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EUROPE: FOR OR AGAINST THE 80S?


Leave Europe alone with “The Final Countdown” already! Although the band have no intention of deleting their biggest hit song from their setlist and still have fun playing it – contrary to what the media recently reported –, Europe have moved on. Besides, John Norum confesses to not much liking the studio version of the above-mentioned song, whose production is typical of the 80s, an era the guitarist doesn’t enjoy at all. A dislike he emphasizes several times during the interview.

In this respect, he would have preferred a sound closer to that of the album Europe have produced since their reformation in 2004 – the most recent of which, Bag Of Bones, released only a few weeks ago, features heavy, bluesy riffs. A real evolution.

John Norum is a good customer when it comes to interview: his answers are straightforward – starting with the very first on – while always being polite. They’re also extremely clear and abound in precisions, most notably regarding the band’s writing process. At the end of the interview, in the middle of an update on his next solo album, he can’t help telling us, with obvious happiness, about the birth of his son, five weeks earlier.

« The 80s’ were probably the worst time for rock music. There were so many cheesy stuff coming out at that time, it was really bad. »

Radio Metal : Although there are still some modern riffs, there’s overall a very 70’s like approach in Bag Of Bones. Joey described it as a “hardcore classic rock record with the blues knocking on the door” and said it almost felt like a prequel to your first album with a 2012 punch. Do you somehow feel closer to the music of the 70’s rather than the 80’s?

John Norum (guitars) : All these amazing, classic rock albums were made during the 70s’. The 80s’ were probably the worst time for rock music. There were so many cheesy stuff coming out at that time, it was really bad. I’m not a big fan of the 80s’ but I love the 70s’ and even the 60s’, it’s my favorite period. That’s when I grew up, you know. That’s when you’re learning and get inspired and influenced by what you are listening to. That probably has a lot to do with that as well, because music is exciting when you’re younger, plus you’re learning as you’re listening.

On keyboards, Michaeli exclusively uses Hammond organ sound. Is he trying to detach the sound of Europe from the typical, kitsch keyboard sound from the eighties?

I don’t know, I think we wanted to have a more organic sound. You know, synthesizers can be cool too but I think we were going for a more organic sound with a Deep Purple influence. So that’s why.

Was that blues feeling influenced by your solo album?

Maybe a little bit. I don’t know, but I know that the other guys like playing old blues too. I know that they like that album lot, so maybe that inspired them a little bit. But there are other bands that we listen too as well that kind of inspire us. They don’t influence us, but they inspire us to use a certain kind of writing or whatever. Maybe my record has something to do with that, yes [laughs].

Europe is a band that is associated with the 80s’ more than with the 70s’. Do you think the band started making music in the wrong decade?

No, not really, I don’t think so. I think we were quite lucky to start doing records when we did in the early 80s’; if we would’ve released Final Countdown today, maybe nothing would’ve happened whatsoever. But when we released it, it was perfectly in time and it became a huge hit. We are very thankful for that, because that album has given us a lot and has opened a lot of doors for us, giving us the opportunity to do a lot of good shows. We got booked for a lot of festivals because of that album, some of the promoters didn’t know anything else but that album. But then when you see the band live now, it’s totally a different story. It’s completely different from what it was during the 80s’, thank God. We’re finally a good rock band now. We’re getting better and better all the time. We still have a long way to go but we are getting better. We’re working on it.

The song “Drink And Smile” really makes me think of “Battle Of Evermore” from Led Zeppelin, and “How To Sing The Blues” reminds me of “Kashmir” from the same band. Was it intentional? Were those songs influential?

No, not really. It’s never intentional to do anything like that. We’re not trying to copy anybody, we don’t like to copy anybody. I don’t think we have to either. I think we are quite original in the sense that the melodies are, and so is Joey’s voice. His voice is very unique, so that makes it original. It’s not really about Led Zeppelin, it’s more about those 70s’ bands I guess. We’re just influenced by 70s’ bands, so I think that has a lot to do with this. And also the production has this big, warm sound like it was in the 70s’ when the albums were really sounding great… I think it has a lot to do with the production as well. But I do think that in “Drink And Smile” you can of course hear Led Zeppelin, but I don’t think that was the intention. It just happened by chance, you know [laughs].

« Sometimes you have different ideas about certain things, but we have a deal in the band: the majority wins. So if 3 guys want something and the 2 other guys don’t want it, we’ll just have to follow and go with the majority [laughs]. »

By the way, you hired Kevin Shirley to produce the album this time whereas the band produced the last three albums by itself. What pushed the band to give all the production duties to Kevin this time? Do you think he was able to bring something to the album that the band couldn’t?

Yeah, definitely. He does it a certain way. We never worked like this before, this is the first time, and he really thought we should try something new. What we did is actually try something that is very very old but that we’d never done before: we put all of us together in a room with headphones, pretty much like it was in the 60s’ or the 70s’. We had headphones on and we all played live together in the studio and we did a bunch of takes, maybe 5 to 10 takes, and then we listened back to it and picked the best one, just to get a different kind of vibe to it. We did that instead of doing it – which is very common, you know, especially in the 80s’ and the 90s’ – putting down the drums first, then the bass, then the guitar and so on. He really made he whole thing come alive, and he had great ideas with the arrangement of the songs and so on. He’s very good.

Was not being in control of everything a relief or, on the contrary, was this experience somehow frustrating?

Well, sometimes it can be a little frustrating. You know, sometimes you have different ideas about certain things, but we have a deal in the band: the majority wins. So if 3 guys want something and the 2 other guys don’t want it, we’ll just have to follow and go with the majority [laughs]. That’s something you have to learn: you have to learn to compromise and go halfway with certain things. There’re certain things you might not agree with, but it’s OK. That’s why I do my solo album, so I can do whatever I wanna do and make all the decisions myself [laughs]. I have that ability, or that outlet. You know, I’m not too crazy about that particular part in that particular song, but everybody else likes it, so… You just gotta go with it. Then I go and do a solo album where I just do whatever I wanna do, basically. That’s just the way it is in a band. You have to compromise a little bit.

« We’ve done so many shows now […] so we can go in and play just like we do in the studio, we don’t have to fake it like newer bands who haven’t done that much work together »

Do you feel close to some veteran bands like Chickenfoot or Black Country Communion who have that more to-the-point musical approach and this very natural approach of the way of producing the albums, like playing live when recording etc.?

Yeah, definitely. That’s the way we wanted to go this time. That’s why we picked Kevin. We know how he works and we know that he’s done a great job with Black Country Communion. We’re big fans of Chickenfoot as well and Black Stone Cherry and Joe Bonamassa (he’s done like 10 albums with him), a bunch of stuff that he’s worked on. We’re also familiar with the work he has done in the past with bands like Iron Maiden, Mr. Big, Journey, Rush and so on. He’s our favorite producer, so we finally get to work with him which is great. And we wanted to keep that live thing going because we’ve done so many shows now, we’ve done like thousands of them, so we can go in and play just like we do in the studio, we don’t have to fake it like newer bands who haven’t done that much work together. They might have to put one instrument down at the time and fix a lot of stuff with the computer afterwards, but we don’t have to do that anymore, so [laughs].

When we look at the booklet of the album you’re credited on only two songs despite the fact that it is a very guitar driven album. How does Europe work in terms of composition nowadays?

Well, it doesn’t really say much about who’s being creative on what, you know. The thing is that everybody really puts in a lot of input into the sound, especially on this album, which was really a team effort. One of the guys, like Mic for instance, might have one riff and then we go on, work together and build the song around it, but then he gets the credit! [laughs] That’s his name on it. But everybody comes in with ideas and arrangements and everything. But you’re right, I didn’t write so much for this album because I’m busy taking care of children [laughs], and also some of the stuff that I write might not fit Europe. My writing is very different from what it was before, it’s very bluesy right now. I’m very much into the blues rock thing, and the stuff I write might be way too bluesy for Europe. I might have a couple of rock songs that I can throw in, though. You know, at the moment it’s mainly blues rock for me and it doesn’t really fit Europe so it’ll go for my next solo album which is gonna come out next year.

« When the reunion came up, I just sent all my ideas to Joey […] they ended up being the ones we put on that album. I didn’t think he was gooing to like it at first […], it’s quite doomy and dark »

When Start From The Dark came out you took everyone by surprise with some really heavy and down tuned guitar riffs. We can still hear that kind of riffs on Bag Of Bones. How did you end up down tuning your guitars and making those surprisingly heavy riffs for Europe in the first place ? Was this somehow a conscious effort to modernize Europe’s sound?

No really. I think I’ve written most of the stuff on that album [Start From The Dark]: I had a bunch of riffs at home and a bunch of songs ideas, they were just laying around, and I didn’t really know what to do with it. I didn’t know if it was going to be on my next solo album or for the next band I was going to put together or whatever. When the reunion came up, I just sent all my ideas to Joey, something like 10, 11 songs I think. He just took the ones that he liked and they ended up being the ones we put on that album. I didn’t think he was gooing to like it at first because like you said, it’s quite doomy and dark, but I sent them to him anyway. But he really liked it, so he put some melodies and wrote some lyrics and it came out the way it did. We never had a big masterplan about how we were going to do things, like the next album is going to be a certain way… We are very open minded about things like that. It doesn’t matter. A good song is a good song. It can be a pop song, it can be reggae, it can be metal, doom metal, industrial metal, whatever [laughs]. If we like it, we’re gonna do it. We’re not really stuck in a specific style or anything. We can play any kind of stuff.

« Most people are very surprised when they see us live as heavy and as aggressive as we are. We’re not a soft, pop band like we were in the 80s’ [laughs]. »

Although you’re a very active band who has put out four albums in eight years, when we talk about Europe to some people we always hear things like “oh they’re still alive, really ?”, and a lot of them are still seeing you as that band from the 80’s that did “The Final Countdown”. What are your feelings about that?

Well, it’s time for those people to get out of their cave and live in the 21st century instead [laughs]. But some of these people are just like that these days. Everything’s going so fast. If you hear the music and you don’t really know about the band, you don’t know what we’ve done since we came back. If you’re just anybody on the street who doesn’t really buy albums or maybe just listens to music in the elevator, obviously you’re just going to think about the 80s’ type of thing. But usually those people are not really into music anyway. Everybody that’s into rock knows that we’ve been around for a pretty long time now. It’s been 7, 8 years since the reunion. For the other people I don’t know. I don’t really care about them.

It was funny when we saw you at the Hellfest three years ago, people were thinking that they were about to see an old band from the 80s’ with a very kitsch sound and so on, and actually they were very surprised because there was a lot of heavy riffs and down-tuned guitars… That was a cool reaction!

Yeah, definitely. Now everybody knows what we’re doing and everybody got used to it. They didn’t have the choice anyway, they had to get used to it. It’s not gonna be like the 80s’. We never gonna do another album like the ones we did in the 80s’. We have to move on and move forward. That’s always been a good thing about this band. Most people are very surprised when they see us live as heavy and as aggressive as we are. We’re not a soft, pop band like we were in the 80s’ [laughs]. It’s a whole different situation now. The 80s’ were 25, 30 years ago, of course people change during this time and you gotta move on and get better as a musician, the sound is going to get heavier… We don’t want to live on our past glory so to speak, we want to move on. It’s just a natural evolution.

« We enjoy playing that song live. It’s so much better live than it’s on the album from the 80s’. The production on The Final Countdown album is very soupy, it was actually mixed for American radio. »

Is this the reason why you are considering leaving out “The Final Countdown” of your setlist?

No, we’ve never considered that. We enjoy playing that song live. It’s so much better live than it’s on the album from the 80s’. The production on The Final Countdown album is very soupy, it was actually mixed for American radio. It doesn’t sound that great, but when we play those old songs now, they actually fit really well with the new material because we tune those 80s’ songs down a little bit, we make them heavier and a little more aggressive. So they fit quite well. Sometimes we have a little bit of a joke like “should we get rid of “Final Countdown” tomorrow?” but obviously we’re just in the bus drinking beers and being silly. But no, we’ll never leave that thing out. People would get crazy and throw tomatoes and eggs at us, get mad and beat us up on stage!

Yeah, but actually that would be understandable that you wouldn’t want to play that song anymore since you play it every night… It would be understandable that you find it boring!

No, it’s not boring. It’s fun actually. We had a long break, the band’s been away for 13 years, so nobody played that song for 13 years. That was a very long break. I didn’t got to play the song from 87 or 86 until 2000 in which we did a millenium show. So for me it doesn’t feel very old. It’s a very old song but you know, when you see the reaction from the fans jumping up and down and getting so happy and excited when we do play it, then it makes it all worthwhile. There are other songs from the 80s’ that are a lot more boring to play than the Final Countdown, you know [laughs].

About the studio version of “The Final Countdown”, were you saying that the sound of it was different of what you wanted to originally?

Yeah, definitely. I wanted it to sound like Bag Of Bones sounds today, and it could have. We could have done that, because when we recorded it, in Switzerland, when we just had some rough mixes, before it was actually mixed in America, ’cause that album was mixed in San Francisco, it sounded differently. I have those tapes at home, and when I listen to it I’m like “woah it’s very good, it sounds dry and punchy and really cool.” It’s more like a 70s’ type of sound. But then it wasn’t trendy or whatever, it wasn’t going to fit the American radios. So what they did is they mixed it in San Francisco, and it got a little bit cheesy with a lot of reverbs on the drums and echo on the vocals, you know, just this soupy 80s’ kinda production…

Which is funny because you said at the beginning of the interview that the 80s’ were the worst period for music and “The Final Countdown”, its sound is typical of the 80s’ actually…

Yeah it is, totally. I’m not too crazy about the original version. But I do enjoy playing it now, maybe not everyday, but most of the time I like it. What I’m saying is that whole 80s’ thing that I’m talking about, all the bands that were out at the time, you know, Poison, Cinderella, Warrant and Cherry Pie and all that stuff… Everything that was going on and that was popular at the time was pretty bad. But there were still a couple of good bands, like Van Halen or AC/DC that made good albums in the 80s’. But what was popular, those hair glam metal bands, those are the ones I’m talking about. They were pretty bad. It’s just a matter of taste I guess, some people like that stuff. But I never liked that, I was never into it, that’s one of the reasons I left the band by the way. I didn’t wanted to be in a bubble gum, teenybopper band. I didn’t wanted to be the next Bon Jovi, you know? [laughs]

Can you update us on your next solo album?

Yeah, I’m actually putting it together right now as we speak. Right now I’m just kinda planning it in my head. I’m actually starting thinking in what direction we should go… It’s gonna be a blues rock album, but it’s gonna be a little bit heavier than the last one I did I think. It’s melodic blues hard rock, basically. But I guess it’s a little bit more traditional than what we are doing now if you can call this blues hard rock anyway, I don’t know. It’s a bit of Frank Marino from Mahogany Rush, a little bit of Leslie West from Mountain type of stuff, that kind of style which I love, I think it’s great. I’m looking forward to actually getting it out there. It will probably be out early next year, something like that, because I’m busy right now touring with Europe this year. I just have to record when I have a little bit of time off when I’m home and not changing diapers, you know [laughs], and do a little bit of recording here and there. That’s why it will take a bit longer than expected to get it done. I just had a newborn son, he’s only 5 weeks old…

Congratulations!

Thank you! So that’s why I’m saying that, you know, everybody that has small children out there knows what I’m talking about. It’s a full-time job [laughs]. You have to carry them around all the time, changing diapers, feeding them constantly… So that’s why. I have another son as well, I have two boys now and I’m pretty busy being a daddy [laughs], which is great, I love it, but it doesn’t leave a lot of time write and record stuff, so I have to put that aside a little bit. Family always comes first. That’s the way I look at it.

Is that situation inspiring? I mean, is changing diapers something that inspires you musically?

[Laughs] it can actually, because everytime I do it, I always sing a song for him. Usually it’s a song that’s always been recorded by another band, but who knows I might be inspired and get some ideas for new songs while I’m doing that [laughs]. It can be inspiring actually. Changing diapers is not the funniest thing to do in the world, so you have to try and make it fun, and the way you can make it fun is just to sing a song to make it exciting. I may think about guitars or how I’m gonna put together the next setlist for the band or whatever. You have to try and make it exciting.

Interview conducted on may, 2012 by Metal’O Phil by phone
Questions : Spaceman & Metal’O Phil
Introduction : Metal’O Phil
Transcription : Chloé

Europe’s website : www.europetheband.com
John Norum’s website : www.johnnorum.se

Album : Bag Of Bones, out



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