There’s hope left for Evergrey

« We’re in a happy mood! », vocalist/guitarist/leader Tom S. Englund and bassist Johan Niemann of Evergrey tell us before the following interview. We shudder to think what it must be like when they’re feeling gloomy! Who the hell uses words like “illness”, “stress” and “internal struggle”, or says they’ve lost “all hope or will and all inspiration to do anything, except sitting in a sofa” and that their “mental health [is] really on the verge of breaking”, when they’re feeling good? There’s not much happiness to be found in their description of Everygrey’s body of work in general, and in the latest album, Hymns For The Broken, in particular.

But it would be unfair to these two likeable musicians to remember only the gloomy aspects of this interview. After all, they also talked about their reunion with drummer Jonas Ekdahl and guitarist Henrik Danhage, the hope said reunion aroused, the band’s new-found strength, and the experience of shooting a video from the top of a structure several hundred meters high when you’re afraid of heights – not to mention the review of a Sting concert that will probably spark off some debate.

« I didn’t understand this ten years back. I didn’t understand that I was writing about myself. »

Radio Metal: We know that Hannes Van Dahl left the band to join Sabaton full-time. But the reasons for Marcus Jidell’s departure are more obscure. We even talked to him in November of last year, and he seemed to be looking forward to do a new Evergrey album… So what happened with him?

Tom S. Englund (vocals, guitar): Honestly, we don’t really know! It came to a point where he didn’t want to book his flight to a place we were going. He needed to do it himself and if he couldn’t book it himself, he couldn’t go. So he didn’t go. And we figured that was it. [Laughs] For me it seemed like he wanted to quit. I don’t know.

He actually told us about his love for improvisation whereas “Evergrey was very much structured”. He even told us about his hopes to find a way to do [more improvisations], while still keeping the Evergrey songwriting style. So could this have been a source of disagreement too?

I don’t know. I mean, we just wrote one album with him, so… I didn’t hear that actually from him.

Apparently not long ago Evergrey was almost dead, you almost called it a quit. Can you develop that?

As you said yourself, when Hannes got an offer from Sabaton. He called me and he was devastated, because we were best friends and he didn’t want to leave us. But I said to him: “Of course, you need to do that. You’re 23 years old and you need to go out and tour the world like we have done for twenty years.” We thought at that time that it was a better opportunity for him, to move on and do something, because he wants to play every day. So to be fair to him, it was better to tell him that should do it. We had two gigs booked and Hannes couldn’t do them, because he had gigs to do with Sabaton, and Markus didn’t want to buy his fly ticket, so there was just me, Rikard and Johan left. We figured: “What the hell should we do?!” We had to do these gigs because we had a contract. So we called Henrik and Jonas. They stepped in and did it as session musicians. After we did that, we felt like: “Ok, maybe now is time to quit Evergrey.” Because, you know, we would not go out and search for yet another drummer and another guitar player. It was starting to become really pathetic. But we also had a good feeling with the old boys in the band, so after a very long time of mutual thoughts and considerations, and in respect for Evergrey, we came to the conclusion that we should try this for another lap.

You were quoted saying that “the guys coming back saved Evergrey”. So was it decisive the fact they’ve been part of the Evergrey family?

Yeah, as I said, I would never go out to search for other musicians. You could have thrown any drummer in the world at me, I would not have settled for anybody else outside of Jonas and Henrik, because we might as well have started another band. So yeah, it was very decisive and extremely important for us to continue.

Both left in 2010 because you didn’t enjoy being in a band together anymore and to preserve the friendship. So what changed in between for these issues to be resolved? What would prevent for a similar situation to happen again?

I sat down with Jonas and I told him everything I felt about how he was for the ten years that we played together. Everything. And he said the same to me. It was a discussion that kept on going for four hours, and it was very tough to hear some truth about myself, and also for him. But it was fucking great and relieving. And we did the same me and Henrik. We’re not saying that we’re not gonna have any issues. We’re also four years older, maybe four years smarter or mature, and hopefully we will have more respect for each other. Also, we must remember that you often realize what you have said goodbye to afterwards. We have missed each other as friends and musicians. For us it’s mind-blowing to be playing together again. It’s sort of a surreal event.

Johan, you came in when they left, so how was your feeling with them?

Johan Niemann (bass): Yeah, I was really excited. Obviously, I had never played with either one before but I knew Henrik from way back when we did a tour together when I played with a different band. So I was really exciting about playing with Henrik, because I really love his guitar playing. And they’re the funniest guys ever, you know! It’s a really nice feeling in the band right now, it’s really positive. We’re really having a lot of fun and we’re so excited to get out and play in support of this record.

How did them coming back impact the new album and music?

It immensely Impacted the new album.

Tom: One hundred percent.

Johan: Not only as musicians but as songwriters as well. Jonas wrote a lot of material and Hendrik contributed as well. Obviously they put their thumbprint on everything.

Tom: Not only that, when we had decided on the eleven songs that we should do, me and Johan and Jonas played through every bit and piece of every transition of every song, and we all sat down for every song and went through everything, disagreed and agreed on whatever, everything from the sound to the chord progressions, the mood of the songs in general, etc. So it is a one hundred percent band effort, which is the first time that has happened in Evergrey’s history.

You said that you’ve never felt “so close to the music” as you are “with Hymns For The Broken”. What gives you that feeling? How can you explain that?

Well, because the story is about me, about my transition during the last six years and my entering into illness, if you will, and trying to come out on the other side of being stressed to the point where you have lost all hope or will and all inspiration to do anything, except sitting in a sofa.

But the Glorious Burden was also about you…

Every album is a bit about me. [Chuckles] I realize that during these last years I’ve been writing from my inner dialogue, if you will, but also then add a fictional story like for In Search Of Truth and whatnot, to make it not about me, but I guess… But I mean, also this story can also translate into any occurrences throughout the world today, like in Syria or in Ukraine. In any country or situation where you are less fortunate, I think you can find strength, relief or comfort in many of these songs.

But what’s the difference this time? What made you closer to the music compared to previous albums?

Because this time my mental health was really on the verge of breaking. I guess that’s… I think I want to get out, really. And that’s also what the songs are about many times. You have this psychological mechanism in you that tells you that you need to flee. For people that are very stressed, like I was, that mechanism is full on, at all times. So you never feel that you can settle or sit down and relax or enjoy anything, really. After a couple of years, sixteen in my case, it goes over the top!

« I think that you need to fail and be disappointed in order to, in contrast, enjoy other stuff. »

Like you said, your albums are always very intimate about you, so how do the other guys feel about that? How do you, Johan, feel about playing these songs that are very personal to Tom?

Johan: Yeah, they’re very personal to him, obviously, but it’s written in such a way that it becomes a fairly universal theme, this inner struggle or trying to get your head above the water. I think that most people can relate to these themes. And this whole analogy with the war and the battlefield, you can apply that on anything, a physical war or a mental war.

Songs like “A New Dawn”, “Wake A Change” or “The Aftermath” all convey an idea of change. Is this a general theme in the album? Is something you actually feel right now, Tom?

Tom : The first song is “King Of Errors”, so it’s sort of about when you realize that you walk through life trying to portray yourself as good as possible, but deep inside the soul there’s this high doubt and sense of insecurity, and therefore the urge to find a new way to live or find a new identity awakes, you know, the urge to see a new dawn, for instance. And when you have realized that you want to go somewhere, it’s time to “Wake A Change”. So yes, the conceptual theme is the ongoing thing throughout this whole transition from the start where you are one identity that you are not satisfied with or where you are in one position in the world, experiencing things that you don’t want to deal with anymore, you don’t know what to do, you just know that you need to be leaving this situation. Of course, then you go through different battles inside. You win some, you lose some. You tear down some borders and barricades. You get a taste of the new freedom, like in “Black Undertow”, but then that freedom scares you so much that it feels like it’s dragging you down. So the story continues and “The Grand Collapse” is where the real breakdown really happens but it’s also a rebirth towards something new.

There was a song on The Glorious Burden called “Wrong”, was about you who was wrong thinking in so many years that you were right… So there seems to be a link with the song “King Of Errors”’…

Absolutely! There are many songs if you look back even earlier in the history of Evergrey that are similar, like “Faith Restored” for instance. But, I mean, each and every song is about this: “Solitude Within”, just the title of our second album… But I didn’t understand this ten years back. I didn’t understand that I was writing about myself. It’s a little bit like a therapeutic diary.

And the fact that you’re often writing about errors and being wrong, would you say that you never learn?

Absolutely! I think that you’ll never become a fulfilled person that knows and masters everything. I think that’s what we thrive for at all times but that’s an impossible task to fulfill. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s necessary either. I think that you need to fail and be disappointed in order to, in contrast, enjoy other stuff.

Evergrey’s music always seems to be torn between lightness and darkness, rage and melancholy. Are you yourself always torn between those sentiments?

Yes. Short answer’s yes!

Your music has often had to do with human struggle. How much of this struggle have you experienced yourself in your life, aside from the band?

When you’re young and you grow up, that’s when you sort of mark the inner reactions you have for the rest of your lives. So yes, I have been through some personal struggles… But I’m not saying that I’ve been through more personal struggles than the average man, but I’ve had my share of crap that have affected me deeply throughout my live and still sort of activates some functions and mechanisms in me, and they’ll always be there, you know. Why I write about is also in order to tell people… There are so many people in the world today that feel like shit, that feel like me sometimes. Maybe my purpose in life – everybody’s purpose in life, is to share our stories in order for other people to maybe lift the burden from them, or least for them to know that there are other people who have experienced the same experiences.

You made a music video for that song, “King Of Errors”, where your play at the top of huge structure in the port of Gothenburg. Wasn’t it a bit frightening playing up there?

Tom and Johan together: Yes! [Laughs]

Johan: It was extremely frightening being up there! I have fear of heights, so that was a really intense experience. It took a while to just be able to breathe normally up there. But still every once in a while I was [with a frightened voice]: “Oh! Jesus Christ! We’re all gonna die!” [Laughs] Yeah, that was really scary.

Tom: That was horrible. Horrible! It’s a hundred meters up in the air and the fences around were very low and we were: “Wow!” I’m having goose bump even thinking about it!

How did you get up there with all the material?

We flew… No, there was an elevator in one of the legs [laughs]. But it was very small, so one of the bass drums couldn’t fit in there! [Big laugh] So one poor guy had to carry it up!

Watching the video actually gives a sense of vertigo. Is this a feeling that we can relate to in what you’re talking about in the song or the album?

I think that the only metaphor I have for being up there is that we’re on top of the world, in a way, we’re kings, kings of errors… I mean we applied to do a video up there eight years ago, while we were on the Monday Morning album, I think, or the Torn album, I don’t remember. But we didn’t get the permit. So we got the permit now, so it was the perfect timing.

« I went to see a Sting concert a year ago or so, and he played the song “Fragile” and he played it a fucking bossa nova version! [Laughs] And I wanted to go up there and fucking tear his head off, you fucking cunt! »

The album feature a great work of arrangement and some new keyboard sounds, almost industrial sounding like on “Barricade”, and we can hear children singing in “The Fire”. Did you have a special focus on the arrangements and trying to have new, fresh sounds?

I think every song needs something. It’s not like we decided before hand: “Ok, this song’s gonna have a children choir or a helicopter sound or whatever.” We look at each and every song… Just like guitar solos, you know. There won’t be a guitar solo if there’s no place for it. But we were super nerdy with details. I think that’s what makes a great album: the details.

Apparently you were after spontaneity this time around. Did you feel a need for a change in the making of the songs?

Johan: I don’t know, we wanted to make some difference, at least. For instance, we wanted to record the drums and the bass live in the studio. So that might be one thing that adds that sense of spontaneity that only happens when you play together, instead of sitting down and replacing everything that you’ve done. So, yes, that adds obviously energy to the record.

I’ve been mentioning improvisation earlier. What is actually your relationship to improvisation? Is there room for this in Evergrey?

Tom: In the writing process, of course. Otherwise, how would you get anywhere? [Laugh]

Johan: As far as playing the song when they are written and recorded, when I go see a band that I love I wanna hear the songs the way they were written and recorded. When I go see Iron Maiden, I wanna hear Adrian Smith’s solos the way they are on the records. That’s for me, personally.

Tom: I went to see a Sting concert a year ago or so, and he played the song “Fragile” and he played it a fucking bossa nova version! [Laughs] And I wanted to go up there and fucking tear his head off, you fucking cunt! You don’t play that fucking song in a bossa nova version! Or you should have written it like that!

Johan: Yeah… [Laughs]

Tom: Fucking hell… You can’t be so bored to the point that you need alter the songs in that way, I think. Because you should always remember that the songs have a great impact on people, it invokes memories and feelings to people. So when you don’t do them in… I mean, playing live, if you’re a good live band, you will have improvisation that is within the range of the song anyway.

The songs are longer and feel more epic than previous albums, especially with the last two songs, is that a direct result of that process? Where does that epic feeling come from?

Yeah, that’s a good point. The only thing that we decided for this album is that we would not try to cut things down into four minute songs in order to get played on the radio. The first video is seven minutes and twenty seconds long and it’s the most successful first week we’ve had ever! So maybe people are more in the mood for the strangeness and spontaneity and epicness now… I don’t know. We were and we are still. We just wrote music and when it felt it was time to end the song, we ended the song.

Does this mean have cut songs in the pass to get played on the radio?

You always try to modify things in order to… Well, one of the biggest advantages if you have shorter songs is when you’re on opening act tours: you can play eight songs that are four minutes long but you can’t play five songs that are seven minutes long. So when we wrote for Recreation Day we decided that we should write for the live environment. Same for Monday Morning Apocalypse: “Let’s write for the live environment.” This time we said: “fuck it! Let’s see what we can do and then we’ll take the live environment when it’s time for it.”

It’s funny because listening to the album, when “The Grand Collapse” ended, I thought that was the end of the album. And so “The Aftermath” felt almost like a second ending. Is this a feeling you wanted to convey?

We wanted to convey a very long ending with “The Grand Collapse” because it’s a very intense song, and also lyrically, it’s the total collapse of the mind: that’s when you realize that everything you thought you were contradicts and what you are today really contradicts the past. So yes, we wanted to have a long ending that felt like the end of the album. But then we wanted to have “The Aftermath”, because I think it gives you hope. It’s not sunshine, it’s not happy kids running around, but it adds hope, I guess.

I don’t remember hearing your wife Carina singing on this album…

She’s on the limited edition extra tracks!

Ah, ok, the piano versions of the songs?


That was actually my next question: so you have these piano versions on the limited edition, and I know you did an acoustic tour back at the time of Recreation Day. So haven’t you thought about doing a whole album acoustically and stripped down?

Yes! So many times! So, so many times and I think that will be a reality within two years.

Interview conducted by phone on August, 24th 2014 by Spaceman
Transcription & introduction : Spaceman

Evergrey official website : Evergrey.net

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