Within Temptation: into the minds of Hydra

Are Within Temptation pop or metal? After last year’s The Q-Music Sessions, an album made up of pop song covers, the band’s latest record, the aptly-named Hydra, gives an answer regarding what side they’re leaning towards – both! For vocalist Sharon Den Adel, the contrasts that will give spice to their music are to be found in the mix of genres. Among this album’s various guests, the rapper XZibit helped the Dutch band enter the world of hip hop. Within Temptation advocate open-mindedness because it’s in their DNA: “We listen not only to metal, but also to alternative music, rock, classical music, reggae, dance, hip hop…”, says the frontwoman. On the other hand, this desire for contrast is the reason the band came back to – and even sometimes reinforced – typically metal elements, like heavy guitars or grunted vocals.

To all those who might accuse Within Temptation of playing footsy with the pop scene to further their commercial ambitions, Sharon Den Adel explains the band’s genuine artistic approach, clearly opposed to “people that are more traditional and not at all open to different kinds of music”.

Let’s talk about this approach, Hydra and its numerous guests after the jump…

« For us, the criterion is not the kind of music, but what is good. »

Radio Metal: Your taste for pop music has never been a secret, but you really have been insisting on that recently by releasing a lot of cover versions of pop songs. Why do you think this was the right time to do it and how did you choose the songs?

Sharon Den Adel (vocals): I don’t think I’m really into pop music. It’s more like I think everything in music is about balance and contrast. If heavy music were all about Slayer, with heavy vocals and heavy sounds, then everything would become heavy. If you have the combination of something more melodic and a heavy sound, it adds a nice contrast. I’ve always been someone who especially likes this kind of concept. Our music has always been about finding new directions and evolving, getting inspiration from other genres, and not just the metal and rock scenes. We were approached by this radio station in Belgium. We knew the radio program, because someone covered a song of ours on acoustic guitar. Then they asked us if we would like to do this program as well, with fifteen songs to cover. Because it’s a radio station, we were only allowed to play more Within Temptation-like versions of songs that were played on the radio, songs that people knew. So what we did was turn pop songs into more rock or metal songs – most of them. Some of them were still ballads, but we did our own way, very Within Temptation-like. There’s always this contrast between heavy and melodic. The songs we choose were those we felt we could make the biggest contrast with, those people didn’t expect from us. If you make a cover of a rock song, you can’t add much to it, because it’s already rock. You can add metal or rock elements to a pop or dance song, and you see a bigger contrast. It’s more interesting for us to do than a cover song of Iron Maiden or something. It doesn’t make sense. I think it was nice to search for a way to transform those songs into more metal and rock songs.

Usually, metal fans are pretty hateful towards pop music. Did you want, by playing those songs in a more rock/metal way, to somehow encourage metal fans to give a second chance to these songs?

No, it was purely because we got the opportunity to do this. It was fun, and we saw it as a challenge to turn these more commercial songs into heavier songs. Like what Alien Ant Farm did with the Michael Jackson song, I think it was “Dirty Diana” (note: actually it was « Smooth Criminal »). It was really cool, what they did. They made a great heavy song out of it. I think we’ve pretty much succeeded in most of them. I really like the Lana Del Rey song, we wish we’d written it ourselves! And we also learned a lot, especially from that song. She wrote the song half-tempo, and we changed it to double tempo. Also, when we started writing for this album, which is the heaviest album we’ve ever made, a song sometimes started out as a ballad, and became double tempo afterwards. “Silver Moonlight” was originally a ballad, but if you play it as a ballad and then double-tempo it, it becomes a really heavy song.

Have you faced some criticism by hardcore metal fans for evolving to a poppier music?

No. Of course, there are always people who don’t like covers and stuff, but as we never did covers before, except for “Running Up That Hill”, we felt it was a challenge. A lot of people ask if we got a lot of negativity. Of course there are people that are more traditional and not at all open to different kinds of music. But we’ve always been a band that likes melodic stuff, and that’s because we listen not only to metal, but also to alternative music, rock, classical music, reggae, dance, hip hop… We listen to all kinds of things. For us, the criterion is not the kind of music, but what is good. I’m not a big fan of Eminem, but I like some of his songs. The same thing goes for other scenes, like the dance scene. I don’t like everything, but I like certain things that David Guetta does, for example. As long as the band is good, it doesn’t matter what kind of music it is. I like Spanish music. I like all kinds of music.

« I think metalheads can appreciate music from the hip hop scene, because in a way, the two genres are pretty close to each other. »

Did the work on the various cover songs directly influence the writing of the new album?

Like I said, it taught us how to turn a song into something heavier. That really opened our eyes.

After The Unforgiving, which was an ambitious concept album, what was your state of mind for the writing of Hydra?

When we write a certain album, we’re very much in the flow. You think you’re going to make The Unforgiving number 2, and finally, two years later, when you do start writing again for the new album, you realize that the time has changed, the music has changed, and your musical tastes have taken a different direction. You still like what you’ve done, but it feels a bit outdated somehow. It can’t inspire you again. So you get to the next step. It’s like an evolved version of where you started out.

Robert has declared: “Hydra is a perfect title for our new album, because like the monster itself, the record represents the many different sides of our music”. Was this aspect the starting point of the writing process, or did this variety come naturally?

It came naturally. For the previous album, we decided we didn’t have any boundaries. We started writing whatever we wanted and let ourselves be inspired by any kind of music. In the end, we saw we had an overlap of what we’d done in the 17 years of our career. Elements kept coming back, like the growling voices, but also the heavy guitars are more present than ever. They were also very present on Enter. As the years went on, we added the orchestrations – Mother Earth and The Silent Force were more orchestral. This time, we have really heavy guitars. Another thing is that we had twin guitars on “Tell My Why”. We’re just looking back on the 17 years that led up to today, I think. We couldn’t have made this record if we hadn’t made all the other records before. We learned from that. We took pieces back to where we are now, but not everything, and with new combinations. The growling vocals are not there together with the classical voice, they’re there with more normal female vocals. The elements are brought back in a different way, it’s not a copy of the past. On the other hand, we have new elements, like the presence of the rapper XZibit. I think that works well, because the song is also very orchestral, very Within Temptation-like. We tried to find the right cross-over with this kind of music.

That leads me to one of my other questions. There are a few guests on this album, and the most unexpected is undoubtedly XZibit. Who got the idea of this duet in the first place?

Robert, actually. We were listening to a lot of music, and he was like: “It would be cool if we could come out with ideas on how to combine different kinds of styles”. We tried it, but it was really difficult, except for this song, which eventually worked very well. It just blends together, it flows into one. But it was something we had to really work on to get the right combination. We thought it could be very cool, artistically; just a very nice, cool song. I think it has something to do with what hip hop is: it’s very dark, and our music is also dark. Metal is dark in general. It does have some masculine overlap in a way, you know? People might not consider it like that, but there are some similarities here and there. I think metalheads can appreciate music from the hip hop scene, because in a way, the two genres are pretty close to each other. Another thing is that we really liked XZibit’s voice. It’s not very light or high. With all due respect, he’s not like 50 Cent; he’s a different kind of rapper. Robert has always been into rap music. That’s why we chose him, because we liked him very much.

« I think doing a song with XZibit and using those growling voices might be a risk, because a part of our following will like it, and another part won’t. »

Robert also said that you wanted this album to be “more musically challenging, pushing borders and frontiers with new elements and influences.” That’s a pretty big statement, so how according to you is this album challenging and pushing borders – aside, for example, for the mix between metal and rap?

We have a very diverse audience. We have an audience that listens to the radio and knows us from the radio, but we also have big following of people who’ve been there from day one, and who know us only from the metal scene. A part of our audience wants the growling voices back, but a bigger part doesn’t want them back, because they didn’t get to know us with that. It’s pushing borders because I think we show so many sides of ourselves. We also have a duet with Dave Pirner, who might not be the most obvious choice. In a way, I think doing a song with XZibit and using those growling voices might be a risk, because a part of our following will like it, and another part won’t. There will always be discussions. Hip hop is something people will really be surprised about. I think that’s pretty much pushing borders. We did what we liked, and we’re hoping people will appreciate what we’ve done.

Robert is not touring with the band anymore. Because he’s disconnected from the live environment, isn’t he sometimes a bit afraid to lose sight of the live impact of the songs?

Oh, no, because he does come and see us. He sees how things are going, and he enjoys it as much from the audience as he did on stage.

You and Tarja Turunen are two of the most popular female singers in metal, if not the two most popular, so was inviting Tarja to sing on “Paradise (What About Us)” done partly for what this represented, for the symbol?

There’s always been a lot of tension between the fans from the two sides, who are trying to defend their own band. It’s logical in a way, because they have a certain love for those bands. I didn’t know what to expect, I thought maybe she was going to be a little bit of a diva. But she was actually the kindest person I’ve met so far in the music industry! Female-wise, anyway. There were no issues or anything, she was really warm and open-minded. It was a really nice collaboration. It was great for us, because we wrote the song as very epic, and I thought: “OK, I can do the classical voice again, but it would be nice to also ask her. Maybe she’d like to do it”. We didn’t think of it earlier. As it was the most epic song on the album, we felt like we should ask her and see if she was interested. We thought it might also be very nice for the fans. There aren’t that many singers from female-fronted bands who team up and do songs together. It doesn’t happen that much. Of course I did something with Anneke in the past, but it was an old thing we’d written and she was not on the original recordings.

So what you started writing the song, you didn’t know Tarja was going to be a part of it?

No, it developed afterwards. When we wrote the album, we wondered what we could do to make it even more special, in a way. Then we thought of all these people, and it made sense.

« There’s always been a lot of tension between the fans […] There aren’t that many singers from female-fronted bands who team up and do songs together. »

To be very honest, when I read you were doing a song with Tarja, I thought it was never going to work: she has this deep, bombastic voice, and you have this beautiful, light, very airy voice. I thought it wasn’t going to work, but it’s fantastic!

(laughs) Well, I think on the parts where she had difficulties, I help, and where she’s stronger, she helps. That’s the perfect combination, actually.

There are four guests, which is a lot for a Within Temptation album. Was there a conscious effort to go into the duet thing, rather than choose other elements to make the songs special? You could have added a choir, for example…

No, that’s boring! (laughs) Been there, done that! These people have their own character; their voices have a certain character. I think it’s more interesting for people to have another vocalist on the song than an extra guy playing a guitar solo – which our guys can do very well. A choir doesn’t do anything extra either. It’s also an extra journey, because you get to know these people, and you get to see the personality behind the face and the voice. That’s also very interesting to us. At the level we’re at, we don’t care what people really think about certain things. We just do them because we like them artistically, and because we’re interested in other people. We want to know what their stories are, you know?

Won’t it be complicated to perform these songs live without the contribution of the other singers? Or are you going to do what you did for your duet with Keith Caputo?

It can be different every time. I’m not sure yet, because we’re developing the show now. But there are several options. We can ask the support act if there’s somebody who can do it. We’ll just have to see how we can fill this in. There are several options, like holograms, screens, I can sing myself… It depends what song it is.

Can we expect you to be invited on Xzibit’s or Tarja’s albums?

Yeah, who knows? I must say there was a good vibe with every one of them. So yeah!

A year ago you did a huge anniversary concert in Antwerp, in Belgium. When will the DVD of this show see the light of day?

We might bring it out in short parts, maybe as a bonus thing. But we’re not sure yet. We need to find the right time and the right person to make the DVD.

What was the part about the Elements concert that you liked best?

I liked the combination of what we presented. There was Robert standing on this huge cube, we had many old members of the band. I enjoyed it very much. It was like an overlap of those fifteen years. I also liked all the stage things we had, like the inflatable stuff. We brought a lot of old elements back, and that was nice.

Interview conducted on November, 30th 2013 by Saff’
Questions: Spaceman & Metal’O Phil
Transcription: Saff’
Introduction: Spaceman

Within Temptation official website: www.within-temptation.com

Album Hydra, out on January, 31st 2014 viaBMG

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