» Joacim Cans - HammerFall
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Interview conducted May 28 2019
Interview published August 4 2019

"I am probably an advocate of prohibiting cell phones at concerts."

Metal Covenant talked with HammerFall's lead singer Joacim Cans to hear his words on the band's new full-length release Dominion [Out August 16th].

Tobbe: You seem to be in pretty good shape.

Joacim: Yes, I think so too. No need for complaints. But to wait until I'm 49 before getting in shape… Not bad, you know. [Laughs] But I'm trying to stay in shape. The most important thing is to, you know, to age with some kind of dignity. You've got to give yourself that, I think, because you only live once, we have one life, and everyone who insists on the opposite actually doesn't have the slightest idea.

The one thing we know is that we're here, here and now, and therefore we got to take care of ourselves. I was more a slacker before, I must say. Between my swimming career and the age of 43. It wasn't so fun, you know, to go upon stage and pant in the microphone and basically be tired when being on stage. And when you don't see the end of HammerFall's career, you want to try to deliver all the way to the finish line, whether it's 1, 2, 3, 10, 15 or 20 years more.

Tobbe: To what extent does the new record go in line with HammerFall's already well-established heavy metal sound?

Joacim: I think that HammerFall is a trademark and we stand for something. We stand for classic '80s heavy metal; end of discussion. We believe that there is a rather wide range in heavy metal. Don't forget that during the '80s you could make a languishing piano ballad and a double bass drum song like Fast As A Shark [By Accept] and no one raised their eyebrows because that's just the way it was. So I don't care about trying to find subgenres like power metal and stuff. We have worked with some different producers and the music has gone a little bit in different directions.

The most experimental stuff we did was Infected [2011], yet on that record I got in touch with James Michael and he has been involved in everything about the vocals since then. We found each other there and I discovered a great way to work together with him. But after Infected, when we came back after our well-needed hiatus, we started thinking like "How can we make HammerFall sound the best way possible? What kind of setup in terms of production should we use?". So we hired Fredrik Nordström again. I mean, he is the founding father of the Gothenburg sound. Incredibly important to Swedish heavy metal.

We have the knowledge in the band through Pontus Norgren [guitar], who is an incredibly capable producer, and Oscar [Dronjak, guitar], who has a very clear vision about where he wants to take the music, and James Michael, who is my sounding board when it comes to delivering vocals. So this team, that we now have for the third straight album, I consider perfect to HammerFall. Now we sound exactly like we should do.

Tobbe: What's the biggest motivation for the band to still put out albums with a couple of years in between them?

Joacim: That we still make sense. That what we release is still vital. That people still come to the concerts, because we have a new record out, which they have listened well to, and they want to hear these songs live. It's not like we're putting out a record to, like, just to go out on tour. That would be pretty boring.

But to sit here after 11 records and feel that this one is the most vital and energetic we have done, and all of us are around 50, makes me really proud, really. It's about the joy, you know. As long as this is fun I will go on. I have always said that when this isn't fun anymore I will find something else to do.

Tobbe: A band that started in 1980 and had been putting out records for over 20 years was often almost a nostalgia band in the beginning of the 2000s, but even if HammerFall has been putting out records for over 20 years now I don't look at the band in that way. What's different between then and now, really?

Joacim: Well, I don't really know. But at the same time let's not forget that those '80s weren't even 10 years. It was, like, 6-7 years and then it started to decline pretty rapidly. If we had released Glory To The Brave in 1983, it would have been 2005 now and then we would have been around for grunge and the new wave of the new wave of heavy metal that came. It's totally incomprehensible and it's hard to even imagine this and to get some kind of perspective on everything.

I think that the whole genre of hard rock and heavy metal is almost healthier today than back in the day, because at that time media set up the rules. There were quick changes and they customized the music to fit a certain format. That's nothing we do today, but we don't get more than maybe 1 minute of airtime each year, besides on rock radio stations, you know. How this genre can be so big and so strong without support from the mainstream media is quite notable. But that's probably what makes it so strong.

Tobbe: 11 records, over 100 songs, and just how difficult is it really to find new stuff nowadays? Think about how many riffs there are already, how many vocal melodies there are already…

Joacim: You know, every songwriting period is filled with performance anxiety. That's how it is. To sit there with a blank white paper and don't have anything is tough. Where do you begin? We have always worked like "Songwriting period, recordings, release, tour, rewind.". Then the same again: we write, we record, we release, we go on tour, and there's never been a conflict between these periods and they have never interfered with one another, but we have always wanted it this way and maybe we have thought that it's not possible to be creative in any other way.

I usually have a 2-3-year plan for the band, where everything is set, like "We'll do this and this and this...", but on the last tour there were some changes since we chose to go back to North America for the first time in many, many years. We did a co-headline tour with Delain. I think this tour was the best thing we could do in terms of team building. We were so tight, as individuals in relation to one another, and as a band. We had fun again and this momentum made us want to go back once again, if there was an opportunity to go as headliners. But that also meant that this would conflict with everything else we had planned. So we postponed the recordings for 6 months, and also that meant that the record had to be postponed for 6 months, and we became creative during this time.

So Oscar was sitting in the back of the bus, with kind of a studio setup, so he was creative all the time. I would sit in the front of the bus just writing some ideas, like "Maybe this melody might work." and then hum something down on the cell phone. Oscar was talking to the guy who makes our covers, Sam Didier, who said that he is always sketching, like on a notepad, and then like "A.B.C. - Always Be Creative.", and Oscar picked this up and he could walk off stage and be so full energy that he was running to the back of the bus and started recording.

The record turned out great, but material keeps coming and now we already have song ideas for the next record, which is incredible. And personally I feel that I challenged myself a little bit more, both in terms of writing and performance. Now when we had some extra time to finish the album, I finished all the vocal melodies and then put all the songs on hold for a while, and then picked them up again and listened carefully and "Is this the best I can do with this song?" and "Wait a minute. Maybe I can do like this…" and there I had the luxury to change stuff before going into the studio.

In the old days I maybe wrote melodies that suited me, but where the hell is the challenge in doing that? I changed that. I have gradually changed that over the years, but this time "Which melody is the best for the song?". I have probably never sang so high-pitched like I do on a couple of parts on this damn record. [Laughs] But it's great to be able to do it. To be 49 and in some way prove an opposite trend in comparison to most other singers.

Tobbe: Where do you find your text ideas? Where do they come from? From within, or just impressions you collect?

Joacim: It's about impressions. Certain songs more than other, I must say. Every song has a preface; a text line that in some way can leave a door slightly ajar to give the listener a little hint about what I'm thinking. And more than that I don't want to tell, because it would be like ruining it for someone who feels "Wow! This song means this and that to me." and then I would be going "No, no.

It's about this thing.", because it's so personal this stuff. But inspiration is another thing and the idea to the opening track [Never Forgive, Never Forget] came after I'd been watching a 12-hour documentary about the Vietnam War. I was getting so many ideas. The whole song breathes, you know, that tempo, Rolling Thunder, the bombings and everything. With the ballad, Second To One, which we co-wrote with James Michael, I wanted to challenge Oscar firsthand, and obviously myself, with how we would react to a situation where we would be picking someone to sit in a room with us, because we had never done that.

The worst that could happen was us getting 4 days in Los Angeles, an amazing weekend and we would come home emptyhanded. And the best: Awesome weekend and come home with a song that we actually hadn't planned to put on the record. You know, we didn't actually need it. We didn't stand or fall on that song, you know. And that song is about that you're not really complete until you become second to one. To me, my daughter is the person that I place before my own life, so to speak. The idea to this came when I saw James and his relationship with his dog. He doesn't have any kids, but there was a connection there, where James became second to his dog, because the dog means everything to him.

So my thoughts began to fly there and I'm really satisfied with those lyrics. So the words come from everywhere. Bloodline: Well, that's a different story. I was just thinking "What have I never written a text about? - I have never written about Asgaard. I have never written about Norse mythology. - So, now it's time.". I just got a feeling when I was sitting there writing.

Tobbe: It seems like the crowd on heavy metal concerts gets older and older. Maybe you don't take notice of it in the front rows, but what can a band like HammerFall do to get younger generations on the ride?

Joacim: We can't really do more than write music that we stand for. You know, simply good music, that in some way might attract a younger audience. It seems like image is rather important to kids once again, when you look at bands like Slipknot, Sabaton and Powerwolf, where there is a clear concept. It seems like that might draw some interest. We have never worked that way, but to us the music is what's most important and then we have a really energetic live show, but then you have be on site to experience it, you know. But as long as we write music that is vital and music that feels fresh…

Someone said that it's strange how HammerFall sounds old and new at the same time. You include the old, you include the most important from back in the day, but yet it sounds modern. And then old habits die hard. Some people have dismissed us maybe 15 years ago and then it's really hard to get a second chance. But I see that there are both younger and older people coming to the concerts. So there are younger people coming. What's most important is that we have to add more, but as long as we let the old dinosaurs headline themselves to death it might be tough, because younger people maybe don't identify themselves with Kiss as much as they do with…

Let's use Sabaton as an example. If a kid has found heavy metal via Sabaton, then Sabaton is his band, and then he goes back to see what's around. It has happened so many times that fans have said "I discovered heavy metal thanks to you.", but then people around them have opposed that and said "Okay, so you listen to HammerFall. Why do you listen to them when you can listen to Iron Maiden?". But Iron Maiden isn't that person's gateway to heavy metal, you know. I have listened to a lot of obscure bands from the '80s, that in comparison are pretty lousy, but to me they mean a whole lot and then no one should come out condescending about what I feel. I mean, it's my feelings and I own my own feelings, so to speak. We must make room for the new ones.

The old bands are filling up the nostalgia part, yes, and let them do that, for an hour. Maybe it's enough to have ZZ Top playing for 60 minutes. It isn't fun as a headliner. It doesn't last all the way. So, make room for the new ones, but let the old ones be there, at the top of the billing. They must be at the top, because it looks cool, really. In comparison it's great to see a former footballer visiting a game, but no one wants to see him on the pitch for 90 minutes, you know.

Tobbe: Do you often hear younger bands citing HammerFall as an influence, just like you guys are saying that the '80s were a big influence to you?

Joacim: Yes, absolutely. We've reached that point. We've been doing this for so long that many people have started playing an instrument because they started listening to HammerFall. But it's also a strange feeling, since you just want to send them further back in time, but still, those we were influenced by were influenced by someone else and eventually you almost end up going back to, I don't know any good names, but Robert Johnson or someone like him. So you shouldn't minimize the cred you get. At the same time we've been getting so much crap over the years... When new generations come, you know, you can't decide what they should like. It's just the way it is.

Tobbe: You know, streaming music via Spotify is more or less free. You pay for, like, one record a month to listen to kind of whatever you want to. So, will people stop paying to see bands play live as well?

Joacim: No, I don't think so. A live performance is still an experience you can't replace with something else. I can't understand how someone can film a whole concert and think that they can go back home and try to relive the feeling that exists in a live environment. I am probably an advocate of prohibiting cell phones at concerts.

When the band says thank you and bows to the audience, like in a theater, it's okay to take a picture, but in the middle of the gig when all of a sudden a flash goes off, then I'm like "But please. What is this?". You just can't take away the live feel. It's similar to a sports event. If you're in the stands you can never take away that feel and that experience. I've seen so many concerts that have meant so much to me. Afterwards I have realized that, you know "I was there. I saw that. And no one can take that away.".

It's also something you can talk about with other people, like if you meet someone who was at Monsters Of Rock in 1984. I was there, and you can't take that away from me. And I remember everything, everything, everything. Now I'm even romanticizing. Mötley Crüe sounded incredibly good… which I don't think that they actually did.

Tobbe: Might HammerFall in a way almost belong to the last generation of heavy metal musicians who can make this for a living? And will there maybe be more part-time bands in the future?

Joacim: It's hard to say. But I think there will always be bands that are big. As long as the heavy metal fans buy the physical products there will be a market. We have a big market and we still sell a lot of CDs, vinyls and stuff. My children, the youngest one is 16; you know, she hardly knows what a CD player is. On the other hand she knows very well about vinyl, because, you know, that's cool.

But I think that there will still be a market, and it's about touring. It's very crowded on the road, but it does work. Maybe there will be a healthier economic distribution in the future, where more bands will get a share of that piece of the pie that exists. It's a little bit like as long as we have those dinosaurs out there, they will eat the pie and the rest of us will have to share the crumbs.

Tobbe: What does a regular day look like in Joacim's life?

Joacim: Well, I work more or less all the time, mentally. I think a lot, plan a lot, creating preconditions, designing ideas on a small scale. I can't do any of that in full, but I can do a whole lot of little things. I design for t-shirts and other ideas. The song (We Make) Sweden Rock came from an idea that I was contemplating, like "But why don't do like this?" and then I processed it for a while before I proposed the idea to Oscar.

It's a lot like this; I'm a thinker. But every morning I get out of bed early. I set the alarm, because once I start being a slowpoke I don't get to see my daughter whatsoever during the day. She goes to school early, so I get out of bed around the time she does, so at least we get to say hi in the morning and talk a little bit. Then get her to school and then at least 3 days every week I go running. I usually run 8-10 km (5-6 miles) on average and when I'm in the right mood up to 18 km (11 miles).

Perhaps I need a place to go to sometimes, to get some sense of community, like adult daycare somewhere [Laughs], or maybe blending coffee at a café or something. I miss that, but every time I try something like that, a tour comes up and people say "How are you gonna solve this situation?" and I'm like "Yes, I know. It doesn't work.". But what's most important is to do something every day, whether it's a stroll or whatever there is to clear the brain.

To me the running is about sorting and rebooting the hard drive, because then I can come back home peacefully, and sit down, read, or watch a TV series, or do something else that my body allows at that moment.

A second HammerFall interview, featuring guitarist Oscar Dronjak, will be published in the middle of August.

See also: interview with Oscar Dronjak

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