Evergrey – Hymns For The Broken – Interview: “It Has Surpassed All Our Expectations”
The Electronic Press Kit for ‘Hymns For The Broken’:
It is not often that I get personally invited by an artist to interview them for this little blog of mine. However, that was exactly the reality with which I was faced recently when I was contacted directly by none other than Mr Tom S Englund of Evergrey. Or, in my world, where Evergrey are the pinnacle of my musical enjoyment, a person I consider something of a hero but also a friend.
“Matt.. I’ll be in London for press next month.. so we should do an interview – right?”
Outwardly, my reply was “I think it would be rude not to wouldn’t it?”. Inwardly, I was jumping around like a mad thing.
Having organised the requisite day off work, I headed to central London from my back-end-of-nowhere home. Informed that I was first up on the day, I made sure that I was on time. So much so that I reached Russell Square just a little too early. Nevertheless, after a lazy few minutes sitting on a park bench with a coffee, I headed to the hotel whereupon I met up with Tom and bassist Johan Niemann. With warm greetings all round, and with the guys’ check-in sorted, we headed to the bar to chat about all things Evergrey and all things related to album number nine, the magnificent opus ‘Hymns For The Broken’.
Lounging in a couple of large leather sofas and with the much-needed real ale flowing, I begin the interview by asking how on Earth the band had considered going about breaking the news that Evergrey were no more. I hadn’t even known that it was a possibility and the fact that this option was the most likely outcome up until a few months ago really surprised me.
“There is no nice way of saying that this is it. You just have to say ‘this is it’, Tom chuckles with a lop-sided grin on his face. “But on the other hand, we basically played on the ‘Glorious Collision’ album until up to two weeks ago. It is fucking insane, being able to maintain our standards for so long. We maybe could have carried it on longer too, but it has to be fun though. And if it is not fun, you have to do something else, just like anyone else in any other job.”
Much criticism has come the way of Evergrey over the years for the apparent revolving door syndrome that has plagued them. Everybody has their own theory as to the reasons behind it, but a stoical Tom just admits that these things happen, explaining that sometimes, it is better for the band if members come and go. During the last year or so, both Hannes Van Dahl (drums) and Marcus Jidell (guitars) have headed for the exit, a factor that apparently triggered the potential folding of the band. However, out of adversity and when you least expect it, a near-disaster can turn into a blessing. That’s exactly what happened for Evergrey, as Marcus’ and Hannes’ departures effectively signalled the return of two familiar faces to the fold. Re-enter guitarist Henrik Danhage and drummer Jonas Ekdahl.
Before asking for the low-down on their return, I invite Tom to recount the reason for the departure of this duo back in 2010.
“It was actually Jari’s (Kainulainen, ex bassist) idea that we should tell the other guys to leave because they were not having fun anymore. We were staying in a five star hotel in Sao Paolo with pools, drinks and everything. They were not smiling and weren’t smiling at the shows either. That’s when we realised that they weren’t having fun anymore. Me, Rikard (Zander – keys) and Jari discussed it and Rikard said that it is not an obligation to be in Evergrey; if you’re not into it, you can leave. Jari was like ‘yeah, let’s kick them out’. We were frustrated with them not paying respect to Evergrey and so I called them when we got home and said that we needed to talk. I said that I think that it is best for you to leave so that we can stay friends because it is more important to stay friends than be musicians together. We valued that more.”
Ironically, Jari departed around the same time as well and judging by his facial expression, the irony is not lost on Tom. But now, four years later, Henrik and Jonas have re-joined. As the guys explain though, it was not a quick or easy decision for any of them.
“We didn’t have a drummer or a guitar player”, Johan begins, “so Tom decided to call Henrik and Jonas to see if they are into it, to see if they have the time or were interested. And they were, so I was like ‘yaye!’ he exclaims throwing both thumbs up into the air.
“But that was just for those two shows”, Tom quickly clarifies. “First off, we didn’t have any such ideas at all ourselves. I didn’t even think it was in the pipeline for them because they’ve just finished their album (for DeathDestruction)
How did it come about?” he muses rhetorically for a moment as the detail briefly escapes him. “Actually, that’s right, I was working out with Jonas at the same gym and I was talking with him. I told him that we had this deal with AFM and I asked him if he was interested in being a session drummer for the album. He wasn’t jumping at the offer to be honest. So I called Henrik to see if he thought I should ask him again. But at that point, what I didn’t know was that Henrik and Jonas had already spoken about being back in Evergrey. To make a very long story much shorter, I asked Jonas again and he said he would think about it. He was worried that things would clash between us again and so were we to be honest. We were extremely careful to not get back into the same position that we were in before, to not have shit happen again. Things moved on very slowly and after serious consideration, I asked whether we should do this, for real. And if we do this, I was clear that we must be fantastic and do everything at 100%. I can’t believe that we are here today, because that’s exactly how I feel about everything.”
It’s not hard to see why to be perfectly honest. I consider ‘In Search Of Truth’ to be my favourite album of all time, but the Jacob Hansen-mixed ‘Hymns For The Broken’ pushes that record very close indeed and I was right to get excited about it’s release. This is an album that contains some of the very best material of the Swedes’ career, from full-on melodic metal anthems to sensitive, introspective ballads and everything in between, all wrapped up in Evergrey’s trademark cloak of rich, dark and moody atmospherics. One minute you’ll be banging your head furiously, the next you’ll be throwing your head back and singing at the top of your lungs. Put simply, ‘Hymns For The Broken’ is a masterpiece, a bona-fide classic in waiting that hits every button and raw nerve within me, every single time I listen.
“For me, personally”, Johan agrees with Tom’s previous statement, “I haven’t been in the band that long, but this feels much more positive than before. I was worried when Hannes and Marcus left, thinking that we’d have to find new members and ‘woah, that’ll be fun.’
“That would never have happened”, Tom interjects, tellingly.
“Yeah, and then this all happened and this record came out. I can’t believe it because it has surpassed all of our expectations.”
That’s quite a comment when you bear in mind how experienced Johan is in the metal world. To the band’s credit, the news of Jonas’ and Henrik’s return has been kept impressively quiet. Mind you, as Tom confirms, this was always the plan once the decision had been made.
“The fans didn’t even know two weeks back, when we did the last show. Our plan has always been to reveal them in the video (‘King Of Errors’). So we did this show and at the end, we thanked them for helping and wished them luck for the future. The reaction to the video has been amazing, people saying that they were lying on the floor crying.”
‘King Of Errors’
This excitement is not confined to the fans either. Chatting to Tom and Johan, it is clear that there’s a tangible magic back within the band, something that they can’t wait to reignite on stage with the new material.
“We have played together, yes”, Johan affirms. “But we’ve not played this material together yet. We played a lot before we recorded it of course, but we haven’t played one song with all of the members yet. When we rehearsed, someone was always missing. So it is still very new and exciting for us.”
“The nice thing”, Tom adds “is that ‘King Of Errors’, the first single, is quite a non-complex song to play, so we will be able to make that sound really cool and I can’t wait to play it live.”
“These songs, they aren’t that difficult to play”, Johan reveals, slightly surprisingly. “There are a couple of sections here and there that need focus but a lot of it is fairly straightforward, whatever that means in Evergrey terms. The emphasis will be on playing it greatly, not so much of the fancy twiddling about. It will sound really good when we get to play it live.”
For a band that has always had the ‘prog’ tag applied to it, I’m more than a little interested by these latter comments and it leads to an interesting discussion about how the band themselves view their music and the perennial issue of labelling and pigeon-holing bands into specific genres.
“I finally understood the other day what it is with genres”, Tom responds as if he has had an earth shattering epiphany. “It is necessary for us in order to comprehend a little about the music. I mean, I wouldn’t go into the fucking woods, pick a mushroom and eat it if someone hadn’t told me that it was, I don’t know, a classic Chanterelle. Or that it might kill you.” Cue laughter all round, mainly at the posh accent that Tom affects towards the end of his sentence.
“I never call us prog metal”, Tom continues vehemently as the levity subsides. “But I’m fine with people calling it whatever they want. Because as I said, I understand that it is necessary for people to get a grasp of what the music is. What do you call it?” he glances at Johan, who pauses, thinking “…shit?” Cue even more laughter.
“I don’t know, it is difficult”, Johan finally ventures, composing himself admirably. “I wouldn’t call Evergrey a prog metal band but those influences are there sometimes. In that case”, he reconsiders, “it is prog in the same way that Queensryche are prog. But not in the way Opeth, Dream Theater, Yes or Rush are prog.”
“Don’t get us wrong”, Tom is quick to add, “these are all bands that we listen to and appreciate highly. But every time we say something like this, it is taken as offence to these bands. It’s not it at all; we just don’t know really where we belong and I think that this has worked against us for all these years. But, to be honest, I would say that Evergrey could record anything and it would sound like Evergrey.”
I can’t leave this thread without raising the track, ‘The Grand Collapse’. For my tiny, non-musical brain, it contains a thunderous riff that messes with my head every time I hear it. It’s infectious and heavy-as-hell but ruins me every time I attempt to air guitar along with it. Surely, I ask the guys wide-eyed and naively, this is performed in an odd prog time signature? The answer I get is the verbal equivalent of a brutal slap-down.
“That riff is all Jonas. But it’s four by four”, Tom retorts, looking at me oddly before turning to Johan. “Isn’t it?” he asks.
“Yeah, it’s four-four”, agrees Johan immediately, before doubt creeps in. “Or is it?…”
At this point, both Tom and Johan are tapping their knees, singing the riff to themselves, hoping to save themselves from ignominy and embarrassment. Suddenly, but only briefly as it turns out, I feel a little less foolish.
“It is four-four, but it is the notes in between that fuck you”, Tom finally confirms. “But they fuck with me too”, he smiles warmly.
“That’s the thing, again”, Johan concludes, “it might sound complicated or tricky but if you break it down, it is pretty simple.”
In an vain effort to maintain my diminishing dignity, I swiftly move the conversation on. With a brand new line-up and a strong desire to give everything in the name of a new album, I delve into the song writing regime for ‘Hymns For The Broken’. What I find is a new approach for a band that, historically, has relied on Tom himself for the vast majority of the creative input. This time around, everyone was involved and the results speak for themselves.
“That has never been the case before. It is so evident that it has had an impact on the way that we look at this album and at each other. If we had been doing albums like this from the beginning we might have been bigger than Metallica. I’m serious because in the beginning, you’re younger and you don’t have the know-how about how to tackle people and comprehend situations as well as writing music in a more mature way.”
It turns out that upon his return, Jonas brought with him around twenty songs, all complete except for vocals. Given the guy wasn’t even in the band at the time he wrote the material, it’s a staggering body of work and arguably speaks volumes for his desire to re-join Evergrey. I cheekily ask Tom how many of the songs were not up to his exacting standards. The reply is emphatic.
“I think we could write a new album next week”, he asserts immediately. “We have that much material to work with. I couldn’t and didn’t say that any of it was bad at all. There were bits and pieces here and there that we weren’t super excited about and so we exchanged them with new parts.”
“It was the matter of finding the right songs to make a coherent record”, Johan also offers, further emphasising that the material was of a high standard. “We could have taken other songs and it would have been a good album but it had to flow a certain way.”
At this point, I decide to turn our attention to the concept story behind ‘Hymns For The Broken’. Throughout their history, Evergrey seem to hit a home run whenever they release a concept album. It is no different here. What I wasn’t expecting however, was the revelation that Tom unleashes upon me. Very quietly, articulately and honestly, I am informed that he suffered from exhaustion depression, beginning on the very day that ‘Glorious Collision’ was released. Having personally battled with depression and known others in my family similarly affected, Tom’s words affect me deeply, more so because I am the first person outside of the band and his close circle of family and friends to be told this.
“It went so far that I ended up in the corner of my sofa and that was the only place that I felt safe. Every time the phone rang, I almost had a heart attack. It was the same when I had to open my computer and look at my emails where people wanted something from me. Then there are other more personal matters that I won’t go into. This is super-personal of course, but there are other things that I won’t go into. It led me to start questioning who I am. What is it that I want to do? Is this who I really am? Am I a musician? Is this really my life? What’s going on inside? Why am I feeling like this? Why am I doubting myself when I am on top of the world? Why can’t I feel appreciation for what I have accomplished? Why can’t I just be content with being whatever, wherever, whenever? That’s what ‘King Of Errors’ is all about, portraying yourself as a majestic King when maybe you’re not underneath.”
“And I guess that’s maybe why it hit 2000 times harder, because I hid it from them. My wife didn’t know. I’m considered a confident, strong, high-performing person and all of a sudden, I am not. I was this shell. I sing about this in Archaic Rage. I was this shell not wanting to do anything. Not to sleep, not to breathe, not to feel hope, nothing. It’s not important anymore. The only thing that was important was that I could pay my bills and that I could be in one room at home. As long as I had Carina and Serena with me, I didn’t care about anything else in the world. The analogy in the concept of the battlefields and the war, it is here. The barricades that I had to tear down are in here” points to head.
The strength and courage that Tom demonstrates is a credit to him and I feel an even greater respect for the guy than ever before. I joined Evergrey for a couple of days during their ‘Glorious Collision’ European tour and didn’t have the faintest idea how much Tom was suffering internally. As it turns out, neither did his bandmates at that time, as Johan admits simply.
“He hid it very well and I never knew. It was just ‘good old Tom’ as far as I was concerned.”
“I had to deal with the rise and fall, the constant battle of being confident and insecure; one second you feel like the king of the world, the next you’re drowning in the river like in the video.”
“I have only told you so far and I only decided just now to tell you. We did a Metal Hammer show before this and I wasn’t even sure at that point what I was actually going to say, if asked. I can put it in fancy words but I don’t think it would help me or anyone else. It is just a problem with having psychological problems that nobody talks about. I think we all have them. I think I will be comfortable talking about the concept and my answer will depend on the questions I am asked. This story is also coloured by everything around me; Johan’s life, Henrik’s life, Rikards like and Jonas’s life. I don’t want to paint a picture that nobody can change or alter. However, if you want to know exactly what the album is about, I will tell you exactly what it is about. But if you want to know what the concept is more roughly, I can summarise it quite easily too without answering like I have done with you.”
Happily however, this topic ends on a positive note, once again demonstrating the admirable strength of Tom’s character.
“I’m in a good way now”, he smiles broadly. “I think it will be a lifelong…I don’t want to say fight because I’m not fighting it. But I am overly cautious now and I know the signs. I have told everyone around me what I need help with.”
Any other topic of conversation feels just a little redundant after such a revelation. However, I cannot end our interview without enquiring about the future for Evergrey. Is there one? If so, what do Johan and Tom foresee?
“We’re not expecting anything”, is the initially blunt reply from Tom.” At least, I’m not expecting anything. I am super happy for each and happy comment on Facebook that compliments us for a great song or anything. I have been in this business for too long to think anything else. However, we have discussed things and we want to be prepared in case this goes close to the roof, even if it doesn’t quite go through the roof. Whatever happens, I have realised through this album something that I’ve never truly understood – what Evergrey means to people, for real. That’s cool and that’s what I’m proud of.”