ENTOMBED Guitarist ALEX HELLID - “Wolverine Blues Was A Reaction To What We Did On Clandestine; We Tried To Simplify Things Instead”
June 7, 2019, 6 months ago
In November of 2016, Entombed commemorated the silver anniversary of their second album Clandestine with a special two-part performance that took place 25 years to the day after the album’s original release date. In the first half of the concert, the Malmo Symphony Orchestra performed a classical rendition of the death metal classic arranged by composer Thomas von Wachenfeldt, who became an avid Entombed fan when he first bought Clandestine album at the ripe old age of 12. In the second half, the current incarnation of the band “the classic-era triumverate of guitarists Alex Hellid and Uffe Cederlund with drummer Nicke Andersson, joined by vocalist Robert Andersson and bassist Edvin Aftonfalk” tore through the complete album in its familiar metallic form. While the complete show was chronicled on a CD/DVD set released a year later, the band has just released a new CD/double-vinyl package consisting of the metal portion of the event.
Guitarist and band founder Alex Hellid caught up with BraveWords to reflect on the seminal Swedish death metal act’s history, its future, and why Clandestine has achieved a kind of eternal life as a work in a state of perpetual reincarnation.
BraveWords: You, Uffe and one-time Entombed vocalist Orvar Safstrom performed with the Gävle Symphony Orchestra in 2014. How did those orchestrations differ from the 2016 performance?
Alex Hellid: “The performance we recorded for the album was the third time we’ve done something like this. Thomas was actually the one who suggested us [for a classical re-interpretation]. That was around 2011. He had been approached to do some orchestration for a crossover event in a little Swedish town up north. The organizers asked him if he knew any bands who might be interested in playing with an orchestra. That performance was actually half an orchestra, 30 pieces, what they call a chamber orchestra. So the first orchestrations he did were for a much smaller ensemble. It was a little bigger when we did it in Gävle. At that point, we added a choir, but we didn’t play as a band at all. And then the third one was for a full symphonic orchestra. Thomas wrote more parts for each show, more cellos, violins, percussion, and more choir parts. It’s a work in progress. We’re hoping to do more of these and go outside of Sweden with them, and whatever we do next time will be different than the previous time. It’s growing as we do it.”
BraveWords: You had originally told Thomas that you wanted him to forget the band, to interpret the music as if the band wasn’t there.
Alex Hellid: “It took me a little bit before he took me seriously on that. I was like ‘take us out’.”
BraveWords: The band did eventually end up in the performance, but you told him that you wanted him to use the band the same way a composer would use a flute or something.
Alex Hellid: “The first time, we were kind of left to our own [judgment], like ‘make sounds where you think you should.’[Laughs.] I actually brought both acoustic and electric guitars to that first show. For the second show, Thomas was sitting with us, so he was kind of like our conductor.”
BraveWords: After the release of Clandestine in 1991, one-time Entombed vocalist Johnny Dordevic emphasized that Entombed weren’t playing very complex music. In 1993, after LG Petrov returned as the band’s singer, he basically said the same thing. Yet Thomas saw this as a fertile source to exercise what an orchestra can do.
Alex Hellid: “Yeah. That’s amazing to me, but it kind of makes sense. I’m sure that he could do well with Wolverine Blues too, but there’s less to work with there because it’s more based in bluesy pentatonic scales. With Clandestine, there are more parts and less repetition, for sure. That’s the album where we were influenced by Atheist and were trying to make it as complex, at least as complex as we could. We were very influenced by a show we played with those guys around 1990. But it was hard for us to pull it off in the live show, so we felt like we couldn’t take that approach any further. There were a lot of bands doing the technical stuff better than us. That’s why Wolverine Blues was kind of a reaction to what we did on Clandestine. We tried to simplify things instead.”
BraveWords: Thomas grew up as an Entombed fan, and Clandestine was the first album of yours that he bought. How common would you say that is in Sweden for people to like classical and metal?
Alex Hellid: “I don’t think it’s that common. When I started thinking, ‘How are we going to work with an orchestra?’ I had no idea. I had no friends who knew and didn’t know anybody who knew the first thing about how you go about it. It was just luck that out of the blue somebody contacted us and asked if we want to do the exact thing I’d been wondering how to do. The classical music we were listening to was coming from film scores like Christopher Young’s Hellraiser. To now have a working relationship with Thomas is awesome. Now when we record new stuff we can add things that we could only talk about before. But the only other guys I know who might come close would be some of the guys in Meshuggah who play with jazz people.”
BraveWords: You’ve been talking about building a film around this latest rendition too.
Alex Hellid: “Yeah. When I heard it the first time, I was like, ‘I want to see this film!’ [Laughs] I’ve always been interested in movies. I don’t know how I’m going to do that, but it’ll definitely be interesting. We have the music and we have great artwork, so how hard can it be, right? [Laughs] One thing kind of leads to another. We did these orchestral performances and then in 2014, when the Swedish Music Hall of Fame [got off the ground], they inducted us into that. Through that, I met a project manager/producer who works these sorts of events. He’s actually the one who set up the show in Malmo the one we recorded. So he’s put us in touch with a theater director, and we’ve taken some meetings with a choreographer. We’ll see if we can make something else out of this and bring in some other art forms. I have no idea what it’s going to end up being. Of course, I’m hoping it’ll be watchable and listenable and interesting, but the next step would be, ‘How would we capture this on film?’ and ‘Can we turn it into something with more of a storyline?’ For me, it’s like an experiment: you take an old album and some artwork and it’s like ‘How far can you go with that?’ It seems like you can go pretty far.”
BraveWords: How much would you give a filmmaker the liberty to come up with their own story that they feel this music would support, versus building a story or vibe out of the original imagery in the lyrics?
Alex Hellid: “I would want it to be the latter ‘at least starting out’ but then have that as a framework. When we did this show in 2016, we started to do some animations. The idea was to start with the artwork and have it come to life, basically, so that you could enter the artwork. But once you go into that forest, you could end up anywhere. That could be just a gateway into telling the story of the band or something else. ‘What are these lyrics about? Can we bring some meaning to them or use them to tell stories about something that’s meaningful? And can we also then at the same time show these kids that started this thing back then and had no clue and now they’re growing and [encountering] different [situations].’ Just seeing different ways that movies and stories are told, there are so many ways to make things interesting on so many levels. There’s definitely stuff there [in the album] that can be used to make any sort of film. If possible, I wouldn’t want it to be just a straight horror flick. You can have some scary parts, but it would be the easy way out to just go to some of the lyrics and be like, ‘how genre-scary can we make this?’ It would probably be okay like that. You can do a c-movie [laughs] and people will still like it as long as you bring some blood. But it would be cool to use more than, to put some twists on things and add a few more layers. Like I love what they did with Abba’s music for the film Mamma Mia. There’s no way they had a movie in mind when they wrote those songs, but they just took some titles, some music, some imagination and they pieced it together and created a story that fit with the songs. That proves that you can take different elements and create something that wasn’t there from the beginning.”
BraveWords: You’ve talked in the past about how you went to see the Mamma Mia theater production.
Alex Hellid: “Yeah, I was in Las Vegas with my wife-to-be. Her name is Mia as well. We wanted to go see a show at one of the hotels and everything else was sold out. Celine Dion and people like that were playing. It was like ‘Did we come all this way to come to an Abba show?’ But it was great. I was pleasantly surprised. One of the Woody Allen movies, was it Bullets Over Broadway?”
Alex Hellid: “That was another time I was pleasantly surprised by a musical. But it was more my mother’s generation who had Abba albums. It’s more that if you’re from here, you grow up with it whether you like it or not, so you know that music. They weren’t really active when I grew up. For us, they got bigger and bigger outside of Sweden as we were growing up. I didn’t have any Abba albums growing up, but I really admire what they’ve done and I like a lot of the stuff. And then we got to meet some of them at this Music Hall of Fame thing, and they seemed very down-to-earth.”
BraveWords: Entombed was actually inducted into the Swedish Music Hall of Fame in the same ceremony as they were.
Alex Hellid: “Yeah, which is very weird. [Laughs]”
BraveWords: When you think of the guys who made those Nihilist demos, if someone had told you that you would be mentioned alongside Abba in the future…
Alex Hellid: “[Laughs] Back then it was more like people were telling us to shut up and start playing some real music and stop wasting our time with whatever noise we were making. But yeah, we would’ve thought it was like a prank call. That’s actually what we thought when they called up and asked us if we wanted to work with the ballet. They got ahold of our bass player at the time Jurgen. He hung up the first couple of times that they called. He thought they were joking. But when I took the call about the Music Hall of Fame I was like, ‘Yeah, sure’, but I had no idea what that meant. And I understood afterwards that it kind of rubbed some people the wrong way. Because you have these names like Abba and Roxette and a few more who are regarded as the soul of Sweden and you add this death metal band and I guess there were a few people who thought there was something wrong with that picture.”
BraveWords: How awkward was the ceremony with LG Petrov being there as well?
Alex Hellid: “[Laughs] That was kind of awkward because we were in this legal [dispute]. Apart from this Clandestine stuff that I wanted to do, with Entombed in 2011-12 we were working on structuring and setting up a new team so that I wouldn’t have to do both management and play, especially when we were going to focus on recording. I brought in what I hoped was somebody who could take over some of the management stuff that I’d been handling since like 2001. It was never supposed to be that way, but time just passed and more and more it started landing on my shoulders. I don’t really have a problem with the business side of things, but it definitely doesn’t give you a lot of time to play guitar. So that’s where the problems started, in the end, I didn’t want to keep working with that guy. And when that person realized it, he tried to register the band name together with LG. We told them, ‘You can do whatever you want and start a band, but don’t call it Entombed.’ I didn’t do any interviews or talk about it back then, partly because the legal people that we used thought it wasn’t the thing to do, and partly because I didn’t really see what good it would do. But they went around and talked a lot about it, and the story they told is that I left. But I never left the band that I started. The way we see it is that they started a new band and were trying to sort of hijack our name. And I wasn’t about to join them in their new band, basically. They probably went around telling stories about how much of a bad guy I was in all of this, but it’s pretty simple to find the documentation for how this all started. It’s right there if you go into a trademark office here in Sweden. I can see how it’s easier to book shows and stuff if you use the Entombed name, but I don’t think anybody takes too well when you feel like you’re being blackmailed into something.”
BraveWords: Well, from their point of view, they probably felt like since LG, Nico Elgstrand, Olle Dahlstedt, and Victor Brandt had all been in the functioning Entombed lineup for years at that point, they wouldn’t want their momentum stopped by having to start over.
Alex Hellid: “Yes, and understandably so. I totally understand what they wanted to do. But if it was Nicke who had did this, then it would be a real problem for me, because then it would be like, ‘Okay, this is a guy who’s really a big part of the creative [foundation of the band’, concept-wise, logo-wise, etc. He’s the one I worked with to create the entity that is Entombed. That doesn’t go for any of those other guys. If it ever came to it, I would never fight Nicke on this. And I don’t think he would do it either. We would never fight about this. We would both be like, ‘Okay, if we can’t agree on it, either somebody will back off and we’ll do what the other one wants.’ When this dispute happened with LG, I never for a minute thought about going out and recruiting four other guys. I was like, ‘It doesn’t really matter if I do another show.’ Now that Nicke and Uffe want to do it, that’s fine, but otherwise it was like, ‘We’ll be a band that just works with the back catalog for a while.’ There are things to take care of. I never felt like trying to find other people just too quickly record an album and show that ‘I’m alive and I’m going to keep this alive no matter what.’ If we’re going to do it, I really want the right people involved. There’s a lot of things that I don’t have to worry about if I work with Nicke and Uffe. I don’t have to tell them what to do, because they won’t be told anyway. [Laughs]”
BraveWords: Which current/former Entombed members attended the Hall of Fame ceremony?
Alex Hellid: “I invited everybody. That’s what a nice, professional guy I am. Nicke and Uffe aren’t easily impressed, though, and they’re less prone to mingle with mortals. So at the event I was joined by, if I remember correctly, Jörgen Sandström, maybe Peter Stjärnvind, Olle Dahlstedt, and Victor Brandt. LG joined me on stage accepting the induction during my little speech and maybe said a word and was in the photo afterwards with the rest of the inductees. It was cool and awkward as hell.”
BraveWords: How surprised were you when LG decided to try and go forward with the Entombed name?
Alex Hellid: “Not surprised. It makes it easier for them to book shows and open doors but I’m sure they could have done cool things with a fresh name. We even offered to help them out coming up with something hot and catchy.”
BraveWords: How much of a sense of betrayal did that leave you with?
Alex Hellid: “Well, it makes for greater drama down the line possibly. So even if I’ve spent way too much energy on it somehow, it leads to new art. That’s how I try to see it. I’m happier now that I don’t have to be in that situation, though. But it was a way to break out of a rut. I was a little surprised at the level of energy this manager character was willing to put into trying to get involved in Entombed business. I don’t think I would have done that even for the Beatles. So, in some way maybe that’s a compliment.”
BraveWords: There are lots of interview clips over the years of you and LG talking together. What was your relationship was like?
Alex Hellid: “Pretty cool, I thought. We’ve spent a lot of time together, so you become sort of family after a while. In my mind at least, I totally understand why he does what he does. Nicke too recently said something like, ‘I’m not really that pissed off at LG. I understand what’s happening here.’ Nicke was actually using the same management at the time, which shows how small Stockholm is. A little awkward for sure.”
BraveWords: What would it be like if you and LG ran into each other?
Alex Hellid: “We say hi, shake hands, and act strangely professional somehow. That’s what happened the last time I saw him at the court in Stockholm in like February of 2018.”
BraveWords: When you rehearsed the Clandestine material with Uffe and Nicke, what kind of memories did it bring back?
Alex Hellid: “Well, when we did it live, at that time we didn’t really have proper front-of-house sound with us. So you could just see it in the crowd, like ‘They don’t really know what’s going on here.’ [Laughs] That’s why I found it interesting, not only the orchestra aspect, but to revisit it as a band. It’s nice to show people what’s really there, because there’s a lot going on and we never really felt like we mastered it in the live setting. We never even played about half the album live either. But when our early albums were recorded, we were basically teenagers. Things happened really quickly then compared to now, we recorded our first three albums pretty much in a three-year period. We weren’t out doing long tours and drinking every night for the first two albums either. We were pretty focused. There’s never been a lot of drugs or anything in this band, so it’s not like we totally lost years because we were too wasted. For me, this is my first band, so I’ve never really had a break from it either. It’s been a very long first experience, going from being 13 and starting the band with the people I grew up with to meeting up with Nicke and through him meeting Uffe and LG.”
BraveWords: Looking back at pictures and clips from 1990 to ‘93, it seems like you guys were having fun.
Alex Hellid: “Yeah. And then around ‘94 or so, that’s when you get more into the industry part of it. Once you catch up with the business side of things. You change record labels and that takes a year out of your life and it feels like ten years. Up until ‘93-’94 was like a gravy train compared to what the next part was going to be. [Laughs] Of course, you don’t know it at the time. You start to take things for granted and you have no experience with the legal side of things. You have no idea what it actually means to get into that side of it and no idea how much it hurts to lose your momentum. There’s definitely at least one Entombed album that was lost during that period. We would definitely have been recording during, like ‘95. We didn’t release the next album [DCLXVI: To Ride, Shoot Straight and Speak the Truth] until... late ‘96, I guess?
BraveWords: It was ‘97.
Alex Hellid: “‘97!”
BraveWords: Which is a huge gap.
Alex Hellid: “Yeah, I remember it as the worst ever. The most boring and worst time of my life up until that point.”
BraveWords: What was going on that caused the delay?
Alex Hellid: “For the first album we didn’t have management, but by Clandestine we’d gotten a manager. As you go along, obviously people are going to start to question the contracts you’ve gotten into. And it just got bad. There was one more album left on the deal with Earache, but we were young and we felt mistreated. Earache probably felt mistreated by us too. With hindsight, it would have been a lot better to fulfill the fourth album. Before getting a manager, we’d have conversations straight with the label ourselves. As more people come in, there’s less communication. I think that was a big thing. The connection between the band and the label got worse. We were out doing tours and talking less to them. On the first couple of albums, it was us calling straight to Digby [Pearson, Earache records founder]. ‘Okay, we’re ready to record. Are you good with that? We don’t have a singer, but...’ [Laughs] We definitely don’t blame them for anything. We had a deal, and it’s unfortunate [that we felt the need to break it]. We actually had a perfect setup with Earache for Wolverine Blues. Earache had a [distribution] deal with Columbia in North America. That was probably the best setup [we ever had], with a perfect [marketing] theme in the U.S. [referring to the Marvel comic tie-in Ed]. That was another one of those things, like being called up about the Swedish Music Hall of Fame. It was like, ‘Oh, this is awesome! We get to be on this level and work with these people and they’ve released all these things that we looked up to growing up.’ You definitely understand afterwards how great it really was to have people [behind you] like the ones who were working at Columbia then. When To Ride came out, Music For Nations had been bought up by BMG, so we had that major-label experience afterwards as well, but the difference was there was no dedicated team that was really fired-up on our niche of music. Being on a major label when there’s nobody interested [is a very different experience]. We know what difference a record company makes, especially when there’s people working there who care about the bands.”
BraveWords: Right after that gap, you still put out five albums from ‘97 to 2003. How were you able to keep up that kind of pace after such a major setback?
Alex Hellid: “It was something that we learned to deal with, I guess. But you definitely understand how much you worked to get to where you were, and then it feels like... maybe you’re not exactly starting from zero, but there’s a long way back. [Laughs] And then, of course, things change also. Around ‘93 was probably one of the pinnacles of that extreme music trend. We chose a really bad time to change labels. [Laughs] I know for a fact that Columbia were [scratching their heads] wondering, like, ‘So what are you doing?’ They were like, ‘And why? You’ve worked a lot here and you’ve just started to [gain ground]. This is the first step. Now you’re ready to [take the next step].’ We were getting offers to do bigger tour, so they saw it like, ‘Yeah, this is going according to plan.’”
BraveWords: So if Earache had that distribution deal with Columbia, what was the rationale for changing labels? Whose idea was it?
Alex Hellid: “That’s a very good question. It must have come down to communication, I think. Our manager made it sound like Earache was trying to blackmail us. We felt like that. We were probably overreacting kids. [Laughs] ‘So they want us to do this, but only if we sign for another seven albums.’ I’m sure it could’ve been handled a lot better.”
BraveWords: So you felt like they were pressuring you into a position where they could take advantage.
Alex Hellid: “Yeah, and that could’ve been miscommunication since we weren’t speaking to them ourselves anymore. Because today, we have conversations with them instead, and we can work things out. It’s kind of sad. I’m sure Earache and Digby were really frustrated because they put all these things together [for us]. I write that one up to us just being young and inexperienced. We also changed management at that time, because we started feeling paranoid. I think our manager saw that, ‘Yeah, maybe it’s better for you to [see this through].’ And we were like, ‘Okay, so now he’s against us as well.’ It would have been great if somehow our manager would have managed to [convince] us. But he was in the U.S. and we were in Sweden, so when we left to tour, it was just harder for him to communicate with us as well. I mean, I had a fax machine, but the other guys didn’t and it was expensive to call. We went back to Sweden and were like ‘We’re not having this.’ We weren’t being the most professional and honorable to the contracts that we had, and we paid the price for that.”
BraveWords: So then, by the time ‘98 rolls around, Nicke leaves. He played the European dates for To Ride when you toured with Neurosis, but he wasn’t there when you toured the States with Unsane. What, in your mind, did the band lose when he left?
Alex Hellid: “We definitely lost one of our legs. If we were a three-legged stool, we lost one of those legs. We managed to do something, but it was a big loss. I always felt like he was sort of part of the family anyway. It wasn’t like we fell out or anything. It was just that he wanted to play guitar and concentrate on The Hellacopters. He’s a guy that’s full of ideas, and he plays most instruments as well. A lot of Clandestine was [the result of] him having a lot of ideas. The way I remember it, it wasn’t usually somebody coming in with a full song. It would be just an idea or the start of something. One thing Nicke is really good at is hearing what’s next and doing that on the spot, coming up with the next part and the next part. If you compare to myself, I was very inexperienced when we started out. Like if I were to write a song, I wouldn’t have had a clue what the drums should do, but he could always hear [the bigger picture]. If he wrote a part on guitar, he would know what the drums were doing. He was definitely a big part in us being able to work quick, him and Uffe together. They work really fast. They’re really restless guys, so they constantly move on to the next thing. [Laughs]”
BraveWords: Nicke wanted to do the orchestral shows in 2014, but he wasn’t able to do it until 2016. You’ve said that he was nervous in rehearsals because he hadn’t played in this style in a long time. He did the Death Breath project in ‘06-’07, but…
Alex Hellid: “I know Nicke was at least saying that he was nervous, but I wasn’t worried at all. He can probably play those songs in his sleep, but he’s got very high standards, so I understand that he wanted to know them well enough that he wouldn’t be pissed off at himself. I guess Clandestine is the Entombed stuff that’s also the most challenging for him as well. Compared to what came before and after, there’s a lot more double kick drum and it’s a lot more metal than punk or hard rock. Uffe also feels it’s more difficult to play. I feel like Uffe can play anything, but that’s the one album that’s still a challenge for him. Sometimes when people have it too easy, I see that they get bored easily as well. I don’t really have that problem. [Laughs] I don’t bore that easily because it’s a challenge for me to play everything we do. [Laughs] But this is still a challenge for us.”
BraveWords: You’ve said recently that there’s new material in the works.
Alex Hellid: “I always go around thinking about song ideas and titles. It was great to see that the two of them got straight back into that mode as well. Nicke put together a demo and sent us a song straightaway from starting to hang out and prepare for that show [in Malmo]. I have no worries whatsoever that, as soon as we just find time to start things that cool things will happen. My job is to make sure we find some time, and that we don’t worry too much about having a full plan or anything. For better or worse, this band has always been going on impulse.”
(Photos by: Norrud Anders)