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Interview conducted October 15 2016
Interview published November 02 2016

"I think within the genre we represent variation is really important."

Swedish metallers Civil War are putting out their new record, The Last Full Measure, on November 4th and just before they entered the stage in Stockholm as support to German heavy metal act Powerwolf, Metal Covenant met the band's frontman Nils Patrik Johansson [also fronting Astral Doors] to basically talk about their new making and his vocals.

Tobbe: Your new album will be out in a couple of weeks and I think it kind of follows the path of Civil War, yet not to the full, and how do you personally see this matter?

Nils Patrik: I don't know, really. I mean, we just write songs that we think are good and if it follows a path or not isn't something we have in mind. We just make a good song and then it just is what it is. Maybe we have broadened our perspective. Well, we have, clearly. And it feels great and I hope that people will like it, you know.

Tobbe: This is the third Civil War record and does this one feel like a now or never record? You know, you've been active for a few years and will you kind of break through now?

Nils Patrik: Well, it kind of feels like that. We thought we were gonna come off more already with the first record, but, (Sighs] it was thrown away, more or less. But then we signed with Napalm Records and it's like they do everything to help us out.

They really believe in us and they invest a lot of money in the band. So it's probably now or never, you know. A lot of the records that I've done have been now or never records, but I'm still doing this. [Laughs]

Tobbe: Civil War hasn't really been seen so much and you haven't been that much out on the road either.

Nils Patrik: No, not so much. No, we haven't, but that's been intentional too. But now we have made a decision to tour more. I mean, we're out on our second tour this fall. And that's the way it is nowadays, and especially for heavy metal bands, touring is the only option.

Within the background/mainstream music on radio, there are one-hit wonders who don't have to play they way to success, but we have to tour to earn success, if we don't get a radio hit now, you know, maybe then we can ride the wave a little bit.

Tobbe: The Last Full Measure is basically a heavy metal album of course, but you have also tried a few new things out, like with the song Tombstone, which has kind of a brisk start before turning into a really fast song. You told me that you just write the songs, you know, but what were you aiming for with this one?

Nils Patrik: That's probably the song that sticks out the most, from a heavy metal band. There's no doubt about it. I remember that I made the basic idea to that song and then I and Petrus [Granar, bass] arranged it together and then I put down some vocals for it and I was like "What the hell is this? Is it insanity or is it genius?". So I actually sent a demo to the record company and asked them "What do you think of this? Should we use this for the record?" and they were like "Yes, definitely!".

And then it has grown as we have arranged the song more and more and, like you say, it builds up from something brisk and a kind of catchy verse to sheer madness in the chorus, you know. But it's one of the songs that I think, if they, Napalm, play their cards right, we might get a radio hit out of it; absolutely. So it's gonna be exciting. And we have made a video for that song too. It will come out a week before the record. So that will be the real video, so to speak.

Tobbe: And there are other songs too, like Savannah, where you have put almost kind of pop-choirs in the chorus behind the lead and the backup. Were you trying to, like, freshen it up a little bit to get something catchy out of it?

Nils Patrik: I don't know, really, what we had in mind there. I was thinking more of that the actual verse would be kind of an ABBA verse almost and then a huge choir in the chorus. But yeah, that one is a little bit different too.

Tobbe: A Tale That Never Should Be Told however is maybe not so experimental and especially the first minute of the song sounds a lot like Sabaton.

Nils Patrik: But it's only the beginning that has a little bit of a Sabaton vibe. I made that song with a totally different intro riff; a whole lot more like Black Sabbath. But then I sent it to Petrus and he couldn't make it work really, so he came up with his own riff and it turned out to be kind of Sabaton influenced.

And just because of that short thing, people will say "OK. Now they sound like Sabaton again.", although the verse sounds like Black Sabbath, you know. That's my favorite song on the record almost. It's so damn heavy. And then it's, you know, part after part after part, where it's almost a little bit progressive.

Tobbe: So this similarity has really nothing to do with the fact that there's 3 former members of Sabaton in Civil War?

Nils Patrik: No, Petrus and I have written it, on our own.

Tobbe: But can you ever wash away the Sabaton connection since Civil War is sprung from that band, and yourself, really?

Nils Patrik: No, but it feels like there's a bit fewer questions about Sabaton now. It is, actually. And I mean, we have not much to do with Sabaton, really. They always sound like Sabaton and we sound like Civil War, but we can try different things and they have their pattern that they must follow, you know, and that's where their fans want them to be too.

Tobbe: How are you able to create melody in your heavy metal?

Nils Patrik: We work with melodies. That's the way it is. It's what's most important, that there are good melodies in the songs. Everybody can pile up riffs, but to put good vocals to it is what's hard. An average song, that someone does with standard riffing, you can take to a whole different level with catchy, good song melodies and hooks, you know. I don't think people really think about it, but it's immensely important.

Tobbe: When you make a record, is it like you must have a few faster songs and some mid-tempo tracks, but also put pompous and grandiose stuff on there?

Nils Patrik: I think within the genre we represent variation is really important. If there were only mid-tempo songs it would be really boring to listen to. So I think that there should be 2 or 3 fast songs on every Civil War record and I also want a really heavy song and the epic ones, like the title track The Last Full Measure and America. Both are real super songs. And we released a lyric video a few weeks ago, the opening track, Road To Victory, and that one is actually, according to me personally, just an average song on the album.

It's absolutely not one of the best songs, but the record company insisted on releasing that one. If it would have been my call, maybe I would have picked America or something like that. But maybe it's a smart move; to start off easy and then raise the bar. As I said, we will release Tombstone now and we will probably release more videos too.

Tobbe: With a new record, what feels most important to you guys to come out with in your music?

Nils Patrik: We want everybody to really make their absolute best and that you perform almost so good that you won't be able to play it live, you know. I always do that and I've been doing that with my vocals all the time. The songs aren't easy to sing, so to speak, and I have to pay for it live, you know, and I really have to give everything I got. That's the way I work.

Tobbe: How important is it to place the tracks on the album in the right order?

Nils Patrik: That's extremely important. If you place them in the wrong order it can become really weird and boring; if you have like several mid-tempo songs in a row, you know. There should be some action, and I think it is too on the record. I mean, like the second song on the record, Deliverance, it's a real blaster and it has almost a Dio kind of verse and kind of like a chorus from a musical almost.

Tobbe: And how do you try to fit the songs specifically about the Civil War into the order of the songs?

Nils Patrik: Well, even if the records are based on this novel trilogy, not every song is about the Civil War. It's 3-4 songs per record, so if we put together those songs from The Killer Angels [2013], Gods And Generals [2015] and the new one, then we would have a full record about the Civil War. So we really don't follow a specific thread and the songs can be about just anything. At the same time, as the album titles are based on that novel series, some songs have to be about that too.

But, you know, besides that, the songs can be about whatever. Road To Victory is about us as a band, out on, hopefully, the road to victory. And the song Gangs Of New York is about the movie. It's one of my favorite movies. It was a cool movie, you know, and I think no other band, at least what I know, uses that title for a song and it's a really cool title too. But most songs are about war, but not all of them.

Tobbe: Now when this story has ended, will you pick up another theme for coming records?

Nils Patrik: I haven't thought about it yet. I have no idea. It can be just about whatever, you know. Maybe it will be a record with only metal lyrics, but we will see. It feels really great!

Tobbe: Besides giving everything you've got, what did you personally, song-wise, want to come out with on this particular record?

Nils Patrik: Oh, that's a tough question. Just do the best possible songs in every situation and have variation and not just sing with an angry tone, but to use my clean voice too. I think that, song-wise, maybe it's among the best work I've ever done.

I think it's because the last couple of records I've been recording the vocals myself at home and I keep singing until I'm really satisfied. No studio pressure and I can do it again and again and again and it's only up to me to decide how good it's gonna be in the end. I know what I want with my vocals and I strive to make it as good as possible. You're basically your own worst critic, you know.

Tobbe: How do you keep your voice in shape all the time, without any big dips, you know?

Nils Patrik: I think it's because we haven't toured so much. If you look at Bruce Dickinson, who's had pits and valleys, you know, it isn't strange. I mean, who the hell can sing like that and so much and still keep his voice? But he does it great anyway. And it was even the same with Ronnie James Dio in the end. I mean, he was getting more hoarse and hoarse for every year. But he still held the banner high, you know, but he sounded kind of like he was having a cold all the time.

Tobbe: About the parallel to Dio. There was a lot of talking in the beginning, with the first Astral Doors record [Of The Son And The Father], but you have kind of sorted that out a little bit over the years and has it been your intention to distance yourselves a bit from that?

Nils Patrik: Yes, I think so. I use that singing style occasionally, on some parts. I mean, like A Tale That Never Should Be Told has a clear Dio/Sabbath verse, you know. I was influenced by the Dehumanizer record when I wrote the verse. So sometimes there's some Dio coming out there. But it's more Dio in Astral Doors still, so.

Tobbe: About Astral Doors. Even if the timing isn't perfect, with a new Civil War record out soon. But what's going on in that camp right now?

Nils Patrik: Well, we're writing new songs, you know. We live in the same town [Borlänge] and are friends. We have 7-8 songs ready for the next record and it's slated to be out in March.

Tobbe: Have you finished the touring for this album with Civil War by then? And what's in the pipeline right now? You were in Spain a couple of weeks ago and right now you're touring the Nordic countries.

Nils Patrik: We have a break for a month and then we're going to Tel Aviv [Israel] and then Malta. And then there are plans for going out for a couple of weeks in April and then there are festivals, you know.

Tobbe: Is the record company trying to get you to tour more?

Nils Patrik: Yes, they want us out all the time. And they are our booking company as well, so it's just follow their will, as far as we can.

Tobbe: Has Civil War become your main band now, or do you really want to go there, because Astral Doors is close to your heart, you know? It's a double-edged sword, I guess.

Nils Patrik: Well, I don't have a main band, really. Obviously I dedicate most of the time to Civil War. It's the way it has become. I'm trying to give it a try and see how far we can take it, you know, so I got to go for it. So Astral Doors has been forced to step aside a little bit, surely. But as I said, we're still making songs together, but touring has been put aside.

Tobbe: But Astral Doors never was a band that did full-scale tours either and are you personally part of that reason?

Nils Patrik: We had something going there for a while, when we were out with Grave Digger [2005] and Blind Guardian [2006]. I mean, we were out 6 and a half weeks with Blind Guardian, so that was a serious tour. But we were probably a little naïve and we thought that the offers were going to come big-time, but it doesn't work that way and we should have gone home and planned for the next tour instead. Pretty much just like Sabaton built up themselves. But we didn't work like that in Astral Doors and we have paid for it.

See also: review of the album The Last Full Measure

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