After more than 20 years of slogging away on the road in both North America and overseas, Swedish Viking metallers Amon Amarth are finally having a moment.
Three years ago, the band went on a series of sold-out headlining theater tours that cemented their place in metal, in support of their 10th album, 2016’s Jomsviking. As a result of their dedication, Amon Amarth has now penetrated U.S. consciousness enough that singer Johan Hegg — a Washington Capitals fan — joined a February segment of NHL Now, and Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer walks out to the mound with the band’s “The Pursuit of Vikings” as his theme. (Amon Amarth repaid the love by having Bauer appear in its video “Raise the Horns.”)
A band whose lyrics are steeped in Viking history, Amon Amarth went the concept route for new record Berserker (May 3 on Metal Blade Records). The collection is based on the story of England’s Battle at Stamford Bridge in 1066, when King Harold Godwinson faced off against the invading Norse army of Vikings, led Norway’s King Harald Hardrada and Godwinson’s own brother Tostig. When the Vikings had to retreat over the bridge, they sent one man out with an axe in an effort to slow the English army. He killed 40 men before he was taken. “It’s a pretty amazing tale, and since it’s the English who told it, you can believe it’s not a myth, but actually happened that way,” says Hegg. “And for a metalhead who typically feels like an outsider, the story of one man alone against an army is especially meaningful.”
To support Berserker, the band hit the road on May 13 for a shed tour with Slayer, Lamb of God and Cannibal Corpse. “Slayer are really good guys, and we love playing with them. It’s a huge honor to have been asked to be on this tour, as this is their farewell run,” says Hegg, calling the group “probably the most influential band in the history of Amon Amarth.” AA will then head abroad for a summer European festival tour before returning to the States this fall for its headlining Berserker World Tour, featuring Arch Enemy, At the Gates and Grand Magus — an all-Swedish lineup tailor-made for an Ikea sponsorship. “That would be something,” notes Hegg with a laugh.
Below, Hegg chats with Billboard about Amon Amarth’s music, and how yoga and Guinness do a body good.
Many of your fans are polarized about how they identify Amon Amarth. Do you consider the band to be a death metal band whose song content is primarily about Vikings, or are you a Viking metal band with a Swedish melo-death style?
Personally, I always thought it was odd to characterize music based on lyrical content. If that’s all it takes to be a Viking metal band, then Iron Maiden is a Viking metal band, Led Zeppelin is a Viking metal band, Black Sabbath is a Viking metal band…
Having said that, since Viking history and mythology — and philosophy, if you want — is a big part of what Amon Amarth is and always has been, I guess it kind of makes sense. The origin of the band is obviously death metal; then we started incorporating more harmonies and melodies into the music, which has progressed up until today; we are still obviously death metal or melodic death metal, but these days, we have a lot more heavy metal influences as well. But it’s not important to me for us to be categorized. I don’t mind. It comes with the territory… What’s important is that people enjoy the music and that we are comfortable with what we are doing.
A lot of Swedish bands, particularly melo-death ones, sing in English. What’s behind this choice?
I don’t know. It’s always felt easier to me to write lyrics in English for some reason. I made a stab at writing some lyrics in Swedish, but it didn’t turn out so well. And I don’t know why, but it feels more natural to sing in English for me. For a small band from Sweden, to break in Sweden and sing in Swedish, it would make it difficult for us to break in other parts of the world, which is obviously what we wanted to do, and English was the best way to do that.
You sing in a traditional death metal vocal style — a deep, throaty growl — but everything you sing is understandable, while most death metal bands are unintelligible.
I’ve been told that I have a very different style — and I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ve always tried to be very articulate, even though I’m growling. But I think it comes from the fact that I’m actually trying to sing the growls, which is not always the case in a death metal band, where they just want to sound brutal and growly and dark, which is totally understandable… I think it is something that sets us apart from a lot of other bands.
There is a majestic quality in your storytelling, which is somewhat unusual for melo-death. Do the subjects demand a certain way of writing?
I think so. So much of what I write comes from the sagas and old Norse mythology, and I try to keep that vibe. That’s what I loved in reading them in the first place: that epic vibe, the majestic stuff. Not all of the songs are like that, but there is something about the music that lends itself to that style.
[Songwriting] remains a team effort. [The band] all shares what we’re working on . . . What I usually do, when I have lyrics or a lyric idea, I’ll send it to [lead guitarist] Olavi [Mikkonen] and [rhythm guitarist] Johan Soderberg, who write most of the music. It depends on which way you go, though; sometimes I’ll write for music they’ve sent me.
What inspired the singles from Berserker?
“Crack the Sky” is a great song. It started out as a thing we did for fun. The pitcher for the Indians, Trevor Bauer, walks out to the plate to “The Pursuit of Vikings.” So we were talking about this and toying with the idea of writing a song and putting a lot of baseball references into the lyrics. But we liked the song and decided to keep it the way it is.
“Raven’s Flight” is based on an idea that I got from the TV series Vikings. The sons of [Viking hero] Ragnar Lothbrok go to England to avenge their father’s death. The sons are kind of enemies, but they band together to avenge the murder of their father, which I thought was pretty cool. So it’s about when they set out to do this and all the politics that go into it.
The opener, “Fafner’s Gold,” really stands out with the acoustic guitar intro, which then explodes with those heavy, galloping guitars.
Thank you! It’s from Norse mythology, and the story was what inspired [J.R.R.] Tolkien to write The Hobbit. It’s about two brothers who steal a treasure, and the treasure is cursed. One of the brothers takes off with the treasure and transforms into a dragon. The other brother wants the treasure back, so he tricks a man to go into the desolation where the dragon lives and kill the dragon. But after killing the dragon, the man, knowing he was tricked, returns and kills the brother. It is a tale of greed and what it does to people. It’s also about the environment: The dragon lives in desolation because he is a dragon; he has destroyed everything around him.
I understand your wife is a yoga teacher. Do you practice yoga? What are the benefits for a metal singer?
Yes and yes! There are many benefits, but it helps me with breathing and stamina and focus as a performer. I think yoga is good for everyone, it’s just a matter of finding the yoga that suits you. It’s good for many reasons, but the reason I started in the first place was because I had back problems from years of headbanging. I went to an osteopath who fixed it but recommended yoga.
You often appear onstage with a drinking horn on your belt. What are you drinking when you salute the crowd?
Guinness! Guinness is a pretty easy-going beer, especially for singers, because if you drink too much regular beer the carbonation makes you burpy, and because Guinness uses nitrogen, there’s less carbonation, so you’re less burpy. [Laughs.] And it’s delicious and refreshing and it has iron, so it’s good for you!
Slayer’s Final World Tour: Leg Five dates with Lamb of God, Amon Amarth and Cannibal Corpse
May 13 Huntington, W.V.@Big Sandy Superstore Arena
May 14 Columbia, Md.@Merriweather Post Pavilion
May 16 Noblesville, Ind.@Ruoff Home Mortgage Music Center
May 17 Bonner Springs, Kan.@Providence Medical Center Amphitheatre
May 19 Clarkston, Mich.@DTE Energy Music Center
May 20 Youngstown, Ohio@Covelli Centre
May 22 Ottawa@Canadian Tire Centre
May 24 Camden, N.J.@BB&T Pavilion
May 25 Mansfield, Mass.@Xfinity Center
Amon Amarth’s Berserker World Tour North American dates with Arch Enemy, At the Gates and Grand Magus
Sept. 26 Seattle@Showbox SoDo
Sept. 27 Portland, Ore.@Roseland Theater
Sept. 28 Vancouver@PNE Forum
Sept. 30 Edmonton, Alberta@Edmonton Convention Centre
Oct. 1 Calgary, Alberta@Grey Eagle Resort & Casino
Oct. 3 Salt Lake City@The Complex SLC
Oct. 4 Denver@Fillmore Auditorium
Oct. 6 Minneapolis@Skyway Theatre
Oct. 7 Chicago@The Riviera Theater
Oct. 9 Toronto@Rebel
Oct. 10 Montreal@MTelus
Oct. 12 New York@Hammerstein Ballroom
Oct. 15 Charlotte, N.C.@The Fillmore Charlotte
Oct. 16 Atlanta@Tabernacle
Oct. 18 New Orleans@Fillmore New Orleans
Oct. 19 Houston@House of Blues Houston
Oct. 20 San Antonio@The Aztec Theatre
Oct. 23 Las Vegas@House of Blues Las Vegas
Oct. 25 San Francisco@The Warfield
Oct. 26 Los Angeles@Hollywood Palladium