Sabaton Frontman: Under Any Circumstance, If Possible, The Show Must Go On
Few bands unleash such a high-octane blend of unbridled energy and earnest passion as Sabaton. For nearly a decade, this Swedish six-piece has been retelling the solemn history of war in poetic, musical terms - and the result has been a blazing heavy metal machine that recalls the most triumphant moments of Manowar, Grave Digger, and Nightwish. Prioritizing fact over fantasy, these camouflaged ammo-belt-clad troops have set themselves apart from their Dungeon Master peers in the power metal scene and created a distinct brand that has won them rabid fans all over Europe and now, across the pond.
After signing with the powerful Nuclear Blast label, Sabaton won wide acclaim for their fifth studio album, "Coat Of Arms,"  after which came a highly publicized North American tour with Germany's Accept. Following the recent release of their double live album "World War Live: Battle Of The Baltic Sea," Sabaton returned to support their fellow countrymen Evergrey on this, their second-ever run on this continent. Prior to their gig at Montreal's Les Foufounes Électriques (The Electric Ass), I caught up with talkative singer Joakim Brodén. He shared his thoughts and insights on songwriting, lyrics, history, and heavy metal in general - as well as some colorful and amusing touring stories.
Mike Smith (OverkillExposure): Firstly, I’d like to congratulate you for all you’ve achieved in the past year or two. I’ve been a fan since “Metalizer” [debut recorded in 2002] was finally released in 2007, when Sabaton was still very much underground. Now that Nuclear Blast has finally come around and given you some worldwide exposure, I couldn’t be happier. I knew it was just a matter of time.
Joakim Brodén: [Laughs] Thank you, man!
Mike: Let’s start out with your musical style. Bands under the power metal umbrella are very well received in Europe. Now that you’ve begun touring North America, how have you gauged the fan responses and crowd reactions? Any differences?
Joakim: Well, not really. I’d say there are fewer fans of that kind of metal over here, and the same goes for the U.K., I think. But it seems the people who like this kind of music are very loyal and very into it, so they go to a lot of shows whenever that kind of music is there. I like the vibe, and this may sound a little “Manowar-ish,” but it’s like brothers sticking together. While in Europe, you have a lot of people arguing over bands. Like, “I don’t like Stratovarius; I prefer Helloween,” or whatever. But over here, it’s like, “Oh! Finally, some of that music is coming over here – let’s go out and support it!”
Mike: I understand you’ve had some temporary changes in the live lineup this year due to family commitments and injuries. Is everything back on an even keel now?
Joakim: Oh, yeah. It was for a short while, really. It was a short tour we did in March, and Rickard [Sundén, guitar/backing vocals] stayed home because his child was about to be born. So we figured, “Eh, he can be home for the first child, but for the second child, we don’t give a fuck!” [Laughs] But seriously, while the band means everything to us, it’s his family. So we didn’t push him. He said, “If you ask me to stay [on tour], I will.” And we said, “Fuck it. If you want to be there, be there.” So we got Frederic [Leclerq] from Dragonforce to join us, and we’ve known him for quite some time. He’s a really good guitar player and singer. So he fit the bill perfectly, also personally. And then, while on that tour, Daniel’s [Mullback, drums] knees were acting up. We were worried, but he was panicking, because he thought it was because of the drumming! Turns out, it wasn’t – it was his other job. When we weren’t on tour, he was helping out with his father’s business and laying floor tiles, so he was on his knees all the time for two whole months. [Laughs] He just needed to take it easy for a month, and then he came back and hasn’t had any problems since. But he’s off the tiling, though! We told him, “If you ever do that shit again, we’ll kill you!” [Laughs]
Mike: Speaking of Dragonforce, I heard a story about one of their members rewriting your lyrics in the “Primo Victoria” chorus.
Joakim: Yep, if I remember correctly, it went like this: [Singing]
Can I wank you off? / Can I put your cock in my mouth? / Can you reach around... / MY HAIRY BALL BAG?
Can I lick your ass? / Can I play with your dad’s huge cock? / Can I cup your balls... / TEABAG YOUR GRANDMA?
That was on tour in 2006! [Laughs]
Mike: I guess a live album was inevitable, but what made you feel now was the correct and appropriate time to record and release “World War Live?”
Joakim: The fans, actually. There were so many requesting it, and so many people wanting a “greatest hits” kind of thing. Also, people love our songs, but the live experience is what they really like. And when people ask me about Sabaton, I want to introduce them to something. So I say, “I want you to hear this song from ‘Primo Victoria ,’ that one from ‘The Art Of War ,’ that part from ‘Coat Of Arms,’” like that. So we figured the live experience is a great way to introduce us to fans that don’t know Sabaton at all and want to know what it’s about. We don’t do any tricky overdubs on the albums or anything like that; we can actually play it all live because we choose not to put in backing tracks.
Mike: And is there a new studio album in the works?
Joakim: Yes, we start recording on the 2nd of January.
Mike: Can we expect Sabaton to stay the course, or do something a bit different?
Joakim: Hmmm… I don’t know how to say it, really. It’s a secret. [Laughs] It will be about war, but I’m quite sure everybody will be very surprised. It will be a concept album following a red thread from start to finish.
Mike: With such a distinctive sound, how far do you feel you can push stylistic boundaries and experiment musically without alienating your fan base?
Joakim: We keep trying NOT to push the boundaries, but every now and then, I have a song that I’m not sure whether Sabaton can do. I mean, “Cliffs Of Gallipoli” sounds almost like Meatloaf at times! And then we’ve got “Final Solution,” which is not really metal at all, except for some parts. So we always listen to it and ask, “Can we do this?” And then we always come back to it and ask, “Do we like this song? Yes. Is it a good song? Yes. OK, it’s on the fucking album!” We wouldn’t do this for the heck of it, but if we do a song that’s closer to Deep Purple, and we really like it, it’s gonna be on the album. If we do something that’s more like Pantera, then that’s on the album too. So for one song or two, we’ll push sometimes because it’s fun, and a good song is a good song.
Mike: I think whatever style you tackle, it can be put in “Sabaton mode.”
Joakim: Right. The lyrics make it distinctive. Also the guitar playing by Rickard and Oskar [Montelius] puts a special punch in it, and so do my voice and Daniel’s drumming, which is a little more old school style, instead of technical. So if we do it, it still sounds like Sabaton.
Mike: In the past few years, we’ve seen an explosion of “themed” bands. Vikings, pirates, that sort of thing…
Joakim: Oh yeah, it’s huge in Europe! Folk metal, pagan metal, and all the Viking related stuff. Nothing wrong with that. I mean, Amon Amarth is a fantastic band. They’ve been doing this for ages, since way before it was trendy. But the funny thing is, it’s kind of strange to have people from Germany starting bands like that. It’s like, “Why are you singing about Vikings? WE Scandinavians were the ones coming to fuck YOU up!” [Laughs]
Mike: Nowadays, it seems to be more about the vibe associated with the music than anything else.
Joakim: Yeah, and there are bands I do really like. Amon Amarth has their own style, and I really like that, and also the band from the Faroe Islands, Týr. They have their own touch of ancient Nordic folk melodies, and they’re from a part of the world that’s basically isolated from everything. So that translates quite well into the music.
Mike: If we’re to include Sabaton in the whole “themed metal” scene, what keeps that fire burning inside you to make you stand out? How do you harness your lyrics to genuinely express yourself, and avoid sounding gimmicky or phony?
Joakim: By choosing subjects that I actually care about, which is one of the reasons we started writing about war. It was an accident that we had the song “Primo Victoria” and no lyrics for it, and we thought, “This has a huge sound, and it needs a huge subject.” D-Day fit perfectly. We had had the song “Panzer Battalion” without lyrics, and the same thing happened. And then we realized, “Hey, let’s make a whole album – only about war!” And that turned into some more albums. [Laughs] But before that, writing lyrics was a necessary evil. All of a sudden, it became fun and interesting, and much easier for me as a singer to give it an emotional delivery. It might look like a big paradox when we play live, though, ‘cause we’re happy fuckers. [Laughs] We’re smiling and yelling, “Clap along!” as we’re singing “The Price Of A Mile,” which is about half a million people dying in WWI. So it might be a big paradox, but at a live show in general, people are there to have fun and enjoy the music, so maybe we shouldn’t stick to the depressing fact that 55 million people died in WWII. We may not sing about the most politically correct subjects, but we don’t spread political or religious propaganda. We will choose a subject that we like, that we can deliver emotionally. Especially for the vocals, but also for the guitars and everything. At the start of “The Art Of War” album, we’ve got a fucking aggressive moshing song, “Ghost Division,” about Rommel’s push into France. And it’s not really the best move to start an album that way, not from a German point of view, or a French point of view either. [Laughs] But musically, that song feels like fucking Blitzkrieg tanks running you over. That was the perfect subject to fit the song, and it was almost kind of a safe bet, because Rommel was never accused of any war crimes. He wasn’t part of the Final Solution or the Holocaust. He was a general doing his job, a very good soldier and commander. And when the Nazis forced him to commit suicide, even Winston Churchill said that the British had now lost their last gentlemanly opponent.
Mike: Rommel’s story also fits in pretty nicely with the overall concept of the art of war, from all sides.
Joakim: Right. There are thirteen chapters in the book and thirteen tracks on the album, and each song corresponds with a chapter. The first chapter is an introduction, but the second chapter states outright that in war, sometimes you can be too hasty and make stupid decisions by rushing, but no war has ever been won by taking it easy or going on the defensive. So in a sense, it’s talking about Blitzkrieg.
Mike: In the liner notes of the soundtrack CD for the film “United 93,” composer John Powell declared that his score represents a “prayer for peace.” That phrase reminds me of the vibe I get from a lot of Sabaton songs. Do you feel that despite the warlike lyrics, Sabaton is ultimately a peaceful band?
Joakim: We’re very peaceful people! We don’t get into fights, ever. [Laughs] I don’t think we’ve ever been in a bar fight or anything like that. But I wouldn’t call myself a pacifist. I would never go to war; I’d never sign up for an army and go somewhere else. But fuck, if some army comes to Sweden and starts killing and raping our friends and neighbors and families, I’ll pick up a gun and do whatever I could. So I don’t know where I stand on that, but I think General Schwarzkopf, who led Desert Storm, put it quite nicely. He said, “Any solider worth his salt should be antiwar. And still, there are things worth fighting for.”
Mike: What new topics can we expect Sabaton to cover with the upcoming album?
Joakim: There will be stuff we haven’t sung about before, but all I can say is that from the WWII things we focused on with “Coat Of Arms,” we’re going further back into history.
Mike: While you did “Midway” on the last album, I’m frankly surprised that Sabaton hasn’t done a “Day of Infamy” song about Pearl Harbor.
Joakim: I’ve actually had that song since 2006 or 2007. I just haven’t finished it yet. I never rush songs. I started writing “Cliffs Of Gallipoli” in 2005, and put it out three years later. So when it’s done, it’s done. Right after “Coat Of Arms,” we didn’t know what the fuck we wanted for the next album, so we had some planning to do – for the next one AND the one after that! After that, we don’t know, maybe it’ll be time for another live album or a proper DVD or something like that. And after that, who knows? I’d actually be surprised if all our albums wind up being about war, but I think we’ll stick to it. Maybe just for fun, we’ll do an album that’s not about war, called “Cease Fire.” [Laughs]
Mike: What’s your take on subgenres, and the obsessive categorization in metal these days? Do you feel it’s helping or hurting?
Joakim: I guess it depends. In one sense, “power metal” can mean “geeky children’s songs with a slightly distorted guitar and a singer without balls.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I mean, I fucking love Helloween. Well, they’re not really like that, but there are certain bands, maybe from Italy, where it really does sound like it’s for kids. The local support you get in Italy… You wouldn’t believe it, dude. They’ve got flutes and everything. EVERYBODY’s got a flute, and they’re playing along, Doo-do-Doo-do-Doo, and we’re like, “WHAT THE FUCK?” [Laughs] Nothing to do with metal at all! They distort only the chorus, and the rest is folk music. Nothing wrong with folk music, but I wouldn’t want to see it at a heavy metal show. So I gave up trying to keep track of subgenres. I know the difference between heavy metal, black metal, death metal, or hard rock, but if I’m going to explain a band to someone, I’ll just say, “It’s heavy metal like Pantera or Metallica,” or “It’s heavy metal like Accept.” Other than that, who cares?
Mike: How about touring? What are some left-field bands people might not expect to see you paired with?
Joakim: We did about three weeks in Russia with the Scorpions, actually! That was nice and kind of unexpected. When we got the invitation, we were a bit worried about the transportation. It’s Russia, y’know, with Tupolevs going down all over the place, and we didn’t want to use domestic flights there. And the band said, “No worries, you’ll join us on a private plane.” So we’re like, “Check, please – we’re going!” [Laughs] Fun tour. Three weeks in Russia, private plane, we didn’t even carry our own bags when we transferred. We’d just get on a transport directly from the plane, and then 20 minutes later, a knock on the door – “Here’s your bag, sir.” “What? I can carry my own bag.” [Shakes head] “No.” [Laughs] The Scorpions even had bulletproof windows. They’re huge over there, and I remember a signing session where they closed off half of this big fucking mall-sized electronics store, something comparable to a huge, mega Best Buy where it takes you five minutes to walk from end to end. They had to close off half of that. They had security from hell, and I think the queue for the signing session was something like half a mile.
Mike: On almost every Sabaton record, you’ve done a metal “devotional” track, where you pay tribute to the founding fathers of the genre and other veteran bands that have inspired you. In the future, can we expect to hear songs that take into account more recent artists as metal history unfolds?
Joakim: I don’t know. With the next album, we’re going for a concept like we did with “The Art Of War,” although the only similarity will be the fact that there’s a concept and a timeline – which would disqualify the “metal” related song from that album. For the future, though, hell, why not? I enjoy writing those songs. It’s a good way to clear your mind when you’re working on music and lyrics that are serious and sad, to take a break and say, “OK, let’s go ‘80s with cheesy keyboards, and all that!” [Laughs] It’s fun. Normally I’m very careful writing lyrics. I have to check the facts, and if I have five different sources, I have to find which one is most reliable. Of course I’ll make mistakes, and of course somebody who’s read from another source will claim we’ve made a mistake about numbers, how many killed or shot down, or stuff like that. But it’s quite nice to have a few beers and have a laugh while we’re at it.
Mike: Even though you don’t want to spread propaganda, do you feel Sabaton has any kind of general message you wish to impart to your fans?
Joakim: In that case, I think the only thing we really “say” out loud in our lyrics is that most of the time, it’s not the soldiers’ fault. And that caused quite a controversy in Poland, with the song “40:1.” [About the 1939 Battle of Wizna, a last desperate stand against invading German forces] That gave us a really high-profile stage; we did a press conference on national TV and shit. And then we did the “Uprising” song [About the 1944 Warsaw Uprising], and the video was shown seven times on the anniversary. The video is about five minutes long, and this investment bank bought airtime on Polish national TV throughout the day, and played the entire video during every commercial break, instead of the regular commercials. I don’t know how much money they spent, but they just put our logo at the end of the video and left the rest untouched. So a lot of Polish people saw that video. And then we did the song “Wehrmacht,” and the Germans really took it the wrong way. They didn’t like that we were asking, “Crazy madmen on a leash, or young men who lost their way?” Due to propaganda. It’s worth questioning – was the regular Wehrmacht soldier really aware of what was going on, or was he only doing his job? And I think people kind of forget that. Everybody with a German uniform from ’33 to ’45 is considered Satan. People don’t realize, especially kids these days. My mother is from the Czech Republic, so I went and visited when I was a kid, before the Iron Curtain fell, when it was Czechoslovakia. I visited there, and in East Germany, and there was no YouTube! There was no fucking freedom of speech! You couldn’t print whatever you wanted in the magazines! And it was even worse in Nazi Germany. If Goebbels and Adolf told people “Hey, the Jews are the reason we’re in such a heavy depression after the War because they sold us out, yada yada yada,” that is what people would hear and believe. It’s not like somebody could post something on YouTube saying, “This is wrong.” They’d try to spread the message to their neighbor, who’d rat them out to the Gestapo, and they’d be shot. It was the same with the Iron Curtain, and I remember it. It was fucked up. Compared to West Germany, East Germany was a concrete, gray wasteland.
Mike: You have a unique voice in metal. Do you ever have trouble taking care of it? Ever blow it out or get too hoarse?
Joakim: Well, I only cancelled one show ever, and that was by doctor’s orders, because it was so bad. Luckily enough, our drummer Daniel had an infection in his throat, so we had a backup singer doing his harmony vocals, and he took my part. So we never cancelled the show, actually! I think we’ve done about 500 shows, and none have been cancelled – not for our own reasons, anyway. Sometimes there’ll be a flood and the promoter has to cancel. Nothing you can do about that, really. But we never cancelled due to medical reasons, or showing up late, or anything like that. So we’re lucky. On a tour, we’ll usually do five shows, a day off, and then five more shows, and I usually don’t drink. I’ll have beer with dinner, but I don’t call that “drinking.” I don’t party, let’s put it that way. Not too much. But then when it’s a Saturday and you have a day off Sunday, sure. I love a party, but I don’t think my will to party should put me in a position where I have a bad voice or a hangover for the people the next day. But I don’t say no to signing sessions or meet-and-greets. That all comes with it. The only time I’ll say no to signing sessions or autographs is when I’m sick and I don’t want people to catch whatever I have. I do know some singers, quite a few actually, who won’t even shake hands with friends backstage ‘cause they’re so afraid of catching something. I think the more you stay away from things, and the more you worry about it, the bigger the chance you’ll get it. So I only take regular human precautions. Sometimes I’ll stay away from an after party even if I want to go, if I know people are gonna be smoking inside, and there’ll be loud music, and I have to shout at people. I don’t want to fuck up my voice for the next day, so I don’t go. But if somebody offers me an alternative, like sitting and chatting quietly here in the tour bus, having a beer – I’m in. As long as I don’t have to scream and drink thousands of beers. [Laughs]
Mike: Yeah, it is possible to have controlled fun.
Joakim: It’s good to have one of those crazy nights every now and then. We got a few opportunities. There was an after party in Moscow after the last show with the Scorpions, and there was no show for three days. Hell, you can recover from anything over three days off! [Laughs] And then in Europe, we have so many classic heavy metal festivals, anywhere from 5,000 to 40,000 to 60,000 people, and there are so many bands you’ve toured with before and old friends you meet. The festivals go on from Thursday to Saturday, or even Sunday, and if it’s the last day at a festival, and you’re not playing for another six days, at that point sometimes things get a little bit out of hand. We’ve never destroyed things, but we have ended up almost naked and mud wrestling with all the bands. [Laughs]
Mike: Any last thoughts on behalf of Sabaton before we wrap this up?
Joakim: I think it’s time we come back to North America as headliners. We’ve been getting so many requests for it. And we know it’s not gonna be too much people compared to Europe. We’ll probably get less then ten percent of what we’re used to. But on the other hand, that’s how we started out in Europe, and as soon as we have the opportunity and the timing is right, we will be back. We really don’t care if it’s only 280 people instead of 2,800. It’s just as fun to play. We did a show ages ago where only five people paid!
Mike: FIVE? You’re a six-piece band. You outnumbered the crowd!
Joakim: Most people cancel if they get less than 20 or 30 or 40, but we have a saying: if we can possibly do the show under any circumstance, we’re fucking gonna do it. So we made the best of it and we bought all five people in the crowd free beer! [Laughs]
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