By Andrew Bansal
Dutch symphonic metal band Epica have been prolific in their increasingly illustrious career that has spawned 14 years thus far, and seems like only the beginning of greater things. Their 2016 Nuclear Blast release ‘The Holographic Principle’ is already their seventh full-length effort, and is a meticulous creation centered around eye-opening, thought-provoking scientific themes. Soon after the September release of the album, Epica embarked on a North American tour, headlining packed shows in what has become a very favorable market for them in the past few years. The ‘North American Principle’ tour also features Fleshgod Apocalypse, Arkona and The Agonist, and will visit the Los Angeles area for a gig at the Regent on Saturday November 19th. Metal Assault recently spoke to guitarist Mark Jansen to discuss the album, the tour and more. Enjoy the conversation below, and catch Epica on the remainder of the tour while you still can.
Mark, it’s good to talk to you again. It’s been a couple of years, I think. The last we talked was on the previous album cycle. Tell me about this new one, ‘The Holographic Principle’. What’s it been like working on this album through the last year or two?
Yeah, it was more even advanced than before, because we were thinking what can we do better, and it went all into details, for example recording everything live this time, whereas in the past we used samples for brass, for example. We had already recorded choirs and strings live, but for this one, we wanted everything live. Brass, woodwinds, oriental instruments, percussion, everything we did was played by human beings this time, so it was much more work to write and record scores, but also the songs themselves, we were working on them until we were really convinced that we couldn’t make them any better. We started working more as a band to write songs for ‘The Quantam Enigma’, but with ‘The Holographic Principle’ it was even more of that. So, everybody was exhausted when we recorded it, but we finished recording sometime in June of this year, and now a real desire and hunger to perform it live comes back.
That’s good to hear! Did you find the musicians to play these additional instruments just locally? How did you go about that part?
Our producer Joost van den Broek is often doing string recordings and he also writes scores for orchestra. He worked on a special gig, writing music to be performed in front of the Dutch king. So, he knows quite some people and the only thing he needed to do was scroll through all the numbers that he has on his phone and find the right people to record for us. So, we left everything to him and he did! We had no much time for it, but Joost fixed it all (laughs).
When it comes to recording albums these days, I guess it’s hard to put money into that process because you’re not expecting too much in return, and more of the money is coming from concert ticket sales. So, it’s good to see that you care about your work enough to still do take your recordings to the next level, and I think fans appreciate that.
Yeah, but we’re also in the lucky circumstance that Nuclear Blast is willing to invest in us. When we got a new deal, this was also one of the things we discussed, that we really want to keep growing as a band, production-wise. They totally agreed and gave us these possibilites, and that’s very important. I agree with you, nowadays bands have to record with less and less budget, but fortunately we got the right budget to fulfill all our wishes and record this album exactly the way we wanted.
You’ve been consistently releasing albums, so it’s like you have a system in place. You do a tour and then you go into an album. You have to follow a schedule. But how are you able to find the creativity to come up with new music at a specific time? Does that work well for you?
For me, personally, that doesn’t really work. I always write music whenever I feel inspired, but some of the other guys in the band, they need such a schedule and they need pressure, and then they come up with the best results. So, everybody is different. I take whatever opportunity I have to write, for example, if I have an idea right now, I record it rightaway, because for me, inspiration is not something I can put on and off. It’s there or it isn’t. So, everybody finds their own way of working, but I have to say we are also really lucky to have five songwriters in the band. Whenever somebody is in a period not so much inspired, there are still four other guys who can write songs. I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s possible for us to release albums pretty much every two years, even though I must say the process for ‘The Holographic Principle’ was so advanced, after this touring cycle we might take a little break to recharge the batteries.
I can imagine. Talking of the album itself, is ‘The Holographic Principle’ just an overlying title, or is there a concept or theme behind the actual story or the music?
Most songs are dealing with this subject, which says the whole universe as we know it might be a hologram. I got really fascinated by this concept and theory. I started reading about it and watching documentaries. In the beginning it really sounds like science fiction, something that simply cannot be true, and your mind cannot accept such a theory, but the more you read about it, the more you start believing it might be possible, and you can go wild on it. Lyric-wise, we felt a lot of inspiration regarding this subject and we used it as much as we could.
It’s cool that you have such a subject, and you probably do it for your own expression, but do you also hope that your fans, specially those that buy hard copies that come with lyric booklets, would actually read into this stuff and see what you’re trying to say?
Yeah, it’s always great when people come to you and you notice that they’re really digging deep into the lyrics, and they come with interesting questions. Some people also present new views that I didn’t think about myself. So, it’s always an interaction between the band and the fans, and together you come to really interesting stuff. Of course, I know there’s also a lot of people who are not reading the lyrics or are not that much into it, and that’s no problem at all. Those people just enjoy the music and that’s fine by me too. But it’s rewarding when people come to you and start dicussing the lyrics and you can tell that they really worked hard on the lyrics to get into it. It’s always nice, I must say.
With such a title and concept, there is great scope to do things with the album cover art and packaging. Everyone has seen the cover, but is there any version of the album that comes as holographic?
Oh yeah, we have a special box set which is holographic, but that’s very limited edition because we can never know how many people are really going to buy it. If we made 2000 box sets, we would have used up all the budget that we had for the album, and Nuclear Blast wouldn’t have been so happy (laughs). But from what I’ve heard, the box set is already sold out, so it worked really well and people are into that holographic version. So, we do have it but it was very limited.
I believe there are also a couple of bonus CDs with some acoustic and instrumental versions of the tracks, correct?
Instrumental of all the tracks, and we did acoustic versions of five tracks in total, four that are on the album and one that’s not. There are also quite a lot of bonus tracks that in the past we would have put on several editions, but we don’t feel that comfortable with. Many fans pointed out that they need to buy the same album so many times and asked us to find a solution. We totally agreed, and the six songs that are left over, we want to try something like an EP later on a year after this release, and keep these songs together because they could have easily been on the album. We just picked songs that are good for the flow, but these left over songs are good enough to be released on their own and not be bonus tracks for an edition that’s hard to get. It’ll be good to have them released later on and give them the spot they deserve.
I find these acoustic and instrumental versions to be interesting because you’re really giving people the idea of what the music would sound like, broken down into the elements you used to compose them.
Yeah, and we also put a lot of effort in making completely different versions, because it’s easy to take a song and make just a soft ballad out of it. But we tried to really change them a lot and still you recognize the song, obviously, but it’s completely different atmosphere, vibe and style.
I think what I generally feel about Epica, specially after seeing it live, is that the band is heavier than what people probably expected or realized, looking at Simone’s angelic appearance and things like that. Would you say that as well? It’s like you kind of take people, particularly first-time listeners, by surprise.
We often hear that people who haven’t seen us for many years or people who see us for the first time and just had a specific idea in mind of how we would sound, they come to us and say they were surprised in a positive way which they liked. People that listen to quite heavy music admitted that they liked it (laughs). It’s always a compliment to get that from people who are normally not into our kind of music, so to say. But what is “our kind of music” anyway? If it’s heavy enough and if they pretty much like it, it must be broader than the category and reaches more people than what one would think.
Exactly. Talking of some live shows, you have your own festival in Netherlands and Brazil, the Epic Metal Fest. How did the idea for that come about? You have so much going on with your own music and tours, so to even find time for something like this must be quite a task.
It is! And we are working with a very small team. Until five years ago we didn’t even have a manager and we were doing everything by ourselves, all self-managed. But it simply became too much work and we looked for a guy who could help us out, not a typical manager who steals your money and tells you what to do, but a guy who’s part of the team and who can take a lot of work away from us and also guide us through things that we don’t have much knowledge about, like contracts. So, we found this guy, and since we started working with this guy, initially we thought we’d have less work on our plate, but actually he has so many ideas, we have even more work than before (laughs). We are thinking about may be adding another person to the team because it needs so much work. It’s a great idea to have your own festival, but like you said, it’s also work. But I see only the positive side of it, even though it’s a lot of work. It’s exciting to do different things and not be focussed on one thing, which is guitar playing and songwriting. You can also do all the things beyond having a band. Without all these extra things, I would get a bit bored, I guess, after so many years. New things like the Epic Metal Fest keep it exciting and refreshing.
How much are you or other members of the band involved in the fest, specially in terms of picking the bands that take part in the lineup?
Every band we have on the fest, we first discuss and agree on. It’s a cooperation in the Netherlands together with the booking agency, and in Brazil we work together with the Brazilian promoter. So, we discuss everything. Sometimes the promoter mentions bands they would like to see on the festival, and sometimes we do the same, and together we discuss until we have a lineup that we’re all happy with. No bands would be on the festival that we would not like to have ourselves. It’s important that we like the music or have a connection with each band, otherwise we wouldn’t book them.
Right, and you also have a North American tour to end the year. I think you’re on your way to becoming the biggest band in this genre in North America. Shows are getting bigger. I’m sure it’s a tour you’re looking forward to, specially with a really killer lineup of other bands as well.
Yeah! It’s exciting to have a good lineup, and specially when you tour North America, it’s very important to offer a strong lineup with variation, not just the same bands but something interesting for everybody. If I would see four bands of the same genre, I would get bored myself as well. Also, there’s quite some bands coming over to the US all the time, so you have to offer a strong package yourself to make sure that it’s interesting enough for people to choose your show. With this lineup, I think it’s going to work really well and we are really looking forward to it!
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Epica + Fleshgod Apocalypse + Arkona + The Agonist remaining tour dates:
11/18/2016 — San Francisco, CA @ Social Hall
11/19/2016 — Los Angeles, CA @ The Regent
11/20/2016 — Las Vegas, NV @ Vinyl at Hard Rock Hotel
11/22/2016 — Denver, CO. @ Summit Music Hall
11/23/2016 — Lawrence, KS @ Granada Theater
11/25/2016 — Dallas, TX @ Gas Monkey Live
11/26/2016 — Austin, TX @ Empire Control Room
11/28/2016 — St Petersburg, FL @ State Theater
11/29/2016 — Atlanta, GA @ Masquerade
12/01/2016 — Baltimore, MD @ Soundstage
12/02/2016 — New York, NY @ Webster Hall
12/03/2016 — Worcester, MA @ Palladium