Credit: Robert Tüchi – Picwish Fotodesign
Interview by David Araneda
Since the release of their celebrated debut album “Glory to the Brave” in 1997, HAMMERFALL has remained for over twenty years as one of the most iconic bands in the classic heavy metal field. In a couple of weeks, the Swedes will release their eleventh study album “Dominion”, their second one with Napalm Records and also their second with the current line-up including Oscar Dronjak (guitar), Joacim Cans (voice), Fredrik Larsson (bass), Pontus Norgren (guitar) and David Wallin (drums).
We had the opportunity to talk with Oscar Dronjak, founding member, guitarist and main songwriter of the band. Oscar told us in detail about the creative process of “Dominion” and the tour that will accompany this release and that will take them around the world in a new Metal Crusade. He also shared with us his vision on the Swedish metal scene and some memories of his visits to South America. He even took the time to talk about some of his hobbies, such as wrestling and reading.
We leave you the full transcript of the interview below as well as the original audio version in YouTube.
David: Your eleventh studio album “Dominion” is coming out soon. I listened to the promo and I have to say that I think it’s a very solid album. How would you describe the concept and the sound of the album to your fans?
Oscar: It’s not really a concept or anything, we always try to make the best heavy metal album that we possibly can. And I think for this time, if you compare it to the last album, where the process of songwriting was really stressful, whereas this time we had much more time in our hands. We started earlier, we changed the approach a little bit to the songwriting, try to give us time to put all the details that needed to be in there. I think that’s a really important part of why this album sounds the way it does. To me, right now, it’s very difficult to talk about what does this album sounds like because it’s still so fresh in my mind, but I have a feeling that this album will be remembered for a long time as one of the milestones of HammerFall, that’s a bit what it feels right now.
David: I understood that this time you also wrote some material on the road. Do you think this affected the outcome?
Oscar: I definitely do, because that’s something I’ve always said I can never do, that’s impossible it doesn’t work for me to do it that way. But once I tried it, I realized that you get this adrenaline rush just from being on stage and that lasts you for a couple hours anyway, regardless of what you do after the show. So, I tried to use that energy and that adrenaline just to recreate something, and I found it to be not always easy, but for the most part really easy to get into the mode, when you were already in the performing mode on stage, it was easy to go into the songwriting mode afterwards. And that’s one of the things I didn’t think would work but it worked beyond my belief, beyond my wildest dreams, so I’m very happy with this.
David: I was also very impressed by the artwork. I think HammerFall album covers have always been fascinating and cool, but I think this might one of your best so far. Was there a reason why you decided to work again with Sam Didier?
Oscar: Well, the thing is that since he did his first album cover for us in 2002 he’s been involved one way or another in each album, for the last two obviously he wasn’t the cover artist, but he did do the singles for both “Bushido” and “Hammer High”. This time we decided early we’re gonna use him again for the album art, because you know, he works at Blizzard Entertainment in California, and we went to visit his workplace, I believe it was January of last year, and there they have so many games and there’s so much artwork and stuff on the walls everywhere. It was really cool to go inside and look at all the different stuff that they had, you know they’ve been doing games for overt thirty years I think. So, we saw one of the artwork that was hanging on the walls and I think Sam told us a little bit jokingly “when are we gonna get the Evil Hector” or something like that, you know. And both Joacim and I were like, wait a minute that’s not too bad, you know, that’s a pretty cool idea. So, we sort of based the idea on that artwork, in the end they’re completely different but still that’s where the idea came from. And I think he thought it was really fun to do the album cover this time, and he actually did the “(We Make) Sweden Rock” single cover, and also he will do the next single cover, which is gonna be “Dominion” you know the title track, it’s coming out in two weeks or something like that. He’s done that one too. So, he’s done almost all of the artwork for this release, and I think it’s the perfect fit, this is the way it was meant to be.
David: You mentioned the first single “(We Make) Sweden Rock” and I think it’s a phenomenal tribute to the Swedish rock and metal scene. Can you tell us what inspired you guys to write this song?
Oscar: It was Joacim’s idea. I think he outlined everything, from what the idea of the song would be to the video, how that was supposed to be. And I immediately jumped on it, I thought it was a great idea. I think this is something we could definitely make worthy for both for HammerFall and for the bands we make tribute to. The cool thing about the lyrics is that all of the lines in the song are references to either a song title, or an album title, or just like a catch phrase or something that reminds you or describes these artists that are in there. I believe that’s thirteen references to bands sitting in there, but for the video obviously thirteen is not enough, so we decided to put the others as many photos of bands that we could. I’m not sure, we missed a couple of course, but for the most part these are all the great Swedish bands throughout the years. And together, we are the ones who make Sweden rock, all of us. Because we all should be proud of what Sweden has become, what a powerful force Sweden has become in the metal music.
David: It’s truly amazing how a relatively small country like Sweden keeps producing excellent metal bands that achieve international recognition. What do you think is the key to this success?
Oscar: I really have no idea why this happened, but I have a few ideas of things that might have helped. One thing is that we have a strong musical tradition in Sweden, that we’ve have for the last thirty, forty years, maybe even more than that, which comes from both the city government and the national government. They encourage people to play music, which it’s always helpful to get the bands started, you just learn your instrument, whatever it may be, it doesn’t have to be a rock band or you know like your drums or guitar, it could be a trumpet or saxophone or clarinet, whatever it is. People have been encouraged since they were small kids to play music. That’s definitely one thing. But something I also think, and I don’t know why this is, but it seems to me, and this is why I’m so proud of the Swedish bands, not just for creating music and spreading the music worldwide, but for creating individuality in their bands. Because if you look at bands like Steel, Sabaton, HammerFall, At the Gates, Dark Tranquility, In Flames, Meshuggah, Backyard Babies, Evergrey, Hardcore Superstar, you know, the list goes on and on. All these bands have one thing in common, that they don’t sound like one another, they sound completely unique, exactly like this band. And I don’t know why that is, but that’s something very important, that people have the individual spirit to create something that is their own, and that doesn’t sound like anything else.
David: I agree with that. While listening to “Dominion”, I could distinguish a lot of influences from classic metal bands in your riffs, even more than in previous records. I don’t know if you agree with that, was it a conscious thing or is it something in your DNA that you do subconsciously.
Oscar: Well, there are very few things that are conscious decisions when it comes to songwriting with HammerFall. Of course, I try to steer the album in a certain direction, when it comes to the fact that you can’t have too many fast songs, or too many slow songs, to get the diversity and the variety to the songs. But, as far as what you’re mentioning about the riffs sounding more like 80’s metal, that’s just a coincidence, that’s just what happens. Maybe because I was on tour, and I was in a good mood, in a great place, when I was writing a lot of the music. Maybe because I just listened to these bands, or maybe mainly because I was in a good place when I was writing this music. I was very unstressed, it was just writing for fun, when you’re writing but you love what you’re doing. With “Built to Last”, for the last couple of months it was just a factory, we had to write the songs and when one was done, you couldn’t really enjoy it, you had to put it aside and go onto the next one, we had a full album to record when we started. But for this one, we were all done with the songs a couple of months before the recording was supposed to start, so it was really stressless in that respect, that I could write songs based on what I was feeling, and that’s always helpful. That’s the way I write my best music.
David: Definitely. I think Joacim’s voice is getting stronger than ever now, even if you’ve been touring for over twenty years. We’ve seen him running marathons while you’re drinking beer on the side (laughs). What about you, what’s your secret to stay fit and creative?
Oscar: I don’t know. I think it’s because, you know, I started the band in 1993 based on one thing: I wanted to play the music that I love. It’s as simple as that, really. I’ve had the luxury and the opportunity to be able to play the music that I love, to have creative freedom for twenty-two years or even more, if you count when we wrote “Glory to the Brave”. So, for me, it’s just, I do what I love, and as long as I’m having as much fun as I have, and I love it as much as I do, I will always have the drive to create new music.
David: “Dominion” is your second release with Napalm Records, but your back catalog is currently being reissued by Nuclear Blast. I wanted to know how involved you are in those reissues …
Oscar: Sometimes they don’t ask us at all, you know I just got a package a couple months ago with the first five albums re-released on vinyl in the Back on Black label. I didn’t know about that, it was completely news to me. But when they do the 20th anniversary thing, which we have done on “Glory to the Brave” and “Legacy of Kings”, and we will do for “Renegade” next year, then we’re heavily involved in everything of course.
David: So, you’re working with Nuclear Blast only for those special editions of your back catalogue.
Oscar: Yeah, I mean they still have all our back catalogue under contract, and I like the fact that they want to do something with it. If there’s something you could definitely say for them is that they are very creative in finding new things to go. And I think the re-releases that we did on “Glory to the Brave” and “Legacy of Kings”, we tried to make them for the fans who have been fans since those albums came out, or close to it, the people who were there and supported us from the very beginning. We tried to give them something extra special, not just here’s another re-release, we remastered it and whatever. We tried to put on stuff that they could not find anywhere else, stuff that we had in our own archives, just to make it worthwhile for them to buy. And from our side, of course, a thank you to you guys for being such loyal fans over the years.
David: Yeah, that’s great from a fan’s perspective. Let’s talk about the “Dominion tour”. You’re currently playing some European summer festivals, then you’re heading to Colombia, touring North America with Sabaton and coming back to Central Europe. Is there any chance to see you guys in the rest of South America or in Scandinavia anytime soon?
Oscar: I’m a hundred percent sure there will be back in South America but not together with the Colombian dates. Those were isolated and also book about a year ago, I think it was a really long time ago. So, those are a one-off thing. We will go back to South America for sure, most likely the next fall or something. I have no idea when, we have to start discussing it, but it will happen for sure. As far as Scandinavia goes, we have plans for early next year. The European tour is in February, so most likely it will happen in March or April. But that’s where we are at right now, we have plans and ideas but nothing is confirmed or booked.
David: With eleven studio albums and so many classic songs it must be really hard to build a setlist nowadays, especially when you play a shorter set at a festival. What kind of criteria do you use to decide which songs to play live?
Oscar: It depends on what festival it is. We played at Graspop for example in Belgium, we played only forty five minutes, quite earlier in the day too, and in that case we were figuring most of the people who are there haven’t seen us before, or at least aren’t as familiar with HammerFall to go to every show that we do. So, we decided that we would only play the important ones so to speak, but when it comes to putting together a ninety-minute setlist for a headliner slot at a festival, that’s totally different. Then we can have some fun with it as well and play around a little bit. But generally, we have a setlist for ninety minutes and then whatever amount of time we have for each festival, we just scale it down. And you’re right, it gets harder and harder and more and more difficult to choose, but I’d have it rather that way than the other way round.
David: Back in 2014 you played “Glory to the Brave” in its entirety for the 25th anniversary of Wacken. Have you considered to do this again in the future with any other album?
Oscar: No, not really. Back then we came from a long lay-off. We wanted to do something special for the Wacken show, of course, but also because we didn’t have such a solid ground to stand on, we’d be coming off a long break. This was also before “(r)Evolution” was released, so we couldn’t play any songs from that album either. So, that was why it was a bit special that show. But as far as right now, the way I see is that HammerFall has so much more to offer musically, I’m in such a good place songwriting wise, we have a momentum that we want to want to keep going. And for us it’s about the future, not about the past. I mean, eventually, yeah, sure we could do that, we could play “Legacy of Kings” in its entirety or whatever it is, you know. But it would have to be for a very special thing, and it’s not gonna happen for a lot of years.
David: The current line-up has worked together for about five years, and if you don’t count the replacement of your drummer it’s been over ten years. You mentioned that the mood in the band is currently better than ever, so can we consider this to be the definite incarnation of HammerFall?
Oscar: I think if you asked the fans, they would say that the line-up that we had with Anders, Stefan and Magnus would be the classic line-up. But as far as the way HammerFall sounds, you know, the way we are as a live band right now, I don’t think any other incarnation of HammerFall can touch this. Where we are right now it’s the very best live act of HammerFall that we have ever seen. And I think you’re right, if we keep going like this for a while, this will be the definite line-up.
David: A couple of questions about wrestling if you’re up for it. We know you’re a big fan of pro-wrestling and we saw Eric Rowan wearing a HammerFall T-shirt in a WWE show in Stockholm. What was your reaction when you saw this, and do you think there’s any connection between wrestling and your music?
Oscar: I absolutely do. It’s been a while since I got this question, but for sure I think there’s a connection. Not least, the way it is performing live in front of fans, reacting and interacting with fans. I think that’s really important and as a good way of comparing the two things. Obviously, what they do is very physical, I guess we do a little bit of physicality too, it’s quite taxing cardio-wise to run around the stage for two hours or whatever it is, but for sure there are similarities in that, absolutely.
David: But what was your reaction when you saw Eric’s T-shirt, did you know beforehand?
Oscar: I was ecstatic! I immediately retweeted it, put it on Facebook and send it to all my friends that I know who like wrestling, because I’m a big wrestling fan myself, so it was beautiful.
David: We have a very special question from our editor. You have to think your answers very carefully and justify them: If you were a pro-wrestler, what would be your stage name, your finishing move, and your entrance theme?
Oscar: (Laughs) You know, when I formed HammerFall in the 90’s I was thinking about this a lot. I was playing in a fantasy wrestling league. This was probably 1994 or maybe 1995, and then my wrestler’s name was “Chains”, because I was wearing chains, I liked it, you know on my stage clothes. And my finishing move, one of them was “The HammerFall”, which was a fireman’s carry from the second rope into a pinning combination I think, and I also had another one which was the “Raw Ride’s pin”, which if you follow WWE nowadays that’s been the finishing move of Cesaro for quite a few years. But like I said, this was in the middle of the 90’s, early 90’s even. But “Raw Ride’s Pin” obviously came from Running Wild’s Raw Ride, the song. So yes, I’ve thought about this a lot, I had an answer for you, and I think it’s a always fun to talk about wrestling in interviews because it’s a passion of mine.
David: What about the entrance theme for a special event, you have a lot of songs to choose from …
Oscar: Yeah, it gets difficult. I think it would be “Last Man Standing” would be close, I think. Because it’s such a catchy one, it goes along really well. But also “Hammer High” would actually be almost perfect for that part. Yeah, “Hammer High” might be the best one, actually.
David: Moving on to other geeky things. You have written “Game of Thrones”-inspired songs in the past, even before the TV show was aired. I don’t know if you watched the TV-series, and what do you think about the finale?
Oscar: I did watch it. For the longest time, I didn’t want to watch it because I’m reading the books, and that’s how I discovered the “Game of Thrones” or “A Song of Ice and Fire” so I wanted to wait for the books, I didn’t want to get any impressions from what the television producers thought about where the story should go. But I couldn’t hold out any longer, so I watched the last three seasons just after the final season was done. I like the show very much, I think it was a great show, but the books have so much more meat on them and so many more layers so you can’t get through in the television screen. This is why I read a lot of books, because that’s the only way you can get that experience, you know, to be fully immersed in something like a book. You can’t compare that to a movie, the movie can be as great as you want, and still it will never be as good as the book. When it comes to the finale, or what they did with the story, the final season felt very rushed to me. I felt like they had to tie things together. It was great actually, and I enjoyed the hell out of it, but the further away you got from the books, the less impressed or shall we say the less enthusiastic I was about it. Because it felt like they were rushing into something and just had to finish it off and oh here we go, now the question everybody’s waiting been waiting for, who’s sitting on the Iron Throne at the end of the series. But having said that, I did like it very much.
David: Going back to HammerFall. I’m originally from Chile, and you’ve visited our country in seven occasions if I remember correctly. You have shared the stage with bands like Arch Enemy, Kreator and Edguy, as well as the only main act. What kind of memories do you have from the Chilean audience?
Oscar: Mostly insane, man. I mean, the audiences in South America, and Chile is certainly no exception from that, they are always unbelievable. When you come there you get blown away, it’s always the same, even if we’ve been there many times, you still aren’t really prepared for how it goes. It’s always such a pleasure to play live in Chile. One thing I remember the most is when, this probably was on the first time we went there, it was 1999 on the “Legacy of Kings Tour”. We have this song called “Stronger than All”, the riff has sort of a melody in it, you know, and I never realized you could sing it, but people in the audience were singing that riff the whole night, and I was just blown away and I will never forget that. I mean, that thing has happened several times since then, but that was the first time I ever experienced it. It was just beautiful.
David: I think I have most of my questions covered now. To end this interview, would you like to send a message to your fans around the world?
Oscar: Watch out for Dominion, August 16th! Like I said before, I think this one will go down as one of HammerFall’s masterpieces. That’s the way I feel right now, and I don’t see that changing. If it actually does that or not, that’s out for everybody else to decide. But everybody in the band are super excited about the release and really proud of what we accomplished, so hopefully people will see that. But we’ll find out on the tours after August 16th, and even if you don’t like the album you should come see us live because it’s a whole different experience now. I can strongly recommend it, we’re having fun, the audience is having fun. It’s one big heavy metal party every night!
David: Thank you so much for your time, Oscar. I will see you next week in Wacken!
Oscar: Cool! Take care man, have a nice day!