When I rang up Witchcraft’s Magnus Pelander for the following phoner, the guitarist/vocalist and his band were smack in the middle of the tour that will culminate Dec. 1 at The Bowery Ballroom, running down a line of dates that started out as four weeks and wound up being seven. He was tired, and justifiably so.
The Swedish band’s third album for Rise Above/ Candlelight, The Alcehmist, has become the landmark for retro metal in 2007. Moving past Pelander’s homage to early ’70s acts like Pentagram, they’re bringing the typically vintage sounds they honed over the course of their first two albums (the 2004 self-titled and 2005’s Firewood) into a more modernly presented context, with updated production—still analog, but clearer—and increased individuality in the songwriting that makes tracks like “If Crimson Was Your Color” and the three-part epic title cut pure Witchcraft and no one else. More sophisticated use of melody and catchy hooks have served the band well, even if it does mean that now they have to spend seven weeks on the road. No rest for the doomy.
Having just released a vinyl-only split with Austin, TX, hipster metal mavens, The Sword, Witchcraft are looking ahead to spending much of 2008 on the road throughout the US and Europe. For Magnus’ part, he could use some sleep.
What are the conditions like for you guys on tour? What are you riding around in?
We’re sitting a van. I forgot about it actually. I was so fucking enthusiastic—well I still am—over the last year with the new album. And lots of people liking the album, like the Down guys, the guy from Darkthrone, Monster Magnet, COC, all those guys that are really good musicians and have done really great albums. They were kind of freaking out about our stuff, so I mean, I’ve been over the top with enthusiasm. But it kind of gets away after four weeks in a van. But you know, you come back. I love music and for me this has nothing to do with music, sitting in a van, if you know what I mean. It’s kind of hard but while on stage there’s pure professionalism, 100 percent doing what we are doing. I mean, there’s no problem. It sounds good and all that, but I like being at home, sitting, listening to records and all that shit.
They say the down time is actually the hardest part as opposed to obviously when you’re on stage. What do you do when you’re not either driving or playing, what are you doing with the downtime?
Well, when we have time, like when we don’t have a 12-hour drive, I just like grab me a bottle of juice, sit somewhere, thinking, looking at people. Maybe read something or put something in my walkman, I don’t know, there’s not much you can do.
Have you been seeing any sites or anything while you’re in the US or just hanging out waiting to play?
We haven’t had time to see too much stuff, no. I would like to come back just for vacation when I can say, ‘Hey, I wanna stay at this place for three days,’ where you don’t have to leave after you play.
Do you feel like you are touring on a different scale now? Whereas before, you kind of did shorter strings of dates, now it’s a month in a van?
Last time was actually four-and-a-half weeks so I think actually that’s sufficient. I think three or four weeks is okay. I like to get home in between, do the regular life stuff, just hanging out with friends, take a walk, practice some drumming. I just started to play the drums and I’m longing to get home and play the drums. And I’m working on this kind of a solo album that’s hopefully gonna be recorded next year. I got lots of stuff I want to do.
At this point you’ve done north, south, east, and west on this tour. Have you found that the reactions are different in the different cities?
Yeah they’re different in the different cities, but I don’t think it has too much to do with the east, west, north and south. I think it might depend on what we play and what people are there and maybe the instant atmosphere. That’s what I think. I don’t know too much about the US, it’s just the second time we’re here.
Was there something in particular that let you make the change to tour more?
This tour was actually meant to be four weeks in the beginning, but something happened and it turned out to be seven. Too late for stopping it though. Right now I don’t want to think about touring, I just want to complete this tour and do the best with this, just try and be focused. When this is done then we can plan for the next thing. We’re gonna ride this one out and do some really great shows. I think so far every night has been good.
With recording The Alchemist, were you worried about it becoming too modern-sounding?
Somehow, the music we do is neither old nor modern. It doesn’t change very much, classic/hard rock, it’s all about making good songs, I guess, no matter if in the ’60s or if there was an album in the ’90s. I personally think the songwriting is much more…depth wider? More harmonies and stuff. It’s interesting, with songwriting in general, I think that’s what it’s all about, actually. It sounds very, how do you say, obvious that it has to do with songwriting, but I say that because so many bands just want distortion, they want fuzz, they want some cool gear, they want to look cool or something, but at the end of the day if there’s no song, I will not put it in my stereo. It’s all very basic. I see a lot of people kind of missing out on that. And there is so much you can do with a song too, you might change a bass line, you might change a drum beat, you might add some stuff. There’s so much you can do with songs, that’s what I like about music.
How important is it for you at this point to still have that vintage sound for Witchcraft?
I don’t know. I guess the way we play is always gonna sound timeless, if you can say that word. That’s in our musical identification when we play. Sound-wise, maybe the record won’t sound like it’s purely 1970 or whatever. We try and find the sound that fits us, and I think it’s kind of weird if you go into the studio and say, ‘Hey this has got to sound like Black Sabbath in 1972.’ I’d say, yeah, start a cover band and play Sabbath songs, then. Even though Black Sabbath can be a main inspiration sound-wise, at the end of the day it’s not Geezer Butler or Tony Iommi playing, it’s us guys playing, so I think you should find the sound that every individual is happy with and try to get a compromise and get it all together. And I think that is something that should go on for every record you do. You always find new stuff if you want to keep things exciting.
The Alchemist is the first record without a Pentagram cover on it. Do you feel like Witchcraft is developing a character of its own?
Yeah. I guess every band wants a character of their own. Well of course this album is probably the most—well, the first album you could hear very much Sabbath and Pentagram. You could hear it was Witchcraft, but today I think if you put on the record, I don’t think you would say, ‘Hey, this sounds like Black Sabbath and Pentagram.’ Hopefully, you say, ‘Oh, man, this is Witchcraft.’