Interview: Joakim Brodén of Sabaton Talks ‘The Great War’

Could anything be more metal than the stories of World War One set to the soundtrack of Sabaton‘s addictive, energetic and hugely theatrical brand of heavy metal? With their newest musical entry, The Great War, Sabaton tell the stories of some of history’s most horrific battlefields. It is an album infused with tragedy, hope and some irresistible metal riffs.

Thanks to John Howarth and Nuclear Blast, we got all the behind the scenes information on what is possibly Sabaton’s greatest album so far (and with twenty years of metal behind them, that’s saying a lot)! 

SR: You’re approaching your twentieth anniversary as a band – Congratulations by the way!

JB: Oh, thank you! Makes us feel old [laughs].

SR: Aside from the album and subsequent tour, will you be celebrating this huge milestone in any other way?

JB: I mean, in a sense we already did, but we were shit at communicating it [laughs]. The whole idea with Bismarck was the twentieth anniversary in a way for us. Because, we didn’t want to release a box set to look backwards. We thought, what can we do to say thank you to our fans for twenty years of service? So, we wrote a song about the most requested topic we ever had from our fans. So, we did a song and a video for the Bismarck and released that. And we thought hey, let’s be nice and not monetise this. Let’s just make a YouTube video. It’s out there, it’s for free, guys! You don’t have to buy anything! And within thirty minutes, people are complaining that it’s not on Spotify or Apple Music. Like, oh, come one! [laughs]

SR: [laughs] you can’t please everyone.

JB: No [laugh] you can’t. Obviously. But we can damn well try!

SR: You’ve pleased a lot of people with it, so, that’s what counts, right?

JB: Yeah, they say it’s the thought that counts, so in that case, yes!

SR: The Great War is all about World War One. You’re known for your concept albums, was there always a plan to focus a whole album on the first World War?

JB: Not always, but I would say for eleven years, yes. In a way I think me and Pär [Sundström] talked about it for the first time in 2008. At that point, of course we were doing The Art of War and pointing out or giving out examples where the teachings of Sun Tzu in the book The Art of War is doing but we have a corresponding example in modern military history. And we came across the Battle of Passchendaele which we covered in The Price of a Mile and Cliffs of Gallipoli which is about the Battle of Gallipoli obviously. And at that point we kind of realised that “ooh, this is a very dark conflict and it needs a bit of a darker album and we’d like to do it sometime”. So, I guess, it’s been in the back of our heads for about eleven years and really something we really wanted to do for the past two.

SR: It’s such an atmospheric album and really sets the scene right from the beginning. It takes us through the whole war and all of the feelings that came with it. How do you put yourself right in the middle of the battlefield while writing?

JB: Oh, I tend to avoid it. It’s not a very nice place to be if I’m honest [laughs]. Well, in a way every song is a bit different. Sometimes, you just down with a friend or alone and write a song and then you look for what kind of historical events are having the same emotional spectrum as that song. But that’s very rare occasions. In most cases when we do our music, we always wait until we have a few, or maybe one song ready and two or three ideas or embryos for songs and then we lock down on a subject. Because we’re always working with two to five possibilities for every album.  And then at that point, basically, the topic – or the conflict – starts to influence the song writing. So, it’s tricky to say. Every song is very different but for sure on this album, the second to last track The End of the War to End all Wars – long title – I already knew when writing that music that I wanted it to be a retrospect. Somebody who survived is standing there on the eleventh of November and looking back at the past four years and what happened.

SR: There are a lot of stories to choose from. How, do you find the right material for your songs? And do you ever have stories you had to leave off your albums?

JB: Oh, yes, I mean, for every song we do it feels like there are two other songs that we had to remove musically or song ideas at least. And for every story we tell, which can be in the same song, there are ten stories we couldn’t tell. In many cases … I mean, some of our favourite topics – there’s always one or two we were absolutely sure would make the album that didn’t. We always at the end, end up with an orphan or two. Like, we have this massive amount of ideas and battles or events that we’d like to cover and nothing [laughs] is speaking the same emotional language as that orphaned song that sits there alone like “ah, nobody wants me” [laughs]. So, there’s always that last minute guerrilla researching, calling everyone in the historical community you know, “hey, do you have anything? You know, I’m thinking of these emotions … We have a track …and you know all of this death and destruction just doesn’t work because we have kind of an upbeat track but there’s some kind of lingering sadness to it.” You’re trying to explain that to people. And everything from books to Google panic-search and then you come across that thing and it’s like “Yes! Yes, this is exactly the same emotional delivery as the song and the story.” And from that angle, to get that. I mean in this case, the first song to be written for the album was A Ghost in the Trenches. I’ll tell you, the lyrics, we didn’t find out about Francis Pegamagabo until basically three days before the last recording day we were singing it [laughs].

SR: Wow! It really sounds like for you, the beginning of the albums process is all about the emotions rather than the stories, the stories come in to fit the emotions – is that correct?     

JB: Yeah. I mean, in a way yes. It’s really important for us that the music and the story are speaking the same emotional language. But it’s like we have to put the emotion and the story at the forefront of it in a way. When writing the music, you can sometimes be in a very happy place because you love to play heavy metal and drink beer so at that point it could be hard to find a fitting topic after the facts, if you know what I mean. On the other hand, it’s a real rollercoaster ride and it’s actually a bit of a shitty place to be in. To sit there and do an album, because emotionally you care so fucking much. You want every song to be the best song and have the best story and have the smartest lyrics, or most emotional lyrics. I mean some songs do fit themselves to being more technical, or objective or brutal. It depends on the song how we would approach it. For example, the first song The Future of Warfare talks about the introduction of tanks into modern conflicts and that one isn’t very emotional really, that one is more technical and brutal. I mean, of course it’s not unemotional, but the music sets the scene for how we would tell the story.

“… for every song we do it feels like there are two other songs that we had to remove musically or song ideas at least. And for every story we tell, which can be in the same song, there are ten stories we couldn’t tell…”

SR: Speaking of setting the scene, the additional History Edition – those introductions are fantastic! What inspired those?

JB: Ah, well, we wanted to give some context to the music. So, you’re not sitting there, trying to focus super-much on the lyrics, like “oh, where are they? Where are they?”, we’re finding out. Because we’ve seen so many times, people find that out after enjoying the song and they’re like “oh! I didn’t know that” and “I didn’t know that”. I mean, of course we can’t tell everybody everything. But it helps a lot I think, especially for the first couple of times listening through the album, to do the History Edition, because only by having those few words before, let’s say The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, that track, okay: Arabia, yes. And then you’re pretty fast realising we’re talking about T.E. Lawrence or most famously known as Lawrence of Arabia, and his exploits. Your mind is already there, so you don’t have to try and focus on trying to pain your mental image. We’ve already tried to do that – as good as we could – but sometimes you make it, sometimes you don’t.

SR: It means the listeners aren’t trying to figure out the story, they can just enjoy it!

JB: Exactly! Thank you for putting it much better than I could [laughs].

SR: [laughs] not at all! It was such a fantastic idea! It really prepares you for what is coming! I can image kids will use it to do essays for school – you’re contributing to children’s education.

JB: That was never our intention, but let’s just say it’s a very nice side effect [laughs].

SR: And probably a more interesting learning experience for them!

JB: Yeah, I mean, I’m very passionate about history myself – not only military history, don’t get me wrong, I love all kinds of history – but we couldn’t really do metal about art history, could we? Which I’m not really interested in anyway, but [laughs] it’s like the main focus for us – we are a metal band – but we are kind of you know amateurs when it comes to history, very passionate about it, but it is a very big deal to tell these stories, but by no means can we cover the events. We can’t be the final destination on the search for historical events. We’re kind of the appetiser in a way, like “okay, ooh this sounds interesting, I want to find out more”. So hopefully this will be the start into somebody’s passion or interest, because by no means can we cover the Great War in thirty-eight to forty-two minutes depending on [laughs] … you know.

SR: While we’re on the subject of history, what is it that interests you so much?

JB: Well, it’s stories. History can be utterly, utterly boring [laughs] because sometimes it’s focusing on what’s important on a global scale. But sometimes it isn’t that but stories – everybody loves a good story – and once you zoom in there is in this vast thing that might be global history, it all consists of millions and millions of stories that are amazing, that are being forgotten I think. I mean look at it like this, we’ve already talked about Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the song of Lawrence of Arabia. I mean, it’s not like him being there or not really mattered for the outcome of the war on a global scale. However, it’s a fantastic story, so we thought we’d tell it.

SR: And with fantastic stories, I wanted to mention the creation of your Sabaton History YouTube Channel in February – I mean, what a brilliant idea!

JB: It’s a dream! We just thought “wouldn’t it be cool if we could make mini documentaries about our songs?”. And also, there are so many times we are doing these small references, like Easter eggs in the lyrics and to understand them sometimes you need a bit of, well, you need to maybe read the same book that we do – or something like that. So, we could, in many cases, give people around the same amount of info we had when we wrote the songs, which could open up and extra dimension in the lyrics. Also, I’m guessing a lot of people enjoy Sabaton but don’t really care about the history; they just want to drink beer and sing along, which is by me, totally fine. But I’m thinking about thirty-fifty percent of people, maybe even more, given a Sabaton History episode, could actually open up that little extra dimension that we’re very passionate about.

SR: Wow! Can we just go back to the album and the songs for a moment? The music video for Fields of Verdun is so powerful, it essentially shows war up close. How do you balance the horrors of war with the stories of hope and heroism?

JB: Oh, that’s always a hard line to walk. Sometimes, we get it spot on, sometimes we pretty much fuck up. But in that case [Fields of Verdun], we’re talking about a three hundred- and three-day long battle. We started quite extensively – it was one of the ones where most research went into it, only because of the size of it all. And then me and Pär sat down together, “okay, we have some notes, we have some links to stuff that we have amassed on the internet” – some of it is obviously on the net, some is in old school books and then: “okay, where do we start?” [laughs]. “Which angle should we cover it from? Which story should we tell? Which side? How? How? Let’s just start from the beginning.” And then we just said “the bombardment lasted all day long, yeah, that’s where we start. Let’s see where we’re going with this emotionally.” And that’s really nice because we had the info, but we didn’t know what we were going to say, but listening to the song, or demo, or pre-production I had made with Thobbe [Englund], our previous guitar player. We were writing it with not all of the info, but most of the info we’d need to do the song. But we wrote it without really knowing exactly how it was gonna turn out. So that was done a bit differently. Sometimes we really know “okay we wanna say” – well, not exactly in the words, but “we wanna talk about this and cover that from that angle”. In this case, we didn’t know where to go, so we just started writing and yeah, just saw where it took us.

SR: Very interesting! Okay, so this is a bit of a fun, silly question. If you had just one word to describe the album, what would it be?

JB: Pain!

SR: That’s a good one!

JB: Yeah [laughs]. It was a fucking pain in the ass to create because performance anxiety and everything. But in a way I’m happy in the way it turned out, but the creation process is “pain” and the topics we deal with are not very nice in many cases!

SR: [laughs] When you said “pain”, I thought you meant because of the topics not because of the process.

JB: No, it works both ways for me! There’s obvious pain in the battle field, but also personal pain in the creation process [laughs].

SR: [laughs] It sounds like it wasn’t an easy album to make.

JB: No, it wasn’t. One of the top – or bottom three – I should say rather. But in many ways, those are the ones that our fans enjoyed the most. I mean, I would say that the three hardest to make from both technical and emotional levels put together that would be: The Art of War, Carolus Rex and this one. I am hoping the trend pans out, because if that stays true to the formula, then the fans are going to like this one! And then I’m happy!

SR: [laughs] I’m pretty sure they’re going to like it!

JB: I hope so!

SR: On that topic of fans, for anyone who doesn’t know you yet, what would you say to get them to check you out?

JB: I have no idea and I’m a useless salesman! So, I’ll go with a military “sit down, shut the fuck up and listen to this” – [laughs] that’s what I’d go with I guess.

SR: That’s a pretty great answer, and I think the best way to get to know Sabaton’s songs – to just sit down and listen. Good answer! And do you have any final messages for Australian fans?

JB: Yeah, thank you for the good times! We’ve only been down there twice but both have been fantastic. And I don’t think there are many places on this planet where people are so happy and hospitable as in Australia, so – fucking loved it every time!

SR: We love our metal music, so that helps! [laughs]

JB: Yeah, it usually does! [laughs] Metal-heads are usually nice people.

Don’t miss out on The Great Waravailable worldwide on July 19th through Nuclear Blast Records – www.nuclearblast.de

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