Rifforia – Ready to DestroyThursday, 1st February 2024
Can’t say there have been a lot of father/son tandems playing together in metal bands during the history of the genre – but similar to the case of Udo and Sven Dirkschneider for U.D.O., it’s happening again with this Swedish thrash outfit Rifforia. Vocalist Nils Patrik Johansson has been known over the years for his work in Astral Doors, Lion’s Share, Civil War, Wuthering Heights and his solo records – while his son Fredrik has been playing drums through bands like Tuck From Hell and Brother Tuck. Rifforia is the latest outfit, Axeorcism the debut record that possesses a thrash foundation yet contains a bit of modern angst and extreme nuances when called for – Nils delivering his Dio-esque vocal melodies with grit to make the band harken back to a time when not all singers of this genre screamed at you to get their words across.
We reached out to Fredrik via Zoom for this delightful conversation. Learn more about the early musical memories of childhood, how his dad got into Rifforia, thoughts on Metalville the record label, lessons learned from his father when it comes to the road, the work, and the business, favorite albums/shows, as well as goals / future plans.
Dead Rhetoric: What are some of your earliest memories surrounding music growing up during childhood? At what point did you start gravitating to harder and heavier forms of music – and eventually picking up an instrument to perform in bands?
Fredrik Johansson: I have been spoon-fed because of my dad’s old Deep Purple and Rainbow records, Dio I listened to a lot. I remember my first favorite bands when I was five or six years old were Yngwie Malmsteen’s band Rising Force and Electric Boys as well. My dad had some heavier stuff, no death metal, but some Metallica, Anthrax, Sepultura. Those were the bands that got me more open to heavier stuff. And then when I became a teenager I got into At the Gates, and I discovered a whole new set of Swedish bands.
I think I started playing drums when I was thirteen. My dad also started out as a drummer; he had some old drum stuff in the garage that I thought looked cool. And then I got my own drum kit. It has never been about any other type of music for me, it just went from heavier rock to death metal. That’s the brief history about my musical upbringing.
Dead Rhetoric: Did you have any formal training or lessons on the drums through school?
Johansson: No private lessons. Marcus (Bengts), the guitar player of Rifforia and I, we started playing our instruments together, we formed a band to start playing songs like “Breaking the Law”, “Paranoid”, all the old classics. They did not sound well at all. I listened to records and tried to figure out what other drummers played. Then YouTube came along, and all of a sudden it was much easier to start studying other drummers. That’s the same for all musicians nowadays. Free lessons on YouTube are everywhere. I never had any formal practice, more of the usual – a lot of the metal drummers I feel are self-taught, but I might be wrong about that.
Dead Rhetoric: There’s quite a story behind the formation of Rifforia, spurred on by your father Nils Patrik Johansson on vocals. What can you tell us about the evolution from a previous act Tuck From Hell to this outfit – and where do you see the major differences between both outfits in terms of approach/style?
Johansson: Yeah, Marcus and I were in Tuck From Hell. Things looked pretty good for us, we released an album called Thrashing in 2010, and there was a new wave of thrash metal. We got good reviews, we played live a lot, mostly locally. When it was time to write the follow-up to Thrashing, other things came in the way. Our vocalist took over his family’s business, another one started studying classical music to become a music teacher, I had kids. We didn’t really want to throw in the towel, so we continued to jam, write some songs in the rehearsal room. One of the guitarists went off to Civil War and joined that band with my dad, so he became pretty busy with that.
A couple of years ago Marcus and I thought, we had a bunch of kick ass songs, and we should do something with this, now that the timing is better. Let’s give it a go. When our old singer couldn’t commit, I played some songs for my dad, and he said I can sing on these songs. He recorded vocals on a couple of them and we thought, well, this fits really well. It’s a more traditional, heavy metal powerhouse voice, but I guess in the beginning most thrash metal bands were aiming for more of that type of vocals. That’s changed, and now many bands have more of the screaming vocals, and I like that too. But this sounds pretty cool – we went on with my dad, wrote more songs, and it’s myself and Marcus that write the music and Nils writes the vocal melodies and lyrics.
The main differences are Tuck From Hell was basically Bay Area style – it sounded like Testament, Exodus, but not as good I might say (laughs). It sounded good enough. These songs are more… variation. There are fast songs, heavier songs, but still the thrash core. When it came to Tuck From Hell, all the songs were fast. We were young and angry. We are still angry, but not as young anymore.
Dead Rhetoric: I would agree with that assessment. I felt the new record is a bit more modern sounding in terms of approach, and the influences are heavier as far as the tones. While still keeping that thrash platform…
Johansson: We have also – Marcus and I – listened to a lot of bands like Dissection, so we have incorporated some of the black metal melodies and riffs. Not much, but here and there. We like to combine things that we like to create this style. We are happy with how this album sounds and came out.
Dead Rhetoric: Axeorcism is the group’s debut album – how do you feel the songwriting and recording sessions went for this set of material? Were there any surprises, obstacles, challenges, or specific highlights going through this process?
Johansson: No obstacles I must say, but there is always a process. You always think that I can do this better, I can do that better. And when a lot of bands nowadays, you have your own studios so you can really put the time in without seeing all the hundreds of dollars ticking away to the studio guy (laughs). The process went pretty soon. Nils Patrik as a vocalist has recorded about thirty albums or so by this time, he’s really experienced. He was quick with his parts both in the writing of the lyrics and getting it all together. Marcus plays the bass and all the guitars on the album. Magnus (Fredriksson) the other guitarist we added to the band after the album was recorded. As far as bass players, there are not many around here that play this type of music, so we will have to find someone when we are ready to play out more live.
Dead Rhetoric: How did the cover art concept come about? Do you still believe in the importance of strong visual imagery to set the tone for what consumers can expect when they press play on this record?
Johansson: Yeah, I have thought about how important it is these days. Since a lot of fans don’t buy albums anymore, they’ll see a very small image on Spotify. But for those who buy the album, it might be even more important these days to get some extra value for their money. I personally like really cool cover art, vinyl I have on my wall, I’m looking at Dio – Lock Up the Wolves, Anthrax – Spreading the Disease, they are really cool covers. It’s a piece of art, you know. This cover for Axeorcism, we had an idea that is pretty basic. We wanted a scene like from The Exorcist, but instead of a priest doing the exorcism, it would be a demon playing a flying V (laughs). We thought it was a cool idea, we sent the idea to the label and then they got this back to us.
Dead Rhetoric: Speaking about the record label, you are on Metalville, a label both you and your father are familiar with through other bands / albums. Is that part of the reason why you felt comfortable signing with them, knowing their staff and promotional value?
Johansson: Absolutely. We think they are a really good label; they did a great job with Tuck From Hell, and they’ve always been good for Astral Doors with Nils Patrik and his solo albums. He knows all of the guys; I’m getting more familiar with them now. They do a good job; they have the right contacts. It feels comfortable and we feel like we are in safe hands.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you consider some of the biggest challenges facing Rifforia at this point in the development process? Especially in terms of developing a bigger following not only within Europe, but internationally?
Johansson: I guess that would be being able to play live as much as you need these days. It has always been important of course, but you can also see that bands that grow big, they are touring and touring. On the first tours, they lose money but if they put in the work through the years, eventually they get there. It’s hard work. Also, social media these days, I don’t know how important it was when we released Thrashing with Tuck From Hell, but we didn’t really think about it. We put up some stuff on Facebook, and it felt pretty new then. It’s a lot of work now on social media. Luckily, it’s very fun to interact with the fans and someone who might become a fan, someone who wants to reach out and say hello. It’s a good way to create a community around your band. We have to stay updated with all that kind of stuff, the digital technology. I’m still learning a lot of those things. We will do as well as we can in both touring and social media. We really hope that the offers come to us also so that we can go out there and play. Hopefully a couple of festivals during the summer and a tour later in the year.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you think you’ve learned the most over the years regarding the music business having a father with such a long, vast career that he’s had?
Johansson: I have learned that it’s a tough business. But it (contains) a lot of good people, a lot of music lovers. You are creating a big network. You have to really put in the work to succeed. It’s not only how good your music is, it’s work. That’s some things that I have learned. I have been out with him on shows, festivals, both as being there entertaining myself but also worked as part of the road crew, drum tech for them. I have learned it’s a tight time schedule. A lot of waiting, but when it’s your time, it’s not a lot of time to prepare (laughs). I’m still learning. It has been good to have him as a mentor in various aspects.
Dead Rhetoric: How would you describe your outlook and technique that’s developed as a drummer from your early days until your current abilities? Who are some of your favorite influences or mentors when it comes to drumming?
Johansson: In the beginning, I just went with strength and anger to be able to play fast. Eventually I hit a wall, and you must practice more the basics. After a couple of years, I went back to the basics to develop more of a proper technique. I practice a lot more nowadays than I did when I started out. I’m inspired by a lot of drummers. My absolute favorite is Dave Lombardo from Slayer. He is not in Slayer anymore, but he is like a beast. I saw some clips recently when he was playing with Testament a couple of years ago, I’ve seen Slayer live with Dave, and it’s a mind-blowing experience. Some of my early favorites were Lars Ulrich, he inspired me to take up the drums after I heard Master of Puppets. He gets a lot of mean comments nowadays, but you can’t deny how many kids he has inspired to take on the drums. He has a unique and cool style for back in the day. I like rock drummers like Ian Paice, and death metal guys as well. Lombardo is the main influence and household god for me here.
Dead Rhetoric: What are your short-term and long-term goals that you’ve set for Rifforia?
Johansson: Short term goals are to come out and play live, interact with the people on social media, create a good following and community, good atmosphere. We will probably start writing the next album as well, Marcus has already sent me a couple of riffs. He’s on it. Long term goals, it’s hard to say. We want to play good music, we want to have fun, that’s why we do this. The most fun part is to get out and play live. Then we’ll see where it takes us. It’s fun to play for ten people in a crowd, but you also want to play for 1,000. We’ll see if that happens.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you view the state of the heavy metal genre currently on a European versus global basis? What aspects do you enjoy, and what changes (if any) would you like to make for the greater good of the movement?
Johansson: There are obviously a lot of good, new bands – but I also consider bands that came together twenty years ago as relatively new bands. One thing I don’t like as much, a lot of the bigger bands are built around some kind of gimmick, they need to dress up. I understand being entertained, it appeals to a lot of people, maybe there will be a counter-reaction in a couple of years like when grunge came. Ghost for example, I like some of their songs and they are good songwriters and a good band, but what made them so famous is the whole image concept. For me, it’s not necessary – I’m just a music lover.
Dead Rhetoric: What are three of your favorite albums of all time – and what is the best concert memory you have of a show, attending purely as a fan?
Johansson: My three favorite albums of all time. One of them, Master of Puppets – Metallica. All the songs are fantastic. Then we have Seasons In the Abyss – Slayer. With Lombardo’s drumming. The best show I ever went to was in 2006, in Stockholm, Sweden – In Flames, Slayer, Lamb of God. Slayer’s show that night, they delivered all the old classics. That was the last time I saw them. Another strong memory I have is when At the Gates did their reunion tour, that still continues today. I bought tickets for a show about 800 kilometers from where I live, for Wacken Open Air Germany, just to see At the Gates. It was so fantastic, I almost cried. A lot of grown men were probably crying that night.
The third album… it’s probably Dio – Holy Diver. Dio is Dio, one of the best vocalists of all time. Great songs, and Vinny Appice’s drumming on that album is also really cool. He had a dance-like approach to drumming, a lot of killer drum fills. I have heard somewhere that Dio hated the drumming on that album, he overdid a lot of fills that step on the vocals – it’s a great record and great drumming as well. A masterpiece.
Dead Rhetoric: Will there be a third generation of Johansson family members playing music- have your children shown any interest in playing?
Johansson: From time to time. I obviously have several drum kits at home, and they are with me in the rehearsal studio. I have two kids, both have played some drums, but they aren’t into hard rock and heavy metal, yet. They instantly recognize Nils Patrik’s voice, so I guess there is something there. I don’t want to push them too hard into metal, I think it needs to come naturally.
Dead Rhetoric: When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what sorts of things do you like to engage in to regain perspective?
Johansson: I usually listen to music when I’m playing drums. When things are tough, I do an hour or two behind the drums and I feel better, I feel relaxed even though the sweat is pouring (laughs). I listen to a lot of music, I have it on all the time. My dad and I like to go fishing sometimes, mostly for fun but sometimes we catch fish as well.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the agenda for other promotions, activities, live shows, etc. for Rifforia over the next twelve months or so? Has work begun on the second record – and if so, how are things shaping up for the material, sound, style?
Johansson: So far, we have some songs that we didn’t have time to record for the first album, the same kind of style. We will stay true to that kind of sound we have developed. It probably won’t be too far of a jump to other areas. Marcus sent me some riffs, the riffs are super important in this kind of music, so you better have a bunch of them when it’s time to put the songs together. Promotional activities – we have some things going on for the summer, but we would like to get more festivals. It’s nothing official yet, we have time to do more shows. We will work on getting some kind of tour, hopefully a good support act tour. It’s the best choice for a new band if we want to reach a bigger crowd.