GRAND MAGUS – Forged In Iron
Stockholm, Sweden-based heavy rock outfit Grand Magus began penning tracks in support of eighth full-length studio album Sword Songs during roughly May 2015, the platter arriving a year later in May 2016. Previous effort Triumph And Power emerged in January 2014. Nevertheless, vocalist and guitarist Janne ‘JB’ Christoffersson isn’t enthusiastic about initial songwriting attempts during the overall authoring process.
“I’ve said this in other interviews, but when I start to write, it’s usually quite terrible because my first attempts are crap,” he admits. “It usually takes me about a month to kind of find something to latch onto that makes me feel that it’s worthwhile listening to. Inspiration then kind of turned up, and so we went into the studio in mid-October I think. It was a pretty quick writing process, but very condensed.”
Throughout that initial month of songwriting, the frontman warms up and gets in the rhythm as it were. “Yeah, I think so,” he agrees. “I’m not the type of person who goes around writing music all the time. I need special, separated time to think about an album, and all it entails – the feel and the type of music, and whatever. So, I’m usually quite cold when I go into it. After a while though, you kind of find your method. It’s different for all albums, but the warm-up or the start-up process is usually the same.”
JB isn’t a musician who constantly devises riffs, with a guitar constantly in hand. “I never think about new music while we’re on tour, or anything like that,” he shares. “It needs to be a special time reserved for writing.”
The Grand Magus mainman isn’t always the sole songwriter within the camp, but always performs a central role. “It’s been different over the years, actually,” he divulges. “Some albums have definitely been the result of jamming together in the rehearsal room, but I would say that the last three albums have been more or less me on my own. Obviously the other two guys bring in their playing ideas and everything, so it’s not like I’m dictating how everything should sound or anything like that. The basic structure of the songs and the melodies and stuff though, that’s what I write.”
Whenever assuming sole songwriter duties, JB ensures that musical variation exists within a given album-length effort. “That’s really a challenge,” he confesses. “It’s very easy to fall into a kind of mechanical way of doing songs, which means that they all end up sounding pretty much the same. You have to be very on your toes to avoid that, so that’s definitely something that I try to think a lot about – that you need to have variation. You need to make sure that the songs really stand out from each other, and not just become kind of a porridge (laughs).”
Theoretically speaking, ensuring musical variation becomes increasingly difficult as a group’s catalogue grows. “In some ways, yes, but in some ways, no,” the composer muses. “I think that I’m much more accomplished as a writer today than I was when we started the band. Then, it was very much hit and miss, I think, but it’s hard to judge your own music. We just tried to make our music as honest as we can, so that each album is a very honest representation of where the band is at at that particular time, which means that the albums sound different and the songs are different too.”
Grand Magus struck upon its given style with the release of June 2005’s Wolf’s Return. “I think that our third album – Wolf’s Return – was where we really kind of found our style of metal – I think we haven’t really changed the style since then, but just written different songs,” JB critiques. “I think that the style is quite recognisable from that album onwards, though. The first two albums were a bit different. I think the first album (Grand Magus, November 2001) is very bluesy – it’s very blues-based – and then we did the second album (Monument, November 2003) which had quite a strong doom-type feel to it, because some of the songs were really, really slow and heavy. Yeah though, from Wolf’s Return onwards I think we have a very recognisable style.”
That aforementioned ‘very recognisable style’ is prevalent on Sword Songs. “Like I said, it’s very hard to kind of judge your own music,” the lyricist figures. “For me though, I think this album has got a bit more intensity and maybe aggression than the last maybe two albums. Intensity-wise, I think it kind of compares to Iron Will (June 2008) a bit, but the sound is different. Really, I think you can find elements on this album that have turned up on all of our other albums before that. The collection of the songs this time and the sound and everything makes it what it is.”
JB has stated that Sword Songs is ‘faster and more aggressive’ than predecessor Triumph And Power. “It was a conscious decision to try to do that,” he reveals. “Of course, I’m not sure if that’s the thing that comes across, but it certainly does for me because we came off from… When you start doing an album, you kind of start where you were last. The last album was Triumph And Power, and that album to me had a very majestic feel to it, and that’s something we definitely wanted to retain. I thought also when we started on this one though, I at least made a conscious effort to try to write songs that were generally a bit faster in tempo, and have a bit more intensity in that respect. Songs like ‘Master Of The Land’ for instance, and also ‘Freja’s Choice’ and ‘Last One To Fall’, I think have a higher level of intensity in that respect compared to Triumph And Power.”
Nevertheless, Sword Songs isn’t fast throughout, and does boast changes in tempo. “Yeah, definitely,” the axeman seconds. “It’s not like we’ve written a fast album – that’s not the case. There are so many nuances to music that for me though, it’s all about feel. My feeling about this album is that it’s got a higher level of intensity and energy to it, but the difference isn’t huge. It’s not like we’ve done Reign In Blood (Slayer, October 1986) or something, because we do a completely different type of music than that.”
Norse mythology inevitably comprises Sword Songs’ lyrical fabric. “There’s a lot of stuff going on, generally,” JB reckons. “During the last few albums, I guess I’ve been a bit more vocal about what the lyrics are about. Generally though, I prefer the listeners to really make up their own minds, and also to kind of find the inspiration or the themes behind the lyrics, because it’s not hard. For instance, on this album, there are two songs about female figures in the Norse mythology; Freja on ‘Freja’s Choice’ obviously, and ‘Frost And Fire’, that one is inspired by a giantess called Angrboða.
“What else do we have?… ‘Varangian’ is inspired by the Varangian guard, who were essentially Vikings who were hired by the Byzantine emperors to act as their bodyguards, so that’s like a historical thing. Also, ‘Born For Battle’ is inspired by a historical figure called Bertrand du Guesclin, who was a French general in the Hundred Years’ War. Those are a few of the things that are on there, but there are a lot of other themes running through it.”
Albeit inspired by Norse mythology as well as history, more personal topics are masked within the lyrical content. “All lyrics that I write have a strong connection with…,” the singer begins. “Well, they have personal aspects of course. I just feel that a lot of the stories and myths, the reason that they have survived is because they say something about us as human beings and about us in connection with the rest of the planet – animals, and trees, and the sea, and everything like that.
“For me, it’s just a very natural way of expressing both my fantasies and emotions and everything. The Norse mythology thing is something that I was brought up with – bedtime stories about the Norse gods, and stuff like that – and it’s something that I became more and more interested in as I grew older. It’s just a very natural language for me, I guess.”
Recording sessions took place at Studio Supa in Stockholm, Sweden with producer Nico Elgstrand. “It’s not easy,” JB laughs. “This is the fourth album we’ve done together with him. The good part is that he knows what we’re after. He’s also very extremely critical, which means that you can’t try to do something 50%. You have to give it everything that you have, both writing wise and performance wise.
“We put a lot of trust in him and his judgement, and I think it’s been working really well. The downside I guess is that usually, the recording is very gruelling. It takes a big mental toll on me, because I’m involved from day one when we start to record the drums until whatever day it is. Then I have to do the guitars and then I have to do the vocals, so it’s tough. It has taken me a couple of months to recover, actually.”
Friendships likely become resultantly strained during the recording process. “Yeah, that’s absolutely true,” the axe-slinger concedes. “You just have to find a balance there, I guess. I think we both feel that once you start to do the record though, then that’s what you do. You don’t really mix that with our social bond, because we’re great friends and we’ve been great friends for many, many years. We also seem to be able to work together though, even though it’s tough.”
Differences of opinion naturally exist on occasion during the recording process, causing one to wonder what occurs in the event of. “It depends a lot on what the difference of opinion is,” JB ponders. “If I’m convinced I’m right, then I’m gonna fight until that becomes the reality. Many times though, I don’t think you are that sure. If the person is dead sure, then you have a nagging doubt within yourself that he’s got a point. Then obviously, you have to go with the way that you know would be the best end result for the album. So, I’d say it depends. Sometimes I say ‘No, that’s not gonna happen,’ or sometimes he says that ‘You’re the boss, but if you do this then you will regret it.’ It’s give and take, I would say.”
Whether future Grand Magus platters will include the involvement of Nico Elgstrand is uncertain. “I don’t know,” the vocalist wonders. “I never realised that we would do four records together, so there’s no… I mean, to be honest, when you’ve just finished an album, the last thing you want to think about is to record another album. So, in the future, we’ll see when, where, and how we’re going to do the next album. Things change. You never know, but I think the albums that we’ve done together have been really, really good. I can definitely see us doing more albums together in the future, yeah.”
JB’s vocal and guitar contributions towards Sword Songs weren’t altogether pre-determined prior to entering the studio. “Vocal-wise, I can say that we usually…,” he elaborates. “I mean, I have a definite idea about what it’s going to be before we enter the studio. At the same time though, we kind of leave the door quite open, and we do quite a lot of improvisation in the studio, actually – especially when it comes to transitional parts, and stuff. You realise that some things don’t really work and that you need to do something else, so vocal-wise, there’s quite a lot of off-the-cuff stuff going on.
“Guitar-wise, I think that I’m really happy with the sound – the guitar sound on this album – and how they sound as a whole. The actual playing, I think there’s some really good or cool solos on this album, and I think they stand out perhaps a bit more than they did in the past. All in all, the guitar playing was fun this time, and was pretty easy, actually. I think I was better prepared than I was on The Hunt (May 2012), for instance.
“The Hunt was kind of special anyway, because we’d just lost our drummer (Sebastian ‘Seb’ Sippola) and got a new drummer (Ludwig ‘Ludde’ Witt), and there was a lot of stuff going on. I remember we were on tour with Amon Amarth with our old drummer at the same time as the new album was being mixed in Sweden. Anyway, that doesn’t have anything to do with the preparation. It was a time of transition though, which meant that I didn’t really spend enough time I think practising before we went into the studio. That meant that the guitar recordings took a lot longer than it should’ve done. On this album, I made sure that there were no questions about how I should play a riff or whatever. I had practiced a bit more, and the same thing on Triumph And Power. I was just better prepared.”
A period of transition, May 2012’s The Hunt marked the first Grand Magus opus to be released through Nuclear Blast. “Yeah, exactly,” the guitarist replies. “That was just another ingredient that made it a very transitional period. A new drummer, a new record label. Just everything was totally different, and in many ways just totally up in the air as well.”
Transitional periods or otherwise, Grand Magus have remained a productive entity, issuing their eight respective studio albums steadily over a 15-year tenure – three years being the longest gap between records. “It was three years between Wolf’s Return and Iron Will,” JB augments. “I think that we will do another album when we’re ready. This album, we had planned to make it earlier even, but we just felt that we weren’t ready yet. I don’t have a plan; it’s not like we put out an album every second year just to do that. It just happens that way, really. If we need more time before we do another one, then we will take it.”
Groups would issue albums frequently in the 70s, sometimes twice in a single year. “Yeah, that’s true,” the frontman comments. “On the other hand though, many of those bands burnt out pretty quickly. Deep Purple, for instance. They put out an incredible amount of music in a very short time, but it also took its toll. We’ve been going now for over 15 years, and we’ve done eight albums. Even though all of our albums may not be perfect, I think they have a high level of quality to them. I don’t think we’ve ever done a shit album, and that takes time – at least for me (laughs).
“I think when you’re young, if you’re lucky, you end up in a very creative streak that maybe lasts for a couple of years, and you can do all you need to do to make a band last forever really – or, you could do that in the past. That’s not the way it has worked for us, though. Who knows? We don’t have any rules. If I feel like it in five months, maybe I’ll start writing a new album. I don’t think it’s likely, but if that’s the case, then that’s the case.”
Speaking of Deep Purple, performing bonus track duties on digipack editions of Sword Songs is a cover interpretation of ‘Stormbringer’. Written by guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and vocalist David Coverdale, the composition was originally featured on the November 1974 record of the same name.
“Stormbringer was like the first hard rock album that I really got into,” JB remembers. “I was very young, like four or five-years-old, but I had two much older brothers who were into Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Alice Cooper, and stuff like that. I sneaked into my brother’s room and saw the album artwork for Stormbringer and then he played me that song, and I loved it from the first time I heard it. Then when Ludwig joined the band, we started playing ‘Stormbringer’ on soundchecks – just doing like an instrumental version of it – so we all knew the song really well. We thought ‘Why not record it very quickly and see what happens?’ Also, I’ve always wanted to sing ‘Stormbringer’ because I think the melody is awesome. So, that was the reason really – just for fun. I think it turned out really cool.”
The Glenn Hughes / David Coverdale-era was a transitional period for Deep Purple. “Yeah,” the mainman concurs. “I love both Burn (February 1974) and Stormbringer – they’re great albums. Stormbringer has got a lot of kind of very groovy, funky stuff, but the sound on that album is just fantastic. I think it’s one of the best sounding albums that I’ve ever heard, regardless of the genre. I think it stacks up there with The Dark Side Of The Moon (March 1973) or Wish You Were Here (September 1975), and stuff like that. I really love the sound on that album.”
The interviewer writing this feature didn’t have JB pegged as a fan of Pink Floyd. “Yeah, absolutely,” he enthuses. “I mean, no-one in his right mind wouldn’t like Pink Floyd – at least that period. They sold like, what? 50 million records or something? So, I guess I’m not alone (laughs).”
Returning to the topic of the recording process for Sword Songs, Ludwig ‘Ludde’ Witt tracked his drum parts at Top Floor Studios in Gothenburg, Sweden with Roberto Laghi. “Before we started recording this album, we decided that we wanted someone else to mix it,” the songwriter explains. “Nico mixed The Hunt and mixed Triumph And Power, and so we decided that we wanted someone else to mix it. Nico actually came up with the idea to use Roberto Laghi. Not only is Roberto a great mixing engineer, but he’s also a great drum recording engineer. He’s based in Gothenburg, so we just decided to record the drums there. Ludwig used his kit, and yeah, it turned out pretty bombastic, I think.”
Sword Songs’ cover artwork was designed by Anthony Roberts, as was the case with predecessor Triumph And Power. “We got in touch with Anthony before we did Triumph And Power,” JB tells. “I thought he just nailed the cover to Triumph And Power, so for us there wasn’t any question that we wanted to use him again. Basically, I’m a big nature fan. I’m also very interested in birds, especially birds of prey, and I have been ever since I was a kid.
“There’s a species of eagle called the white-tailed eagle, which is the biggest bird of prey in northern Europe. It was almost extinct in Sweden in the 70s when I grew up, but now it has made a comeback. Where I live now, I see them from time to time. It’s just a huge emotional thing, so I wanted that specific species – the white-tailed eagle. The album is called Sword Songs, so we wanted to have an eagle clutching a Viking sword, and Anthony just nailed it again. I think it looks great (laughs).”
At the time of writing, whether a music video will be filmed to promote the release of Sword Songs is uncertain. “A good question,” the wordsmith ruminates. “We have plans to do one. It’s just it’s not as easy to make something that’s really good. We haven’t made a proper music video since ‘Hammer Of The North’ (from the June 2010 album of the same), which was six years ago. It’s definitely my ambition to have a proper video for this album; I don’t know when it’s going to be done and when it’s going to come out, but that’s the ambition at least.”
Sword Songs was released on May 13th, 2016 via Nuclear Blast Records.
Interview published in May 2016. All promotional photographs by Severin Schweiger.