After having seen the band play live only two days earlier, last Tuesday, I had the honor of interviewing Sabaton’s singer, Joakim Brodén. We talked about their upcoming record, The Great War, which is to be released July 19th, about writing music, and about playing concerts and festivals.
First of all, how did you come up with the theme of the First World War for your new record?
I think it started around eleven years ago, actually, when we were doing research for Art of War. We covered two events of the WWI on that album, the first one is Cliffs of Gallipoli and the second one is the the Battle of Passchendaele in The Price of a Mile. And we were looking for specific events that correlated with the book Art of War, basically, so we couldn’t dig too deep into it, but we immediately saw that there was so much from WWI that correlated with what Sun Tzu wrote and I think ever since, we had that in the back of our heads, like “Man, one day we should do an album about the First World War.” It took us about eleven years to finish it [laughs].
How did you do the songwriting? Did you think of the themes or the lyrics first, did you start with the music, or was it at the same time?
We had a few musical ideas when we basically decided on the topic and finalized it, but most of the music was written after we had the topic of The Great War in mind. However, not all songs were written with the exact battle that it was about in mind. In many cases, we knew it was gonna be about WWI, and you start writing. Sometimes you have an idea of what it’s gonna be about, and that idea kind of crystallizes as you’re writing the music. For example, when I was writing the second-to-last track, The End of the War to End All Wars, I already knew it was gonna be a retrospect. I sort of had the title, and I knew it was gonna be from a perspective of somebody standing on the 11th of November when the last shot had been fired and thinking back over the past four years.
And how do you do the writing for the music? Do you start by improvising? Or do you start with pen and paper?
Ooh, that’s different for every time, sometimes it’s an idea that pops into my head, sometimes I play around with a keyboard, a guitar, or rhythms, it’s hard to say, there’s equal opportunities. The one thing I can say that’s rarely been done is pen and paper [laughs]. I mean, a lot of songs have even started with me just singing into my phone.
Which of the battles on the upcoming album is your favourite?
Story-wise, let’s think, I guess it’s A Ghost in the Trenches, fantastic story, because it was a what-the-fuck-moment for me when I discovered it, like “Oh man, how come I’ve never heard this story before?!” It’s about a native Canadian sniper, Francis Pegahmagabow, volunteering and he basically fought the whole war.
And what battle that you really liked didn’t make it to the album?
Oh, there’s so many, man, I think one of the favourite stories is about the Harlem Hellfighters. I was absolutely sure it was gonna be on the album, but we didn’t have the right song for it. It’s about this group of African-American soldiers, and nobody wanted to fight alongside them, because it was different times, people didn’t know better. However, quite soon, they realised that no one wanted to fight against them either, because they were savages in battle. And, come on, it’s a perfect song title already in the name: fucking Harlem Hellfighters!
Now, has your songwriting changed over time?
Yeah, well both from a technical standpoint and also from a personal standpoint, I mean, up until Carolus Rex, I was the only songwriter in Sabaton. Now, on the new album we have a few songs that I did with the guitarists as well, that’s really nice, to not be the only one doing it, you know? And technology-wise, when I started writing songs, you did that with a friend in the rehearsal room, and maybe record it on some kind of device you had. Already since I was a teenager, I had an old Amiga computer with a sampler on it, so I sampled my own guitar sounds and did it on trackers, actually. This was way before sequencers and everything came along. So the first one was four channels, four sounds could play simultaneously, that was the limit. Now, when I do a pre-production in my studio, it’s pretty clear what needs to be done, basically.
To me, the tecnhology doesn’t really matter, it’s a tool. No matter what it is, I’m not attached to any one way of writing or recording music. Sometimes it’s actually good for your creativity to try something you haven’t tried before, or use an instrument you haven’t played before. Even, sometimes it’s good to set yourself some limitations to get on. Because when I sit down in front of my studio computer these days, I have everything there. I can do whatever crazy guitar sound I want, if I wanna bring up a whole fucking orchestra, I can do that, if I want evil synthesizers from hell, I can do that, and everything is within just a few clicks away. So it’s easy to produce music, you can write something and then you just add orchestras or synths or effects and it sounds good, and that’s a big danger. I’m not gonna say any names here, but unfortunately I think there’s a whole lot of bands who are doing it these days. I mean, I’m not saying all of them are bad, in any way, there are some beautiful examples of people who have good stuff, but in many cases I think it’s just a half-decent song, not really good, and then they just add 25 synthesizers, 40 orchestras, and 2000 cool effects until it sounds good and yeah, it’s cool to hear it once, but that’s it.
It’s a way different thing, I love setting limitations for myself. When I did the song Smoking Snakes from Heroes, I decided I wasn’t gonna touch the computer until I’d have composed the whole song, and I can only use a piano. So that song was written, from beginning to end, only by me on a piano. And then I Sabatonized it, of course. So was the case for A Lifetime of War and parts of Long Live the King.
And talking about technological developments, for instance platforms like Spotify, are those also changing your way of songwriting?
No, not really, but I think it changes how you think of an album, in many ways. The songwriting hasn’t changed a lot. I write a song and the only thing I care about is that it’s good.
But absolutely, technically there is a whole lot to use but releasing an album takes a whole lot of time. I understand it, and I have nothing against it, but it feels weird. This album has been done since February. I mean, obviously then you need to get the PR done, do the artwork, you know, all of that. Then interviews, releasing singles, pressing, sending the CDs out, it’s like “Really? Come on, for fuck’s sake, we live in the 21st century! We could have had that fucking piece of music in our fan’s phones or computers, however they prefer to listen to it. They could’ve had access to it fucking 48 hours after we gave the go!” I find it a little bit frustrating that the music industry is so backwards, I mean fighting against it instead of using technology to your advantage and that’s what they’ve been doing from day one, that’s why the music industry is in the state it is now.
Now something else, about the current tour, you brought a choir with you to the festivals, is this the first time you did something like this?
Yeah, we’ve done two shows with orchestras before, but this is the first time with a choir. I mean, it makes total sense, we already had so much choral work already within our music, so it’s not like we’re slapping on something that isn’t there. We’re just taking a very important and powerful element of our music, which is the backing vocals and the big choir sound, and we’re making it stronger. So for me it makes total sense since day one, you know?
And how do you experience playing live with a choir behind you?
Well, we normally don’t have choirs on backing tracks, just the keyboards, so it feels stronger, much stronger. But yeah, even when we did it with an orchestra we had the keyboards through the backing track, except for The Final Solution, which we did totally orchestrated. So, I mean, we adapt to the situation I guess, whichever we feel is better is the way we’re gonna do it. Obviously we don’t want to remove the synthesizers, because it’s a big part of our music, but on the other hand, nor do we want to put a choir on a backing track while we can bring a real choir [laughs].
How do you experience playing live on a festival in comparison to a concert?
It’s really different, especially the choice of set list. You can’t be really that adventurous on a festival. One of the key points on a festival is that people are there to have a good time and to drink beer. So we usually do more of a party set, you know? We throw in a few unexpected ones, but not too much.
On a headline concert, you can take bigger risks. You can play something you’ve never played live before, or something from an album that’s ten or fifteen years back in time. And most of the people there will have heard of them, because it’s a headline show, so you have a much larger chance of somebody actually appreciating the fact that we’re playing something from let’s say Attero Dominatus.
And do you have a preference between playing in concert or on a festival?
Well, I like the mix. We’re so lucky in many ways that obviously festivals and concerts both work well for us and I like the variation. It’s the same thing with us, depending on where we play. If we play in certain parts in Europe we’re having, I don’t know, twelve to fifteen thousand as a headliner on our own concert, whereas if we play in America we play for two thousand, maybe. We also have that difference in numbers of how many people are coming to the concerts. I like it to keep it diverse, because the concerts would get boring if you did it exactly the same every day.
So how do you avoid that playing live becomes a routine?
Well, what’s different is the crowd. We have so many fans coming to the concerts, I’m always kind of entertaining myself with seeing how many people I recognize at a concert. I’m shit with names, so I’ve already given up on that, but faces I’m good with, so for instance we’re at a concert in America and I see someone from Germany, maybe I’ll bring that up between the next two songs. The variation for us is very natural. Since we sing about military history, our fans are going to want different set lists depending on which country you’re in. I mean, if you’re a band that sings about killing dragons or driving cars or drinking beer, whatever it is, those things are kind of universal. In our case, every country will want to hear different songs.
What do you think of other bands portraying war or battles?
I really like it. I mean, it’s not like I feel threatened or like someone is pissing on our territory, I love history, I’m passionate about it. I’m not an expert, by any means, but I really like it. Not just military history, but all of it. Maiden has done stuff like that in the past as well, and I find them more interesting, so I’m just happy. I mean, I would probably not be offended, but maybe laughing if another band came around in camo pants and only singing about military history, that would be like “ha ha, been done before guys.”
And lastly, what historical figure would you like to crack open a cold one with?
Ooh, really good question. I’m thinking it’s gonna be pretty recent history, actually. Because, you know, you couldn’t say Leonidas, the king from 300 Spartans. What would you have in common with him? Anything you know about life and technology would be totally news to him. So I guess it’d be Erwin Rommel, just to see how much he knew about that plot about killing Hitler and how much of a gentleman soldier, as they say about him, he actually was. Tactics, also being a front line leader, I have a lot of respect for him. The same goes for General Patton as well.