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By: Dave Cooper
Dutch symphonic metallers Epica release their seventh studio album, The Holographic Principle, this September. Dave Cooper caught up with Mark Jansen (guitars, vocals) and Simone Simons (vocals) to find out more about what makes this veteran band tick, the perils of staging large shows, what they like to do on their tour bus and – oh yes – the nature of reality.
(((o))): The Holographic Principle is your seventh album; once again it has a definite theme – all your albums arguably fit the idea of the “concept album”. How important do you feel it is to craft a cohesive record in this way, rather than simply present your ten best songs on each new record?
Mark: We actually do pick the best songs on the album. So when we write a concept, it’s still open. The conceptual songs don’t necessarily need to be on the album. Neither do non-conceptual songs need to be left out. We always go for the best songs, and then we make it work in a way that fits. It’s a pity, of course, if what you think is a nice lyric has to be left out. For some reason it always gets solved. It’s a natural process, I think. In the end the album turns out to be like it has to be, and if there’s a song not on the album that you wrote for a concept – there’s a reason for it. So I’m not too worried about it. Also, now, there was a song that I thought wouldn’t make it to the album, which was very important for the concept, but everybody voted for the song on the album. So it’s still on the album. So yeah, the concept evolves as well. Just like the songs.
(((o))): This record picks up thematically where your last album The Quantum Enigma left off, in a sense, in that it talks a lot about our perceptions of reality and what exactly “reality” is. Was there a specific inspiration for this theme, or was it a combination of things?
Mark: Yeah, for The Quantum Enigma I got really fascinated by the scientific topics, and that didn’t stop. So I continued watching documentaries, I watched lectures online, read books, all these things. That brought me into this holographic principle theory, and I thought “this is too good to be left aside – we have to write about it”. Even though The Quantum Enigma was already into a direction… when you feel like it’s not finished yet, you can keep on going with it. Also, musically, this album is like the sister of The Quantum Enigma. It’s good that it lyrically also has the connection with that album. I’m always watching things online and reading books. Sometimes also on tour, I like to be in book stores; looking in the science section to see if they have something interesting or new. Every time I run into an interesting book I buy it, and I read it. When I get bored, I throw it away.
(((o))): Mark, you are often the instigator of the thematic roots of each new Epica record. We’ve already experienced themes that take in the dangers of organised religion, the growth of new mindsets and civilisations and their decline, and our perception of reality and the degree to which we control our own reality… How difficult is it to come up with new thematic ideas for Epica? Do you have any other particular themes you’d like to address on Epica’s future records?
Mark: I never know what we will write about in the future, because at this moment I don’t know yet, but I’m in one year reading about it, and that’s also the answer for the other question. It’s not difficult, because what I’m reading is also what I’m working on. So if I’m interested in something, I write about it in my lyrics. So I’m never really looking for a topic. It comes to me automatically, and the only thing I have to do is pick it up. I’m never worried about if a new subject will show up, because there’s always something.
(((o))): Mark, you’ve written about some pretty contentious topics in the past – everything from suicide bombings to religious fundamentalism and so forth. In interviews you’ve addressed other similarly controversial subjects – I’m thinking specifically of things like the 9/11 attack on New York, and the idea that the US government has withheld information about the attacks from the American people. Naturally this is a pretty emotional subject for many. You’ve spoken before about your desire that people should listen to all new and often contradictory ideas and make up their own minds, but is there anything you’ve toyed with writing about that you feel could be too contentious for the band to deal with?
Mark: First of all, the 9/11 thing keeps following the American government as well. American families were about to sue the Saudi government for the supposed war in 9/11, and they had to come up with documents to prove that the Saudi were not involved. And I’m thinking “why did you wait so many years to show these documents, when they were there all the time?” Why did they let people think that the Saudi were involved, if they were not? So it’s all these strange things that keep on going and going. It’s an ongoing list of things that seem not to be right, at least from the official story. And I think this is one of the biggest themes you can touch, and most people already want to burn their fingers on this one. I think there’s nothing we wouldn’t touch, just for the sake of being safe. If there’s something we feel like we have to say something about, we will.
(((o))): Over the years you’ve developed a real skill in replicating the sound of a full orchestra when recording your albums – it’s often very hard to tell that you’re using synthetic strings and a full choir, so adept at this have you become. So what made you decide to go the extra mile and use real orchestration this time out? Was it just for the challenge, or did you feel there was something specific to be gained from the process?
Mark: It’s definitely a challenge, and it’s time consuming. You need a bigger budget for it. But if you think about what you could do better than the previous time, this was one of the obvious things we had in mind to improve. Samples these days are really good and they sound outstanding. But when you record an instrument for real, it still makes a big difference. Even a programmed string line – even if it comes close to the original, it’s still not the same. There’s no emotion in it. Somebody’s playing the line with continuous movement. You can never achieve that by program. So yeah, I hope we can keep on doing it like this. This is the highest we can achieve, recording all the instruments.
(((o))): The Quantum Enigma marked the end of a long relationship with your previous regular producer, Sasha Paeth. What led to your decision to work with Joost van den Broek in his stead? Was there anything Joost had worked on previously that got your attention? It must be said that these last two albums sound absolutely HUGE!
Mark: Yeah, I think that’s because of Broek. The change of producer was not done just because we were unhappy with Sasha. Because we’re very happy with Sasha, but when you work for a long time – we worked with Sasha for over ten years – there comes a moment that you feel like if you keep on going, you start repeating yourself. And so we wanted a change of team, and Joost van den Broek was a bit of a risk, because he hadn’t done that much. He had done some small producer things, but nothing really big. So, some people thought that we were taking a risk, but we had a good feeling about it and when we have a good feeling about it, we do it. And this guy appeared to really be the right man for the job. He’s so passionate, he has so much knowledge, and he’s involved in all the things. Like when we’re composing. He’s very talented. He inspires the whole band. He’s like the engine. He’s almost like a seventh band member. So needless to say, we’re very happy with him. We’re probably going to work with him for a much longer time. Like the question suggested, he’s partially responsible for this new sound, together with Jakob Hansen – the mixer. So these two guys are really important for the Epica sound since The Quantum Enigma.
(((o))): Your records all manage to achieve their own distinct feel, even if stylistically Epica have a specific sound. How difficult is it to achieve that balance? Have you ever put together material and then worried that perhaps it’s just too off-the-wall or different for Epica?
Simone: Well, for this CD we had 27 songs to choose from and we worked on all of them. The five guys in the band all had their contribution, and Joost worked with them separately. After a while when we had to make a list of which songs we were going to record, there were a couple that were maybe a little bit too far away from what we thought Epica should sound like. It’s happened before that some songs didn’t make the selection. They’ve been sitting on a shelf, they’ve been beaten up, rewritten, and used for this record. So you never know. At the time you’re writing a record, the song might not fit just yet. It’s just not finished and then you can always have a look and have a listen and you never know if they may be used in the future.
(((o))): How do you feel that The Holographic Principle differs from its predecessors musically? Is there anything in particular that you feel you’ve approached differently this time out?
Simone: Vocal wise, I know that the band members, for instance Isaac and Coen, were really set and each of them knew how they wanted the vocals to sound. The biggest difference for me, was that the vocal lines are very rhythmic. They’re very much in sync with the rhythm of the guitars and the song in general. I think that’s a nice change.
Mark: Yeah, we recorded all the instruments of the orchestra live this time. In the past we only worked with real strings. But now, also the brass, woodwinds, percussion, oriental instruments. Everything was recorded live, and I think you can hear the difference. Even though samples nowadays are pretty good – when a human being plays it, it makes a huge difference.
(((o))): Are there any songs on The Holographic Principle that you’re especially proud of?
Mark: I’m proud of the album as a whole. More than ever we’ve written the songs that would fit together, but also have 18 songs that we would be able to put on the album. But we really couldn’t make a selection of the strongest flow of the album. It’s hard to point some songs out, even though I have a few favourites. But it’s the total of the songs that makes the album so special.
Simone: Yeah, for me it’s the same. But then I would just choose the title track, because it just sounds like the whole CD!
(((o))): Symphonic metal has come a long way since the genre’s early days – it has been embraced by an ever-increasing number of listeners. Have you been conscious of the genre’s increasing appeal? Why do you feel bands like Nightwish and yourselves are more popular than ever?
Mark: You notice that we’re still growing, so if that means that the genre also is still growing… I think so, if Nightwish also is growing. Probably it is. So it’s amazing that after 40 years, you notice that your crowd is still expanding, and the people from the very early days are still following us. So I think that means that we deliver. That we give people what they expect. We always try to refresh ourselves a bit. We really try to avoid repeating ourselves. So, once we’ve made an album – that’s the album. We don’t try to make another album like that. We always try to add something, and keep growing as a band.
Simone: And to learn from your experiences. How you can improve yourself as an instrumentalist, as a composer, as an artist, as a performer. We’re very lucky that we have five guys that are all able to write songs. So you have five different views, different styles that you can fuse, and kind of renew Epica. With baby steps of course. We’re not going to change our direction, but you can keep it interesting. You evolve naturally, but also consciously. Your taste slightly changes. For this record as well, we wanted to make sure that even though we add new influences that the base still remains Epica. The important elements that we have in our music. The choir, the orchestration and the metal part.
(((o))): Of course, symphonic metal is quite a broad church. Yourself and Nightwish – and some relative newcomers such as Ex Libris – tend towards the more progressive end of the spectrum: your orchestrations are often denser, some of your songs are quite long, your albums are usually thematic – even your artwork is frequently complex and loaded with meaning. These attributes also apply to much of progressive rock – is this genre an inspiration?
Mark: Oh yeah, I listen a lot to progressive bands myself. I think Opeth is one of them. I like how they combine progressive music with many art styles, and that’s what we do as well. We are not a prog band, neither are we a death metal band, we’re neither a pure symphonic band. It’s a combination of many styles. It’s what makes Epica. I think that’s also what bands like Nightwish are doing well. They also have their own style, with their own combination of influences. I think the bands that manages to stand on their own, are the bands that are still around after all these years. Bands who tries to copy other ones, these are the bands that slowly disappears along the way. So I’m happy that we always kept following our own intuition and kept doing like what we felt like doing ourselves. That’s why we’re still here.
(((o))): You’ve talked many times about the inspiration afforded to you by other metal bands and by film scores, but do the long-form compositions and conceptual ideas beloved of progressive rock also influence the way you create and present your music? If so, do you have any particular favourites from the genre?
Simone: Well, Opeth is also one of my favourite metal bands that kind of fuse different styles in metal. It just shows that they’re very compatible and that they’re very open to every other music style. We even have a song – ‘Blank Infinity’ – which is infused with rap. It’s not that famous, but it also works. I don’t think people should be confined to just one music genre. Just stay open minded and just listen to it with an objective set of ears.
(((o))): Any specific film scores or soundtracks that inspired you for the recent album?
Simone: Gladiator. That’s a classic I guess. Also for me, as a singer, I love how Lisa was involved in the whole thing. It’s really amazing. I don’t want to spoil it, but there’s an emotional part in the end, where I always cry. I did a test once and I switched of the music to see if I’d cry, and I didn’t. So that just shows how powerful the music is with the images.
(((o))): Do you feel that some of the appeal of symphonic metal could be as simple as the popularity of recruiting female vocalists to provide vocal variety? That perhaps more than any other metal genre, symphonic metal possesses a large number of talented women who also act as role models with which female listeners may identify?
Simone: I guess it’s kind of normal – male or female, that a lot of the fans look up to the singer the most. You’re the voice of the band, literally and figuratively. So yeah, I don’t know. There’s a lot of women in symphonic metal, but not only symphonic metal. I think it’s scattered over all the different metal scenes. We were talking about it to an interviewer yesterday, that nowadays there’s more women coming to metal shows and not only symphonic metal. Not necessarily symphonic metal with a female singer, just also a metal singer. I think it’s definitely an established genre that has both male and female singers.
(((o))): Simone, it’s striking sometimes just how much more stylistically diverse your vocals have become. In the early days of the band your approach was rooted heavily in the classical/operatic style, but as time has passed your vocals have embraced a number of different styles. How much of this is a conscious decision, and how much of that is dictated by the material the band put together?
Simone: Well, nothing is really dictated. I guess it just kind of evolved like that. My style, my personal preferences. I love the variety as well. The classical singing was kind of what I started out with. But as the band progressed, the songs evolved. It just feels like whatever the song needs… if you want power or aggression, I find it comes across better if you sing in a more rock or pop style, or sometimes more classical. Just whatever kind of drama the song needs, I’ll throw into it. I find it quite challenging as well to try to explore different styles. Besides having vocal lessons. Like classical lessons. I’ve done jobs as well for a musical I’ve performed in – I’ve worked with a teacher, too, to perfect my singing style when we had the Retrospect show. Because we had like a 3 hour show, I had to find a way to maintain my energy level, so that I could perform from the beginning to the end. Even though three hours is a long time! But yeah, I’m proud that I can just perform in different styles. It keeps the options open I guess.
(((o))): It’s 13 years now since your debut album, The Phantom Agony, was released. You’ve maintained a fearsome level of productivity in that time – that’s an album every 20 months or so, even without taking your live releases into account and all your touring activity. Do you feel that you’re especially driven to create? How do you keep the writing process fresh for yourselves?
Mark: There’s various ways to keep the writing process refreshing. First of all, we’re five songwriters, so we don’t have to depend on one guy. If he has no inspiration, you’re screwed as a band. Sometimes a person deliver more songs, and sometimes somebody else does. Then we pick the best songs. That’s what’s most refreshing to me. Because once you think a guy starts repeating himself, you kick his songs out, and you literally keep the ones that are sounding good for the new Epica record.
Simone: I guess if there’s one person writing all the songs, you’re lucky if that person feels inspired, and has the energy in-between touring. And the motivation! This time Isaac was pooping out songs like there’s no tomorrow, it was like “here, bam, here’s what I’ve been doing”. Put all those five songwriters together and you have a great selection of songs. Over the years, the songwriters in Epica grew and became more.
(((o))): Is there anything in that 13-year period that you wish had happened differently?
Simone: Life goes the way it goes, I guess. You learn from mistakes, but… you can never know what the future holds for you, you can only do your best at that time, and do what your intuition tells you to. I think the only thing that comes to my mind is I wish I would have listened more to my body. Kind of hit the brakes a little faster, before getting really sick. So that’s a lesson I’ve learnt. Learn what you can do, and what people expect you to do. Because you have to do it with this temple [Simone gestures at her body]. You have one life. You gotta do it the way you think you can, and want to.
Mark: We’re very happy with where we are now. Of course, some things go smooth, and some things go wrong. But it makes you the person that you are now. Where we are now – that’s where we wanted to be. In fact, if you would change something in the chain, you might not be here. We’re happy with the bad times also, because they made us strong.
(((o))): What is your personal highlight of Epica’s career to date?
Simone: I guess the new CD coming out now. And… highlights… [Pauses] For me, the shows we’ve done. Epic Metalfest, Retrospect, you know, having our own festival now, that’s pretty awesome too.
Mark: Yeah, there’s so many. We’re working on refreshing the highlights’ list on the Epica website. It was already such a list [demonstrating its size with hand gestures] and now it gets to be such a list [Simone moves her hands further apart]. It’s amazing when you read how many highlights that have already happened. Like last week, we played in Mexico and there were 60,000 people. Officially they said 80,000. I’m not sure how many there were. But you see literally a sea of people and you think “are they all listening?” I do a “hey, hey!” Suddenly 60,000 people are going “hey, hey!” with their fist in the air. I got goosebumps. We were starting as a band to reach this level, and now with this new album, hopefully, we can even bring it up to another level. That’s what keeps us hungry – that there’s still growth in this band. It hasn’t stopped yet.
(((o))): You’ll be heading out in the Autumn to play some launch shows for the new album – what can fans expect?
Simone: Definitely a visual piece of art that totally fits into the scene of the city. Still top secret lighting devices that are not on the market yet. Our lighting engineer found and hired the creators of it to work with us for photoshoots and video shoots. And we’re implementing it into our live shows as well. Of course, our new songs, but also a great selection of all the other Epica songs. Mix and mingle the new songs with the old.
(((o))): Given how lengthy and layered some of your material is, how difficult is it to bring your music to the stage? There must be an insane amount of preparation involved to reproduce the orchestration alone. After all this time playing live, do you have a good idea where the pitfalls tend to lie? What’s the most difficult thing about touring for you?
Mark: When you do a show like Retrospect… It was one and a half year’s preparation. You have to write all the scores for all the musicians involved. You need to organize the whole thing. You need to do rehearsals with the orchestra. They need to do rehearsals already on their own, before we start rehearsing together. The whole mix… it’s not just one guy standing there, mixing a whole orchestra. It gets pre-mixed by another guy. He sends out just a few tracks to the front of house mixing desk. Where another guy mixes the whole thing together. So it’s an insane amount of preparation and time. But once you do it, it pays off. The expectation standards are a bit relieved and you get the feeling of satisfaction.
Simone: It’s a huge project. You’re working with a lot of real people. Especially for that show, Retrospect. We had the stage built according to our preferences. We had sub-woofer speakers below the stage, and the stage was shaking so bad that my mic stand was like “Drrrrrrrr” [mimes a juddering motion]. And I was three months pregnant at that time. I was worried that my baby was gonna be falling out of me, ’cause I was shaking so bad. Even not being pregnant, Mark and the other guys were like “my knees are shaking, I can’t stand normally”. How could I perform like that? So the sound engineer had to take half of them away in order for the stage not to vibrate all the time. One week before the show we were rehearsing every day, and I was like “I can’t do the show like this”. So In the beginning I was standing on the side of the stage, where it was like a mini stage for our guitar tech. I was standing there because the vibrations weren’t so strong. So that was a funny little tip – things you learn from doing your own shows.
Mark: I think we discovered that one when the PA was in the venue. The day before the show, I got a little worried.
Simone: We were rehearsing a week before that, I don’t remember correctly…
Mark: The whole setup was like it would be on the day itself. It was like really big for the show, and I started to worry. ‘Cause yeah, it’s really not possible to perform like that. In the beginning the sound engineer said “yeah, this is how it’s gonna be”. I said “this is not gonna happen”.
Simone: The stage was not like a set stage. It’s just an empty hall which you can build a stage. So it’s not as solid.
Mark: It was not only the shaking, but also, we were using neo-systems. And there was so much noise coming from that. I couldn’t hear anything!
(((o))): You’ve just finished a gig and are back on the tour bus – how do you relax?
Simone: We have after show food, which is mostly pizza. Most people are on the tour bus. So some of us put on our pyjamas, eat a pizza, watch a movie. Yeah.
Mark: Sometimes party!
Simone: But I mostly watch movies. I’m already in my pyjamas five minutes after the show!
Mark: I can’t sleep until two and a half hours after the show, ’cause there’s too much adrenaline. There’s no way I can sleep then. I relax by hanging out with friends and band members who are around. When you slowly start getting tired, you go to bed and get ready for the next day. After a show, my hobbies are done for the day.
(((o))): What are you currently reading and/or listening to?
Mark: I’m reading a book in Dutch. It’s about revolution. One unity by a small group of elite who are in charge. It tells the history about how it all came about. There’s many things that you don’t hear on mainstream TV and radio. It tells the history from a totally different perspective. There’s a lot of truth in it. It’s called Revolutie door schuld – de radicale geschiedenis van de eenwording der aarde by Rein de Vries.
Simone: Cook books. I’ve read Jamie Oliver’s Superfoods and another by a Dutch girl called Rens Kroes. She’s the sister of Dutch supermodel Doutzen Kroes. Mainly I’m reading recipes. I watch more movies than I read books.
Mark: Then in my car I’m listening to the latest Amorphis album. Sometimes I need some new albums for my car. To not play the same ones over and over again. I’m enjoying this one. It’s called Under The Red Cloud.
Simone: For me, the newest Lacuna Coil [Delirium].
(((o))): Is there anything else you’d like to add to those reading this interview?
Simone: We have our own festival: Epic Metalfest. Maybe that’s a cool thing to mention.
Mark: Got a cool show coming up in the UK, in London. It’s a big show. And we will bring lights with us that are still under FBI protection! We’ve seen them already – the protoypes. But we are the first band to take them on the road. And they look amazing. It’ll be February 3rd 2017 at Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
(((o))): Thanks for another great record guys, and the very best of luck with its release and the upcoming dates!