is. It's always like that. It's huge. Also, for the kids, it's amazing. I mean, sometimes I just want a break after work, then my son really wants to go play hockey. I gotta go (laughs).”
BraveWords: There are worse things you could do.
Hedlund: "I know. I know (laughs). Sometimes it's like six or seven times a week - and I just want one day in the week where I don't have to do anything. It's a family tradition to not do anything for at least one day a week. That said, I gotta be there for my son (laughs).”
BraveWords: If you enjoy food, and you enjoy drink, you need to offset all those carbs with something. The more you skate, the more you can drink (laughs).
Hedlund: "Oh yeah. Definitely. My wife doesn't really like to play soccer or hockey - she won't get the club or put the skates on - not going to happen. Skiing and skating are big in Sweden. Whatever my son likes to do I will go and do as well. But, of course, ice hockey and soccer are my favorite. I watch those two as well. In fact, we have a club of metalheads in Sweden, with 17 members, and we go to every game. I bring my son along and he has grown up with that now. In Europe, it isn't so much the entertainment, it's like metal - it's like a family reunion. It's the same as going to a soccer game where we meet up with friends and have a beer. That's why I brought my son along on this cruise. Even though he is young, he is so used to this kind of environment already. He's used to being in our home stadium with 30,000 people. He is used to being around those people all the time. Most of my metal friends are metalheads anyway. Before the cruise he asked me how many people on this cruise would be fans of Hammarby [Swedish Fotboll team]. I explained that this is a cruise with many metalheads from all over the world who won't necessarily go for Hammarby - or even know who Hammarby is. It's a Swedish thing. You are traveling to a very different country now. They have their own favorite teams on the other side of the pond (laughs). So, explaining that to a six year old is fucking fantastic.”
BraveWords: Let's talk about the moment. Being one of the originators of the scene, bringing black or death metal or whatever you want to call it, to a sunny stage. It was funny, when you were onstage playing stuff from those legendary songs, did you ever think you would be playing this stuff beside a fucking pool?
Hedlund: "I would have laughed my ass off if someone told me that twenty-eight years ago. That would be unreal. I probably would have said 'no!'. We were fucking die-hard back then - not to say that we aren't die-hard now, but things change.”
BraveWords: It's been slow-growth for Unleashed - even trying to break into the North American market. You probably played Montreal.
Hedlund: "We did. Many years ago.
BraveWords: Have you ever played Toronto or Vancouver?
Hedlund: "I'm not sure we have.”
BraveWords: That's a sad thing.
Hedlund: "The last tour we played, we did one or two shows in Canada. That was all I think. They really gave us hell at the border. I think we were here for like four weeks or so. That was ages ago. Putting together a tour now, it's like goddammit!”
BraveWords: Especially with Trump in charge.
Hedlund: "At this age, it's just getting tough to organize everyone's schedule to get out and tour. We all have families and being away from home is not as easy as it was back in the day.”
BraveWords: The piece of the pie has shrunk too. Getting out on these tours, you hope to at least break even when returning.
Hedlund: "Yeah. I mean, you can't be away from home for four weeks and not make any money. It doesn't work like that anymore. If you come home to a condo, like I did when I was 20 or 21, paying $100 rent, that's nothing - who cares. That was the extent of my responsibilties back then. You can do whatever - you can go to the fucking moon and play. It doesn't matter. It's so small that the responsibility of that is nothing. It's different today. I'm sure it is for everyone.”
BraveWords: We are all in the same boat - pun intended, right? (laughs)
Hedlund: "That's the truth. I don't mind this development. It's all good. On the other hand, I could do all those trips again. I could probably book myself six months a year, and be home half the year. It would make financial sense probably, and it would be all good, but not with my family. That would not work. There is a huge responsibility to be at home with my little guy - teaching him to read and count. I have to be there. I need to be there. The development at school is exploding. It's a much different world than it was for you and I at the same age.”
BraveWords: We didn't have a fucking phone in our hand 24/7!
Hedlund: "No! Dude, just thinking of the number of codes we have in our brains now! I mean, how many fucking gigabytes do you need now to actually survive? Our brains can't handle it all. When you forget something, you think you are getting old, but, in reality, our memory banks can't stash all this information. We are still fucking humans, not machines. I sometimes talk to my mother about this, who is 69. She tries to narrow down all things in life, one phone and a few codes to remember. But guys like you and I, well, we would be fucking dead without all this stuff. To think this all happened in the last fifteen or twenty years - it's such a small period of time that contains such enormous changes and growth. Sometimes, we have to sit down and think about that - and realize that we don't have to that amazing all the time.”
BraveWords: Sometimes you gotta sit back and smell the roses. Get away from that little device.
Hedlund: "Exactly. That's why I kind of pause things, and go away with my son a lot, and also my wife, of course. I spend most of my free time with my son, in an effort for him to experience things that he could never see if I just sit home and go on the Facebook or whatever.”
BraveWords: Given Unleashed's influence and affect on the scene, how do you think the first three albums - from '91 on - have weathered over time? How do they sound today? I'm not saying that you are not proud of them. How have they aged? Do you sit there sometimes and cringe - nitpick over little things like production or such things?
Hedlund: "Oh, for sure! I mean, I can't really sit down and say we should have done this or that differently, it's easy to do that. When I was a kid - when we started this - I had no money, there was nobody who would sponsor the band or whatever. Apart from the little money I made at work to invest in the band, which took away from food money, I think the first album that I had a professional PA to sing through - so that I could practice vocals - was in '99 or 2000. It was before the Hell's Unleashed album, which came out in 2001. So, literally, we recorded five albums without me practicing vocals. I practiced vocals in a 15 watt bass amp, and no one in the room could hear what I was singing. If you think about that, it's easy to say things would have been better if we had done it this way or that way. I couldn't save enough money to buy a full PA system. It was not going to happen. It's the same obviously with the studios. If we had more money we could have recorded at this or that studio. So, looking back, given the circumstances of the time, I'm pretty happy with what we did. We put all our efforts into the touring. I think it would be stupid to go off on yourself with these kinds of nitpicking things. Those were the days. We still play songs from every album live.”
BraveWords: My roots are in early thrash. I then grew into both death and black metal. Canada had a lot of highly prolific acts in Razor, Anvil, Annihilator, and Exciter. When I’m watching you onstage I couldn't help but think of Dan Beehler from those early Exciter records and how can this drummer sing so well. Then watching you, it's like how can these guys just wander around so comfortably and do two things at once. It's like walking and chewing gum - it's not that simple (laughs).
Hedlund: "It's funny you should say that! I try to say that to these fucking assholes in the band (laughs)! I have two instruments - all you have to do is play your rhythm guitar!”
BraveWords: Then you got someone like Geddy Lee, who not only plays bass and sings, but then also sometimes plays the keyboard as well.
Hedlund: "Yeah, that's a lot.”
BraveWords: You have obviously worked on your craft quite hard. It didn't come overnight.
Hedlund: "No, it didn't - and it still doesn't. It's something that has to be worked on. I mean, we don't meet up to practice like we did when we were younger - two times a week - it's impossible. We don't even live that close to each other. It would take me three hours to go to Stockholm. Way back then, it was a fixed schedule for practice. If you did not show up for practice, you were almost out of the band. That was funny shit. Of course, nowadays, that would be ridiculous. Keep in mind, back then we were still learning. We were not amazing musicians. We had a passion to be the best we could.”
BraveWords: Who were your idols at the time ?
Hedlund: "When I started, as you know, I was in Nihilist for a few years before Unleashed - what got me to pick up the bass, and thinking that I wanted to do vocals and bass - which was a mistake - I was never intended to be the vocalist and bassist. There was a guy called Robert, who later went on to Dismember. He was on the first Unleashed cassettes, and then I did the album. Since he left, I had to try and see if I could do vocals. Anyway, the first guy that I really admired and took influence from was Cronos from Venom. I fucking love his style. He got up onstage and didn't give a fuck. I'm sure there are many people who hated what he did, but he didn't give a rat's ass. He played his metal and sung his stuff, and they were proud of it. If he could do that, I thought that maybe I could do it too. At the time, there were so many other musicians that we were writing letters to at the time, Tom Araya of Slayer, of course, but Cronos was the biggest for me. I was also really into Morbid Angel, the early stuff. Dave Vincent was really doing an amazing job. They were proof that this could be done, and they could do it well. It wasn't so professional back in those days, it was still very young. I could not have pictured us playing on a pool deck all these years later (laughs).”
BraveWords: It's a very emotional thing for me as a huge Swedish death metal fan - you guys, Dismember, Grave, Entombed. With all these influential bands, they all had their very own sound. I mean, there was the Sunlight sound, yet they sound different. Your scene changed the world.
Hedlund: "I don't know... at least we contributed. We did what we said we would do. We didn't jump on any bandwagon to bring us to fortunes. Grave are the same. They just keep doing what they do, and do it very well.”
BraveWords: What albums stick out for you at that time? What were you jealous of? You guys obviously pushed each other a little - just like a hockey player does to his fellow players, right?
Hedlund: "Yeah, of course. In a way, the competition really wasn't that bad between the bands that were releasing those albums back in the early 90s. A lot of people were thinking that we had like these boxing fights - big competition. It wasn't really like that.”
BraveWords: No, I'm not eluding to that.
Hedlund: "We were always at the same parties and we would listen to each other's music. When the albums started coming out - Like An Ever Flowing Stream, Left Hand Path - when those started coming out it was, for us, just a natural thing to happen. It was such an incredible time where we put everything we had into it. There was no other life, literally. It was practice, party, and trading tapes. When the albums came out, it was proof that we could do this, and tell the world that we could do this. Albums such as Altars Of Madness, that were out before us, and many others, when that stuff came out on LP - I was sold. It was ridiculous. There was no other life.”
BraveWords: Obviously that early material was from the heart - but as the scene grew, it was like looking in a mirror - you are hearing all these albums - but almost like a validation that you are creating something special. Now, all of a sudden, there are all these other bands doing the same thing.
Hedlund: "Absolutely. I recall thinking what would be the smartest thing to do. The smart thing to do was to go on tour - fast, now - not a year from now. So, we put everything we had into getting out there and seeing all those people who wrote letters to us. I put some research into labels that might be willing to put us on tour quick, who to work with. We really got influenced by a lot of stuff from the UK and North America. To sound just like them would not be smart. We had to create our own stuff. For us, we just took what we had and did something different than the scene was doing, especially lyrically. Back then, a lot of what was happening was taken from horror and that kind of thing.
BraveWords: Talking about this famous Swedish sound, is there anyone either dead or alive that you would love to work in the studio?
Hedlund: "To be honest, I have never given that any thought. We work with Frederik (Folkare - lead guitarist) for many, many years - who has his own studio.
BraveWords: That's a budget thing?
Hedlund: "We've done so many albums with him now, and he has just gotten better and better. Of course, it's easier to manipulate things if your guitar player has his own studio.”
BraveWords: You can drop in any time.
Hedlund: "Yeah. It's amazing. If I want to change something I can do it. If I want to drop in and do a few more vocal lines I can just do it. So, that was the first thing we thought about - not really the money issue - but the convenience of recording on our time. it's strange, as a new album is something that we might have been working on for one or two years. To try and get it done in a few days makes no sense - why rush that much? That's how it started. He now works with other bands. We have used other people and studios, who listen to stuff before we complete things - to give their professional opinion. This helps Freddie, as we are not just dropping the entire thing on him. So, we do try to make a professional view at this. It's good to have a second, third, fourth, or fifth opinion. Often, these are people that have no interest whatsoever in our album, at all. Since a few of them don't really care about death metal at all, we get a completely different, unbiased opinion. We try to be open-minded and self-criticizing.”
BraveWords: Yeah, and you gotta have thick-skin. If it sucks, you gotta take that criticism and then fix it.
Hedlund: "Totally. That is how we've worked for many years now. Just sitting down and listening to someone that has thirty years of professional experience - maybe he knows a bit about metal music - and just get a number of different opinions.”
BraveWords: There are a lot of classic bands - bands such as Megadeth or Metallica - where these guys are in their studio and no one is gonna say shit. Aerosmith would be another great example of this. Would be great to get someome from the outside who would tell ‘em to heavy this stuff up! Outside ears.
Hedlund: "Yeah, for sure. If you can't take that, you are in the wrong industry. Back in the early ‘90s I was more of a control freak. I wanted things my way. Period.”
BraveWords: Well, you are certainly an intimidating figure.
Hedlund: "Well, I suppose in a way (laughs). I mean, there was no one who was gonna say 'you suck!'. Of course, that wasn't gonna happen. Also, we have to consider that those days were so much of a lifestyle, someone telling you sound like shit was not gonna happen. We thought we knew everything about death metal. On the flip side, we had so many people here in Sweden that would tell us that we couldn't play like that - that we couldn't tune down to a B - it's impossible - no one will pay money for that. Well, people were paying money. Today, it doesn't work like that obviously - to become professional. You can keep the roots, but you have to listen to others as well and get some kind of feedback.”
BraveWords: If I can relate it to your accounting career, you don't want to wait for those first week sales to come back - like, wow, it sucked that bad! Maybe someone should have told us sooner, but I was too fucking stupid to listen! (laughs)
Hedlund: "Yeah, I think that goes for many things in life. I'm not 22 anymore. When you are that age, anything is possible, but you have strong views at that age. I would go so far as to say that if the outside world - if people that were around us were more understanding of what we did, I likely would have listened to more opinions way back then. But, we were the toilet paper for them - so many people hated what we did. We were a small circle of people in Sweden who listened to this kind of music. It was thrash and death metal. Literally, I probably knew 85% of the people who enjoyed this kind of music in Sweden. When you have such a strong hatred from people for what you do, you put up a defensive line and say this is how it's going to sound - fuck you. Even today I still think that way. I realize that you have to listen to people who are better than you. Is Freddy the number one producer in the world? No, likely not. But even he will listen to others and take what he learns to get better at his craft.”
BraveWords: Those people in Sweden who were sitting there criticizing - that guy can't sing, they call that singing? Those are cookie monster vocals!
Hedlund: "Yeah, it was like that everyday for me. I'd get to work and hear it everyday. Of course, I had nothing more to prove than the cassettes we made. I couldn't sit there and say we are going on a full tour of Europe - I would tell them we are playing a small venue in Sweden, and they would say 'good luck, no one is going to show up'. Well, they were wrong - 300 people showed up! It was an amazing success. In the end, it didn't really prove that much other than our friends knew we were playing (laughs). In fact, we did have a producer on the first two albums - provided by the record label - and there was some strong input there. Then it was about 2000 when we really started working with ourselves on this stuff.”
BraveWords: I do want to end on a humorous note. When I'm not on skates in the winter, I'm biking in the summer. I'm from the frozen lands of the Great White North, and your song “Winterland” (from 2004’s Sworn Allegiance) is one of the most inspirational songs I've ever heard. Could you create a ringtone with that chorus! Have you ever done that?
Hedlund: "No, we haven't (laughs). We haven't thought that far.”
BraveWords: How about right now? Sing that chorus.”
Hedlund: "OK. Sure! Let's do it!
(Johnny goes on to scream the lyrics: ICE... COLD... WINTERLAND!)
BraveWords: This was a great fucking time! Thank you so much.
Hedlund: "This was awesome!”
BraveWords: Yup, it was fucking awesome … how Swede it is!