Interview with vocalist and bassist Johnny Hedlund
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: October 6, 2019
Swedish Death Metal patrol Unleashed, led by vocalist and bassist Johnny Hedlund, turned 30 this year. The band started in Stockholm in 1989 and how many extreme Metal bands can keep their thing going for that many years without breaking up (and making a quick comeback)? Not many, I would say. Unleashed have believed in their own thing since day one, never really compromising their sound, which is also why they have kept their fans happy for three long decades.
The band's thirteenth studio album, The Hunt for White Christ, was unleashed (no pun intended) on October 28, 2018, which was also their first one for their new label, Napalm Records.
The Metal Crypt made a trip to Vernissa Rot Fest, Vantaa, Finland, on September 14th, to witness the band live and meet the overtly friendly Grand Captain of the Unleashed longship, Johnny Hedlund. Mr. Hedlund talked about the band's long career from quite a few aspects, telling how it all started for him, and what the band has on the slate for 2020...
Luxi: Welcome to Finland, Johnny, once again.
Johnny: Thank you. Thank you.
Luxi: You are not a too regular visitor in Finland, but I remember you played at Steelfest in Hyvinkää 2015 (w/Dark Funeral, Melechesh, Asphyx, etc.) and then at Jalometalli Festival Oulu in 2007 (Testament, Rotting Christ, etc.)? Do you have any memories from those two events?
Johnny: Yes. In the early days, way back then, I remember we played a festival up in Oulu, I think, as well. We also toured Finland years ago, I think, maybe 10 years ago. I'm not sure exactly when. We've been here a lot but not as much as we hope to be because it's crazy close to Sweden. For some reason, like Denmark, Norway, and Finland, it's probably so damn close that we don't go there. It's just strange. We played Denmark and Norway as well. It's the same in Sweden, really. People in Sweden wonder why the hell you don't play. We play there, but it's not as frequently as other countries, for some reason. I don't know why that is. Whenever it happens, I'm happy.
It's always good to do gigs in Finland, that's why I don't like being here so infrequently because if it's good to come to a country and play, then you want to play there more. Not too much, though. Not too much. I think that it's good not to play too much. I think we've been to Finland a little too—how do you say, not so much. We should be able to play here a little bit more, I think. For sure, because I know it's always a good show. The crowds have been great every time we come here.
Luxi: The band's thirteenth studio album, The Hunt for White Christ, was released at the end of October last year, and was a really good album, in my opinion. My question is how much you have been able to work with new songs and is there anything you can say about it?
Johnny: Well, we don't really sit down and say, "Okay, let's make a new album in four months". That never happens. It's an ongoing process. It's the same now. I have millions of ideas and so has Fredrik, who plays most of the guitars. We've averaged almost one album every second year. Some albums take three years. That's pretty much the pace we work in.
It's not a schedule. It depends on what else happens in life, you know. We don't make a commitment to do one exactly every 24 months, but when it happens, it happens. You're right, we don't want to wait too long because a new album is fresh, and you want to get a new start and you want to get going again. I think it's the same for all bands.
Luxi: Your last album was the first one for Napalm Records. What made you decide to change from Nuclear Blast to this Napalm Records?
Johnny: Well, we have had pretty decent cooperation with most of our record companies, but after a while, it comes to a point where, again, you want to make something fresh, something new. We could have stayed and things would have been all right. We don't have any grudge against Nuclear Blast at all. We're good friends still. It was a good time to make a new start and to get some new fresh ideas. I think that's actually the most important thing. To be honest, that's how it is.
KEEPING IT REAL FOR MANY YEARS
Luxi: What keeps you going on with this band? I mean, it's hard to keep a band active and doing music for twenty years to say nothing of thirty years...
Johnny: That's a good question. What it comes down to is that we are this band. We never started the band, again, to have a schedule or to make a certain amount of money or to make 15 records or some other goal. We are the music that we play. We are the lyrics that we create and sing. Actually, the proper response would be, "What would we do if not the band?" I think that's the question that I can't answer because it's life. We're musicians, we love music. There isn't a better answer to that because, what would I do if I didn't play Metal? That's a strange kind of life. I don't know that life.
I was a young guy when I bought my first bass guitar. It's the same with the other guys. We've always done this. We set out to do it as well. We never said, "Let's go for this amount of records or this amount of touring or, like I said, 15 records". That's not the goal. The goal is just to keep on going because we're people. We're metalheads.
Luxi: Tomas, Anders and you have played on every album this band has recorded. I suppose it is a big part of the band's longevity because to me it looks like each of you know precisely what this band is all about, so there's no reason for any musical compromises...
Johnny: Well, we talked about this way back then. When we started the band in '89, we spoke about it. Also, when this first album came out in '91, we spoke about it in the same fashion as we do now. We're metalheads. This is what we do. We also spoke about other things that concerns Unleashed, like we're not going to be another type of Metal band because Metal is a very wide thing these days. You could play Speed Metal or Black Metal or Heavy Metal. You can play a lot of things but Unleashed, it's Death Metal. We spoke about that as well and we said, "Since this is what we love doing, we're going to just continue doing that".
I don't see where we could have stopped doing it. It would be like stopping breathing. I don't understand how that life would look like, really. Maybe in 30 years from now, but I don't understand that now, so I can't respond in any other way. It's what we do. It's what I love doing. It's the same with all of the guys in the band.
Luxi: It's really kind of rare that one band stays so loyal to their sound year after year.
Johnny: Yes, I know.
Luxi: If you look back, there are so many bands that have changed their style completely, but you have stuck to your roots and your sound is very uncompromising, I think.
Johnny: That's good to hear.
Luxi: I think that's a great way to keep your fans close as well.
Johnny: Yes. We've tried to develop, obviously. We try to bring some freshness to each new album. That's the challenge, of course, for most musicians, I would guess. For us, it's important to keep to the roots. I think that we've done just that. Like you said, it's something that defines us as a band. I think that's something that if we had strayed away to something different, then it would have let to a split-up. It wouldn't be the four of us anymore. If someone in the band wanted to play Speed Metal all of a sudden and some other guy would play Hard Rock, then it wouldn't sound like Unleashed anymore. It would be ridiculous. If you had these ideas, it's better to put them in some other band and do a side project. That's fine.
I think that's what keeps us together as well. We have the same vision for what's happening in the future. That's important. When I grew up, I started listening to bands like Motörhead and AC/DC. These type of bands, you can still listen to an AC/DC record and you'd know it's an AC/DC. You won't get disappointed. Stuff like that. That stuck to me when I was a kid. I still like some of those bands and many of those bands that I liked when I was young. I go to a Saxon show for fuck's sake.
Luxi: There you go.
Johnny: It's amazing. They're still potent, they're still good, they're strong. Biff is handling his vocals fantastically. They're great. Their albums are good. I was a young man when I started listening to them. That stuff stuck, man. It stuck in my heart, and it still does. I figured if I start playing music one of these days, I want to be just like that. It could be a band like Motörhead or AC/DC, something like that keeps going strong and doesn't disappoint the fans. That we try to stand up for what we actually mean, what we play and what we sing about. Stuff like that. I think that's important.
I think that's the reason for why we actually are sitting here today because otherwise, I don't think that—I wouldn't be happy, for one. I would feel ridiculous if I started to do something absolutely different with Unleashed because it's not Unleashed anymore. You can open up a can of beer and if it tastes like tomato, you're going to be pretty fucking pissed.
Luxi: I get your point.
Johnny: That's pretty much what it's about, man. Also, we have talked about this all the time. We talk about this before every new album and we still agree, and I think that's extremely important. Fredrik always hears, "Well, Fredrik is the new guy". Well, he joined in 1997. He's been with us for a while now. It's a long time. He brought some good new ideas to the band and he still does. I feel that that's good, but he still knows the importance of keeping to the roots. That's good because that keeps us in line.
If we talk again in 5-10 years, we'll probably say the same things, I guess. Somebody would say that's boring, but on the other hand, I say that's just life, man. That's metal. That's what we do. I can go out and buy a new record from some of the bands that I've been listening to for 30 years and never get disappointed. That's what I like.
CRAZY SPLIT UP IS A PROBLEM
Luxi: There are a good number of other bands that have kept going like Grave, Morbid Angel, Entombed, Asphyx, Incantation and Immolation that started out about the same time as Unleashed did, though some broke up for a while but reformed again. Do you feel like nostalgia—in both Death and Thrash Metal—sells nowadays and that's the thing that appeals many younger kids in 2019?
Johnny: I think that it's inevitable. If you have the bands you just mentioned, they've been around for ages. Some of them have taken maybe a five-year break or whatever. I don't think that's so intentional; I think that's more what life does to you. That's my interpretation of stuff like that. We've had the same. I think in between 1997 and 2000 we had a break of about two and a half, three years. We didn't really do anything. I played Metal in a few side projects, but I didn't play Death Metal. I didn't do anything with Unleashed and all of a sudden, we start talking again after two years.
We said, "We didn't really break up either", and that was a good thing. We said, "Let's take a break from this now", but the band is going. We still answered mail and stuff way back then. We said, "Well, we need to have a fresh start, we need to charge our batteries", because if you're on tour constantly for eight years, not only you but your equipment wears out. Mentally, you wear out after a while and you need to recharge somehow. It's inevitable.
Let's just say I worked as a plumber, okay? I work as a plumber for 10 years. Now, how fucking fun is that on the 11th year? There's nothing wrong with being a plumber, but eventually, you are going to get bored. You're bored with stuff that happens and you're going to get worn out because you need some kind of freshness, you need something new to charge your batteries. Maybe you work as a plumber again, but maybe you work in a different manner, maybe for a different company. Maybe you need to change your boss because he's an idiot. Maybe you just need a new workplace. Something. Maybe a new education just to freshen things up. That's pretty much what we did.
We weren't so tired of the music as we were of the industry. We still listened to death metal in those years. We just took a pause with Unleashed and didn't play Unleashed music for a couple of years. Then we started to make the new songs and people thought, "Well, you guys are away for four years". Well, we weren't, really, because after two years, we started to make the new album. We made plans for the new festivals that was coming up and like in a year from that and the album was recorded and it came out. It was a good way to recharge and come back with a bang and really, it was important.
I don't know if that's going to happen again. Maybe. I think now, we are older and we know better how fast you wear out, so we don't tour extensively anymore. We play as much as we can, but we don't go on, like, seven weeks touring or even four weeks touring because we know we kind of wear out after that. I don't think that's fair to those who really want Unleashed to be around for a long time as well. It's not fair to us and it's not fair to our fans, so we know how to make the schedule better now. We play as much as we possibly can. We want to be out there because otherwise, you don't know if people like your music and we want to meet people and we want to play.
It's important sometimes to take that break. I think some of the bands in our scene do the same thing. Some have been away for like 10 or 15 years and that seems like a lot longer than you might need, but there might be other reasons, of course. Maybe you have children or something, I don't know, but things happen. If you get a crazy split up in the band, like everybody splits up and are not friends anymore, then that's a problem, but we never had that. We never had a split, so I don't know what that's like. I know we had a new guitar player in '97, but that's like—
Luxi: ... Like, ages already.
Johnny: Yes, that's not a huge problem. What is a problem, if four people can't agree anymore, then that's a problem because then, where is the band? There's just one guy or something, you have to replace everybody. That's a problem. That's a pretty decent job to try and fill. I never had that, and I'm happy that that didn't happen with this band.
Luxi: You have kept going for 30 years, so my sincere congratulations for that.
Johnny: Thank you.
Luxi: Do you have anything special in mind regarding your headline show here in Finland to perhaps commemorate 30 years, for example playing some old Unleashed songs that you haven't played for a long time?
Johnny: We put some songs on the set list that we haven't played in a while. We played them, though, this year, but we haven't played them before this 30th anniversary year. We started practice like a year ago. Like last summer, we figured it was a smart idea to make some changes in the set list for this year. Yes, we'll play them tonight. We'll see. We also have to play some new stuff because after 13 albums you have to. It is a problem, though, because what if you play one song from each album? That's 13 songs, right? That's almost an hour of music.
Luxi: That's so true...
Johnny: We don't really play exactly one song from all albums, but we try and mix it a little bit because we know people want to hear them. That's an issue. That's something that I battle with all the time. If you start making more records, it's an even bigger problem, unless you want to play two hours, and nobody does that. Unless you're AC/DC, maybe, you can play for two hours, but that's a different story. I don't think Death Metal is made for two hours' worth live.
Luxi: I agree. I think one hour is kind of an optimal time for an extreme Death Metal mangling at a concert.
Johnny: I think between one hour and one hour and 15 minutes, that's a good set. When it becomes more, it's a bit trying because it's so intense. It's a very intense form of music.
UNLEASHED IN THE NORTH
Luxi: What do you remember about 30 years ago when the Swedish Death Metal scene was starting out?
Johnny: I even recall it when I was younger. We set out, we said, "Well, Unleashed is going to be a live act first and foremost. We are going to make records, and we are going to show the world". Even before we got our record deal, we said, "We want to be out there on tours as fast as possible, just to let everybody know we're out there". I think all bands that are young are like that. If you don't have that hunger, you're not going anywhere at all. You're just going to be in the basement practicing and that's not a band, that's a studio band.
If you're a live act and you want to meet people, you want to play for fans, you've got to have that hunger and you need to want to go out there and show everybody you're the best. You're the best that somebody can go and fucking see on a Friday night. Then, obviously, it's up to others to judge if you're that good or not, but that's a different story. You need to have that feeling. That's at least the advice I used to give to younger bands that are asking, "What is it that we need?" That's the first thing that you need. If you don't have that, you're going to be a studio band or a basement band.
MARKETING YOUR BAND BEFORE THE INTERNET
Luxi: I assume you were heavily involved with the tape trading scene back then, trying to get the word out about Unleashed as much as possible?
Johnny: Yes. Actually, just before you came here, we talked a little bit about the days when we ran around and put posters in the city just to show that, "We're having a show in Stockholm, come and see it". There weren't that many shows, but I look back at those days as something really good. It's like you start up something that's really new. There wasn't anything like it. We had friends in other countries, bands like Bolt Thrower and Morbid Angel. They weren't really in Sweden. Obviously, the bands that we knew from Sweden, they had the same situation as we had. They, too, went around putting up posters. Most of the people that came to the shows were the other bands.
That's the kind of marketing you did back then. Like you said, obviously, the tape trading and all of the paper magazines that you did interviews with, all of that were just—it's good memories, man, really good memories. It's not really a lot different today, it's just the methods that are changing. You can put in as much effort to internet marketing today if you're a young band, but you need to do it and you'd be out there. That's what we did, too. It was just that there was no digital media. That's really the only thing.
I put like 40, 50 fucking letters in the mailbox, snail mail that is, every week. I wrote to friends all over the world. My mother and father, they thought I was from fucking space.
Luxi: Parents, parents are like that for their own kids.
Johnny: Ha ha... Yeah! My boss at work, he said, "Johnny, you know that you're flat out stupid, right? Because that's not going to go anywhere". And I said, "Dude, I don't fucking care. Seriously, I do not care. I'm having a good time and that's enough for me. Even if I never fucking get a record deal, even if I never play a show". That was how early that was. We started doing the tape trade. I said, "We will go someplace, but we'll see where".
BELIEVING AND STICKING TO YOUR GUNS
Luxi: Nowadays you can obviously be a proud of what you have accomplished with your band because you have kept it going for 30 years and you can say, "Okay, we have not only made a couple of albums and tours but quite a few actually...".
Johnny: Right. I've seen places of the world that they will never see. For sure, we won in the end, but I still look back at those days as something good. I really liked it. I really enjoyed it. I actually saved the mail. I have stacks of mail from way back then and the cassettes as well. I've got stacks of cassettes from way back then, and posters as well. It's good, fun reading. I think that when I get even older, then I probably will go through them again. When I don't have to go to work or something, when I'm too old to play or something. It's fun, it's good fun.
It's good to have done that and been there because I know where we come from and I know it's not like we just handed over some music to a big record company and got signed, we fucking worked for it, man. I don't think most people understand that. That's what I feel, like whenever we get someplace and somebody would say,"You guys, you're making money playing music, and then you get backstage areas, you get free booze and blah, blah". Oh, well, but you know what? Fuck, man. Most of those people, they would never go through what I have been through because now we're talking about all the fun stuff, but we haven't even touched the bad stuff yet. The other side of the coin, the fucking bullshit that you have to go through. Normally, you just want to talk about the good stuff because that's fun. That's the laughable thing. We have two sides of that coin, for sure.
Luxi: Speaking of playing live, you have this Knotfest thing coming up in Bokóta, Colombia, on December 6th this year. It's probably the biggest metal festival that's being arranged in Colombia, with Slipknot, Behemoth, Testament, Saxon, W.A.S.P. and many others on the bill.
Johnny: That's going to be great.
Luxi: What are your expectations from that festival? Have you ever played in Colombia?
Johnny: Yes. We played Columbia Manizales. Some—What is it? Like a year ago, I think. That was packed. That was just fantastic. It was absolutely fantastic. I'm afraid our expectations are pretty high because of that. I think it'll be great, though. It's going to be great. Like I said, great bands are playing, and it's going to be nice to see them as well.
Luxi: That festival appearance is obviously the last gig this year that you will have on your to-do list and then I assume you will start putting your energies and creativity on the next Unleashed album?
Johnny: Yes. I think Colombia and Mexico are the last shows this year. We already have lots of festivals booked for next year, but there's probably time now to be thinking about a schedule for the next album.
THE FESTIVAL TRAIN MOVES FAST
Luxi: How much planning for next year regarding gigging and putting out the next Unleashed release have you done?
Johnny: We talk about it all the time. We're booking festivals like crazy right now because things are happening a lot earlier now than in the past. Like 10 years ago, you could book something that happened five months from now, but now it's like 14 months ahead. It's crazy. I already booked festivals for December next year. I don't know, things are very early these days.
Luxi: You need to jump onto this festival train very early these days if you are going to get your band booked for festival gigs?
Johnny: Yes, they keep asking and earlier and earlier. I thought like 6, 7, 8, 9 months was really, really early, but now it's even earlier than a year ahead of time. That's pretty amazing, but that's fine. That's all good. Then we know they still want to see us play.
Luxi: Yes. Well, I have just one more question to ask you. It's not too serious one, though, but I would like to know what's the wildest rumor you have ever heard of Unleashed that some people have been spreading around over the years?
Johnny: The wildest rumor? Uh, I don't know. Hmm... Normally, there are so many darn rumors that you don't really even pay attention to it, but I don't know, anything is possible these days. I don't know.
However, I do remember that way back in the day, before the Internet, though, there were harsh rumors that I was in Morbid Angel once. That was before the Internet, so we couldn't really respond. All of a sudden, we were at the bar in Sweden and then they thought I'd started doing vocals for them. I'm like, "How did that even come about?" I don't understand. These days, you can find things out in a second, but at that time, it could take weeks before somebody could actually—
Luxi: You can get some facts straight quicker due to all this modern technology that's available for all of us nowadays.
Johnny: Yes. These were serious questions way back then, but I'm thinking like '92 or something like that. From friends as well, not just people that I hadn't met. That was a wild rumor way back then, but nowadays, I can't think of anything that would be very wild, though.
Fredrik: We hear them...
Johnny: Probably not... They don't come tell us, though [*laughs*].
Luxi: Okay, Johnny, thanks for your time and having me here to interview you.
Johnny: Thank you. It was nice. Good talking to you.
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