March 7, 2020

With this album I think we did manage to capture the live aspect even better…

Wherever your preferences lie along the rock spectrum, Sweden seems to have a band for you. Whether it’s the doom metal of Candlemass, the power metal of Sabaton, or the progressive metal of Opeth, the country seems to have amazing bands in all rock genres.  And when it comes to melodic heavy metal, then the name that immediately springs to mind is H.E.A.T. With H.E.A.T having just released their brilliant sixth studio album H.E.A.T II (more on that bizarre title later!), and the band heading to the UK for gigs later this spring, the timing was perfect for Velvet Thunder to catch up with front-man Erik Grönwall to talk about the band, the new material, and lots of fascinating facts about Erik, including his creative use of a Pringles can….

With such a plethora of quality bands coming out of such a small country, I’m curious about Erik’s views on the reasons behind this success for the Nordic nation. ‘I think we have to thank Abba a lot’ Erik begins a little surprisingly. ‘They really showed that you can come from a small country but you can still make it globally. Their huge success gave us something to strive for. I think also the Swedish song-writer Max Martin has been important. He’s been writing songs for basically all the big pop artists – Justin Timberlake, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears – I think he’s actually had a similar amount of Billboard number ones as the Beatles!  I do think that we have a lot of talent to look up to and to emulate. It’s a small country but somehow we’ve managed to produce good music and also have been very good at exporting it.’  

The H.E.A.T line-up (left to right): Jiimmy Jay (bass), Dave Dalone (guitars), Crash (drums), Erik Grönwall (vocals), Jona Tee (keyboards)

Erik himself first shot to prominence on the national stage, winning the TV talent contest Idol (based on the American Idol format). That was in 2009 and on the back of that success he had national number one hits on both the album and single charts. By a curious coincidence, H.E.A.T who were already active with original singer Kenny Leckremo,  were not performing quite so well on another TV talent contest in the same year: this time to select the Swedish contestant for the Eurovision Song Contest. They reached the final round but finished just seventh.  I venture to suggest that this made Erik something of the senior partner when joining the band in the following year. ‘No, not really’ responds Erik modestly. ‘I had to replace Kenny and that came with a lot of new challenges. Before I did the Idol programme I’d always wanted to be the front man in a rock band. I’m not really comfortable being solo. And the guys in H.E.A.T gave me a platform to really grow both as a front man and individually as a person so I have a lot to thank them for.’

Senior partner or not, the success of following two acclaimed albums, Address the Nation (2012) and Tearing Down the Walls (2014) owe much to the power of Grönwell’s vocal performances. However, I put it to Erik that 2017’s Into The Unknown seems to have divided the fans.  ‘Well I think it was because we started experimenting a little bit, wanting to try something new’ explains Erik. ‘I also think it was how we released the singles. When we released Time On Our Side as the first single I actually texted the guys the same day with the message “Prepare yourself for a strong reaction” because I knew that the fans would react in pretty loud counter-weight which they did. If we had released something like Bastard Of Society, which was a more typical H.E.A.T track, then maybe there wouldn’t have been that kind of strong reaction to the album.’

Coming to the new album, I rather gingerly observe that three years between studio albums could be considered rather long – it’s actually the equivalent of producing just over one minute of music per month for 36 months! Erik isn’t riled by the accusation and explains: ‘Well it’s a lot of touring – and I mean it. I think you can see an album cycle as at least two years. You have the song-writing process and then the recording process and then there’s the lead time needed by the record label and the agents, and basically there’s a lot of planning before releasing an album. So, three years is pretty much what we what we can do for now.’ To be fair on Erik, the band has found time to release two fantastic live albums, including last year’s Live At Sweden Rock Festival

Great album cover; confusing album title….

Their new album is their eighth overall so the title H.E.A.T II begs an explanation. I have to confess I don’t see any obvious logic in calling it H.E.A.T II.  ‘Same here, I have no idea!’ declares Erik before continuing ‘No, I’m kidding! I know it’s a bit confusing but when we discussed it we thought that the sound was a bit more like the first album so it was a statement in a way that we wanted people to know that we are back to the H.E.A.T sound after the experimentation of Into The Great Unknown. So I would say HEAT II is more like an upgrade or a relaunch, like H.E.A.T 2.0. It made sense when we discussed it but when we people started mentioning it was our sixth studio album we realised it was a bit confusing too.’ I mention that my own first thought on seeing the album title was that it might be something to do with the fact that that this is the first album where the band have taken over full control of the creation process, including the production of the album, and for this reason it gives the band a sense of a brand new start. ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m going to answer that next time someone asks me the question – that was a good answer!’ jokes Erik. ‘But basically you’re absolutely right there because it was like we we’re going back to when Dave Dalone and Jona Tee started working on the first album together, and now they’re back working together and they’re writing songs together and producing it.’  The reference to Dave and Jona writing the songs pricked my interest because the writing credits have usually been attributed to the band as a whole. ‘Yeah, well, that is until now’ continues Erik. ‘Most of the songs on the new album were written by Dave and Jona. It is always a team effort but I really want to give a lot of credit to Jona and Dave who produced it and wrote most of the songs.’ The production job on the album is remarkably good so I inquire as to how Jona and Dave learnt the ropes. ‘It’s crazy’ begins Erik, seemingly as surprised as me. ‘They’ve gained experience by producing work by other bands and they were involved in the production process when recording previous H.E.A.T albums with producer Tobias Lindell. So they’ve built experience over the years and now they like to have that kind of creative control over the whole process. We even have our own studio now and can record everything ourselves.’

Moving on to discuss the new album in more detail, I point out that that the superb opener Rock Your Body blasts out of the gate as if the band want to say farewell to the style of Into The Great Unknown and welcome back to Tearing Down The Walls, perhaps with an extra dose of heavy rock thrown in. ‘Yeah I do think so.  Absolutely’ agrees Erik. ‘You know it’s so natural for us to do this kind of rock music and in my opinion when we did Into The Great Unknown we really tried a bit too hard to find something new and exciting but when we just focus on writing songs that we are good at writing and performing then I think that’s when we are the best we can be.’  In my recent review of the new album I had bet that Rock Your Body would also be the tour opener so I can’t resist asking Erik if that’s the case. ‘We have not decided the full set for the European tour in May yet but I think we will open with One By One followed by Rock Your Body.’ Nearly right!

I confess to Erik that listening to the album the first time I’d barely noticed the keyboards until the eighth track, the ballad Nothing To Say, so I wonder whether the new heavier approach has penalized Jona’s contribution a bit. ‘Well we definitely wanted more guitars on this album.’ confirms Erik. ‘We wanted it to be more guitar driven and I think it is a really good direction. Maybe we can do a little bit more keyboards on the next one but you know Dave’s got the creative control over the guitars now!’ Continuing that line of thought I observe that a stronger European metal influence has crept in this time with songs such as Victory or We Are Gods that are closer to say Judas Priest or Scorpions in style. ‘Those two are my favourites on the album!’ declares Erik. ‘I kind of like the heavier approach and I think We Are Gods is probably the heaviest song we’ve ever released.  I’m not really the – if you don’t mind me saying it, and I hope I don’t insult AOR people – but I’m not really the slick AOR guy. I kind of like the raw rock’n’roll sound.’ I mention that the raw rock’n’roll sound has been captured so well that this is probably the band’s first studio effort that manages to capture some of the energy that the band has live. ‘Yeah, I think so’ agreed Erik. ‘I mean when we are writing songs we always consider how we would perform them live. So, where can we get the audience to sing along or what do we do with this particular song live etc.  With this album I think we did manage to capture the live aspect even better.’ 

I ask Erik to confirm the story that I had heard that away from the stage he has a rather unusual hobby for a rock star: he’s a bit of a bookworm. Erik is happy to plead guilty: ‘I started reading pretty late in my life because when I went to school people just gave me literature which I didn’t really enjoy. But then I started reading things I’m genuinely interested in and now I have to read every day. I’m really obsessed! I enjoy learning something new and reading about different topics: psychology, history. Yes, that’s become a big part of my life.’  After reading about psychology and heavy-duty stuff like that, I wonder if Erik then feels a little constrained by the band’s typical lyrics about music, women and having a good time. ‘No. You need a balance.  It’s rock n roll and it’s supposed to be sex, drugs and rock-n- roll, even though I never do drugs myself’ reflects Erik before adding slightly guiltily ‘well unless you consider beer a drug.’

I compliment Erik on the consistently top-drawer material across all eleven tracks on the album, observing how unusual that it is these days to not hear evident filler tracks on an album. ‘Thank you, I’m very glad you say that’ responds Erik warmly. ‘I guess we always write songs so it’s not like “now we’re going to produce so let’s start writing songs”. It’s a continuous process for us. So we have a H.E.A.T library where we put all the songs and some of the songs that we released on this album were actually considered for the Address The Nation album – they were basically just small ideas in our library, tiny snippets basically – but got developed for the new album. As I said, we always write and when you do something often and work hard then something good is going to come out. Most of the professional songwriters write every day but it may be that they have only one, two or three big songs every year. So I think it’s important for all bands and musicians to always write music. That’s the most important ingredient in the success of your career.’

To wrap up our chat about the new album I ask Erik to sum up the album in one phrase or sentence for potential new listeners that aren’t familiar with the band. He replies: ‘Full fucking power!’ if you listen to the album you certainly wouldn’t dispute that statement.  

H.E.A.T have a reputation as a fantastic live band but as with any band that’s been around for a dozen years, there’s a risk of getting into a routine or getting tired of the same songs. ‘Well. I’ve never felt that it’s boring to perform the songs because for every show there’s always new energy and a new audience that maybe hasn’t seen you before’ responds Erik. ‘And in my opinion you owe it to the people who bought the tickets to make sure that they have a good time. They’re using their money to go see your band and they deserve to have a good time, and the way to do that is to make sure that you are have a good time on stage and make sure they feel that energy. Sometimes when you’re really sick – like I’ve had a fever a couple of times when I’ve performed – that’s when it’s good to like lean back on the routine in a way and perform a song even if it’s not quite to the best of your ability but it’s good enough. But as long as I’m healthy I try to give 100% in every song.’  

The band has just returned from the Monsters of Rock Cruise so I’m interested to know what Erik made of that rather unique experience. ‘I mean it’s just crazy’ responds enthusiastically Erik. ‘I’ve never experienced anything like it. I mean those boats are so big. I think like 1500 people just in the crew! And it’s a really cool concept. I love the fact that they’re doing a rock festival thing on a Caribbean cruise. My previous experience of going on cruises was between Sweden and Finland – not very exciting; just cold and grey! But in the Caribbean we went to Mexico and Belize, and it was just an amazing experience with lots of great bands and it’s great to meet a lot of rock music lovers too.’  

Bands usually have great stories about being on the road so I quiz Erik on what’s the funniest story he remembers from touring. ‘Well there are a lot of good moments on tour like when we opened for the Scorpions in Madrid – a really cool experience – those are the shows that you really remember.’ replies Erik before he comes up with a funny story: ‘I do remember one time when I really had to go to the bathroom. We were out on the Autobahn in Germany and we were running late for the show and I really had to go but the guys wouldn’t pull over. So, I took out the Pringles can we had and I took a shit in it. That got some strong reactions! You know I remember that vividly.’ Well, yes, I don’t think I’ll ever look at a can of Pringles myself in the same way again! Hoping he hasn’t done anything similar during a gig, I take the chance and ask Erik what is the worst mistake he’s made on stage ‘Oh I think I’ve said the wrong country or city’ admits Erik. ‘Yeah that’s not very popular but I don’t really remember where it was but I think people were very forgiving.’ Erik then laughs at his forgetfulness of the location, adding ‘I guess I didn’t learn, did I?’

Probable set opener One By One

Erik has a voice that could grace any band so to wrap up I ask him to fantasize a bit and identify which band he would like to join if he left H.E.A.T. ‘I would love to play with Queen’ responds Erik, almost without hesitation. ‘The thing Adam Lambert is doing now. That would be really cool. But Freddie is my number one so I wouldn’t really want to replace him either and I definitely couldn’t. But if I could choose today, considering that Adam is the singer, then yes it would be Queen.’  If you have any doubts that Erik could live up to that tag then try listening to Eye Of the Storm, probably the most Queen-like song the band have made with soaring vocals that Freddie would certainly have been proud of. But for now, just sit back (or better, stand up and shake your head) and listen to the fabulous new H.E.A.T album. If you’re lucky enough to be anywhere near Wolverhampton, London or Swansea in late May then get yourself a ticket to see the band live too. You won’t be disappointed.