Heads For The Dead Begin “The Great Conjuration” of Horror-Fixated Death Metal (Interview)
International death metal powerhouse Heads For The Dead are back with their third full-length album The Great Conjuration. Since its 2017 formation, Heads for the Dead’s musical blueprint consists of healthy doses of churning guitar tones, massive grooves, and maniacal vocal gurgles. The quartet’s bone chilling style is reminiscent of ’90s old school American death metal, as well as containing the distinct characteristics of Swedish death metal, decorated with a sinister horror movie atmosphere.
Featuring vocalist Ralf Hauber, guitarist/bassist Jonny Pettersson, lead guitarist Matt Moliti, and drummer Jon Rudin, each member of Heads For The Dead also play in other well-established death metal bands including Massacre, Wombbath, Revel In Flesh, and Sentient Horror. Through email, guitarist Jonny Pettersson talked about the new album, how he achieves his guitar tone, his many other bands, and what the future has in store for Heads for the Dead.
Do you use the HM-2 pedal to get that classic Swedeath sound or tune your guitar differently? How do you achieve this sound and it sounds like this tone is imperative to the band’s overall sound?
The HM-2 sound is something I've been into for as long as I've been into death metal, so it's always fallen natural to incorporate it into my sound. I managed to get a hold of one for a few demos I did with Skinbag back in 2004/2005. Skinbag later became Ashcloud which is a very typical Swedeath band. But even prior to Skinbag I tried to get that sound in old demos, with what few clones there were back then. These days there's an ocean of clones and plugs and I have to say, some even sound better than the original. With the tuning, it's always down to what is needed for the sound of the band I'm recording. Some of my bands I tune a bit higher to get the clarity of the riffs, some I tune way low to get that proper darkness and filth. One thing I've ended up having to do over the last years is to tune the strings to an open chord. I suffer from a form of arthritis, which some days make it hard to play, so I use whatever aid I can to make it easier, because no matter the pain, I'll never be able to give up on music.
You’re in possibly 1,000 bands (just joking!), but does being in several bands at once keep your creative juices flowing? How do you go about juggling the scheduling for each band/project you’re in?
Almost 1,000! (laughs). I've actually cut down quite a bit on bands to have more time to be there for and take care of family members that have fallen ill. I'm still in a lot compared to the average metal musician though. I have a few things in life I am passionate about, horror, music, building/riding custom motorcycles, cooking, friends and family. Anything else I don't really care for, so I am very good at making time for my passions and cutting away anything else. The creative part of me is on non-stop, from the moment I wake up, to the moment I go to sleep. Whether it's designing motorcycles, or writing new songs, I never stop. I get influences from all different things, which makes it easier when it comes to creating new stuff. To me there's such a clear difference between my bands, that I know straight away which band new ideas will go to.
Obviously, you played on the latest Massacre album but most likely won’t tour with them and Wombbath is one of your main bands. How do you differentiate the material from one band to the next while writing for each?
I had the honor to write half of the songs, arrange and produce the whole album and EP that was just released with Massacre. For those songs it was clear cut how it should sound, and the aim was to make the natural follow-up album to "From Beyond". Which has quite a different sound and approach that for example Wombbath. This goes back to the question about tuning as well, whereas Massacre tunes in D, which is a big part of their sound, we tune in A with Wombbath, which is much lower. And even if Wombbath isn't a technical or progressive band, we still have a much wider sound than for example Massacre which is pure US old school death. As I mentioned before, I'll know straight away which band the riff I'm writing is going to go to.
Heads for the Dead creates that classic horror movie atmosphere, what’s your fascination with horror movies and capturing that vibe within this band?
The whole fascination with horror and horror movies in general goes back to when I was a kid. I grew up far out in the Swedish countryside, and with long winters where it's dark most of the day, you'd end up spending a lot of time by the stereo blasting music, or watching TV. And it so happened to be that my closest neighbors had a satellite dish and managed to get all the movie channels. So we used to tape all the classics to VHS and have horror movie marathons. So I got hooked on horror at a very early age, and that stuck with me throughout life.
It seems like your songwriting skills have been elevated on this album. Did you want to try anything different or experiment with different effects or tones or subject matter on The Great Conjuration compared to your last two albums?
Thank you! For me it's always a drive to elevate my songwriting, and elevate the music I'm working on. Each album with any of my bands should be the best one so far. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don't, but the drive to make it so will always be there. A lot of the time, the natural progression and evolution of a band will take me places as a songwriter, pushing me to go beyond the safety of the previous albums. Heads for the Dead is a prime example of that. I always feel that we need to evolve, we need to follow the direction the music is taking us, cut all perceptions of what we should sound like and just go with the flow. With The Great Conjuration, the aim was to harness that gothic foundation of the previous releases and combine it with the feeling of 80s horror.
Since this is an International band and each member lives in a different country, how do you go about constructing the tracks?
I write and record a demo track with some simple programmed drums for each song, from that I start building up to what will become the end result. Once I have a foundation that I'm happy with, it's up to Jon or previously Ed to construct the drums around my ideas. Then Ralf adds his vocals, and from that, I start working on the details, the small sounds samples keyboards. We all need each other's parts to see the full picture. It's a very cool process, and the feeling once a song is done is hard to beat.
What concept were you going for with the cover art by The Art of Badic Art? It captures that old horror movie poster vibe. What direction did you give to the artist?
We found a dark artist in the US called Cory DeAn Cowley of CDC Works, who makes these amazing horror photos, with some of the best horror makeup I've seen. We asked her if we could use one of her photos as the base for the album art, and lucky for us she agreed. We gave the photo to Badic along with the guideline of ’80s horror movie posters for Re-Animator, Killing Birds, Maniac, and The Evil Dead. He took our idea and blew it out of the water with an album cover that is perfect for the album.
The opening track “The Jewel of the Seven Stars” I believe is based on the horror novel by Bram Stoker. Did you follow the book’s plot line or did you introduce a whole new narrative with the lyrics? How did you go about merging the gothic horror vibe storytelling with the horrific/atmospheric instrumentation?
With that song, the music came first and the lyrics after. When Ralf heard the song, he knew straight away that it needed a dark, gothic theme, and started to explore “The Jewel of the Seven Stars” in depth, and found it perfect for that song.
The use of keyboards on “World Serpent Dominion’ adds an eerie spooky-like vibe. What’s this track about and how did you go about crafting it?
I had the keyboard part in my head and built the song around it. I wanted that eerie vibe to infuse the whole song. The lyrics are a cherry pick from different malevolent themes in old Greek and Norse mythologies.
What are some of the hidden gems or movie samples sprinkled throughout the album?
There are hidden samples from The Evil Dead, The Howling, Creepshow, The Beyond, and not so hidden, The Fog. There are a lot of horror samples that I built using everyday sounds as well. The sound my car door makes when opening it, the sound the hinge on my kitchen window makes, water draining in the shower. Things like that mixed together with a whole lot of reverb makes for some excellent horror sounds.
With brand new band members guitarist Matt Moliti and drummer Jon Rudin, what do they bring to the band? What’s the camaraderie and musical chemistry like between each member?
Matt has played on all of our albums, and I have mixed the latest album with his other band Sentient Horror. So we work together really well, and we were brought together by our joint passion for old school death metal. Me and Jon have played together in many bands now, and even before that, back when I used to live in Bristol, UK, which is where Jon lives, we used to hang out every other weekend listening to music. We work really well together in Heads and I consider both good friends.
You handle the rhythm guitar, bass, keyboards and sound effects. You also mixed and mastered the album. What do you like about wearing the many hats, so to speak?
It all started from me being stubborn and a little impatient. I got sick of having to rely on other people to get things done. When I start working on something, I have an urge to finish it, or it will feel like there is a fire in my brain that is slightly consuming me. So I started teaching myself how to play all the instruments I needed to complete my vision in music, and how to record, mix and master my music. It's funny to look back at some of the stuff I've done, the production is horrible, but at the same time it's all part of my evolution as a songwriter, musician and sound engineer.
Since some of your other bands are also signed to Transcending Obscurity Records, how has the working relationship been with them?
TO does a lot of cool merch for each release, it's always interesting to see what will come out of each release. With the world turned upside down due to Covid and all that, there's been a lot of delay causing frustrations not only for us as a band but the fans and I'm sure all labels, not only TO.
You also run Studio Unbound, is this where The Great Conjuration was recorded and do you record/produce other bands as well?
I do indeed. Anyone who wants an old school production can hit me up. I've grown a lot as an engineer in the last few years, which I think is really evident on this Heads album and the last albums with Human Harvest, Wormveil, Wombbath, and Sentient Horror albums. It's a really cool feeling to be able to work with the music I love, and to see years of hard work paying off.
Lastly Jonny, what’s next including touring plans? Will this band be able to tour on this album?
I have a dream to play a few festivals with Heads, using a big screen playing the horror movies that has meant a lot for the band in the background while we hammer out our music. It would have to be done right though, or it might just feel a bit cringey. But who knows, it could happen. In the meantime, the focus for live shows will be for Wombbath.
The Great Conjuration releases on September 2nd via Transcending Obscurity Records.