By David E. Gehlke
SABATON was just getting a taste of headlining European arenas when the pandemic knocked them and everybody else off the road in March 2020. Pun intended, but cramming 18,000 seaters was a hard-fought achievement for the Swedes. They've carved out a niche as metal's resident history teachers behind anthemic, polished power metal, legitimized it through detailed research on all topics pertaining to war, then backed it up even further on the touring front.
Their newest foray is the aptly titled "The War To End All Wars", a continuation of 2019's World War I-themed "The Great War". The usual array of call-to-arms choruses and dominant keyboard refrains lead the way, showing that SABATON can remain somewhat flexible within a formula that often suggests otherwise. It was easy to pick up on frontman / primary songwriter Joakim Brodén's enthusiasm when he connected with BLABBERMOUTH.NET to talk about how the new album came together and how he shares the load with bassist Pär Sundström. However, the conversation started with the events of 2012 when four members of SABATON bolted to clear the way for greater things.
Blabbermouth: We're coming up on ten years when Oskar (Montelius, guitar),Rikard (Sundén, guitar),Daniel (Mullback, drums) and Daniel (Mÿhr, keyboards) all left SABATON. What do you remember about that time?
Joakim: "I remember most about it. It's the little things I have trouble remembering. [Laughs] I've spoken to other musicians that the early stuff you remember and the stuff you've done lately, you remember and everything in the middle gets mixed up. As soon as you sit down and talk to someone, these things come back. I met Daniel, the drummer, not too long ago, actually. I went to his house and talked about some old memories. I remember when we started, we were more focused on the beer. It was about meeting up on the weekends, listening to JUDAS PRIEST, 'Painkiller', HELLOWEEN, 'Keeper Of The Seven Keys' and dreaming that we would be able to play one day Wacken. Never mind headlining it on two stages. That wasn't in the cards. We were better drinkers than musicians.
"But at a certain point, me and Pär were like, 'Are we really going to do this?' In our minds, at least what we had to do was finish what we started. The band was breaking up as the album was being finished. We thought, 'We have to finish the album first ['Carolus Rex'], then we got to go on tour and we'll see where it goes from there. Maybe we will be playing to 200 people in clubs.' But that didn't happen, so we didn't think about it that much."
Blabbermouth: What was going on in the band at the time?
Joakim: "We wanted different things. Everyone wants to be a rock musician at any price when you're a teenager, but when you're 30, some people are married and have kids and we realized during the recording of the album that we wanted different things. Some people thought, 'Yeah, I like to play music, but I don't want to play music as a full-time job.' But we thought that was what we had been working for! [Laughs] It was hard back then, but no problems now."
Blabbermouth: Do you see that as the turning point for SABATON? From 2012 on up here in the States, your popularity has increased.
Joakim: "I don't want to say anything bad about the old guys, but we were from a very small town in Sweden and we weren't even the best musicians in that town. Then, we were looking for new members and we could get established musicians who were excellent and people who wanted to go on tour, which was something we always had trouble with before. We had chances to go on tour, but someone always had work, which was understandable. At that point, we could put the focus on the band one-hundred percent."
Blabbermouth: The partnership between you and Pär has always been equitable: You handle the creative side; he does the business. How often do you disagree, though?
Joakim: "It's always come down to what we're good at. Over the years, Pär has moved forward more and more with the management side of things. When we're talking about the future of SABATON, we talk together. When discussing what we're doing for an album, we talk about the theme, topic and concept. Then we go off and do our things. Obviously, we keep in touch all the time. Whenever we disagree, 90 percent of the time, we can come to a compromise or work it out. Whenever we cannot reach that, if it's a business decision, we go with what he thinks, but if it's a lyrical or musical decision, we go with what I think. We disagree daily. [Laughs] Actually, not that much. But in many cases, we play the devil's advocate. We play all sides and have open discussions. Nine times out of ten, after discussing things through, we agree. He sees what I mean and I see what he means, or, it's like, 'Oh, shit, we haven't thought about that angle.'"
Blabbermouth: Do you think that's the key to your partnership?
Joakim: "Absolutely. Especially these days when the band does so much stuff and even the younger bands, younger than us, it's more and more common. We have sometimes warned younger bands that, 'Seriously, if you only have one guy in the band doing all the work, you're in trouble. It might be fine up to a certain point, but this person will need to do all the music writing, book shows and even act as the tour manager. We've been there.' It's a really tricky thing as the band starts to get bigger. We've seen many good bands — and friends — give everything, but when they're the only ones working and they can't handle it, they give up. Then the band doesn't have the songwriter and the person involved with booking."
Blabbermouth: Have more prominent outside managers approached you about taking on SABATON as a client?
Joakim: "Every now and then. We tried initially, but I guess we were too bad. [Laughs] Nobody wanted us. By the time people, or the business, realized there was something there, we already had our organization going. We thought, 'What would you bring into this? How many hours would you spend on SABATON?' To an extent, we've expanded our own organization. In the end, nobody is going to care about SABATON more than us."
Blabbermouth: How did the pandemic affect the writing of "The War To End All Wars"? Did it cause you to think a bit more about the songs than you usually would?
Joakim: "Yes and no. If it weren't for the pandemic, we wouldn't have had this album this early. When we got called home from Russia when countries started to close down, we didn't know how long it would go on. Me and Chris [Rörland, guitar] went into a self-imposed quarantine to make sure we didn't bring anything home to our families. We started writing music, which became 'The Royal Guard' and some other songs. Pär and I talked and we realized we didn't play on many continents — there were a lot of places we didn't go for 'The Great War' tour. So we could possibly make a new album, so we decided I was going to start writing music. We didn't know how long the world was going to be closed. We thought, 'Worst-case scenario, we have a couple of songs in the bag. What are we writing about?' Then we realized we had a few songs, or stories, I should say, that we wanted to cover from 'The Great War', like the 'Christmas Truce', 'Hellfire', stories like that. Not that we didn't want to do them, but we didn't have the music. Then we had a huge amount of input of ideas from fans and friends: 'Oh, World War I, have you thought about that?' There were so many stories that we were like, 'Why are you telling us about these now?' In the end, we thought, 'We can do those.' And we can go on tour to Japan or South America where we didn't tour for 'The Great War', then the other album won't make 'The Great War' irrelevant. We won't be doing a Napoleonic thing and build a stage around it, then a song about Lawrence Of Arabia may seem irrelevant. All those things combined made us decide to do another one."
Blabbermouth: How has your writing process evolved over the years?
Joakim: "The basics haven't changed that much. It's still me somewhere in a basement, rehearsal room, or studio with a guitar, keyboard and laptop. In the early days, I used Amiga [recording software]. [Laughs] Since 2006 or 2007, it's been a pretty similar approach. On the other hand, things have turned around. It's harder for me now to get an idea that's not a copy of what I've done before or something that gets me excited. It should not only be good for the fans, but it should also be good for us. Everyone should like it. When you start writing an album, you put it up against your greatest hits from the previous albums with every new idea you have in the beginning. [Laughs] That's a really unfair comparison. Coming up with ideas has become trickier. On the other hand, if I have an idea today, I know how to make a SABATON song out of it, no matter how weird or far-fetched it may seem. Then it's easier when I get that idea and realize it."
Blabbermouth: You recently said that SABATON wanted to evolve but not do something crazy.
Joakim: "We decided that we're never going to work under the idea of, 'Let's go harder, faster, more aggressive.' The idea is, 'Let's try to be better.' We went in with this album to think about a few things on the production side with a bit more variation, though. Jonas [Kjellgren, engineer] did the best production on a SABATON album so far. It's by far the happiest everyone has been. Usually, the guitarists complain about the guitars and then the drummer starts complaining. Everyone records their parts, but I'm there the whole way. I'm there for keyboards and production and involved in writing all the songs, so I also know about what the guitars are doing or keyboards. If somebody comes up with a great idea, I can catch up with the other instruments. When Jonas did the first mix and his ears were shot and tired of it, I came in and gave him a break. Then he starts to mix, then I come in and we spend a week or two together, then I go to the band. That's when I usually expect, 'Oh, shit. What about this and this?' This time, everyone was like, 'Wow! This sounds fantastic!' They had suggestions and changes and we made most of those happen, but I've never had that reaction ever before."
Blabbermouth: Chris has been with SABATON since 2012 and Tommy [Johansson, guitar] since 2016. What kind of involvement did they have on the album?
Joakim: "Chris, especially on this album, was involved a lot in the songwriting. Maybe because we flew home from Russia: Me, him and our drum tech, we decided not to go home and infect our families because not much was known about the virus in March 2020. We flew home to Sweden, brought some kitchen utensils to our headquarters, holed up and got to work. We wrote a few songs before, Chris and me, but we started off [the process]. We had some songs going and whenever I was going to Falun [Sweden], I said, 'If anyone wants to join in for the songwriting, let me know.' Chris was always the first, 'Fuck yeah. Let's go!'"
Blabbermouth: How difficult has it been trying to assemble tours in this environment?
Joakim: "It's a challenge. Having booked, re-booked, canceled hundreds and hundreds of shows this time, new venues, new tour routing, and budgets to a certain extent — trust me: Pär is looking more and more like Gandalf every day. [Laughs] He's turning white and gray, or somewhere in between. He's been doing a lot of fucking work that nobody will ever know. At least for me, everyone will play the album."
Blabbermouth: Are you at least optimistic you'll have a solid year of touring?
Joakim: "Yeah. I'm not worried at all. I think we reached a critical mass. At least over here in Europe, most governments have started to realize that it's not that lethal anymore. We can't put the world on hold forever and populations are getting tired of lockdowns all over. I'm not making a political statement, but a lot of people are fucking tired of this shit and want to get on their lives."
Blabbermouth: How hard was all this on you?
Joakim: "Harder than I thought it would be, actually. We were in the middle of pretty heavy touring when we were sent home, so I didn't miss too much initially. But I'm so used to seeing all these people. I started writing songs, so I saw some people now and then, but not as much as I thought. It took me a while to realize what was wrong. Yeah, I missed the shows, absolutely, but also the people. It wasn't a lonely life but a calmer life at home. I usually don't go and do crazy shit when I'm at home. I get enough of that when I'm on tour. [Laughs] But I didn't want to take it easy for two fucking years."