Ever since I discovered Evergrey around the turn of the Millennium, I have seen them live on stage countless times. They have released seven or eight new records of original material and I have interviewed Tom on perhaps five or six occasions. But Evergrey, as we all know, are my number one band, and it never gets old. Never.
So, when I got the invitation via the AFM Records UK PR rep to come to London because Tom Englund and Jonas Ekdahl had personally invited me out for dinner whilst on their UK press leg, I didn’t have to think for more than a nano-second.
The day before travelling, my life changed immeasurably and unexpectedly. So rather than jump in the car and head to the capital, I bought a train ticket because damn, I needed a drink. On the train journey, I listened to the new album, ‘The Atlantic’ twice through and, at times, I felt an almost inexplicable wave of emotion crash over me. Evergrey’s music always moves me and I wasn’t in the best emotional state admittedly, but for some reason, I felt a strong connection with ‘The Atlantic’, which I could not quite place.
Upon arrival at the hotel, I was greeted by the giant figure of Mr Englund himself and was pulled in for a bear hug. Jonas Ekdahl, on the other hand, pretended not to notice me, feigning apathy as he strode purposefully past. The joke didn’t last long, as grinning ear to ear, he warmly greeted me too.
With an almost comedically bad phone interview shelved, I got the nod to jump in and make use of a break in proceedings to crack on with my interview.
Leading up to this release, Tom had mentioned to me over the Internet that ‘The Atlantic’ might just be the best album he’s ever written. With wine delivered to the table, I decided to kick things off right there and ask Tom whether he believed his own hype or whether it was the usual hyperbole that surrounds a new release. Did he really mean what he said? The response I got was an uncomfortably long silence as Tom stared into space, apparently collecting his thoughts, mulling over how best to frame his reply. Eventually, he answers quietly and deliberately.
“I am absolutely positive that this is within at least the top three albums anyone released this year.”
“It is deadly serious for us”, Tom continues with a face to match his answer. “It is sincere, with all of our blood, sweat and tears in it, it really is. It is my personal journey’s manifestation. It is also, in a way, a conclusion. Or a start. It has meaning for me on so many levels. That’s where it is at for me anyway – I don’t know where it is at for you”, he concludes, looking pointedly at his long-haired drummer and co-writer before breaking into his more familiar jocular manner, booming out his hilarious faux-British accent.
“It’s the worst, most boring album we have ever written. It doesn’t do anything for me on any level. I’ll be at the bar. Champagne!”
“I agree”, responds Jonas after the warm laughter subsides. “it has this seriousness which was there even when we wrote it. But we also had fun writing it and in pre-production. Everything went super-smooth but we were very serious, particularly in the early stages. All the little details were very important to us, even down to a synth sound or whatever.”
“Particular is the word, definitely, even down to an OCD level”, interjects Tom thoughtfully. “But we love that part of music-making. It’s not engineering for us, it is part of the music-making, painting the picture that we want you to hear.”
“Me and Tom would just go into a bubble”, Jonas expands without prompting as the interview starts to find a nice rhythm. “We find a vibe or an image or a place in our heads and then we know where we want to go. Once we are in that zone, everything just falls into place. It makes it very simple for us to write because we know what will fit and what won’t.”
That word ‘vibe’ is an important one in the context of Evergrey. After years of line-up instability, I was among large swathes of fans that rejoiced when Jonas and Henrik (Danhage – guitars) re-joined Tom, Rikard (Zander – keys) and Johan (Niemann – bass) for ‘Hymns For The Broken’ back in 2014. For many, it is the best and strongest line-up in the band’s history principally because of the vibe that was apparent within the reformed quintet. It is wonderful to know that this vibe has remained intact two albums later.
“That vibe is bigger now than ever”, Tom smiles. “It is more cemented – we know what we want and how to get there. We might not have trusted each other before in terms of composing but the band now knows that when me and Jonas start working on the songs, we’ll create the best Evergrey songs we can. The other guys come in with their brushes and their colours to enhance what we have written. Or we write songs from their ideas. Everyone is super-comfortable, which makes it more comfortable for us. And it is easier to work with one guy in every detail than with five guys.”
“All the guys in the band know that the way we work now is for the best of the band”, agrees Jonas. “It’s not because we don’t want anyone not participating. It is just a better workflow and the end result is better with fewer heads and less hassle.”
“There are different stages of the songwriting though”, Tom clarifies eagerly. “We listen to everyone’s ideas, and we decide on the ideas that we will use to create ten songs. The other guys are not involved in the mixing process at all. So, when we all five of us sit in a room together and listen to the album for the first time, it is extremely stressful but also very rewarding.
There were tears and everything – several times throughout the recording actually”, Tom reveals. Frankly, I’m not at all surprised.
It is clear that there is a huge amount of trust and understanding these days between Tom and Jonas, with Jonas becoming as important to the writing and recording process as Evergrey’s founding member. Jonas nods as I voice this to him.
“I’ve never been able to settle only playing drums. I have always been wanting to do more. I love playing drums but somehow it is not enough on its own. So it is great to be able to do more with Evergrey. It feels more and more natural every album too, even though you have to be focused and on your toes all the time. It is a different kind of confidence I think, because actually, I’m a very nervous guy.
The laughter returns at that point, especially as Jonas is slouched comfortably in his chair as if he hasn’t a care in the world as he talks. It turns out that around 15 beers will make even a nervous Jonas the coolest cat in London.
Returning to the issue at hand, after much deliberation and soul-searching on my part, I tentatively suggest that the first three songs on ‘The Atlantic’ are some of the very best ever written by Evergrey. But not only that, the album is littered with world-class material. To use a footballing analogy because we’d just deviated into some good-natured Manchester United versus Tottenham Hotspur banter, I’d suggest ‘The Atlantic’ is entirely Champions League material. I’m keen to find out from the guys though, what it is particularly that they are proud of with ‘The Atlantic’. Tom replies first.
“It is the coherent feeling of the album, that we made a painting that is beautiful everywhere within the frame, not just in certain spots. It tells a story, you go through an experience when you listen to it. And when you’re done, you think ‘fuck, I have listened to something that was really good’. I have heard the songs 500 times each and I still do not stray from my listening. That’s a good grade in my book.”
“Going back to the painting”, Jonas offers, “we put effort with every stroke. And since day one, until it was mastered by Jakob Hansen, that has been the same. We put all we had, all our energy into it for such a long time. I’m proud of the fact that we have worked our asses off, busted our balls off in the process to create this record.”
“And that’s exactly what ‘All I Have’ is about”, reveals Tom. “It is about putting all you have into something. And if it isn’t good enough, we wouldn’t release it. But in terms of relationships, if it isn’t good enough, you have to release it.”
Before delving further into the music itself, I first want to touch on the break-in that hampered the recording process and delayed the release of ‘The Atlantic’ into 2019. As I ask, you can see the frustration etched on the guys’ faces.
“Wake me up please, I’m living in a nightmare”, states Jonas. “We had no option but to tell the label and Jakob Hansen that we would have to postpone the release date so that we could do things properly.”
Tom continues the thread: “We had to start buying recording equipment and we didn’t know if they had stolen the three songs we’d recorded and if they’d know what it was. It is an accomplishment to get through that, but also an accomplishment to mix the record. We didn’t stray an inch from where we knew we wanted to be.”
“We had this super analogue feel on the album and it was our number one priority to have a dirtier, analogue sound. We couldn’t express this enough to Jakob – more wood!”, Jonas emphasises with a smile. I don’t think that was a euphemism, more a statement about the overall texture and feel to this record.
Having been led back to the actual material on the album, I remark that ‘The Atlantic’ is a very bass-heavy record, with Johan Niemann taking more of the spotlight than ever before.
“More than any other album”, Jonas nods, “me and Johan recorded so much of the record live, almost the whole album. So we need to have the bass present. Plus, it adds more of that dirt and grit and attitude to the sound.”
“But”, Tom asserts with utter sincerity, “if you had a bass player who is 10% less of a player, you couldn’t have the bass like this. I say this in the documentary but I would choose Johan over any other bass player in the world. Without a doubt, there is no competition. This, everybody should hear, so raise the volume. Without taking away from the production of course, but you can afford to have him this loud because he is so fucking good.”
One thing that I think all Evergrey fans worth their salt will recognise is that whilst ‘The Atlantic’ is the next logical step in the evolution of Evergrey, it also contains many elements of previous albums. I hear elements of nod towards all of the Evergrey eras, from ‘In Search of Truth’ to ‘Monday Morning Apocalypse’. Turns out though that this was not intentional.
“We didn’t think about that at all – it must have been a fluke”, smiles Jonas before Tom affirms, to close this particular topic.
“We never think about anything like that”, he emphasises with a gentle shake of the head. “We set out to create a vibe. But if any of our albums are close to this album, it would be ‘Recreation Day’. But no, we don’t try to deliberately do this.”
At this point, I feel the desperate need to actually home in on some of the songs on ‘The Atlantic’. It is still early days in my listening journey, but several moments have already made a remarkable impression on me. I start with ‘Departure’ which ironically enough signals the biggest departure from Evergrey’s core sound, very similar to the way in which ‘Waking Up Blind’ did on ‘The Inner Circle’. And, as it turns out, the catalyst for this track, which features acoustic guitars and what I can only describe as a US arena rock vibe at one point, didn’t even originate with my two friends across the table from me.
“That was Rikard’s idea actually”, Jonas reveals. “We had a weekend where all the guys sat down, worked together and presented ideas.”
“That’s the thing with Rikard”, Tom interjects purposefully, “he usually presents a part and on this occasion, when we heard his part, everyone was like ‘woah, let’s make a song, right now’. And we made this song within two or three hours. Not vocally, but the song was done the same day.”
“It was the same with ‘Currents’”, Jonas continues with barely a pause for breath. “That was the next day and it was started by a synth riff. He presents his parts and says, ‘go do what you want with it’. He knows that we will do our best to make the best music out of his ideas. But everyone gets super-excited. With ‘Departure’, Henrik went out for ten minutes and came back with an acoustic guitar. He tuned it in Nashville tuning, whatever that is. Tom started doing all this finger-picking stuff and we just had to record it all. That was my favourite song when Johan and I practiced for the album. We had all these horrible songs to practice with all these difficult parts and so we named them terrible names because we hated them. ‘Departure’ was the song where we could relax and enjoy ourselves.
And now for the lyrics. Having had the words for a little while, I sensed that this was not a light-hearted or easy-going record. Yes, I can hear a certain amount of positivity at points, but I also hear strong undercurrents of emotional turmoil going on, with lots of darkness, despair, disorientation and soul-searching at play.
“You are way off the mark!” Tom chuckles before admitting the opposite and providing more detail.
“This is the final in a trilogy. ‘Hymns…’ was an album where I felt I had to do something – my subconscious was telling me I had to do something. Uproar, frustration. ‘The Storm Within’ was really about realising you’ve mentally left, you know. ‘The Atlantic’ is the manifestation of the actual leaving. It is also the first album that Carina (Englund) is not on. That is symbolic enough.”
Right there. That’s the moment that everything clicked into place and explained why I felt such an emotional connection with ‘The Atlantic’. It is about the break-up of Tom’s marriage and the feelings surrounding this ending of a chapter as well as the beginning of a new one. A torrent of feelings assaults me because, literally, the day before this interview, my partner called an end our nine-year relationship, a relationship that blessed me with two wonderful children and some happy memories. If I’m honest, I could see it coming as we’d grown apart over time, but the reality of having to start my life over again whilst trying not to destroy my little girls’ lives was suddenly my full focus. I didn’t want to put my children through such a thing but suddenly, I had no choice, I was trapped within my worst nightmare. Fortunately, I was in the right place – surrounded by friends, one of whom understood exactly what I was going through. The look on Tom’s face as I revealed my own personal turmoil nearly brought me to tears. No judgement, no irritation at derailing the interview, just genuine sympathy and a deep understanding of where I was mentally and emotionally.
“It can be a good thing”, Tom eventually responds in kindly fashion and with a Sage-like wisdom. “It may not at the moment but it will. Some changes are not only bound to happen but also necessary. It makes you”, he pauses searching carefully for the right word “…better. I feel as strong as fuck. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. More confident, more certain, more secure, more relaxed.
And you know what? I believe him. Tom sits in the chair across from me and I notice for the first time just how relaxed he looks. He looks alive and there is a sparkle in his eye that maybe I’d not seen for a while. If Tom can go through something like this and come out the other side this strong, I begin to feel a little better. And then, as if a damn has burst, all three of us burst out in laughter, a little unsure of exactly why.
“But confident is a good word”, Tom sets off again as the unexplained merriment subsides. “I’m confident that I…that we…have done the right thing. If you’re a grown-up, you have kids and have been together for a quarter of a century, you need to deal with things in those terms. But life is to short and everyone deserves to be happy.”
Reluctantly, as time marches on, I start to wrap up this intense and hugely significant interview by asking the guys to reflect on the early feedback they’ve had to ‘The Atlantic’.
“We’re so early into the process that I don’t even know what response we’ve had”, jokes Tom but with a thread of truth. “But someone said to me that if it was released this year, it would be in their top five for the year. And others have said that this has the coolest cover we’ve ever had. It sets the tone and 100% represents the album visually.”
“I feel like we could do this forever”, offers Tom as his final thought, in response to my inevitable query over the future of Evergrey. “That’s where I am right now. When things start to deteriorate and become less rewarding, things might change. But we’re on a huge rise at the moment. We’re getting more fans, we’re selling more albums…that’s the advantage of not being huge. We sold two more albums – that’s a 100% increase”, he chuckles as he looks in Jonas’ direction. “Let’s celebrate. But seriously, that’s what it is all about. What more can you ask for than to improve and to go to new places, see more people?”
What more indeed?
And with that, I recede into the background for a time to allow others to chat to Tom and Jonas. After all, I had the rest of the evening to come, an evening which, as it turned out, involved one of the nicest and hottest curries of my life. It also featured plenty of alcohol and the kind of friendly chat and camaraderie that I really needed.
‘The Atlantic’ is out on 25th January 2019 on AFM Records.