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Interview: Graveyard's Jonatan Ramm - Green Grooves from Gothenburg

Graveyard guitarist Jonatan Ramm discusses how his ’68 SG, Peter Green, and being willing to experiment with slide and saxophone illuminated his band’s classic-metal adventures on Lights Out.

Jonatan Ramm in his backyard in Gothenburg, Sweden, with his favorite SG—a ‘68 Special loaded with the guitar’s original P-90 pickups.

Graveyard would fit into the music scene of, say, 1969 far better than they do 2012’s. Hailing from Gothenburg, Sweden, the classic-metal quartet seamlessly melds late-’60s and early-’70s influences to create a sound so raw, loose, and grooving that, upon first listen, newcomers might wonder if they’ve just discovered some cult band’s long-lost tapes from decades back. Singer Joakim Nilsson’s howling, gritty vocals dance around from a cathartic “White Room”-like Jack Bruce to a hair-raising “Whole Lotta Love”-ish Robert Plant, while bassist Rikard Edlund and drummer Axel Sjöberg’s plodding rhythms anchor guitarist Jonatan Ramm’s heavy blues riffs to create a manic, drug-hazy mélange that’s equal parts Sabbath, Zeppelin, and Cream, with hints of old Fleetwood Mac and the Doors.

“We play music we would want to hear if we were in the crowd watching us,” says Ramm. “It’s not so much a throwback, trying to sound vintage or old school. I just think we’re hitting at the right time when people are tired of overproduced, computerized, formula-based music.”

After their 2007 self-titled debut went practically unnoticed, Graveyard smoothed out their coarse sound and made a thunderous entry with 2011’s critically acclaimed Hisingen Blues—which landed on three Billboard charts and multiple year-end-best-of lists, and earned a Swedish Grammy for Best Hard Rock Album. But even when their star began to rise, Graveyard never lost that garage-band mentality. Ramm and Co. thought about going elsewhere to jam, write, and record this year’s Lights Out, but ultimately they opted to stay in Gothenburg’s snowy gloom.

“A change of scenery is always an option for writing and recording, but we’re inspired and influenced most by everyday life around us,” says Ramm. “The long, gray winters affect our songs and moods. It might not be the perfect place to be all the time, but it’s proven to be an ideal place to write our style of music and songs. We write best when it’s not sunny [laughs].”

From their debut to their sophomore effort, Graveyard evolved to add textural layers like background vocals and atmospherics, and with Lights Out, they’ve found their psychedelic-doom-rock groove.

“We just continue to jam and add new things as they fit and musically make sense—this time we worked in a heavily Stooges-influenced part complete with a saxophonist,” says Ramm. “I even learned to play slide guitar for the first time—even though what I did on the album I wouldn’t call slide guitar [laughs] … I just used a slide for the first time.”

We recently caught up with Ramm to discuses his treasured ’68 Gibson SG Special, why he tries to avoid using pedals, and how Sabbath’s “Wizard” changed his life.

What are your earliest guitar memories?
During my mid-teens and after a few years of playing by myself, I started a band in my small hometown for fun. But when I heard Black Sabbath’s “Wizard” off Black Sabbath for the first time—[laughs] things changed after that. That’s the moment that I knew I was going to play guitar for the rest of my life.

The guitar riff and its interplay with Ozzy’s harmonica parts made it gel. Tony [Iommi]’s main riff is so heavy, but it’s so catchy, so bluesy. It’s an experience to hear that song—even to this day I get chills to hear how they mixed dark, dirty blues with the beginnings of heavy metal music.

Who are some of the other guitarists you admire?
I think the tops for me would be Peter Green and Danny Kirwan of the early Fleetwood Mac days. If I could pick one player’s tone to have as my own, I think it’d have to be Peter Green’s off of “Albatross” or anything from Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. His sound was iconic, but what really does it for me is his phrasing—the feeling he conveyed through his instrument, and how the guitar became an extension of his mind and soul. But lately I’ve been really gravitating towards Danny Kirwan’s incredible vibrato work on Then Play On, because it is so vivid and comes to life right off the record.

How has your appreciation for Kirwan’s vibrato come through in Graveyard?
Wanting to improve my vibrato influenced me to switch to Ernie Ball Skinny Top Heavy Bottom .010–.052 strings, because we tune down to D and I’m able to use my vibrato more effectively and complementary with the thinner strings. But I still prefer the thicker-gauge strings on bottom for bigger, more powerful chords.

Which elements of the band’s sound would you say are most indicative of the Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac influence?
The melancholic vibe in their music speaks to me a lot. I don’t know if I’ve ever enjoyed listening to happy music at all, and if you listen to Graveyard, we don’t have the sunniest of songs either. The song “Dragonfly” is a great example of how they were working with harmonies, vocal progressions, and that’s definitely something I try to achieve with Joakim—you can hear it in certain musical arrangements and overall compositions like in “20/20 (Tunnel Vision)” off Lights Out.

Prior to Graveyard’s recent video shoot for “Goliath,” Ramm asked his manager to help him acquire a white SG because, he says with a laugh, “White guitars have always had this elegance and I figured it’d be the perfect video guitar.”

You weren’t with the band for the 2007 debut. How did you land this gig?
[Graveyard’s bassist] Rikard was at a show I was playing and liked how I sounded, so he asked me to stop down to the studio to jam. While the band was working on their debut, Graveyard, they asked me to add some solos to their songs that were already worked out. I guess they liked what they heard, because they not only kept my guitar parts on the album, but they asked me to join the band. They only started Graveyard I think about three months before they asked me to jam and record some parts. But I am thankful every day that they gave me a shot.

Since Joakim also plays guitar, how do you make sure your parts stand out but also complement his playing?
One thing I try do whenever possible is pick the individual strings in an arpeggiated manner, so you can hear each string rather than bang out the chords. It provides a broader feel and shimmer instead of the cluttered sound of strumming or rocking through those same chords. I’m more of a rhythmic guitarist, even in my soloing—I just prefer to stay locked in to what Rikard and Axel are doing to keep the song and flow intact. Joakim is actually a pretty gifted guitar player, and he can typically play the faster stuff a lot better than I can right off the bat. Our two different styles and tendencies blend real well and help us sound unique without stepping all over each other.

Which pieces of gear are central to your sound?
I use an old Custom 100 Hiwatt amplifier with two different Gibson SGs—one has the standard humbuckers, but my brown ’68 SG has its original P-90s that seem to cut through when I play with the band a bit more. I don’t really use overdrive pedals too much in my setup. I generally get most of my distortion from the amp, but I do have two MXR pedals— a GT-OD and a Micro Amp—and a Boss TU-2 tuner. I use the GT-OD for a bit more bite and growl, because getting the Hiwatt to naturally overdrive would blow some windows out at the clubs we play [laughs]. The Micro Amp works like a volume boost for soloing and pushing the front end of the amp harder.

What do you like so much about Gibson SGs?
I really dig the sound of my ’68 with P-90s because of their girth and growl, but they still maintain a distinctive clean tone when I need that. I couldn’t believe I found a ’68 with P-90s at a decent price point—the neck was cracked, so that’s why I could afford it. It has become my favorite guitar and the one I use the most. I really like a rounder, fuller neck like a ’58 Les Paul, and my ’68 SG is really close so it’s ideal. I had a few ’61 SG Reissues and the necks were broader and flatter— those were a struggle for me to use.

How is your Hiwatt typically dialed-in?
I generally use the high or low inputs of the bright channel and dial the volume and master volume all the way up. I use my SG’s volume knobs for cleaner or softer tones. For the EQ, I just have the bass, middle, and treble set at about 2 o’clock and presence at noon—for me and what I do in Graveyard, it gives me a very clear, cutting, classic rock ’n’ roll tone.

Ramm playing his No. 2 Gibson SG, a 2010 Standard model with stock humbuckers.

You guys branched out a bit, stylistically, on Lights Out. What was the goal this time around?
Just to make good songs and broaden our material even more than on Hisingen Blues. We’ve never really had any plans to go in a certain direction or create something that sounds a certain way. We just try to make songs that we like as if we were the audience.

One thing that I think is big for what we do is that we jam a lot—more than any band I’ve been in before. I know a lot of bands and musicians practice and rehearse for tours and right before studio sessions, but we play and rehearse all the time just to hang out and pass the time. When one of us brings an idea for a song to the practice space, we try and jam on it for a while and take it through the collective grinder. We might end up with something completely different than where the idea started, but that’s why we embrace jamming.

If we just came together to rehearse or to bring ideas to flesh out, we wouldn’t get as diverse or eclectic with our songs—and that’s what I think you’re continuing to hear in Lights Out.

Graveyard albums have a very organic, vintage-’70s feel—down to the sorts of crackles we associate with vinyl. How do you achieve that in a world dominated by digital recording equipment?
Don [Ahlsterberg, producer] uses all-analog equipment and records onto tape—it’s been that way since we recorded the first Graveyard album in 2007. He actually hates all that digital stuff, but that’s why we choose to continue to work with him to this day—he knows what we like and we appreciate and understand his approach to recording. Plus, he pushes us to record live as a full band as much as we can. Our goal is to capture and harness the raw emotion and feeling that’s produced when we’re all playing music together as a cohesive unit. We’re not looking to be perfect— it’s not supposed to be, at least in our eyes. I mean, that’s what makes music so beautiful, natural, and special is the human element. If I completely screw something up, we’ll redo it, but we don’t worry about every snare hit or upstroke on the guitar being precise. That type of programmable logic makes music feel forced and stale.

For solos, I generally take my time and redo those after our live take. I like to plan things out and really do a service to the song and make sure it fits and it’s not just me noodling all over the song with no rhyme or reason. However, there were a few solo parts on Lights Out that were live takes, like sections of “Seven Seven” and “Endless Night.”

In the last minute of “An Industry of Murder,” you play two small solos— the first is very melodic and locked-in, and the second is a bit crazier—what were you going for there?”
In the first part, I was trying for more of an intro or build-up, with a complementary rhythm riffing that coincided with what Rikard and Axel were doing that led into the actual solo, or the second part you identified. For that part, I’m playing the song out alongside the siren-sounding theremin. I figured I’d try something new and different, so I used Don’s wah pedal. I’m no Hendrix with the wah, but I wanted to add another tone that meshed with the theremin’s funkiness. It’s the only spot I use a wah on the record and it works. With the wah, I think moderation is key, otherwise it sounds gimmicky.

“We play music we would want to hear if we were in the crowd watching us,” Ramm says.

You get some pretty amazing feedback leading into the solo in “Seven Seven.”
I was pushing the headstock into my amp head while crawling around on my knees and playing to get enough feedback because the Hiwatt has a lot of headroom. I sometimes turn on either one of MXR pedals to cheat a bit and boost the volume and push the amp even harder, but I prefer to just do it with my guitar and amp only. Feedback is spontaneous. It’s different every time you go for it, but what I always try to do is start small and controlled, because you’re able to keep things musical and in check. Incrementally increasing volume and squeal is easier than trying to put the lid back on a monster once you’ve awoken it [laughs].

“The Suits, the Law, & the Uniforms” sounds like a CCR cover done by Sabbath. How did that come about?
I just start every song looking to take a chance. For that one, we all dialed in how the song was going to be structured and the pace of Joakim’s vocals, I wanted to go for a very aggressive, bluesy-meets-punk tone. I recorded all the main parts with my SG in the neck position and used one of the MXR pedals to get that extra oomph and creaminess.

Near the end, it sounds like there are some horns making a ruckus in the background— like something you’d hear from the Stooges.
[Laughs.] That’s totally what we were going for, but no one can do it like the Stooges. Their song “Fun House” was our inspiration. We had already recorded the song and just thought during playback that all the song was missing was a saxophone—something you don’t hear in most rock bands. We had a local saxophonist come down, because we wanted to make it a bit more offbeat and different from our typical Graveyard stuff—and we’ve all been really getting into the Stooges, so we went for it.

What prompted you to play slide on “Endless Nights”?
It was one of the last songs we worked on and I was worried that my playing was becoming stale or redundant, so I figured if I played slide—even if not very good—it would be different. It worked out as a good experiment. It was out of my comfort zone and really pushed me to focus. I think you have to do that to grow as a guitarist instead of just learning scales or playing faster notes. I don’t even know exactly what open tuning I’m in— somewhere between C and G—because I had to tweak each string to get in a key that Joakim could sing over. I have some work ahead of me before we decide to play that song live. I’m just glad the guys were patient with me.

Jonatan Ramm's Gear

1968 Gibson SG Special, 2010 Gibson SG Standard

Hiwatt Custom 100, Orange Rockerverb 50 MK II, Vox AC50 head, Hiwatt 4x12 loaded with Celestion Vintage 30s

MXR GT-OD, MXR Micro Amp

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
Jim Dunlop Tortex 1.0 mm picks, Ernie Ball Skinny Top/Heavy Bottom .010–.052 strings, Boss TU-2 Tuner

In Lights Out’s slower songs—like “Slow Motion Countdown” and “Hard Time Lovin’”—it’s impressive how your playing patiently stays out of Joakim’s way as he builds up the increasingly aggressive vocals.
I really enjoy listening to slower, more soulful songs, and that’s how I like to write, too. I like to have plenty of time to hit sustaining, edge-of-feedback notes and bend them all over.

Just like how I feel about gear—less is more. You have to pick your spots as a guitarist. I know a lot of players that want the loudest, most distorted tone, and they scramble to fill every open space with as many notes as possible so they can be heard and be No. 1. We’re guitarists, we have egos [laughs], but if you really want to work within a band and make a piece of music the best it can be sometimes you need to throttle back and wait.

YouTube It

Similar to “Stairway to Heaven,” “Uncomfortably Numb” (from Hisingen Blues) begins as a brooding number that speeds up when Jonatan Ramm hits the gas and leads the song into full-on rock mode.

With a backline of Orange amps, Ramm and Graveyard play a rumbling tribute to their homeland, complete with dual guitar solos from Joakim Nilsson and Ramm.

This Bonnaroo 2011 finale starts calmly, but the song accelerates to ramming speed thanks to Nilsson’s lamb-to-lion vocals and the jousting guitar solos.

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