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Slaves of Fear: Amon Amarth’s Fredrik Andersson on Christianity versus the Vikings

10 August 2011

Photos by Femke van Delft and Allan MacInnis, Vancouver, August 4th, 2011

I’m a noob to metal. I loved it well enough as a kid – attending arena rock shows by Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, the Ronnie James Dio-led Black Sabbath and such – but I swore it off shortly after discovering punk around 1982 (it came late to the suburbs, where I lived). While for a short time I enjoyed both forms equally, it soon came clear that there were tribal divisions at hand which generally manifested themselves in headbangers beating the shit out of punks, or at least verbally abusing us. Plus the politics of metal seemed to veer towards the right-wing and reactionary, with lyrics by bands like AC/DC oozing sexism and brutishness. It was easy to write off metal as the music of thugs, reactionaries and rednecks – which is what I did.

Some 25 years later, I’m playing catchup. Various reports from the metal camp have been too piquant to ignore – garish and non-easily processed stories, often involving Norwegians, touching on everything from cannibalism to church burnings. Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen’s fascinating anthropologically-skewed documentaries on metal, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey and Global Metal, framed the genre in highly interesting, thoughtful terms, making me want to learn more about this music I’ve been ignoring. Interviewing Lemmy (see Big Takeover #68) didn’t hurt, either. Barely a year after buying my first Slayer CD at a garage sale, I now find myself hooked, listening to Cannibal Corpse instead of Black Flag, Deicide instead of DOA; turns out there’s a satisfying combination of intense aggression and technical dexterity to the a lot of the music that’s risen up since I left the tribe.

The upshot of all this is that when I got to talk to drummer Fredrik Andersson of Swedish Viking metal band Amon Amarth, prior to their Vancouver show, it was as a near-complete outsider to the form, blinking and squinting and trying to make sense of what I see. What to make of the neo-Pagan aspects of the band’s revival of Norse mythology? What of songs like “Slaves of Fear,” on Surtur Rising, that actually offer intelligent, rather Nietzschean critiques of Christianity, which they seem to view as a colonizing force? Where do they stand on the Norwegian church burnings? Is their mythically saturated songwriting “just entertainment,” not too different from the use of Norse myth in pop cultural phenomena like the Thor movie, or is there something more serious at hand here, a movement with a bit more depth to it than some kid in the States throwing up the goats and invoking Satan?

I’m not sure that I arrived at a decisive answer, but it was an interesting conversation. At the end, I apologized to Andersson for having dragged him through the muck of controversy to such an extent, and he chuckled: “No, it was good – they were interesting questions. It’s always nice to talk about anything else than ‘so tell me how the band started’ and stuff like that!”

So are you as interested in Norse mythology as (Amon Amarth vocalist) Johan Hegg or is this sort of his passion?

It’s been his passion for a longer time, but being in the band, you get drawn into it. I didn’t know that much when I joined the band, but it’s become a part of me, so to speak, and I think that that’s true for everybody – it’s become a bigger and bigger part.

Do you go so far as to look at your own ancestry?

Well, it’s very few, uh – what do you call it? – like, the family trees that reach that far. You can track people very far back, but I think the oldest ones are like 12th century, or something like that – none of it goes back to Viking ages, they didn’t track it back then. But just by coincidence, I have a family tree, but it goes back to the 17th century. It has nothing to do with the band, though.

You guys are proud of your roots, though, right? …I wonder if there’s any sort of nationalistic element to that.

No, not at all… it’s just that – I mean, I wasn’t in the band when they first started out, but I know when they did, it was first a fluke that they landed Johan as a singer, because that happened in a bar in Greece, when they were on a vacation; (Amon Amarth guitarist) Olavi (Mikkonen) and Johan met up through mutual friends, and he joined the band. He couldn’t sing too well back then, but he managed to pick it up, and since his interest in Viking mythology was so big… The first couple of songs weren’t even about Viking mythology, it was just random blood-guts-and-*Satan* and stuff like that, what was popular in the early 90’s, but Johan didn’t feel comfortable writing about that stuff, and since he was interested in Viking mythology, he wrote this one song called “Thor Arise.” And when they had that, they decided it would be a cool theme, and separate us from the rest of the scene in Stockholm at the time, and just be slightly more original.

Was there a Viking metal thing coming out of Norway at that time? Was Enslaved performing, were you aware of them?

If they were, we hadn’t heard of them yet. This was in 1992 – Unleashed had been around, but they hadn’t been that famous; and even if they did write songs about Viking mythology, that’s not what they were known for, they were just part of the Stockholm scene. There was also Entombed, Dismember, Grave. And they were just one of those bands. And we were friends back then – everybody knew who everybody was back then. And of course Bathory was doing their thing.

I read – this is a quote from Wikipedia, so I don’t know how accurate it is, but Johan says that at first you guys had difficulties getting gigs in Sweden, because you were mistaken for racist, or something like that?

It was a problem. Up until the mid and late 1990s, there was a bit of a “white punk” wave. I don’t know if it was just in Sweden or if it was all over the world, but there were a couple of punk bands that were doing racist kind of music, like, with racist lyrics. I guess it was a Swedish thing, or a Scandinavian thing, because they used the Viking imagery, much like the romantic Nazis used Wagner in Germany and stuff like that. And on the first mini-album that was released in 1996, there was a burning suncross, and this symbol was banned in Germany, because it was considered a Nazi symbol.

Sorry – I don’t know much about the suncross, could you explain?

I mean, Hitler loved old symbols, and he was using all different kinds of symbols, from suncrosses to swastikas, which was a suncross, like, the Incas used, and Mayans, and in India. It’s been abused by nationalists – they’ve taken that symbol as their own, basically. The swastika is also forbidden – it’s illegal to print it out in Germany. But the first drummer in the band (Nico Mehra) was half from Pakistan, so there was never any racist ideology in the band.

So what about things like church burnings? A member of Enslaved, in the first Sam Dunn film, says something to the effect of “Christianity deserved what it got.” And a couple of songs on the new album, like “Slaves of Fear,” are kind of more overtly taking Christianity to task… Do you guys feel hostile to Christianity, is there an attempt to go back to pre-Christian pagan roots? Is there a political element to what you do?

No… the thing is, in Sweden, Christianity is not very popular, not by far as popular as in North America. I think there’s 10% of the population who are active in church here, and that’s it. And most people consider themselves being atheist, or at least non-believers. And… we’re not angry! (laughs). Obviously I think it’s a shame what Christianity did to different cultures, not only to Paganism but to cultures all over the world when they kind of pushed their religion onto everybody else by force. Their ideology is everything that Norse mythology doesn’t stand for. When the Vikings travelled all over the world, they just adapted to whatever was popular in the country they came to. Maybe they didn’t abandon their old gods, but they embraced the new god in the new country, and figured “if he’s more powerful here to the local people, we’ll sacrifice to that God here,” and sacrifice to our gods when we’re back in Sweden. It’s a kind of open-mindedness that I think that Christianity doesn’t really have, in some aspects.

Okay, so – this isn’t something the band is responsible for, but on Youtube, someone has taken an image of a model of a church, burning, and for the background music, they’re using Amon Amarth’s song “Death In Fire.” But you guys wouldn’t support that sort of thing…

To be honest, I think the church burning that went on in Norway was stupid, because those were 1000 year old wooden churches that are beautiful, for a start. If you get a chance to look at them – they’re amazing, the artwork and how they’re built and everything. It’s very impressive, and it’s part of our cultural history. I would never support that, just for that aspect. And the church burnings that went on in Norway, that was done by a bunch of angry teenagers. I mean – we’ve all been frustrated teenagers. Some take it to an extreme, and some don’t. But obviously – the metal music has always been an expression for people to give out their frustration, or something like that. This is just one part of it. For us it’s more symbolic – we never support criminal activities, of course!

Yeah – I mean, sorry, I’m not trying to hold you accountable for this stuff, I’m just really curious about these things.

Yeah, I understand – it’s a fascinating event, a fascinating movement that went on in Norway. And I know a lot of people in the metal scene in Norway, they’re actually proud of this, because it’s become part of what they’re known for.

I was under the impression it actually spilled over into Sweden, too, though. I mean, it spilled over into Canada – there was a black metal church burning in Winnipeg in 2006, and again that was frustrated teenagers.

No… I mean, when this happened, I was a teenager, and the black metal bands in Norway, they considered themselves as being an anti-movement of what they thought the death metal scene had become. They were frustrated about the Swedish scene – that Entombed and the Stockholm bands became so popular, basically. I mean, Entombed was one of the biggest death metal bands at the time, and they thought the scene – as far as I understand it – had gone mainstream and become too trendy. Their anti-movement against it was to start playing really brutal and underground black metal, and being very evil. Being REAL evil, compared to the bands that were just saying they were evil and not doing anything. So I know that for example – there was an incident where, for awhile, Varg (Vikernes, ex-*Mayhem* member and founder of Burzum, who spearheaded the church burnings) had a Swedish girlfriend, and she went to burn down the door of Christofer (Johnsson) in Therion, because they hated Therion, for some reason. So the Swedish scene – it was something different, and it was never part of the church burnings, as far as I know. Maybe there was kids that did graffiti or something like that…

(But Andersson appears to be wrong, here, at least according to Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground, by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind. The book offers a thoroughgoing and at times morally uncomfortable history of Norwegian black metal; the new, 2003 edition, contains a section, pp. 305-312, which details the spread of metal-related church arsons in Sweden; in 1993 these include fire attacks on the Lundby New Church, the Salabacke church, Föllinge church, and other acts of anti-Christian vandalism).

I’ve read Lords of Chaos, and I think Moynihan does mention that it did spill over.

It could be. I’m not an expert on the subject, and I mean I was like 15 at the time.

Right, right. It’s interesting how some of that stuff has matured, though. I’m under the impression that Varg doesn’t talk about Satanism anymore. He talks about “Heathen Pride” – and that there’s an attempt to get back to Nordic roots. Obviously when any of this stuff starts to sound like Aryan supremacy, I’m not comfortable with it, but on the face of things, there’s almost something healthy about the idea of getting back to your roots and being proud of them and such. People should be proud of their ancestry; I have no problem with that.

As long as it doesn’t go to extremes. I mean, that’s my opinion. And there shouldn’t be – I mean, especially if you’re against what Christianity did to Pagan beliefs in Scandinavia at the time, then you can’t act the same way, and be just as bad yourself. It makes no sense.

Yeah. Tell me about Surtur Rising – Surtur (a sword-wielding giant who will come to cleanse the world with fire at Ragnarök, the Viking apocalypse) is rendered both as Surtur and Surt. What’s the difference there?

It’s just different regional dialects. Back in Viking times, 1000 years ago, there was no Sweden, Norway, or Denmark, it was just all small kingdoms everywhere. And everybody had their own dialects and small language differences. The different names is what they found in books and translations.

I wonder how I’m supposed to read these things. It’s hard for me to tell – is Surt meant to be read as a character, is he meant to be read as a metaphor for something? When you guys are talking about Surtur Rising, what’s in your mind?

Well, we take it as a character, as a mythological character. He’s described as a fire giant – it’s a person. But it could just as well be a metaphor for something else. No one exactly knows. All these stories were told from mouth to mouth, person to person, and they weren’t written down until several hundred years later on, so there are a lot of things that are unclear. You don’t know exactly what was going on – and a lot of stuff could have been changed, depending on who was telling these stories. It’s up to your own interpretation.

What have you gotten personally from Norse myth?

How do you mean?

I know Johan has said that the Hávamál is a “great source of philosophical inspiration.” And some of it seems fairly straightforward – like the stuff in “Doom Over Dead Man,” telling you to accept that you’re going to die and to try to live so that your name and reputation survive you, that I get. But… a lot of Norse myth, I read the stories, and – I’m just trying to imagine how one would use a lot of this stuff, personally.

Well, I mean… I’m not believing in – I consider myself an atheist; I don’t practice any religion or beliefs. But I like how Norse myths describe personalities, how people are, and how you’re supposed to be and act towards other people. But I mean, I’m not sure if I understand your question correctly.

I’m trying to get the values of Norse myth, and how they might affect you -in being proud of your heritage, and interested in it, what effect does that have on you, in terms of influencing how you live? Have you gotten any personal inspiration or made changes in your life, looking at these stories?

That’s the thing – for me, it’s already part of what I feel is right. It basically describes who I am. I’ve never changed myself to become more “correct” in Norse mythology – I just think that their beliefs and their standpoints, what they thought back then, it’s what I already believe. It’s already how I think people should act and be. So it’s almost a little bit turned around – when I got into Norse mythology… I feel connected to it, somehow.

Okay, I get it.

But, I mean – we’re modern people. I drive my car to rehearsals!

I understand. Let me ask you guy some brief final questions. Did you guys see the Thor movie?

No! I don’t know if it’s opened here. I’ll just wait for the DVD.

I gather some Amon Amarth fans were disappointed that “Guardians of Asgaard” wasn’t used in the soundtrack.

Yeah, well – it’s not as easy as they might think, to be part of a soundtrack! You have to have Sony behind you or something like that.

Tell me about your drumming. You really have a relentless quality to your playing – it’s very precise, but also really intense. What does it feel like, playing a show?

A regular show, like 90 minutes, is a walk in the park, that’s usually no problem, but when we do this “evening with” thing (in which the band plays two full sets with no opening acts, as on their current North American tour), I’m pretty exhausted, afterwards. Obviously it’s a physical challenge, but it’s also draining, because you have to stay focused for so long, so it’s also mentally challenging.

Do you exercise or prep in any particular way?

Well – the best way to practice playing drums is to play more drums, but it helps, of course, having a good cardio, so I try to do some bicycling and running once in awhile, to keep the heartbeat up. But on tour, it’s usually enough to play every night, or at least every second night!