It would be easy to assume that after 17 years, the idea of releasing another record and embarking on another tour would be ‘just another day at the office’ for Johnny Hedlund, bassist/vocalist from Swedish Death Metal cult, UNLEASHED. However, the band has just released quite possibly their greatest album to date with their 8th studio album, "Midvinterblot" (released worldwide on SPV, 10 October, 2006) and are about to embark on the soon-to-be-legendary ‘Masters Of Death’ UK/European tour along with fellow founding Swedish Death Metallers, ENTOMBED, DISMEMBER and GRAVE. The following interview with Johnny Hedlund was conducted in the first week of October and here’s what transpired…
The ‘Masters of Death’ tour looks like a dream line-up for fans reminiscent of the legendary ‘Grindcrusher’ tour of 1989 featuring Morbid Angel, Napalm Death, Bolt Thrower and Carcass. Although Unleashed have played literally hundreds of shows over the years – is it a special tour for you as well?
"Oh yes, it will be the tour of the year I hope… and for all bands involved a very special occasion of course. We have spoken about this for ages and finally it come true. Will be a tour to remember I’m sure."
When was the last time Unleashed toured with any of the other 3 bands? Was this tour something the 4 bands have wanted to do for some time? Do all the bands get along well and do you think there is a kinship between Swedish bands in general?
"Yes, we are all friends outside the bands as well. Some of us meet on a very regular basis. Watching football games, festivals and parties in general. We have talked about this long ago but it never happened. It’s hard to make 4 bands schedules fit together. But finally then… I think last time was a festival in Portugal in 2005, Midsummer’s Eve with Entombed, Grave and Unleashed. We played with grave and Dismember on the Up From The Ground festival in Germany also a few years ago…"
I understand the bands will be changing the headline position each night – how will it be decided which band will be headlining in which country i.e. is there a particular city or country that a certain band is more popular?
"Well, we have decided on not counting record sales at all so nobody will know who plays first or last any day of the tour."
Is it difficult for Unleashed to select 7 album’s worth of material for a 45-minute slot? Do you still draw upon songs from the entire catalog even if it is a shortened set? Will there be any songs from the new record, "Midvinterblot"?
"Yes indeed this is difficult. We will try and play songs from all albums, including a few from the new one. Not an easy task but we’ll have too. The Unleashed warriors want to hear songs from the older albums too. We know this is a fact."
As most people are aware, Johnny, you were once a member of Nihilist, the band of course who went on to become Entombed. When most people leave to start their own band and write the material, it’s common to see that as the main songwriter that person also becomes the vocalist. However when you formed Unleashed, the band started out with another vocalist and you were solely the bassist – did you have any desire or intention to be the vocalist and did you know immediately after the original vocalist left that you would step up and take over vocals rather than search for a replacement? Did you write all the material (lyrics and music) like you do now even though there was another vocalist?
"Well, I wasn’t totally sure at the time, in fact the rest of the band members wanted me to since they heard I could do the job. So I didn’t really take the decision myself way back in 1990 or so. I write most of the lyrics today but I think by now Fredrik is the major songwriter when it comes to music."
After you left Nihilist and they re-formed under the name Entombed – did it become competitive between the two bands and did Unleashed and Entombed play together during those early years?
"We never played together at the time. And well, competition is healthy in some perspectives… makes you strive even harder. I don’t think the competition with them were harder than with anybody else though."
Unlike fellow Stockholm bands, Carnage, Nihilist/Entombed and Dismember, Unleashed didn’t have ‘that Stockholm guitar sound’ – therefore do you think Unleashed sounds typically Swedish? Were you a fan of the guitar sound made famous by those bands? I noticed Unleashed recorded the first few albums over in Germany – when you formed Unleashed were you purposely trying to move away from that the Entombed and Tomas Skogsberg sound
"Yes, we moved away from that intentionally so we wouldn’t risk sounding the same. Nothing wrong with their guitar sound though. I even like it a lot. And well, I still think Unleashed had AND has a typical Swedish sound…"
From an outsider’s view, it sure seemed like there was “something special in the water” over in Sweden because at the time it looked like everyone from this so-called “Bajsligan” in Stockholm went on to form bands that did really well and Sweden went on to produce some of the finest Death Metal around in the early 90s. Did it feel like you were part of something big and special in Sweden or was that not the case at all? I know Grave come from the Swedish island of Gotland (or Corpse as they were then) – were you aware of Death Metal existing outside of Stockholm at this point and were you surprised to find Death bands in other parts of Sweden popping up and playing extreme music too?
"I must admit we (or at least I didn’t) know too many bands outside Stockholm at the time. The ones I was in contact with were from outside Sweden. There were a few others of course but Stockholm was the major city in my mind no doubt. Especially if we are talking abut the mid-late 80s here."
Swedish Death Metal has always been famous for its melody and over the years Sweden has produced such diverse Death Metal acts such as Dismember, Opeth, At The Gates, Unleashed, In Flames and Nasum – yet people still speak of a ‘Swedish sound’ – do you think the tag is still relevant and do you see any similarities or a typical Swedish sound nowadays? When people suggest that the 2nd wave of Swedish Death Metal bands (i.e. Opeth, Arch Enemy) have been influenced by the first wave of Swedish acts, do you feel that Unleashed are responsible too?
"I think we are responsible of at some degree an influence to some bands that came into the scene after us. And I am of course pretty proud of that. I do think there is a Swedish sound so to speak. Or perhaps we should say a typical Stockholm Death Metal sound perhaps. At least for the bands that grew up in the late 80s."
Back in 1996 and 1997 it’s fair to say that Death Metal had died and Black Metal had taken over its place. It was at this time that Unleashed also took a much-needed break – how difficult was it being a Death Metal band during that period? What did you think of all the comments circulating just before the time of your break made by Black Metal bands calling Death Metal ‘Life Metal’ and all the kids abandoning Death Metal? Was there any temptation during those years to change your sound to a Black Metal style or at least start calling yourselves Black Metal and wearing the corpse paint etc. like many other Death Metal bands did at the time?
"First off I think it’s fair to say those words didn’t come from ALL Black Metal bands around and certainly not from anyone into the oldschool type of Death Metal. Second: the music industry goes up and down just like any other musical style or business corporation in general. It’s extremely hard to be on top for 30 years in a row. Few bands can do that. We knew this from the start. Right now it’s exploding but I think in a few years there will be another downfall for the majority of bands. Only the very strongest will survive. Just like in nature in general. The kids didn’t abandon Death Metal, they checked out one of our more energized cousins for a while… Black Metal. Nothing wrong with that."
It was your manager Gunter Ford who I thought explained it best in the book ‘Choosing Death’ (by Albert Mudrian) when he raised the question "how different are Black Metal and Death Metal really?” suggesting that if we hadn’t separated the two genres, it would not have appeared as if Death Metal died. Instead it would have appeared as if Death Metal had just been given a “face-lift” and that a new breed of bands were introducing and playing a new brand of Death Metal. Do you agree with these statements / suggestions?
"I think he’s right in his comments – we aren’t all that different really. At least we have the same fans to this date. Check out any Metal fan’s jeans vest on a German festival and you’ll know what I mean. We are perhaps not the exact same, but truly related, like cousins and brothers / sisters so to speak."
Following on from my previous questions – do you think that perhaps if the two genres had not been separated, there may not have been reasons for Unleashed to take a break at all or do you think it would still have been essential for you to get away from it all? I read in another interview with you where you said Death Metal is not something you can do casually and that it needs passion (which I wholeheartedly agree with) so after the break, was there any one event / thing that made you decide to reform? Was it at any time difficult to get the other 3 Unleashed members to reform?
"Well, we took a 3-year break from it all. And we would have done so with or without the business at stake. We needed to get the energy back after 8 years of hard touring. Perhaps with another record label pushing us we would have come back sooner, but we really started to make music for “Hell’s Unleashed” in the year 2000. So it was just the touring part that took a little longer. We also took some time to talk about the future organization of the band, who to work with and what we could do better in the coming 15 years. You will see from now on we are making progress due to this. Things happen for a reason. The break was a well-needed time out and got us to where we are now. There was never an issue of not coming back."
During your break from the scene there were a few bands who continued push extremity and Death Metal (namely Cephalic Carnage, Nile and Hate Eternal) who ensured Death Metal’s survival – do you give credit to any of these bands for giving Death Metal a rebirth and ensured its survival? Did you follow Death Metal at all during this period? When touring the world now, have you seen many changes in the scene in those 5-6 years away from the stage?
"They are very cool bands – only Death Metal would have survived regardless. I haven’t seen many changes in the scene though. I still meet the same people I did 15 years ago… but also lots of younger people, which is way cool of course."
In hindsight, again as suggested in the book ‘Choosing Death’ (by Albert Mudrian), the brief “lull” in Death Metal seemed essential for the genre’s survival and it seems that traces of Death Metal can be found in many other genres and non-Death Metal acts (i.e. Killswitch Engage, Slipknot, Soulfly etc.), which showed Death Metal’s influence in other forms of music – so, in your eyes, can a band have Death Metal influences and elements but not be a Death Metal band? When reforming was there any temptation to modernize your style? Do you think Death Metal can be progressive and still be Death Metal?
"I agree. And yes they can have influences but not be a Death Metal band. I can’t see why not. Most bands have influences from others weather we like it or not. So do Unleashed. I think we all get influenced one way or the other by stuff we like. I personally think it’s very much possible to develop within Death Metal and not go outside. Some elements are essential though. Aggression, horror-like riffing, darkness, and whatever you need to get that drive to make it rebellious. But hey, just because there’s a Thrash like riff in a song it doesn’t mean the band is not a Death Metal band anymore. One must listen to the whole package with vocals and all. As for Unleashed – I do believe we are a band for the future of Death Metal. I think we have what it takes to take this to the next level. We are well prepared, both considering our organization and partners and the ideas for music and lyrics in the next 15 or so years."
Like many other people at first I was saddened by the disappearance or changes in the underground (i.e. tape-trading days). However there still seems to be an underground operating on the same ‘word of mouth’ system but now people trade MP3 files and use sites like My Space etc. to circulate music. For example, a few weeks ago I found myself listening to new demo tracks which had been uploaded onto ‘My Space’ by a new Grind project featuring former Disembowelment members and it felt like the old tape-trading days only I was on the internet! Have you had any similar experiences and do you see the age of MP3s and the Internet a useful medium like the tape-trading days of old?
"I totally agree with the fact that the Internet is just another format – nothing else really. Nothing new is created with Internet, just that the forms of distribution and ways of communications are faster, much faster of curse. And I do think they are better!!! So I don’t miss the old days at all, even though I must admit I look back at them with some joy and pride. We were there when it all started…"
Viking mythology plays a big part in your lyrics – how much does the Viking history influence and affect you personally on a day-to-day basis? Have you always been interested in Vikings and do the schools in Sweden teach children about the country’s Viking history? Do you see any of the Viking history or ideologies as still relevant today?
"Yes, I have always been very interested in our history and especially then the one of the Vikings and their adventures and way of life. However, I am not a member of any association, as some may think, at least not yet. To me it’s more about traditions than anything else and also about the symbolic meaning of our ancient symbols. The schools don’t teach them so we will have to get their true meaning out there."
Was it true that you were going to be involved in Nirvana / Foo Fighter’s Dave Grohl’s Metal side-project, Probot until rumors circulated that somehow your passion for your Viking heritage was connected with Nazism? How did these Nazi accusations come about?
"A magazine in Sweden started a rumor, which led to this. I was never called upon for this project and the magazine was very, very wrong. And they know this by now. Unleashed was the only, or at least to my knowledge, the only Swedish Death Metal band in Sweden that didn’t run away half naked and scared shitless when the right wing movement tried to steal our ancient symbols for their purposes back in the early 90s. We struck back, told them the upright truth to their eyes and have done so ever since."
Is your interest in Vikings a tribute and homage to your country, your ancestry or is it because you identify with the symbolism and wisdom of the Vikings regardless of being Swedish? Do you recommend individuals to seek out their own country’s history and ancestry? Are all four members of Unleashed interested in Vikings? Amon Amarth is another Swedish band who are very much inspired by the Vikings – do you know those guys personally and do you like their lyrics regarding Viking folklore?
"My / our interest in the Vikings way of life and traditions are like you just stated more about symbolism, values and wisdom than about being Swedish. In fact it has very little to do with being Swedish. The Viking spirit is much about the struggle of life, not giving in when things look bad, and to fight for your family and friends. Being an honest and upright person. I think that could be a guy from Mexico, Australia, Germany or Holland too. And yes all band members share this interest. Although I am probably the one with the “pen” so to speak. Amon Amarth by the way is very cool, and good friends of ours."
While many Death Metal bands concentrate on writing complex and technical songs, Unleashed are one of the more catchier and memorable Death Metal acts that write well-crafted songs. Elaborating on this, in my eyes you have come very close numerous times in creating what could be considered the “perfect” Death Metal song particularly on 2004’s "Sworn Allegiance" where tracks like ‘Winterland’ and ‘The Longships Are Coming’ have all the ingredients of a Death Metal “hit” if there were such a thing! (e.g. 3 and half minutes in length with, fantastic choruses, hooks, simple and melodic guitar lines / solos). Is your aim as a songwriter to write perfect Death Metal songs as opposed to odd and complex riffing and structures?
"Thank you! Yes, you are totally correct! And I do think there are Death Metal hits. Simply songs that people can remember. I don’t play my music for other skilled guitar players, I play for people. On the other hand there’s nothing wrong with technical bands, I like some of them myself, but I prefer the music that is more memorable. The choruses that last a lifetime."
On that note, as a songwriter, when you are writing new material is there any temptation to "progress" or do you feel there is a responsibility to write within certain parameters to remain a "true" oldschool Death Metal band? With all the newer, contemporary Death Metal bands around today, do you have a conscious plan when writing to try and keep it as oldschool as possible? For example do you ever listen back to records like "Shadows In The Deep" and "Where No Life Dwells" to stay focused on the oldschool format? Was your approach to writing "Midvinterblot" the same as say, the first three records?
"Not at all. We will develop from now and on… we always think like that. There’s no reason to look in the rear view. All was fine and well back then but we owe it to our fans to get better all the time. Both song wise and production wise. However, naturally we are a solid, very true to ourselves Death Metal band and will in no way go away from that red line of deadly Metal we always played. So sometimes it’s useful to look back at older records just to check in… normally we do it to make sure we don’t copy a riff or so from the past. But for ideas… there’s no need. There’s already a million ideas to create and produce from."
Following on from the question above, just after the verses, right before the chorus of the song ‘Only The Dead’ (from the "Sworn Allegiance" album) there is a brilliant passage of music involving clean guitar tones reminiscent of the clean reverb tones used by Disembowelment on ‘Transcendence Into The Peripheral’ – do you think it will be in say the guitar tones that Unleashed will experiment than perhaps experimenting in your style? How much of these ideas concerning tone and sound develop while you are jamming versus when the band are producing the record?
"I would say much of these ideas are something Fredrik comes up with. Especially as he has his own studio. Meaning lots of time to experiment. So either there, or as the song is made but mostly in the mixing or recording process of the album. And yes I do think we will develop within the style and more in production techniques rather than leanig towards other styles of music also in the coming albums. It will always be Death Metal. Nothing more, nothing less."
Being the bass player and main songwriter in the band back in the early days – when writing songs, did you actually write them on guitar to get all the tonal qualities or did you write on bass and then bring the core of the riffs / songs to the guitarists who then worked out the tones and the details?
"Fredrik is the major songwriter today. I do most of the lyrics. But yes, the songs I made are always made on a guitar first."
Considering how successful the first two records were, why did Unleashed move away from using Waldemar Sorychta to produce the band’s future records? Your guitarist Fredrik Folkare is credited as both engineer and producer on the previous two Unleashed records, "Sworn Allegiance" and "Hell’s Unleashed" – do you think it is important to keep all duties within the band? Have all the albums turned out as you have heard them in your head? I have to say that Fredrik Folkare did an amazing job on the production and mixing of the previous two records and managed to create crystal-clean clarity but not lose any heaviness in the process.
"Thank you. Well the switch from Waldemar was a well-needed one. We wanted a different sound, that’s all. The truth is Fredrik is my man these days. He is our engineer and producer. He comes up with all ideas and creations concerning the sound quality of the albums. Naturally, all band members have a huge “say” on all things before we complete for mastering. But still, it is his creation and hours upon hours of hard work. He could do any band and any style these days. That’s how good he’s become if you ask me personally. And to answer your question about the turn out… hell yes!. The albums come out even better than my own expectations so we have no need for an external person to do this job."
There was a rumor floating around that Nirvana used to play a cover of ‘Onward Into Countless Battles’ at their rehearsals – is this true?! If so, did you ever hear the song?! As a Death Metal songwriter was this an insult or compliment? Surely this confirmed for you and proved that you write great songs?!
"Ha-ha, yeah well, I would take that as a compliment. Why not? I can’t say I know this for a fact though. Anyhow… they should have sent me a copy!!"
A lot of members from bands that formed around the same time of Unleashed are now are married with children etc. – it is easier, harder or the same playing in a Death Metal band in your 30s and touring the world? Do you have more responsibilities you have to be aware of? As you have gotten older, have your goals and priorities changed now being an adult?
"I would have to say it is of course a different story these days since there are more bills to pay and more responsibilities. I personally work part time as a finance director and it takes a serious engagement of course. On the other hand it has never been more enjoyable to play live than right now! I don’t worry all that much any more about amps that can break down, crew that don’t do a good job etc. I just enjoy the hell out of the fact that I have a good number of friends all around the world that scream along with our choruses when we come and play, just like they always did in the past. Amazing!! Things like this makes you go on year after year. People who get tired of sex should try Death Metal!!! I like both but fuck it’s an amazing feeling to go on tour and meet our fellow warriors out there."
During the period when Unleashed took a break, I understand that the band went off and you all did different things. Johnny, I believe you studied business economy – Unleashed have always been a professional enterprise from day one, however since completing your studies, have you been able to use your business economy degree in the band? I read in an interview a while ago where you find yourself spending a lot of time on the business side of things more so than the music.
"That’s right. I work part time as a finance director these days, which brings in some good money to cover bills and such. But my heart is always with Unleashed no matter what. And most of my time is spent with Unleashed counting the hours… As for the music industry, well, you need to have good business skills in order to not get ripped off totally. That’s just how it is. But I would have taken my degree in business regardless since it’s something I always wanted to do. It was a few years of very hard studies but it was worth it big time."
One notable feature about Unleashed is how audible your lyrics are even though your vocal is in a traditional Death Metal style. Even way back on "Where No Life Dwells" although delivered in a Death Metal vocal, your vocals have always been very lyrically audible. I have always appreciated this as I am sure many others have as well, especially considering being a fan of music in general (not just Death Metal) where singing (as opposed to growling) is present, as lyrics are an art form onto itself. Do you perform in a more audible vocal because you also a fan of non-Metal music where the lyrics are important as the music? Do you view the lyrics in Death Metal as important as the music? In addition, your vocal patterns have always been very melodic and catchy as well (e.g. ‘The Final Silence’ and ‘Winterland’), so which vocalists and lyricists do you enjoy and who inspires you?
"Thank you! Yes this has been very important for me to develop along the years. The task has been to become more and more brutal but still keep the vocals clear so people can hear the lyrics. I have also spent lots of time through out the years to work on our vocal melodies. I enjoy many vocalists and also outside the more brutal music. David Coverdale, Mike Sanchez, Elvis Presley, Eric Adams are some of the best vocalists in my opinion. I couldn’t say they influence my way of singing but they are top of the line vocalists if you ask me. When it comes to lyrics I think I get influenced by most things I listen too, it would be very hard to point out a special band or even a few."
Your new album is titled "Midvinterblot" – was this a tribute to the painting of the same name (aka The Widwinter Sacrifice) by Swedish artist Carl Larrson? Did you try to get approval to use the painting as the cover art? Is there a theme on the new record that revolves around this artwork? What was it about this piece of art that inspired you? I read that the painting depicts the story of King Domalde who is about to sacrifice himself in front of the temple in Uppsala, in the belief that this selfless act will bring greater future harvests and general well-being to his people. Were you inspired by this story and if so what in particular inspired you about this story?
"Well, the cover artwork of the new Unleashed album has nothing to do with Carl Larsson’s artwork. Midvinterblot is like you mention the winter solstice; the longest day and the shortest night of the year. It is nature’s new year. It is when Yule begins about the 21st of December. A time for great feasting, drinking a toast to our dead ones, and to prosperity in the coming year. We spend much time with family and friends and exchange gifts to strengthen our bonds with each other. Around the 1st of January we make new years resolutions by swearing an oath on the Hammer."
In your opinion what does the new record, "Midvinterblot", offer in terms of music and lyrics that either Unleashed have not done before or that makes this album your best yet?
"It’s got the best and most memorable songs this band has ever made. It has the energy of a live show, and it has the very best production we ever come across to create. It is as simple as that."
Do you have a favourite track from the new record and if somebody asked you to select just one song from the new record as an introduction to Unleashed what would it be?
"I couldn’t possibly do that. We represent so many things that one would be very dishonest. They will have to hear out the whole thing!!! Or at least go with the 4 first songs to hear the whole spectra of fast, mid-paced and slow songs."
Final question – tricky one – please rate all of the Unleashed studio albums in order of your preference! Ha, ha! Good luck!
"Always the most recent one first… that’s as far as I can go… hahaha… Well, thanks a million dying enemies for this cool interview – hail Odin! – Johnny."
Interview: Scott van Dort
all pics © – by Nico Wobben (www.nicowobben.com)