In the latest of our exclusive interviews editor Simon Rushworth caught up with hirsute frontman Johann Hegg to talk vocal gymnastics, high expectations and – dare we say it – Viking Metal.
Look out for more money-can’t-buy chats with the biggest names in rock and metal throughout the summer right here on rushonrock.
rushonrock: After almost 20 years belting out the very best that Amon Amarth have to offer how is the voice holding up?
Johann Hegg: Well obviously my voice has changed a bit but that’s mainly because I changed my technique rather that because of any wear and tear. I don’t think I could sing every night the way I used to sing back in the day. First of all I kinda learned that it wasn’t really good singing that way and looked at various ways to do a better job.
rushonrock: How did your technique change?
JH: I was learning by experience what was best for me. I learned as I went along how to use my voice so I didn’t lose it. I picked stuff up from all sorts of people – I met other singers and used their tips. But I honed my technique mainly from singing by myself and realising out what worked and what didn’t. I don’t think I ever saw myself getting into serious trouble vocally but there were a couple of shows early on in my career where I did lose my voice. There were factors behind that and of course I didn’t want it to happen again.
rushonrock: When you say factors…can you elaborate?
JH: Well we were drunk all the time when we first started out and being drunk makes you do stupid things. I’d just go up on stage without any line check and belt out everything s loud as I possible could. I couldn’t hear myself singing and I’d always be straining my voice as a result. I made a lot of mistakes as a young singer.
rushonrock: Do you follow a vigorous fitness regime to stay in shape now?
JH: Obviously at my age and with the type of music we play I have to look after myself. If you’re on the road you’re living in close quarters with maybe 10 or 15 people day in, day out and that’s when illnesses start to pass round. If you’re playing six shows a week then it’s physically demanding and your body’s immune system is weakened anyway. If you drink too much and you don’t look after yourself in those circumstances then you end up being sick. It’s as simple as that. You get ill yourself and you infect other people. These days we take more responsibility. People are paying good money to see our shows and they don’t want five drunk assholes rolling around the stage. But to answer the original question I do do some exercise but I do tend to get lazy on tour. It’s more about what I don’t do on the road.
rushonrock: These days Amon Amarth are a successful commercial entity – is it better to be selling records or did you prefer life in an underground band?
JH: Being part of an underground band and part of an underground scene does have its charms. But I have to be honest – I do enjoy being at the point where we are now. We’re not a commercial band as such but we are doing well sales-wise. We can make a living from playing music and I think that’s all any of us ever wanted. We’re not getting rich but we can pay our bills! From that point of view it’s definitely preferable to being in an underground band. There was a point early on in the band’s history where we’d come back from touring in America or somewhere and we’d step off the plane and go straight into our jobs to pay for that tour and the next one. After a month of partying there was always that realisation that you’d have to get up every morning and go to work just like everyone else. But the music business is a tough business and we’ve always accepted that. It’s something we’ve been part of a for a long time now and we’ve experienced the highs and the lows.
rushonrock: And talking of the lows did you ever reach a point where you thought you’d have to pack it all in?
JH: I think there was a time in 1999 when we were pretty close to calling it a day. We thought we were ready to do our first headline tour in Europe but we didn’t make any money at all. In fact we barely made it around the whole tour. After that we thought that this thing just isn’t worth doing. We just thought this is crap. We believed we deserved better but in hindsight we just weren’t ready. We agreed we’d do one more album and then we’d be done. But that record became the turning point and things slowly started happening for the band. It was only a few small things but slowly and surely we were able to move forward.
rushonrock: Did you feel you had to meet certain expectations with Surtur Rising?
JH: The only expectations we had were our own. We have always had very high standards although, in the past, we didn’t always have the means or the capability to turn our dreams into reality. We always try to outdo ourselves on each new album. For Surtur we sat down with our producer and told him the sound that we wanted to achieve on this album. From our point of view we knew we wanted to make a really, really strong record and we knew we could take our time realising that vision. Ultimately everything came together really fast. We said to each other let’s start writing the new album but if it’s not ready then we won’t be rushed into the studio. As it turned out everything happened very quickly.
rushonrock: So was it an easy record to make in the end?
JH: It was a lot of hard work but as is always the case with Amon Amarth we had a lot of fun in the studio rehearsing and writing the songs. We came up with some superb ideas and we went about our work in a very serious and thorough manner. As a band we have a great work ethic but we do try to have some fun in the process. We also got chance to stop work for a while and go on a tour of Japan. That was just what we needed at the time – looking back it’s awful what happened there just a few months after we’d been made to feel so welcome by the fans.
rushonrock: You’ve often made it clear you’re no fans of musical genres but is Viking Metal such a bad label?
JH: I know I’ve said sometimes that I don’t like the band to be categorised but, you know what, I don’t really mind! I think genres are for other people to make sense of music and with Amon Amarth it’s never been that easy to label us as this or that. For me the problem with Viking Metal is this: when Enslaved is described as Viking Metal and Amon Amarth is described as Viking Metal it’s clearly not the same. Not at all – although I suppose the lyrical content is similar. For me the music always comes first and if people want to put us in that box or the other box then I don’t really care.
rushonrock: If genres don’t matter then what about a band’s image?
JH: I guess our image is Viking Metal. And image is just one of the things that separates bands. People ask what’s Viking Metal? And if they look at us with our long hair and beards and we stand out as their image of Viking Metal then that’s fine. The problem is there are so many people who get caught up in the image of Viking Metal and don’t give the music a chance. It’s a two-edged blade. We don’t dress up on stage – in fact the way we look playing live is much like any other modern metal band. But we derive lyrical inspiration from Viking Mythology and one of the reasons is that I can draw a big parallel between my own life and the stuff that’s covered there. I don’t live my life to the letter according to Viking Mythology but if you delve into our lyrics – and I hope you would – then it makes sense on that level to describe Amon Amarth as Viking Metal.