If you read my review for the re-release of EPITAPH’s "Seeming Salvation" you remember that I waited quite a long time for the answers from Johann. Actually it was planned to have this interview online before this re-release, I’m not sure if the re-release was even planned the time I sent the question to the EPITAPH drummer. Anyway, EPITAPH are one of the cult acts of the early days of Swedish Death Metal, a time when guitars couldn’t be tuned low enough and the Sunlight Studio was the first choice for a Swedish Death Metal band. EPITAPH only released a split-LP with EXCRUCIATE and their CD "Seeming Salvation", but those 2 releases are true Death Metal classics. Finally Singapore-based label Konqueror Records re-released the debut CD plus EPITAPH’s songs of the split-LP as bonus – perhaps it’s even better time for this interview now. Some questions might be a little bit outdated; nevertheless I hope this interview is interesting for all fans of classic Death Metal the Swedish way.
Hello Johann, how are you? Hope you are well-prepared for this interview? Haha!
"Well, hello back! Wie geht´s? (I’m doing just fine, thanks for asking – Thomas) I am quite prepared for the interview, thank you very much…"
Well, at first thanks a lot, Johann, for answering my humble questions. What did you feel when I asked you if you are interested in answering an interview and how do you feel now while answering these details about your long-time dead and buried band EPITAPH?
"I felt (and still feel) honoured to shed some light on the history of my old band but with the current re-release of our only full-length album I wouldn´t exactly call it "dead and buried"…"
Do you wonder that there is still a certain interest in this band and their history, rumours and anecdotes surrounding it?
"If the question is whether or not I am surprised by the interest in the band, the answer is yes AND no… We knew we had some good stuff happening but as time went by and we pursued different musical paths, EPITAPH slowly faded into obscurity. However, as we grew older and extreme music became really big, I guess it was just a matter of time before some die-hards out there found out about us… especially with the advent of internet, Myspace and the likes." (understatement of the year, Johann. All those who know EPITAPH since the early nineties definitely haven’t forgotten you – Thomas)
Starting from the very beginning, I think it was around 1990 when you founded the EPITAPH predecessor DARK ABBEY, right? What was the reason for you to start DARK ABBEY? What were your influences and who drove you to found a band?
"Well, the very roots of DARK ABBEY can actually be traced to the summer of ´89 when me and my cousin Manne started fooling around in my family’s garage. We were barely in our teens back then and Manne had just picked up the guitar so the result was not exactly brilliant. Using only guitar and drums (I did not know how to growl back then!) and a regular tape recorder we managed to assemble an extremely crude-sounding "demo" of which there should be at least two copies… Our influences consisted mostly of Thrash bands like KREATOR, SEPULTURA, SLAYER and EXODUS coupled with groundbreaking (to us anyway) Death Metal masterpieces such as "Altars Of Madness" (MORBID ANGEL) and "Spiritual Healing" (DEATH). As soon as Niklas joined the fray by the summer of the following year we began working on real tunes with Manne handling most of the songwriting."
With DARK ABBEY you only released one demo called "Blasphemy" as far as I know. I have this demo somewhere on tape and now even as mp3, but to speak the truth, it didn’t really impress me that much over the years. Please tell some words about this demo tape and what it meant to you to have a demo tape released?
"We were very young and inexperienced so the mere notion of recording our own demo was quite exciting. We entered Sunlight Studios (which was yet to become the definitive Mecca of Swedish Death Metal) as a trio since we had not found a suitable bassplayer and therefore Nicke did all the bassplaying on this recording. An interesting detail is that shortly before the session we had not decided what kind of vocals we wanted or who would sing them! As I was not exactly confident behind the mic, Tomas (Skogsberg, the engineer) put a shitload of harmonizer in my headphones making my voice sound like some prehistoric demon but for some reason that effect did not work as we were getting ready to mix. The result was spooky, almost whispering vocals that actually stood out amongst all the other growloriented stuff circulating at the time. Another thing I notice as I listen back to those early tracks is that the Thrash-influences are very predominant and not at all what EPITAPH would sound like only a year later."
I think you were among the first handful of bands in Sweden to start playing Death Metal. Please tell which bands were in your surroundings and to which you had a closer contact to.
"One of the bands that we always sort of bonded with was THERION and their vocalist Christoffer Jonsson. He actually recommended us to the guys at Infest / Thrash Records so he had quite an impact on our career. Other guys that we shared some gigs with were EXCRUCIATE and MASTICATION. In the later stage of EPITAPH´s existence we finally got hold of a bass player, Kim from INTERNAL DECAY, so evidently we hung out with those lads…"
Then you changed your name to EPITAPH. Your first release under the new moniker was the amazing split-LP with EXCRUCIATE in 1991. Usually for these times you had to start with releasing a bunch of demo tapes before you get the possibility to release something on vinyl through a label. Was the recording originally planned as a demo or what happened exactly?
"As I stated earlier, we got in contact with Infest / Thrash through Christoffer based mainly on our efforts on the first EPITAPH demo "Disorientation". Exactly why the deal was a split-LP with EXCRUCIATE I can’t remember but we felt that it would have more appeal than a regular tape. Since CDs was a relatively new format I don’t think we discussed the option of having it released as a compact disc."
Were you satisfied with this first release and how was the response?
"Except for the cover, we thought that the record was fine (yes, the cover was kinda strange, haha – Thomas). Personally, I was overwhelmed just having our own vinyl so I never really reflected on how many copies were sold. Help anyone?"
In 1993 you released your amazing "Seeming Salvation" on Thrash Records. What was the emotional difference between the release of the split-LP and this debut album?
"The sad thing about it was that EPITAPH no longer existed when "Seeming…" finally got released! Mind you, we recorded the album in late ´91 and hoped to release it by the spring of 1992 but due to several time-consuming processes, the whole deal was seriously delayed. As for the emotional difference, I think we’d matured quite a bit since the first release which is evident from many of the lyrics. The songwriting itself (handled mostly by Manne) got more involved and included some lengthy pieces (‘Prey To Dismay’ being the prime example) and a lot more parts. Listening back to the album, I find several tracks to be really worked-out while still not using any common formula i.e. verse-chorus-verse…"
I totally like your songs on the split-LP but what you did on "Seeming Salvation" is amazing and songs like ‘The Twisted Grace’ or the title track are true Death Metal classics in my opinion. On the split-LP you had a much rawer sound and on the debut album you definitely progressed a lot in concerns of the song writing. Were you satisfied and how was the response this time?
"Thank you! Amusing that you should mention those two tracks; ‘Seeming…’ used to be my all-time favourite (before we re-mixed the whole thing) and ‘Grace’ always felt kind of uninspired. However, as I heard the version published on Konqueror Records’ myspace-page I realized that it has a lot of oldschool Thrash stuff that one hears all over the place nowadays so maybe we were just a bit ahead of ourselves? We felt that we had given our all in the making of the record and we were of course extremely eager to present it to the fans (I remember me and Manne playing the rough mix for my dad at our grandfathers place… He didn’t get it at all!). I don’t know how long we would have kept EPITAPH rolling if the album had been out sooner but we definitely felt somewhat disillusioned by the sad turn of events. I think a couple thousand copies were sold which is ok for a band that does not exist!"
You recorded both releases in the Sunlight Studios. Please tell something about the recording process, the work with Christoffer Johnsson (from THERION – how did you get him to produce your side of the split-LP) and Tomas Skogsberg and also the fact that you, because of that, were probably one of the so called Sunlight clones!
"Well, first of all one had to adjust to playing the weird amalgamation of digital and acoustic drums that were an integral part of the Sunlight Studio. And secondly, I’ve never seen a smaller studio than that! A tiny room with a mixing board and some outboard gear and a tiny room for the drums and amps. Even if we wanted, we couldn’t have recorded the whole band in one take because the space was too limited! I really don’t remember having Christoffer produce the demo for the split so that is probably just some misinformation; he DID lay down some backing grunts on the album but that’s all. Tomas was pretty easy-going but smoked CONSTANTLY which I personally had quite a hard time with; constant headaches plagued my tenure at Sunlight! As for being a "Sunlight clone", I think we definitely made some choices to avoid sounding exactly like the records that were out at the time (using different amps etc) but to my mind we didn’t have to worry. We weren’t really a typical Death Metal band, more of a Death / Thrash band which of course barely existed back then (but does now!)…"
Are you kinda sad that some bands which started during the same time like you or probably even later released a couple of albums which are considered as classics now and are / were far more successful than ever imagined? Could you see a possibility for EPITAPH, too, becoming as big as they are / were? What did they do what you didn’t?
"Hmmm, not really… If you’re referring to bands like DISMEMBER or UNLEASHED, which are still very much alive today, I think it’s great that they’ve kept the tradition going and to me it’s quite admirable to be able to stick to a musical formula for such a prolonged period of time. We were getting tired of the genre pretty fast and decided to move on to other styles and I still think that was a wise decision. So, to answer your question, the other bands kept going and we didn’t! However, had we been a bit older and better at marketing ourselves things might have turned out differently (and we might’ve become more famous in the process)…"
What happened to EPITAPH after the release of "Seeming Salvation"?
"Like I mentioned earlier, the release of the album got seriously delayed and did not happen until 1993. Of course we were doing other things by then, we had a band called BEGGARS FARM which was as far away from EPITAPH as you can possibly imagine, the main influences being bands like THE DOORS and JETHRO TULL!"
Back at the release date Death Metal wasn’t as popular any more and the new trend Black Metal was rising instead. Was this one of the reasons for you to calling it quits? What exactly was the reason for you to stop the band EPITAPH?
"Well, you will probably find the answers above. It was not because of Black Metal, I tell you! I think mainly Manne and Nicke started listening to radically different stuff and got inspired to try something else and that’s what happened…"
You were a 3-piece band and you as the drummer was responsible for the vocals, too. Did this create problems for your live-appearances?
"I had a great time screaming and banging away at the drums so that was no problem at all… We did a few gigs with just two guitars (it almost worked!) but then Kim joined up and it all fell into place."
Moving to another interesting topic of Swedish Death Metal: have you read the book "Swedish Death Metal"? What do you think about this book?
"Unfortunately I have not but I looked up the entry on EPITAPH…"
Are you kinda "angry" that EPITAPH were hardly mentioned in this publication? If I remember it correct, there are just a few lines about your "Seeming Salvation" mentioned in it and for sure the biography part at the end of the book. Don’t you think a little bit more about EPITAPH wouldn’t have hurt or were you already one band of many Death Metal bands in Sweden during that time?
"I for one can’t be angry about such a thing; I am still amazed we are even mentioned, let alone have some fan put together a myspace-page for us!!!"
What’s your general opinion about books like "Swedish Death Metal" or "Choosing Death"?
"People need nostalgia and what better way to relive the whole scene than sifting through a whole book dedicated to all the bands of yesterday?"
What are you doing now (for a living and in your spare time)? Are you still playing in a band, interested in the (Death) Metal scene and what about the other members of EPITAPH? What are they up to and are you still in touch with them?
"I am currently teaching and working at 4Sound, a local music store in Stockholm (I have my own drum department!), and I’m playing the drums in a project called COLD CRUSH REBELLION (look it up!). I am still very much interested in extreme music and I think our small country is doing well with bands such as ARCH ENEMY (ok, the vocalist is German!), THE HAUNTED, MESHUGGAH, IN FLAMES, etc. I am married and I’ve got three crazy kids to keep me occupied so the time I spend on other things is… well, limited! As for the other guys, we’re still in touch sporadically (and lately regarding the re-release) but haven’t played together for ages. There have been some discussions about putting EPITAPH back together though…"
Let’s loose some words about the Swedish scene of the early nineties. Which bands were in your opinion the most impressive ones? Which persons were the leading forces in the scene and what do you think happened to Sweden during this time?
"We always looked up to bands like ENTOMBED, to us they were the big thing, but other bands we liked and shared stages with were DISMEMBER and GRAVE. One thing I remember from those days was that there were a shitload of bands, everyone seemed to play or know someone in a Metalband. Thus there was a very active underground movement with a substantial amount of concerts at small venues like school auditoriums and the like (our first gig ever was at Nickes high-school!) and there seemed to be a strong feeling of kinship among the fans."
I suppose you were an active tape trader, too (as all of us dinosaurs, haha)? Were you involved in the scene like that and what about all these other necessary "evils" as writing letters, requesting the stamps back (haha) and so on?
"Actually, I got all my music from Manne, who was an avid record-collector, so I was never a part of the "true" tape-trading underground. There were a couple of stores in town, however, that carried a lot of demos so we ended up buying quite a few of those…"
Some persons, me included, think back at this time being their greatest time in their life. How do you see this time now approx. 15 years later?
"Haha, I wouldn’t exactly call it the greatest time of my life but I wouldn’t trade it for anything, that’s for sure! It would’ve been nice to do more gigs with EPITAPH though and maybe another album."
Have you heard about the radio show "Darkness Descends" (aired through www.solarfall.com) moderated by Ola Sjoberg? Are you aware of the fact that he played EPITAPH songs a couple of times already?
"No, I haven’t but I will certainly check it out!"
Have you seen this myspace-fansite about EPITAPH already? If not the link is www.myspace.com/epitaphswedishdeathmetal. Check it out! Have you ever planned to do something like this by your own?
"Yes, I have and I am quite moved. There are lots of comments from some really cool people and I am both surprised and honoured that some of them, like yourself, regard our album as a landmark in Swedish Death Metal."
Are there talks about re-releasing your "Seeming Salvation" CD, well probably all recordings from EPITAPH (plus DARK ABBEY) in the near future? If no, how would you react if a label would get in touch with you offering a deal for that?
"No comments necessary ; -) " (Yes, just read the review about it somewhere on these pages. A release more than worth to support if you ask me! Well, and this is the prove that this interview is already kinda outdated, haha – Thomas)
That’s it, Johann! I guess it’s time to end this interview now. Thanks for taking the time spending on answering my questions. I hope it didn’t bore you to death. The last words are, as usual, yours!
"The pleasure was all mine! Maybe you will have the chance to review something new from EPITAPH in the future… Peace – /Johann." (That would be awesome, Johann – Thomas)