Jonas Stålhammar Rings A ‘Bell’ Of Doom
By Justin Smulison
Jonas Stålhammar certainly knows how to stay active. The Swedish axeman and vocalist is a member or leader of five — that’s right, five — groups that are always in various stages of production and touring. The most recognizable is melodic death metal champions At The Gates. But among his most reliable bands is one he fronts, Bombs of Hades. He sings and plays guitar in that quartet, which in the previous decade released four LPs, and several other EPs, splits and singles.
Phantom Bell is their first offering of the 2020s. Now available via Black Lodge Records & Moondawn, it contains four songs — two originals and two surprising covers (“Kamikaze” by Japanese rock group Flower Travellin’ Band and “Lungs,” by American folk and country singer Townes Van Zandt) that mark a further direction into doom territory. The proof is in the title track, which you can view and hear, here.
Blessed Altar Zine contributor Justin Smulison caught up with Stålhammar to discuss his atypical influences, the future of Bombs Of Hades and how the coronavirus pandemic can’t stop his creative output.
Justin Smulison: Though I am a Blessed Altar Zine contributor I confess I am not much of a death metal fan. But I genuinely like Phantom Bell probably because it is atypical and has more of a doom feel to it. How is your approach to death metal unique?
Jonas Stålhammar: It’s actually quite nice to hear that someone who’s not really into death metal likes our music. Our approach comes from us not listening that much at all to death metal anymore. I was obsessed with it as a teenager but grew tired of it because it didn’t really do anything for me musically anymore as a listener. But I still love writing music that is firmly or kind of rooted in it. My influences the past 30 years have been more progressive/psychedelic rock, 1970s stuff and as you mentioned, doom. But also country and loud guitar rock.
How much of a conscientious decision is it to sing a bit differently than many other death metal vocalists?
It is mostly on purpose so people actually kind of can hear what I sing. The ones I like are Cronos (Venom), Tom G Warrior (Celtic Frost, Tripykon) and Matt Pike (High on Fire).
How is Phantom Bell a preview of the sound and tone of the upcoming full-length? How will it differ from past efforts?
They don’t represent the next album as a whole, no. And none of the tracks will be on it. I prefer to keep EP songs off albums as much as possible. However there will probably be one or two songs on it that are in the same vein. The next Bombs of Hades album will be a lot more experimental than our previous ones so it’s kind of new territory for us.
Was “Bridge of Sighs” inspired by the actual bridge in Venice?
The bridge in Venice was no inspiration at all. I just ‘stole’ the title from the album/song by Robin Trower, who I am a huge fan of.
Your instrumental and solo sections are simultaneously catchy and haunting. On an original like “Bridge of Sighs” and a cover like “Kamikaze,” how do you approach the instrumental sections? For example, do you tune guitars in a special way?
Most of our songs are in standard D tuning. On the next album though there will be some experimenting with open tunings and downtune to B which we’ve never done. Well, there’s open tuning on “Burning Angel (Uhuru)” on the last album but that is the only time we’ve done it. The instrumental and solo parts are really the parts where we go a bit more prog and psych, which is a lot of fun.
The HM2-pedal was not used on Phantom Bell. How and why is this noteworthy for Bombs of Hades and your music?
We stopped using the HM-2 pedal on the last album. I’m really done using that pedal. A lot of times it seems like many think all you need is that pedal to make Swedish sounding death metal. [Laughing] You need good riffs to start with. It’s run its course for me, personally.
Clearly you wanted to throw fans curveballs with the covers with songs by Townes Van Zandt and Flower Travellin’ Band. How difficult is it to deconstruct a song to make it your own and put the Bombs of Hades stamp on it?
It really isn’t that difficult. We choose covers we know we can put our own stamp on. We have some cool ones we still want to do, which of course are also curveballs. What’s the point in doing metal covers? Even though we have done a couple early on.
How is COVID-19 impacting your output? How might it even be fueling the creative process?
It hasn’t really affected Bombs of Hades. But me personally, yes. All shows At The Gates had booked this year are gone which affects my income since that’s my livelihood. But on the other hand it has given me a lot more time to finish up the writing for the next album.
So much great rock and metal comes from Sweden. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. Music has always been quite a big thing here for some reason. I mean I knew from a very early age that I was going to be a musician. I’ve been obsessed with music since I was about three years old.
Every musician’s philosophy will differ, but what do you feel makes a good or lasting metal song?
I can only refer to the old stuff that still influences me. The early metal stuff was more written [with] the classic song formula — even the technical stuff. That is still what I think a good metal song needs.
Metal is a genre that never goes away and always seems to find an audience. Would you agree and how do you feel you and your many projects contribute to its longevity?
Totally agree. Metal has such a devoted fan base. I don’t know about our stuff or how my earlier stuff contributed to it though. I mean, I know especially God Macabre have influenced bands and that is very flattering. Seeing we were all 17 or 18 years old when we did that stuff.
You have (and have had) so many projects and bands through the years. Did you always want to spread your wings and have your hands in so many endeavors? How did your career evolve?
For me it’s very inspiring to play with many different and talented musicians. At the moment, I play in five bands and they all give me different things. I especially enjoy playing music that is not metal. It’s very healthy for me because it doesn’t make me lose the hunger to actually continue to play metal.
Financially, I really only make money off one band and the rest is just extra. Also one of my other bands, Venus Principle, is not metal at all.
How do you manage all your bands and projects? Does technology help progress (like Dropbox, email, etc.)?
These days writing music with technology kind of goes hand-in-hand. All bands I’m in write like this and send files back and forth using stuff like Dropbox. I actually like that way of working, now.
Do you have your ear to the underground metal scene and which groups or musicians — or even subgenres — show a lot of promise?
Not really, anymore. Sometimes a band is recommended to me that is trying out something different that I enjoy. I’m more in tune with the underground scenes in progressive and psychedelic music.
What advice do you have for any metal musician who is trying to establish themselves today?
Just do your thing and try not to emulate other bands in the same genre too much. Take influence from other kinds of music to get your own voice.
**Please support the underground! It’s vital to the future of our genre.