Interview with Epica — “You have to look a little bit tough because you’re in a metal band.”


Symphonic metal act EPICA released their new album, Omega,” earlier this year. Some months ago, they organized a live streaming event to celebrate the album and now the time has come for them to unveil that show as an actual live release. Omega Alive will be released on December 3rd, via Nuclear Blast Records. We had the opportunity to chat with keyboard player Coen Janssen about the show. Read the complete interview here…

Hi Coen! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me today. How are you doing?

I’m doing actually pretty fine. It’s been a while since I did some interviews, so I’m getting used to it a little bit again, but it’s nice that some people want to talk about our new stuff, so that’s pretty cool.

Yeah, if I remember correctly you didn’t do any interviews for “Omega.”

No, I think Mark and Simone did all those interviews, so I got some time off them, but normally I… we do the interviews during festivals, so live appearances, but there were none, so no interviews as well.

Well, let’s go back to where it all began for this live release. I was talking to Simone about the release of “Omega,” and back then there were not any plans yet for a live stream. When did the idea come to do a streaming concert?

I think it was actually before the release, I’m not sure… time is a little bit blurry, it’s kind of weird, is it two years, or one year, I don’t know. But anyway, at first I think it was during September that we wanted to do the live show or the live stream. Then we planned it to be in December, but it was too risky and too difficult to pull it off. So then we postponed it to March, the recordings, and then I don’t even know when it was aired again but anyway, we had half a year to be able to work on it and make it happen. That’s what I remember.

Did you guys instantly decide that you also wanted to release this as an actual album or is that something that came after the show and fans were very positive about it?

That was the main reason, the latter. But, of course, when we were recording it, you always think this could be a cool DVD or a cool thing to have, but it’s always a little bit up to the record label if they want to invest in it, so we didn’t record it to be a DVD. We recorded it to be a live stream. Of course, immediately when the reactions came in, this has to be released, you start thinking about it and well if people actually want it, then why not make it? That’s what we thought and the record label was behind that idea, so here we are.

I guess you’re going to make a lot of fans really happy, because it seemed like a lot of people wanted to re-watch the show, even though it’s not really possible anymore with these live streams.

Yeah, and then the same goes for us, because I also wanted to look back at it on Sunday and it was too big to actually have almost like a USB stick or anything so… it’s good that I can watch it again too. [laughs]

That’s interesting, because I have always wondered whether artists look at their own recordings when they have a chance to look back at their DVDs and such. Is that a thing you do with all of your recordings in the past?

Rarely, to be honest, but sometimes it’s fun to just look at it and see what you’ve done or listen to it. We worked a lot on this release, so I’ve watched the show a million times already and, of course, because from writing the script to performing it to watching, you know exactly what happens every minute. So it probably will take a few years for me to look back at it, but it’s the same with “Retrospect,” because we were working on this album or this show, I looked back at the “Retrospect” show see what we did, what could be better, etc.

Is planning a show like this similar to how you guys plan your shows on a tour? Or was this a very specific, one-off thing?

Well, basically it’s the same because you perform songs. But the biggest difference was that it was [recorded] in a studio setting, so you could do other stuff that you normally could not do on stage; for instance, making it rain or having a burning piano or have a children’s choir, or a grown-up choir for an acapella song. Those are all things you cannot do at a live show because it’s just too expensive or too logistically impossible. [laughs] So, we tried all those ideas. Actually, at some point there was an idea to have actual horses on stage as well, but that’s one thing that didn’t work out in the end. We tried to make a show that could not be done live at a festival, for instance, because it’s just too big and too impossible. And I think we kind of succeeded in bringing such a show, so that’s the main difference.

Bringing horses on stage is actually pretty funny. There’s a rule in Hollywood that you should never work with animals and children. So, you almost did both of them in one recording.

Oh really? [laughs]

Yeah, because they’re so difficult to control, so it’s also tricky to use them in film.

Yeah, we thought about using police horses that are not afraid of sound and afraid of explosions, but never mind… when when we talked about it with Jens, the director, he was really almost already crying, no not more stuff. [laughter]

Are there any elements of this show that you can use during tours, or that you really want to use further for your shows?

Of course, there’s the whole like stage setup that we had built for the show with the fire snakes, and the whole décor, so we can bring that. It would be really cool to bring everybody. [laughs] Then for like one festival in Belgium, we had the fire actors as well on stage, but the other stuff… a choir, it’s so difficult to have that done well at a festival or in a show, then you have to take a long soundcheck and then everybody has to be happy, and it’s a lot of people, so it’s so difficult. Also with acrobats that are hanging from ceilings, it’s always difficult in venues to make it happen. So it would be on my bucket list, to have the whole show as a live show, but it will be so expensive that I don’t think that we are a big enough band to to pull that off.

I mean maybe in the future. At least SABATON did a show at Graspop where they had a male choir.

Yeah, but to be fair, you can use a choir, that’s kind of okay but then the children’s choir, that’s already a whole different ball game. The easiest thing would be like a choir or musicians on stage, I guess, but because a lot of other bands do that too, it’s kind of… it is cool, but then I would prefer to have like burning stuff, like burning pianos and children’s choirs, which other bands haven’t done yet.

How was it for you to be playing on a burning piano? Was that kind of stressful or were you just confident in the people with the pyrotechnics?

I’m very confident and I trust our pyrotechnic technicians really well, but I know how long the piece lasted and I know how hot it became very quickly, so I was really… it was kind of stressful. I know that they were there with fire extinguishers, if that was needed, but I also didn’t want to mess up the shot, so it was a little bit too… I played a little bit too long so the hair on my hand was a little bit torched, in the end. [laughs] It became so, so hot in such a short time, but in the end, it’s all about how it looks. The chat-box exploded when that happened and it’s really cool to see that people love those sorts of effects.

Yeah, it’s interesting because in my opinion, you looked so calm. I would be freaking out probably. [laughter]

Yeah, of course, but you practiced it a few times, not with fire, but how it would work, and then, in the end, it’s just indeed concentrating and hoping you have to look a little bit tough, because you’re in a metal band. So you cannot scream, oh, my hands are on fire. So you have to look cool and then just pretend that it’s okay but it was not really okay, it was really hot. [laughs]

Now, it was mentioned that you were the concept creator behind this live stream; how did you come up with the initial ideas and what was the process like? Were you involved with Jens from the start?

Yeah, I think Jens and I kind of built up the show together. We decided, with the band, to do the live stream. And then, because with the “Omega,” which has five letters and EPICA has five letters, I came up with the idea to have the five acts, and have them all named with the acronym of omega. And then we started from there, actually, we made the setlist with the whole band, which songs fit the right act, and then I started working on the script. I wrote down all the songs from every minute to minute, what would happen and then made I made a big book of it, a script, and then we just were shooting ideas to each other Jens, me, and Isaac, and we came up with all the silly stuff. Then we just only scratched out the horses and then the rest stayed in. [laughter] Then we had to be really nice to our manager to make it all fit in the budget. [laughs]

Now, you have quite a few albums out already; is it always a struggle for you to decide which songs you’re going to play live?

Yeah, it becomes more difficult for every album, because there’s more to choose from. Normally, you know with live shows, we play new songs, of course, and we want to play some fan favorites and we want to play some band favorites. So it’s always kind of a struggle which songs we’re going to play, but actually for the live stream, because we had those five acts that had a theme, it was pretty fast that we came up with the set. We were very much on the same page with all the band members.

So the songs fit sonically together in these five acts, but do you think they also fit thematically together?

Lyric-wise, I didn’t really pay too much attention to them actually, more like how they sound, so of course, Mark and Simone write about topics that are intertwined anyway. It’s more about the songs than about the lyrics that they would fit in the act, so to speak.

You mentioned also that normally you always play some fan favorites and some band favorites. I’m guessing most of us know what the fan favorites are. What are your favorite songs as a band to play live?

Well, as a band, it kind of depends on which band member you talk to, because Arjen, he likes to play the heavy metal stuff or like the heavy stuff. But for me, it kind of depends, I like to play “Sancta Terra” live, because I can run around and crowd surf a little bit. I like to play “Beyond the Matrix,” “Victims of Contingency”… there’s a lot of songs that I like to play. It also changes from time to time. I am not really a fan of playing “Cry For the Moon,” but on the other hand, we’ve played it so many times that you can also have a lot of fun during that song, so it’s also fun to play. So it depends and actually now because we haven’t played for that long, I basically would play anything. [laughter]

Yeah, that makes sense. Although you’ve had some shows during the summer, no?

Yeah, we had four shows or at least… I think the band had five. I couldn’t make it to one because my wife had COVID, so I wasn’t allowed to leave the house, but we only had five shows in 2½ years. That’s not really a lot. [laughs]

As a keyboard player, I know you are not someone who stays in the background much. You do a lot of tricks with your keyboard, you run around, and so on. Is it important for you to have this kind of different approach to playing keyboards than other keyboard players have?

Oh no, it’s not about trying to be different than other keyboard players, it’s just how I think I perform and how my performance has grown over the years. At a certain point, I got this rotating keyword stand and I really loved it. I remember when I had a normal keyboard stand again, I felt very naked somehow, because I couldn’t do anything. Then a few years ago, I got these rails on the riser, so I can actually move from one side to the other side. Also when that’s not there, then I feel really stupid, because I feel really boring, that people don’t really get entertained enough. So I really like to have fun and try to make the people in the audience have fun as well. That’s also why I got the curved keyboards, which allows me to actually walk on stage and walk in the crowd. I really love to do that, it’s just grown naturally, it’s not really that I want to be better than (name a keyboard player), it’s just what I do.

Now you mentioned this curved keyboard, I’m a keyboard player myself, and I’ve always wondered whether a curved keyboard is ergonomically better for your hands and fingers?

Yeah, that’s how they tried to sell it. I’m not sure if it’s actually ergonomically better but if you’re a keyboard player then you know that if you put your hands in front of you, you move from them from the left to the right. Like if you would play very high and very low at the same time, then you feel it in your wrists, but if you would curve, then you don’t have that in your wrist, right? So, it’s probably less stressful for your wrists, but then again, you normally don’t play that far off or you move your body a little bit to the left or to the right. I really like the gimmick and I really like that it’s a MIDI-controlled keyboard, so I can move anywhere. I don’t know if it’s better, it’s a little bit more difficult to play, because you can’t see anything. If we play in Finland, you can try it, if you come to the show, if you want to.

Oh, for sure, I’d love that! Now going back to the show, I think my favorite part of the show was a calmer section that I think was called “Gravita,” with the newer rendition of “Rivers” with the acapella choir. How did you come up with the idea to play it that way?

Well, the choir, the acapella version that was actually really funny, because when we were recording the choirs for “Omega,” for the album, it went really well because the choir was so good that after the second day, we thought that we have a lot of time left. So we booked them for three days. When we ended day two, then we were almost already done, so I was in the studio together with Joost. We thought about, well, they’re still here, we actually pay them, so why not write an extra part. I had always wanted to write like a purely vocal thing, so we had this beautiful song “Rivers,” which Rob wrote, and then I think Joost and I reworked that into a choir version like in 10 minutes, and then I worked it out at home. We presented it to the choir the next day, we still have something more for you to do. So that’s how it came to be and then, because we always – or not always – we like to do like these acoustic things as well with every album, so it would fit the acoustic theme as well. So yeah, that’s how it came to be.

It’s interesting you wrote that part in 10 minutes.

Well, of course, the song was already there, right? So you only have to do the choir arrangement. It was not basically 10 minutes, but we wrote it after a hard day’s work with the choir. It was really fun, so it felt like it just fit together, we just wrote it on the spot, and they also they sang it really well. I kind of prefer this version over the actual album version because it’s a little bit more different than what you normally would expect, and I really love vocal music.

Now, when this corona business is cleaned up, you’re also planning to go on a tour that will stop here in Helsinki as well, with APOCALYPTICA and WHEEL. What can fans expect from this tour?

Well, of course, this tour was planned before “Omega Alive,” it’s already been like 1½ years ago that we should have toured with APOCALYPTICA and WHEEL. Yeah, we are not going to be able to bring everything, but we’re going to bring as much as possible, which will fit in the truck. So, we will play a lot of songs from “Omega,” and then what I said before… some fan favorites, some band favorites, and we tried to make a party, but I guess when everybody’s enjoying shows again, it will not be that difficult to build a huge party.

Yeah, I’ve heard from some artists that the audiences right now are really insane, so it must be a huge party!

In Finland, are you getting any shows again or not?

There have been shows on and off, so I haven’t really noticed anything myself, but yeah it’s interesting here, because corona was never that bad. A lot of tours have been cancelled, but sometimes Finnish bands were able to play locally.

Yeah, I saw INSOMNIUM and SONATA ARCTICA booked some shows I guess, or they do Finnish tours; AMORPHIS as well. All the cool bands come from Finland.

We are quite lucky because there are so many metal bands here, so it’s not difficult to get them to play a show.

You have a lot of good bands.

Well, speaking of Finnish bands, since you’re playing with APOCALYPTICA and WHEEL, I was wondering how did you guys decide to play together?

I don’t know actually, I think, when we were planning a tour, it’s always… are we going to do a tour, do we bring a support, are we going to do a co-headline tour or whatever, are there any bands touring at the moment, can we build like interesting packages for people to have the best possible show? I guess it’s like an agent thing, that they put bands together, so we had a shortlist of bands that we wanted to tour with and APOCALYPTICA was one of the bands that also just released an album, and they also all wanted to tour. I think it was a good match, so we decided to just go for it and if you match up certain bands, you can play bigger venues, have more people, have bigger parties, so that’s that’s how that works. I think, before I actually joined EPICA, of course, you had that APOCALYPTICA album, which everybody has, so it’s like really cool to be playing with them.

Sometimes they also do collaborations with the bands they are playing with. Is there anything maybe happening between the both of you?

I can’t talk to you about that yet, but of course, when you have… I think the cello is the most beautiful instrument in the world, and we have a lot of songs with a lot of cello in it, so why not, you never know what’s gonna happen.

Well, looking forward to that whenever it happens!

Yeah, me too.

Anyway, I guess that’s it for my questions. Do you have any last thoughts you want to share with your fans and our readers?

Well, for everybody that supported us with the stream and also with the DVD release, thank you very much! It’s been hard for everybody and we’re very lucky that we have such a tight community of fans that support us, so we could still be able to play and still be able to do what we love for you guys, so I can only say thank you to the people that support us.

Written by Laureline Tilkin