I had a long chat with RAMs singer Oscar Carlquist around the release of “Death”, back in early 2012. One year later, RAM was on a hiatus and the future of the band was in doubt. After some serious thinking, the members decided to continue, and the new album “Svbversvm”, out through Metal Blade at the end of October, is the result of what the Swedes have been up to since. Oscar is once again the one picking up the phone when I call to get all the necessary info about what seems like a turbulent period in the history of the band.
– Well, we had kind of a crisis in the band in January 2013. Daniel Johansson one of our original guitarists left the band, and we started to think about what we were doing. There is no denying things were tough, when you are in a band, they just get tough sometimes. We decided that we were going to have a break. During that break we honestly didn’t know if we were going to continue as a band, but I think we needed a break anyway. We took some time off, and when we met again, we tried to make a summary of the whole RAM-ride, so to speak. We looked at all our notes from the early days of the band, and what we wanted to achieve with RAM back then. We looked at everything we had accomplished so far, everything we hadn’t accomplished, everything we wanted to do and everything that realistically could be done. Looking back at the old stuff, we realized that we still pretty much wanted to the same things that we wished to do when we started the band. However, somewhere along the way we had gotten a little lost from those old ideas, which are mainly just being a heavy metal band and playing heavy metal as good as we can. It might sound strange that we feel we lost ourselves a bit, because you are not able to hear it on any of our albums. I think it’s kind of a personal thing. We saw that the energy that was there when we created the band was still very valid, so we kind of created the band once again from those old ideas. Then we decided to do the split with Portrait, and started writing a lot of material, which accumulated in the “Svbversvm” album.
Was the fact that Daniel left the band the incident that started this crisis, as you call it?
– No, I don’t think so. The thing was, we had this grand plan worked out from very early on, with titles and ideas around all the albums. The “Sudden Impact” EP, “Forced Entry, “Lightbringer”, and “Death” were all planned out at a really early stage in our career. When you have such a massive plan spanning over a long time, some kind of emptiness occurs when things are fulfilled. We had an abundance of written material when we started the band. There are songs on all of those albums written in the beginning of our career, from 2000 to 2002. When the albums were done, we had no old songs left, and had to start writing from scratch again. “Death” was a very suitable title for our third album, because that was how it felt back then. Maybe you should never name an album something as definite as that, because it all had to do with the emptiness that was upon us at the time. It was a good thing to go back and look at the stuff from the beginning to find the spark again.
You had to wait for a long time to have “Death” released, I remember you had it recorded and ready to go for quite while before it was finally unleashed. I guess that can be quite draining as well?
– Yeah, sure. The album was recorded for a year until it was finally released. We had long, long negotiations with a lot of labels, and then we landed with Metal Blade at last. We wanted them to release “Death” as soon as possible of course, but the release was delayed two times. You know, in the US there are certain dates where they don’t want to release albums, mainly because a lot of bigger artists release their products at the same time, and then you don’t get any room for advertising in the stores and stuff like that. We had some bad luck! We want to write music, record it and play live, but there are so many aspects about making that happen that can be quite annoying. That was a tough and draining time for sure. We had this album that came about really fast, it was kind of made out of the leftover energy from “Lightbringer”, but it wasn’t possible to have it released. Very frustrating!
As you mentioned, you have gone back and looked at old ideas, I believe the early days of the band, even before the “Sudden Impact” EP was released, must have been quite productive?
– Yeah, at that time we were writing music five days a week, and almost doing nothing else. Me, Daniel and Harry (Granroth) got to know each other just by writing songs. It’s a good way to get to know each other, explore your influences and try to find your sound. We found that sound pretty quickly, I think. There were a lot of riffs, and parts like a verses, bridges or choruses lying around. But then, as your career progress, you got less and less time to really sit down and write music, and even if you have the time, you need to have the inspiration as well. We got both things in place before the release of “Sudden Impact”, and then you can stay in that mode for some time and get a lot of writing done. Nowadays the energy that goes into RAM, goes into so many different things that it’s much harder to have an abundance of material.
Still, RAM back in then and RAM now, might not be different bands, but I guess it’s fair to say you have evolved a little since back then.
– Yeah, we have changed a little. The songs are a little longer now. It still sounds like RAM, but maybe a RAM mark 2 or something. You know, there are also only three original members left by now. When we recorded the “Death”-album, Tobbe (Tobias Petterson) didn’t write anything for that one. We recorded it shortly after he became a permanent member after touring for the “Lightbringer”-album. When we did “Forced Entry”, we wanted a straight forward, heavy metal album. For “Lightbringer” we wanted an album that sounded more mysterious, containing more complex writing, stranger concepts and stuff. I really like that album, by the way. Maybe I like it even more than “Death”. It was a very important album for us, because we really took some chances, for instance with the song “Suomussalmi” which is a long epic, one. You won’t see that too often from a band only on their second album. It’s really diverse affair, and no song has any reference to the other ones.
Doing diverse albums have, at least from this point on, been important for the band.
– We always referenced our influences, like Accept, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, that always made very diverse albums in the early eighties. That’s what we wanted to do. I mean, Black Sabbath made almost schizophrenic albums, like “Sabotage” or “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”. We definitely don’t want to make different versions of the same song for a whole album.
In the info sheet from Metal Blade you speak of “Svbversvm” as some kind of rebirth after”Death”. Was it ever in your mind that this one could possibly be the last RAM-album?
– The plan was never to lay the band to rest, but of course it had crossed our minds that it would be really cool to down with an album called “Death”. “Death” was a big album for us, and we progressed a lot making it. Many of those songs are really good to play live, and just before Daniel left, we did the best live performances we ever did with that lineup. There were many, many positives from that era as well. Even if we had made the choice to pack it in, it would not have been an easy decision to make. The thing was, we had been living in a plan for so long, and when that plan was fulfilled, we really didn’t know what to do.
I remember you telling me that “Death” was recorded live, with Morgan Petterson and the drums behind a large window, some huge speakers and serious headbanging all the way through. Almost like you were on stage. You also said back then that you were unsure if you ever would use this method again, not because it didn’t work out, but because you prefer to try something new each time. As far as I understand, you have settled a different formula this time around.
– Yeah, this album is very much a studio album. We spent four months in the studio, just laying down tracks after tracks after tracks. There are so many tracks, not only on the album, but laying around on hard drives. We just pushed us to do another take all the time. There are something like 18 guitars almost on every song. It’s a massive amount of recordings. I was very critical of my own vocal performance, and often returned to the studio saying: That’s not good enough. I then started recording them again. We were very relentless with ourselves, to make sure that all the energy we possessed would be found in the songs and in the production of the album.
Four months that’s longer than you spent on the previous albums, right?
– It took us a long time to record “Lightbringer” as well, and this new album was kind of a return to that way of thinking. We did “Death” really fast, and that was our basic idea at the moment. We didn’t record it in two days like Venom or something, but it was more like one month. We own our own studio now, so for “Svbversvm” we had the luxury to record for as long as we needed. Four months in another studio would be really expensive of course.
– Well, it starts out really fun and really great, and then in the middle of it, it starts to get less fun and more like hard work. The last month is nothing but pure torment. You probably get your blood, sweat and tears at the end. This time, I was so drained of energy, that I just couldn’t record the last song. I did several takes and they simply weren’t good enough. I had to rest for a little bit, and said that we had to cut one song from the album or make it into an instrumental. From somewhere I found the energy and finished the track. That made me very pleased, as there were simply nothing left to give, to put on the album. It was all done. That was satisfying.
Last time we spoke, you told me you were almost in a party mood in the studio for the “Death”-sessions, instead of super serious as on “Lightbringer”. What was the mood like this time?
– I think we were super seriously again with the new one, but of course we had a couple of beers now and then. A big difference between the super seriousness on “Lightbringer” and on “Svbversvm”, is that before the recording of “Lightbringer”, we had done some serious research on old school metal recordings, studying producers like Martin Birch and Tom Allom. We looked at the studios they had recorded in, what kind of gear they had used and what techniques they used to record. The producer, or co-producer, we had at the time, was very much into finding out stuff about these recordings. We were really trying to do it the right way back then. For the “Svbversvm” album we had just loosely discussed how to produce the album, and then we said: Fuck it, let’s just start recording without this big, serious plan about the recording. Let’s roll and see what happens. It was kind of like the songs were producing themselves in a way, letting everything happen as we went along. It was a strange thing that this recordings process was so massive, when we didn’t have a plan to begin with. It evolved and got more massive as we went along, production wise it’s by far the best we’ve done.
With the studio experience you have gathered, do you think it’s easier to bring out the best of yourself as a singer compared to the early days?
– No, I actually think it’s harder nowadays. Singing is a lot about not thinking and just doing it. The more experience you have, the more you start thinking about other times you were in the studio, and how you took a certain note. You have these expectations to your voice, which actually makes it harder. I remember back in the day, when I was so happy just to be in the studio, getting some vital recording experience. I was happy just to hear what I was doing, because I hadn’t heard it before. Now it’s a lot of comparing to other vocal sessions and things going through your mind that you really don’t need when you are about to lay down vocals. You just need the microphone and to turn your ears off, basically just make sure you hit the notes, and that you are not singing out of tune.
Guitarist Martin Jonsson joined you when Daniel left. While you have recorded one song earlier with Martin, for the Portrait-split, it would be interesting to hear how it worked out being in the studio with him over a longer period?
– It worked out really well. He is an amazing lead guitarist, I think. He is very, very technical with a nice ear for harmonics and cool influences. Kind of avant-garde at times, as he does things you don’t hear too often. He has more of a shredding style compared to Daniel who has more of the really old school, early metal, blues, neo-classical thing going on. Martin is more experimental with the guitar. I think it’s a good thing that we didn’t just replace Daniel with someone who sounds exactly like him, but with someone who is bringing this new aspect into RAM. Also, if he managed to be in the studio with us for such a long time, it’s a good thing, since we are pretty strange people in the studio. Martin fits really well into the band and is a great guy. There were no issues at all. A lot of the songs didn’t have lead parts until it was time to record, and he came up with some really cool stuff.
“Svbversvm” is the title of one of the songs on the album of course, but as you have chosen it as the title for the album as well, do you feel it sums up the lyrical content in any way?
– Not really. There are a lot of different lyrics on the album. “Subversum” is made up of the Swedish word “Universum”, the name for the universe. Then you have the word “subversive”. So it’s kind of a game with words with a subverse universe or a universe that has been subversed. In a way, maybe it sums up RAM’s heavy metal in a way. We have always been about, what are to me the original concepts of heavy metal, you know things like rebellion and the individual versus the collective. The world we would be striving for, is the subversed universe, where the opposites have taken over and the order has changed.
You have told me before, and now you mention it again, that you have a lot of different lyrics on an album. Does this mean that you are unlikely to ever do a concept album?
-No, it doesn’t mean that, and some of the concepts on the new album are really serious, like “Enslaver” as well as the title track of course. Those are heavy, serious concepts, developing the ideas of the individual versus the collective. The title track has some strange, occult or esoteric ideas, kind of intricate. I don’t want to get stuck into anything, and I certainly don’t want things to get boring, as it often does if you stay in one concept. Back in the eighties, the albums I listened to, from Iron Maiden for instance, represented this sense of adventure. And Judas Priest, if you listen to the “Stained Class”-album, there are all these different concepts. Still you don’t grasp the ideas at once, and I think it’s important for the lyrics to set a scene or a landscape, and I want it to be different for each song, so you are not stuck in one landscape throughout the whole album. This whole thing we did with the “Machine Invaders”-trilogy, is in a way an intriguing philosophical way of seeing things. We have simply become so dependent on machinery and outside stuff that we lose control over our own world. I would never write anything that has no philosophical basis whatsoever, that’s just stupid to me. I would rather use those concepts and do something wild with them, so I wrote this trilogy, where “The Omega Device” on the new album is the last part. It’s been fun to have that kind of a thing, to make sure that everything don’t get too serious and boring. Today, bands write about the same thing all the time, and they think they have this concept, which they also write about next time they put something out… The listener needs to be more stimulated than that. Listening to a new album, the listener should think: What is this song about? And when the next one comes: This is about something different. If you manage to create that sort of thing, it adds another dimension.
Oscar has told me before that he was unlikely to write a political song, at least within the borders of the ideologies of today, but that he could take on the role as an observer…
– Some songs on the new album are very political, like “Enslaver” which is very anti-altrui. Like the first line: “Heed the call, all sacrifice for all”. It’s the kind of stuff I hate. I am opposed to all forms of altruism, nobody should sacrifice themselves for anybody. In the end, if everybody sacrifices themselves for everybody, there is nothing left. Something I always return to, and think the world lacks very much, is the focus on a person’s individuality and his will to grasp, control and own his own life, without pledging allegiance to anything. That’s probably something I have learned, and something that made me want to become a metal head from the beginning. For me it’s the perfect thing to use this propaganda instrument to declare this independence, and hopefully get people to become more independent and realize that you can’t be in a collective, without that collective being controlled by someone. To me that’s why the world isn’t a very good place, with the masses of people following without thinking. They’re fucking it up, and need to focus on themselves. They are the ones who’s going to die alone in the end anyway, so I don’t see why they should sacrifice themselves for these crazy altruistic ideas.
– Things always have to be renewed, people are not satisfied with the old ideas, and want to do something else. Of course, that’s really cool, but only to a certain degree. If you set out to make Pasta Bolognese, and you don’t put any pasta in it, I am sorry, but you don’t have Pasta Bolognese, what you do have though, is something completely different. To me the whole thing about metal being called the devil’s music, has been there since day one in heavy metal, and metal has these dark, spiritual concepts that you need to incorporate in your music if you want to make real heavy metal. Today we have so many strange bands, take Sabaton for instance. They have the same political views as George W. Bush and singing metal songs about it and glorifying altruistic conflicts where people lost their lives for no reason at all. It has nothing to do with heavy metal, they’re just raping the music with their sick ideas. At least in my mind. You don’t have to be a complete traditionalist, but you can’t be the opposite and believe that you are making metal music. It doesn’t add up, you need certain ideals. People need to become more intellectual about it, otherwise they’re just making trash. It’s all rock’n roll of course, and you shouldn’t worry too much about it in a way, but you definitely need to have a reality check. You can’t sit down and write all these stupid things and then call yourself a metal band.
Do you think some bands show a lack of respect for and knowledge of what the heavy metal genre is about?
– Yeah, absolutely. They’re just using this music for their own purposes, and for Sabaton it’s turning out to be a very successful thing, at least from a financial point of view, to take a country and lecture the people about their own conflicts and how strong that country was. They’re glorifying both sides in a war, it’s cheap and distasteful and very non-metal. If you look at what fueled all these things, you go back to the old biker ideals, being alone on your motor cycle. Fuck the world! The glorification of altruistic soldiers dying so some company can come and rape the country and make more money, doesn’t add up. Or dying with blood on the fucking flag, it’s simply an inferior idea to the concept of heavy metal.
Some people will probably claim that, by saying this, you are just envious of the success Sabaton has achieved?
– I wouldn’t be caught dead in Sabaton. They don’t have enough money to make me have anything to do with their concept. I will never be envious with someone who is not making good art. To me, it’s never been about money, and it will never be about money. I was a die hard metal fan, putting all my money into metal, even before I started singing in a band. So there is not much of a difference for me. This is my life! I just did it from another point of view before. For me, it’s never been about success or money…Of course, I’ll take it as far as I can take it, and I won’t turn down good business ventures, because I would like more people to hear what we have to say, but I won’t sell out doing it, never ever! I am not in any way envious of this misinterpretation of metal music.
Apart from being heavily involved in creating the music and lyrics, Oscar is also making scripts for RAM’s videos, creating the cover art as well as the layout. Is he a multi talent, or a control freak?
– I don’t really need that sort of control, it’s just the way it’s turned out. We need something done, and most of the time I go and do some research to find out how to do it. At times I am not too proud of the early artwork or layout I did, but I am not exactly ashamed either. They are all part of our history, but I do better things now, but that is just part of the progress, I think. We like having as much control ourselves as possible, but why I turned out doing it, is probably because I have an open mind, like to try things out and find out how it’s done. It’s been really fun to test myself in different ways.
“Return Of The Iron Tyrant” is the title of the first track on “Svbversvm”. Was this an easy choice to open the album?
– Yes, it was easy. Before we did the album, we decided not to have an intro. We had intros on all the albums, although only a short one before the song “Shadowman” on “Forced Entry”, but the last two albums had these really long intros which I dig, but this time we were clear that we didn’t want an intro. As you said, the opening song is called “Return Of The Iron Tyrant”. It’s some kind of strange story about RAM being back, but more about the ramrod, our mascot, returning. It was easy to choose it as an opener for the album.
Do you have a favorite song on the album?
– That would probably be “Forbidden Zone”.
That might be mine at the moment as well…
– I just think that the intro is really setting the tone, and it’s one of those guitar only intros, I really, really love. It sets this really cold vibe, an almost post-apocalyptic vibe, that’s why I made some lyrics in the same vein. Then the verse is really cool, and I really like the way we go from a four bar to a three bar in the middle of the song, I don’t think I ever heard that in a song before. It has all the aspects you need from a really good heavy metal song.
Oscar is not out to impress people anymore of how good a vocalist he is, and in his opinion, none of the songs on the new album will be particularly challenging to perform live.
– No, I don’t think so. I think it’s probably the least challenging album lyric wise that I ever recorded. There is none of the really crazy stuff on “Svbversvm”, I simply don’t feel the need to do that anymore. I am kind of like a martial artist, in the early career its fun with jump kicks and spin kicks, but then he realizes that a great punch is just as effective.
While he doesn’t need to do it anymore, like many singers, Oscar once felt he had a point to prove…
– Yes, but probably more from an experimental point of view. Can I do this? What can I do with it? I have realized over the years as being a vocalist, that I prefer my normal range, the most. To me, that’s the best part of it. You have all these new bands where singers are showing off like crazy. I could never take the same notes as Pär from Portrait for instance. He can sing so high it’s ridiculous. You also have a lot of other singers in bands that didn’t exist when we started, that will totally crush me when it comes to these crazy high pitches. There is really no need for me to try to show off anymore, as I don’t have the same high pitch range as a lot of them do. I can sing over four octaves, that’s good enough. It’s really weird, with that all these crazy singers emerging. We saw some in the eighties like Midnight, but now there are crazy vocalists popping up everywhere.
We’re nearing the end here, but let’s talk a little about the rather unusual “Under Command”, a split release with your comrades in Portrait, where the bands covered each other, did another cover version and contributed one brand new track. Are you satisfied with how “Under Command” turned out?
– Yeah, I am very satisfied. I think maybe the audience didn’t really understand that it was all about, both bands paying homage to heavy metal from. Maybe it was a little misinterpreted, as some people didn’t realize that “Welcome To My Funeral” is actually a Portrait-song, while “Blessed To Be Cursed” is a RAM-song. It’s been a little bit of that, but the release is actually something for the real fans. It’s only an EP, but I like it, and it was fun doing something with our old friends from Portrait. The idea came from me and Christian (Lindell, guitars in Portrait). To begin with, we wanted to call the release “Dedicate Your Life To Heavy Metal Or Die”, and have no logos or anything on the cover. That was the original idea, but later on we thought about it and found out we could have it in the booklet or whatever, so it changed over time, but that was the first idea.
The new song you contributed “Savage Machine”, was that a track you considered for “Svbversvm”?
– The song was written during the sessions for the new album, and there are still some songs left over from those sessions which we didn’t record for this album. We sat down and looked at what songs we needed for the album and for the EP respectively. It’s a really good track to have on an EP.
Both the previous album as well as “Svbversvm” contain a bonus DVD. “Death” had a DVD from your show at Keep It True in 2010. Even though I attended, I have to admit I haven’t sat down and watched the DVD. And to continue being honest, I am not sure I will watch the DVD added to the new album either. Too little time, and too much to do I guess.
– Well, when we did the tenth anniversary show here in Gothenborg, we said we were going to film because it was a special show. We had six or seven cameras in the venue, and I think it was 380 people in the attendance. If you take the recording from Keep It True, we didn’t have any control over the sound. It was kind of poorly mixed, not really mixed it, they were just making sure the channels are heard. It’s exactly what went through the live desk, then remixed with a recording from the audience we got from a friend of ours. This time we had a 24 hard drive recording of the sound and much more control. We never even knew we had access to the KIT show, that is something done by the label. This time we had full control, but since we are under contract with Metal Blade, they have rights to everything we do during the contractual period, so they wanted that material for the bonus DVD. It’s kind of out of our hands. We are not displeased with it, I think it turned out really cool, much better than the KIT-show.
RAM IT DOWN: A closer look at the band’s catalogue
– This one means a lot to us, especially since it’s our first release. In fact it’s the first thing we recorded, we didn’t do any demos or stuff like that. At the same time, you can really hear that we hadn’t existed as a band for too long, but at the same time there is a lot of charm surrounding the recording. I think some of our strongest songs are already here, the title track, “Infuriator” and “Machine Invaders”, to name just a few. “Sudden Impact” set things straight, and being our first real experience in the studio, I am quite proud of what we achieved. Even though none of our records turned out the way we thought, I am satisfied with all of them. We managed to sell about 5000 copies of this one.
– I have some fond memories of this one too, after all it’s our first full length release. We were still releasing our music ourselves, simply because we wanted to have full control over our products. There are a lot of songs here that I love. The title track for instance, I really enjoy performing that one live. “Burning Scars”, the last track, wasn’t received that well in reviews and stuff, and to some extent I can understand it, but we really wanted to break up the party-drink-beer-metal-vibe that ran through the album. We also wanted the album to have a not so happy-ending. The lyrics to that one are very personal, and I think it’s one of the best tracks we have made. “Forced Entry” didn’t sell as much as the first EP, but something around 3000 copies were shifted.
– Leif (Larsson, bass) wasn’t on board anymore, so me and Harry got more to say when it came to production and recording techniques. We researched a lot, how do you record, find a producer, a studio and so on. There are a lot of interesting songs on the album. “Suomussalmi” is a long, epic one, and there is also “Awakening The Chimaera”, a cooperation with Erik from Watain. I think this is one of our strongest songs. And if you speak about occult, dark philosophies, this one isn’t inferior at all to the so called black metal-bands. “The Elixir” is also an interesting one, showing a more theatrical side of RAM. These were really hard times, but we matured a lot. We didn’t have a deal in place when we recorded the album, but still had more money than ever and worked on a much higher level compared to “Forced Entry”.
We made sure to include a clause in the deal with AFM that allowed us to get out if we didn’t feel things worked out. We decided to look for a better partner, and found Metal Blade. With this album we did what we said we were going to do. We wanted an album that sounded as close as possible to what we do when we perform live. This raw energy that we have live, we wanted to capture it in the studio environment as well. We wanted the sound not to be overproduced, but honest, without too many effects. The three songs after the first instrumental is some sort of trilogy as they all deal with the theme “death”, although from different perspectives. I got the idea for the last song, “1771” because I wanted to create a song for my own funeral. Some songs on that album are going to stay with us for a long time in a live environment. Most of the tracks are mainly created for that purpose anyway. There are some weak moments for me, parts of songs that don’t really sound “liveish”, but I remember being extremely happy with it when it was released, and I still enjoy it.