[Q&A] Graveyard's Joakim Nilsson on the blues, the seventies, and the root of heavy // tonight @ Royale

Any rocker worth his or her salt eventually realizes the paradox of reaching total heaviosity: that even the heaviest riff requires a light touch, and moments of brutal rage become meaningless without some lightness to offset the shade. When heavier bands nowadays acknowledge this need for a dynamic approach to rock, they tend to get pegged as seventies retro, Exhibit A being Gothenburg, Sweden’s GRAVEYARD; since forming in 2006 from the ashes of Norrsken, Joachim Nilsson and Co. have attempted to walk the line between today’s hard rock trends and the long legacy of heavy rock and roll. Graveyard’s unique sonic trick is being able to pull off punishingly rifftastic hot lixx whilst also having a easily spotted blues-indebted side--all without sounding lame. Perhaps it’s due to appreciating the crushing weight of the old masters without feeling the need to pay homage-- or maybe it’s the way that they channel the pain of the blues into modern rage, especially on last year’s standout sophomore offering, the blistering and dynamic Lights Out (Nuclear Blast). I caught up with axeman/belter Joakim Nilsson on the phone as he prepared to leave Sweden for a grueling trek across The States that brings them this evening to Royale.

Lights Out sounds like a much angrier record than your previous album-- what was the motivation for that?

I guess we are kind of always angry, but we were kind of thinking about the injustice around us, and we decided to write about it for real this time. And also we were discussing what we wanted to do with this record and we got into arguing about politics and decided maybe we should put that towards this record!

Hah! It’s interesting: in a lot of metal nowadays, a lot of anger is couched in metaphors: “This song is about Dungeons and Dragons but it’s actually about the Middle East”. But your stuff is more straightforward and direct.

No, I guess we’ve always been like that, but on this record we were more comfortable as songwriters and musicians, and we’ve gotten better at just writing songs, period, and believing in what we can do. So that led to the album being the way it is, being angrier I guess.

In a sense, it’s weird the way you guys get lumped in with “metal” as a genre--

Yeah! We don’t have a lot to do with that, either.

Right. How do you feel about that?

I can’t say, it depends on who you ask in the band. I myself have never been too into metal. When we started this band we wanted to do something in between Howlin’ Wolf and Slayer, so we have metal elements in our music, and some of our songs are hard enough to kind of be metal, but I don’t really hear it as metal. I dunno, I’ve never played metal before and I don’t hear us as metal. We just try to play what we feel like, what we want to listen to. So I don’t know what to do with the metal thing, maybe it has to do with our name because when we started people thought we were going to be brutal, or you know, the artwork on the first album. But I don’t know-- I guess we play harder music, so maybe that puts us in the world of metal. But at least for me, it wasn’t my intention.

Yeah. Your songs are very dynamic; a lot of metal nowadays is compressed, just blasts of sound, so you guys don’t fit with that. Did you set out to make dynamic music?

Yeah, absolutely. It can be really boring to just do the same thing at the same volume and speed all the time. We aim to be diverse and dynamic, that’s a big aim of Graveyard. And we try to not have all the songs on the album sound like each other, that sort of thing.

For a lot of rock fans, the blues is considered uncool, like dad rock. Do you ever get people saying to you “Oh, you guys are pretty good but you should lose this blues stuff?”

I’ve never heard anything like that; I listen to stuff like Howlin’ Wolf and it doesn't’ sound uncool to me. We listen to a lot of blues and we love the blues. Of course there are a lot of boring and bad blues too. But the good stuff is really good; bands like Fleetwood Mac. Like I said before, we wanted to be a mix between Howlin’ Wolf and Slayer and that involves incorporating the blues into our sound.

Yeah! It seems like a lot of bands struggle to incorporate blues elements in their sound without being boring or lame. How do you make the good stuff, howlin’ Wolf, or the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac, for example, fit within a hard rock world?

It’s all about the hardness and the feeling, it’s what happens to your body when you hear it. Good music does something to you when you hear it; bad music just goes in one ear and out the other. But it’s the feeling that we get when we hear this music that we love.

Anytime I’ve ever read anything about Graveyard, people really focus on your music sounding like it comes from the 70s. Do you find that weird?

Yeah, but we listen to a lot of old music, I wouldn’t deny that. So it isn’t a surprise that our music sounds like the seventies to some people, because that’s what we listen to. Although it isn’t all that we listen to, we listen to a lot of contemporary music too! We try to be inspired by everything that we hear, and I think we are. I think it’s kind of unfair that we are a seventies band because we’re a band right now and we’re trying to make music that’s contemporary sounding. We’re not trying to be a seventies band, we’re trying to be a 2013 band! But I guess the seventies, it’s the music we’ve listened to all our lives and it just comes out in Graveyard.

People in music always seem really focused on moving forward-- on making music that you can pick out and discuss futuristic elements, but always with this relentless focus on the new. With Graveyard, there’s aggression and all, but you acknowledge the interface between quote-unquote older music and modern music like the blues. Like the way that guys like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters basically invented “heavy” music as we know it.

Yeah! Totally. And that’s still true-- hard rock came from the blues, and you can’t change that by trying to sound new, you kind of always have to acknowledge the truth of where the music came from. Denying it just seems weird. I mean, you can’t write music without being influenced by something; at least we acknowledge it, I suppose.

When you guys are working on new stuff, how much of this conversation enters into it?

None at all.

Right, that’s what I’d imagine!

Yeah, but when we are like discussing our songs, we do sometimes consider these things like we try not to copy something, we don’t want to sound like something that’s already been done! Like if we come up with a riff that sounds too familiar.

Was Graveyard formed intentionally with this ethos, or did it develop gradually out of Norrsken? Did you think “We need to buck the tide of current music and go for this sort of thing?” Or was it more like “Eh, we wrote a few songs, and we’re listening to some old music, and this is what it is”.

Well, between Norrsken and Graveyard we had a band called Albatros, it was me and the drummer Axel and we did that band, and that band was a lot more jammy and psychedelic, we didn’t even have songs. So Graveyard was all about being a straightforward rock and roll band without being too complicated and-- uh, I don’t know how to say it English, but the songs need to be more easy listening, but not “easy listening”! Because in Albatross we were complicating things too much and we wanted to streamline it with real songs that sounded good even the first time you listen to it.

So many times, either bands or people who have been in bands who form new bands, get into this idea of stripping things back to basics. It sounds like after your prior bands, with Graveyard that was the intent. What motivated that? Because you have kind of a psychedelic sound.

Well, yeah, but I think in Albatros we did music mostly for our own sake, just jamming. When we started Graveyard, we wanted to take it somewhere, make music more for the listener. We love playing the songs, but the whole thing isn’t just for our own enjoyment entirely.

GRAVEYARD + THE SHRINE:: Royale, 279 Tremont St, Boston :: January 23 @ 7 pm :: 18+ :: $18 :: 617.338.7699 or


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