Interview with Olavi Mikkonen of Amon Amarth
With their new album Surtur Rising set to hit shelves worldwide as early as tomorrow (in Europe) I had the chance to chat with Olavi Mikkonen ahead of the band’s US tour while he was home in his native Sweden. Below is the lengthy Q&A.
DTM:Before we get into all the questions about the new album can you tell me the overall experience at 70,000 Tons of metal? How did that go?
OM: It went pretty well, this cruise was way cooler than the other ones we’ve played (in Sweden and Finland) because it was 5 days. It was a very nice trip and I was surprised it was actually well organized because we didn’t have any sort of schedule or anything like until 3 days before departure. We were kind of expecting the worst but it was very good and it was a blast because obviously there was no backstage area of any kind. It was cool to hang out with the fans and just talk, it was great.
DTM: Was it strange seeing a bunch of metal heads running around a cruise ship for 5 days? I’m imagining a bunch of black shirts, long hair, and beer everywhere.
OM: Yeah, the crew was probably a bit surprised because they usually have old people drinking martini’s or whatever. I think the staff on the ship enjoyed the environment as much as we did because they get to see something different for a change. I think they ran out of beer because normally they’re used to people ordering one or two drinks and that’s it. They weren’t prepared (laughing).
DTM: Is there a beer that Amon Amarth request any time you guys go on the road? Is there an official band beer?
OM: We usually go for local beers except Johan (Hegg) requests lots of Guinness. That’s the only thing actually we have on the list. I’m not really a beer guy, I’ll drink one or two but I’m not particularly picky.
DTM: Which beverage do you enjoy more than beer?
OM: Red wine probably. I don’t get hangovers from red wine, my stomach is already not cooperating when we’re touring so I figure I’d stick to something other than beer to appease it. I try to stay off beer on the road. Plus you can’t really get hammered from wine plus it makes you sleepy which is good.
DTM: Coming off the success of Twilight of the Thunder God was there any pressure when you wrote Surtur Rising? Is there usually pressure to follow up with successful albums or is more of let’s hope this one works out we’re just gonna do whatever?
OM: I don’t want to say we hope that it will be a better album, we know it’s a good album otherwise we wouldn’t have recorded it. We really don’t have any time pressure or anything, whenever we’re ready, we’re ready. If we feel we don’t have enough good material then we just wait until we do. I knew when we had these 10 songs ready we already knew this was going to be a great album there’s no doubt about that. As far as pressure goes, we know what we’re capable of so it we don’t really have to have any pressure. It’ll be good in the end anyway.
DTM: Can you talk a bit about the making of this album and how it compared to albums from the past as well as the story of Surtur for people that don’t know.
The recording itself was kind of similar to Twilight. We started writing together as a band when all of the touring was done for Twilight I believe it was in May of last year. Then we just started to rehearse everyday from 10-4 so after a couple of months we had most of the foundations and the basics for the album, then we continued to do that through the summer and started to record in October. We probably did it the same way as we recorded Twilight but this time we had the producer (Jens Bogren) involved much earlier, he would come to our rehearsals when we had a lot of songs ready and we would make a lot of demos. He’s been involved much more than in the past and that’s probably the only difference.
The title of album is Surtur Rising. Surtur is a fire giant and a very cool character in Viking mythology. Despite only having two songs about him we decided some time before we wanted him on the cover.
DTM: Is everybody in the band heavy into Norse mythology or is it just one or two guys?
Definitely Johan has the most knowledge, he’s really into it. I think we all used to be into it but not as much anymore. I do find it interesting but I don’t read about it much these days. I would say Johan is always looking for new books to read but for the rest of us it’s more in the past. I think it’s healthy to have other interests besides the mythology.
DTM: From your perspective, how much trial and error goes into writing guitar parts whenever you write songs or solos. Especially in solos, how many different variations do you go through before you decide what you are going to use for a particular song?
OM: I would say for writing songs, for example the last track on the album “Doom Over Dead Man” I think i have 150 different versions and when it comes to playing riffs I have so many versions that it’s insane and very tricky to really choose the right one because after a while you don’t know what’s right anymore. There’s a lot of work behind everything. With solos there’s maybe a not a 100 but probably about 50 different versions. Of course when we go to the studio there are few songs that need tuning because all the hooks, riffs, melodies, and the arrangements are pretty much done. Like I said when we work, we work really hard and make a lot of demos with to try out different versions of the songs.
DTM: Do you already have a favorite song off the new album?
OM: I don’t know, it’s kind of changing all the time. Since we now started rehearsing, we play the whole album a lot more. I like “Destroyer” I think it’s a very cool song to play at least, that’s probably my favorite maybe “Beast Am I”.
DTM: One of the cover songs I saw listed on the iTunes version of the album was “Aerials” by System of a Down and last time you guys did a cover was Black Sabbath so how exactly did that song come into fruition?
OM: That song kind of became one of those songs we usually would sing along to back in the day when we were touring in a van and listening to whatever our tour manager had in the cd player. When that song came on we would try to sing, you know yelling together, and after that it kind of became sort of our song. Whenever we would be bored on the tour bus we would start singing it together. Also, right before the recording we went to Japan for a show and there are a lot of karaoke bars there and whichever one we went to had that song so obviously we had to sing it and after that we decided we should cover it. Whenever we hear it we have to sing it.
DTM: How did the idea of playing two sets for the upcoming American tour come about?
OM: We wanted to try something different and we’ve always been up for things that not so many bands try. That was one of the reasons, the other is we feel confident that we have a strong enough album we can play in its entirety without people falling asleep. We want to prove to ourselves that we can pull it off as well as make a statement that we can tour without support bands. It’s going to be really cool, I’m really looking forward to it.
DTM: Will the second setlist be any different from shows in the past or will it be similar to what you usually play in the states.
OM: Most of the songs will be the classics or the ones everyone wants to hear. Of course we will spice it up with some wild cards as well. It’s going to be a good set.
DTM: Speaking of classic songs, are there songs that you have that you prefer over others that are you favorites?
OM: “Pursuit of Vikings” is the song we play the most, ever since we wrote it, it’s been on the set. It might not be the most fun song to play because we’ve played so many times but it’s still worth playing because the audience always goes nuts.
DTM: Is there a song that you wished that you played that you never do?
OM: I always like to play “The Sound of Eight Hooves” because it’s really fun to play live. Maybe it’s not the most fun song to listen to but to play it is really fun. I really like that song. The “Crusher” album, obviously our die-hard fans know that album but since our last two albums sold so much more copies that most people know more songs off them.
DTM: Do you think you sold more copies because of how different they sounded?
OM: I think we somehow took another step with “Odin our Side” and some fans are happy with that album without checking out the older stuff. I think we sold better because hopefully we were better a band and of course the better production.
DTM: Have you seen differences with technology in how you record opposed to when you started out especially with the overall sound?
OM: I think in our case for our first albums we didn’t have money to do professional recordings. The way we record today, we kind of use the same quality of amps and guitars but that’s not difference as much as the professional help behind the desk. Since we started to record in professional studios the producer has higher demands, back in the day when we recorded the “Avenger” album we would just stand and head bang when recording the guitars. Today we have to play the same riff like 50 times until the producer is happy.
DTM: Are there any cities in the US that you look forward to visiting when you tour?
OM: We’ve been around the US so many times that we have great places wherever we go. We know the spots around the venue by heart so there’s always a lot of small things to look forward to. I definitely enjoy good weather like you find in Florida, Texas is kind of nice. Everything is freezing up here all the time, you tend to appreciate the hot weather and sunshine if you live in Sweden. New York is a nice city because there’s so many stores and you can do so much stuff during the day. I also like Seattle a lot even though it rains there all the time. Portland is another place that has a lot of neat stuff around the venues with a lot independent shops which I enjoy.
DTM: Why does Amon Amarth come off much more personable than most other metal bands? There’s an overly friendly vibe the band gives off on stage or in interviews?
OM: I don’t why exactly. Maybe because we’ve been working very hard for a very long time and we didn’t get famous with our first album. We still have both feet on the ground and never have any attitude towards other people and we like to show that we are grateful towards our fans because without them we wouldn’t be having this conversation. We try to take the time to be ourselves. It’s better to be friendly and have some fun instead of being dead serious all the time. We’re just very laid back.
Where did you guys learn English?
OM: Mostly school but also television and movies. In Sweden they play them in English but with Swedish subtitles so you still get to hear the words. That might be the reason Swedish people can get by with their English.
Any last words for your fans and well wishers?
OM: If there is a time to check out the band I would suggest you do it for this upcoming tour because it’s something we might not do so often. This might the be the only tour we do like this, if there was a time to see the band this would be it.