Interview with Sabaton — “We started building the stage set in October already.”

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Swedish power metal act SABATON are back with a new album “The War To End All Wars,” another album with songs whose theme is dedicated to the stories of World War I. We talked with frontman Joakim Brodén about the release of the upcoming record. Watch the interview here or read the complete transcript below…

First of all, thank you so much for sitting down with me to talk about “The War To End All Wars.” How are you doing?

So far so good. How are you?

I’m doing fine. It’s really snowy in Finland. So just staying inside.

What?! If there’s snow outside you should go out and ski and snow forts, throw snowballs at annoying kids. [laughter]

Oh no! There was a snowstorm here some days ago and there’s too much snow everywhere, they haven’t quite cleaned it up again.

Oh that’s the best part about living in Scandinavia.

I’m originally from Belgium, so I am definitely not used to this amount of snow. [laughter] The last time we talked was during the promo day in Finland of The Great War,” so in 2019. A lot has happened to the world since. How have you been?

[laughs] Well, we have done fewer concerts than we would normally do during that time, to be honest. [laughs] But no. [I’ve] been quite… under the circumstances, which are shitty and fucked up in every way, but considering that not too bad, actually.

You were also productive by creating this new album. Do you think you would have been able to make this album if it were not for the pandemic?

Absolutely not. We’d probably still be touring on “The Great War” until late last year, I guess, which is when we would have taken a break or something like that, to write new music. Not only the album, [but we also] have singles like “The Royal Guard,” “Livgardet,” “Defense of Moscow,” “Steel Commanders,” and stuff like that. So absolutely not. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, we would not have had this album, especially not this fast and possibly not even about World War I even.

This is your second World War I -themed album. What gave you the idea to create another one? Was it just because you weren’t able to include all the stories you wanted to in The Great War?

Yeah, a little bit… it’s a mix of three reasons. I haven’t figured out yet which one is bigger. But in general, we had some stories we really wanted to tell, but we didn’t have the right music and those would be “Christmas Truce,” “Hellfighters,” stuff like that… great stories that we felt like we had to abandon and also since we announced that we’re going to do with “The Great War,” the previous album, we had a lot of people sending us emails or giving us books on the tours about events during World War I and quite a few where we went “how the fuck did we not know about this?” So that, in combination with the fact that The Great War tour was cut short. We did a lot of Europe, but not all of it. We did half of Russia and a little bit in North America. But that’s about it… [that’s] all we had time to do. So if we would have done something totally different, like the Napoleonic era, which would have been really interesting… I would love to do that. But that would sort of make the songs from World War I or especially “The Great War” feel irrelevant. And then let’s say we go to Japan, Australia, South America, other places in Europe and North America that we didn’t play. That would sort of mean that we sort of had to abandon some of the songs and we never played “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” or some of these songs for them, or “Great War” for that matter. So with this in mind, all of those three [reasons], we figured like, hey, then it’ll make total sense for us to have… of course, we’re gonna play other songs that aren’t about World War I as well. But it would make total sense to have a World War I part of the show where all of these things are still relevant to belong together.

Yeah, and I guess you really thought out your production of that [show] as well. So it will make sense to also keep the same style.

Oh, yeah. Same style, but at least we’re very creative people. We started building the stage set in October already. So it’s already done and waiting and we have a lot of extra stuff built on top of it, but we already had it, if you know what I mean?

Looking forward to seeing that. I read or heard somewhere that there were some lessons you took from “The Great War,” and that you took that into account while producing this album. Can you elaborate a little bit on that?

One of the things I found when listening to “The Great War”… every time we know we’re going into a new album production, I like to listen to… not all of everything we’ve ever done, but a few songs here and there. And some albums from beginning to end. To see if there is anything we did well particularly here or anything we did bad, and one of the bad things I found on “The Great War” even though it might not necessarily be a bad thing individually… listen to any song or any three songs, and I had no problem with the production whatsoever. But listening to the whole album from beginning to end – not the history edition, but the regular version – then my ears were a bit tired after listening to the whole album. It was a bit exhausting. Not like it sounded bad, but it was a side effect I don’t think we anticipated. So trying to avoid that. Make it sound even better and less harsh. So you’re not all exhausted after listening to it.

Yeah, were there also some good lessons from re-listening to your material?

Yeah, that also goes to the production I think. If something was not good, it’s more about the big picture, not the individual things and there were several things we liked about the sound, especially when it came to choir production, drum sounds, and stuff like that, that we really enjoyed. It is a different sounding album, but the elements of what we liked of the drum sound, for example, in “The Great War” are still there. Songwriting-wise, maybe we wanted a little bit less of a dark of an album because, with possible exceptions or maybe well, “Devil Dogs” and a few more, it somehow feels pretty dark, the whole “The Great War” album and this has a certain amount of darkness to it as well but slightly less, I think.

Is that also why you decided to kind of end on a more positive note?

Well, yes and no. We ended in a positive way where “Versailles” is in major a key, but towards the end, it switches into minor again, so if there was a message there was like yeah, let’s [be] happy the war is over… but wait. [laughs]

Could this be a prelude to another World War II-themed album or something like that?

I don’t think so. I mean, you could take it like that. I mean, we’ve done World War II albums before. I mean, both “Code of Arms” and “Heroes” are only about World War II actually. But yeah, it feels like we should do another one. There’s certainly enough material to take from there. But at this moment, it feels like we want to do something different as a theme by bringing… I mean a theme what does that include? I mean, we did a theme album or a concept album, whatever you want to call it on “The Last Stand.” That includes pretty much everything from Ancient Greek, the Grecco-Persian War, 1000s of years ago up until well the modern… slightly modern ’80s Soviet-Afghan conflict.

If I remember correctly, with “The Great War,” you found it tricky to arrange the album chronologically because some events like Verdun lasted quite a while. I, unfortunately, didn’t get this promo a lot in advance, so I didn’t have time to check into the actual dates and all that. I was wondering how you structured the album, did you try to make it as chronological as possible or was the listening experience more important?

We learned already from the past experiences here. I mean, obviously, “Sarajevo” and “Versailles” serve as a framework to set the start and the endpoint. But as we said, on the last album, some of these stories are about people who were in almost the whole conflict. And some of them you know, say the “Harlem Hellfighters” they were there for 9 months I think, if I’m not mistaken, I can’t remember exactly. It seems like I’ve forgotten more than I learned in the last year. [laughs] But it’s a situation where both battles take a long time and they’re not only one day, but also, no matter how close we got to a chronological experience, the listening experience was a bit worse, because you want for a listener to be sort of be surprised. Oh, what’s going on here? And then something oh, more familiar territory and then something fast and then something slow, and then there’s a surprise. It’s a worse listening experience if you listened strictly chronologically, and also, as you mentioned earlier, it cannot be done chronologically because, for one, some songs are about people who are there for pretty much the entirety of the work.

Maybe you should start writing medleys.

Ah! That could be interesting, twisting to the next. Fun thing, oh but what a fucking pain in the ass to produce that shit. Uh. [laughter]

You mentioned before that there were some stories you hadn’t heard before. What are some examples of that?

That we haven’t heard before for this album? The White Friday events that is in “Soldier of Heaven,” I would say. The story of Milunka Savić that we sing about in “Lady of the Dark,” I think, is the name of that track. So there are a few. I mean, obviously, there were some that were on our mind as well, like “Stormtroopers,” it’s not like we were unaware of the development of those kinds of tactics during World War I. But maybe we… in some cases, even if we were aware of the circumstances and the event it’s not until we found that piece of information that made us excited about it, that made us decide to do the song

To me, it felt like this album has a new sort of energy. Maybe that’s also because you mentioned that “The Great War” was a lot darker. But if you take for instance, “Christmas Truce,” there was a nice moment with subtle choirs that gave it a very soulful atmosphere and I think there’s a lot of little details in this album. Did you do anything differently?

Yeah, I think, for example, one of the major things on “Christmas Truce,” is it’s a gospel choir on that song. We never used that before, we’ve only used a traditional church choir, borrowed old teachers and friends and they are still on the album or many of the tracks; for example, “The Race to the Sea,” which is a very typical SABATON song. I think we were… one of the strengths of “The Great War” was taken even further and that was the diversity of the album. It was almost there. We wanted even more. It was so refreshing to have a song like “The War to End All Wars,” which is on that album, followed by “In Flanders Fields,” for example, the way it ended… there’s so much contrast. And we tried to incorporate more of that on this album and not worry so much about what’s expected but rather what’s unexpected, in a sense, it can still be SABATON and still be something that you didn’t see coming. And that was kind of liberating. And experimenting, for example, me and Chris sat down and wrote a story on the “Hellfighters” really guitar intensive technical hard song, but then at some point, we realized, you know what, it shouldn’t be this hard all the time. I’m tired of fucking, you know, syncopations, micro guitar riffs everywhere. Let’s do something easy. Chris said okay, here’s the one thing nothing can be complicated, no tricky guitar riffs, let’s just write something that’s enjoyable and fun. And that became “Soldier of Heaven.”

That song actually has a lot more electronic elements in the verses than what you would expect from a SABATON song. In general, do you feel like you were able to experiment a lot with this album and is that something you’d like to do more in the future?

Yeah, absolutely. Why not? But in a sense, it isn’t as different as people think [it is]. That dun-dun-dun, that synthesizer, it’s been there on “Shiroyama,” it was there on “The Great War” that same theory, not the same exactly. But the same theory was used on “A Ghost in the Trenches,” on “Last Battalion,” for example, so it’s nothing new there, the only thing that’s audible that I think most people would agree on… it sets the ’80s directly is the sort of toms tu-tu-tu-tu-tu? We put them in there for a laugh because it was fun, you know? And then you read comments, I don’t like it because the drum sound sounds so synthetic and it’s no real drums. It’s the same fucking drums, it’s real drums everywhere, except those four samples being used, otherwise it’s regular drums being produced just like fucking normal heavy metal. So it’s funny because all of the things that are actually different and new to the song are the stuff we put in the chorus that nobody fucking noticed. [laughter]

I wish I would have had more time to listen to this record in detail. Can you give an example of what’s there?

No, we were just having fun! There are handclaps in the background, you can hear a little bit of it towards the end of the song. We left it just otherwise people wouldn’t notice… for fun, or you hear that [sings funky guitar rhyhtm] that sort of guitar tremolos, gated on and off guitars that JUDAS PRIEST used in “Turbo Lovers.” We have claps, we have all kinds of different percussion effects, you know, small fun production touches, but they’re not really audible unless you really know what you’re listening for in the chorus.

Some of these songs really have this kind of an atmosphere that they would sound great live. For instance, in “The Unkillable Soldier,” you have this part where you sing whoa-whoa or something like that. I think that would be cool on a festival because I can imagine people singing along. But is that something that happened organically or do you just miss live shows?

A bit of both, I guess. It all comes down to… I loved going to a concert – and still do – and singing along. We have noticed that depending on what it is, I mean, in most cases we’ll have something like “40:1” “always remember a fallen soldier.” But for that song, with those melodies, it didn’t sound right with any sort of vocals there. You know that singalong part, there were no vocals that were fitting, and the only thing that felt right was sort of to get everybody wordlessly singing along. I think there are two places like that on the album, “The Unkillable Soldier” and “Stormtroopers” are wordless sort of singalong parts. In “Race to the Sea,” we have this part where “We see a king and a soldier fighting shoulder to shoulder.” Also, it’s a great way of bringing the song down in a way, because if you’re up here all the time dynamically, where do you go from there? You want a push into the guitar solo, a push into the final chorus, and at that point, it’s good to give a breather in the middle of the song, a little bit of breathing room, take it down, and then do something different, and then catapult back into familiar territory again.

I also noticed that within these 2.5 years you did a lot of music videos. How was that process for you? Of course, you did them before but not with high productions like these?

Yeah, well, we weren’t doing many concerts were we? [laughs] I think the beginning was obviously “The Royal Guard” and “Livgardet,” which is similarly music, but technically different songs because they still tell the story a bit different and there are two different videos. And then we went into “The Defense of Moscow” and “Steel Commanders,” and then we have “Christmas Truce.” Now “Soldier of Heaven,” and we have two more videos coming before this is over. First one is “Soldier Heaven” in a couple of days, 10 days or 2 weeks before that one is out. No, “The Unkillable soldier,” sorry. And then one more when the album is released. So we have done a lot of music videos. Actually, I think when we counted, we’ve done more music videos, say in the past 12 months, than we did in a decade. [laughter]

Is that’s something that kind of kept you going, because I can imagine that it’s not so fun not being able to do what you do for a living at least?

Well, to be honest, I really dislike making music videos. I fucking hate it if I’m honest. Especially the performance ones. I mean, “Christmas Truce” was really fun to do a still because it was like a movie set. Yeah, I was playing the piano but not… in a different way that we decided to let the story bring it all together. And it was cool because the team we used they have never done music videos. They do movies, that’s what they do, which was a cool thing to do as a different run. So I really liked the whole thing as well. On the other hand, with music videos and with songs and topics, there’s a huge advantage not to do a bloody video even though I like them. And that is… it cannot be shown in certain circumstances, it cannot be certain playlists, and stuff like that, which I find pathetic for the wrong reasons, but I also… I understand you shouldn’t show kids the video to “Christmas Truce” or “The Royal Guard,” for example. That makes total sense. But people are so afraid of anything that, in general, if it’s not geared towards kids, people are so afraid of that. So it actually turns out that a lot of people like a video or the current algorithmic online media climate rewards not having too much graphical violence in your videos, which is somewhat disturbing and limiting for a band like SABATON.

Is there a song that you didn’t do a video of that you would have wanted to (due to these algorithmic restrictions)?

No actually, not at all. There is only a certain level of leverage we give that. If we think this is the best presentation of… we always want to throw people off with singles, some of them should be doing this… possibly try and scare people. The goal is to get people super scared before every album release. Then they listen to the album, ah there’s the SABATON I know. [laughter] But no, we don’t really care about those things. It’s more of how we chose to do the video then, with “Christmas Truce,” we felt like, fuck it. It doesn’t matter. This has to be done this way. And then we will take the consequences of it. And there are then other songs that will be more suited to have a less violent video. And I mean, a song like “Soldier of Heaven,” that video doesn’t suffer at all from not having that level of graphical violence.

Do you actually notice a difference with “Christmas Truce” in the amount of views and spins?

Oh, yes, yes! A huge amount. A huge amount on how many playlists will take it. Timing is everything. We wrote… “Christmas Truce” is about events on Christmas, but it’s just a regular SABATON song about military history. And when we released it, a lot of playlists were like oh, you can’t have a Christmas song now. And it’s like, oh, come on now. It has Christmas in it, of course, because it’s central to the story. Otherwise, there will be no fucking Christmas Truce. But if you can only play the Christmas Truce on Christmas. That would also mean that we can only play fucking “Primo Victoria” on the 6th of June. So yeah, there was that difficulty. But absolutely, there were several media outlets sort of say that would shy away from “Christmas Truce.” Even though it’s a kind of base… It’s not too hard. It’s a waltz with piano, you know? But I guess they thought it was too MEATLOAF-ish. [laughter]

Yesterday I noticed that Tommy [Johansson] made a Disney version of “Swedish Pagans.” I was wondering if you listened to that song already?

I’ve heard it. He used to do… I think it was on his Instagram or was it on his Facebook, a couple of years back when he joined. He would do this Disney for fun. But then it wasn’t a huge production. He was basically sitting by a piano filming himself with a camera and sometimes he would play the SABATON song but in a major key and Disney-fied it. Sometimes he would take SABATON lyrics on a Disney song or vice versa, you know? So we’ve been living with a constant fear of Disneyton for quite some time now. [laughter]

Are there any songs you actually would like to have a Disney version of?

Well, [laughs] he did some back in the day, maybe they’re still online, I think they should be I guess. There are a few SABATON songs that… because now he basically took, I can’t remember it was Hercules or something. But he took sort of the whole melody and just put “Swedish Pagans” lyrics onto it. While I thought it was… just he’s better than that, you know, back further when he was experimenting with “40:1” or some other SABATON song and… it was “Primo Victoria,” but he took that song and Disney-fied it himself. He didn’t take an existing Disney song, he took a SABATON song and Disney-fied it and that was really entertaining to see. And he’s insanely good at arranging music and taking it to different places, Tommy. So if there’s anything he could take any song and do more of that, rather than taking some from Hercules or Lion King or whatever, you know. [laughs] It basically becomes a cover.

Anyway, back to SABATON. Shows are a little bit unpredictable still, so I can’t really ask you for your touring plans, but is there anything else that people can expect from SABATON in 2022 other than a new album?

Yeah. Like I said more videos… but we are expecting to start touring again. That’s our main priority. And the only reason that we are not on tour, is that we physically can’t or aren’t physically allowed, you know? It will take the threat of prison or bankruptcy to stop us from doing that. Unfortunately, when it comes to touring, dealing with a tour in several countries is much more complicated than a single one because of governments. So that’s, unfortunately, the reason why we had to postpone the European tour while in certain countries everyone gave us thumbs up and it’s clear, we can do it, in other places, it was unclear, in certain places it was a clear no, but at that point, we can’t physically do the tour, which is sad, but new plans are being made at the moment and I am not too pessimistic about 2022. Actually, quite the opposite. I get to fucking go on stage again. That’s a great thing.

Great! That was my last question. Thank you so much for your time. Do you have any last thoughts you want to share with your fans?

Thanks for the good memories. I have several thousand memories of being on stage singing and jumping and having fun with a lot of people. So every time I play, like, we play “Primo Victoria,” “To Hell and Back,” I can only listen to the songs now, and I can just close my eyes and have a memory showreel of, you know, thousands upon thousands of people and hundreds or thousands of concerts to remember that at least. So, thanks for the memories, I guess.

Written by Laureline Tilkin