Sweden has a long and rich history when it comes to epic, melodic doom metal. I don’t have to educate you about Candlemass of course, but lesser known bands as Sorcerer and Memory Garden, amongst others, are also part of the tradition. Below are a newer band carrying the same torch, first with the release of “Across The Dark River” back in 2014, and following it up with “Upon A Pale Horse”, their second for Metal Blade, released back in May this year.
This time, the label hooks me up Below’s drummer Jens Vestergren, also known as Doc. If I am correct, he was one of the last pieces in the puzzle that is now Below?
– In some sense, yes. Paud and Berg (both guitars) had been talking about starting a doom band together. They were toying with the idea, and as I was a member of Malison Rogue with Zeb, who they had approached to take care of the vocals for Below, they asked me if I was interested to fill in on drums. After a short chat with Zeb, I accepted the offer. That was it, really. The idea for a band was definitely there, but they hadn’t started rehearsing, and not a lot of material had been written. So yes, I was one of the last ones to join Below, but still I pretty much was there from the beginning.
What convinced you to join the Below?
– I like doom of course, and listen a lot to bands like Solitude Aeturnus, Candlemass and stuff like that. The bands I played in before, was more like progressive metal or traditional heavy metal, so for me it was both because I like the music, but also because I wanted to do something different. I looked forward to play more with power than finesse, so to say.
You mentioned Malison Rogue, a band that released a self titled debut album back in 2011, a release both you and Zeb performed on. Is the band still active?
– We haven’t done anything since we started with Below more or less. So I guess, the band is on ice. However, I listened to the album about two weeks ago, just to get a feeling of the old songs and the stuff I played on.
Is it as different as it seems playing drums in Below and Malison Rogue?
– In some sense yes. Malison Rogue are more in the vein of Queensrÿche and Fates Warning. You got to be more straight on time, with some odd time signatures. When I play for Below, it’s more about power and getting that huge, big sound out of the drums instead. The bands represents different kind of challenges, and at first I found it a bit hard to play slow. I am handling it a lot better now.
I have heard people claiming that certain musicians choose to play doom because it’s easier to perform than other forms of metal…
– I don’t agree with that. The slower you play, the more easily you can hear it if it’s untight. Of course it’s really demanding to perform speed metal, but doom is hard too. Especially at the beginning I found it hard to get the right timing and to get everything, both the bass, guitar and drums into one sound. So, personally I would say it’s almost harder to play slow than fast.
What do you think about “Across The Dark River”, a few years after it was released?
– It’s a really good strong album, but if you compare it to “Upon A Pale Horse”, the latter is much more diverse in the song writing. We are older, and have grown as song writers as well. Musically, the core is very much the same,, with heavy riffs, melodies, atmosphere and the slow tempo of course. That being said, we also have two faster songs on this album, the heaviest songs we’ve ever done, the slowest one we’ve done and the longest one we’ve done. So the added diversity is probably the main issue if you compare it to “Across The Dark River”, I would say.
Which songs are you talking about?
– The slowest…well, some of the tracks are pretty close, but I would probably say “Disappearing Into Nothing”, or…wait…”Hours Of Darkness” is probably even slower. It’s also the most melodic one, mainly because of the guitar in the intro. The first time I heard it, I almost went crazy. The main riff in “Disappearing Into Nothing”, has to be the heaviest one. We all more or less demanded it to be the opener for the album, just because of that particular crushing riff. The longest is of course the title track, with the speech at the beginning, which is almost 10 minutes long. I think the shortest song on the album is “Suffer In Silence”, which must be less than five minutes long, something that is pretty short for doom metal.
When I spoke to your bass player Andreas Hedman around the release of your debut album, I asked specifically about the demo song “House Of 1000 Bones” as it was called back then, since it really stood out from the rest of the material at the time, but according to Hedman you wanted to leave it out, to make sure you had a similar tempo throughout the album.
– It wasn’t really that we didn’t want that particular song on the album. The idea was to use it, we even recorded it at Andy LaRocques studio as well, but when we listened to it afterwards, the song simply didn’t fit in with the rest of the tracks. At least not at the moment, right there. We thought we needed to keep the track, because it was clearly a good song, but as I say, we felt it didn’t belong amongst those songs released back then.
The song features on the new album, with a slightly adjusted title. Why does “1000 Broken Bones” fit better this time around?
– It’s the diversity of the songs on “Upon A Pale Horse” that makes it fits better. The sound hasn’t really changed, it’s a bit darker and rawer maybe, but the song is lifted to another level with added groove on the guitars and so on.
It seems you changed some bits and pieces as Hedman suggested you might do back then?
– Yeah, we changed some small things. Some of the vocals as well as the lyrics are a little different compared to the early version. I also chose another drum groove for the verses of the song. Instead of the almost disco feeling of the version on the old demo, I now play a more straight beat to get more drive behind the drums. So yeah, we have reworked some small things, the solo after the second chorus is different as well. To sum up, the song was too good not to be used, but at the same time it really needed some work, some small tweaks to be lifted to the next level.
In my opinion, the added diversity make this album more memorable than the debut. Was the change just with the listener in mind, or something you did to keep it more interesting to yourselves as musicians and songwriters?
– More for us, I would say. We constantly grow as songwriters, and we had a lot more riffs for this album compared to the debut, so we could add some diversity. When we write music, we don’t discard anything because it doesn’t fit within the frames of doom metal. If it’s a good riff, it’s a good riff, and we will most probably use it.
In this epic doom metal genre, every young band will always be compared to the likes of Candlemass and Solitude Aeturnus. What would you say is Below’s own trademark or identity?
– At least I would say that we have found more of it on this album. What the listener will recognize, is probably all the really heavy riffs, but also the fact that we’re focusing on keeping things dynamic, as we go from really intense to calm parts. The vocals as well, are quite different. There are some really haunting melodies, but also high pitched screams you won’t get from every other doom metal bands. I think it’s because we all listen to different forms of metal, not only doom metal, and bring our own influences into the songwriting. I think that might be one factor that makes us a little different, but that is for the listener to decide really.
What would you name as your personal influences in the genre, apart from the already mentioned Candlemass and Solitude Aeturnus?
– Those are definitely the two bands I listen to the most, but Procession put out a really good album some years ago, “To Reap Heavens Apart”. Excellent stuff, I listened to it just a couple of days ago.
Back when your first album was released, I remember the press release saying that you hoped the album would leave a mark in the history of doom metal. In retrospect, do you think it did?
– At least I hope so. The reception for the album was way better than expected. Only time can tell how people will view it, you know like with Metallica’s “Kill Em All” and the all early ones. Those releases got bigger and more appreciated along the way. I am not sure if it was a defining moment in the 21st century of doom, time will tell, but at least Metal Blade were happy with the sales. And if they are happy, we are happy. Being in a doom metal band you just have to live with the fact that you won’t sell huge numbers of course, since it’s a small subgenre.
Were you happy about how the album helped opening doors for you with regards to live performances?
– Yeah, I think so, but we didn’t get the chance to play as much live as we would have liked to. We got on the Tons Of Rock-bill in Norway, which was amazing. You have to remember it was a huge lineup with the likes of Megadeth and Alice Cooper. We also got to play at Hammer of Doom before the album was even released, as well as Summer Breeze and Up the Hammers in Greece. Hopefully the new album can help us even more. I think I can speak for the whole band when I say that being up on stage playing music is the best thing we can do. Right now we are only able to do shorter tours, if we were professional musicians we could be away for longer periods of time, but at the moment we have to take care of our regular jobs as well. We could probably manage to go on a tour for two weeks or so, but we’re not in a position where we can be away for two or three months at a time. Shorter tours and festivals are probably right for us.
It also seems that you recently started working with a booking agency, that should make things a bit easier for you compared to in the past where you booked gigs on your own?
– Yeah, I really hope that will make things easier for us. I am the one who has done most of the booking, for festivals at least. It takes a lot of time, time we would rather like to spend writing and performing music, so it’s really great that Doomstar wanted to work with us. I hope it will open a lot of more doors for the band. Don’t misunderstand me, I kind of like talking to people, and building a network. Some of the people I got in contact with, I would call my friends, based on more or less email-contact only. I know it sounds cheesy, but metal is like a brotherhood, it really is. Especially when it come to doom metal, since it’s such a small subgenre, with a really die hard crowd, as you can witness at the doom-festivals.
Do you think the festivals focusing purely on doom metal is a good thing, or would you rather see doom metal bands being paired with band from other subgenres?
– Can I say “yes” to both? If you travel to Hammer Of Doom and enter the stage, you know that the thousand people in front of the stage all love doom metal, and even if you are a new act, there is a decent chance they will all enjoy your own band as well. When you go to a different type of festival, you never know how many in the audience that likes the style of music you play. On the other hand, if you play metal festivals with more diverse billings, you might make some new friends or fans. It’s easier to spread your music to new people when you play these types of festivals. Personally, I would like more doom bands on the big festivals, as that would probably give Below a chance to get booked for a few of them. Haha! You have to remember that there is a huge difference between doom metal bands as well, some favour the more seventies oriented fuzz doom, while we’re more metallic doom, with heavy riffs, and a cleaner sound topped with high pitched vocals. It’s a widespread genre really.
After using Sonic Train for “Across The Dark River”, you are now back in the Deep Blue Studios which you used for the demo. Was it something about the work Andy LaRocque did on the debut album you weren’t completely satisfied with?
– No, not at all. Andy is a great guy, owns a great studio and is a great engineer as well. We spoke to him early on about helping us out on this new album as well, but we couldn’t find a time which suited both parts. Apart from that, it’s a long journey, about a five hour drive from where we live to Varberg were Andy’s studio is located. We looked at different options and talked to our friend Nicko, the owner of Deep Blue Studios. “Why not recorded it at home?”, we asked ourselves. It’s always nice in some ways to go away to record, as it normally generates a bit more pressure. You got to do it once you are there, and you certainly can’t take all the time in the world. On the other hand, it’s good to be able to record it at home. If you get a few hours of spare time, you can always enter the studio to record some guitars.
What can you tell us about the song writing process? On the first album, all music was credited to Below, is this the case this time around as well?
– Yeah, it’s more or less the same. Of course, most of the riffs are written by the guitar players, personally I can’t play guitar for shit. I can only write drum parts, or change the rhythm of a song, but generally we all pitch in, it not like one person will have a full song that he brings to the rehearsal room. We always have a lot of riffs, since there are four people in the band writing riffs. Sometimes we take a riff from Zeb which is perfect for the chorus, because he usually think a bit more about the vocal line on top of it, and then we have Berg coming up with a huge intro. We tend to build the songs that way, and put them together as a team.
What would you say is your own contribution to the song writing?
– I would say the rhythms and perhaps I listen to our material in a more “groovy sense” than the other members. My job as the drummer, is to be the backbone of the band. I am not supposed to be at the front of the stage or the one people pay most attention to. A drummer’s role is not like that, especially not when you perform doom metal. I listen to and analyze our music a lot…Oh, that riff would be excellent with this riff, or stuff like that. I also suggest changes in tempo for certain songs. I have listened a lot to Jan Lindh from Candlemass. I think he is an excellent doom drummer. Sometimes, I watch instructional videos or drum cams on YouTube. Judging from the amount of videos, it seems like people find extreme metal most interesting, but I am not sure really. Personally, I think Ghost have some excellent drum lines as well, some of them are slow of course, and both Snowy Shaw and Mickey Dee has done some excellent stuff in the past. I also listen to drummers like Mike Portnoy or Mario Duplantier from Gojira. I try to bring in a bit of everything to Below, but of course I won’t bring Mike Portnoy style drumming into doom metal, that will only sound peculiar.
Where on the new album do you think you put in your best performance?
– I am always good. Haha! Seriously, the song on the new record that I enjoy to play the most is “Hours Of Darkness”, as there is a lot of different parts in that one. That is probably my best performance, but as I said, each and every performance is good.
I guess your singer Zeb is the man behind the lyrics this time as well, what kind of effect did they have on you when you read them for the first time?
– We usually have an idea of what a specific song should be about, and we always write the music and the melodies first. Sometimes we start with the riffs, sometimes it’s the melody line that comes first. The topics for the lyrics are mostly derived from the feeling we get from the songs. When we write the songs, Zeb will just sing random words to the melody. That is actually pretty funny to listen to. Usually the theme of the lyrics comes naturally. For instance, “Upon A Pale Horse” is such a huge and apocalyptic song, that it simply has to be about the end of the world. When we had all the songs ready, and sat down wondering what to call the album, we looked at the titles for the songs, and decided “Upon A Pale Horse” sounded good. It also fit with our style and the kind of artwork we wanted for the album.
The album contains some backing vocals by Anders Engberg from Sorcerer and a spoken intro done by Alan Averill from Primordial. Are they really contributing something you couldn’t have done yourselves?
– Anders is a friend of Conny who helped us record the vocals. We felt that we didn’t want the same voice for the back up vocals as the lead vocals, we wanted another voice to complement Zeb for some parts. Anders has a great voice, he is a friend of Conny and is also in a band signed to Metal Blade, so it was a no brainer really. When it comes to Alan’s contribution, we wanted a speech at the start of the title track. The question was: Who should we ask to do it? We wanted someone that speaks English fluently and has a dramatic voice. Alan fit the bill, and since he works for Metal Blade, it was pretty to ask him if he wanted to do it. It’s not an attempt at selling more records, their contribution made the album better.