Tom Björn: “Our singer Stefan told me he wanted to do a concept album before he dies. Well, this one is the concept album. We started to look after themes and the misery of the plague suits the doom metal music very well..”
Maar liefst acht jaar was het geleden dat de Zweedse doom metal band Memory Garden nieuw werk uitbracht op ‘Doomain’, maar de band laat zich niet opjagen en zet pas de volgende stap als men de tijd daar rijp voor acht. Dat tijdstip is aangebroken met hun zesde studioalbum ‘1349’. Zoals de titel doet vermoeden is dit een conceptalbum over de pestepidemie in de Middeleeuwen, een gitzwart onderwerp dat zich leent voor doom metal. Tijd dat we bijpraten met tekstschrijver/drummer/toetsenist Tom Björn!
Vera Matthijssens Ι 7 januari 2022
Congratulations with the new album ‘1349’. We have been looking forward to that, because it has been eight years since the previous one ‘Doomain’…
Yes, it is a long time. I get a lot of questions about that (laughs). Every time we release an album people wonder that we still exist. We have a slow procedure, that’s a matter of facts. We have day jobs and families and kids. From ‘Doomain’ up to now, some of us had kids growing up from zero to now. We come together for once a week at least to write things and record. That is a long procedure.
As long as you feel good about it, that is no problem…
Sure. I think we kind of need to take some time. We have to be content with the songs. When we record a song and think: ‘that’s fine for now’, we put it aside, we continue working on another song and a couple of weeks later we go back to the first song and listen. Then we feel it if we have to change things. We could really take our time for this album, it has been good for us.
You still have the same line-up, that is also positive…
Indeed, it is the same line up since the last album ‘Doomain’ and the same line up since the last member change of course, in 2008 when Andreas (Mäkelä – rhythm guitar) joined the band and in 2007 Johan (Wängdahl – bass) joined the band. Since then we are going strong with that line up. It works fine.
It is a positive thing that you get to know each other very well…
Oh yes definitely. It is always a hard thing to recruit new band members. Of course you have to learn how to play, but also fit in with social stuff: the same humour and aiming for the same musical goal, a lot of things.
For recording you also took the time, because that happened already in 2017 and 2018, isn’t it?
Yes. I think the songs – the foundations of the songs – were ready in 2017. Then I started writing the lyrics around that time and at the same time we kept on working on the songs with the vocals, as the lyrics came to life and adding some piano stuff, synthesizers and other things you can hear on the album. It has been a continuous work.
But you can be proud on it!
Oh thank you, we are very happy with the album. It is a nice feeling when you can’t point out things you want to change. I never had that feeling before.
We have a concept on ‘1349’, the time of the medieval plague. Can you tell something more about that? How did you approach it?
When the songs started to come together and it was time to start with the lyrics, Stefan (Berglund – vocals) told me: ‘Tom, I really want to do a concept album before I die’. Well, this one will be it. We decided to dive into some different themes and see what we could come up with. We soon hooked up with this black plague, because it fits our music very well. It is dark and a lot of misery going on. It is also nice to have some historical connection, even if it is not a history lesson, this album. Absolutely not. It is a fictive story, but some elements of facts that run through it. After we decided that we’d go with the plague, we drew some guidelines. It should be about a ship in the first song, drifting ashore and a boy finds the ship. He finds a treasure and he carries the disease to other places and then everything is terrible after that. One of the songs ‘The Empiric’ is about one of those plague doctors. I don’t think they really showed up until, maybe two hundred years later, but we felt it had a strong connection with the black plague, so we used it, but it is not connected to the storyline. It is a fact, but fictive in timeline in this case.
You can make a movie of it…
You think so? Might be cool. A Netflix series, very popular today.
I think everybody is addicted to that, now that we cannot go out so much…
Yeah I just read the news, just before you called me and it is so depressing, seeing the numbers of covid-19 rising again in Europe. I think you have quite a bad situation in Belgium, right? I am sorry about that. It is increasing here in Sweden as well, so I guess we’ll find ourselves in the fourth wave pretty soon.
But the album was obviously not inspired by the pandemic, because you created it long before, in 2017 and 2018.
No, but it is surely related to what happens nowadays. Of course it was horrible to live in the Middle Ages. I mean, doctors then, I guess they were not very skilled. We are in a different situation right now and we have vaccines, but people are dying and that is horrible. But what can you do? We just have to ride out the storm. Hopefully more people will get the vaccine, because it will for sure help. It won’t stop it, but it will help people from dying hopefully.
We have three guest appearances on the album. What can you tell about their contributions?
Niklas Stalvind is known from Wolf and he sings on the song ‘The Empiric’. It is written like this guy is a very sadistic plague doctor. He is almost like a schizophrenic person, you know. So he is really looking forward to get his patient; but his intention is not to help people. We thought Niklas has such a great expression when he sings. He can really sound psycho. So we asked him if he would like to do it and it was really fun. He did a great job. He has a very unique sound in his voice. The second guest is Josefin Bäck. We have known her for a very long time. We shared a rehearsal room with her band around 1992 and 1993. She sang on our first demo tape on the song ‘Marion’. We met each other a few times during the years. She sang in a cover band. When we played on a festival, she joined us there. We really wanted her to be on the album as well, because we really love her voice and she is very talented. The third guest is Göran Fredriksson, that is Johan’s father, our bass player and he is a well-known folk music artist here in Sweden. We have been talking about it before, that he should come and do a guest appearance, but now was the perfect time because we had a medieval theme going on. It was the right time. You can hear him in ‘The Messenger’, the shorter song in the middle. When the song starts you hear two, three different instruments. You hear cither, Jew’s harp and hurdy-gurdy. Josefin has also her biggest appearance in that track and also in ‘Rivers Run Black’ she sings a lot. She does some backing vocals on ‘Distrust’ and ‘The Flagellants’, so she is a bit here and there.
Another amazing track is the last one ‘Blood Moon’. Any thoughts on this one?
The title ‘Blood Moon’ has nothing to do with the theme, with the plague or so. We just wanted to get that kind of ominous feeling in the ending and ‘Blood Moon’ is the last track. This boy that has been connected through the story and several songs who finds the ship in the first song, has decided in the last song to take his own life. So he hangs himself in the light of a blood moon. It is about his thoughts going on through that song. Somehow he has not died from the disease, but he has infected so many on the way, that’s why he has such a great amount of remorse. He cannot stand that. ‘The Messenger’, the short song in the middle, is actually about him and his best friend, who was a girl. She gets infected by him and dies. Some of these things are in my head. I don’t always write everything, I don’t spell everything out. Some things have to be read between the lines, but I think there is a big amount of anxiety and remorse in that last song. I think it has a very cool atmosphere. Perfect for a last song.
You have been working with Dan Swanö as producer for a long time…
Yes, he is our ‘go to’ man. First time we met him was back in 1994 when we recorded our first vinyl single in his studio. Then he moved to Örebro a couple of years later and he started to work in the music store. So we got to learn a lot of music stuff through him. So we got to know him better this way and a couple of years later I started to play with him in his band Nightingale. So we go way back, so to speak.
What a mighty history!
(chuckles) Yes, he is so very talented and so easy to work with. In the mixing phase he sends us his vision of the songs and we just tell him what we think about it and he corrects it and then it is fine. It really gets a very fine product in the end.
On the vinyl edition we have three demo tracks and a new song ‘Unrestrained’. Why did you put it on the vinyl only?
Those demo tapes actually, they have been gone for so many years and two years ago or so, Stefan had some major cleaning in his basement and he found that old demo tape. We had just forgotten about those songs. That must have become some bonus material of the album, we thought.
And the sound is still good?
Ah the sound… it is what it is, it is an old cassette tape. Not the best. It sounds like the old days. The early fans may appreciate it, just for the historical value of it. The new song ‘Unstrained’, we actually recorded that one with the other songs for the album; but it was the one off. We did not finish it. We thought maybe we should concentrate on the other songs. When we got this record deal with No Remorse Records, they were asking us some bonus material. We had to finish that extra song we had, plus the old demo tapes, that is a cool bonus. It got finished last week. The song has nothing to do with the concept of the album, it is a one off.
For a long time you have been on Metal Blade, now the album comes out at No Remorse Records. What’s the reason for that?
For ‘Doomain’ we had a contract for one album and an option for one more. We were asking Metal Blade if they were interested in releasing our album, but they were not too interested. I mean, we really are a kind of too small band for them. For us, getting on No Remorse Records is positive, suddenly we are the bigger band. That is good for us, because they are really working hard on this release and they seem very committed to their work. We hadn’t heard from them before, but they contacted us and they have a lot of bands. I knew Andreas there, but I did not know that much of the label itself and the bands they were hosting, so it was a nice surprise.
The video clip for the title track ‘1349’ is something special…
We managed to get our hands on a couple of knights there, good old templars (chuckles). It was a friend of a friend who knew this guy who’s doing a lot of those live situations when they go out, fully armed with swords and fight several days. They live like knights in the Middle Ages. Stefan got his phone number, called him and asked if they wanted to be in a video and he was so happy to join. We were really happy to find ourselves two knights and the king is actually an old friend from Stefan and he owns the place where they recorded the video. We just asked him to act like a king (laughs). That was cool. So… no real actors here, only happy amateurs.
It is a great video. Are there still other plans in that direction?
There is one more coming, I am not sure of the date. It should be in early December. It will be for ‘Empiric’. Of course Niklas from Wolf will be in that video.
The artwork was done by the Hungarian Gyula Havancsák. Can you tell a bit more about that?
We contacted ‘Hjules’ for the cover, because we were always so happy with his work so far. It is incredible. He did the covers for ‘Doomain’ and ‘Carnage Carnival’. We have been working with him a few times before. This time we basically sent him an idea of a big skull and a silhouette of a reaper and dead people lying around. He took that idea and made it so much greater than we could ever imagine. It is such a cool cover. He put in some details, like the eye sockets of the skull, there are two legs coming down and also this tower, come piercing through the skull. He said he was inspired by another artist called Bosch. I really don’t know much about him. He really wanted to put those details in this cover, because it meant a lot to him and that is pretty cool. It is really great that an artist expresses himself in ways that we did not understand in the first place.
What is the status from Nightingale? Are they still active?
At the moment sadly, not very active. Last time we did a show was at the Rock Hard festival in Germany I think in 2016. So it has been a few years. I asked Dan about it: ‘isn’t it time to make some new songs?’ and he was like ‘It does not feel right now, I don’t have much time’. You cannot rush things like that. But I am really up for it, it would be great.