Saturday, September 28, 2019

Amon Amarth: my Johan Hegg interview (outtakes)

Note: all images illustrating this article are taken from Northmen: A Viking Saga and/or the promotional material for that film. It's not a bad movie, but Hegg's part is too small!
Ah, for the old days, when I had a 900-word word count (or more) and ambitions to get published in all sorts of cool rock magazines, and I would keep people I was interviewing on the phone for 45 minutes or longer! 

That's how my first interview with Amon Amarth went down: Fredrik and I were able to have a fairly lengthy conversation, all of which ended up transcribed and online here. That's a piece I'm pretty proud of, actually - and last year (or was it the year before?) there were stats that it was one of the most read features on the Big Takeover website, despite being, like, seven or eight years old by that point. 

It was way more developed as a feature, even, than my second Amon Amarth interview, with Johan Söderberg - which was an interesting talk, which I did get paid to do, but was done a bit later in my "career" as a journalist, when I had realized that 90% of "fan" magazines don't pay and that some of the people who edit them are kinda dipshits; I was considerably less enthusiastic about writing, by that point, so I kept it fairly brief.
The good news is - contrary to expectations - I DID finally get to interview Johan Hegg, the vocalist of Amon Amarth, playing Vancouver tonight. Hegg is also an actor, and a spokesperson (and I'm not sure what else) for the super-cool-seeming Viking merch company Grimfrost. And as I kinda expected, Hegg is a very smart, articulate, interesting fella; he sometimes, I think, plays that down - but I've pored over his lyrics and been impressed with how he handles things, made even more impressive by his doing it all in English.

I mean, consider the actual story of Fafner ("Fafnir" on Wikipedia), mined for the song "Fafner's Gold". There is a lot going on in that story - from a shapeshifter who becomes an otter, to a theft of gold by Loki; from a feud between brothers to birds who warn of treachery, when you listen to their song after having eaten the heart of a dragon. There are a ton of odd details that can distract you from getting to the meat of the story. Hegg's telling is much clearer. From our conversation earlier this week, Hegg explains the story thus:

Fafner murders someone and steals a treasure. The treasure is cursed, and he turns into a dragon, and to protect the treasure, he lies on top of it all the time, except he has to go drink from a lake, once a day. So Fafner’s brother, Regin, who is a blacksmith, hires this guy, Sigurd, to go kill the dragon, so Regin can steal the treasure for himself. But Sigurd pretty much realizes that there’s something not right – that there’s treachery here – so he winds up killing Regin as well. If you read the story, it’s a bit like The Hobbit, a story about greed and what it does to people. And I think it’s really very contemporary, in many ways, because this person gets a treasure  and becomes a hideous creature that destroys the earth around him. So he lives in the Gita plains, which is like a wasteland. It’s basically what we as people are doing to the earth right now... I mean, there’s a lot of stuff going into the songs. Some stuff is very personal as well...
When you get a sense of how complex the story is - just compare the Wikipedia entry with Hegg's stripped down version, in his lyrics -- you see that he's really, really carefully thought about the meaning inherent in the story, as well as the meaning he wants to use the story to get at. Bending mythology to your own purposes, while staying true to the facts and the spirit of the original stories, and creating a kickass metal song with swords and dragons and murders and such, AND doing all of that in one song, in a language you didn't grow up speaking -- I mean, it's no small feat. 

So does he constantly consult the Prose Edda, the PoeticEdda, Njal’s Saga and so forth, looking for inspiration? 
Yes and no. Obviously I’ve read and re-read all those books, but a lot of the stuff I already know. I know a topic I’ll want to talk about, but then I’ll go back to the books, maybe, and revisit it, to make sure I get the facts right, and everything. Especially if it’s mythology. I do take a lot of liberties, because I feel sometimes you want to change something – there’s a bit of artistic freedom there. But I want to be at least partially correct when it comes to factual things, relating, especially to the mythology, but also to history, of course. But it’s easier to be a bit little bit more free when it comes to historical things.
As we continue to discuss in the Straight article, Hegg is comfortable creating his own stories about Viking experience, as long as they are true to known facts. "Shield Wall," on their setlist for tonight, I believe, is one such example. "Raven's Flight," which has a fun video, is likely another. That video seems to link the experience of touring, as a metal band with the experience of Vikings travelling the world by ship (Hegg has drawn this parallel elsewhere in interviews). It probably wasn't written about any particular Viking voyage, but Vikings really did use ravens as navigational tools, and there's a relationship between ravens and Odin, so - it's another good example of the ways Hegg allows himself to adapt things to his own purposes, while staying true to the culture and lore of his ancestors.

Still, as engaging as Hegg was, I had a 500 word wordcount and a one-evening turnaround, because I had to interview the band on Monday night for submission Tuesday  morning (and publication late Wednesday!). That's a fair bit of pressure to be under, especially if you want to do a good job. I could have justified keeping Hegg on the phone longer, based on the idea of doing something further with the interview elsewhere (kinda like I'm doing now), but every minute I spent on the phone with him was a minute I wasn't actually transcribing the interview and writing the feature. So even though Hegg was clearly willing to continue, even though I wanted to continue, I HAD to get off the phone and get to work, as soon as I knew I had enough stuff to write the article with (especially since I had to be up for my real job at 7am the next day, and by the time I got off the phone, it was close to 7:30pm). 

Anyhow, it came out pretty great, and I finally got to talk to the guy, and maybe we'll get a chance again some day. There are lots of questions I skipped - like asking about the Odin stuff in Lords of Chaos, though that would have been so interesting to hear his opinion of. We didn't talk much about his relatives in Abbotsford (!), or the plans for the actual show tonight (the band has said there will be some cool pyrotechnics on this tour, though not all venues will get the full force of them; I'm content to be surprised to see whether the PNE Forum will be fully bedecked, tonight!). We didn't even get to Grimfrost. 

I did ask a bit about the Soldiers of Odin, another topic I was curious about, but it ended up being kinda a weird digression from the conversation and I dropped it (for the curious, I had brought up "Guardians of Asgaard," and asked him what it meant, but he said he wanted to leave it for people to interpret themselves; I asked if any groups, like Soldiers of Odin, for example, had ever misused it for political ends - since the song could have a kind of nationalistic aspect, protecting the homeland from outsiders - and he said that his lyrics weren't political, that the band is not racist, that he was aware of no such  misuse, and that the band would likely take legal action if such a thing happened; I finally made some quip about how it would be a fine song to march to war to - that it WOULD make a fine propaganda tool - and that I used it myself on the commute to work, whereupon he replied, "that's kind of going to war, isn't it?" Otherwise, nothing really came of that angle). 

Anyhow, I've got one of my Amon Amarth shirts out and the most recent album of originals by Arch Enemy on my phone and I'm all geared up for the concert tonight. Outtakes follow. See you there!

AM: So talking to you - unlike some bands, this all means something more to you than just heavy metal, right? 

JH: Oh yeah yeah, definitely. It's part of my heritage, of course, but as I said, it has a deeper philosophical meaning, a "lifestyle" meaning. 

Can you give one example where your songs or your music or these stories have empowered you? Is there any particular place or time where you've found you've really learned something from Viking mythology?

I think - it's really in the Hávamál, which is also in the Edda. That's like, Odin's wisdom to mankind, really, and there are parts of that that I always really connected to. I think my favourite was, "friends die, cattle die, and each will die the same, but one thing I know that will never die: doom over dead man." 
[Allan's note: a fuller representation of the verse reads:
Cattle die and kinsmen die,thyself too soon must die,but one thing never, I ween, will die, --fair fame of one who has earned. 
Cattle die and kinsmen die,thyself too soon must die,but one thing never, I ween, will die, --the doom on each one dead.]

JH: ...So basically it's just saying that everybody dies, but the only thing that will survive is your reputation, the legacy you leave behind. How do you affect people, how do you impact people while you're alive. And I think that's something more people should really think about. Like, how will people remember me, when I go? I think it's something really important, you know? 

But there's another one that I actually - I went back to the Edda quite recently, and this passage, I didn't really understand it. For some reason, it just clicked with me now. Unfortunately, I don't have it in front of me -  I don't remember it by heart - but [the gist of it is] "to some houses, I came too early, and to some I came too late." And I always wondered what that was about, but I realized that it's death. Or at least that's the way I interpreted it. It just struck me the other day when I was reading through it; it's so obvious, but I never understood it until now. I always thought it was Odin! ...but it is Odin, because he's the bringer of death in that case, but not necessarily in a violent way. 

[Again, the full passage, found online:  
At many a feast I was far too late,and much too soon at some;drunk was the ale or yet unserved:never hits he the joint who is hated. 
Here and there to a home I had haply been askedhad I needed no meat at my meals,or were two hams left hanging in the house of that friendwhere I had partaken of one. 
Most dear is fire to the sons of men,most sweet the sight of the sun;good is health if one can but keep it,and to live a life without shame.]

JH: There's a lot of stuff that you can learn from that, and especially when it comes to that part, y'know, life is fragile. You never know when it's going to be your time. You only have one life, so you better make the most of it. That's the way I always felt about the Viking mentality and philosophy: make the most of your life, because we have one, we have one shot at this, and that's what I've always tried to do.

Thanks to Hegg and to everyone who helped make this interview happen! See you at the PNE!

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