Interview with Amon Amarth guitarist Johan Söderberg
Band Photo: Amon Amarth (?)
"I am the only one in my family who plays an instrument," says Amon Amarth guitarist Johan Söderberg of first picking up the guitar when he was a 19-year-old in Tumba, Sweden. "I was playing lots of Metallica riffs – James Hetfield was a big inspiration in the beginning – and Iron Maiden was one of the first bands I started to listen to. Also a big influence was the German band Accept. I was very into them when I was a kid, and I wanted to also play metal riffs."
Seven years later, Söderberg riffed his way into Amon Amarth, probably best known for their melodic instrumentation and Viking themes. "We friends since we grew up, and then one day they fired their old guitar player and they need to find replacement for their first tour. They asked me." After a successful stint on the road, Söderberg joined the band on a more permanent basis with 1999's "The Avenger," the second Amon Amarth album in the Metal Blade catalogue. Söderberg's guitar techniques have been an integral part of the band's sound ever since.
Currently invading North America on a headlining tour de force to promote their latest album "Twilight of the Thunder God," Amon Amarth has played to full venues in nearly every city. Before hitting the stage at their Montreal stop, Söderberg graciously took the time to fill us in about making "Twilight of the Thunder God," the band's future with Metal Blade Records, and life on the tour bus.
Pamela Porosky: How's the tour going?
Johan Söderberg: It's going awesome. It's almost sold out every night.
Porosky: You've had a really great response to the newest album.
Söderberg: I'm very satisfied with album, so I had very high expectations when we released it, so it's going as expected.
Porosky: For our readers who have not yet had the chance to hear Amon Amarth, how would you describe your music?
Söderberg: I would say it's like very traditional heavy metal – Iron Maiden, Metallica – but a little more aggressive and more down-tuned.
Porosky: I find that Amon Amarth albums have a very distinctive sound, that you know who it is within the first few bars of a song.
Söderberg: I think we have always played the same style, never changed our style, so we've been working within this specific sound. I think if you do something for a long time, you do develop a very specific sound.
Porosky: How has the band evolved since you first joined in 1998?
Söderberg: The songwriting hasn't changed that much, but the production has become better with each album.
Porosky: Do you think the production value has to do with the development of your own skills in the studio, the producers you've chosen to work with or the improved technology readily available?
Söderberg: It's a little bit of everything.
Porosky: What's the most important thing you've learned about recording since you first went into the studio?
Söderberg: I would say to have one guy in control over how it's going to sound instead of having all five of us in the band having our own opinions. We should know that the producer can take care of how everything should sound from instrument to instrument. We've worked with producer Jens Bogren for two albums now and we pretty much know what he likes, and that's what we like too.
Porosky: How do your individual playing styles affect the overall sound of each album?
Söderberg: I think it's like when you put five peoples together, it's going to have its own sound. If I were to change one of the members, it would change also the sound of the band.
Porosky: As a guitarist, how important is it to you to find the right tone?
Söderberg: It's really important. I like a powerful tone that's not too distorted so you can hear what you're playing. I want to hear the instrument.
Porosky: Do you ever have trouble capturing the right tone?
Söderberg: Not in the studio so much, because there you have much time to dial it in, but sometimes live, if you play some festival somewhere and they can't provide the gear you want, then it can be kind of hard to get the sound you want. On a tour like this, we have the same amplifiers every night, so it's easy. We have an endorsement deal with Peavey. We get our amps from them, and every [overseas] tour we do this.
Porosky: Do you use the same gear when you tour that you would use in the studio to try and recapture the sound of the albums?
Söderberg: Pretty much, yeah. I have a Gibson Explorer, totally standard pickups and everything, and then we have very heavy gauge strings. We each [on guitar] use .013 to .062 strings so it's easier to tune down and remain there.
Porosky: For the musicians out there, how far do you tune down?
Söderberg: We tune down five half steps, so we tune to B, and on some tunes we even tune down to A.
Porosky: How long did it take to record "Twilight of the Thunder God?
Söderberg: Seven weeks total.
Porosky: Did that include the writing process?
Söderberg: No, we wrote the album in the time from beginning of January to the end of April, so four months, and then we were in the studio seven weeks after that.
Porosky: What is your favorite song off the new album to perform?
Söderberg: That's kind of hard. I'll have to think about that… I haven't even played every song live yet! Only four or five songs we've played live so far.
Porosky: How do you decide which songs off a new album to include in your set?
Söderberg: That's always the same, having to decide this. We try to think of what the fans want to hear but nobody had heard the album before we went on tour. The album was released at same time we started tour, so we hadn't got any feedback from the fans what they like most, so we had to pick the ones that we thought would go over well with the fans.
Porosky: And what's going over the best so far?
Söderberg: "Free Will Sacrifice," maybe. That's actually one of my favorite songs from the album.
Porosky: Can you tell us how that song was written?
Söderberg: That's a song that me and [guitarist] Olavi [Mikkonen] wrote together. I made half, the first half, and he made the second half that we later combined. I think those songs usually turn out the best because we have a different style. When we do a song together, it gets a nice dynamic in it. If I write a song complete myself, it can, of course, be good as well, but you don't get the same colliding between the riffs. Then we bring the riffs to the rehearsal space and we show it to the drummer Fredrik [Andersson] and if we have an idea on the drums we tell him how to play it. If we don't have an idea for the drums, then he has to play around with it. After a song is done music-wise, Johan [Hegg] the vocalist, he usually sits in a room, listens to the song, and writes the lyrics while he hears it.
Porosky: Is this how the band normally approaches songwriting?
Söderberg: That's the most common way. Sometimes, everybody in rehearsal place comes in with ideas and we make a song altogether, and sometimes I make a song completely at home in my home studio and bring it to rehearsal place, or Olavi makes songs at his home studio.
Porosky: Did you approach anything differently on this album?
Söderberg: The only thing that's completely different this time is that we have used guest musicians on some of the songs.
Porosky: Lars Goran Petrov from Entombed is in there, Roope Latvala from Children of Bodom has a guitar solo on the title track, and Apocalyptica has a guest appearance, which I totally dig. Can you tell us what was behind any of these decisions?
Söderberg: When we write the song ["Guardians of Asgaard"], it was the kind of song that everybody jammed together in the rehearsal place and came up with a song, and we just felt that we should have two vocalists on that one. And then the idea came up to have Entombed singer L.G. Petrov. The string part from Apocalyptica on "Live for the Kill," we got that idea in the studio. Our producer thought it would be cool to have a break with the strings, and then we contacted Apocalyptica and asked if they wanted to do it. They were very happy to do it.
Porosky: And your label, Metal Blade Records, must have been happy too: your contract was recently extended for three more albums. Why did you decide to stay on?
Söderberg: We were satisfied with them and we have worked with them for so long, it's more like a friendship relationship now.
Porosky: I know the band's seventh studio album "Twilight of the Thunder God" just came out Sept. 30, but I have to ask: how soon do you plan on heading back into the studio?
Söderberg: I think around maybe two years from now, or maybe one and a half.
Porosky: Is writing something you're always thinking about or do you try to keep touring and writing separate?
Söderberg: We usually keep it pretty separate because when we finish with an album, I have no ideas left. I have to tour and play live for a long time before I get new ideas.
Porosky: Touring can be grueling experience. What keeps you motivated?
Söderberg: It's not that hard now because we have a nice bus and we only sleep when the bus is rolling to save time. The show, you know, couple hours after that, the bus starts rolling, and then next day you wake up and you're already at the next town, so you don't really notice the traveling.
Porosky: How do you keep yourselves entertained on the road, when you're not sleeping that is?
Söderberg: We don't listen to music so much in the bus, we mostly look at movies. We buy DVD movies and look at them. I like horror movies and sci-fi movies.
Porosky: With Halloween just around the corner, what's your favorite go-to horror flick?
Porosky: Original or remake?
Söderberg: Yes, the first one. I like the remake as well, though.
Porosky: Anything weird or spooky ever happen out on the road?
Söderberg: One time we lost two wheels from the bus on the highway.
Porosky: Did they just fall off or something?
Söderberg: Yeah. We looked outside and we see the wheels rolling beside the bus. That was unusual. We were some place in France. It was good luck that it was a Sunday so it was not much cars on the road.
Porosky: I take it touring is a little more relaxing now than it used to be.
Söderberg: It's much more comfortable now. We can rent nice buses and have a full crew working for us. In the beginning, we built our stage ourselves, and sometimes we drove ourselves in the van.
Porosky: How has the audience changed?
Söderberg: The only change, I think, is it grows for every time we play and the reaction is hugely better also each tour.
Porosky: Next up is The Unholy Alliance: Chapter III tour across Europe with Slayer, Trivium and Mastodon.
Söderberg: Oh yeah, that's going to be really fun. I hope as many people as possible come out to shows and check it out.
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