HAMMERFALL – Hammering High
The writing process for November 2016 full-length studio album Built To Last – the tenth overall from Gothenburg, Sweden-based power metal outfit HammerFall – began in earnest during roughly October-November 2014, with guitarist Oscar Dronjak authoring an inaugural composition in support of the effort. However, songwriting sessions proper didn’t take place until almost a year later.
“That was just because I had some inspiration,” Oscar augments, speaking about late 2014. “It wasn’t like I sat down and tried to write some stuff. That started much later, probably about a year later, so I guess it’s fair to say that we started working on this album in September of 2015. Normally, we have six months that we dedicate to songwriting, only so that I can be home and work on the songs as much as I can do in that period. This time however, we did not have that luxury. We were doing a couple of tours up until almost at least two months before we started recording I think or something like that, which is highly unusual. It’s not something that I’m very comfortable with, because when I write songs, I wanna be at home – I wanna be in my controlled environment.
“I wanna be able to think about the songs not only when I’m working on them, but also afterwards like when I’m in the shower, or having dinner, or whatever. I let the songs grow in my mind a little bit. I did not have that luxury or the chance to get that done this time around, but it worked out anyway. It wasn’t the best way of writing to make me feel calm because it was kind of stressful at times, but I think I’m super-satisfied with the results. You trust your gut feeling as you go along, and it worked out really well in the end.”
Nevertheless, stress experienced during writing and recording sessions for Built To Last failed to hamper the eventual results. “It only affected the image or vision that I had of the album while I was writing it,” the axeman muses. “Normally, when I’m done with a song, I can take a little break from it and take a step back really. I can just enjoy what I’ve done and make sure to myself that it’s actually a good song, or a song that fits well on the album. I did not have that luxury for the most of the time this time. I had to trust my gut feeling; what I was doing, that I knew what I was doing, and that when I was done with it, it was alright. Then I had to go out and write the next track right away, so I didn’t get to savour the moment like I normally do.
“That was bit of an unusual period for me, and something that made me feel… I wasn’t 100% sure that the songs were what they ended up being until we actually started recording. By then, I had the time to sort of figure out the songs a little bit more. I’d rather not do it this way again (laughs), but I also know that it can work like this. It doesn’t have to be what you want it to be all the time, because the result is really good, anyway.”
Although Oscar happens to be HammerFall’s central songwriter in collaboration with vocalist Joacim Cans, the band’s other members nevertheless lend their influence towards the respective tracks. “Normally, Joacim and I write the songs together,” he explains. “We don’t sit down in the same room together. We never have done that, actually. Both of us prefer to write on our own, alone, when we’re able to think about it. Normally though, the way we do it is I write the guitar parts, the drums, and the instrumental parts, and if I have a chorus or a melody line here and there, I add that as well. Then Joacim takes over and finishes the vocal lines, and also the lyrics of course. This is how we have been working for about 20 years now, and this is something we both feel very comfortable with – this way of working. Also, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for interpretation or spur of the moment kinds of things.
“When I write a song, I’m thinking about the music a lot. From start to finish, it takes me about on average I’d say about a month to finish a song. That doesn’t mean I work on that song about eight hours a day; it means that’s how long it takes for me to creatively finish the song, basically. During that period of time, I usually try out a lot of different stuff, and a lot of different ways of doing things – whatever my mind comes up with. When it comes time for the recording, I try most of the things that I can think of in order to make the song as good as I can, which means that I sort of use trial and error to come up with – in my mind – the perfect way to create the song. So, that’s how I want it to be. Then that’s how it normally turns out, and it ends up being that.
“The other guys, they know what I’m trying to accomplish with my songwriting. It’s not like they have or feel a need to create their own… They do that, anyway; during the playing and mostly Pontus (Norgren, guitars) in terms of the solos, and Fredrik (Larsson) with the bass lines. That’s when the song really comes together, I guess. My demos are very one-dimensional compared to what the end result is, of course.”
Generally contributing to songwriting on a modest basis is guitarist Pontus Norgren. “Yeah, he usually writes some songs,” the composer confirms. “He had a bit of difficulty before the recordings this time, so he was only involved in writing one song this time. Normally, he has one or two songs. At least on (r)Evolution (August 2014), I think he was involved with three songs, but as things happened this time, he did not have time to engage so much in the songwriting. That was another bit of pressure for me, because I knew that I couldn’t count on Pontus coming up with anything. He was occupied. That’s why he’s only involved in one of the songs for this album, as opposed to the last one.”
Built To Last bears musical comparison to its immediate predecessor. “I would say that we started with (r)Evolution, which was a good mix of the old HammerFall and the new HammerFall,” Oscar describes. “I think this is a good continuation of that. Another factor that I think has to do with the fact that those two albums are similar is how they came about, because we recorded this album – Built To Last – in exactly the same way as we did (r)Evolution. We used my studios, Castle Black Studios, for drums, guitar, and bass. Then we moved onto James Michael’s studio in Los Angeles to do the vocals with Joacim, and Fredrik Nordström did the mix in the end, so it was exactly the same way of doing it. We felt ‘Why change a winning team?’ It worked really well on (r)Evolution. We all worked very fast and the result turned out great, so we figured to do it the same way now, and it turned out even better this time.”
Various spates of HammerFall platters within the catalogue share musical traits with one another. “I think if you look back on certain albums in time, in HammerFall history…,” the axe-slinger begins. “For example, say Chapter V (March 2005) and Threshold (October 2006), or Glory To The Brave (June 1997) and Legacy Of Kings (September 1998); those two sets of albums were made in time-frames when our mindsets were very similar. If you compare Renegade (October 2000) to Crimson Thunder (October 2002), you won’t get that feeling because a lot of stuff happened during those short years, whereas I’d say Glory To The Brave and Legacy Of Kings have a lot of things in common for example, and it’s the same thing with (r)Evolution and Built To Last.”
The majority of Built To Last’s lyrical content was authored by Joacim. “I’m not really involved in that process at all,” Oscar admits. “I know that he felt it was difficult to come up with stuff to sing about that he hadn’t already sung about though, because it’s our tenth album. That’s about a hundred songs’ worth of material that we’ve done, so sometimes it can be difficult to find the right way out of the problem. I think that’s what happened. He focused on stuff that he could sing well, and sort of built the story around those words. I mean, of course, normally I come up with the song titles, so he always has that to go on.
“In this case, actually for several of the choruses, I had already written the lyrics as well because they had just come to me. It wasn’t something I had planned on doing, but while I was writing the music, the lyrics also came to me. I think ‘New Breed’ is one of those and ‘Hammer High’ is another, so I think he gets a little bit of direction from what I think the song should be about. It has always been the same, though. I come up with the song titles and Joacim interprets them in however way he feels at that moment, but I never tell him ‘This is what I think about this song.’ He always gets his own input. Having said that, I think many of the songs on this album are about the heavy metal scene. Like you shouldn’t take shit from anybody, and just stand up for yourself, basically. I think that heavy metal should be empowering, and you should feel energised from listening to the music and when you hear the lyrics. This is something we always try to convey in our music, and on our records.”
Guitar-wise, the musician sought a specific dynamic in recording Built To Last. “It’s an ordinary album,” he judges. “What we went for… And this is something we’ve tried for a long time and for many albums, but it just never really worked. I felt we got it somewhat on (r)Evolution, which is to bring back the energy; the live feel of the guitars and the instruments as a whole, and to just have it raw and energised. Our keyword for (r)Evolution was hungry; it was always ‘Is this thing hungry enough? Does it sound hungry enough?’
“We continued with that on Built To Last, as well. It needed to sound like we really wanted to do this, and that we were full of life, basically. I think that’s one of the things we worked the hardest on, and one of the things that we ended up succeeding in as well. The guitars on this album are sounding better than I’ve ever done; I’ve never had a guitar sound like this on an album before, so I was very, very satisfied with how it turned out.”
Stepping behind the drumkit for Built To Last was David Wallin. “He took over… Well, he did all of the shows on this last tour, so it was very natural for him to go into the studio with us,” Oscar reckons. “Now that we’ve gotten to know him a little bit better, we’ve gotten to know his playing style, and so I’d say that the drums have never been as easy to record as they were this time.”
At the time of writing, David Wallin isn’t a permanent member of the HammerFall fold. “He’s a touring member, sort of a hired gun I guess you would say,” the performer clarifies. “That sounds so negative though, because he’s much more than that, but that’s it. He’s not a full-time member of the band, if that’s what you’re asking.”
The hiring of a full-time drummer isn’t on the cards, at the time of writing. “If we were looking, David would be the perfect choice,” Oscar commends. “We’re just not looking at this moment. I don’t know. We’ve never discussed that, actually. He is with us on a trial basis, and that’s how things are, basically. He’s not on a try-out, but the problem was that when Anders (Johansson) quit, we had to find somebody really quickly. I had never met him before – Joacim and Pontus had a meeting with him. Pontus knows him from before, but I had to trust their gut feeling that David was the right man for the job.
“When I met David for the first time was when we started rehearsing for the tour. It was quite unusual, I would say. For me, normally when you’re greeting a new member of the band on whatever basis – whether it be full-time, part-time or whatever – whenever you bring in a new guy, you normally meet him beforehand and hang out with him a little bit, but there was no time for that at that point. What we said at that time was ‘You do this tour,’ which was for Latin America, and then ‘There’s this tour for Europe.’ Those were the ones we needed him for right then. Then after that, we didn’t have much booked at that time, so we said ‘Let’s evaluate afterwards, and see where we’re going with this’.
“He just fit in; it was a really, really good fit. It was really cool to have him onboard. He energised the rest of us as well onstage, because the way he plays the songs… He plays them much more like they were on the record, whereas Anders would freebase a lot. He would play whatever he felt like at the moment, which could sometimes throw people off. I’m from that era in time where I like when I know that more or less this type of fill is gonna come at this time or moment. For me, the drum fills and the drums are almost a part of the songs.
“Let’s take Accept, for example; that’s a really good example, the ‘Metal Heart’ song (from the March 1985 album of the same name). There is no way that anybody who plays this song can get away with not playing the fills exactly the way they are. They’re so thought out and so perfect for what they’re doing and I like the drums to be that way, whereas Anders – and he’s ten years older than I am – came from the 70s. He became a teenager and stuff in the 70s, so he’s much more of an improvisational kind of guy – like Deep Purple, and that 70s stuff – which isn’t really my style.
“For me, it sounds really good having David do these songs because he does do the same fills every night, the same stuff. You know that you can count on him playing more or less like you would expect him to, which I think fits HammerFall’s type of music a lot. It’s a lot better than having improvisational parts. Having David onboard was energising; it was a kick for everybody.”
The departure of drummer Anders Johansson was confirmed on October 9th, 2014, although the circumstances surrounding the exit of the sticksman seem unclear. “I don’t really know, to be honest,” the guitarist ponders. “Like I said, he’s ten years older than I am. He’s been a professional musician his whole life, basically. He did tours in the 80s; he played with Yngwie Malmsteen for five years, so he did a lot of big stuff then. Then when he started with HammerFall in ’99, we did a lot of things for a lot of years. Then after a while, I think it came to him ‘Okay, we’re gonna do the same types of tours in the same types of venues, like I’ve done a million times before. I just don’t have it in me any more to do that; I don’t want to resort myself to that any more.’
“Plus, he also had a new family to think about. He had a kid that I think was two-years-old around that time when he quit the band, and he had another one coming up shortly after that. I guess a year after that, so there were a lot of factors in his decision. I honestly think he didn’t have any more thoughts of doing this, on this level, so he wanted to take a step back. If you’re not having fun, you shouldn’t do it. That’s fine; that’s the way it is.”
A verbal altercation between Anders and the assortment didn’t occur. “No, no,” Oscar stresses. “I mean, I still haven’t talked to him, believe it or not (laughs). He didn’t answer any calls at that time. The thing is with Anders, he’s a very unique person, and the way he went about doing this thing was he didn’t tell anybody what he was doing. He told our booking agency, because we had a tour booked for Latin America which included visas for Brazil. I know we had a show in Russia before that, and I think it had a name and everything.
“He told our booking agency that he wasn’t going to be doing the tour, so they didn’t have to book anything for him. Our booking agency came back to us and said ‘Okay, so Anders isn’t going to do the tour. He’s out of the band. Who’s going to be your drummer? So I know what name to put down on everything.’ We were like ‘Wait, what? What are you saying?’
“So, that’s how he informed us. He didn’t inform us, really. He just let us find out from a third party, which I think was a bullshit way of doing it. I told him this many times. It felt like after 15 years, we deserved better than we got. I think 15 years is something you don’t just throw away like that, so I was really angry with him, or upset rather for a long time. The thing is, when this happened, the same day that I got the email from our booking agency I had just had my first child. We were at the hospital. I think this was the day after, actually, so I was a little bit preoccupied. My main focus was on my kid, obviously, my family, at that time.
“So, it took me a little while before I could actually get a hold of him… Actually, I did not get a hold of him at all. I called him, and he didn’t answer. I called him again, and he didn’t answer. I called him several times, and no answer. I found out from Joacim that he had… I don’t know if they spoke through email or text, or whatever it was, but they had some form of communication anyway. It was worse for Joacim, I think.
“Me, I thought I was really good friends with Anders. I thought that we were the guys who always hung out; when we were on tour, I was always going to him first because I knew that we had similar interests. We never wanted to go to bed at five in the afternoon just because we were jet-lagged. You know, stuff like that. We had common ground. We had a lot of fun together, and so when I found out that he didn’t even wanna… Firstly, he didn’t even give a reason for it. The reasons I gave you were things that I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and these are reasons I think sound probable, but I don’t really know because he hasn’t told me yet. I still haven’t spoken to him, like I said.
“For a while, it felt to me like this was a relationship. I mean, obviously it was a relationship, but it’s not like my girlfriend dumped me without really saying why (laughs). It was out of the blue, and that’s what it probably felt like for a year. I was really disappointed in the way that he handled this whole thing. I am disappointed that he quit, but if you’re not having fun, then you shouldn’t be doing this of course. It’s no problem at all, but I was disappointed that he didn’t have the balls to tell me. I think the nice thing after 15 years would be to tell somebody maybe not face-to-face, but at least on a phone call or an email. Anything would have sufficed, actually at this point, but just tell the people that you’ve been working with for so long that you don’t want to do this any more.
“I think that’s the least you can ask for and because we didn’t get that, like I said, I was upset for a long time. I mean, I put it past me now, but every time I think about it, it’s really the way that he did it. The way that he sort of snuck out of the back door, instead of telling everybody and facing it. It also turned out for the best for us though, really. David has brought his way of drumming to the band which, like I said, has energised everybody. It feels like the reaction from people, from the fans at the shows and also the media shows that they also feel this difference.”
Andreas Marschall designed the cover artwork for Built To Last, as was the case with predecessor (r)Evolution. “Samwise Didier, who did all of the artwork from Crimson Thunder onwards, he did the single cover for ‘Hammer High’,” the axeman adds. “So yeah, Hector is on the cover as you would expect on ‘Hammer High’. He is standing on a dragon. He actually doesn’t have his hammer high for that one, which some people have pointed out (laughs). We had Andreas Marschall do the album cover for Built To Last, and that was a pretty good move because he came up with an album cover. That’s really cool, and explains our ratio.”
‘Hammer High’’s single issue was complemented by the filming of a music video. “It’s basically about the birth of Hector, so to speak – our warrior,” Oscar informs. “We’re playing a little bit, but the main focus is on the story, which is two guys waging a battle. One of them is Hector, and you see that at the end of the video when his eyes turn red, basically.”
On March 7th, 2016, it was announced that HammerFall had signed an album contract with Napalm Records. The news was something of a surprise, given HammerFall had been associated with Nuclear Blast since their inception. “It was for us too, I have to say,” the songwriter laughs. “The thing was, we had been with Nuclear Blast for 18 years. When we signed with them, through the next ten to 15 years, we were one of the bigger bands that they had.
“We had helped to build the label, but then they started signing a lot of bands, and a lot of bands that had had success. We felt that HammerFall wasn’t as big of a priority as we were before. They said we were, but you could tell – you could feel it. So, we started thinking ‘Okay, the safe choice is obviously Nuclear Blast because they know how to promote a HammerFall album.’ There was no question about that, and again, there was never anything where we said ‘That sucks. We wanna get out of here.’ That was never the case.
“It was more a case of trying something new after 18 years. With Napalm Records, we found a label that actually really believed in HammerFall. That wanted to make the band bigger and wanted to look forward, instead of just playing safe and doing the same things we’ve always done and have worked in the past. I guess that’s what it was for us. It was a way for us to keep things fresh and feel like we’re moving forward, basically.”
HammerFall’s album contract with Napalm Records is a short-term affair, for the interim. “Good question,” Oscar responds. “I think two. I’m not sure actually, but I think it’s for two.”
Built To Last was released on November 4th, 2016 via Napalm Records.
Interview published in November 2016.
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