Evergrey – Interview 2016 Part 2 – ‘We’d make fools of ourselves if we tried to write ‘Hymns For The Broken 2’
It is a relatively uneventful journey to Camden and the restaurant of choice of Tom and Jonas, albeit frequently punctuated by the loud and amusing strains of ‘oooh, it’s gorgeous’, the latest quote from UK comedy show ‘Little Britain’ to tickle the Swedes.
“We’re one minute early, we’d better not go in”, smiles Jonas wickedly as we arrive at our culinary destination, “we don’t want to appear rude.”
And yet, despite our concerns about propriety, we enter and are shown to our table towards the back of the restaurant. The ubiquitous beers are ordered, although not for me sadly because I’m driving and working – the sacrifices I make to bring you all the best interview I can, eh?
Menus are perused for a while before the Dictaphone makes a return to the table and I press play to capture the next insights and pearls of wisdom from the Scandinavian duo.
Back at the hotel, we touched on the vibe and the general subject matter of ‘The Storm Within’. I’m eager to expand on this and delve a little deeper. Around the crunch of a poppadum, Tom duly obliges.
“It is pretty much the same as the last album but it is from another starting context. This is about losing your loved one I guess and finding yourself again, piecing things back together and becoming a new identity again. Going from a two-person identity, to a one-person identity and finding strength and hope in that. It’s about the anger and the violent thoughts, the immoral thoughts you have. Of course, the feelings of frustration and helplessness and about being lonely, the loneliest in the world”
But for all this, I do detect a hint of positivity and vague optimism at times within the oppressive darkness of the record. Am I hearing things?
“No”, Tom offers, “you’re not. I think that feeling is always present as in life, even though the percentage is low in the first couple of songs. ‘Passing Through’ is more about ‘what the fuck are we arguing about? We’re only here for a short time, we should live to the fullest’. It’s about gaining control over your feelings. It is also a celebration of what you had, not just mourning. Ok, this was a period of my life. I had this, it was great but let’s move on.”
I remember listening to ‘The Storm Within’ for the first time. Mind you, it’s not hard to forget. When I alert Tom to the fact that I am in possession of a promo copy, he replies, saying that he will stay with me whilst I listen to all of it. Thus begins a thoroughly memorable and special first listening experience, as we fire comments to each other for the next hour or so. As the album draws to a close, Tom remarks to me that the final song – the title track – is possibly one of his favourite tracks ever. Naturally, I ask Tom whether he still thinks the same way.
“For me, yes absolutely. I just love it, that bittersweet feel to it. That celebration and sorrow in the same context. I honestly like how I sing that song and the lyrics. It takes me places. All songs do, but some do it more than others. It is one of those songs that features one of the aspects of Evergrey that I have come to enjoy more. I mean I think Evergrey in general is enjoying the mid-tempo more and sometimes I see us as a metal Coldplay in a way.”
We’ll not dwell on the swear word that is Coldplay shall we? Instead, let’s focus on that ‘mid-tempo’ phrase again. There’s no getting away from it. It is clearly something that Tom and Jonas are keen to tackle and, to a greater or lesser extent, put the record straight.
“What I’m curious about”, Tom muses aloud after an extended pause to munch on more food, “is where did people get the idea that Evergrey is a speedy band? Because they heard ‘The Great Deceiver’ once or what? ‘The Masterplan’, ‘Blinded’ or ‘Watching the skies?’ They are faster songs maybe, but we have over 100 songs.
“The song ‘The Dark Discovery’ is a mid-tempo song too”, Tom adds as he suddenly thinks of another track to help make his forceful point, before Jonas chips in.
“’Solitude Within’ is also a mid-tempo song but nobody will say that it’s a mid-tempo song because it starts off fast.”
“’Broken Wings’, ‘A Touch of Blessing’ and ‘Monday Morning Apocalypse’, Tom rattles off, in danger of naming the entire discography in one breath. “The whole of ‘The Inner Circle’ is mid-tempo. So people don’t really know what they are talking about when they say ‘mid-tempo’. I think what people mean maybe is that they want the feeling of speed. When you talk about speed, do you mean the bpm or the feeling of the bpm? What are you talking about?”
Cue several minutes of Evergrey instrumental karaoke, as a number of songs within the discography are sung to prove that they are not as fast as perhaps people think that they are. It is fascinating because I’ve clearly touched a nerve with this line of questioning and it has led to an extended justification and defence of the band’s music by the band themselves.
“I think I like it because it gives space for everything”, Jonas responds when I ask them to explain exactly what it is that they like about this particular song speed. “And as well, it brings the groove and the heaviness out. When it’s fast, it’s aggressive. But if you want to go heavy, then you’ve got to slow down. That’s what I think. You can do a lot playing with and in, mid tempos. And it has always been a tempo that suits Evergrey. Always.”
But I hasten to add that not all of the songs on ‘The Storm Within’ are built around a mid-tempo. There are a number of tracks that up the ante somewhat, although none as much as ‘My Allied Ocean’. It gallops along aggressively but with an almost power metal vibe thanks to memorable melodies and a raucous rhythm section. In fact, there’s barely any let-up in pace for Jonas on the drums. Was it tough to execute?
“It was”, he answers with a theatrical puff of the cheeks.
“He only did it once”, Tom chips in with a smirk and a wink in Jonas’ direction.
“I wish”, Jonas fires back good-naturedly. “It was insane. We didn’t have time to practice on this album. We were so focussed on writing that there was no time to rehearse the songs. So I was out of shape when we ended up playing it. You can hear it, I’m definitely out of shape.”
“I have to mention ‘Paradox Of The Flame’”, Jonas continues, changing the subject slightly, “which is my favourite song on the album for a bunch of reasons. But me and Johan (Niemann – bass) were in the studio one night. We were done for the day but it was maybe 1am and we were not tired and didn’t want to go to bed. So we decided to rehearse the next song to be fresh for the next day. We chose ‘Paradox…’ and we did all those cliché things. We dimmed the lights, poured up a glass of wine…”
“Poured up?”, interjects Tom humorously. “It was already poured – don’t lie to me boy”
“Ok, we poured another glass of wine”, he grins broadly before continuing where he left off. “We just sat down and played it. We kept it simple. It doesn’t need anything else because that’s not the song. It was difficult because once you get into the song, you get inspired and you get creative. So you want to do things. We really had to control ourselves. We kept a steady beat and did five takes. The fifth one we kept and that’s actually what you hear on the album. That’s one of my favourite memories from recording this album.”
For all the talk of tempos and the like, it should be mentioned at this point that there is definitely a more progressive vibe to some of the material on ‘The Storm Within’, something that I’m very happy to hear. But was it deliberate?
“I don’t think we ever do anything deliberately”, Tom considers. “But at the same time, we weren’t afraid to let ourselves go. ‘Let’s try this’ or ‘let’s develop that and keep going’.”
“I love ‘Disconnect’”, Tom states, referring to one of the most overtly progressive-sounding tracks on ‘The Storm Within’. “Personally it has maybe the best solo that I have ever done in my life, sound wise and how I play it. It’s my ‘Comfortably Numb’ solo. But I like the whole song because it sums up the album before it, and contains all the things that we have been dealing with during the previous nine songs. This is it, boom.”
Evergrey are renowned for delivering wonderfully memorable hooks and melodies. On ‘The Storm Within’, the final four songs are currently my favourites, beginning with ’The lonely Monarch’ which I remark has a huge chorus. I get grins and chuckles in reply.
“He’s been trying to convince me since day one”, Tom hooks a thumb at Jonas, “that it is a huge chorus but I don’t agree. I don’t even know how it goes now”
That last comment is the catalyst for more Evergrey karaoke as Jonas sings the chorus melody to remind Tom. And then Tom joins in as the penny drops. I still think it’s huge and completely agree with Jonas on this subject.
The conversation somehow returns to ‘In Orbit’ and I take the opportunity to probe the guys a little more on the decision to invite Floor Jansen to sing on the record. Enquiring whether they had one eye on commercial success with the decision, the response is immediate and emphatic.
“No”, Tom states firmly and then, after a pause, elaborates. “I have full confidence in our plan. And our plan is to release ‘Distance’, then ‘Paradox Of The Flame’. If we don’t succeed with our plan then…”
“We need to come up with another plan”, laughs Jonas.
“Yeah”, nods Tom with a broad smile, “we need a ‘plan B’. We don’t have a plan B though.”
At this point in proceedings, our food arrives. As a fan of spicy food, we’ve all chosen pretty fiery dishes and not wanting to interrupt our gorging, I stop the interview temporarily. The drink continues to flow and, with tingling lips courtesy of a superb Madras, we settle down for what turns out to be the final part of this thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable interview. I regain focus from the surprisingly sober and articulate Swedes by asking about the upcoming tour with Delain. After several headlining tours, I’m intrigued to find out the reasoning behind accepting a support slot for Dutch melodic metallers Delain.
“We agreed two years ago that we would stop being a support band”, offers Jonas, taking up the explanation eagerly. “We can stand on our own two legs. But when Delain approached us, it felt really good and personally made me hungry in a way. I love headline tours, they are the best thing in the world because you can do whatever you want. But I also like that competitive feeling you get when you’re an opener. It has a spark to it. It is complicated because we’ll be playing to their audience and we want to gain as many new fans as we can. This is a great opportunity, so we have to be smart and promote ourselves as best we can.”
As I’ve mentioned before, I did lose a bit of my Evergrey mojo during the ‘Monday Morning Apocalypse’ and ‘Torn’ period. It is not something I shy away from and Tom and Jonas nod politely as I make no effort to conceal this personal opinion. However, ‘Hymns For The Broken’ built strongly on the foundations of ‘The Glorious Collision’ and brought me fully back into the fold. Given the impact of that release, I enquire to whether the guys had any nerves when it came to the follow-up.
“No, I don’t think so”, Tom responds thoughtfully. What I love about Evergrey is that there are no hidden meanings, no empty rhetoric. Everything they say is honest and from the heart as Tom’s next comment proves once again.
“No, we don’t try to follow something up, because we know that we have already written that album. That’s it. We’d make fools of ourselves if we tried to write ‘Hymns For The Broken Part 2’.
“The only thing I’ve discovered”, Jonas offers from a slightly different angle, “is that we always say ‘the last album was great, we really need to bring our A game to this one. ‘Hymns’ was a home run, a huge success, but we weren’t worried or panicking. In fact, it was more like the opposite. We were almost like ‘fuck yeah, let’s show them’. We just want to do our best every time.”
Earlier in the conversation, Tom mentioned that he was 100% happy with ‘The Storm Within’. Jonas is of the same opinion as I discover when Tom sidles off to powder his nose momentarily, albeit his response is slightly more reticent.
“I’ve never reflected on it up until now actually,” he answers after a moment of deep thought. “There are always things on a record that bother you, but on this album, we captured everything that we wanted to capture in all aspects and beyond.”
There’s nothing you’d want to change?
“No…” Jonas replies unconvincingly before correcting himself. “Well, ok, maybe one hit. I won’t tell you which one though.”
“What? On this album?” asks Tom of Jonas as he returns to the table and the conversation. “Fuck no. Why did you make it if you were going to regret it?”
“Ah, you can’t make a perfect album”, Jonas retorts to the semi-serious question from his colleague. “But it feels really good to accomplish everything that we wanted to accomplish.”
“I really can’t think of anything right now”, Tom adds. “I haven’t listened to it a lot recently because I decided to rest from it.”
“I’ve heard it a lot”, Jonas reveals in direct contrast. “I listen to it like a maniac. From day to day, when we were in the mixing process, I would listen to it like an obsessive, listening to the frequencies, levels and sounds. But the strange thing is that two hours later, I could listen to it like a fan and I’d be like ‘Shit, these guys can play, who are these guys?!’ But seriously, when we were in the studio, we were so focused. We had the songs but we went into a bubble when we recorded it. Firstly, it was a drum and bass bubble. Once that was done, we went into a rhythm guitar bubble. And on and on. In a sense, at that time, we lost the objectivity over the music. But we knew the songs before we went into the studio so we were able to focus on one instrument at a time. When we got the first mix, it was ridiculous.”
Tom then takes over, leading the conversation into mixing territory in the process.
“Jacob (Hansen) wrote to me and said, ‘I just mixed ‘Passing Through’ today. What a fucking great song’. I was doing the vocals for other songs so I said ‘thank you’, but I had no idea what song he was talking about, no idea at all. And then I received ‘Distance’ first. I was like ‘what the hell?’ it was so far back in my mind that I had sung that song, even though it was only eight days ago. And the music? Don’t even get me started, that felt like light years ago. Me and Henrik went to Denmark in the car and played ‘Passing Through’ on the journey. We were like ‘what song is this?’ I had no idea which one it was.”
“I remember”, adds Jonas eagerly with a big smile, “that I had to download it at work, sneak up to the loft away from everyone and listen to it. ‘What the fuck it this? Wow’, I thought. It was like a sucker punch.”
“And it was like that for every song”, Tom emphasises. “It also shows the talent of Jacob, to make it sound like it does.”
Speaking of talent, I feel it’s time to put the spotlight on the remaining members of Evergrey. We discuss the recent solo album from keyboardist and the guys are very complimentary, confirming in the process just how important and integral the keys from Zander are for the overall Evergrey sound. And what of bassist Johan Niemann?
“I would put Johan in the top five in the world”, Tom offers without hesitation. “He is such a great musician that it’s an honour to play with him. He’s ridiculous and he pretends that the stuff we play is hard”, chuckles. “He did most of the recordings in two takes.”
That just leaves guitarist Henrik Danhage. I made the mistake of commenting to Tom when I first heard ‘The Storm Within’ that I thought Henrik was on fire with his solos. “What about me?” was the immediate tongue-in-cheek message back from Tom. Tonight, he responds more seriously about his six-string partner-in-crime.
“I think we sound very different from each other but we do complement each other. I like to give Henrik more space solo wise because I think he is a better guitar player.”
“When you listen to the album”, Jonas adds talking directly to Tom, “it sounds to me like you are hungry to play guitar solos again, which I really like.”
“Now Henrik has learned that I understand what sounds best, whilst he knows how to play it best”, Tom continues, deflecting the complement expertly. “So he is totally relaxed and comfortable with this situation, which helps. Last time out, we did all the solos in about two hours. This time, we spent about two days together. I do my solos on my own though. I like that, to have more space.”
Any interview with Evergrey would not be the same without a comment on the vocals, even if the man himself is sitting opposite me. Rather than ask Tom to offer a difficult and potentially uncomfortable self-appraisal, I approach Jonas for his thoughts on someone I consider to be one of the very best vocalists in heavy metal.
“The lyrics are great of course, but it is everything”, he shrugs, finding it problematic to voice his thoughts eloquently. “The soul, the tone, the melodies…it’s just everything. His voice just makes Evergrey complete.”
“It is his best performance I think, yes”, Jonas continues. “Especially when you consider the situation that we were in with the time pressure and everything. We had two weeks to write lyrics, melodies and record the vocals. Not just the lead vocals, but the backing vocals, the harmonies and everything. And there are six or eight channels of backing vocals for each song, so this takes a lot of time.”
It was only the other day that UK Metal Hammer counted Evergrey in the top 10 Swedish bands of all time. It is a lofty and totally deserved accolade, perhaps showcasing just how far Evergrey have come over the past decade or so. I remark to the guys that I remember attending an indoor Bloodstock festival in 2004 just because Evergrey were playing at a time when only a handful of others really knew their name.
Tom laughs at the memory of a photo that I had taken at that very event with him where I was practically sitting on his lap. It is a moment of warm levity and a chance to reminisce before I get serious again and ask Tom and Jonas why they think they’ve never gone stratospheric in terms of success when others around them have.
“I don’t even reflect on it”, Tom dismisses casually. “When I was younger, I used to think that it was unfair and things like that but now, not so much. I don’t know.”
Ever the optimist, Jonas has a different perspective on this line of questioning.
“We get to do what we love doing and have done for years. We’re still going. It’s not about being the biggest band or whatever. It’s about doing what we love doing with four other guys in the band that I love. I kind of realised this and it was a good feeling for me. I don’t think like that anymore”
“Neither do I”, Tom concurs, “which is why I can’t formulate a better response to this question”.
“I’m just so super grateful and thankful that people are paying to see us play a live show”, Jonas adds with total wide-eyed sincerity.
“We are happy where we are”, continues Tom, apparently inspired by his friend’s take on the subject before offering an even more insightful and honest appraisal on the entire situation.
“I don’t know if we would be happier playing to 1,000 people or 20,000 people every night. Better to play a packed Underworld than not playing at all. At the same time, of course we want to get bigger. But it is also about us being content with what we are doing. I think we have also regrouped in our attitude towards musicianship and our place in the world. I have come to realise that we are grateful for where we are and extremely privileged. Sitting here talking to you, it a privilege. We are happy.”
“Every interview we have done over here, people are in awe”, Tom continues almost incredulously. “You can hear it in the tone of their voice that they have so much respect for us. That is more important to us than playing the biggest arenas in the world. I say that now of course…” he tails off laughing heartily.
Looking around the restaurant, we suddenly realise that we are the last ones sat at a table. With this in mind, I reluctantly begin to wrap up the interview. Tom recently went on record to say that ‘The Storm Within’ was the fulfilment of a personal dream being the tenth Evergrey studio album. With trepidation, I ask about the future, hoping that Tom doesn’t say that this is the last one.
“It feels like we will carry on for sure”, he responds to the sounds of me breathing a heavy sigh of relief. “We were talking yesterday about some of the music we have left over from this album. I would like to try to write a song a month or something; we’ve talked about this but we’ll see if it happens.”
During the social media build-up to this album, Tom used the hashtag ‘#makesomething’. As it turns out, it wasn’t the personal mantra of a musician struggling for inspiration as I first feared.
“To me”, Tom explains, “it was to tell people to make something. Make a difference, make a song, make a painting, make a baby, make a move, do something. Motion is progress, music is progress.”
“I have a hard job seeing Evergrey going past 50, I must say that”, Tom then reveals rather nonchalantly. It is the bombshell that I didn’t expect or want to hear, I must admit. With a slight catch in my voice, I enquire how long that gives us fans.
“Six”, they both state and laugh in unison.
“No, seven”, Tom giggles. “So, if we work on the fact that we try to do an album every other year, that means we have three albums left. Lucky thirteen! Maybe when we’re older, we might change our minds. What I mean is that maybe in five years we will have progressed and developed into something else that is worthy of our age and which is contemporary. Then we might go on until we die. But we don’t need to look that far. Here right now, we are happy and we are releasing contemporary music that sounds fresh and hungry.”
I certainly hope that Evergrey are around for many years to come, particularly when they are producing music of the quality as found on the utterly majestic ‘The Storm Within’.
For now though, that’s it. The meal is finished and so is the interview. The three of us step out into a bustling late night in Camden, off to find the ludicrously tall Swedes a taxi to take them back to the hotel. I thank them for their hospitality and after warm hugs all round, they disappear into the night. Me? I make my way to the tube, only to discover that the station is closed. And so are many of the others nearby due to planned engineering works. Oh well, I’m still on a high, so the three-mile walk that ensues passes quickly and eventually I’m on my way back to my family in the middle of nowhere, with a completely new set of wonderful memories from a great night.