Swedish power metal veterans Sabaton are following up 2019’s The Great War with The War To End All Wars, which is also about World War I. That wasn’t the original plan, as frontman Joakim Broden reveals when talking about the writing and recording of the album. We also spoke about returning to touring, their shorter than planned U.S. run with Judas Priest and other topics.
Chad Bowar: When you did The Great War, was it always planned to do a two-album World War I one set, or did that come about later after the first album was done?
Joakim Broden: That came later. When we did that, I don’t think we had any idea that we were going to do another one about the First World War. We knew we were leaving behind stories that we really wanted to tell, like “Christmas Truce” and “Hellfighters.” Those were really cool stories we really wanted to tell. But we didn’t have the right music so we thought, “Well, maybe another time on another album or as singles in the future.” Basically, as soon as we announced the previous album about the Great War, we got so many friends and fans giving us books, sending us links. “Do you know about this?” Quite a few were, “How the ‘F’ did we not know about this?” [laughs] Wow, we missed so much. That as we started to tour it was growing.
Then, after we were sent home in 2020 in March from Russia, because of the coronavirus lockdown, then I figured we’d start with “Christmas Truce” and “Hellfighters” because they were the ones that were closest to our heart. We figured we could at least get those out there. Then we realized this is going to drag on for some time. We still hadn’t toured most of Russia or at least half of Russia. We hadn’t toured Australia, Latin America, Japan. If we would have done something else for this album, let’s say the Napoleonic era, that would make the songs of The Great War feel irrelevant and then they would never experience them in the right settings in a lot of the world. We figured, “You know what? Maybe, we should do another one.” Because if it wasn’t for the pandemic, we wouldn’t have made an album. We’d probably have been touring until late 2021.
As far as the songwriting process and recording, were you able to do it in a normal way, or did you have to do a lot of things separately because of the pandemic?
The whole pandemic messed everything up on every level for us except how to write and record music. Scandinavia was never in a lockdown in the same sense as some other countries were. Most of the songwriting is me sitting in the studio myself or sitting with Chris, the guitar player, or someone else from the band. Most of the lyrics are me or Par together or alone. Then when we record, it’s a linear process. I start with the producer and Hannes, the drummer. Then we do that and then the next guy comes in and takes it over. Except for the fact that I wasn’t there when we tracked the choirs, everything was exactly 100 percent normal.
Speaking of the choirs, Sabaton albums always have an epic feel to them. This one, to me, sounds even more epic than normal. Do you think that is the case?
I don’t know. Epic is such an overused word and I do not intentionally go for epic. I like it large. I like a lot of reverbs so you can hear the hall with a huge powerful choir. That is fucking epic [laughs]. I might just not like the term. I think for our music, the stories we tell, we couldn’t tell them in another way. The way we’ve chosen to tell them is sing about battles and with heavy metal, it lends itself to it. I’ve always been a more is more guy [laughs].
It sounded like you took a little bit of a different vocal approach on the album opener “Sarajevo” than on the rest of the album.
We wanted to tell the story of the shot in Sarajevo, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. We didn’t know how to do it. Me being the narrator didn’t work out. Singing over that didn’t work out. It’s not an intro. It’s not a song. It’s something in between. I don’t know actually what that is. I liked the way it turned out, actually, because it’s a bit unexpected.
It seems also that the promotion process for this album seems a bit longer than before. You’ve been releasing singles for several months. How did that all come about?
We finally had time to make music videos because we weren’t doing shows. “Christmas Truce,” we really wanted a video that wasn’t a music video. We wanted to focus on the story and stuff like that. We had longer to prepare because the album has been done for almost a year now. With planning, making the videos, planning videos, planning the promotion, everything, it’s not only that we had more time as in time from completion of the album to release date but also, we had several more hours or days possible to do interviews or music videos.
Do you like the extended promotion process or would you rather just release one single and then boom, the album is out the next month?
I don’t actually mind doing interviews, talking to journalists. But I had quite recently somebody who didn’t realize we were singing about history. They asked how we could have come up with this and it feels so realistic. “This song, “Lady of The Dark,” it’s about a woman in war. How do you come up with that?” I’m like, “Really?” At that point, I think, yes, that might be a waste of my time. Most of the time though, it’s fine. I really hate making music videos. I like to have a music video but I hate making them [laughs] because it’s pretended playing for me. We tried once where we did a music video, where we actually played in front of a crowd and played it several times, then it was fine.
So you prefer the videos you guys don’t even appear in that have actors?
Yes! But actually, “Christmas Truce,” I’m pretty happy with that. I didn’t enjoy sitting there freezing and then waiting for, “Action. Now, we do this.” Then the director will ask you, “Now, can you move your hands a little bit right on the keyboard? We can see your hands better.” Then I’m, “Yes, but I’m playing a piano. I’m playing the song I wrote. That’s where it’s played, man [laughs].”
You’ve played hundreds of shows in your career. I’m guessing that first post-pandemic show had an entirely different vibe.
Yes. That was in July in Serbia last year. I was super nervous. We had two days of rehearsals planned in Serbia. We were doing some music videos around that time as well, actually, while we were still out traveling. We were super nervous about forgetting lyrics and everything. How are we going to be as a band? Are we going to be totally out-of-shape, not gaining 20 pounds but out-of-shape, stage presence, musically, and everything. Then I walked into the rehearsals and saw our crew members I hadn’t seen in 14 months. And then we started playing and everybody in the band had been equally nervous. Everybody had over-practiced.
Already on the first day, it was like, “This already sounds good.” That was the biggest relief. We had planned for six hours. We’ve done four. You know what? Let’s cut it here. Let’s go for dinner instead. We have one more day of rehearsal tomorrow. Just to go to dinner with these guys and talk, that was a really nice feeling.
When it came to the show, it was so weird to be in a backstage again. Just hanging out with so many people around you was weird, putting the stage clothes on was weird. I forgot my in-ear monitors. I was halfway to stage and then like, “Oh, shit.” I had to run back, get those on. Walking to the stage and onto it was super weird and super nervous. Then the intro started. You hear the crowd start chanting, you see Chris gets his guitar, Par gets his bass, me and Hannes do a fist bump and basically say, “see on the other side” when he walks to the drums. Our monitor engineer gives me my microphone. From that point, it was like, “You know what? Yes, this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” and no more nervous.
When you were not able to play live, when you came back did that give you more of an appreciation of doing what you do since it was taken away from you for a while?
Yes, absolutely. I think the longest we’ve gone without playing a show is maybe 6 or 9 months, absolute maximum, and that’s only once or twice in the past 15 years. A year off touring, this is the first time I’ve known that since ’99 when I got into the band. [laughs]
Unfortunately, it had to be cut off early due to serious health issues with Judas Priest guitarist Richie Faulkner, but how was the U.S. tour?
Absolutely amazing. We were a bit rusty in the beginning. We came in without a full crew, and we were able to sort everything out. Judas Priest’s crew came and helped, but it was a situation where we were approved to have the visas, but we were waiting to have interview times because very few places in Europe were open because of the virus lockdown. Just two weeks before the tour, the American embassy in Sweden said, “Sorry, guys. We are still unable to give you interviews.” We had to fly to Belfast to do interviews and we based our crew there. We came to the U.S. with our sound engineer who is American, our guitar tech, who somehow managed to get his visa, and our physiotherapist for us in the crew. That was it.
Then we had some local friends and some Judas Priest crew helping us out. It was a rocky start. The shows were good, but behind the scenes, things were a bit chaotic. Towards the final couple of shows we’d gotten things running, gotten accustomed to being on tour again, started to really, really enjoy it, and doing really good shows, having a good time with Judas Priest and crew, and then that happened. We felt like, sure, any time somebody could test positive, we’ll see. We’ll deal with it then because of the coronavirus. But we did not see that coming.
Tell me about scrambling to put together a headlining show before you had to go back home again.
We didn’t want to go home. We talked to the promoter who had the Denver show we had planned with Judas, and he said, “Well, I can get you another venue, and I can reach out to everyone who had tickets to the Priest show where I can reach a few people, and maybe we can try it together.” 24 hours before we hit the stage, we announced it. We had no idea what was going to happen, but our reasoning was, “You know what? We know for sure it’s not going to be empty, and at least we get a last night out with the boys, so let’s treat it as a company retreat.” That’s what we did. We played for 2 hours 50 minutes; I think. We never played such a long show before. I think our longest before was 1 hour 55.
You recently did an acoustic song for a charity show. How do you think your songs translate to the acoustic format?
People say, “Oh, you should do more acoustic stuff.” Yes, in a sense. It’s really nice, and some songs lend themselves to it very, very well. Others are horrendous, no matter what you do with it. It’s never going to translate really good. For us to make every song acoustic, yes, it’s possible, but not every one is going to be very good. Imagine the song “Hellfighters.” How good is that going to be acoustic? It’s going to be shit, not that there is something wrong with the song, but it is not leaning on harmonies or anything you can recreate with the classical setting. It’s power, aggression, hard guitars that need to be distorted to get that feeling you’re after to deliver. “Christmas Truce” worked very well because there are harmonies in how the song is built. We’ve done a few acoustic things before and we noticed that you could technically take any song and slap on an acoustic guitar, but it’s never going to be great if you do that.
When you’re doing your headline shows, your stage show just seems to get bigger and more spectacular every time. What do you have planned for this album cycle’s tour set?
More is more. [laughs] We started building the stage set in October. It is done. It’s waiting for us. We have one stage for the Swedish tour coming up. Then we have one for the upcoming European/American/everywhere global tour.
You’re going to have to tote it all the way back to North America?
Oh, yes, absolutely. As much as we can fit. We still have to live within reality and reason, of course. We are a much bigger band in Europe. When we roll in and we’re playing a 15,000-capacity venue in most cases, we can bring more than we could in the U.S. where a good show is 3,000 or 5,000. That means we don’t have the same space on stage and stuff like that.
You have to limit the amount of tanks that you have on stage. [laughs]
Exactly. I don’t like having tank limits, you know? [laughs] No, we will bring as much as the venues we allow basically. At a certain point, I hope to outgrow that problem too and be able to take exactly the same thing that we have in Europe to the United States. That’s the dream, of course.
(interview published March 2022)
Watch Sabaton – “Christmas Truce” Video