The Dagger’s self titled debut, out on Century Media later this month is one of the surprises of the year halfway through 2014. Even though I know it consisted only of one self penned demo version (along with a cover version of Quartz’ “Mainline Riders), the single the band released through High Roller before adding “The” to Dagger, wasn’t able to convince me, but the full lenght is for sure a completely different story.
Whether you are into classic hard rocking stuff like Rainbow or Deep Purple or have a fascination either for Dio-era Black Sabbath or maybe the early days of the NWOBHM, you should find a lot of interest on this album. I hooked up with drummer Fred Estby and was able to discuss most aspects about the new album. By the way, this is a longer version of the interview that featured in Norwegian in Scream # 187.
I understand that Your singer, Jani Kataja, was the last piece of the famous puzzle that has become The Dagger. Did you try out many singers before him?
– You’re totally right. He was the last piece. We didn’t try that many, we tried three vocalist actually. We had two guys that weren’t that known and also JB (Christoffersson) from Grand Magus. He sang a couple of songs with us and actually was kind of intended to be in the band, but in the end, he had enough with his own band. We reconsidered, both him and us, and we kept looking for a singer.
He would have been a good fit for The Dagger, wouldn’t he?
– Absolutely! And he did a great job on the two songs he sang on. He also seemed totally committed to the band. But then again, it’s kind of hard as a lot of people, especially at our age, they have bands already. It might have been a stupid thing to get him in the first Place, as he already had enough to do musically.
When JB realized he didn’t have the time to do it, were you looking for a similar type of singer?
– Yeah, sort of. We always wanted a singer with blues roots, someone that actually knows his kind of blues hardrock, and then I mean, different voice doesn’t matter that much, the important thing for us, was that the singer in question had a kind of a bluesy voice along with the important roots in the early seventies. Jani has done a great job so far, and have a perfect voice for this kind of music.
What led you to him then?
– After JB couldn’t do it, we were kind of set back, it felt like going back to square one. I thought: We’re not gonna let this affect us too much. I then started scanning all the music magazines of Scandinavia, and found an article about the band Sideburn. I knew the drummer, but I didn’t know the other guys in that band, even though they have been around for quite a long time, so I went online and listened to the band. I heard straight away that Jani’s voice was going to be perfect for The Dagger.
And he accepted at once?
– Yeah, more of less. I got in touch with him, had a beer and talked thing over, and he was in from that meeting.
Tyrant from Nifelheim was also in the band for a while, were you planning to have two guitarists?
– Yeah, we actually did. Tyrant was in the band for a pretty long time actually, the thing that was kind of sad, was that in the end, he couldn’t make it. They were having a quite long period without doing much with Nifelheim, and he was really into The Dagger, commited and everything and writing some really cool stuff on top of it all. He has a very, very creative mind, that guy. We were rehearsing, and many of his songs were supposed to be on this album, but when we were aiming for recording, he couldn’t do it, because Nifelheim had extensive touring coming up. We said: Sorry, but we can’t wait any longer, we have to do this album now. We talked to him, skipped his songs, and went with our own material. I really hope he does something with his songs though, because they are really special.
How would you describe the material he wrote?
– You know, they have more of this East European touch, more like a Russian or Rumanian kind of feel to them. His songs are a little bit darker than the rest of us tend to write, but very interesting stuff, with very good melodies. The only thing we never found out, was how they would sound when finished. We never got to do a lot of vocal melodies for his stuff.
Did you have material to replace his songs, or did you have to write new stuff?
– We actually had a lot of material. We have been playing together since 2009, and have been doing a lot of songwriting. In fact, around late 2012 we had to stop writing songs and focus on the ones we wanted to be on the album.
Will you be looking to add another guitarist?
-Yes, we actually already have a guy in mind, that hopefully is gonna work. It’s Robert Pehrsson, who has his own little project called Humbucker. He did a live show with us last year and has been rehearsing with us. Since he is doing his own album and a lot of shows, we wanted to wait spreading the news with him until we start to tour.
Do you see Robert as a live member only, or will he contribute to the song writing as well?
– We will see what happens. It depends on how well his album does. As things are right now, he will play live with us, but of course it will be great to have him in the band. To be a five piece able to work on the next album together, that would be really awesome. But as I mentioned, it has a lot to do with whether he is gonna do another album on his own.
Do you feel that the material on your album needs a second guitarist to work in a live setting?
– Absolutely! I think we really need that, there is a lot of guitar harmonies that are going be lost otherwise.
I kind of expected your debut album to be released by High Roller, as your single was?
– The single was one thing, we basically just put that out. The A-side was recorded at the same time as the album, and we just wanted to get something out. I know the High Roller-guys, they’re very nice, swift and very effective when they release stuff. They gave us a good deal for the 7” and were in the negotiations when we were talking about an album deal as well. Then it was them, Century Media, Napalm, Nuclear Blast and also a couple more that we checked on. High Roller really appreciate our music too, but the main thing for us was that Century Media said straight out that they loved the album. Also, it doesn’t hurt to have a great distribution either. Finally, we have known the guys since the early nineties, as the company have more or less the same staff since we got to know them back in the death metal-days.
There’s no denying that the climate for this type of music is quite good these days, especially when you come from Sweden. I guess it’s enough to name bands like Dead Lord, Black Trip and Robert Pehrsson’s Humbucker to name a few, that have all done quite well. What kind of expectations do you have for your own album?
– I am too old to have any high expectations. I just hope that people realize this is something we’re doing because this is how we think it should sound. It’s important for us to push the attitude of this kind of music. It’s a lot of really good heavy metal bands within this new wave of hard rock or heavy metal, or whatever, but we think we have a sound that not that many bands out there have.
Some bands that are inspired by the seventies do the whole package with the looks, the clothes and the whole image. What about you, are you letting the music do the talking, or are you focusing also on the image?
– Of course the image is important too. We’re definitely going for the music first, that’s the most important thing. But of course we also care how we look. We wouldn’t wear spikes, studs or stuff like that, but we’re trying to have this feel of almost being dressed naturally, just a little bit more dressed up maybe. We’ve been looking at bands that we think look cool, like Motörhead in the early days or Judas Priest as well. We’re not going to overdo it and bring on very special stage outfits or anything, but I think every member of the band has found his own style and how he’s wanting to be seen on stage.
Let’s talk a little bit about some of the individual songs on the album. The first one is “Ahead Of You All”. Was it an easy decision making it the opening tune of the album?
– Yes, the very first time I heard it, when David played it to us and we started working on i in the rehearsal space, I knew that this one had to be the first song on the album. We didn’t even have the vocal melody for it yet, but it still felt like a perfect opener. The intro is classic, and the whole song has a very good drive. It’s a mid tempo one, but kind of intense anyway. The song also captures the essence of this band and the sound, it has all that we put into our other songs. Without doubt a classic, hard rock opening track, at least in my opinion.
Judging from the promo material, it seems lCentury Media signed you mainly on the basis of one song, “Ballad Of An Old Man”?
– Yeah, it was the first song they heard, and they wanted to sign us based on that particular song. It’s quite flattering and it also shows that the song has some potential, I think.
Sure, and maybe even not only among those who only listen to hard rock and heavy metal?
– Yeah, but it was never written with special intentions. When we were working on the song, we realized that a lot of really good hard rock and heavy metal bands have this, almost, a ballad-themed song. Some people might say that it’s the least hard song on the album or whatever, but it has a good melody, and it’s kind of nice to have this dynamics on an album and show a softer side too.
“Skygazer” has a Deep Purple of Rainbow-feeling with lots of organ. Who plays the instrument on this album?
– For this song and for “Ahead Of You All”, it’s a guy called Johannes Borgström who plays in different bands. He is a really good bass player too. He is a friend of mine, and has been working with Imperial State Electric, a band called Juvelen and also been doing this project with Degen and Robert from The Hellacopters. He is also a very good friend of Tomas who plays drums in Imperial too, so I know him from way back. Some of the songs have organ, because thought it was fitting. It’s mainly Jani who plays the instrument, you can hear him on “Ballad Of An Old Man” for instance, but we needed someone really good at it for those two songs I mentioned.
Yeah, the songs, and especially “Skygazer”, would have sounded completely different without the organ, I think.
– I know, I know. And then we have the small issue or problem, how are we gonna do this live? We don’t know yet, we’ll have to see how it’s working without the organ live. We haven’t really decided yet if we’re gonna have an organ player with us, it depends on how much touring we’re gonna do, and how it feels without one.
The song “Electric Dawn” made me think of old Judas Priest, both the music as well as the lyrics, and also the vocal performance at times.
– Absolutely! The main riff of that song was one of the early things I had that I really wanted to do something with. I love albums like “Killing Machine” and “British Steel” and had this idea that maybe we could have one of those kind of songs too. It was one of the most difficult ones for Jani, as he hasn’t listened that much to Judas Priest really. It’s often a good thing when you do music like this, when you come from different backgrounds, and him and me had to talk a lot about how to get on this song with the vocals and everything. I always do pilot vocals for my songs, so he was listening a lot to that. In the end, it’s so satisfactory when you have an idea and don’t know whether it’s gonna work or not and he pulls it off.
“Dog of Warning” is another one I really like, very heavy, almost doomy in approach. Maybe the heaviest tune on the album?
– Yeah, there again, I love Black Sabbath’s “Mob Rules” and “Heaven And Hell”, they are very important albums in my musical upbringing. I had the song straight out, very early on too. I am happy it turned out that heavy.
All of the ones we have spoken about go in different directions. That’s one of the main strengths of the album.
– Glad that you say that, because I think, when you listen to, maybe not AC/DC, but stuff like Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Rainbow or Deep Purple, they have very diverse songs. It’s just that you are so used to hear them, that you don’t really think about the dynamics. Listen to an album like “Machine Head” with Deep Purple for instance, there is a lot of difference in between the songs. You have mid tempo songs, slower ones, more bluesy ones and that’s the way they did it in the past. That’s what makes an album interesting. As a producer too, I always try to find, when you choose the songs, the dynamics. Otherwise it gets too streamlined. Many heavy metal and hard rock bands these days, they don’t really get that. Now I am not trying to be patronizing or anything, but I think a lot of musicians and producers miss out on this. I don’t know if it because of the climate today or what it is. It’s cool to have a sound, but please make some diversity and have some more dynamics on the album! That will make it more interesting. Maybe not everyone will like “Ballad Of An Old Man”, but there is gonna be a song for everyone on this album, even though they’re not totally different from each other.
Is the fact that the songwriting is shared between you, bass player Tobias Christiansson and guitarist David Blomqvist one of the reasons for this diversity?
– Yeah, in one sense it is. Tobias, David and me we have the same goal, the same thought about how it should sound, but to be honest I couldn’t write a song song like “Skygazer”. Even though I love that type of music, I am not that kind of musician that hits off on that type of riffing or melody. I can be quite diverse in my songwriting, but we are indeed a little different. That shows I think.
When you listen to the album, it also feels coherent, giving the impression that you have worked a lot on the songs as a band?
– Absolutely. That’s so important, and is also one thing we said from the start. Even though I am gonna be the producer, I really want the guys to come up with their ideas and for us to work on them together. It’s the same thing when I come with my ideas, I want their input. It’s very important to have the band input into songs. That’s what makes the difference. Even Jani who came in very late in the process of recording this album, has done a lot with the melodies and the vocal shifting and everything. He put on a lot there which we never thought of. A really cool thing!
We need to talk a bit about the track “1978” as well. I have to admit I am normally not a big fan of songs that have album titles or song titles strung together in the lyrics, as the lyrics often turn out very cliché. But I think this one works quite well…
– This was the last song we put on the album, and it’s one of the older ones. Actually we were going through different songs, looking for something different that we needed on the album. What do we have that could work that we don’t already have on the album? When we checked this one out, I instantly had the melody for the chorus in my head. We called it “78” when we wrote it, because we didn’t have any lyrics or melodies, just the riffing and the song structures, but thought the riffs sounded like 1978. I remember thinking that, this might be cheesy, but if I pull it off, it’s gonna be really good. I think a lot of people will recognize the titles and the whole idea behind the song. As you say, it can turn out to be a real cheesy cliché, but if you try to be delicate about it, it’s gonna work. I am glad you think it’s not too cheesy. I kind of liked it, and I am very critical when I write my own lyrics and melodies.
Was it a hard task putting the lyrics together?
– Not that hard. I had the chorus line, but the verses were…not hard actually… I did it kind of quickly, but I went through all the titles I could come up with, and when I was out of titles, I checked some more. I even brought some The Dictators in there as well as Alice Cooper. The obvious ones are like Rainbow and Judas Priest of course, but then you have to piece it together carefully, so it doesn’t get cheesy.
Did you have a hard time choosing the albums that deserved a mention?
– No, not really. I actually went by what suited the vocals best.
I am trying to figure out what the chorus in that song reminds me off, but I can’t really nail it. Sometimes I am thinking about Saxon…
– Hopefully it’s nothing, at least nothing too close. I am also very critical about being too close to any influences. I am glad you didn’t find anything too close, because I haven’t either. But I can get the Saxon-vibe, I can get that.
Is it possible to define what the 1978-sound is or was?
– Not really. My favorite producer is Martin Birch. I think he did so many good albums, both as producer and as engineer. Around 1978, a lot of really good albums came out. Also the seventies sound had evolved as much as it could by then. I mean, later in the eighties, I think a lot of engineers and producers tried to make something out of the productions that weren’t really necessary. But things probably had to evolve, so I guess they had to make it bigger or whatever, because they possessed all the new toys to do it with. But around 1978, so many great productions came out. The bands had already sold some albums,since many of them started out early in the seventies, so around the mid-seventies they had more money to put into the production. Things were more perfected, I think.
Is 1978 the year in hard rock for you personally?
– It’s hard to say, because 1973 and 74 was good, 1976 too and 77, but I think 78 was kind of a highlight.
Right after 1978 you had the NWOBHM, do you think something got lost there, or are you a big fan of that era as well?
– I love the NWOBHM of course, but I think around maybe 1985, that’s where the sound started to get considerably worse. You still had great productions around 1984 for many bands, but after that I think it got downhill for a while. There was a lot artificial reverbs going on and things got drenched. Take “Screaming For Vengeance” that’s a very good example of a lot of effects that you don’t really think about. If you listen to that album analytically there is a lot of reverbs and delays and stuff like that. If you listen critically, it sounds like the production was one big party trying to make the album as interesting as possible with a lot of effects. However, it’s done so good, you don’t really think about it. When you cross that line, and just put the effects on there because it’s gonna sound cool, or you haven’t recorded it really good, or don’t have the right measures to do it, that’s when it goes wrong. I think that happened in the late eighties, you had to put all this shit on because otherwise it wouldn’t be interesting. The seventies were kind of old in the eighties. It’s like that with productions. You have your eras or time spans on what you’re doing. But it’s also a problem that everyone seem to follow one producer, but can’t do it as good, so things turn worse and worse.
Did you have a reference album that you wanted The Dagger-album to sound like production wise?
– Not really, since we have the diversity of songs. With “Dogs Of Warning” for instance, I pretty much had “Mob Rules” in my mind, that was the sound I was aiming for, as I felt it would fit the song. But for “1978” I did a completely different thing for the whole mix, so I didn’t really have something. I guess I went song by song, both production wise and mixing wise.
I have to admit I was really surprised at how good the album actually is as I didn’t like the single song that much. The song is probably my least fave off the album.
– That’s great! When we released the seven inch as a debut band, it’s supposed to be good, but if you make an album…albums today is a question of to be or not to be in the future. Albums need to be solid, you can’t put a filler on there, because that is gonna destroy the whole record. That’s very important, and why we tried to make an even, but diverse album.
What can you say about the running order of the album? I felt that most of the stronger tracks as usual are on the first half on the album, but there are also some great stuff towards the end. Did you work a lot on the order?
– Yeah, we did. It was kind of hard actually. You know, we used to play death metal, and that’s easier, you can mainly focus on tempos and maybe a bit on song titles. But here you have think about everything. There are so many variables to consider when you put together a track listing, so actually it was David who came up with this one. We had a hard time and shifted the songs around a lot. It’s hard for us to say what everyone else would think, but in our own minds we didn’t wanna put the best songs on the A-side or whatever. You have to remember that it’s hard for us to know which are the best songs, because we’ve lived with these songs for a very long time. Some songs that others might think are really, really good, we can be really tired of because we have been playing them a lot.
When I listen to this album, quite a few of the songs remind me of classic bands from the seventies or eighties, “Inside The Monolithic Dome” is, one of the more original sounding songs.
– Yeah, I can see what you mean. It almost has this Michael Schenker Group-feel to it.
That was in fact the only, tiny reference I got when I listened to it.
– It was David who wrote the music for it, and he was like: I am not sure about this. I heard instantly how this song should be, but he couldn’t see it and didn’t get what I meant. I said: Just leave it to me, I’ll arrange the song, and make the melody and the vocals for it. He was like: I could never had understood that it could turn out this way. So it’s one of the songs we couldn’t agree on from the start, but I am happy he let me do the things I did. It turned out very interesting. It’s a very different song from the other ones.
Have you written all the lyrics on the album?
– No, I’ve done a good part of them. David and Tobias have done some too. I am more experienced maybe in writing lyrics, but no one of us were really experienced at creating vocal melodies.
How did you cope with that challenge?
– It was just trial and error. When it came to my own lyrics and melody ideas, I always get em while we play the songs. That’s when they come to my mind. Then I have to work on the lyrics for quite some time, since I am quite picky. It’s very hard for this kind of music. If you listen to Whitesnake, I love Whitesnake, but the lyrics suck! They are so bad, but you are not thinking about it, since you have been listening to this music for so long and hearing these lyrics countless times. But I mean, I could never write lyrics like David Coverdale, I would probably blush. We also agreed on early on that we didn’t want to do too many dark lyrics, too much occult or satanic lyrics, as it wouldn’t fit our music. So yeah, we had some thought about the direction of the lyrics, but then again, for every song it was different. When I did lyrics, I let the other guys read it and wanted their input, and vice versa.
Is there a theme running through the lyrics of the album?
– No, I don’t think so. Maybe it’s the bluesy kind of side, in that case. Everything is really not that positive and good. If you have some, not negative, but some bluesy kind of feel to the lyrics, they tend to appeal more than if you have the happy go lucky kind of lyrics.
Do you think it’s an advantage or disadvantage for The Dagger that your names are so strongly connected to the death metal scene?
– I hope it’s not a disadvantage. Of course, early on we said we don’t want stickers on this album saying: “Members from Grave and Dismember”. Of course the names are out there even though the record label has been on our side on this, not mentioning it too much. Still when it comes up on different media, people see our names and look up the old bands we have been part of. I hope it’s not a disadvantage in the case that people would just shrug this off as some effort from old men to just go back to their roots or something.