Forging a Legacy – An Interview with Hammerfall

Metal Blast: First I want to know about Built to Last, your new album. Is that just a name, or rather does it reflect the fact that Hammerfall, despite the years and the problems, is also “built to last”?
Joacim: I think you answered the question yourself there, because that’s exactly how I see it! First of all, the album a very solid piece of work that will stand the test of time, when we look back on this album in 10 or 15 yeas, even if Hammerfall isn’t around as a band anymore.  This album, and also our legacy in heavy metal history, will still be there.
We have built something that will last, maybe not forever, but for a very long time. So, the name is a combination between the album itself being a solid piece of work, and also the career that we’ve built up so far, so that no matter what happens, we’re still standing here, stronger than ever.

MB: Since you talk about the legacy of the band continuing even after the band eventually ends. How do you think the band will be remembered?
J: We were pioneers in the mid 90’s, when heavy metal wasn’t really a genre anymore, since nobody really cared about this form of music. People asked us us: “Why don’t you play music that people wanna hear?” And we always responded that we just play the music that we wanna play; as simple as that.
We were a band that reopened the doors and gave a new generation of metal fans and musicians the chance to write and record the music that they loved, heavy metal music. After Glory to the Brave and Legacy of Kings, it was a big boom of heavy metal. Well, some people call it “power metal,” but I still want to refer to it as “heavy metal.”
This is the 10th studio album in 20 years, and we’ve stayed true to ourselves the whole time, something that the true fans love and that the doubters hate. Doubters will say that we need to change or do this or that, but we just do what we want to do. I think that this is one of the fundamentals of why Hammerfall will last even though we won’t be around forever.

MB: Why do you think there has been that confusion of Hammerfall and power metal? Is it the graphics? Or maybe the topic of songs like The Dragon Lies Bleeding (the only song where you actually mention dragons)?
J: I’m not really sure why. As you said, dragons were mentioned only a few times, and only once in a title. It could be that because we were playing fast songs with a lot of dual guitars and harmonies, we were flirting more with the German side of heavy metal music, and which was a little bit faster. I think that the Americans are the ones who labeled this “power metal,” and I’m not sure how it ended up in Europe. We’ve always referred to ourselves as playing heavy metal music.
You also have to keep in mind that in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, all these subgenres came to life because everyone wanted to play a unique style of heavy metal. You played “epic”, “power,” “true,” “hollywood metal”… We are all branches of the same tree, a tree called heavy metal, and we just play our own versions of it.
I’ve never made a big deal out of it. People will say that we play power metal but, you know what? We play heavy metal, and that’s just the way it is. I think that it’s because our main influences came from the German side, and which were a bit more “powerful.”

Sam "Samwise" Didier has been in charge of a large part of Hammerfall's artwork.
Sam “Samwise” Didier has been in charge of a large part of Hammerfall’s artwork.

MB: Well, genres are useful for stores to organize CDs, but they often fail to reflect the music. Metallica is still called “thrash metal,” despite not really being a thrash band. Calling you a “power metal” band doesn’t really cut it either.
J: It’s better to just call it “metal,” I think that sums it up. Or, maybe, “melodic metal,” because that’s what we’re doing.

MB: Well, Hammerfall place a lot of emphasis in the melodies, and that’s actually one of the things that I enjoy the most from your music.
J: I’m also hooked on good melodies, since that’s what gets me going. That’s how I write music; I work with the melodies. Music is built from rhythm and melodies; that’s how you do music, and if you leave out the melodies it’s like you lack something. Something is missing.

MB: You can have a very technically-proficient band, and yet they will not be as popular as a less-talented band that writes good, catchy melodies. I think that Hammerfall did manage to find a nice sweet spot between technical skills (which you definitely have) and the ability to create catchy, appealing melodies.
J: 
It’s nice of you to say that. Every band needs songs, and if you’re just a good instrumentalist, someone who practices a lot every day, you might be missing out on songwriting, which is something else entirely. That takes a lot of trial-and-error before you actually become a complete songwriter.
I listen to some of the stuff that I did 20 or 25 years ago and, well, if I wrote those songs today, they wouldn’t sound the same way. On the other hand, they were still a learning experience, and I developed my skills throughout the years.
I see myself now as a more complete songwriter, although I’m draining myself, something that comes with age. This is the 10th Hammerfall album, I’ve done songs for other artists, solo albums… hundreds of songs. It’s getting harder and harder to write a song because you don’t know where to start.

MB: Do you think that you risk repeating yourself?
J: Well, that is always a big risk. That’s why it’s so good that I’m working closely with Oscar Dronjak, and that co-write more or less everything. When I get stuck with something, or I think something I wrote is horrible, I just send a file and ask them to say something about it. Is it good? Is it bad? Should I continue? Should I kill myself? Then they tell me that it’s a fantastic piece of work, melody-wise, and then I can move on. I’m always comparing my work with everything else that I’ve done, and so it’s hard sometimes to understand if I’ve written something before or if it’s new.

Oscar Dronjak
Oscar Dronjak performing at Wacken 2014

MB: But does it happen to you that when you look back on your career that there are songs that you’re simply unsatisfied with?
J: 
Of course, but it doesn’t really matter how I feel now. The most important thing is how I felt when I wrote them. I never give something that I’m not satisfied with. If you take a song from Legacy of Kings, for example; back then I was 100% satisfied with it. Nowadays, looking back at the album, sure, I could say that maybe some of the songs needed a little more attention, but I didn’t know better at the time.

MB: Well, every album is really a snapshot of how things were at the time you made it, so I understand your point. 
J: That’s what happens to every band. If you listen to debut albums from bands; they’re young, there’s a lot of emotion there. Maybe the guitar playing isn’t 100%, maybe a couple of songs are not really that good but, still, it’s the first album. Life is a learning experience; you learn and you try things, you fail, you try again, you fail… but, still, you move on.

MB: In Built to Last, despite what you say about becoming older, we see one of your best vocal performances. You reach some of your highest notes in the song “The Sacred Vow“. Although you don’t sound older at all, do you think that making this kind of stuff has become harder for you as time passes, or have you been able to avoid that kind of problems?
J: The weird thing is that it’s the opposite for me. I’ve seen a lot of singers in other bands, friends of mine, who are losing their heights in their voices. I think that’s just what happens with a male voice, and that you get a bit more limited the older you get. Until now, however, I’ve gone the other way, for some weird reason. Maybe because I’m someone who takes care of his voice. I’m not someone who parties until 6 in the morning; I do it sometimes, but only once in a while. I try to take care of my voice and take care of my body. I’m a vegetarian, I run, I go to the gym, I take care of my whole body. Maybe that’s the secret recipe to be able to deliver at the age of 46 the best vocal performance of my career.
I don’t know, but as long as this works I’m going to continue what I’m doing. Having said that, writing songs this high is very, very stupid, because you then need to perform them live, something that can be rough on a bad day.

MB: Does it scare that you might find yourself trying to perform something like this live and that you’ll just fall flat and won’t be able to do it?
J: Of course, it’s kind of an emotional suicide. At the same time, if I try and fail, at least I tried.

MB: You know, if you give me Built to Last, not knowing the band, I wouldn’t know that you’ve been doing this for 20 years. It doesn’t sound like an “old” band. You sound fresh, as if you just started.
J: That’s great that you say that, and I’m really taking it all in now because it makes me really happy. That’s the feeling that we have, especially with Built to Last and (R)evolution. There’s a lot of vitality there, because we still feel that we are young. The feeling is that we’re still a young band and that we have so much more to give.
It would be much easier to just sit down and just go through the motions and write a couple of songs. I think a lot of bands do it like that when they’ve been around for 20 or 25 years. Going into the studio is just a necessary evil because they just want to go out on tour and play the songs from the first couple of albums that people want to hear. As long as we can write songs that will become instant classics, even though it’s been 20 years, that’s fantastic. On this album, for example, I know the song “Hammer High” will be played for the rest of our careers. Many bands will release an album, go on tour, play a couple of songs from that album but they’ll never play them again. It makes me happy that you can really hear the youth in the music, and that we have so much power inside of our old bodies.

(L-R) Fredrik Larsson, Pontus Norgren, Joacim Cans, Oscar Dronjak, David Wallin (Photo: Tallee Savage)
(L-R) Fredrik Larsson, Pontus Norgren, Joacim Cans, Oscar Dronjak, David Wallin (Photo: Tallee Savage)

MB: It’s 46, not 76! Well, I think that for every band that has been around for a while it becomes a concern that you’ll try to perform your new music, but that the fans will just be there to hear what you’ve done before in your earlier material.
J: If people don’t want to hear what you’ve done now, then the songs are not good enough. It’s as simple as that!
It’s up the fans to decide, but now we’ll go on tour and play 4 songs from the new album. You have to find a balance when you make a setlist. You play the songs that the fans want to hear, but also the ones that you yourself want to play. Then you put something unexpected in there. Those are the 3 basic elements that we use when we build our setlist.

MB: As you said yourself, when you started people mocked the idea that you’d be playing heavy metal at a time when the genre wasn’t really marketaable anymore. Since then, have you ever been pressured again by managers, labels, etc., to create music that reaches a wider audience?
J: We have been self-managed for at least 18 out of our 20 years. We had 2 managers for a very short time, and it didn’t work at all.
When it comes to our record labels, it’s actually quite funny. We worked with Nuclear Blast for the first 9 albums, and they never listened to even one of our songs before the final mix of each album was done. They trusted us so much that they knew that we’d deliver something really good. The same thing happens now with Napalm Records; they didn’t hear any of the songs until we delivered the final master; and even then, the only reply I got was “thank you, this is exactly what we were hoping for.”
If someone from a label would disturb us during the writing process, we would probably cancel the deal and tell them to fuck off and find another band. They signed us because they believed we had the power to write and record something unique; if they want to change us, then they should sign someone else.

MB: Built to Last is the 3rd time that you record your vocals in LA, with James Michael of Sixx A.M. Why go all the way there again?
J: Well, for one main reason; he lives in Los Angeles [laughs]. I had to go to him to work.
This is the 3rd album in a row that I work with him; he used to live in Nashville, so for Infected I went to Nashville. In James Michael I found the perfect partner in the studio, a very talented producer and songwriter. He’s a person that I look up to, so when he tells me that I should try something, he’s talking based of his own experience, because he’s a singer himself. That makes it so much easier for me.
We could record in Gothenburg with someone else, but I’m certain that I wouldn’t have turned out as good as it did by working with James in this last 3 albums. He makes it so damn comfortable for me in the studio, and it’s a big joy to work with him.  I read an interview where he said that he’s not producing anymore; when they asked him then how come he was producing Hammerfall, he explained that it wasn’t work, just pleasure.
The vocals are so damn important on an album, that if you come up with crappy vocal sounds, it’s going to kill the whole album.

MB: It would be impossible to have a Hammerfall album that doesn’t put vocals at the forefront or that, at least, doesn’t prioritize them. Since Sixx AM is so different from Hammerfall, it’s great to see that James’ talents translate so well across genres. Considering that this is, even according to yourself, your best vocal performance, it definitely seems to be working well!
J: He would never change my style or anything like that. He’s just making me the best version of myself, and that’s what a producer should do.

MB: A few years ago Hammerfall went into a hiatus when the problems with management happened. I’ve read that very existence of the band was at stake, that there was a real possibility that Hammerfall could cease to exist. Is that true?
J: When we did the tour for Infected, with our 2nd manager in a very short time, nothing was fun anymore. The moment it’s not fun to stand on stage, to be in any band, I don’t see a reason to continue doing it. I think that we reached the end of the road, so we thought that if we wanted to continue pursuing this career, we needed to take a break, tell everyone to fuck off and to talk in one year. That’s exactly what we did.
During that year we barely talked; we were so tired that we just needed to reflect on the career we had so far, because we’ve had an amazing ride and yet we were not enjoying it anymore.
After that year off, everyone came back hungrier than ever. (R)evolution was the easiest album to write; it’s like some songs just wrote themselves. We were just so hungry and satisfied about being back together and about to hit the road. That album and that tour were one of the most successful ones we’ve ever done.

MB: That’s all I have for you today. I’m looking forward to seeing you back on tour in early 2017!
JThank you very much!