When I finally caught up with the drummer and founding member of Swedish death metal band Necrophobic, Joakim Sterner had just returned from vacation. It was late December 2013. To break the ice, I asked him how the trip went.
“Bad,” he laughed. “The weather was shit five days out of seven.” He and his family ventured to the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa—a Swedish winter intermission. “They told us they had over 300 days of sun per year, and then we all laughed because we had been there the week that was the baddest in their history for a long time. With storms, thunder and lightning, and rain. Yeah.”
He could easily have been describing Necrophobic’s career.
Sterner keeps a grim public image, a bald ghoul in corpse paint. But throughout our conversation, he laughed often, in spite of the years of misfortune his band has suffered. Spawned from the same Stockholm scene as Entombed, Dismember, and Tiamat, Necrophobic has weathered decades of promotional nightmares, legal drama, and death.
Anti-christening themselves after a Slayer song, Sterner and guitarist David Parland formed Necrophobic in 1989, recording demos, and trading teenage stage dives with Nihilist and Grotesque.
Sterner described those early years: “It was a cool time because this was all new. And we were very young, and we got in contact with people around the world. And we traded tapes, and we saw the Swedish scene grow very fast and many bands with high quality.”
By then, there was worldwide attention on Stockholm. “There were a couple of labels [interested]. But we choseBlack Mark because it was from Sweden, and Bathory was on it. That was the best we could do back then. We stayed with them for three albums, and I started to notice that this label was not working. They had Bathory and they survived with that. That was my feeling.”
What did come of the deal, though, was Necrophobic’s dark debut album The Nocturnal Silence. This classic disc still stands as the band’s ultimate statement. Its perfect fusion of blackened death showcases Parland’s evil riffs, a great low-end production from Tomas Skogsberg at Sunlight Studios, and an irreplaceable vocalist.
“Anders Strokirk,” Sterner said with affection. “ He also went to the same school that we did. We saw this couple-of-years-younger guy wearing an Iron Maiden shirt and we started to talk to him. And he also had a band. Me and Anders became very close friends, and since [we] had trouble in the start with finding the right persons [for] the band, he said that he could join, and he did!”
The Nocturnal Silence is the only document of Strokirk on a Necrophobic album, and his vampiric death growls are a potent ingredient in its dark formula. When I spoke to him in early December 2013, he was more than affable as he described the making of Nocturnal Silence.
“Parland had the most creative ways he wanted things to sound,” he said. “So he did lyrics and Joakim also was like a shit filter, you know? So [Sterner] was like, ‘Oh, this is good, this is not good.’ But David did all the writing. I was just sitting there, relaxing with a burger in my hand, doing the vocals in the rehearsals.
After recording Nocturnal Silence, Strokirk returned to his old band, Hetsheads, and bassist Tobias Sidegård stepped up to bat. Sidegård would go on to front Necrophobic on six albums, penning lyrics about all manner of pagan atrocities—even though the band are admittedly atheist.
Before the recording of second album, Darkside, David Parland left to form Dark Funeral. He was keen to dive fully into the black metal frenzy that Norwegian bands like Mayhem and Emperor were creating. For Necrophobic, it was like losing an arm.
While Sterner and Sidegård persevered, assisted by a revolving door of guitarists and labels, Necrophobic largely fell off the map. To this day, even those who fondly remember Nocturnal Silence may be surprised to learn that Necrophobic is still together and releasing albums.
Strokirk put it bluntly: “They get great reviews and people like them, but they always seem to be black sheep.”
Sterner opined, “Putting out seven albums now, [we] should get a medal!” He laughed.
Womb of Lilithu is the band’s latest blast of crushing, modern, blackened death metal, replete with top-notch production. It’s their debut for Season of Mist—the first time ever that Necrophobic has been on a really solid label that's capable of pushing the group to a worldwide audience. Unfortunately, the album was book-ended by tragedy.
On March 19th, 2013, founding guitarist David Parland took his own life.
I asked Sterner if he ever feels that Necrophobic is under a curse. “Yes,” he answered quickly, laughing. “Since day one.”
In the exhaustive 2006 book Swedish Death Metal (Bazillion Points), Daniel Ekeroth wrote, “Even though Necrophobic had immense power, their albums lacked something. But at one point they were one of the most promising newcomers of the Swedish death metal scene." I read this passage to Sterner to get his thoughts on Ekeroth’s summation.
“I don’t know,” he said. “If I knew, we maybe had more success. But it’s like—there’s millions of bands out there. We have been standing in Dissection’s shadow since 20 years [ago]. But you cannot have two Dissections. It cannot happen for everyone.”
“We are that band that didn’t reach out to everyone. We weren’t that band that maybe Watain is today and Dissection were before, and Entombed [was] in the beginning. We are not those bands. We are that other band that are really great too, but people, when they choose music, when they go into the record store, [they say] ‘ah, there’s the Watain album, I’ll buy it.’ And then they come back next time when Watain release an album or something.” He laughed.
In fact, Jon Nodtveidt of Dissection guested on Darkside, and Erik Danielson of Watain stood in on bass during Necrophobic’s one trip to Mexico—both of them are avowed fans.
“It doesn’t bother me that much. I do this because I love it,” Sterner said. “Of course we want to have better sales, but we’re not doing something stupid to mix with the music to get that. Who doesn’t want to sell millions of records and have loads of money? But that’s not what drives our creativity to write music.”
Sterner has reached an admirable peak of Zen attitude on the matter. You’d think that would earn him a break, but you’d be wrong.
With great anticipation for a new career chapter, Womb of Lilithu was set for release in late October, 2013. Just a few weeks prior, news leaked that longtime bassist and vocalist Sidegård was being sentenced to 18 months in prison for "gross violation of a woman's integrity"—a domestic violence crime. Sidegård maintained that he was innocent; the sentence was reduced to six months, and a payment of 16,000 Swedish kronor was awarded to his wife.
Not only did this completely knock the wind out of Necrophobic’s ability to promote their new album, it also left them with a very difficult decision to make. Some fans were shouting for solidarity online, others cried for justice. Finally, the band issued a statement:
"Tobias is no longer a member of NECROPHOBIC. The verdict following his trial regrettably left us, the band, with no other choice. As stated before, NECROPHOBIC do not accept or tolerate domestic violence in any way. We will now search for a replacement.”
“Well, I will not go into details,” said Sterner, clearly feeling cautious about discussing a delicate matter in a foreign tongue. “Mostly I have been able to read from a site here in Sweden with the protocols and the verdict in the papers and stuff. If you read that, and if you’re really thinking, it’s not a strange decision that we have made.” Sterner paused here with very real emotion.
“You know, me and Tobias have been playing together for over 20 years. I can only speak for myself now, [although] this is a band decision. But for me personally, it’s not acceptable. And I couldn’t [see] ourselves being able to play together like nothing has happened. Not with this thing. It’s like, not a foolish thing he did in a pub or something like that. I’m also a bit worried that this will come out the wrong way, because I’m not speaking [in Swedish]. The thing is that I couldn’t see us playing together again after I heard about this story, and read the things that I could read. And that goes [for] the rest of the band as well. So there was of course a lot of thinking behind this decision. It’s not easy… yet it is easy.”
So here was a band 25 years into a fitful career. A group that had stuck to its guns, played from the heart, and maintained a consistent artistic output to keep from ever disappointing its fans. And they had a new album they couldn’t support because of controversy, as well as some rather large shoes to fill. If this were a rockumentary, guitarist David Parland would have risen up from Hell on cue, to breathe new life and credibility into the band.
“We’re not going to have auditions,” said Sterner. “At least that’s not the plan. We’re discussing in the band what kind of person we want. The first choice is, of course, people who live in Stockholm, in the same city where we come from. Immediately when we put out the sad news, we got loads of emails from all over the world. But that’s really not interesting because we want to be able to hang out with the persons in the band. We are a really tight group of people. We should be able to do everything together. So if someone lives in the other parts of the world, it’s not like we are going to see that person so much.”
It occurred to me that while Parland couldn’t return, Strokirk could. I even asked him if he’d ever consider it, since the position was wide open.
“Not for me, haha. I can’t do the stuff Tobias does. He has this way of writing lyrics and stuff. Usually I get up on stage with [Necrophobic], every five years and do some Nocturnal Silence for fun. Five years ago was the last time, so… [maybe it] should be now, haha!”
I ran the same idea past Sterner. He also laughed if off, but couldn’t help asking, “When did you talk to him, by the way?”
“About two weeks ago,” I replied.
“Hmm,” he laughed again. On April 4, 2014, Necrophobic announced that Anders Strokirk had rejoined the band as their permanent vocalist.
When Sterner described his ill-fated trip to the Canary Islands, he said the weather was bad the first five days.
“At least the last two days was like it should be, with sun and warmth,” he added. “So the family could relax and have a good time.”
I’d like to believe that Strokirk rejoining Necrophobic is a break in the clouds, a lifting of the curse.
Nathan Carson is the guy on the beach blasting lost death metal classics. He's on Twitter - @nanotear
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