Cursed with Oblivion

 

Interview with Mark Jansen, Simone Simons and Ad Sluijter of Epica:

 

One year and 10 days after his departure from After Forever, we met Mark Jansen before the fourth show of his new band, Epica, in Alphen a/d Rijn. We were joined by singer Simone Simons and guitar-player Ad Sluijter.

It has been a busy and exciting year for Mark and other band members. It was not always easy. The band's first singer, Helena, left for Norway (her homeland), taking the drummer Iwan with her. A long quest for new band members began. Finally the line-up was complete. The first concert (15 December 2002, Tilburg) followed. The demo was recorded, and later the debut album. But then the band decided to change their name: from Sahara Dust to Epica. Not every reaction was positive about the name change, but now it finally seems that everything is more stable. How does it feel?

Mark: "It's a good feeling. Finally getting things started. It was already pretty stable that we could record the album. Having confidence that the lineup is stable. Otherwise, we wouldn't have been able to record the CD. Since the recordings started we really got the feeling: 'Now the band really exists. Now we can go for it.' And now that the tour has started, it feels like you're 'on the road' again."

The band has already performed a couple of times. The first concert happened, like it has been already mentioned, on 15 December 2002, in Tilburg. It was meant more as a try-out. Ad Sluijter: "It could have gone well, it could have gone bad. We took our chance to do it. We were terribly nervous before the show. It cost us a lot. Blood, sweat and tears. Many preparations. Fortunately, it all went well. Looking back, we're really glad that we did it."

After the concert, the band went almost immediately to Germany. There, together with producer Sascha Paeth, they started working on the debut CD. In the meantime, during the recordings, singer Simone got ill. Ad explains: "The result was that there was hardly any time to rehearse, since Simone had to go back to Germany to finish her recordings. That's why we were still pretty nervous before the next concerts. And now still we are. Tonight we were planning to play a song which we have never played together before. We got from Sascha a mini-disc with the choir and orchestra parts that we could use during the live shows. But there is something wrong with it. This is really THE choir-song. So the one but last song, 'The Phantom Agony,' will be left out from the setlist."

Still coming back to the recordings of the album. Did it all go according to the expectations? Simone: "Yes, it was even better than expected. It went really well. The collaboration between the producer and me. He was very patient, gave necessary advises. That was all nice. Of course, it was not good that I got ill. Because of this, we had a delay, and we had to travel back to Germany, a number of weekends. But in general I'm more than satisfied. Thanks to the recordings of the demo, I already had an impression of how it all goes. What I especially find important is the cooperation (between me and the producer - ed.). He is just a really good producer, so we could trust him. We saw the songs grow. And that's the nice thing about the recordings. In the end the songs become still a bit different than you first expect. You have to get used to it."

How big was the influence of the producer on the album and how did he guide the band members? Mark explains: "The songs were already finished. So he had hardly any influence on it. But still he came up with some ideas, especially when something was missing, e.g. an extra melody line. He said then: 'Here something is missing' and 'Here this is needed.' We agreed very often, so the interaction was really perfect. He definitely did have an influence on bringing the songs to a higher level. But not really a radical influence on changing the songs. We gave him freedom to take care of the sound. The albums of Kamelot (also produced by Sascha Paeth - ed.) sound really great. So we could leave it all up to him."

Of course, many people have high expectations concerning the new album. Didn't the band feel any pressure during the recordings? Mark: "Actually, we never felt any pressure. We were far away, which was relaxing." Ad adds: "It's an advantage. If we had recorded the album at Excess studio, we would have kept the contact with the home-front. But not in this case. So it's good that there's less pressure in this way." Simone continues: "We aim at a strong production, and we all did our best to accomplish this. We went 120% for it, hoping that the CD would be as good as possible. And thanks to Sascha it worked. If we had had another producer, it would have sounded different. Now, after hearing our album, you can also hear that he produced the albums of Kamelot and Rhapsody."

Mark: "Someone who already heard our album said it's a bridge between After Forever and Kamelot." According to Ad: "It could be a bridge between power metal and gothic metal, or however you want to call the latter. Olaf Reitmeier, the other producer, took care of many of the recordings. Sascha analyzed the songs with him, and together they were busy with additions in the songs. Olaf recorded especially guitars, bass and drums, and Sascha - the keyboards, the vocals and the grunts."

Was recording grunts something new for Sascha? Mark confirms: "First he didn't know what to expect from it. He was a bit reserved. But later he got totally into it. He started giving advises, and even this went well. If it hadn't worked, we could have recorded the grunts in Excess studio. But it did work."

Leaving the technical matters behind, and concentrating more on the final result, what does the band see as the strongest ingredients of their music. Ad: "What I like are the influences of film music. Mark and I really love Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman. This kind of composers. I also like the rhythm section, and the way how bassdrum and guitars follow each other. This in combination with film music. I think we have succeeded well in putting all those things together."

Mark: "I find the use of choirs awesome. This in combination with strings and female vocals. And now there was a lot of space for choirs. With After Forever there was little room for it. Most parts of the songs were filled with Floor's voice, and the choir could be added only where there was room left for it. Now the choirs have been used at least twice as much." Ad adds: "If you compare us with After Forever, you see that the role of the choirs and orchestration is way bigger. Robert Huenecke was the one who has worked out the orchestrations. He did a great job!"

Moving now to the lyrical aspect of the album: what does the album title, "The Phantom Agony," actually mean? According to Mark the title has a lot to do with the past year: "With this title in mind, all the lyrics started to take shape. I was thrown out of After Forever. The title shows how I experienced this last year. When you give up, it's an agony. But because I immediately continued with the new band, it is actually an agony that resulted in new possibilities. So it was a phantom agony, an agony that doesn't really exist. It took a year. But the result is what I had always hoped the third After Forever album would sound like. But it would never have been possible with After Forever because Sander wanted to have too much influence. So in the end, it all turned out better. Though it was for me a pity that I had to miss the Nightwish-tour, Pinkpop and Kopspijkers."

Mark is known for his critical lyrics concerning politics and religion. Did he also write more personal lyrics for "The Phantom Agony?" Mark: "There is one song which is very personal. It is about me being sacked from After Forever. The title is 'Run For A Fall.' I think everyone can make their own conclusion, when they read the lyric. And the rest of the lyrics still deal with politics. And "The Embrace That Smothers," which already appeared on "Prison Of Desire," continues here with part IV, V and VI."

Singer Simone was also responsible for lyric writing, and her lyrics are in general more personal: "I have written a number of lyrics, but three of them will be used. 'Illusive Consensus' from the demo is one of them. It's a pretty personal story about love. About how two people being in a relationship can manipulate each other. This is the song's topic, more than the love in a relation. And the intro, "Adyta," is more related to "The Embrace That Smothers." It's about religion and the church. And one more lyric, "Veniality," is also quite personal. This song will probably end up as a bonus track, so there will be actually two lyrics from me on the CD. I am not yet experienced enough to write more lyrics. Mark knows how to write a lyric with a good structure. I just write a story, and it takes more time to make it fit into a song. We tried to do it in the studio. Mark has recorded already two albums..."

Mark's old band, After Forever is nowadays pretty busy working on their third album. In what way will Mark follow this band? And how will he look at their new material? Mark: "I'm very curious about their new music. Especially since I was kicked out from the band mainly because we couldn't get along on the musical level. So I'm really curious if it will indeed sound different or if it's still a bit the same. I will always follow them, whenever I have the chance. As soon as they have recorded their new album, I want to hear it. And when it's possible to see their gig somewhere, I will definitely come to check it out. So I'm really curious in what way they will present themselves. And I know that they are also curious about us."

The band knows that the comparisons with After Forever are inevitable. However, what is their reaction when someone calls Epica an After Forever-clone? Mark: "I get always a bit disheartened by it." Ad continues: "I can understand it that people compare us with After Forever. But to call us a clone? I also find it annoying. Mark contributed a lot to the music of After Forever. He wrote the keyboard-parts, choir-parts; Lots of songwriting. And we have this situation in our band as well. We also have our own contribution. Look, if they would call me e.g. a clone of Sander Gommans... Mark writes e.g. a keyboard melody, and there is only one specific guitar riff that fits well to it. But we are all different musicians. It might change when people will hear our new album and then the new After Forever album." Mark still adds: "I've always liked the combination of grunts and female vocals. That's why After Forever sounds like this." Ad: "Now you can hear what Mark's contribution in After Forever was. You listen to the music and you think: 'Hey, this might have been written by him.' You find those elements back."

Still talking about the reactions to Epica's music and live shows - what does the band prefer: a very positive review or a pretty negative one, from which the band members could learn something? Mark: "Critical, but positive." Ad: "It's nice to read that people like it, and it's annoying to read that they think it's shitty. When someone gives negative comments, and you think: 'Yes, it's indeed like this. We have to work on it,' then they can write about it. But when they have critical comments which are undeserved, it would be crap if they'd write it down. Only to bitch, you know." Mark adds: "It's not cool to read critical reviews which are not well-argumented. Criticism which is not based on anything. That really hurts, if you've worked a whole year on something. So in this case I prefer to read positive reviews. And if they contain some advises concerning what can be improved, then yes, please write it down! Then we can only profit from it. We like those kind of comments. For example after our concert in Amstelveen. Arjen Lucassen was there. I asked what he thought of it, and then he gave us some useful tips for the next shows. And we immediately used them at the next gig, in Hedon (Zwolle -ed.). And it went already way better."

Ad continues laughing: "Yes, I also talked to Arjen, and he said: 'The best thing to do is to kick Mark out of the band right after the second CD.' So yes, we listen well to the tips. And it was just one of many. Another tip was to take a roadie who would play guitar well."

Do the band members appreciate more advises from their colleagues more than the ones coming from the fans? Mark: "After the shows, I like to come to the fans not only for a talk, but especially to ask what they thought about the gig. And I learn a lot from it. If they say, e.g.: 'I didn't like these things that much.' I think: 'Yes, we have to work on it.' We take it very seriously."

Simone: "Criticism is always welcome. But what's most important is to entertain the audience. And we want to do it well. And that's why I want to give a good show and to perform as well as possible. All is welcome. But if you e.g. know that you have played a concert where everything went wrong, and you know that the fans still liked the show. But then you read a very positive review, e.g. 'The sound was great,' but it was not. Then you think: 'Have they listened to us in a critical way?' But the most important thing is that the fans can enjoy it. That's what it's all about. Not the perfect performance. Though it's pretty painful if you would know that a very good singer is standing in the audience, only waiting till you sing something off-key. This is not nice."

In the beginning of this interview we talked about difficulties that the band had to go through and the current feeling of stability. What advice would Epica give to young beginning bands? Ad: "To look for the musicians with whom you can you can get along well. Not only for the quality." Mark adds: "It's important that you should get on well on the personal level. You have to sit together in a tourbus. If it's not going well, then shit occurs." Ad still continues: "The most important thing you're doing this for is to have fun. You have to get along well with each other. And another thing is to sacrifice a lot. Without it, you won't come far. Time, money. You have to travel a lot, you have to buy the equipment. "

Mark: "The ultimate tip is to just go for it. 100% dedication. And not only for the half, or even 95%. Just 100%. Really believe in it, go for it till you have reached your goal."

Ad: "I've decided to study one year longer. Mark also did this. The last year I was not that busy with my studies. Actually I'm busy with the band full-time. And Mark as well."

Simone: "I was lucky that I missed the previous school-year because of my illness. And I don't think it's terrible that I'm in the one but last year of secondary school now. I have a calm year now. If I were now in my last year, I couldn't have allowed myself to spend two weeks in Germany. Then I would have to study non-stop. I wouldn't be able to rehearse with the band, and the concerts would be too hard for me. I'm planning to take two years off from studying after my exam year. To work, to be busy with the band and to travel. I don't know yet what study direction I will choose. Many people say that I should continue with the singing. But I will still take singing lessons, playing gigs, and recording the next CD. Those are my plans."

Ad: "My ambition is to live from music. This is definitely not possible already next year. It will still take a while. What I really would like after my study is finished (I'm studying for a maths-teacher), is to give lessons three days per week. And the rest of the time I could be busy with music."

Concentrating now, however, on the nearest future: the band is now currently on a small tour. The next gigs which are planned include:

26 April -- TenWyngaert, Brussels (Belgium)

27 April -- Koninginnerock, Ittervoort (the Netherlands)

10 May -- De Kade, Zaandam (the Netherlands)

24 May -- Mollfest Gothic, Heerhugowaard (the Netherlands)

31 May -- De Buze, Steenwijk (the Netherlands)

12 July -- Jamrock, Erkermederstrand (the Netherlands)

24 August -- Cultuurcentrum Ekko, Utrecht (the Netherlands)

Epica's debut album, "The Phantom Agony," will be released at the end of May.

 

12 April 2003.

 

Thanks to Natascha van Poppel for the photo: www.studiomystica.nl

 

Read the show review of Epica at Het Kasteel, Alphen a/d Rijn