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Culture

Sabaton’s Pär Sundström talks about dedicating two albums to World War I, being back on the road with Judas Priest, and the research process behind their historical lyrics

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WOUB) – Swedish power metal band Sabaton has become one of metal’s most popular acts, both in Europe and internationally.

For the last 25 years their vision has been to make metal music drawing from historical events for lyrical inspiration. Topics range from ancient Greece, feudal Japan; and the band has two full albums about World War I. Lyrically, Sabaton has no borders.

Their sound is defined by aggressive synthesizers, fast guitar solos, and the melodic growl of vocalist Joakim Brodén. This formula has been a winning one, with the band amassing over 3.3 million monthly listeners on Spotify, headlining tours and festivals around the world, and venturing into film, YouTube, and games.

WOUB’s Nicholas Kobe spoke with Sabaton’s bassist Pär Sundström before the band’s show tomorrow at the Covelli Center (229 East Front Street) in support of Judas Priest. Find a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity, below. 

A black and white publicity image of Par Sundstrom of the band Sabaton.
Pär Sundström. [Photo by Ryan Garrison]
Nicholas Kobe: If you had described Sabaton in one sentence, what would you say?

Pär Sundström: It’s the loudest and heaviest history lesson in the world.

This year marks Sabaton’s 25th anniversary. Considering that milestone and looking back on the band’s career so far, what about Sabaton has allowed the band to persevere this long?

Sundström: There’s plenty of reasons. I mean, first of all, I think all of us in the band really love what we’re doing and we enjoy it. We meet bands who are in it potentially to earn money, but we started the band because we wanted to play because we thought it was fun. That’s still the leading stone, what we are enjoying most. As long as we keep the flame burning and enjoying what we do, I think it’s not going to be so difficult to continue down the road.

I know the band has been going back and re-listening to some of your previous records. Is there anything in particular about any of those albums that has kind of jumped out at you or surprised you, or that you kind of forgot about? 

Sundström: Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff that we sometimes oversee, forget and don’t think about. I mean, we go back and listen to occasionally to this song or that song for a specific purpose, but it’s very rarely that we sit down and listen to the album from start to finish. So of course we notice a bunch of things and listening with, a different kind of ear when we are, analyzing or reacting to our own music. With this in mind, I think that we discovered a lot of things.

[For example] Art of War, I mean how damn good that album is as a whole and the experience listening from start to end. I mean, it’s an album we put out in 2008 and it’s still super valid today. So that’s maybe something that came to my mind. [Making a concept album where each track builds off the next] doesn’t really work in the digital era so well, but it was really cool to do that [back then].

What’s it like to be back on the road with Priest in the States?

Sundström: It’s great. I mean, the last tour didn’t end so well, unfortunately. Luckily it didn’t end as bad as it could, but it was a little bit sad that the tour was stopped and then when it continued we couldn’t be there because we had other obligations. So we felt a little bit like, ‘damn, we wish we could have come back and finished that tour.’ Then when the opportunity arrived, it was a good timing for us to jump back on and go back to finish what we started with Priest. So far we are three shows down and I think we’re doing absolutely great every night. It’s nice to be around the Priest guys, they’re great guys, so we are just enjoying the ride.

Looking at Sabaton’s studio output since about 2019, the band has released two albums and a series of EPs revolving around World War I. What drove the band to really dig into that period and focus on it, lyrically?

Sundström: Initially? I mean, we started to hang out with [historian] Indy Neidell [best known his The Great War YouTube video series] and he was a pretty much a specialist on World War I. […] then we said, ‘okay, […] because of the hundred year anniversary of the outbreak and then eventually the end of First World War, it’s good timing to go to this history and this period in history.’

We did The Great War and then the Great Tour to support that album. We were traveling around and then Covid-19 came along and it stopped the tour in the middle and kind of kept us at home. After a while, we realized we wouldn’t come back and finish the Great Tour. So we started to work on a sequel because we had time. We knew that we had some stories left that we hadn’t touched yet, and we thought, ‘okay, let’s wrap it up and do another album about the First World War.’ I mean, it’s a huge conflict and there were so many topics in there that we knew we could cover and we couldn’t do it on one album. Two albums made it a little bit easier.

Looking at those two albums and some of the other songs you’ve released as part of Stories from the Western Front, how do you think those all fit together as one big kind of concept?

Sundström: I think we spent a lot of time and effort to make the whole First World War universe in Sabaton style and all these EPs, the two albums and a couple of other songs that we’ve made in the past, they all fit together. I think that when we put it to the tour and we were able to do it, especially in Europe when we had all the actors and the big stage with us and the big production, then it was a whole full complete concept that we brought. I’m really happy and proud of the World War I era we created during the past years.

Are there any other time periods in particular that you are interested in or you think would also work well if you focus a whole album on it?

Sundström: Yeah, many of those, of course. I mean over the years we picked up a bunch of various topics that we can make an entire album about, so there is no shortage of those things. We have various bigger interests in this or that period in time. I would love to go to the Middle Ages for example, and I find that very interesting. Of course there’s a shortage of exact knowledge from that time. There’s only a few statements, but still, it’s a very interesting time. There’s plenty of others, the First World War is a huge conflict that is more in recent times, but we can find others as well.

Over the years, how has the band’s research for songs about history changed?

Sundström: Well, it has evolved in a way where I think we take the research a little bit more carefully these days. We make sure that we have secured our sources. In the beginning, it was more difficult because some of the topics that we were aiming for, there wasn’t enough written material available in languages that we would understand, so we had to go by a couple of less certain sources in some cases. This has changed, I guess for now. We also have a wider network of people around us who assist us if we have questions.

As a band that is big on bringing history into metal and has become very successful over time doing that, what do you think has attracted your fans to wanting to explore history through heavy metal?

Sundström: I mean, we are one branch. You have various branches for people to explore history. I mean, you can go to a museum, you can read a book, you can have a class, or you can listen to a podcast or you can do various things, or you can simply listen to a heavy metal song. So we are one branch, and for some people, our branch is more easily accessible. It doesn’t dig in so deep and lets the listener have a little bit of their own imagination put into it. I mean, after all, if we do a four-minute long song, we can’t put enough words in there to actually tell the story in full, but we can ignite a spark of interest for the listener. Then they’re free to go, and investigate it if they can find it somewhere else.

How has the band changed in terms of your musical sensibilities and your playing over the years?

Sundström: I mean, Sabaton did a big change from Metalizer, the first years of songwriting, which ended up on the Metalizer album, which was basically the demos and stuff like that. But, Primo Victoria was the first time Sabaton was Sabaton. I don’t think that it has evolved so much. From the beginning, we were spot on [with] what we wanted to do, and maybe we have just sharpened the sound and the production around it. But the songwriting and the sound was there from the beginning. This is how we want it to sound and we managed to nail it pretty well already on the Primo Victoria album. We have perfected it over the years a little bit, but we haven’t gone too far from what we were then.

So, the band has been looking back a lot this year, but looking at the future, what would you say the future looks like for Sabaton? 

Sundström: So we’ve been pretty solid at what we do. We have our own formula. I mean, we do not have a management or somebody else to tell us what to do and how to do it. We’ve always done what we felt like in the way and pace that we think we like to do it, and I’m absolutely sure we’re going to continue down that path without changing too much. The formula seemed to have worked so far and I think it’s going to work in the future as well. So I don’t think we’re going to change so much in the formula of the band. We are doing fine and we’re in a good place.