Less than a year ago, following another unwanted line-up change, Evergrey were on the brink of calling it a day. A few months later, Evergrey welcomed back in its ranks two of its most important old members and with their help recorded “Hymns For The Broken” – one of the band’s most accomplished albums to date.
It is for the purpose of discussing this and other associated matters that I met up with bassist Johan Niemann and guitarist, frontman and founding member Tom S. Englund at a Central London hotel on 22 August and the thirty minute chat that I had with them was not only informative but also one of the most pleasant that I ever had in my capacity as a music journalist. Want to know what it takes to create a masterpiece of an album? Then I suggest you read on!
By Yiannis (John) Stefanis.
- Hi Guys. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us. We are, of course, here to discuss the new Evergrey album “Hymns For The Broken” which is absolutely amazing.
Tom: Have you heard the whole record?
- I have been listening to the album, and nothing else, for the last three days nonstop and, so far, I have not been able to concentrate on anything else.
Tom: Maybe now it is time to stop or you may start to hate it (laughs).
- I will eventually need to do that as I have put all other album review tasks assigned to me aside at the moment. The fast that “Hymns For The Broken” is so good makes the comments read on previous reviews made by you Tom even harder to believe.
I am referring, of course, to your idea of putting Evergrey to rest. I will start this interview, then, by asking you what it was that brought this change of mind which led to the creation and release of a new Evergrey album.
Tom: Well, I mean, it’s really quite simple. When Hannes (note: Van Dahl / drums) got an offer to play in Sabaton I said “yeah, of course you should do that. You’re 22 fucking years old – go and tour the world for the rest of your life”. We were not doing anything at that time so what kind of friend would I be if I was to say instead “no, you should play with Evergrey”.
Then we were basically left by ourselves, me and Johan and Rikard (note: Zander / keys) and then I realised that we still had two shows that we needed to do and the only two people I could think of calling to help out for these shows were Jonas (note: Ekdahl / drums) and Henrik (note: Danhage / guitar). So I called them and, honestly at that point, we did not have any thoughts other than that. We thought “let’s do this and then the whole thing would have run its course”.
And it wasn’t a sad decision; it was a realistic one. We were not going to search for any other drummers or any other guitar players but when these two guys showed up and played with us we were like “fuck man, this was fun” (laughs). They also felt the same so I asked Jonas “could you imagine playing in our next album as a session drummer” to which I received a very positive, overwhelmed response by him. Back then I did not realise that he already had plans to be again with Evergrey somehow so he felt quite disappointed by me asking if he wanted to become a session drummer (laughs).
Johan: (changing his voice to sound like Jonas) “I don’t want to be a session drummer – I want to be a full time member” (laughs).
Tom: Since then, we moved things very slowly. We had a party organised for my birthday to which he played over twenty songs that he had written for Evergrey and I remember thinking “what”? That to me proved that he was eager to do this, that it was important for him to join Evergrey again.
So I never had to ask him to come back; we just decided that it was right for that to happen and it did. I mean, after they both showed that amount of interest…of course we were quite afraid of ending up going through the same problems as before.
- Ok, so the decision was made to work with both these guys again. What was it than made you decide that this decision would be under the Evergrey moniker rather than starting afresh with a new name and band concept?
Tom: Taking the decision of starting again under a new name would not have made sense as I already have other concepts such as guesting for Gus G. and all the other people that I have been collaborating with over the years. I can do such things for a full year, I guess but, you know, we need to really be able to work on stuff that we totally put our hearts into, you know? If I don’t think that something is fun to do then it doesn’t worth the effort you put on it.
This new Evergrey record has pretty much affected our lives since October last year and now that the album is out it will continue to affect our lives for the next three to four years, so stepping into a process like this meant taking great responsibility towards everyone involved. I, for one, have a huge respect for Evergrey as an entity and that’s the reason why I was never in favour of doing anything under that name that was half-arsed.
It is true: I could have done something totally different musically with the same bunch of guys but things never got to that point. We never had to get a new drummer. If that, for instance, was to be the case then that would have been it for the band. We never came to that point as Jonas said he wanted to play for Evergrey again, so…
- Were there any specific factors which influenced the recording process for “Hymns For The Broken” and the way it eventually sounds? I am asking this question as, listening to it reminded me of the band’s ‘golden era’ so to speak, the time when albums like “In Search Of Truth” were dominating the Metal scene.It has a similar homogenous feel to it like the aforementioned albums and sounds as fired up and as focused as these albums did back in the day.
Tom: One of the main reasons why the album sounds the way it does is because Johan and Jonas started the recording process by recording all their parts together live. We didn’t fuck around with computers and mine and Henrik’s guitar parts were added on top of these founding ideas.
We tried to get a live feel for this album and, of course, with guitars you have to fiddle with things a little bit more but we had to match the rhythm section’s playing. As far as the singing is concerned, seventy per cent of what made it in the album was stuff that I sang while I wrote these ideas in the first place.
There is a lot of spontaneity and a strong live feeling in this album. Most importantly, the idea of being back with my best friends playing music together…we have never been enemies – we just stopped playing together.
When we did eventually play these two shows together it felt like…putting your hand inside the ride size glove after you have been wearing something a bit different for a while, you know? I would turn to my left and I knew that Henrik would be doing what he had repeatedly done so well ten years ago. Man, we played together for ten years and that is a rally long time! Most bands do not even last than long.
- It’s quite appropriate that you prize the band’s rhythm section as I do believe that their style of playing and their chemistry have added much dynamism to the album.
Johan: Thanks man. I had so much fun recording with Jonas while playing everything live. It is a simple case of having to be equally good at the same time. If his take sucks, even if mine’s great, it still doesn’t matter as we will have to do the whole thing over again.
The take has to be equally good for both parties involved. This is the kind of process that really keeps you on your toes and to be there in the studio, hammering things away together, that’s the kind of energy that makes people feed of from each other.
It is quite a contagious situation that makes you want to play as good as you possibly can. You really don’t want to stand there being “ok, whatever” when the other guy is sitting behind his drum kit playing for his life, you know?
Tom: This approach also added a lot of nervousness to you and Jonas, as well as me. I was the one sitting behind the console listening and producing the whole thing at the time.
I had one of the best bass players in the world and one of the best drummers in the world together in the studio and both of them were nervous in front of each other, not wanting to make an ass out of themselves. They were “fuck man, I don’t know if I can do this” to which I would say “shut the fuck up and just play” (laughs).
Johan: There was a huge amount of that happening.
Tom: I cannot even remember how many times I said to them both “just play bass, just play drums”, you know? On one hand it is a cool thing to witness as it shows one’s respect for their playing and respect for all the individuals involved in the band. It is cool but we had to work a lot to get this thing under control.
- Most albums nowadays sound way too polished to me: cleverly arranged and expertly recorded but lacking in soul, something that for sure does not apply to “Hymns For The Broken”. I am happy that you chose to follow an old-school approach when recording the album.
Tom: The approach was very organic indeed. Even though the parts are pretty well-played we know that we will be able to play things much better in a year or so, when normally things are the other way round. People tend to play best when recording their album and then end up sounding like shit live (live).
Johan: Definitely. Give us a tour, or a couple of weeks into a tour and you will see how much better these songs will end up sounding.
- Playing again with these guys after this four year break, did you discover that they have evolved as musicians in ways that you were not able to foresee before? Did you find any major differences in the way Henrik and Jonas play these days? Henrik’s performances, especially, are truly captivating – especially the solos he created for the album.
Tom: I absolutely agree with you. Do you know how long it took him to record these solos?
- You’re now going to tell me something like two…
Tom: …two hours!
…unbelievable (I laugh).
Tom: Indeed, but it is the truth! What Henrik needs is not for anyone to tell him what to play, he only needs someone that he can trust to tell him when something that he has played is good enough. So many times I told him things like “it’s great, trust me” to which he would say “really? It’s only been two hours”! I would say “go home”, he would say “fuck, I have to go and pick up the kids” and he would be off – all done.
Next day he would come to me and say “I have to sit down and listen to what I’ve recorded to see if you were bullshiting me” and after listening to it he would go “it’s actually pretty good” (laughs). Anyway, yes – both Henrik and Jonas have evolved in many ways playing wise. Jonas has always been a fantastic drummer, playing wise, so he really not had much head room to improve as far as I’m concerned, you know?
Where he did improve was in the song writing process. Mind you, he has written the foundation of maybe sixty or seventy of the songs featured in the album! I am, of course, referring to the main musical themes which I then took and started adding things into. All remaining members would then sit together and discuss things, adding a chord here or there and bringing them to life so to speak.
So Jonas’ abilities as a song writer these days are impeccable – he simply needs to be produced like anyone really. Now Henrik is probably twice as good now as he was back in the day and he was not bad at all back then as I am sure you remember.
- Which of the songs of the album would you say presented the biggest challenges for you in terms of both creating and recording? After three days of continuously listening to the album I thought I finally knew what these songs were all about up until the point earlier today when I decided to listen again to “The Grand Collapse”, only to discover a brand new song available for me.
I still feel amazed at the realisation of how diverse a song like this really is and its ability to gradually reveal new aspects of its character to me after every new spin.
Tom: This, in fact, is my favourite song of the album and also one of Johan’s.
Johan: Yes, definitely.
Tom: (to Johan) You said that yesterday, I am not making this up (laughs).
Johan: Yes, indeed it is – absolutely!
Tom: For us, honestly, I believe that things like the transitions in songs like “Hymns For The Broken”, going from chorus to verse was more challenging than to make a song like this one, but to make it sound as it does – that was a big challenge indeed.
“The Grand Collapse” is a tough song to play and make the guitar sound like it’s eating its way out of the fucking speakers…all of it was a big challenge but the easier parts like “Missing You” were especially difficult.
I had to re-sing that fucking song at one thirty at night because we were going to Denmark the day after to mix the album and we heard some fan noise all of the sudden in the background of the original recordings.
Now, reinventing feeling is impossible but I managed to get there in the end. So, it was heel recording this album but it was also fucking fun. We had a great time, especially when we recorded the drums and bass.
Johan: The overall feeling was so positive. We had so much fun, even though we were in the studio, listening through the speakers and listening to everything which make it easy to get caught up with things and start analysing everything and also very easy to start doubting yourself and your capabilities when you hear how you really sound.
That’s exactly why it is good to have an ‘outside ear’, a person that’s capable to say, especially when you’re not sure about yourself, things like “don’t worry, things will sound great in the end – don’t worry, just play”. It was a difficult process to have to go through but great fun too.
Tom: But that is so super weird because, you know, when you’re in position of recording you should be fragile to outside criticism which Johan was not. Then I would switch from producing to playing the guitar and things would work totally the other way.
I did, however, spent most of my time sitting with Jonas and it was for him the same way that things were for me. We don’t track with outside people because it is useless to do so, we know how to do it as we have been doing it for what will soon be twenty years. We know how we should sound and now that we’ve had a fantastic mixing guy also telling us how we should sound (laughs) and he was right.
- All the signs of “Hymns For The Broke” being a concept album are there: spoken narrative parts which introduce themes, melodies and a variation of melodies bringing the material on offer together…is your latest album a concept record in either the strict or the loose sense of the term?
Tom: It is a concept album in a chronological order of themes. It chronicles a man’s transition, who might even be me, from the early point in his life to a grand collapse and its aftermath.
It’s really about…you can use a war analogy, a battlefield type of analogy, of all the wars and struggles which take place inside one’s mind – a sort of revolution.
All these talks about barricades, orders that one needs to tear down inside one’s head and how it feels to subsequently experience real freedom for the first time, how it sometimes makes you feel fear instead of relief. It’s about the rise and fall of man, the human struggle.
- Revolutions have been taking place throughout human history but the artwork you chose to use in order to portray this social phenomenon/ situation is very Soviet in style. What prompted you to choose this specific type of art to bring your message across?
Tom: It’s because I had the idea to want to make it…it’s not a means of propagandising for or against Russia – we are not pro-Communism, pro-Hitler or pro-anything for that matter – we are basically pro the ‘little man’!
It is, however, a striking image which was created by my tattoo artist. We had the idea of creating a series of shirts in this style, a series of propaganda-styled motives all of which displaying different aspects of our songs. I like that pale style of colouring, it is quite appealing to me.
Johan: When you look at the cover we chosen, you instantly get a feeling for something and it is a strong and powerful image, no doubt about that.
- It’s an image which, without necessarily subscribing to any particular ideology, conveys feelings of strength and pride.
Tom: Exactly! The flag featured in the cover is also in our music video (note: for the song “King Of Errors”) – it is everywhere. That flag features the slogan “from solitude to multitude”, something that I have been trying to accomplish throughout my whole life – to create this forum for people that are like us; who feel the same things, who have been through the same kind of shit in life and who perhaps believe that listening to Evergrey’s music can help them ease some of the pain they feel, lift their burden or divide it into smaller pieces.
Of course, if we would have had a red banner there we would have been in big trouble in America (laughs).
Johan: (laughs) You have to be careful about things like that.
- That is a call to arms – a gathering of the faithful.
Tom: Exactly! Likeminded are the broken – we are the broken! That is the name that the ‘outside world’ has given to us.
- Continuing on the theme of visuals and their assistance in promoting one’s music, Patric (note: Ullaeus / video producer) has done an amazing job in the video for “King Of Errors”! It is a truly professional piece of work – I don’t even want to ask how expensive it was to make a video of such high quality.
Tom: I don’t even want to look at the bill (laughs).
- Well, after watching the video and picking my jaw from the ground…
Tom: …did you know when you watched it that they (note: the new band members) would be in the video?
- No, not at all!
Tom: So, it was a complete surprise to you then?
- I do remember asking myself whether spending so much money releasing such an expensive looking video in this day and age is something worth doing. It certainly does from a creative point of view, as far as I am personally concerned – not sure whether that is also the case from a financial point. What’s your take on that?
Tom: I mean…first time I met Patric was before we did the “Touch Of Blessing” video. I called him back then and said “can me meet” to which he responded “just so you know, just to take my camera out of my wardrobe it will cost you at least €50,000” to which I relied “Ok, let’s cancel this meeting” following which I hang up the phone (laughs).
I believe that this one was aspect of my personality that he really liked, the fact that I pretty much told him to fuck off. You see, we’re from the same neighbourhood, which is a bad neighbourhood in Gothenburg, where we were both brought up.
Then we discovered that my Mom had him when in day-care and all those other things which connected us together…but anyway – we started spending a lot of money on Patric from the beginning. I believe that we have done eight or seven videos with him already, as well as our DVD, and he has always worked his heart out for us!
He’s done everything; the photos, the videos and other stuff which you have not yet seen, plus, we have another video coming out soon. We decided from the start that we would spend all the money that we had on making Evergrey look as good as they can, sound as good as they can and hopefully by doing that we will get the success we aim for. So, to answer your question, yes – now it’s worth it for us to spend that amount of money for a video, and believe me, it is a lot of money that we’re talking about.
We filmed for eleven days with him, and though he’s my friend, Patric is not an idiot – he would not do it for free. For him to be away from his studio for eleven days…right now he’s working on three In Flames videos, two Evergrey videos, three Arch Enemy videos and the list goes on and on, so for me to ‘steal’ eleven days from his busy schedule…I am blessed, you know?
Now, the video had only been shown 5,000 times this week then perhaps it would not have been worth it but the fact that it has already been shown 70,000 times the first six and a half days since it was released, for us it is a victory of sorts. We just won a video contest in America for it and we ended up scoring better than commercial bands like Five Finger Death Punch…
Johan:…we did better than Five Finger Death Punch, Slipkont, Alter Bridge, Avenged Sevenfold – we managed to beat all these bands.
Tom: We got twenty five percent of the overall votes on a competition made by this major magazine in the US. This contest alone was shared fifteen thousand times – fifteen thousand times share!
- You know, I have been watching closely what has been happening with relevant campaigns on Facebook these last few days and I have to state the obvious here, the fact that you have some of the most devoted and loyal fans in the world.
It’s not just the average Metal fan who will listen to Evergrey but people who are willing to get out of their way in order to support and help promote the band. People have pulled their weight behind the band, so to speak.
Tom: Indeed. I mean we are super cautious, trying not to be too cocky about the new album…we don’t need to be cocky really – we are confident that it will do relatively well, but we have been in this business long enough to know how things work. It does feel that the planets are aligning towards Evergrey these days instead of moving away from us as it was the case a few years ago.
We should really have been quite big when we released “Recreation Day”; we had three videos on MTV, we co-hosted MTV’s Headbangers Ball in Manhattan, talking and presenting stuff for three whole hours but nobody took that ball and run with it! Somebody in Germany, obviously, said “ok, we spent enough money on them”, so…
- I think you just kind of answered the next question I had in line for you, which would have been why you decided to move from a label like Inside Out, a label that felt to many of us like the right ‘home’ for you, to AFM Records.
Tom: It was because, in the end, they were too small. I am not saying that we made the right decision but they were too small, we had some business issues with them as well and that’s why we moved to SPV who were bigger but who ended up treating us even worse (laughs).
Now we’re on AFM Records and, yeah, what can we say about them? So far, they have done exactly what they should and hopefully they will keep doing things the right way for us in the future. I mean, everything is money-based. Of course, everybody wants to put five pages of ads in magazines like the Metal Hammer or whatever but there’s simply not enough money available to do that, you know?
- Now that the industry has changed the way it functions, artists have more power in their hands with regards promotion, for example. Do you find that things are easier for you to help spread Evergrey’s message around through the use of social media?
Tom: The good thing about it is that you get money in advance in order to start engaging with people but, on the other hand, we are going to celebrate twenty years as a band next year and so it might be a good idea to do that by releasing a live DVD and if I’m to make a live DVD I will not do that with anybody else other than Patric and for that we need money. If the label cannot cough up that kind of money then maybe we should do it ourselves, say to ourselves “Ok, this is going to cost us €75,000” or whatever and when we manage to reach that goal with whatever means possible then we can start to record it.
- You have always been, first and foremost an artistic band, rather than just a group of entertainers, so to me as a long-term fan it means a lot to know that you are always in control of what is happening with the band, to the extent that this is possible of course.
Tom: I know what you mean. We signed a contract or two albums with AFM and we will see where that will take us. I mean, we don’t even know what will happen with the music business in general in the following three to four years so we will have to wait and see what happens.
I am not worried – I would be worried if I was working for a record label. We can get the money we need to record our music through fun-funding avenues but it’s not worth doing this – this is our lives we’re talking about. We are musicians and we need to be able to pay our bills. If we can’t get a big enough advance from a record label then we will not record and album.
The fans are paying whatever money they have and we have had an amazing amount of pre-orders on the album solely through our Facebook! We could survive on that alone, the pre-orders that is, so I am not worried in that respect.
I am not saying that I’m going to be a musician for ever either; what I’m saying is that if we’re to do music on that level we will need to get paid accordingly and then try to figure out how to do exactly that.
We have, though, so many loyal fans that are willing to help us do this so if we tell them “guys, we need that amount of money in order to be able to provide you with this end product” I am convinced that it will happen – I’m sure of this. Look at Pagan’s Mind; they collected all the money they needed in order to create their DVD in almost ten days! We can have a goal set in eighteen months. Next November we can record the new DVD and we will need perhaps a bit more than €75,000 as this is what it’s going to cost.
- What would be the ideal place for you to record that DVD? Pretty much all of you have been quite vocal of the fact that you wish to play in Japan. Would that perhaps be the right location for you?
Tom: I think so. We sold 10,000 copies of “In Search Of Truth” in Japan and we were supposed to go and play there at some point but then somebody fucked that up. I believe that somebody did something to someone important in Japan, not a member of the band but perhaps someone from management and that put them off.
- That must have been so annoying for you.
Tom: Yeah, it was. Mow I am over it and there are many other countries in the world for us to play, so…it’s strange. I have eight signature guitar models from Japan but I cannot go to play there – what the fuck is that all about (laughs)?
- Well guys, the album is going to be out pretty soon, much to my satisfaction, and, as expected, I visited your website in search of upcoming live dates but so far there is no such info available. Is there any specific reason for that?
Tom: Yeah, a very big reason which is that we didn’t want to stress anything. We don’t have a management, we don’t have a booking agency, we don’t have anything which is a great position to be in.
We currently follow the approach “this is what happened with this song this week; you wanna be on board or not”? This approach gives us leverage to negotiate with people. I got offered to play three shows in Greece in December and these are thing that we can do this year.
Next year we will mainly focus on summer festivals – that’s what we wanna do. If it’s the same amount of people and money for us to do fifty shows instead of two hundred and fifty then we will opt for the former.
That’s where we are at the moment, you know? Of course we will get more chances of selling merchandise and stuff like that by playing more shows but this whole thing needs to be first and foremost about having fun.
If we do this and it’s not fun we will end up being in the same position that we were when Joan sans Henrik first left which is not what we want. This is a mutually reached and very conscious decision as well. We are…(laughs) cautiously happy, cautiously confident and cautiously cocky about our new album too (laughs).
- I am pretty sure that the right offers will soon come.
Tom: We hope so – they should really. Somebody must realise that, you know, we should be given this chance. I get e-mails from many different business people which want to talk about guitars, aps and other similarly-related things and who want to offer us their support but, right now, I just need the right booking agent. My management will see if we really need one.
- Have you ever considered recording an acoustic album?
Tom: Yes, many times and I am sure that, in the end, we will. That is also one of the ideas we want to work on, maybe even before the DVD – to play two shows, one electric and one acoustic at the very same night. It will be like opening up to ourselves so to speak and we will play two different set lists, which is the idea.
- I am a massive fan of Pain Of Salvation, a fellow Swedish band which has already attempted such a feature and the result was quite successful indeed. I am sure that this approach will be quite rewarding for you too.
Tom: We have already done acoustic tours and so we should be able to pull that one off but the same rule applies here too; it will have to be the right time and the right offer. We like to do such things now and I am sure that the opportunity will rise. It’s one of those things I have to cross of my list before I die, so… (laughs).
You know, Tom, I like the fact that I see you being fairly relaxed and confident about things. You obviously have a good plan set up for the band, a plan that I am sure will materialise in the next few months.
I strongly believe that“Hymns For The Broken” will be one of the main contenders for ‘album of the year’ and it will take something really special by another band or artist to stop that from happening.
Tom: I am happy to hear that. We’ll just have to hope that the rest of the world…that people will go out and buy it! That’s it, and I am no taking anything away from what you’ve just said – I appreciate it kindly but the opinion you have just presented is pretty much unanimous amongst music journalists.
That’s why I’m super-cautious sucking it in. I had a guy yesterday talking to me about this. He is a journalist and a friend of this band since before “In Search Of Truth” was released and, for him, “In Search Of Truth” is his favourite album of all times & all genres.
Now, he pretty much told me that “Hymns For The Broken” is now pushing “In Search Of Truth” out of the top spot for him and that means that, for him, two of the best albums ever recorded were made by Evergrey. That’s so touching I cannot even describe what I feel – it’s insane to know.
- Is it perhaps a case of you being too personally involved in the creation of the band’s music to really notice and understand what, to the rest of us, is pretty obvious?
Tom: I don’t dare go there because I think that if I start feeling it, this appreciation that we get…I mean, we have been here for two days and we’ve never done any press days in the UK before. Tomorrow we’re off to Germany to do another two days of press, after which we will go to France, Holland, Sweden and the US for the same purpose.
You are one of the few people who have already had access to the album for three days prior to the interview – most other music journalists have only already seen our video and read the press release which is mainly based around it. Not many people have heard the album in full yet.
- Well Tom, I am both pleased and honoured to know that.
Tom: Imagine, all these interviews were booked on the strength of the video for “King Of Errors” alone! It’s only a day or so ago that people started receiving the album…I am super nervous and super happy but also super confident because I know that we have made a great album.
- Tom, I couldn’t agree more. I will wrap this up here by wishing you the best of luck, even though I do believe that, when so much passion, skill and talent is involved, luck should not be at all important.
Tom: Luck is a very important thing to have, though, just as in football. If you were a football player and you played as well as “Operation Mindcrime” you would most probably be paid $400.000.000 per year. In music, you can be the best of the best but still not making it big. Things have happened for us and I am super grateful for that but we’re certainly not on the same level with Metallica – that’s all I’m saying (laughs).
- Point taken! Thank you for your time and hope to see you perform in the UK soon. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege talking to you.
Josh Taerk’s latest Lockdown session was streamed on Sunday 25 October. More about Josh: http://getreadytorock.me.uk/blog/?s=%22Josh+Taerk%22
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