» Per Sundström - Sabaton
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Interview conducted March 23 2014
Interview published May 12 2014

With the release of Swedish heavy metallers Sabaton's new album Heroes, bass player Pär Sundström is halfway through an interview schedule from hell, before the band takes off to North America for a tour with Iced Earth and Revamp. He calls me at 6.55 this Sunday evening, 5 minutes ahead of our appointment and tells me he that will be busy until early morning. Despite his tough schedule, he's in a good mood and shows no signs of being fatigue at all.

Tobbe: When I listen to your new album, Heroes, I see it as direct and it's definitely in the Sabaton vein. What are your thoughts?

Pär: Yes, I think it has kind of gone back to maybe where we were at with The Art Of War. On Carolus Rex we took everything farther. All levels were on 10. We had an extreme amount of choirs, an immensely large production and it was immensely epic all through. This record has turned out more straight heavy metal. We feel very satisfied with it and we had huge troubles when we chose which songs that should be part of it. Eventually we decided that we wanted each song to have its own identity. Every song is supposed to feel new when you listen to the record. We also wanted to bring in some new elements and we also have a new lineup. We wanted the record to sound very fresh and I think we succeeded well on that matter.

Tobbe: Like you said, Carolus Rex was epic and grandiose. You even brought in a historian to help you out with the lyrics. You have now returned to your older concept, did your workload become less now?

Pär: Well, both yes and no. Many things became much easier. Partially it is easier for us to find historic facts to the lyrics we've written now. When we worked with the period of the Swedish Empire, we had to look for a historian to tell us everything and then we could build it up from there. When we work with World War II, which we often like to do, our research becomes significantly simpler. Partially because it's so well documented and there are quotations and we can rely pretty much on the facts at least being fairly true.

Further on, we recorded faster than what we normally do and we had new bandmembers that were very excited to enter the studio. We have fantastic guitarists right now. The instruments were recorded quicker, which gave us more time to work on the production instead. There were many things with this record that was significantly simpler, except for one thing, the songwriting process. That was the tough part with this record, since we had such a fucking pressure upon us, since Carolus Rex sold platinum and was almost defining for our career. That was what was most difficult, but with the actual lyrics, we were back to a period where we felt safe; to write lyrics, similar to what we've done before. We felt rather comfortable with many of the songs.

Tobbe: The record is around 37 minutes and all songs are between 3 and 4½ minutes, so it gets pretty intense. How did you view that matter when you recorded these songs, that there was no longer one, for instance?

Pär: We didn't feel a need for that. We didn't give it a thought until afterwards, like "Oh, the record turned out really short.". It feels even shorter, since we thought that each and every song should sound as a fresh start. It feels like really short, but when looking back, many classic records had like 8 or 9 songs and a total playing time of 40 minutes to fit the LP format. So it's not that strange and we feel no need to fill out the record, just for the sake of it.

Tobbe: It's of no concern to me. I like shorter records, since I feel I'm able to listen to the full record more times without getting tired of it, as I sometimes get when a record is too damn long. That's my opinion anyway.

Pär: It is true. I mean, it creates, just like you say, a will to listen to it again. It also makes a record more approachable. If you have a heavy 80 minute concept record, perhaps you don't play it if you just want to like listen to a song.

Tobbe: Sabaton plays pretty catchy heavy metal and you have really set your style with a bunch of records in the past. You told me earlier that you wanted each song to have an identity, so what do you guys do to try to minimize repeats? I hear a few things that's kind of similar to what you've done earlier.

Pär: You know what, to create something completely new is difficult. I mean, Sabaton builds on a concept really. We get inspiration off classic bands and I believe that all bands today do that in some way. I mean, no one invents new riffs, you know. You find melodies and you find riffs from within and they probably are somewhat similar to something we might have listened to earlier in our lives. But when we begin to brand our thing and put Sabaton's brand on it, you know with our choirs, arrangements, our keyboards and Jocke's [Joacim Brodén's] vocals, then everything starts to sound like Sabaton and that's where we have found our identity.

Furthermore, you could imagine that it's easy to repeat earlier songs, especially since almost all songs are written by one single person and sometimes we also do realize that we repeat ourselves, but for each record made, we expand what Sabaton is able to do. We try new things, yet without suddenly taking a big step to do something completely different with an entire record. We have a record and maybe 1 or 2 songs become a little more experimental and we take a step sideways and try new grounds. With each record, the view of Sabaton's safe ground broadens. We get more and more possibilities to do things, but we don't want to take a giant leap with an entire record. It's more like a song here and there and we have also done that with the new record as well, with for instance the ballad [The Ballad Of Bull] and to some extent also with the song To Hell And Back, which is our first single off this record, that also stands out a little.

Tobbe: The Ballad Of Bull feels like it even steps out of the frame of hard rock. What about it?

Pär: Well, there's not many signs of hard rock guitars on that one. The history of that song is somewhat funny. - We sit somewhere in America and Jocke is sick and his voice is broken. He's recording on his cell phone, just for fun while he's plinking on the piano and hums with a sore and broken voice. He plays it for the rest of the band, but I wasn't there for some reason. Later, when we're on our way back home from the American tour, he asks me if I have heard what he recorded. I listened to it and I said it was awesome, but a few other people, including Jocke, said it wasn't that good. I thought it had something and a great melody and so.

Eventually we decided that it should be put on the record, so I and Jocke sat down to write lyrics to it, without knowing what the song should actually turn out to. The only thing existing was a demo with a rough piano arrangement and some humming vocals. I really didn't think much of that song from there and I didn't know what would actually happen to it. I went on a PR trip, had a few meetings and did some stuff around Europe and when I returned home later, Jocke had talked to a couple of buddies who works with music arrangements and he had told them that we had some trouble with a song. So they did the arrangement and when I returned home I asked "What happened to that song?" and they said "It turned out like this!". The entire song was done, recorded and produced, including vocals and everything. It was cool to hear something turn from almost nothing to complete. That was awesome. This has never happened to me before.

Tobbe: Jocke does the lion's share of the songwriting. How do the rest of the band put their influences to the songs, all the way to finished products, in addition to just set your own mark on them?

Pär: I mean, it's not like Jocke controls this band by his ego. No one's ego is able to control this band. We always think of what's best for the band. When Jocke has written a song, he presents it to everyone and if we think it's not that good, that's the way it is. If we think it's good, we work on it. So there's no one who controls everyone else.

Tobbe: You have chosen to work with Peter Tägtgren [producer] again. What makes your collaborations special?

Pär: He has been involved in everything really, in one way or the other, ever since the first demo we recorded in Studio Abyss. We worked with his brother [Tommy] earlier, but Peter was around and was a little curious and gave us some tips and he also had a look at the mixings. He has been around all the way, but it wasn't until Carolus Rex that he made an entire record with us. Afterwards we felt that this turned out really great. The first times you work with someone, you don't know everything about each other. You pick up things along the road. We knew that we could do an even better job and especially if Peter was given more time than he had on the latest record. That one was very stressful, partially because we lost bandmembers during the recordings and partially because we decided, at the last minute, to do it with 2 languages. So Peter wasn't able to devote as much time for that record as he wanted to.

Tobbe: What are your expectations to what the new record may do for your future career?

Pär: If we look solely to what I know. What I know now is that with our latest record, our promotion tour consisted of that I went to Poland for one day, Jocke went to England for one day and then we were in Germany for one day together. That was pretty much what we did in terms of marketing or as a promotion tour and then we did rather many phone interviews actually. What we do now is that we go on an over two week long tour where we visit many European countries and spend whole days with local interviews and that's a huge difference. We intensify our anticipations because we put more effort to it now than we did before and we know that we have a lot of people behind us, who were a little doubtful when we released Carolus Rex.

All doubts have vanished, since we have a solid lineup, we had great success and Sabaton is an established band and things work well. Carolus Rex gave us about 4 phone interviews with French media and now when we were on site, we had maybe 40 interviews. That tells something about the size of our efforts. We maybe had 1 or 2 covers of European magazines with Carolus Rex and now we're on most of them, simple as that. Maybe we will have some tough times in Sweden and we reckon that a lot of people won't accept this one since it's not in Swedish. We're aware of this, but we didn't want to do a record in Swedish if it's not about Sweden.

Tobbe: You're going to North America in a couple of weeks. What are your expectations for that tour, outside Europe, even though you've been there before?

Pär: For each time we've been going to North America, things have turned out better and better. It's a difficult and vast territory without any press or radio caring the least about us. We struggle on an underground level, where the only way for us to reach forward is actually to play gigs. And that's the best way to do it, because then people really can see what we signify and what we're able to deliver. I look immensely forward to this and especially since we've had a rather long break. We haven't played live since December and we haven't had a break that long for years. We're all stoked and we want to have some fun, you know.

We're playing as support act and I mean, the circumstances are different all the time. One day we play a big show in Sweden or Germany and on the next day we play as support act in the USA, but it's also what I think is fun and it's important to stand with both feet on the ground when you're playing big shows and then suddenly must realize that "Guys, vacation is over and this will be somewhat disgusting and sweaty and it will take a couple of days between showers!". I think this gives us a different perspective.

Tobbe: When you nowadays have become an established band, and definitely in Europe, will you still close your gigs with tribute songs like Metal Crüe?

Pär: It's actually not yet decided which song we will close the gigs with. We haven't decided yet and we haven't decided which songs to play from the new record either, because we really had a hard time to decide. It's a good record and we like all songs. No one in the band has an ego and demands that a specific song must be played, or which songs we won't play, which means that we're still very open. It actually will be determined on how the songs go down. We will probably play To Hell And Back, I guess. It seems to gain popularity and it's our first single off the record and it's out on the internet and it gets radio time.

Tobbe: Although I have only listened to the record intensively during this last week, I personally think that the record seems very even, so I reckon picking a setlist won't be a walk in the park.

Pär: That's exactly how we feel too, that it's very even. Sabaton hasn't had a great hit around the world. It's been very local and certain songs are popular in certain countries, which means that we tour with a large amount of songs and that feels really great too. There's so many bands going out and playing the same 15 songs every night and nothing more. Same thing every night, because they think that the fans should have the same experience no matter where the gig takes place. That's one way to see it, but the experience differs depending on which relations you have to the songs as well. We want to give all fans the best experience possible and obviously if we would try to not play 40:1 in Poland, people would be disappointed and leave. If we play in Sweden, we might as well leave that one off the setlist, since there are other songs that people rather listen to. And we must not let our egos control, and it's more for the fans to decide.

Tobbe: Will you continue to play your live shows with recorded keyboards?

Pär: Yes, we will. We think that it has worked out very well during this time and we haven't missed a keyboard player. It has worked out great. I mean, a major part of Sabaton's songs actually require more than one keyboard player. And our singer Jocke is basically a keyboard player. He writes the songs and he records them, so nothing has really changed on that matter either. The guitars have on the other hand gotten a little more room on the new record. Partially we have removed the keyboard solos and replaced them with more guitar solos and the guitars are a little more prominent. We have 2 tremendous guitarists.

Tobbe: How much are you involved in your festival [Sabaton Open Air/Rockstad Falun]?

Pär: I'm involved in a lot of things, but I don't control it. My major involvement is in the bookings of the acts, where I have a rather prominent role, you know. Many of the artists that play are friends of ours. About the festival's actual implementation, there are people who have more time and who know how to run things better than I do.

Tobbe: Do you have time for anything besides the band?

Pär: No, but things work well anyhow. I get on well with what I've got. There's hardly no time to think about anything else, which is nice. I'm happy every day and on every morning I wake up, I think that this will be a good day.

Tobbe: Your music partially goes down pretty well outside the heavy metal masses. Why is that?

Pär: I think it's in the melodies, you know. Most people enjoy strong melodies and I think that the way you package them isn't as important as having good songs. And we also have been given the opportunity to be played to many people who are not only inside the heavy metal sphere. Sabaton is played in all kinds of places; in gyms, on different sports events, a lot of things like that, and by that there's people who discover us that normally wouldn't have discovered Sabaton.

Tobbe: If you look forward 10 or 15 years, where do you see Sabaton?

Pär: We will fight to become bigger and we have a very elaborated and well thought plan. It's fully reasonable to go through with this and there will be obstacles along the road, but I mean, I've said it before and I want to and I will try to make Sabaton the world's biggest heavy metal band. That's nothing we will become as long as Iron Maiden or so exists, but there will be a day when they're not around anymore. Maybe I don't know which the world's biggest heavy metal band is, but we'll see. Either way, we want to go there.

Tobbe: Do you have a plan B if things don't turn out the way you wish they would?

Pär: We always analyze things. Perhaps it looks like we go forward in a fast pace, but we don't take any quick decisions and everything we do is very well thought. With every decision we make, we look at the consequences. Many people think that I have a negative attitude sometimes, but I don't, I'm just preparing for what may happen. I'm actually very positive and driven, far beyond from what many people think of me. However, I can see both sides and when things don't turn out the way we planned, I'm already there in my mind and have options to pick from.

See also: review of the album Heroes

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