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Interview conducted February 14 2022
Interview published March 1 2022

"I knew already in the beginning what HammerFall was gonna be"

Metal Covenant met up with HammerFall's guitarist and main songwriter Oscar Dronjak to talk about the band's new album Hammer Of Dawn. (Out February 25th)

Tobbe: I'm gonna start this one with asking pretty much the same question that I asked you before the release of the Dominion album in 2019. So, to what extent does the new album Hammer Of Dawn follow HammerFall's already well-known heavy metal sound?

Oscar: I think that it follows it very well. To me there are more similarities between Dominion and Hammer Of Dawn than between Built To Last and Dominion. That's what I feel. These two are more linked together, and that has a lot to do with that some of the songs on Hammer Of Dawn was written already in the songwriting period for Dominion.

And I never really stopped writing songs, but rather kept going during the Dominion tour. So they are linked together to some extent in a certain way.

Tobbe: I guess some of the stress was lifted off your shoulders too.

Oscar: Absolutely. It was. I was kind of panicking before Built To Last. Before that one we usually had a 6-8 month break where we just wrote songs and then recorded the new album, and then it kind of started over again, you know. But I didn't have that luxury that time, because there are different times now and bands are out playing more.

So I got some performance anxiety, because nothing happened and there was only a couple of weeks to go. It eventually turned out well, but I don't want to find myself in that situation again. So I made sure that I just kept going.

Tobbe: Performance anxiety is one of the worst feelings you can experience, really.

Oscar: Yes, it's such a pain in the ass. It happens every time, but sometimes it's harder to get going again. Before these Hammer of Dawn times, so to speak, I had a little dip that was hard to get through. Some people think it's great to write songs during the pandemic because they got nothing else to do, but it occurred to me that I needed something to look forward to. We did the last gig, I think, on February 27th or 28th [2020], and we went home the next day, and then a couple of weeks later everything kind of shut down. We were able to do the tour nevertheless.

And then we had to cancel some gigs in Sweden and, I think, in Denmark, and then the festivals and stuff, but I didn't know that on that point, you know. So we did the tour, everything was done, and it was awesome. Then everything started to happen and we realized that we weren't going to be able to do the festivals in the summer. But I tried to see things in a positive way, like "It's kind of nice to be at home.".

And I got an uninterrupted summer at home in Sweden with my family, you know. Like "This is awesome!". I was really enjoying that summer. It was a great summer. It was really nice. I didn't have to do anything and just hung around at home and my son was 6 at the time. So that was great and I went with the flow. So I wrote a lot of music during that time, like just kept writing from the tour and on, like whenever I got in the right mood.

In August and September things were looking better, but then the next wave came and everything shut down and my belief in the future just went away a little bit in a way. So at that time it was really hard to get inspired and the future looked dark. Nothing happened in weeks, no matter how hard I tried, and the stuff that came out was just real crap. Then suddenly an explosion of inspiration occurred, that went away after a few days, but I was able to seize the moment in that short time because fortunately I had written so much stuff prior to this period.

I think I just had two songs left to write and one of them was done to 50 percent. One of them was Venerate Me. It's not very common that I write a song in a day, but specifically with that one everything just came to me. And then I finished the parts of the ballad Not Today as well. Then I was done with my stuff, you know. It was nice, and it was fortunate that I did so much before that and didn't lay it aside, 'cause who knows what would have happened then?

Tobbe: You know, I'm not even gonna ask about King Diamond. Just tell me something.

Oscar: You know, we love King Diamond. And I have done that since I was a teenager. Usually with King everyone often has a very strong opinion about him. It's very few people who say, like "Well, he's pretty okay.", but it's either you love him or you don't care because you don't like the vocals or something like that, you know. But the ones who like it really love it, and we belong to that category. When I wrote that song, which is Venerate Me, and wrote that part, I was kind of thinking "This is kind of like how King would have done it.". Well, rather how Mercyful Fate would have done it.

So, when we were recording the album I told Pontus [Norgren, guitar] kind of like the same thing, like "It would have been cool if King would have sung this part. But that's never gonna happen of course. It's just stupid to even think about it.". And then Pontus was just like "Well, I can ask him. I think he'll do it if I ask him.". Pontus is a sound engineer as well, and he's been working with King for years, so they know each other quite well. So he called King that evening, came back the next day, and "He will do it.".

But, as you also know, people say yes to a lot of stuff and then nothing comes out of it. This was in the early summer and deadline was in late September, so it took a while before something happened. But we got the files, and got King satisfied with his stuff. You know, the way his voice is heard must be representative for him. It must fit in. It must sound in a certain way.

And I understand that. It's his trademark, you know. Of course it must be right. No one of us had mixed him before so it was a little bit like "What does he really want?" and so we tried it out, like, "A little bit up here. A little bit down there.". On our part it was like "Everything is okay for us. It doesn't matter.". It was just such small details, but he could hear that, so he was so meticulous with effects and stuff. We just tried to make him happy.

To us, the difference in the end result was very small, but he heard all the nuances, and was very thorough about it. So when he was happy, we were happy of course. This was a childhood dream come true. But it's not like this is a duet or so, and Joacim [Cans, vocals] said "It's just a cameo.". He comes in and does his stuff, you know.

Tobbe: Already when I listened to the first song, Brotherhood, I got the feeling of listening to something new, yet something old. And then that feeling kind of stuck with me throughout the entire record.

Oscar: I kind of got that feeling too. It's a great mix of what makes HammerFall to HammerFall, yet the songs feel a bit fresh, you know. I think it's partly because I wrote, for example, Brotherhood on tour. We did a North American tour with Flotsam & Jetsam as special guests in the summer of 2018.

I know this because I called the song Hello Cleveland! for quite some time in the beginning. I started with the song in Cleveland and finished it on the tour. And the energy you have during a tour, I was able to catch that. I wasn't sure that I would be able to do that, but as it turned out it went great with writing songs while on tour. A lot of adrenaline that you have in your body all the time comes out on stage, but there's a lot of time spend on tour that you have to fill with something, and then I filled it with something productive instead, and it worked out really great.

Hammer Of Dawn is also written on tour, but in Germany, on the European tour in 2020. And there are a lot of fast songs on this album, in comparison to the last couple of records anyway. And that's because fast songs come out when you get exhilarated, and that's easy to get on tour because there are so much energy there. I didn't reflect on this matter before we had come far in the songwriting phase, like making a list and "Let's check out what we've done. - Fast song, fast song, another fast song.". There were almost only fast songs in that list for a while. And I think that that is a factor to in what way you perceive the album.

Tobbe: No matter how you twist and turn it still sounds like HammerFall.

Oscar: Yes, that's true. And that's the way it should be. It's not because I don't wanna make anyone disappointed, but this is what I want HammerFall to sound like. You know, I think HammerFall is great. Don't misunderstand me now, okay? I love my band, you know. Because I write music that I personally would wanna listen to.

When I have written quite a few songs I usually try to, as far as I possibly can, disconnect the songwriting brain and listen to them as a fan. Maybe drink a few beers and just put them on and not analyze it, but you know, just listen to them and think about what you're doing and try to listen to them as if I hadn't written them. That gives me a great amount of joy. At that point I feel if it's good or not. With this album I've had so many sessions where I've listened to the songs in this way, because I think they're so damn great.

I haven't gotten tired of them, and that's very unusual, because I always get tired of them in the end of the recordings. I've heard them billions of times at that point. And it's not just because I've recorded them, but I've also written them prior to the recordings and listened to them quite a lot. But I had a great feel during this entire period, so this album is special to me.

Tobbe: I understand that you prefer writing a great song before development and writing something completely new, right?

Oscar: Absolutely. To a hundred percent. I'm pretty conservative in that way. I like what I like, and that's just the way it is. And it's also because HammerFall was founded in a period where very few bands, and especially new bands, played this type of, you know, melodic heavy metal. I knew already in the beginning what HammerFall was gonna be.

I had written one song actually, but I knew that HammerFall is gonna be a heavy metal band, within certain parameters, without any growls, or trying new things out. Like "This is HammerFall", so we have never really had an identity crisis over the years. It's been quite clear from the start. Joacim and I share this vision, like "This is the heavy metal band that we're in." and then we've made songs from that standpoint. In our point of view this is the optimal heavy metal, you know.

I'm not saying that we're better than anyone else, but to us it is, you know. Joacim doesn't really listen to our songs though, because he doesn't like listening to himself singing. And I understand that. I guess it's different when you're playing guitar, because I don't hear that it's I in that sense.

Tobbe: It's been a lot of talk recently about it and I know that Judas Priest is one of your favorite bands and as a guitarist in a band with two guitarists, what's your opinion on them suddenly announcing that they were only gonna have one guitarist live instead of the usual two guitarists? Now they've reversed that decision, but anyway.

Oscar: Actually I first heard about it as I talked to someone after Andy Sneap was taken back into the fold, but I understood, and felt like "This is insane.". Out of all existing bands, Judas Priest is probably one where it's absolutely most important to have two guitars. Where the guitars play differently all the time, yet they sound exactly the same, but it's still different. It's extremely cool.

And especially '70s Priest were fantastic in that department. So it's incomprehensible. Really dumb, of course. I of course don't know what happened or what they were thinking, but they must have two guitars.

Tobbe: So what would HammerFall be like if you removed one guitarist?

Oscar: Well, you have to remove me then, because I wouldn't be able to carry a band as a sole guitarist. I can't do that. Pontus could do that, and he has done that with The Poodles for example. But I could never do that. I don't have that, and especially the solo stuff, and I'm not that skilled guitarist, you know, who could take his space and balance things. It wouldn't have worked with only me.

Tobbe: Glory To The Brave was out 25 years ago. Is it possible to celebrate that record once again?

Oscar: No, it isn't, as we did that 5 years ago. And above all since Crimson Thunder was released 20 years ago. If anything, focus will be on that one instead, you know. We haven't really talked about what we're gonna do. You know, when we were touring in '17, '18, and '20 we played a medley from the album that was currently celebrating its 20 year anniversary, and specifically this we have talked about doing with Crimson Thunder, so that will probably happen this year, I guess.

But that's how far it goes, you know. We won't do the whole record again and stuff like that. We have a new album now that we strongly believe in and are happy about so naturally we wanna promote that one instead and the other stuff is more like a fun thing to do and a piece of the pie, so to speak.

Tobbe: You recently turned 50 and is that just incomprehensible or is it just a part of life?

Oscar: It's both actually. The deeper and the more I think of it, it's completely incomprehensible. You know, I've been doing HammerFall for more than half my life now. I was 24 when we recorded the first album, you know. At the same time I don't feel like 50 at all. But I have noticed that I think more about maybe doing a health examination and just make sure that everything is okay.

I have never cared about that before, like "I'm young. I will live forever.", but now I maybe think more about my own mortality in that way. But I'm absolutely gonna do that during this spring, like prostate exam and blood count and stuff like that. Just to get a verification that everything is okay, you know.

Tobbe: You know, if you're gonna do this professionally until you're 70 or 75 then you have just passed the middle mark of your career with HammerFall. Is it even possible to even think in these terms at this point?

Oscar: You know, I can't even imagine myself being 70. I'm not even 50 in my mind, you know. Well, maybe like 40 or something, but I still feel relatively young and alert. So I can't even imagine 70. My mother is turning 82 this year and it's completely unimaginable seeing myself so old.

Tobbe: My final question: You know, I'm not actually tired of the song Hearts On Fire, but to me it's tiresome that it's always the final song when you guys play live.

Oscar: That's just the way it is. It has to be the final song. You know, Living After Midnight is always the final song and there's a reason for that. And the same with Balls To The Wall. Well, you know, it doesn't have to be the final song. Actually I think it's very boring to rehearse that song. You know, there's nothing worse with HammerFall than to rehearse that damn song. But playing it live is awesome.

Although we've played it a billion times and people have heard it a billion times, it always goes down so great. People also know that this is the end of the show and they can give it all. And so can we. So it will probably always be the final song. We tried to play it as the opener once; didn't work out at all. It was a stupid idea, but, you know, lesson learned.

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