"If it was up to me, I would've recorded in Sweden."
So says Amon Amarth vocalist Johan Hegg as he cracks open a beer in the lounge at Sphere Studios in Los Angeles, where the Swedish death-metal superstars have been working on their forthcoming and as-yet-untitled album. "I like L.A., but in small doses," he adds with a laugh. "If I can be closer to home when I record, for me that's better. But this has been really fun."
Hegg and his bandmates — guitarist Olavi Mikkonen, bassist Ted Lundström, guitarist Johan Söderberg and new drummer Jocke Wallgren — have been recording in Los Angeles for the past five weeks. In his pre-studio downtime, the towering vocalist has been spending three to four mornings per week training with Armenian MMA instructor Gokor Chivichyan at Hayastan MMA. "I'm obviously too old to compete, but it's good training," says the amiable 45-year-old Swede. "You learn how to strike, how to avoid getting hit, and you get more confident being in uncomfortable situations because A) you know you can take a hit in the head, and B) you know you can hit back!"
Before speaking with Hegg, Revolver joined the Metal Blade Records staff and a select handful of journalists from around the globe for an exclusive preview of eight of the 12 songs from Amon Amarth's forthcoming album, due out in the spring. Here's what our man had to tell us about the work in progress — and his full-contact morning workouts.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN TRAINING IN MMA?
JOHAN HEGG Almost two years now. [Former UFC heavyweight champ] Josh Barnett put me in touch with Gokor Chivichyan, who runs Hayastan MMA, which is not too far from here. So I've been going there three or four times a week, training and grappling. I'm a complete amateur, but everyone at that club, no matter what level they were at, was just so welcoming and helpful. It was a great experience.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO GET INTO IT?
My wife. She does it as well. I was here in L.A. with her a few years back, and we went to train with Josh and his girlfriend at the time. I thought it was so much fun, so my wife said we should keep doing it.
Then we went on vacation to Key West, and we went to a kickboxing class. The dojo was like a tin can and it was so hot in there. I was sweating my ass off, and we ended the session with doing five-minute rounds. The instructor was holding mitts, and I had to punch and kick. When you weren't doing that, you were working the heavy bag, so my wife and I would switch back and forth. At the end, I was basically just flopping my arms, not really punching anything, but I didn't stop. Then I finally landed a good kick and he said, "OK, that's about seven minutes." He made me go two minutes more! I was like, "You fucking bastard!"
Also, when you start doing martial arts in general, you realize that everyone who's into it are amazing people. Some of them make their living beating the shit out of other people, and they're still the best dudes you'll ever meet. And I love MMA training, because you get to do so many different things — the grappling part, the striking part.
YOU PROBABLY HAVE A HEALTHY REACH ADVANTAGE OVER MOST OF YOUR SPARRING PARTNERS.
I often have a reach advantage, but the other day at Hayastan we were doing MMA sparring in the morning. There were only four guys there, and one of them had to leave early, so I was left with this fucking giant guy who was almost a head taller than me — a fucking beast — and I had to go two five-minute rounds against this guy who is basically on the verge of being in the UFC, I guess. It's sparring, so he's obviously holding back, but he still almost knocked me out. It was horrible. He caught me in the gut and then on the chin. I was so tired, my mouth was open, which is a big no-no. He got me, and I was like, "Hmm, I wonder if I can sing tonight?" [Laughs]
IT MUST BE DIFFICULT TO BALANCE TRAINING WITH YOUR BEER-RELATED ACTIVITIES, AS WELL.
[Laughs] It works. I mean, today I had a little bit more than I usually do. I usually just have one or two beers at night and then I go to bed.
DOES ANYONE ELSE IN THE BAND TRAIN?
Oli and Jocke lift weights. Ted lifts beers.
WE HEARD EIGHT SONGS FROM THE NEW RECORD TODAY. DOES THE ALBUM HAVE A TITLE YET?
I'm not sure. There's a working title, but that's it.
LYRICALLY, IT'S ABOUT VIKINGS — AS USUAL. YOUR LAST RECORD HAD A SPECIFIC STORYLINE, THOUGH. DOES THIS ONE?
With the last record, Jomsviking, I wrote a complete fucking movie script and we turned it into an album. This time around, I didn't have any of those ideas but we also didn't want to do a concept thing, either. Jomsviking turned out so well, so if you then start working on another concept album and try to top that, it would almost be impossible — unless you have a really great story lined up that you can do that with. But I didn't, so it didn't make sense. I was a bit lazy on this one — I waited for the music to be done so I could see where it would take me.
YOU DIDN'T HAVE ANY IDEAS BEFOREHAND?
The only lyrical idea I had before the music was done was "Berserker at Stamford Bridge." A friend of mine told me about the story and said I should write lyrics about it, which I thought was a great idea because it's such an awesome story. Basically, it's at the end of the Viking Era. The Vikings are in England, and they've been very successful in beating the English because what the Vikings did better than the English is that they moved fast and they moved during the night. But at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, the English used the Vikings' tactics against them, so they caught the Vikings by surprise. The Vikings were too far away from their supply ships, so they had to retreat. The Vikings were about 3000 men, and the English were 15,000. So they retreated over Stamford Bridge, but in order to halt the English army, they sent one guy with an ax out on the bridge.
JUST ONE GUY?
One guy. And he kills 40 men before they get him. The only way they got him was they sent four guys on a raft out on the river, and they stabbed him from beneath with spears. And this is not written in any Norse text — it's written down in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, so you kind of have to think if the English themselves wrote about this, it has to be true. [Laughs] Or that possibly he killed more people before they got him.
ARE THERE ANY OTHER SONGS BASED ON SPECIFIC EVENTS?
Not specific events, though "The Shield Wall" is based on a real Viking battle tactic — but it's also about sticking together in the face of adversity. Then there's more introverted stuff, as well — songs that kind of relate to my private life, and I got the ideas for those songs from my wife. I got a lot of ideas from other people on this album, actually. I like working in metaphors, though. Mikael Stanne from Dark Tranquillity told me that when he writes lyrics, he keeps them intentionally vague so that people can interpret the lyrics in a way that benefits them most. I like that, and I realized it's something I've done as well.
IS THIS THE FIRST TIME YOU'VE WRITTEN LYRICS ABOUT YOUR PERSONAL LIFE?
No, I've done it many times. But you wouldn't know because it's all in Viking metaphors. I mean, I'm Swedish — I don't talk about feelings. [Laughs] But sometimes you want to talk about difficult stuff, things that are hard to deal with — whether it's what you yourself are going through or something that a friend or family member is going through. Lyrics are a good way to do that, because it affects other people as well, and maybe people can find inspiration.
CAN YOU GIVE AN EXAMPLE OF AN OLDER AMON AMARTH SONG THAT'S MORE PERSONAL THAN FANS MIGHT REALIZE?
A good example of this is the song "The Fate of Norns," which I wrote when I was breaking up with my ex several years ago. That song is kind of about giving up, but the lyrics are about a father burying his son and then killing himself. So I wrote those lyrics, and a couple of years later a guy from Iceland wrote to me just before we were about to play the Graspop festival in Belgium. He said he was coming to the festival and that he was hoping we would play "The Fate of Norns" because he lost his son at the age of six and that song carried him through the grief. So I showed his message to the guys and said, "We have to play this song." It wasn't really on the set list, but we played it.
So we played one of the tents at Graspop, which holds about 10- or 15,000 people, and it was packed. We're doing the show and I see a guy in the front with an Icelandic flag, and I realize that's gotta be him. So when we get to the song, I tell the whole story to the audience about how the guy wrote to me and wanted us to play the song because he lost his son. And it was like the whole atmosphere in the tent just changed. You could touch it. Everybody in there was, like, holding his back. I can't describe it any other way. It was an insane feeling. It made us feel part of something bigger all of a sudden. So that's what I mean — if a song can inspire someone, it doesn't matter what the lyrics say. They can mean something different to everyone.