Epica: Simone Simons and Coen Janssen introduce their new baby

Sometimes, all it takes to upset one’s routine and force one to reconsider everything – often for the best – is a small unforeseen event. That’s more or less what happened for Epica, who had to change their plans after singer Simone Simons revealed she was pregnant (although the event was probably not as “unforeseen” for the Simons/Palotai couple as it was for the rest of the band…). For their new album, The Quantum Enigma, Epica therefore moved away from their usual way of doing things and initiated a more collaborative process, thus making the most of their time off the road. The result is an album with massive production, refocused music, and less frills.

We met Simone Simons and keyboardist Coen Janssen in Paris to talk about this very special conception phase and to dissect the new album, which will undoubtedly mark a new cornerstone in the Dutch band’s career. It was also a good opportunity to talk a little more about the singer’s pregnancy, which didn’t keep her from treading the boards well into her fifth month. Readers of the female persuasion will be thrilled…

« With the convenience of Internet, you can write songs and just send them to each other from home. Somehow it became the norm for us. But it gets you a bit disconnected from each other. »

Radio Metal: What was your state of mind when composing The Quantum Enigma, and what were you trying to achieve with this album?

Coen Janssen (keyboards): We try to make the best album possible every time. It’s not really that we contemplate anything beforehand. Everybody writes tunes, then the time arrives when you have to create the new album. We throw all the ideas at each other, and we try to make the best out of it. You only have so much control over what it’s going to be like in the end. You just try to achieve the best result possible, I guess.

Apparently this album features an increased collaboration between the band members. Was there a conscious desire to make this album more of a group effort than in the past?

Simone Simons (vocals): In the past, we’ve always used Internet as a medium to communicate. We all have a home studio, so we would write the songs at home and then we would send them to each other. But we had a positive experience with the new studio, Sandlane Recording Facilities. We were sitting together, and it kind of felt good. We liked the studio and we composed there together. It sounds so obvious, a lot of bands do that. But we live apart from each other, so it’s not really that easy. But this time we made the conscious choice of being together more often while creating the music. For this record, all band members except me – I write the lyrics – have written songs which ended up on the album. Then the guys sat together to really finalize the songs and make them as perfect as we think perfection sounds. It was really nice, refreshing, in a way.

Coen: When we started, twelve years ago, of course we started like every band: writing songs together, in a rehearsal room. But when you go on tour and play a lot, you get to rehearse a lot less. With the convenience of Internet, you can write songs and just send them to each other from home. Somehow it became the norm for us. But it gets you a bit disconnected from each other. The way we did it this time, I think it’s for the better for the result. The songs become more songs, the details are far better worked out. You can hear that we have a lot more fun, because we’re all together.

Do you have the feeling that sometimes in the past the albums weren’t collaborative enough?

Coen: Yeah. That’s also a reason why we decided to do things differently. I think for instance, on Requiem For The Indifferent, maybe we kind of lost track of where the songs were going. They just became too long, too… I don’t have the correct term for it…

Simone: Too unfinished?

Coen: Yeah. Somewhere in the songs, it started going nowhere.

Simone: Also, for this record, we had a lot of time to actually write and record. I couldn’t tour anymore because I was pregnant. In the past, for each record, we were still on tour, and in-between those tours we would write and record. It was very stressful. Then we would go back on tour, receive the mix, and we would try and listen to it in airports! I remember that very well. For this record, we had one year off touring. That’s never happened before! It’s really nice, after eleven years of touring, to be off the road, really focused on the record, and to enter the tour with new energy, fully motivated to promote the new record.

For the first time in your career you haven’t worked with Sascha Paeth on production, but with Joost Van Den Broek. Did you also feel the need for a change production-wise?

Coen: Yeah, I think we wanted a fresh look on it. However, Sascha still worked with us on the songs and the vocal lines. Because of the experience we had in the studio, which is in Holland, we wanted to record there. We could have hired Sascha to come over, but it was just easier to work with Joost. He works in that studio and he’s a friend of ours. We all knew him before, because he was in After Forever, of course. He’s an up-and-coming producer, he did a great job with ReVamp and other Dutch bands. He’s a musical centipede! It felt really fresh to work in a different environment with different people. We didn’t rule out Sascha at all, he’s been a part of the band since the beginning anyway. But it worked out great.

Simone: A change of scenery is always good to reinvent yourself. Like Coen said, Sascha’s been with us from the start, and Joost had a completely objective look on it. It’s always good during the writing process to have somebody there who’s not really in the band. For example, when you write songs and someone in the band says: “Change this or that”, you’re not really inclined to change it. But if it comes from an objective person on the outside, you’re more willing to sacrifice certain things in the song. That person has an overview of the whole picture, while we’re sometimes too deep in it. Joost is very energetic, very positive. He’s a cool guy, and it was fun working with him.

« A change of scenery is always good to reinvent yourself. »

It sounds like you wanted to get yourselves out of a certain comfort zone and to challenge yourselves with this album?

Simone: Definitely.

Coen: Of course. When you’ve been doing this for ten years, it shouldn’t become like a drag. We wanted to do something new. We had this opportunity, because of Simone’s pregnancy, to take some time off and to step out of the comfort zone, if you want to call it that way. I think it resulted in the best album we’ve ever done so far.

Simone: We’ve taken some risks, but after so many years of establishing yourself as a band, you can allow yourself to take risks and not always go down the safe road. We all had a good feeling about it. We trusted the people we worked with. We’re also very happy with Jacob Hansen for doing the mix: he kind of pushed Epica up a bit more. We have a very good team working for us now, and we’re totally behind The Quantum Enigma.

Coen: If you ask me, we’ll do it the same way for the next album.

Simone: Yeah. But I’d have to get pregnant again! (laughs) I’m going to wait a little longer for the second one! We should actually take some more time off touring. This time we were forced to stop touring. We were planning and planning again, and then I called the guys and said: “I’m pregnant!” “Oh! Great for you! Shit, we can’t tour!” In a way, it was good how everything went.

The Quantum Enigma was also the first album featuring Rob Van Der Loo. Did the fact that he joined and toured with the band two years ago give him the time to feel more comfortable with the band and its music before entering the studio?

Coen: Probably. Of course, you have to get to know each other. Rob was in Mayan with Mark and Isaac and Ariën already, and Simone did a tour with them as well. Actually, I was the only one who really needed to know him. Of course we knew each other from the scene in Holland. Rob is a really nice guy and an exceptional bass player. There was no question that he wouldn’t be able to do his job in the studio. Rob is not somebody you have to push in a direction; he just knows what to play and how to play it. He also wrote three songs for the band, and they’re pretty good.

Simone: The bass has a more prominent place in the mix as well. It’s not only supporting the music, it’s definitely adding that extra push. It’s adding more groove to the whole thing. You can totally see that Rob is a bass player 100%, and not a guitar player who also learned how to play the bass. He’s a bass player in heart and kidneys, as the Dutch expression goes! And he can cook really well! He cooked for us in the studio, we were all super happy! (laughs) I love food too, so we bonded over that. I love movies, and Rob is a huge movies and music freak, so we were always like: “Let’s go to the movies!” We went to the movies in Australia. He fits really well in the band. He has a great sense of humor, and he can curse like a hooligan! (laughs)

Coen: He’s a great guy to be with, and a very professional musician. We’re really happy to have him in the band.

You have posted a making of the album online, which features a lot of music. Weren’t you afraid of giving too much away?

Coen: It was a conscious decision. The music is gonna leak over the Internet anyway, people are gonna hear it anyway. You can try to hide the music – of course we used the instrumental tracks, without all the lyrics and the vocal lines. We just did what felt right, and put out a lot of music to get people excited. For us also, it’s more exciting to share it with fans, and to see that it works. We don’t want to keep the music secret just to keep it secret. I can’t wait for the album to be released so everybody finally hears it!

Simone: The fans love behind-the-scenes photos and videos. Showing stuff via a video is the new way of communicating, because people like moving images. Not everybody likes to read everything, so photos and videos are a great way to show what’s going on. That way they feel involved. We’re giving away some of it, but it’s also fun to share. The fans were very shocked, like: “Wow, that’s a whole lot of music! It’s not even out, but it’s gonna be my favorite record!”

Coen: It feels like a present for the fans. It’s more fun to give presents than to receive, I think. It feels good.

Simone: They can slowly get used to the new, amazing Epica sound, so they won’t get a heart attack when they hear the record! They’re a little bit ready!

Coen: The first single is already released, with a lyric-video. A real video is coming as well for another song. Before the record is released, there’s a lot of music to hear already.

Epica is not an old band, as you said you started 12 years ago. But in those 12 years, have you noticed a change in the means of communicating with the fans? Internet has exploded…

Simone: We have over two million Facebook fans, and that’s a lot! We use Instagram, we use Twitter…

Coen: None of those were there when we started. We had this forum, which we still have, but it’s gonna go, because nobody’s on there anymore. Everything was on a website and a forum.

Simone: It’s amazing how it all spread, everything is on the Internet. You don’t even have to go to shows anymore, because people put videos on YouTube – sometimes with crappy phones, unfortunately, so the quality doesn’t really show.

Coen: It’s like the new Metallica song: they already made a ten-camera-angle video out of it! It’s crazy the way it works! In the MySpace era we also had a very lively following. Then Facebook took over. You never know what it’s gonna be in two years!

Simone: They’re all gonna sit in your living-room! We’ll need a bigger house! (laughs)

Coen: With the Google glasses, you could have a live stream out of your glasses 24/7!

Simone: I don’t want people to know what kind of underpants I’m wearing!

Coen: You shouldn’t look in the mirror, then! (laughs)

« This record is very spiritual and scientific, I would say. It deals with the mind, the perception of reality. It sounds very intellectual! (laughs) »

The album is called The Quantum Enigma, and the themes found in the lyrics reflect this subject. Are you especially interested in quantum physics? Did you read any books about it to get inspired?

Simone: That’s Mark Jansen, he’s the quantum physicist of the band.

Coen: He’s not a real quantum physicist!

Simone: (laughs) He is very intrigued by the whole concept. He reads books about it, he already wrote lyrics about it on “Kingdom of Heaven” for Design Your Universe. For this album, I told Mark it would be nice if we could have a concept record. The Divine Conspiracy was a real concept album lyric-wise, this one is semi. We always have recurring topics, we always have this red line going through the lyrics – very spiritual, very philosophical, scientific, political, religious… This record is very spiritual and scientific, I would say. It deals with the mind, the perception of reality. It sounds very intellectual! (laughs)

Coen: Of course we are very intellectual! (laughs)

Simone: But yeah, The Quantum Enigma… I’ll let you explain the meaning while I drink my water!

Coen: It’s about this scientific mystery, this test they did to see how particles on a quantum level react when you shoot them through a hole. Under the exact same circumstances, if you look at it, the result is so and so, but if you don’t look at it, the result is different. Basically, by looking at something, you already influence it. It means that, just by looking at you, I’m changing you already. If you were able to solve this quantum enigma, you could do anything you want!

Not me, I couldn’t!

Coen: No, me neither! I’m too busy raising two kids!

In the past, Epica had songs with a very Middle-Eastern feel, but this time you’ve pushed things farther East with “The Fifth Guardian” interlude. Where did that come from?

Coen: It came from “Chemical Insomnia”, which is the song that comes afterwards. Isaac wrote it. There’s this melody in the chorus that reminded me, as it turns out, of a Chinese or Japanese melody. I thought it would be cool to have that big intro to it. The lyrics have nothing to do with China or anything, but somehow it just came to be, because of that melody. But yeah, it sounds really Chinese, which was the point! (laughs) It’s also something new. On Design Your Universe, we had this Arabian-sounding interlude, and on the last album we had this ten-years-ago Gothic sound, with the creepy piano and stuff. We’ve always been very influenced by soundtracks, and this also has sort of a soundtrack-y feel that fits the album, I think.

Simone: It’s also a really nice moment of peace. The album is very brutal, the mix is very in-your-face. With this song, you can relax, sit back, meditate, or fall asleep, but then “Chemical Insomnia” will wake you up.

Coen: Which is fun, ‘cause “Chemical Insomnia” wakes you up…

Simone: That’s a good one! I love that too. The funny thing is, I didn’t know this song had been written. After I gave birth, I was watching “King-Fu Panda”, and I came to the part where the turtle is standing on top of the hill, and he’s dying. The music in that scene… I get goosebumps right now! I told my husband it was beautiful. I really like the Asian feel.

Coen: It’s even based on that particular music as well!

Simone: I didn’t know they were writing that, because I was busy giving birth, breastfeeding, and everything. They gave me a break from the album, and when I heard that later, I thought: “That’s a coincidence!” Then Coen told me he also really liked the movie. Somehow, even though we did it separately, we’re still connected! Jack Black did that!

Coen: Actually the music is from Hans Zimmer, who is one of the biggest and best film composers. Of course it’s great if people hear similarities between your music and his. But if you use this instrumentation and the Chinese scales, it all sounds like “Mulan”, “Kung-Fu Panda” or whatever. The other guys thought it was like this “World of Warcraft” theme, which is also situated in China.

Simone: When we toured in China we didn’t hear any music, so it’s also a coincidence. But for each record, we don’t use only European stuff. We integrate other cultures as well, because we love to travel. We love other cultures, we find them fascinating. We’re all big movie score and movie freaks, so of course you’re gonna hear that in our music as well. We play symphonic metal, so the symphonic part is huge!

« We’re all big movie score and movie freaks, so of course you’re gonna hear that in our music as well. We play symphonic metal, so the symphonic part is huge! »

With the exception of “Sense Without Sanity” and the title song, the songs seem to be a little bit more concise than on previous albums, all clocking at under 5:30. Is there a reason for that, a specific desire to be more concise?

Coen: I think we wanted to focus more on the songs themselves this time. Instead of writing huge pieces, we wanted to have easier song structures, and focus on it being a song, instead of on it being musically very interesting, or whatever. Also, getting together and jamming the songs before recording really helped…

Simone: Cutting out the bullshit? (laughs)

Coen: Yeah, cut the crap, leave the important stuff in, and wrap it up. But there are still 13 songs, like on the previous one – or was it 12?

Simone: We’ve always had a mix of short and long songs, but on Requiem For The Indifferent, I think it got out of hand. It was too much. We had to find the balance again.

Coen: The songs are still pretty long. If you go to a radio station and ask them to play them, they tell you: “It’s twice as long as what we usually play!” (laughs)

Simone: Yeah, but it’s no fun if we stick to three minutes. I like the variety: I like the short songs and I like the long ones. The long ones are more complex, and you can go: “Oh, that part is coming, I like that”. But for me, as a vocalist, memorizing them… I have less to memorize than the guys, because they play the whole song, but it’s still a lot of work to remember the long songs. I go off stage, then I come back on stage, and sometimes I’m too late or too early. It’s funny. It’s the mommy brain, still not 100% back to normal! (laughs)

Simone, you seem to sing higher than you ever did on some parts in this album – I’m thinking of “Unchain Utopia”, “Living In The Heart” or “The Essence of Silence”. Did you want to push your voice or to test your limits this time?

Simone: I just did what I could, somehow. After giving birth, my voice changed in a good way. Giving birth and becoming a parent is a huge thing in your life, and you kind of unlock new emotions you didn’t think you had. I recorded my parts while having my son in the studio. I didn’t sleep at night, and in-between recordings I was breastfeeding and changing diapers, eating really fast and then singing again. But Joost worked with me during the vocal recordings, and he really got the best out of me. When we made the schedule for the whole recording process, we had 18 songs and I had to record 16. Joost said: “We have ten days of recording”, and I was like: “I’m never gonna make it!” On the previous record, we had fewer songs, and it took me longer to record! Because this time I was a sleepless mommy, I thought I was going to need more time, but it was really fast and smooth. Joost knew my limits, how much I could record, and he was basically always very quickly satisfied. He would say: “It sounds good, I can work with this”. And I was like: “Are you sure you don’t want another two hours of recording?” “No, we’re done, we have it.” And I was like: “Oh, that’s cool!” But it was very intense, very challenging. It was the most special record for me, personally and professionally. I’m very happy with the result, so far it’s getting really good response. For “The Essence of Silence”, people say: “Wow, Simone sounds better than before”. I have to thank my son, I guess. He can sing, too! When I’m playing the acoustic tracks, he’s trying to sing along. It’s so funny!

You’re going to turn him into a metalhead!

Simone: Yeah, he’s growing up with it. He was already in China, Indonesia, Australia, France, and Belgium with me on stage! My husband is also in metal, so he’s going to grow up listening to it.

Coen: So he’ll probably end up being a fan of Lady Gaga!

Simone: Or a rapper! He’ll think metal is not cool!

Coen: Because mommy and daddy are always wrong!

Simone: I’m very curious to see how his musical tastes turn out.

Speaking of that, you toured during the summer festivals playing while you were like five- or six-month pregnant. What was it like to be on stage with an additional band member?

Simone: Everybody thought I was about to give birth because I had a huge belly! Coen saw my belly on Skype before I gave birth, it was even bigger. He was like: “I can’t believe this, you’re so big!” The baby was one of the unannounced special guests for the Retrospect show. (laughs) Nobody knew. The guys thought I’d just got fat and ate too much chocolate, but all the women were like: “No, she’s pregnant, can’t you see?!” The guys didn’t know it looks different when you gain weight because you’re pregnant. But in the end, I had to ask my manager to help me put my shoes on, because I couldn’t bend down! I had my leg at the back and he was trying to get me in my shoes. When I look back on it now, it looks a bit funny. But it didn’t stop me from headbanging. Of course I wasn’t running or jumping up and down, because I needed the air to sing, not to do exercise! It went pretty well, actually. It was cool to have a seventh member on stage.

That goes for both of you: did having a child change anything for you as an artist? Did that influence you in any way in your music?

Coen: Yeah, of course. It changes your life on every level – only for the good, I think. That’s what I was telling Simone when she didn’t have a child yet: it makes your life easier. It makes decisions easier, because you have to decide what’s best for you, your family and your kids. It’s easier in a way, but also harder, because of the lack of sleep! It makes you think about things you never thought about before. Like the things going on in Ukraine and Russia right now: is it gonna affect us? And if there’s going to be a war, you think about the kids.

(Simone is called away for a photoshoot; we conclude the interview with Coen alone.)

It changes your way of seeing life, but I guess it’s not really affecting our lives as musicians. I have been touring while having kids. It’s just my job. When you’re a journalist you also have to go away for work, so…

Last year Epica celebrated its 10th anniversary with a massive and ambitious show called Retrospect. What was that like? How do you prepare yourself for such an event?

That was the biggest show we ever did, the preparations took almost two years from the initial idea until the show. We did everything ourselves – renting the venue… It was a huge job. It took a lot of time and a lot of stress, but I think it was worth it. It’s a great document, where we look back at our career so far. I’m very proud of that DVD.

You’ve always been a pretty prolific and regular band, delivering an album every two years or so. Is it important for you to have this regularity or is it just the call of the inspiration?

It’s kind of like you work in cycles. You record an album, and you want to sell that album so you have to promote it by playing it. Then, after a year, or a year and a half, it’s done. Your album was released two years ago, so people are demanding new stuff. Fans want to hear new stuff, and you want to play new stuff, so you write new songs. Basically, it’s a natural thing. I think every band kind of has the same two- or three-year cycle – except for Metallica of course!

Interview conducted on March, 20th 2014 by Tiphaine.
Transcription : Tiphaine.
Questions and introduction : Spaceman.
Photos : Stefan Schippers (except for the first one: Tim Tronckoe)

Album The Quantum Enigma,out since May, 2nd 2014 via Nuclear Blast.

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