Evergrey – Interview 2016 – “We’re getting stronger and stronger, every day”
Read my review here: Evergrey – The Storm Within
When you have a job and a young family, it can be tough to get out of the house sometimes, even if it is to just nip to the shops briefly. So you can imagine that it is almost impossible to get an entire evening off. However, when you are summoned to London by your favourite band to undertake an interview, you have to try. And you have to succeed. And so, late in the afternoon, I found myself heading towards the capital, in direct contrast to the 4th birthday party that I’d attended earlier as part of my ‘Daddy Daycare’ responsibilities. It’s the way I roll.
Knowing that I was running late, I abandoned the car, got on the tube and headed to Russell Square eventually arriving in a sweaty mess. The unmistakable shapes of Tom Englund and Jonas Ekdahl could be seen through the windows, enjoying a quiet chat on the hotel patio. The greeting is warm from Jonas, but I’m gathered in a bear hug from Tom who, since our last meeting even, has somewhat unbelievably become a closer friend. You ask why I do this writing for no monetary reward? This. This is why.
After the usual pleasantries have been exchanged and beers have been delivered to the table, we get down to business. I begin by asking the guys whether their present outlook is as positive as it was around the release of the highly-lauded ‘Hymns For The Broken’. Tom is first to reply and his response is emphatic.
“Yeah, for sure”, he nods. “Better. Now that we have had the amount of time that we have had in between those albums, our confidence as individual players and as a band has increased. We feel strong, we feel confident and we feel respected too which is an important part of feeling great.”
“Fuck no”, Tom fires back with brutal honesty when I enquire as to whether this confidence has always been present within the Evergrey camp. “I would say that it has been 20 years of self-doubt up until the last album. Even then we doubted if we were good enough to come back to do another album. You second guess yourself so much in this business, it wears you down. But it also makes you stronger. When things are going great, then you are the strongest person on Earth. But when things start to fall, then it’s just shit.”
The softly spoken and articulate Jonas adds his first thoughts of the conversation at this point.
“Especially nowadays”, he offers, whilst I silently admit to being jealous of the guy’s hair. “Because it is so easy to get a hold of your stuff on line, with all this social media stuff and people writing about you or your music. It’s like heaven or hell, highs and lows. So you have to be careful what you take in from that. You have to know yourself and that you are good at something, no matter what people say. Even if they think you are the best in the world or the worst in the world.”
“You can read 400 comments”, Tom agrees with his percussionist colleague, “where people say that you are genius, a God , gifted or the best band in the world. But then you get this one comment that says you are shit. For me, it is a matter of me being bullied when I was a kid. These comments stick to me immediately, so I don’t look. When we put the video online the other day, I didn’t look at the comments. I just saw how many views we had. It’s not good for me.”
This is a response that resonates deeply with me. I too suffer with self-confidence and mental fragility, often lacking the self-belief that what I’m doing is either the right thing or any good. Therefore, when I receive any kind of negativity, I tend to take it to heart. To know that I’m not alone in this is more than a little comforting.
“I’m trying to be better at it”, Tom continues. “I don’t care if people say that they don’t like it. That’s fine. But when people are stupid, unintelligent and say things because they want to hurt people, then it makes me want to tear them to pieces in text…but I don’t.”
I remember speaking with Tom and Johan Niemann around the release of ‘Hymns For The Broken’ and the return of Jonas Ekdahl and Henrik Danhage about the effect the feedback had on them. Tom admitted that the positivity almost moved him to tears. It is surprising therefore to note that this time around, a decision was made to consciously not look at the social media feedback. I ask Tom for his reasoning.
“I don’t know”, he shrugs, looking around for inspiration. “I just took the decision that I felt I didn’t want to look. Maybe it’s because I’m super tired right now from doing all this work for such a long time. I didn’t want to know if somebody hated it because we have done exactly the album that we wanted to do in every aspect; everything from the production to the final imagery of the videos. All of it. For us it might be one of…”, Tom pauses, “maybe it is the album. I don’t know.”
“That’s how I look at it”, Jonas agrees with a big smile. “I’m super confident. Usually I am über sensitive about the comments and things. I take in very easily all the bad comments. But here, I felt so confident when we released the video, almost like I didn’t recognise myself…”
“I didn’t” Tom interjects with a broad grin and a good-natured chuckle, emphasising the friendship between the two. Jonas responds with light-hearted laughter of his own before continuing.
“I almost felt arrogant”, he states with wide-eyed disbelief writ large across his face. “The comments don’t matter, because I know what the five of us did and what Patric (Ullaeus – rEvolver) and the five of us did. If you don’t like it, it’s your problem and maybe you should just listen to something else.”
“That’s just it”, Tom responds, bringing this particular topic to something approaching a natural conclusion. “It is weird if you make an effort to tell everyone as much and as loud as you can that you don’t like it. But we have to think about it differently. We have to think that people are caring about us. They care so much that they are pissed off that we don’t sound like we did before, based on their love for the band. If they can’t handle their emotions now that we sound different or can’t follow the evolution of the band, it’s up to them. But it’s not like those albums are gone. You don’t have to miss them, they are there.”
“Yes, they are”, I quip. “They are all in my car.”
“That’s what I’ll say next time”, Tom laughs, “they’re all in Matt’s car”
One of the most noticeable things to a long-term fanboy like me, is that ‘The Storm Within’ offers a number of subtle and not-so-subtle references to the now extensive back catalogue. Hints of ‘Solitude, Dominance, Tragedy’ can be heard as well as a vibe of ‘In Search Of Truth’ here or an echo of ‘Recreation Day’ there. ‘The Storm Within’ is definitely the next stage in the gradual Evergrey evolution but to hear these flashes is strangely comforting and entirely welcome as far as I’m concerned. What I’m keen to identify is if this was a deliberate move from the quintet.
“Some lyric lines were deliberate”, Tom counters referring to the line ‘…in search of truth’ within the song ‘Astray’. “But no, it wasn’t deliberate, we never thought about it like that.”
“We just went with the flow”, Jonas interjects before struggling to elaborate further. “It is hard to explain.”
“But it might be”, considers Tom, helping his friend out, “that we said ‘wouldn’t it be great if we had a ‘Touch of Blessing’ melody run here’ for example, but I don’t really remember that we did on this album. The guitar line melodies were done by Henrik just like that”, he clicks his fingers. “But it is good if we have influences from our old albums.”
And yet, from some of the comments on social media, some people have, after hearing only ‘Distance’, dismissed the new album as ‘Hymns For The Broken’ part two or worse. Having been lucky enough to hear the entirety of ‘The Storm Within’, I disagree vehemently with this point of view and am very keen to know what Tom and Jonas think about these comments as well.
“It’s like judging a four-course meal after the salad”, Tom quips with more than a hint of acidity to his words. “‘I know that the steak will suck because I hate this tomato’. We cook for ourselves. It’s not like we cook, think it tastes like shit and then eat it. We cook and then we’re happy. And if the rest of the customers don’t like it…”
“…Then go to a different restaurant”, finishes Jonas with impeccable timing. “We can’t help it. This is how it sounds and how it is supposed to sound.”
“And we are the ones who decide how it should sound”, adds Tom, now in bullish mood. “This is the right that we have. And this is what I mean by unintelligent comments. It’s like judging a TV show based on the first episode. ‘That sucked’. Yeah, maybe you didn’t get into it with that song, but we are not Britney Spears or Justin Bieber. We’re not writing hit singles. This is not a single; it is the first song to represent the album. A single? What the fuck is that? It is a video, the first video to set the tone for the album.”
“In general”, offers Jonas when I ask for the reasoning behind choosing ‘Distance’ as the first song, “it represents the album better, in the sense of the vibe and the atmosphere.”
“We wanted to make it dark”, nods Tom in agreement whilst taking a large glug of his beer. “We wanted to have the slower paced thing and it is one of the first songs that we wrote.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah”, continues Jonas eagerly, clearly engaged with this particular subject. “And it was the song where we realised the vibe for the album. This is it! The video goes well with the story and the concept of the record, so many different factors. It was the most obvious thing to do and we wouldn’t have been true to ourselves to release any other song. We need to follow our hearts with what we do.”
“Everybody said that we should have released ‘Passing Through’ as the first song”, Tom admits candidly, “but we’re not even making a video for that one.”
This isn’t the first time that the ‘vibe’ has been mentioned during this conversation. I ask the gents to elaborate and they duly deliver, in the process offering a brief insight into the songwriting for ‘The Storm Within’. Jonas kicks things off.
“We were sitting in the rehearsal room when me and Tom discovered this vibe”, he explains, smiling at his colleague and friend across the table. “We were thinking that it felt like Iceland where you’re so deserted and lonely. We got so inspired and had visions in our heads and we knew that this is what we had to aim at.”
“We had written stuff for a month or three weeks already before that”, Tom reveals. “All of a sudden, a lot of this stuff didn’t fit into that vibe at all.”
“It still exists for the future”, Jonas clarifies, “but that was hard because there was some really beautiful stuff. One evening we realised that we had to decide what we were doing. There were some songs that didn’t fit into this vibe; they would just clash if we put them on the album.”
Will we see these ideas on a future album?
“They are good enough for sure”, affirms Tom, “but it depends if they’ll fit into a vibe for another album. The thing is, we usually write and write and write and then we find the vibe. We take parts from ideas that didn’t fit previous albums to work on to see if they fit into the new vibe. All of a sudden, you have 30-35 song ideas to work from.”
The words used by Evergrey themselves to describe ‘The Storm Within’ are ‘eerie, desolate and cinematic’. These are powerful words, emotive words and entirely fitting with an album from the kings of dark melodic progressive metal.
“The first image that I had in my head”, reveals Tom fascinatingly, “was a guy standing on top of a planet on his own with his loved one orbiting around him, but orbiting in circles that were so far stretched that it would take light years to reach them. I have all these lines in the album, like in ‘Paradox of the Flame’ where Carina (Englund) sings exactly that, ‘even though there are light years between us’. That’s how we tried to create the vibe, using these interstellar terms as well. It is something that I am very happy with.”
One of the biggest strengths with ‘Hymns For The Broken’ was the intensely personal subject matter, reflecting Tom’s own health problems over the preceding years. Evergrey are at their best when dealing with such things so naturally, I want to find out if the bold and emotive concept on ‘The Storm Within’ has a basis in reality for the band. Tom thinks for a moment before responding in considered fashion.
“I think this album is still personal”, he says, “but it is more based on experiences of close friends over the past years. Of course, being an empathetic person as I think I am, I think I have the know-how of putting myself in a person’s shoes and understanding…well, not understanding them”, he qualifies carefully, “but understanding how I would feel being in the same position. And then writing about that makes it feel sincere and honest. Everybody has been heartbroken sometime, been left by someone or left someone. You can even draw influences from people who have died.”
Jonas and Tom both agree that the concept applies to any relationship with a loved one, not necessarily just a partner. It leads me to make a ridiculous comment that it could therefore even apply to the death of a pet goldfish. I’m rightly ridiculed but I’m glad I said it, as it prompts Tom to offer a humorous aside, one that leads to plenty of laughter around the table.
“I’ve not told you this”, Tom giggles to Jonas before composing himself. “When we were recording the video for ‘The Impossible’, I sing ‘I’ll cross the dark side of the moon’. We find this place in Iceland that we think looks like the moon. Patric and me were like ‘Let’s film!’ We come back after 4 hours of filming and we were so excited. We’re describing the landscape, saying it looks just like the moon, with this cool waterfall over there and…and then Patric’s wife says quietly ‘water? On the moon? Really?’ We were like ‘…oh fuck’. She ruined it all in one sentence.”
One story leads to another as both Jonas and Tom cut relaxed and happy figures in the last remnants of the late evening sunshine. It transpires, to more loud laughing that Tom managed to get a speeding ticket in Iceland from the police at around 2am. Apparently, the police car was the only other vehicle Tom had encountered in around two hours!
It genuinely feels by this point less like an interview and more like an evening out with good friends. However, the Dictaphone on the table reminds me otherwise and I pull the conversation round to hone in on one of the descriptive words in particular, namely ‘cinematic’. I want to understand exactly what is meant by this.
“For me, when listening to Evergrey, I get visions”, Tom offers more seriously than anything uttered in the last ten minutes. “Somebody wrote in the very early days that ‘Evergrey is music for the inner eye’. I thought was very well put because when we write, we get all these images.”
“It’s like this”, Tom then offers after a pause for reflection, apparently not satisfied with his previous explanation. “I listen to a band called M83, a French electronic band. I also listen to a girl called Susanne Sundfør from Norway. I listen to them a lot. All of a sudden, I watched this movie called ‘Oblivion’. I loved the music in the movie and I realised that M83 did the whole soundtrack. ‘Fucking great!’, I thought. And then the ending song comes and it’s Susanne Sundfør and M83 together. The coincidences were amazing and it felt like they did that just for me.
‘Ah, the smell of grass in the morning!’, mutters Tom in his best posh English accent, as the unmistakeable waft of cannabis floats in off the breeze, momentarily tearing Tom’s attention from the topic at hand.
“Anyway”, he continues after the brief pause, “I presented M83 to Jonas who started listening to it. When we started writing, he came in with some song ideas and I guess it had that M83 vibe with the synthesizer sounds. So then we started vibing on that. I started watching movies like ‘Oblivion’ again, ‘Interstellar’ and ‘Prometheus’. ‘Fuck, let’s do this, this is the world, let’s do that’, I said. Carlos (Fides – Artside) did the booklet artwork quite early and we were like ‘woah, he’s got it, he understands us exactly’. And then we discover that all of these movies were shot in Iceland. We didn’t know that. So we were like ‘we have to go to Iceland’. Luckily we had the means and the record label pushed us actually to finance it. So that whole build-up thing is great.”
“I remember sitting there with an acoustic guitar and a keyboard”, offers Jonas, taking up the story. “It was just me and you”, he says pointing to Tom, “and we were talking, saying things like ‘imagine this in Iceland’. We thought about shooting a video there, so we got back to work and were so creative.”
“And I can assure you, at that time”, Tom grins wickedly, “the music did not sound that good.” Cue the playing of an air banjo complete with dodgy sound effects.
As the guys are talking, I begin to wonder whether the song ‘Disconnect’ has been influenced by M83 a little, a band with which I have a passing familiarity. After brief internal wrangling, I decide to voice my query.
“That’s the first one we wrote”, cries Jonas animatedly, leading me to throw my arms in the air and couple it with a suitably smug face.
“They are very good at finding the sound or the vibe for the song”, explains Tom. “And that’s what Jonas did with he created that synth sound.”
“And the working title for ‘Disconnect’ was actually ‘M83’, smiles Jonas, allowing my annoying smug face to immediately return.
Changing tack slightly, I move onto the contributions of the female vocalists on ‘The Storm Within’. I’m delighted to hear Tom’s wife Carina involved again on the song ‘The Paradox Of The Flame’ and I’m intrigued by the guest appearance from Nightwish’s Floor Jansen on the song ‘In Orbit’. Both do great jobs but I must be honest. I therefore suggest, perhaps controversially, that I prefer Carina’s voice. Naturally the guys are too polite to either agree or disagree.
“I think you’re painting with a different brush when you use Floor for sure”, Tom suggests. “And Floor definitely does add something.”
“Fuck Me, yes”, agrees Tom vehemently and without pause, before Jonas takes over.
“Floor adds the perfect spice to the song and the lyrics, to where the story goes. When Floor comes in, it’s perfect and when Carina comes in, it makes sense too.”
With “The Paradox Of the Flame”, Tom reveals, “we wrote the vocal lines in half a day for that. Carina is just a tremendously talented singer, end of story. It’s not technical; it’s just raw talent and a quality voice.”
“She growled on Hymns”, Tom replies when I ask whether his daughter Salina makes an appearance having made such an impact on ‘Drowning Alone’ on ‘The Glorious Collision’. “And yes, she’s on this album too. She is part of the girl choir on ‘Distance’, with her class.”
One of the reasons why Evergrey are so special to me is because they connect with me on an emotional level like very few other bands out there. And I’m not alone. Based on the comments via social media and to the band directly, there are many fans who quote Evergrey as a big source of comfort, support and strength. I’m keen to find out how the band responds to this very positive by-product of their labours.
“It’s overwhelming”, admits Jonas with brutal honesty. “What do I say to this, how do I answer? We just do this for us. It is so weird that we do what we love but we can help other people in their lives too. I can’t get it into my head somehow.”
“We make music and if that aspect at all helps people then”, Tom offers before tailing off, apparently unsure of how to continue. “I get a lot of emails too and I can’t take it all in.”
“Somehow”, Jonas continues, “you need to draw a line because if you take too much of that stuff in and make it personal, when it comes to the next album, it might not be about us anymore.”
“We’re super happy of course”, Tom is eager to clarify, “but I don’t know how to respond when I hear the words. I don’t know how to describe it. It is such a big feeling, it has to be the music for us. If people find comfort in it and it helps them, then that’s an additional thing we’re grateful for.”
The sense of camaraderie and positivity that emanated from the Evergrey camp upon the return of Ekdahl and Danhage was like a breath of fresh air, welcomed by fans the world over. It is now a couple of years on but as the duo explain, the relationships within the band show no signs of diminishing like they did in the past.
“I think it’s even better now”, responds Jonas. “We’re getting stronger and stronger, every day and every week. Where we are now, it’s fantastic.”
“Also”, adds Tom, “we’ve been able to approach the music in the way that we want to. We know how to talk to each other now, which we didn’t before. It is just as easy as that.”
And how do you approach things?
“Everything is on our terms”, is the succinct and immediate answer from Tom. “We don’t have to do gigs just for the sake of it anymore. It needs to be on our terms and we need to look, sound and feel the way it should be to be a proper Evergrey show. Then it doesn’t matter if we play the Underworld or at a festival in front of 60,000 people, as long as we feel confident when we go up there. We play music because we love to play music and we don’t want to do that half-assed.
Tom and Jonas touched briefly on the songwriting of ‘The Storm Within’ earlier. However, I want to explore this a little more and the guys oblige, beginning with Tom.
“We found the format on ‘Hymns…’ where me and Jonas wrote most of it and produced it.”
“The other guys came in”, Jonas states, “with their parts and pitched in with their objective views.”
“They weighed in more than us sometimes”, Tom adds with an agreeing nod. “For example, the piano ending at the end of ‘Distance’ was initially removed but Henrik was really stubborn to keep it. There was no democracy there”, he chuckles. “But when someone thinks so strongly about something, they are usually right. But even though we do a lot of demos, when they come in and put their paint on the canvas, that’s what makes it what it is.”
At this point, I’m advised that Tom and Jonas have a table reserved at their favourite curry house in Camden. What I wasn’t expecting was the invitation to join them and to continue the interview in different surroundings. How could I refuse?
Read my review here: Evergrey – The Storm Within