by Niklas Göransson
Pioneers of modern-day heavy metal, Sweden’s Grand Magus return with their eighth album. In his most personal and in-depth interview to date, guitar player and vocalist JB Christoffersson offers insight on Viking lyrics, the spirit world, Manowar influences and the fundamentals of metal.
– I wanted to take both the music and lyrics further than we ever had before, says JB, I felt the time had come to polarise the listeners even more. In the past we’ve made a few records that were pretty universally liked, our ambition for “Sword Songs” was to push the reception beyond mediocrity. We wanted more people to really love this album, well aware that more would hate it.
The lyrics have proven to be the most divisive, with the primarily contested verses found on the album’s second digital single, “Forged in Iron – Crowned in Steel”. This song was my own introduction to the new album and I must confess that the chorus left me in mild perplexity.
Viking metal – bring you to your knees
Viking metal – a warrior`s decree
Viking metal – death is victory
Forged in iron, crowned in steel – Viking metal
I checked the comment section and I quote: ‘I started cringing at the first chorus’, a sentiment quite a few people seemed to share. Others speculate that the more proletarian lyrics were attempts to appeal to the lowest common denominator in hopes of expanding their audience.
– I’ll clear this up for you; the song is about the Ulfberht blades – swords from the vaults of actual history. This is the ‘Viking metal’ I’m referring to – not a music genre.
Another new and exciting feature is JB posing with swords for band photography, as well as having taken up weightlifting.
Is this a MANOWAR metamorphism I see before me? Dare one hope to see you in a loincloth in a foreseeable future?
– Bastard, he says laughing, yes of course – I’m knitting one as we speak. There’s certainly a strong MANOWAR influence in GRAND MAGUS and it’s been there for a long time, not only in our music but also in attitude.
By unapologetically, wholeheartedly and unashamedly embracing Scandinavian mythology, they do in fact appear to have adopted a stance similar to the one heralded by the American heavy metal icons.
– The older I grow, the less inclined I feel to come across as clever or pretentious about these things. I think Norse mythology is cool, I think Vikings are cool. Am I supposed to be ashamed of this and dress it up in fancy metaphors? If someone finds it silly, well boohoo.
JB says that beyond these intellectual musings, what it’s really about is the fundamentals of heavy metal.
– Pure emotion, the feelings of power and joy – free from concerns of ‘this is over the top’, ‘this is too simple’ or ‘I’m too sophisticated for this’. If you don’t get a rise out of banging your head and screaming ‘Viking metal’ along to our music, well I’m sorry, you should consider finding something that better caters to your delicate sensibilities.
JB adds that ultimately, all of their songs are multifaceted and have several layers of meaning. It’s really up to the listener to take from it what he or she wants.
– Metal to me is about not getting caught up in life’s tedious goings-on, or trying too hard to be a sarcastic smartarse – it’s for releasing powerful, basic emotions. When I listen to “Metal Gods” (JUDAS PRIEST) I’m not analysing every sentence of the lyrics, I’m getting lost in the music and feeling, ‘Yeah!’
Given that the British heavy metal legends are JB’s favourite band, I imagine he was pleased when he learned that KK Downing himself is a GRAND MAGUS fan.
– It’s hard to fathom really. I remember when I was 14 years old, blasting PRIEST on the stereo and being taken to another realm because they were so powerful and great. To have an idol of that calibre mention your own band is seriously mind-boggling.
The musical journey towards their current brand of orthodox heavy metal started in 2005, with third album “Wolf’s Return”.
– That was the real turning point for us; it’s where we began finding our way towards our true sound. Note that this was eleven years ago, which makes it tiresome that people still go on about us having changed our style.
Perhaps not quite at the level of Bernie Shaw, who is still referred to as the ‘new singer’, despite having been URIAH HEEP’s vocalist for 30 years now.
– Yeah, it’s funny. Sometimes people seem to have the attention span of a five year-old and other times it seems that things stick in their minds forever.
Most of these lamentations seem to come from the doom contingent. This is quite confusing since there’s really only one of GRAND MAGUS’ eight records that could be called doom metal – the second, “Monument”, from 2003. The 2001 self-titled debut sounds a lot more like a hybrid of blues and American stoner rock.
– ‘Stoner’, he groans, damn you to hell. I agree that the first album is very bluesy, but in a BLACK SABBATH way. We were completely bewildered when it came out and people started comparing us to KUYSS, FU MANCHU and all of those bands. I’d never even heard of either of them, let alone been influenced.
He says that the primary influences came from hard rock band SPIRITUAL BEGGARS. This claim is problematic to dispute, seeing as JB was their vocalist from 2002 until 2010.
– Their music comes from BLACK SABBATH, not any Americans. We were also very inspired by CATHEDRAL and ELECTRIC WIZARD, again European bands.
Speaking of genre classification, I’ve noticed that some people refer to GRAND MAGUS as a power metal band. Despite relatively peaceful members, I’m forced to assume that this has provoked hand-to-hand combat on at least a few occasions.
– There’s an old saying in Dalarna, where I’m from: Ett ord till å skjortan din ä tom.
Roughly translated, ‘One more word and that shirt of yours is empty’. JB speculates that there’s a younger generation that have a very different idea about what the term really means.
– Some claim that power metal is simply powerful metal – that, I can live with. I think… well, I hope this is what younger people are referring to when speaking of us in those terms.
The rock and metal titans of the seventies and eighties are fading, with several of the remaining few talking about farewell tours. Not that this means anything in this day and age, seeing as that’s precisely what KISS and SCORPIONS claim to have been doing for the last few years. Once they are finally gone, who will fill the void they leave behind? Or the stadiums for that matter.
– They were a result of a completely different society and infrastructure from what we have today, relics from a time when it was still possible to create that sort of impact. Today there’s such an information overload that even though a band might be big in concert attendances or digital downloads, there are still a million other mediums of entertainment that compete for the public’s attention. Huge bands like AC/DC, LED ZEPPELIN, DEEP PURPLE or JUDAS PRIEST are truly a thing of the past.
I wonder if we’ll see anything like what happened in the early and mid-nineties when commercial metal took a savage flogging from grunge, while the underground flourished.
– Tough question. I think that today it’s as if everything exists at the same time. People have both black metal and pop music in their Spotify playlists, which would have been inconceivable before. There are glam rock festivals, there are retro seventies bands. It’s like all at once in various sizes, you know?
GRAND MAGUS have been using conceptual references to the Northern pagan pantheon ever since their debut. JB reminisces growing up with his father reading him the old Eddic sagas as bedtime stories.
– For centuries, the Vikings and their worldview have fascinated people of all ages across the world – just like Greek mythology, Chinese legends or Arthurian tales. All cultures have their own warrior lore; tales of bravery and heroes overcoming formidable threats. These myths have been a constant throughout mankind’s history.
This is something that today is prone to mockery in the metal scene, especially in their home country.
– I couldn’t care less. I think lyrics about partying and getting high are ridiculous but I’m not moaning about it or mocking those who happen to like it. Even I can enjoy stuff of that nature, despite thinking it’s silly but I’m not ashamed to admit it. Why should I be?
He believes that their dedication to and enthusiasm for the Norse concept is a contributing factor as to why people find GRAND MAGUS to be very genuine.
– I can state with confidence that there’s more depth and heart and passion in our lyrics than in most bands. This is a big reason why people appreciate us; they are fully aware of this, they can feel it. They paint their own imagery from it – they’re not afraid to submit and let the music fill their hearts, which is the whole fucking point of all this.
Another lyric that I was curious about was “Naked and the Dead”, from 2013 album “Triumph and Power”.
For the naked and the dead
There’s no glory or reward to be had
If the spirit travels on, it’s by will power alone
‘Cause the body’s just a cell of flesh and blood
Does this mean that you regard yourself as naught but soulless bones and tissue?
– Not at all, I absolutely believe in a spirit world. I meant that the power of will is the only power we have at our disposal. I believe in something akin to a soul but you have to hone it, then you must fight to make it through whatever barrier lies ahead, like the passing in death.
He adds that this battle is not necessarily about strength in the traditional sense, there are fragile people who have an extremely strong will and vice versa. It’s about becoming as one with the powers in nature.
– Nature has always been my close ally and becomes an increasingly bigger part of my life as I get older. There’s definitely a sentience there, as anyone who’s spent a sufficient amount of time in the forest will know in their hearts.
JB says that all of their work contains traces of the state they were in as a band at the time of recording, as well as the aftermath from the album before it. When the composing process begins, he starts by tapping into the headspace that permeated its predecessor.
– All of our albums have certain feelings about them, ones that might not necessarily have to do with the music.
While he will always revisit the spirits of records past, he refrains from actually listening to them.
– I’ve never gone back to analyse old albums before starting on a new one, but I might actually try that next time. I’m generally the sort of person who thinks about the present rather than the past but perhaps it can give you a refreshing perspective, looking back.
JB describes the birth of an album as a severely taxing affair, an ordeal that usually takes weeks to recover from.
– The main reason why it’s such a massive undertaking is that I spend months searching for the key to my vision of the finished product. I write the music and lyrics, which are obviously then recorded – a process I’m involved in every step of the way.
He oversees the drums and bass, then records guitars and vocals which is followed by mixing and mastering. They even design the cover artwork and booklet themselves.
– All in all, there’s precious little room for thinking about anything else for about six or seven months. This is the way it’s been for the last three albums – absolutely exhausting.
Something else that’s played out over this sonic trinity is JB’s appearance. I’m generally not one to pay fashion much heed but I’ve been somewhat fascinated by his bold moves when it comes to hair. He emerged with a shaved head, then sometime after “The Hunt” (2012) suddenly grew a … variation of long hair, and has now resumed the bald approach.
How was it, going through the shoulder-length stage in your forties?
– Careful now, he laughs. Look, if the choice was mine I’d have long hair. Unfortunately that’s not the case. I just got bored of looking like all other men who shave their heads so I thought, ‘fuck it’, and let it grow for a while. Maybe I’ll do it again.
I personally interpreted this yokel look as some sort of advanced endeavour in channelling his inner folk-musician. Influences from traditional Scandinavian music having always been present in GRAND MAGUS after all.
– Fox (Skinner, bass) and I come from the same rural town – Falun, in the county of Dalarna. There’s a very strong folk music tradition there and I’m sure it’s rubbed off on both of us.
So you grew up together?
– No, we didn’t really know each other back then – he’s a year younger than I am and that’s a huge thing when you’re a teenager. I knew who he was and I think he knew who I was but there was a vast distance between our groups of friends and acquaintances.
In the late nineties and unbeknownst to each other, both had moved to Stockholm. In a bar one night, JB spotted Fox playing with another band and they struck up a connection.
– I thought he had a good stage presence and played well, so I figured I’d try to steal him for my own band instead.
His orchestral subjugation succeeded and seems to have launched a prosperous partnership, the two having remained a unit ever since.
– We’ve had our differences but generally get along great.
JB says he will generally avoid dealing with people he doesn’t feel comfortable around.
– There’s no point in being involved with someone I don’t feel instinctively drawn to. I’d like to think that I’m a pretty good judge of character and have always felt that the most important thing about a band is the people involved in it.
One individual that was highly involved for six years was ex-drummer Seb, who was forced to resign in 2012.
– Seb had to leave due to family matters – he absolutely didn’t want to but couldn’t be away on tour during that time. It was really tough for him. For us too.
After recording “The Hunt” with new percussionist Ludwig Witt (SPIRITUAL BEGGARS), GRAND MAGUS then toured the UK with their soon to be former drummer.
– It was a strange situation to find ourselves in but fortunately Seb was entirely focused on making the best of his last sojourn with us. We played some killer shows together on that tour.
To complicate matters, JB and Fox had to remotely participate in the album’s mixing.
– We would listen to the latest mix as we were preparing for the evening’s show, surreal stuff. Personally I think it would have been better if we’d been around more for that mix, but we didn’t have a choice.
The digipack version of “Triumph and Power” includes the bonus track “Blackmoon”. The lyrics led me to believe that they’re about David ‘Blackmoon’ Parland, former guitar player from bands such as NECROPHOBIC and DARK FUNERAL. A passionate but troubled man, Parland ended his own life in 2013.
– Yeah, it’s dedicated to him. I only knew him briefly through mutual friends, so it wasn’t like we were close or anything. He was a very interesting guy and we got along great the few times we met.
As much as he appreciated the person, it’s the riff legacy he leaves behind that’s the real treasure.
– Blackmoon left a huge mark on Swedish black metal. He was a phenomenally talented lead guitar player in the MICHAEL SCHENKER, RITCHIE BLACKMORE and GARY MOORE tradition; exceptional vibrato, tone and melodic playing.
It was his blending of this style with typical black metal chords that JB says made him unique as a guitar player.
– It’s very unusual today, back in the mid-nineties it was basically unheard of. It really made an impact on me; he was such a great songwriter.
The digipack for “Sword Songs” contains a dirge of a different sort, a cover version of DEEP PURPLE’s “Stormbringer”.
– That was the song that got me into hard rock in the first place so it’s always been very special to me. I’m really proud of our version, the awesome keyboard work from Per Wiberg (SPIRITUAL BEGGARS, ex-OPETH) really is the icing on the cake.
On the subject of covers, I remain outraged that GRAND MAGUS never played anything from BATHORY’s epic period during their “Wolf’s Return” and “Iron Will“ (2008) era. Now that their contemporary influences are closer to Blackmore than Quorthon, I doubt that likelihood has increased.
– On the contrary, he says, I don’t think those chances have diminished at all. I actually have some future plans along those lines.
Both JB and Fox work full-time jobs when not on the road. I imagine it must be weird touring with MOTÖRHEAD and DORO for a few weeks and then going straight back into a mundane work environment.
– It’s undoubtedly a strange brain exercise but it’s also a nice contrast. In a sense, I feel that I get the best from both worlds this way. A lifetime of touring can turn you into a very one-dimensional individual; it’s good for the mind to do different things.
Toiling with the plebs also serves as fuel for his music passion.
– The frustrations of a working a day-job and living an ‘ordinary’ life are great motivations for writing and playing music. This is a big incentive for me. I’d actually be afraid of losing my passion if I became a full-time musician – doubt I would, but regardless I really can’t complain about the setup we have now.
JB states that he’s proud of how far they’ve managed to take GRAND MAGUS as a part-time band but adds that this is merely the beginning.
– I suppose we could have gone full-time after “Iron Will” – probably survived financially too, I reckon the demand is there. That would however mean at least tripling the amount of touring and… I guess we’ll see what happens in the future.