Because my natural inclination is toward idiocy, there are lessons in life that I’ve had to teach myself time and again, and one of those lessons — an important one, on occasion — is “never schedule early interviews.” The morning I was scheduled to interview Graveyard drummer Axel Sjöberg found me sloshing my way through a late-March snowstorm, only to arrive at the office roughly five-minutes before the call was supposed to come in. Hey, at least I made it.
Graveyard trace their lineage back to guitarist/vocalist Joakim Nilsson and bassist Rikard Edlund‘s time in Norrsken, the formative vintage doom act from whence Witchcraft‘s Magnus Pelander also hails. In June, when I compile my annual top five of the first half of the year, don’t be surprised when Graveyard‘s Nuclear Blast debut, Hisingen Blues, is near the top of the list. The Gothenburg four-piece’s second full-length following a 2008 self-titled that saw North American domestic release via Tee Pee, Hisingen Blues is unflinching in the quality of its songwriting, and the more I listen to it — and I do keep going back for more — the more I find it’s different songs stuck in my head later. One listen has the mental jukebox with a 24-hour repeat cycle of opener “Ain’t Fit to Live Here,” and after another, it’s the boogie-swagger of “RSS.”
In either case, I’m not about to complain. Aside from the heartfelt classic rock sound and the fluidity of interplay between Nilsson and fellow guitarist/vocalist Jonatan Ramm, who came on after the self-titled was released, the reason Hisingen Blues is one of thus-far-2011′s brightest releases is because it manages to keep hold of groove, aesthetic and songcraft all at once. I know I went on and on in my review, but if you didn’t take that recommendation to heart, here’s another.
Though I was prepared for the conversation only in the sense of having listened to Hisingen Blues a ton of times, including as I sat in snowy traffic on my way to work that day, Sjöberg — who seemed to have no shortage of goings-on happening on his end of the line as well — was forthcoming about the making of Hisingen Blues, working with producer Don Ahlsterberg for the second time, touring and much more. As he explained throughout the conversation, the natural feeling in Graveyard‘s music comes from actually being spontaneous. Needless to say, I was floored.
After the jump, please find enclosed the complete Q&A of my interview with Sjöberg.
Well, we wanted to do it better (laughs). The first album was, maybe not rushed, but sort of. I mean, we hadn’t been a band for so long before we recorded it, and we hadn’t played together for that long. Basically, we recorded what we had and had to hurry to finish the songs that we started before recording, and this time, we had much more time and had played together much longer as a band. We’re more tight as a band. I think this album has much more thought behind it and is more worked through than the first album.
It seems like this album more than the first one sounds more like you do live.
Of course, it’s good that you want to bring something more to the table live, but you don’t want it to be a totally different experience from listening to the album and going to the live show. I think the album is maybe almost that way. It sounds like we sound. Obviously, we won’t be playing all the songs live, or if we do it won’t sound near what it does on the album, because we had a lot more instrumentation.
Do you think about the live shows when you’re writing the songs?
Yeah, we do. At least us in the band do, but Don, he doesn’t think much about how we’re going to pull things off live. Sometimes after we record stuff, we discover it can be quite tricky to perform or play live, especially for Joakim [Nilsson], the singer. But it usually works out.
Tell me about the time in the studio with Don, then. What was the atmosphere like? How long were you guys there?
I think it’s very hard to say how long we were there, because we were there on and off very much from when we had time off from tours, and it had to fit with Don having time off from tours, because he works with touring bands as well. We had to coordinate that schedule, and yeah, all I can say is four years is way too long for an album [to come out]. It’s really bad. I don’t know actually how long we spent. We had both fun times and hard times and all kinds of times in the studio. It was all in different sessions, so it was a very diverse experience, you could say.
Were you worried about having to piece the record all together, recording in different sessions like that?
I don’t think so, because, in a way, our different songs have a lot of different styles, but they all sound Graveyard, I think. Then there were songs that didn’t go on the album because we wanted the album to be cohesive, even though the songs are from each other. Say, the opening track and “Longing.” They’re miles apart, but I still think they both sound very Graveyard. We’re a band that does not often make so many long-term plans. We kind of shoot from the hip and play stuff that feels right, like if you get the right feel, then it’s good. If you don’t get the right feel, you don’t use it anymore, just throw it in the trashcan. So I guess the answer is both yes and no. We didn’t have a master plan before we started to record, like wanting the songs to sound like this and be coherent in a certain way, but as you go, you think about it along the way, I think.
How do you feel about the record now that it’s coming out, it’s finished, you can have some perspective on it?
I’m satisfied with it. Basically it was finished before we signed any contracts, so we wanted it to be really good. I’m proud of it. Actually, I was nervous before about what people would think, but now I’m getting real close to relief. Reviews are starting to come in, and we’re doing a lot of interviews, and a lot of people like the album. I was confident before, but now when people are starting to like it, it kind of builds expectations and expectations can be rough to deal with, but I’m proud of the album.
Were you surprised at the reaction you got from the self-titled? I know you did a lot of touring, but it seemed like there was a real groundswell of appreciation for that record.
I think the answer there is both yes and no. I mean, I’m proud of that album too. I like it and from the very first show, people seemed to like us and they think that, yeah, maybe we’re onto something new. People seemed to be into what we’re into. And then I think the self-titled, it kind of grew with time. It wasn’t like that we got instant good feedback. Someone picked it up here, and then someone there, and then we toured, and more people discovered us. I think it sort of built up along the way. But there’s a difference in Europe and North America. Tee Pee had better distribution than our European label, but yeah, the first time we were in the US and played at SXSW, a guy from Rolling Stone was there, so maybe that’s instant nice feedback. It’s hard to judge those things yourself. I think we were surprised, but at the same time, we thought that we had something good going, so maybe we at least hoped that other people would think it was good too.
And tell me about signing to Nuclear Blast. It seems like kind of an odd fit.
Yeah, I was surprised too when they told me they were interested. I was like, “Nuclear Blast? What?!” But then, when you think of it, if you look around and look at the situation for record labels, what’s happening to record labels today and the past five years, and you look at how Nuclear Blast is doing, they seem to be doing just fine, even expanding, and they’re finding ways like signing us. If you look at the bands that they have in the roster, they all seem to be doing fine. The promotion work for the bands was fine, and now I know, but beforehand, they seemed to be genuine music lovers – they started out as tape traders, and so on – and they were doing it for the right reason. Even though we’re not the typical Nuclear Blast band, if they liked us, they had to believe in it. It’s an odd fit, but it makes sense at the same time.
What are the tour plans? Do you know what you’re doing for the summer yet?
Yeah, the whole spring and the summer are booked, and then I think we’re coming to the US late-August/early-September. The period is set for that time, but it’s not anything confirmed yet. Day after tomorrow, we have our first release show here in Sweden, and then we do a couple Swedish shows this week and next week, and then we go up to Finland, then back from Finland, we’re home for a couple of days, and then we tour Europe, and then back, and then it’s almost festival season here in Sweden and in Europe, so we play basically every weekend until August. Thursday, Friday and Saturday for festival and weekend gigs, and then US, and then another European tour, and then we have to start working on a new album again.
Yeah. We want to go the other way around this time, not make it four years, but maybe one year or one and a half. We’ve already started writing some tunes, and we’ll try to avoid doing the same thing all over again.
How is the new material sounding?
I think it’s hard to judge yet. I was talking, and it’s hard to describe when it’s not finished songs, but I think one of the songs makes a real Hawkwind, Dire Straits and heroin rock – I don’t know if you can make anything out of that or not.
That’s alright. I’ll spend the rest of the afternoon trying to figure out what that would sound like in my head.
Get three stereos going at the same time.
Yeah. The thing though about taking four years in between albums though is it gave you all that time to grow as players and as a band. In switching gears and starting on a new one so soon, would you be concerned at all about losing that, or can you take the experience you’ve had between these two albums and work from that?
Yeah, I think so. I think judging by what’s happening with the new album, the attention we’re getting, I think we’ll have a lot of stuff. I mean, there have been so many things happening now that I know we have enough to channel into a new album. We can easily collect in a year what we collected in four years last time, and I think now we’ve been a band for a while, so we’re quite confident in what we do. We know each other and we know Don even better and he knows us even better. I don’t think it’d be a problem. I think it’d just be smoother, because now we’ve got better resources and better people taking care of the stuff that you have to do yourself when you’re a smaller band. I think everything is going to be easier. But I don’t know, if you ask me again in a year, maybe I’ll say the opposite thing.
And you’ll keep working with Don?
What about him brings you back?
We’re on the same level. He’s an excellent guy. It’s hard for someone that hasn’t been in the studio with us to see what he brings to the table – like what is Graveyard before the studio and what is Graveyard after – but he’s a vital part of how the album sounds. Not so much live, but he’s a great producer, both sound-wise and input on the songs as well.
How much does he affect the arrangements of the songs? You mentioned before bringing in other instrumentation and that kind of thing.
It’s very different from song to song. Some songs he doesn’t touch at all, and some songs he shatters them into little pieces and makes us almost start over. With the instrumentation, that was both our idea and his idea. “Longing” was basically just the first riff that we’d been fooling around with in our practice space, and when we were in the studio, we played around with it more, and it slowly built to what it is now. “Oh yeah, of course we’ve got to have piano and organ too,” and Joakim did the whistling thing, and one thing led to another.
I guess that keeps in line with the whole “shooting from the hip” thing. I think that gives you a certain spontaneity in the music. Whatever you’re doing, it’s working for you.
It really seems to be important to allow yourself to be a bit playful with your music. Music is not something you joke around with – funny music is the worst kind of music ever – but you have to allow yourself to play around and have fun while doing serious music.
Are you conscious of that balance when you’re writing?
We’re naturally serious with our music. We would never dream of writing a funny song. I’m trying to think of a funny band as an example, and I don’t know, maybe Offspring or something like that. That’s like the music of the American Pie movie. I think we’re more Requiem for a Dream, or something.
Tags: Gothenburg, Graveyard, Nuclear Blast, Sweden