In-person interview with Oscar Dronjak of HammerFall
By Aniruddh "Andrew" Bansal
March 27th 2010, House Of Blues, Hollywood CA
Andrew: This is your first headline US tour for the new album 'No Sacrifice, No Victory'. What's the reaction been to the new songs so far?
Oscar: Very good. I think this is always one of the things you don't know, because we've not really done any promotion or interviews for the album. So I was a bit cautious when we did this. But we decided that since we are here we'd do more songs from this album than from any other album. But I think they've worked really well. People know them and the fans that have the other albums have this one too. I'm really happy with that.
Andrew: You said you are focussing on the new stuff for the set list. How are you mixing up the other songs?
Oscar: This is something we always have done, because this has a lot to do with why we formed the band in the first place. We formed this band because we wanted to have a band that we ourselves would want to go and see or listen to an album. There was nothing like that around so we created it ourselves. If I go to see my favorite bands like for example Judas Priest, they have so many albums that it is impossible to play from every album, it really is. But at the level that we are, we have seven studio albums and there is no problem incorporating songs from each era of the band, which I think is important to do. Sometimes you can forget one or two albums and it depends on how much time you have to play. It you're a support act you can't play from every album. So on this tour we are doing one song from Renegade but from every other album its two songs or more.
Andrew: The guitars on the latest album were tuned down one whole step. What was the reason and how did it impact Joacim's vocals?
Oscar: We did start out with the standard tuning and dropped half step and continued like that on to the new album where we dropped another half step. It has helped him and I think he feels more secure with the vocals. Even if it's just half a step, it makes a difference. Plus the guitars get heavier and I have no problem with that (laughs). So it all works out.
Andrew: According to a press release the Vegas show [on March 30th] has been cancelled. Why is that?
Oscar: Well, its got to do with low ticket sales. If people are wondering why it was cancelled, let me tell you it was not the band's decision. It was the club who decided. We wanted to come and play in Vegas. But this is how it turns out sometimes, but for the first time in our whole lives we cancelled a show. I mean, we have some cancellations because of sickness but we manage to move most of them to the end of tour. It's not really our fault, it's the fans' fault (laughs). But I don't know, we only did Vegas once which was on the Dio tour that we did. But next time people should know that they need to buy their tickets in advance (laughs).
Andrew: What difference has the new line-up [with Pontus Norgren on guitar and Fredrik Larsson on bass] made to the new album?
Oscar: If you just start with the fact that we have two new members in the band, before songs were written and before any rehearsals were done or anything like that, just the fact that we have two new guys it's like an adrenaline injection. To be honest, we had done things the same way for far too long without realizing it. People were kind of tired of going through the motions of recording, touring and writing songs. So this was a good shake-up for us. First we got Fredrik who is my best friend in the whole world. It's fantastic to play with him again. I played with him before when he was in our band for the first time. Having him back is unbelievably cool. He's a much better bass player with Anders because he plays together with him and creates the rhythm, the foundation of what the guitars and the vocals build upon. These details are important and make a difference to me, specially when you are playing live. Pontus is a fantastic guitar player. I'm not taking anything away from Stefan. He was great too, but Pontus is more versatile than Stefan was which makes it easier. When we write songs, I know that Pontus can do all kinds of different things. On this new album, there is a lot more space for the solos this time and it was intentional. I try to play some solos whenever I can, I'm not that great at it (laughs) but I can do some melodies. I'm like KK Downing of Judas Priest and he's obviously like Glenn. But, that was the sort of way this album was going to be. It was a good way to introduce him. I think we've been lacking in the solo parts. Not that they were bad, but they weren't long enough before. This has nothing to do with Stefan. We just came to a realization that Pontus is a really versatile guitar player. We could have done that with Stefan too but we just never thought about it. Plus the experience of Pontus as a producer and in sound engineering on the tour has been invaluable.
Andrew: HammerFall has traditionally done really well in Sweden and other European countries. How much do you think you've progressed here in North America?
Oscar: I don't know about sales and I think they basically still suck. We've done three weeks on this tour and the thing I'm most happy with and the most surprised with, is that at most of the shows the first few rows are filled with teenagers. I didn't see this last time. So that gives me a lot of hope for the future. It was like that in Sweden and Europe too. We started played for people mostly of our age, which was about 25 in those days. Then we started seeing lot more younger people and all of a sudden there is this new metal generation. So this gives me a lot of hope and I hope we can come back again. The way I see it is, we do this tour now which is like ground work, we come back soon for the next time and if there are not many people at the shows then I don't think we are going to tour here anymore. This is the last try. We are a band and everybody has their say, but if I had my way I would like to come back and do it again soon so we can know if this actually worked. Everybody always tells you that in the States you have to keep touring all the time. We never did that. We did 98, 2002, 2005 and now 2010. So four tours in 13 years is not a lot.
Andrew: You've had the same label [Nuclear Blast] but three producers through your career. What did each producer bring to you as input?
Oscar: The first producer we had was Fredrik Nordstrom. He was a friend of mine from before. Both Fredrik and I recorded albums with him before HammerFall. The two HammerFall albums were perfect with him. He is really good at certain things but we felt that we wanted to change the scenery and bring something fresh. Then we decided to do it with Michael Wagener. Accept have been one of our biggest influences and he has done several Accept albums. So it was a great thing and a great experience to be with him. 'Renegade' is the best selling album that we have so obviously he did something right. We had a great eight weeks over there in Nashville. His studio is on the ranch of Accept guitar player Wolf Hoffmann, so for me back then I was star struck! It was like the first time I met Udo. I didn't dare to say anything. I just walked there and looked at him to see if it was even true. Then we found Charlie, the producer we've had on the last four albums. I think with the direction we were going in, when we started writing songs for 'Crimson Thunder', he was the right man for the job. We have evolved the relationship with him and the working structure is really good now. We're just starting talks about recording a new album. I mean, its going to be next year or something but we still have to plan it ahead of time. He understands what we want to get out of the music and that's really important too. I've never had any bad experiences with him. I hear about producers who come in and tell people, hey this is what I want, and then go out. Charlie is a workhorse. He gets in the studio before everybody else and leaves later than everyone. He works 12 to 14 hours everyday. We have every other weekend off but he does it everyday. There is no way I could do that so hats off to him!
Andrew: You said you've been getting a lot of young fans in the shows on this tour. How important do you think it is to have that?
Oscar: It is really important! When I go to concerts, I don't need to be in the front row anymore because I did this for 15 to 20 years already. I like to watch the band and because I work as a musician its nice to see what they're doing on stage, unless its Twisted Sister (laughs). I've got to be in the front row for that. But I like to be in the back watching and there's what people of my age do. We call them the music police. The energy level of young people is much bigger because they've not done this for so long. They have an easier way to express themselves. The older you get, the more you think about how people will react and stuff. Also I think its very important for the next generation to come. Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath have been around for 30-40 years. They're not going to be around forever. Eventually they'll have to disappear and stop playing. Then there needs to be a new crop of bands, which I consider HammerFall to be among, even though we've played 13 years already. But still, the new bands need to take over after them and I think it's the same with fans. The new fans that want to discover heavy metal for the first time need to take over from the old guys, who're going to be around forever but might want to let go of it. One bad thing I've heard from some people say is, and this was mostly in the beginning of our career when heavy metal was not popular, 'I used to listen to heavy metal like Judas Priest when I was a kid too'. I hate that. They say it as something positive but I say, 'Why the fuck did you stop listening to it??' But you can't be as passionate about everything and that's the way it works. Some people get families and girlfriends who are like hey don't listen to that shit all the time. But yeah, its absolutely great that we're getting the young people in. I'm surprised by how positive it's been.
Andrew: The band hasn't released a live album/DVD for almost seven years, since 'One Crimson Night'. Is there anything planned, specially with the new line-up that people might want to see?
Oscar: I totally see the point in that. The problem is that, we released the cover songs album and the DVD at the same time. Plus, Threshold came out in 2006. So we've had four big releases since then. I know Nuclear Blast don't want to release things every year because it saturates the market. But I can definitely see the point in what you are saying and its something we've though about as well. We want to introduce the new guys as well. But it's not going to happen on this tour. It's such a big production to be able to do it. If you're going to record it on video, you can't make a mistake either. One time when we did it in Sweden, it was the first time we played an ice hockey arena in Gothenburg. It was the biggest thing ever for us. Of course, what happens then is Jaocim gets some throat infection that transforms into something for which he has to get laser surgery done! So things like that happen, but we have recorded some things but we're not going to release it right now I'm guessing next year may be.
Andrew: You guys played in India in January this year. How was that experience?
Oscar: (Laughs) Unbelievably strange! Well, first of all, Indians are really short people. I had never been to India before. We've been to Japan and they are extremely short, but I think you guys are even shorter on an average. What I didn't expect was that the crowd reaction was really good. You could see that a lot of people didn't know the songs, but they were getting into it. It was weird though, because it was outdoors in a kind of amphitheatre [IIT Chennai] which is nice, but the audience was like 10 meters away, which normally happens at Wacken when there is a crane that has to be in front of the pit with the camera, but not over here. So it was hard to see them but what you could see, hear and feel from them was great energy. I realize that it was going to be like that, so I was really happy. It was really cool. But there were a lot of weird things about India, specially for us, coming from a totally different country. You know how Apu, the Simpsons character talks with this very broad Indian dialect. It kind of makes sense because there are so many different languages in India. But everybody was speaking English with a really thick accent and it sounded so weird! When they are talking to each other they should talk their own language, you know! Why do you use English? So it sounded funny because they were doing it naturally. But we were really well taken care of over there by the promoters. I would love to go back for sure.
Andrew: What else do HammerFall have coming up after this tour?
Photo credit: Tyler Crooks
Oscar: We're going to do the UK for about a week in May with Dream Evil and some other bands. Then we do festivals over the summer, quite a lot of them actually. It looks that way right now. Summers in Europe are only for the festivals. Nobody goes on tour unless it's an American band, where you go over to do this festival, do that festival and string it together like that. But European bands don't tour in the summer because nobody will come to see it, at least not as much as otherwise. Then we're going to be back for ProgPower in Atlanta in September. We're going to headline that one and hopefully do a few shows around that date. We got an email today saying the Detroit show was a 100 per cent confirmed. I never even heard of it. I'm sure our booker is starting to do some stuff. We haven't decided anything yet but we'll try to do it and that might be the last thing we do before we start working on a new album.
Check out the band's official website.