Five years after “Väsen”, GRÁ, the band around dark-funeral frontman Heljarmadr, are back with a new album. In this interview, the nice Swede tells us what the album artwork is all about, what he thinks of cover songs in metal and why he thinks Greta von Thunberg is more provocative than Marilyn Manson ever was.
Do you have any resolutions or at least goals for 2023?
Well every year I try to take the momentum to focus on living a little bit healthier, to have some awareness of what I’m inserting in this body, that is one year older every time a new year arrives. My big weaknesses in life are good food and drinks, I was also a heavy tobacco user until recently. I will never be a health freak but as I’m getting older, I need to choose my battles a bit more wisely and make sure I excercise enough. Very dull thing to talk about but hey, it’s the truth. I want to be in top shape on albums and on stage for many more years!
A first highlight for you might be the release of your new GRÁ album “Lycaon”. Can you first tell us what the album title means?
Lycaon was a king in the ancient days, who opposed and questioned authority by feeding the flesh of his own son to Zeus. Zeus wasn’t impressed so he transformed Lycaon into the very first werewolf, hence the term ‘lycanthropy’. As the werewolf cult is also deeply rooted in Scandinavian mythology, we decided to intertwine those and use the primitive ferocity of the wolf as a symbol for our album. It is a symbol of rebellion and you can obviously draw parallells to Lucifer, the lightbringer and the obsession with the full moon, the nocturnal light.
The album has been made during the pandemic. Did that have an influence on the album, either in terms of atmosphere, or specifically in terms of how it was made?
That is only partially true, the first riffs and ideas for Lycaon (main riffs of „White City Devil“ and „Lycaon“ for example) were written basically straight after we finished our last album „Väsen“. Actually I think that the skeleton for „Brännmärkt“ was also born in 2018. So It is more accurate to say that it was developed and recorded during the pandemic. I don’t think it has had any significant impact on how it turned out. Perhaps it gave us some extra time to refine details though.
The artwork is stylistically completely different from your previous albums – it’s more reminiscent of death oder heavy metal artworks then black metal. Why does this picture illustrate the album perfectly?
Well first of all, if you look at the „Väsen“ album cover, take a peek at the top right corner, you’ll see the „Lycaon“ album cover right there, so it’s more of a continuation of a theme than something completely new. When it comes to the execution itself, our friend Felipe Ignacio really managed to fulfil our, as you mention, passion for 80’s style heavy metal cover art. There’s a load of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Motörhead, AC/DC and Sodom in there, just to mention a few. And if you take another look and compare a little bit you will see that it has the same diagonal line as in the greatest album covers of mentioned bands. „Screaming for Vengeance“, „Orgasmatron“, „For Those About To Rock“ and even „A Blaze in the Northern Sky“. We felt that there are already enough albums out there with candelabras, chalices, snakes, twigs, deer horns and abandoned barns on foggy fields to go around. Even though those concepts are timeless and when done right, extremely powerful, we felt like we wanted to make another kind of album with another kind of dark atmosphere.
You re-recorded an old song from Cursed 13 on the album. How did it come about, why did you want to re-record exactly this track and release it on a GRÁ album?
It is a tribute to our own past. Cursed 13 was discontinued in 2018 and basically contained the same members as GRÁ at that point. It felt very disorganised to have both bands ongoing, parallell and somewhat active so me and Dimman decided to put Cursed 13 to rest and focus on GRÁ. That doesn’t mean that we in any way disliked what we did and had done with Cursed 13. Cursed 13 was active for 20 years and put out very little material during that time span so obviously the vault is full of ideas and old unreleased/unfinished songs. When we were starting to see Lycaon take shape, I had a nostalgic moment and went through the old Cursed 13 files and „Turn Asunder“ popped up from there. I had my guitar available so I made a quick updated version and sent it to the guys and they all fell in love with it again too. It really gave something to „Lycaon“, a new dimension. And another key ingredient is that, as the song was written in 2002, way before GRÁ even existed, the fact that the lyrics were written by Vediger (also in 2002), who joined GRÁ in 2016, gave it another connection to the idea of reviving it for „Lycaon“.
Something that very few people know is that we have done this before, the song „Offerrök“ from the debut GRÁ album actually is based on an idea that I found on an old rehearsal cassette from 1998, The song „Dead Old Eyes“ on „Väsen“ was originally released under the name „Diabolic Lust“ in 2003. And why stop there? My debut single under the name Heljarmadr („Transcending Into A God“) also have its foundation in riffs from that ’98 rehearsal tape. And it will probably happen again in the future as it’s music that I have written myself throughout the years, that simply didn’t got out to the public.
Another surprise is the cover of Bathory. Why Bathory of all things, and why this song of all things?
If „Torn Asunder“ is a tribute to our own past, „Chariots Of Fire“ is a tribute to the music that shaped us and as Bathory is the best black metal band that has ever existed, it wasn’t really a hard choise for us, as Swedes, to show some national pride. We’ve done two covers before actually so it’s not really a new thing, we did the „Freezing Moon“ (Mayhem) cover on our 2013 EP „Necrology Of The Witch“ and „Osculum Obscenum“ (Lord Belial) on our „Ramsvarta Tankar“ single 2017. We’ve also played „In League With Satan“ and „Call From The Grave“ live in our early years, when we didn’t have enough own songs for a the live set. I’m sure we’ll do it again in the future.
The song sounds – of course – completely different now, but I think you’ve done a good job with it. Does it still take some effort to record such a venerable song and put it on your own album?
Thank you! We tried to be true to the original. Honestly I think I’ve never sung anything that fast before. I had to practice a lot before even trying to record it for the demo versions. It was my biggest fear, not to be able to make it as good as I want it to be. I do think we managed to do our own version of that song and we decided to put it in the middle of the album as it’s adding dynamics and serve as a great separation between the A and B side of the LP.
How do you feel about cover songs in general – do you like it when bands cover songs by other bands? Is there a song that you like better as a cover than the original?
Oh, I do like them it when they’re done good and to mention a few good ones:
Johnny Cash – Hurt, Judas Priest – Diamonds and Rust, Ophthalamia – Deathcrush, Cannibal Corpse – Zero the Hero, Obituary – Circle of the Tyrants, Megadeth – No More Mr. Nice Guy, Pantera – Planet Caravan, Sepultura – Orgasmatron, Emperor – Gypsy, Dimmu Borgir – Metal Heart, Carpathian Forest – A Forest, Samael – Helter Skelter … those are just what I can think of in this very moment …
This is the first GRÁ album that you didn’t produce yourself – how did this decision come about and how much of a struggle was it for you to hand over the material?
Well I did produce the album myself, I just didn’t mix and master it. I recorded all the instruments with my equipment and did all the editing, before sending it off to Terry Nikas for mix. Perhaps the role of the producer is quite unclear these days. The producer is the one responsible for making sure everything is done in the best way possible, to come with constructive ideas and so on. The studio engineer records the album, pressing rec and so on. The studio engineer also mixes the album and a third job for a studio engineer is to master the album. These things are often done by four different people, in different settings, each one best at their specific field. Other times all four are one and the same guy. In this case I was the producer and recording engineer, Terry Nikas did the mix and George Nerantzis mastered it. As the producer I have of course supervised the whole process but allowing Terry and George to do what they do better than me, mix and master.
I can imagine that if you are a producer yourself, you also have at least a vague idea of how the album would have sounded if you had produced it yourself. Did you try to block that out in the production process, or did you rather try to communicate that to the producers as a target how the album shall sound in the end?
It was a decision that I made quite early on in the process, that I should not mix and master it myself. We saw that Lycaon would have another path than for example „Väsen“. On the „Väsen“ album I went crazy with all the keyboards, choirs and all kinds of layers, while „Lycaon“ took a much more riff oriented and organic path. I realised that if I’m left with the material I will not be able to keep my dirty fingers away from destroying that feeling. Also, I have a more necro mixing style and we wanted a more clean production this time so in retrospect, it was 100% the right thing to do.
In our last interview you said that you had 1980s heavy metal in mind when you were composing – but you also said that you probably wouldn’t hear that in the end, and it would probably just be a GRÁ album. No way! I think the material even has a very strong heavy vibe, which I like very much. Did you work on the mix so that you could hear that? With a black metal production it would probably have been easy to hide it …
I’m glad it comes through! Yes, as I said, we wanted a more clear sounding album, that’s why we recruited help from our brothers Terry and George as we knew that they would do a great job and something that we couldn’t have achieved by ourselves. Also, to know that you will have a very clear production put a lot more weight on your shoulders when recording as you need to fucking nail every single riff perfectly. There’s no copy paste on „Lycaon“, we took the time needed to nail it down. That’s the upside of being able to record yourself, without that studio clock ticking and the stress of feeling how the budget is vanishing if you get stuck somewhere.
What I also find extremely cool is the idea to start a song with a (longer) drum solo. How did it come about, how did this song start?
I’m assuming you talk about „Ett Avskedsbrev“ here. That drum part came to life when we were recording the „Jaws Of The Underworld“ track, you know, the last song on the album, that basically is a percussion piece. We really went all in there and one of the parts that we kind of left out ended up being a great intro for „Ett Avskesbrev“. Adding the bass line there and boom!
Somehow the material just screams to get on stage – I can imagine that these songs work extremely well live. Do you have plans for a European tour, or are there at least already concrete dates for festival shows?
I am currently heavily on the road with Dark Funeral so it has been a bit tricky to book shows for GRÁ right now. But it will take off, booking agents and promoters should definitely get in touch! We are ready for bringing this beast on stage, just lacking the opportunies right now.
Finally, our traditional Metal1.info brainstorming. What comes to your mind for the following terms?
Your favourite album from 2022: I have two. Khold – Svartsyn and Willie Nelson – A Beautiful Time
Ukraine: May this insanity end, I’m trying to support my friends in Ukraine as much as I can, by sending some money when I have to spare, by trying to create business opportunities for Ukranian artists/manufacturers and so on. Long live Ukraine!
Heavy Metal: Is the law!
Cannibal Corpse: Awesome band that I am proud to call my friends.
Renewable energy: Sure, why not. It’s awesome how a young girl like Greta Thunberg manages to be more provocative than Marilyn Manson ever was, respect!
GRÁ in ten years: Probably releasing album #6 or something, hopefully still active on and off stage.
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