Epica: Of Epica Proportions
Ten years ago, Mark Jansen left Dutch outfit After Forever and started to look for musicians who shared his passion for sweeping scores, roaring riffs and tantalising tales. He was looking for people who wanted to help him create something epic. Today, he’s fronting Epica, a group of symphonic metal masterminds who are celebrating their ten year anniversary with a grandiose show of gargantuan proportions before heading to Australia for the first time. With this momentous occasion on the horizon, Jansen led us through the history of the band and all of the elements that have gone into crafting the opus that is Epica.
Epica has just had their tenth anniversary, how does it feel to reach the ten year milestone?
It’s a big achievement I think, because it’s hard for many bands to stay together for so long, but I think the reason we’re still together is we always kept a good vibe in the band. It’s also very important to keep the fun aspect; it should be fun to stay on the road and be together. We also take a rest every time we feel it’s needed and I think this way bands can stay together forever. It’s also very important that everybody in the band feels important. You see some bands where it’s one guy, a kind of boss, who’s bossing everybody around, and sooner or later some people get disappointed or they don’t feel comfortable in the band anymore, and you see these bands breaking up. [Making everyone feel important] is our strength, and that’s why we can keep on going for the next twenty, uh [laughs], I’ll say ten years.
Say twenty years, aim high!
So when you initially formed the band, does that mean as well as looking for musical ability you also looked for people that could all work together and share all duties?
Yes exactly. We always look for team players. Obviously having people who know how to play their instruments is also very important, but even more important is the personal aspect. When you don’t like somebody, even though they’re a very good musician, they’d never get into our band because it’s very dangerous when there are people who can plant a bomb in the band. I think in our band, we have people with a wide range of qualities, even beyond the stage where there are a lot of things that have to be done. We’ve never worked with a typical manager, we have a kind of manager but he’s also more of a team player – he’s not a guy telling everybody what to do, he’s just covering a part of the work that we don’t have time for, or don’t have the knowledge for. Everybody in the band has certain tasks and responsibilities and it works really well for us like this. It feels like you’re being your own boss instead of having a schedule that somebody else made and doing what somebody else wants you to do. For me personally that wouldn’t work because I started the band ten years ago to see something of the world, to make music in a nice way and have fun with it, and even after ten years that’s still the most important thing.
Has this hands on approach made reaching the ten year milestone even more rewarding?
Yes I think so, it’s more rewarding for ourselves because we are basically self made. In the Netherlands there are some bands coming up with a big team behind them and a big money machine, and they’re doing all the TV and all the radio programs one after the other. Then that band becomes a hype, and you often see that after one year, nobody remembers that band anymore, they’re suddenly very big and then suddenly [pop noise] they’re gone. Epica don’t have that. We built our band steadily, we had to do it ourselves, we often didn’t have the support of the big radio and TV channels, but now finally we also get to play on some of these programs and it’s a big reward for us. We did it our way, we did it step by step, and also we know for sure that one day people won’t just start slagging us because our fan base is very solid and they’ve supported us for ten years already. They haven’t let us fall from one day to another and that’s a big difference between us and some more mainstream acts in the Netherlands. That’s also the fun of making metal music, it’s a world of its own and you get a lot of really warm feelings from the fans because they really believe in us and what we do. We make the [type of] music that’s the most rewarding to make.
At this stage in your career, do you feel like Epica’s sound has been defined or is it still evolving?
I think even today it’s still evolving. On every album we find some new influences, some new ways, and we never stop without trying some new stuff. I think that’s also important, otherwise it can get boring and if one day we get the feeling that it starts getting boring, then we won’t release an album until we get excited again. There are already too many albums that get released that make you feel like there’s something missing, and we want to avoid that. You need to keep trying to evolve otherwise you lose the fun for yourself but also the fans will be disappointed after a while because they expect you to come up with something new and not a repeat of something you did before.
The lyrics in particular seem to keep evolving. Each Epica album deals with different themes or tells specific stories, why do you take this approach to lyric writing?
Lyrics are as important to us as the music, even though I know and realise that only ten percent of the people who listen to music are also really interested in the lyrics. The music is way more important for most people than the lyrics, but even so, if you care about the lyrics as much as the music then the ten percent who care about the lyrics are really happy that you put so much time and effort into them. With every album we all sit down and start the lyrics as a team and we often work together with Amanda Somerville, who is a singer in Avantasia. She’s from the USA, and as we are not native English speakers, we have some [language] mistakes here and there, so she helps us out with that. When I read lyrics from some bands I see horrible mistakes and think “shit you should’ve done that too” [laughs]. Of course not everybody can afford somebody like Amanda to help them out with lyrics but I think it’s very important that lyrics are on the right level. It’s always a pity when some big mistakes occur in lyrics. Sometimes we write a story like you mentioned, when songs share themes so we try to connect them and make it a bit more interesting. Personally, when I listen to other albums and there’s some kind of story, it makes me want to discover what the story is dealing with and what kind of connection the songs have. The more things you can discover the more interesting albums can often get, and I think that’s the basic idea behind storytelling.
When you sit down to write the music do the lyrics come first? Or do they emerge from the music itself.
99% of the time the music comes first, then the music gives us the idea of where the lyrics should go. First we just write music, we let it flow, we have no limitations, no boundaries, it just has to sound like Epica. After that, we sit down and write the lyrics, and whatever feeling we get from the music is the direction we go with the lyrics. For us, it’s a great way of working. I know some other artists work the other way around and everybody has their own preferences, but for us, this works the best.
On the note of making it sound like Epica, when you write a new album how do you inject new elements into your music without breaking the core Epica sound?
We just do it. We just act on intuition. There’s also our producer from Gate Studios in Germany [Sascha Paeth], when we have written some new songs we go to him, and we present him the new songs. We never tell him who wrote which song, so he has a completely objective opinion. He also gives brutally honest opinions, so when we’ve written a song that doesn’t really sound like Epica, he will tell us. For us, this guy is very important; he’s like a seventh band member and he’s worked with us since the beginning. He’s the one who will tell us if a song is a bridge too far, if it doesn’t fit in our style, and if we’d better drop it, and we listen to him. 99% of the time, not always [laughs].
At the end of last year your guitarist Isaac said the band already had an album’s worth of ideas and structures, but nothing had entered pre-production. Have you moved into the next stages with this new material?
Not yet. All our time is dedicated to the retrospect show: all these rehearsals, all these preparations are very time consuming. After the ten year anniversary show we finally have time to slow down a bit, sit down and start work on the new songs. We’ve recorded most of the tracks in our personal home studios, but there’s still a lot of work left to be done.
Have you planned any of the themes for the next album yet?
When we have all the [musical] ideas worked out, then we’ll start working on the lyrics. That’s really the final part, or the finishing touch.
On the last album you focused a lot on the tensions that the world is currently experiencing. In most respects these tensions haven’t improved, so will those themes influence any future releases?
We don’t know yet, we have some ideas, but we’re not sure yet. I can’t say yes or no because it could still change. Obviously I’m still disappointed with how the world is evolving, sooner or later something will happen, a change in the money structure for example. Something will happen because it cannot go on like this. Also, sooner or later we will run out of oil, and we need alternatives to make things work and keep the economy going, but even when we find alternatives for oil… While the current system had some advantages, we also know now what the disadvantages are, and hopefully we can learn from both the advantages and the disadvantages and use them in a positive way to change for the better. That’s what humanity has always tried over the years, they try to throw away the things that don’t work and use the things that bring us further along. It’s hard because we all know that there’s a small group of people controlling all the money, and when the power exists for only a small group of people, things get really tricky and dangerous. I hope this is one of the things that will change soon because it’s very unhealthy when a small group of people control everything, the government, corporations… They don’t have enough reflection to know if what they’re doing is good. It’s important that things are good for all people, and that’s definitely not the case nowadays.
With the retrospective show coming up, how have the preparations been going?
We’ve had two band rehearsals already and those went really well. Today we are going to a TV program in Amsterdam, so today we have no rehearsal, but tomorrow we start rehearsals with the choir, and by Saturday we should be completely ready for the show [laughs].
You’re also going to be broadcasting the show online. It’s such a pivotal moment in Epica’s history and fans around the world have been asking if it’s going to be recorded for a live DVD. Is it?
I hope so, but we chose not to promise anything because the last time we promised a DVD it didn’t happen because the record company went bankrupt. We shot a DVD, there was a lot of people at the show and it was great, then we couldn’t use the material which was really disappointing. Another time we wanted to make a DVD and it didn’t happen again, so this time we agreed that we’re not going to mention any DVD. We’re going to record it with HD cameras and if it’s possible to use this material, and of course we really hope it is, then we will release a DVD. But we don’t want to promise anything and not be able to deliver.
Then once that’s done you’re heading down to Australia! Will the shows here continue with the tenth anniversary theme? Obviously without the same production scale, but will we be hearing older songs and rarities from the Epica back catalogue?
Yeah, we always think it’s very important to have songs from the older albums as well. When I go to a concert I also like to hear the old songs because often the old songs are the ones that are most dear to you because you listened to them when you were young. We will never keep old songs out of our setlist. Even though we’ve played them already so many times it never gets boring because you feel the energy of the crowd and the energy’s always different. A song is never the same twice because of the energy of the crowd and a diverse setlist is best. We always try to fit in some songs that we didn’t do on the tour before, so we keep it interesting for ourselves and for the fans who’ve seen us more than once. We always try to have some surprises, but obviously it’s not possible to have a set that’s only surprises because you have to please as many people as possible. Our fans want to hear certain songs for sure, but there are some songs you just cannot skip.
Well thank you so much for your time Mark, if there’s anything you want to say to the Australian fans, go go for it.
[Laughs] My last words are: finally we’re coming to Australia for the first time. Finally we can experience what the Australian fans have been telling us already for many years, that we should come over because the crowds are really fantastic. I believe it so you guys have to be fantastic, because I have really high expectations about the audience. Even though I’ve never been there myself I’ve heard really good stories from Floor from Alter Forever and now Nightwish. She was there recently and she said it was really amazing for her, so now I really cannot wait anymore. Let’s see if it’s all true, because I cannot wait to experience it myself.
Catch the Dutch symphonic metallers at a show near you when they pass through our fine country!
Epica Tour Dates
Wed Apr 17th – The Hi-Fi, Brisbane (18+)
Fri Apr 19th – The Metro, Sydney (AA)
Sun Apr 21st – Billboard The Venue, Melbourne (18+)
Tue Apr 23rd – The Capitol, Perth (18+)