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UNLEASHED



We Are The Immortals!

Interview by Dr. Abner Mality

You'd almost expect Johnny Hedlund to be carrying a sword and wearing a horned helmet, based on the ferocity with which he leads the battle charge of Sweden's death metal veterans, Unleashed. After all, the legend of the Vikings plays a large part in the band's mystique. But after speaking to the easy-going lead vocalist, you soon realize that he's a dyed-in-the-wool 21st century man who's just as addicted to computers, TV and the microwave as the rest of us.

But when he's bellowing out guttural war cries for Unleashed, it's easy to imagine him coming at you with blood in his eye. Particularly when it comes to the band's new CD "Midvinterblot", named after the Viking ceremony for the winter solstice. For sure, "Midvinterblot" ranks with the best work of the long-running Swedish troop, cutting loose with no less than 15 classic Unleashed assaults.

The band is soon to tour the U.S. with Krisiun and Belphegor, for the first time in 12 years. Hard on the heels of "Midvinterblot's" release, I took some time out to talk to Johnny about the long history of Unleashed, its Viking roots, the curse of technology and the Lord of the Rings. Here we go...


WORMWOOD CHRONICLES: Your new album "Midvinterblot" is the eighth Unleashed album. Did you ever think that you would make it this far when you started out?

JOHNNY HEDLUND: I recall this like it was yesterday. It was in 1989 after the split-up of Nihilist (legendary Swedish band that also produced Entombed and Grave). We said we'll see where this path takes us but I think all of us would have been pretty disappointed if we would stop before having a career of at least 30 years.(chuckles) I'm ready for the next 15 years! I think if you are a very dedicated band, you're not in it for a certain number of records or a certain amount of money. I think dedication means basically that this is what you do. Period. I don't really see an end to it unless I get seriously ill or something like that. So I have no idea where we'll end and I sure hope it doesn't end! That's where we're at right now.

WC: It seems like "Midvinterblot" had a little more energy and punch to it than some of your other efforts. What made this one so special?

JH: I agree with you. What we did after we recorded an album...and we've done this with others as well...is sit down and discuss where do we go from the previous album? In this case, the previous one was "Sworn Allegiance". We basically wanted to speed things up a little bit...not a whole lot...and get more of a live feeling to the whole album and recording process. We also wanted to get every instrument including the vocals a bit more harsh. And I think we did just that.

WC: Do you see the oldschool Swedish death metal style, the so-called Stockholm style, becoming more popular again? It seems to me it's back on the rise.

JH: I think it is. We've already booked the "Masters of Death" tour with Grave, Entombed and Dismember here in Europe and some of the places were already sold out in August. We don't go on tour until November. Yeah, for sure, it's coming back. These are the bands including Unleashed that have not only been around for a long time, but we've been through the ups and downs in the industry. So I think people are acknowledging that these bands are not in it for a fast buck or because it's cool to be a well-known musician. These are bands that are in it for life. This is basically our life. I would be doing this even if we couldn't go on tour. We'd be musicians in a basement anyway. I think that's the answer to your question for sure. It's because of the dedication that these bands show...not only these four bands but others like Cannibal Corpse.


WC: The Masters of Death tour is a dream for fans of that kind of music. Who got the ball rolling on that, who came up with that idea? And will this tour come over to the States?

JH: We are actually talking about that right now. We have been talking about this tour for a very long time, since the early 90's. But for four bands to sit down and realize that we have to have the same schedule...there's hardly a hope in hell. At the beginning of this year, we all sat down and said "let's not drink a beer and just get a coffee".(laughter). Let's see if we can make this work for one month this year. After some time, we agreed on November and I'm really glad we were able to make it work. It's really hard because we have different schedules, different priorities, blah blah blah. Right now Dismember and Grave are in the States and we have a US tour booked for February. So I think if we do a Masters of Death package in the States, it will have to be later on. But it is sure possible, we're talking about it already.

WC: Back in the early days of the Swedish death metal movement, was there ever a friendly rivalry between the bands? Or was it totally cooperative. What was the feeling like in those days?

JH: I would say it was a healthy competition kind of vibe. We've all known each other since the mid-80's and it's more of a family feeling. We go see the same soccer games, we go meet each other at the same parties and club gigs. It doesn't really get to the point where you get too annoyed with each other because you're all friends anyhow. We've always been very much a touring band. We did more touring than most in the early 90's. But then Entombed and Dismember toured a lot,too, so we compared our tours.

WC: The death metal business has changed a lot since your early days. Do you think the changes are positive or negative?

JH: I honestly don't think it's changed that much. Now obviously some things have changed since we started in the mid-80's because there was not so much touring back then and not too many death metal acts that had a record deal. I think people are generally the same, which I'm pretty happy about because I can still see the same people when I go over to the US or Germany or anywhere else. I'll meet the same friends now as I did in 1991. I'm pretty happy about that...it's a big family. And that's the beauty of it ,I think. People don't change their musical preferences because the wind blows a little harder.

WC: Now death metal seems based a lot more on insane speed and being technical. That's not Unleashed's bag. The old Swedish bands prefer this groovier, riff-based style to the speed crazed style, right?

JH: I agree. But there are more bands than just us playing this music. For example, Bolt Thrower from Britain play pretty much the same style as we do. The newer styles of death metal are mainly very fast and extremely technical. But then again, that was at the beginning as well. For example, bands like Morbid Angel and Pestilence played pretty fast and quite technical. But then we had early bands like Death, who weren't an extremely fast band but they played kind of like Unleashed and Grave. But yeah, there's a Swedish type of sound for sure. There's a difference between Swedish death metal and other varieties of death metal.

WC: Your band has always had pagan-oriented lyrics, but on "Midvinterblot", they seemed more bitter and in your face. I think of the song "Salvation of Mankind". What was the reason for the anger?

JH: (chuckles) That song's very much an Antichrist type of lyric. I don't think it's intentional...it may appear that the lyrics are more bitter on this album than others. I just get the feeling that we had more energy on the whole record. The live type of feeling is more intense and aggressive. That's true for the entire album. Even the songs where the lyrics are not Antichrist type of stuff are more aggressive.

WC: Then the music drives the lyrics, in a sense?

JH: Yeah, in a sense, I guess you could say that. We've done the same type of lyrics since 1991. Or even 1989 and our first demos. I don't think there's a huge difference. Although I do have to say we've gotten stronger over the years. More ruthless, hopefully. I don't take as much consideration as far as what others think. "Don't do this, don't do that, don't go slandering too much." I try not to listen to that. If our lyrics are too harsh for some, then that's that. I also do a little more with irony, I think.

WC: This may be a bit personal. Do you yourself worship the old Norse gods or do you just enjoy telling their stories?

JH: What it comes down to is that we are not at all a religious band. The Viking tradition type of lyrics that we make, there are two reasons for them. One is that we are people of strong traditions and some of the Viking traditions we celebrate to this day. They are basically the same as they were a thousand years ago. But as people change, times change and traditions change as well. For example, the Midvinterblot, the celebration of the winter solstice, which we named our new album after. Blood used to be sacrificed and of course this isn't done anymore, but we still celebrate it and it's one of my personal highest traditions. It's not only traditions that we talk about but symbols. Odin, Thor, Freya, whichever northern god I refer to has a symbolic meaning. That doesn't mean I think there is a physical Thor up in Heaven, because we are not a religious band. So we talk about symbols because they attach to values, the values we like to promote.

In a way, it's not religious at all, but it's definitely very serious. And another reason I write Viking lyrics is that there is a struggle for life for most people on this planet...especially metalheads...that people point at them and say they're not getting anywhere and they need to cut their hair, get a job or whatever. We've had the same experiences.Therefore, I write Viking style lyrics that refer to life a thousand years ago but they can also refer to the struggles of life in 2006.

WC: There's a lot of mention of courage and pride. Those sort of values are eternal.


JH: Exactly. That's one of my main reasons for doing it. It gives people courage. These are the type of lyrics I read when I was younger. They came from the heavy metal scene, because there was no death metal scene back then. I read lyrics from bands like Saxon or Judas Priest that would say the same things but they didn't refer to it in a Viking kind of way because they didn't have that history, of course. But they were true to the same type of values in a different fashion. I feel good about this to this day. I still listen to the same bands I listened to in the early 80's Not only that, but I'm also thankful that those bands existed back then and they still exist to this day.

WC: One exception to the Viking lyrics is the song "The Triumph of Genocide", which seems to be about a real incident. Tell us a little more about this song.

JH: I've said it many times before, Unleashed always does three to four Viking type lyrics on every album, but that means there are six or seven other type of lyrics on the album as well. And this is one of them. "Triumph of Genocide" is a very polticial song about the civil war in Rwanda in Africa. Freddy our guitar player wrote the actual music and when he played the song for me, I immediately heard the melody of the song and realized that this song has to deal with something terrible. I did some serious research on the civil war and found out it was probably the fastest genocide ever. Not only was it an amazing genocide, it was the only one where every single person was killed by hand. They were killed by machetes, knives, clubs, stuff like that. There were no bombs, hand grenades or machine guns!

WC: I heard a crazy statistic like 100,000 people were butchered in 10 days...

JH: The reports I read said 800,000 people in 100 days. That's like 8000 people a day, which is pretty amazing. The United Nations basically fled. United Nations has one purpose: to prevent war and genocide. That's their first and main priority. It just seems to me that they...and I guess we...kind of failed.

WC: On the completely opposite side, you had a very fantasy inspired lyric on "We Must Join With Him", which comes from the "Lord of the Rings". Were you inspired more by the books or the movies?

JH: Purely by the movies. But when I was younger, Freddy the guitar player and I played a role playing game called "Middle Earth". This was like the end of the 80's. We played the game for years and years. The first song I ever wrote for Unleashed was actually inspired by this game. Then when I saw the three Ring movies in the theater, I just went ballistic and I knew I had to make another lyric with this topic. Just watching those films...the uruk-hai and the orcs...that's just made for death metal music! They should fuckin' play the latest Morbid Angel over those scenes! That's the music they should use!

WC: As great as the movies were...and they were an awesome achievement...I would always recommend reading the books, because they have so much more detail.

JH: Yeah, I understand it is. Everybody I know has read the books and everybody keeps asking me "Johnny, you haven't read the fucking book yet but you keep making a song about it on every album!" And I reply, I know! But I just don't have the time to get it all in.

WC: You talked earlier about your American tour for early 2007. Can you give me a few more details about this?

JH: We start off on the the 7th of February and we will have three bands with us. Krisiun from Brazil, Belphegor from Austria and Hatesphere from Denmark. It's going to be very cool, we've been looking forward to a tour like this for many years now. I think it's been made possible because we've switched record labels and things started to move. We feel very, very good about that.

WC: You guys were with Century Media for a long time. Did you just need a change of scenery, was that the reason behind the switch to SPV?

JH: Our contract with Century Media ended last year and we really felt we needed a new start. We were on Century Media for 15 years. They're really cool people to work with, but we felt they didn't have the future ideas and visions for the band. And even if we had those ideas ourselves, we needed a strong partner to work with the band, somebody that believed not only in Unleashed but in death metal. It would have been easy to keep going with Century Media but it would not have been fair because they would basically cash in and keep the ball rolling but they wouldn't really increase what they were doing for the band. Now we've been with SPV for about two months and it's just amazing and things are really starting to happen. This U.S. tour for example is a very concrete thing. They automatically said "let's make a U.S. tour", which we've been waiting for for years.

WC: How long has it been since you've played over here?

JH: I think the last tour was 94, 95, something like that. Which is terrible! We've played so many times in Europe it's ridiculous and we left out half the world, which isn't right. So I think getting to some of these other places is going to be really, really cool.

WC: If you could ask any three people from history to dinner, who would they be?

JH: Oh wow! That's a tricky one! The first one I'd pick is the father of my grandfather. He was actually going to America once and then back, which was unusual. That's a guy I would really like to sit down and talk to, but obviously it's impossible. Two more...that's really tricky. Probably some historical people. I'd probably choose somebody from the Viking era of Sweden, like Leif Ericsson. Maybe my grandma's mother and father would be an amazing meeting because they had a history of things to talk about from a time in Sweden where things were poor and dirty. But they survived! I don't know what they did to survive. Today we can buy almost anything. They couldn't do that back then, they had to make their own food.

WC: I always had the opinion that our technology has made us extremely weak.

JH: Yeah! It really does. If my back hurts, it's not because I lift too many heavy objects, it's because I sit down too fuckin' much! (laughter)


WC: I can't imagine what it was like for people without dental care. Your teeth would just painfully decay and fall right out of your head.

JH: My Grandpa told me that in the house they have in the countryside, his father was in a box one week after he died in the living room! It took a week for someone to pick the body up and give him a decent burial. So it was very different.

WC: And yet they achieved amazing things...

JH: They made everything...clothes, food, houses. God knows how they could do it. I couldn't even do half of that stuff! I just buy stuff! I couldn't possibly build my own house. Or if I did, I'd get wet because of all the holes!(laughter)

WC: What was the last CD you picked up just because you wanted to hear it?

JH: The last CD must have been Motorhead's "Kiss of Death".

WC: What was the last concert or gig you saw because you wanted to check out the band:

JH: That was a while ago. I went to a club show...when the hell was it? I saw Grand Magus here in Stockholm...a few months ago.

WC: In the long history of Unleashed, is there any kind of a Spinal Tap moment you'd like to share with us?

JH: (laughter) I probably have stacks of those! One of the Spinal Tap moments was last September when we went out on tour with Nile. Freddy our guitarist...the guy was so fuckin' drunk, he ran around with his hair in pigtails like Pippi Longstocking! And he had stickers all over him and looked like a fuckin' wimp from hell! (laughter) That was so funny ,we laughed ourselves to death. That was definitely like a Spinal Tap kind of thing. I think they even got some pictures. I'm amazed that the whole internet is not full of those pictures!

WC: Maybe you can put that pic on the back of the next Unleashed CD!

JH: (laughter) We're making a DVD for next year and we should try and find those pictures! You have to look really close to see that's it him, but it is. Not only is he more than drunk, he actually looks really pathetic! It's amazing!


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