Band Interview: Epica

Matt Albers

One of Europe’s strongest contributing scenes to metal in the past two decades has been all of the female-fronted symphonic metal acts. Bands that formed in the mid 1990s like Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Lacuna Coil started a movement of strong, beautiful, operatic female vocals and neo-classical symphonic elements juxtaposed over driving heavy metal guitar riffs and double-bass blast beat drumming. Since then, countless bands in that same vein have formed to either come and go or stay relevant, especially in markets foreign to the United States. To that American market, those same aforementioned, long-running bands may struggle to have the success as the one successful domestic band of a similar style, Evanescence. It’s interesting to note most American fans discover Evanescence first – usually through their breakout radio success that began circa 2002-03 – then discover the European bands, and immediately think that those bands are “ripping off” Evanescence; when in reality, it’s often the other way around.

But enough about the watered-down, American female-fronted gothic metal, let’s get back to the European O.G.’s. One of the bands that formed later in this movement was The Netherlands’ Epica. Initially forming in 2002 by former members of After Forever, Epica amplified the style of both pop and operatic female vocal-led metal with strong choir and orchestral arrangements, and a strong presence of harsh male metal vocals. In their first live performance in St. Louis, MO, I sat down with lead guitarist Isaac Delahaye before their set at The Ready Room, as part of their headlining “North American Enigma Tour,” with Moonspell and Starkill. With the help of questions from fellow contributors and fans, I picked his brain on topics such as touring North America, complex musical composition, band functionality, alcohol preferences, and already working on their next full-length studio album, just under two years since the release of their sixth and latest, The Quantum Enigma.

First of all, how are you doing? Are you enjoying the nice weather that we’re having in late January?

Isaac Delahaye (lead guitar, backing vocals; 2009-present) of Epica, live at The Ready Room in St. Louis, MO - photo credit: Nick Licata [2016]
Isaac Delahaye (lead guitar, backing vocals; 2009-present) of Epica, live at The Ready Room in St. Louis, MO – photo credit: Nick Licata [2016]
Yeah, it’s the first day that we’ve had sunshine and not having a jacket on, and it’s great. We’re heading south, and that’s always a good thing, I guess.

It’s only going to get warmer. So as I understand it, this is your first time in St. Louis.

I’ve heard of St. Louis because of the acoustic guitar player Tommy Emmanual had a DVD recorded in St. Louis. He came on stage and said, “Hey, St. Louis!” And that’s the only thing I know about St. Louis [laughs].

Maybe you know a little about us because we’re the home of Anheuser-Busch and Budweiser?

Well, I drink red wine, so I’m not aware about the beer.

Unfortunately, St. Louis proper isn’t exactly wine country. But welcome to our city, and I hope you enjoy your time here and have a good turnout tonight, we’ve really been looking forward to it. Epica had to drop out of their slot on your last U.S. tour with Eluveitie and The Agonist due to an emergency back home with Simone’s father.  It’s great to see that family is so important to the band, can you give us an update on his condition?

Oh yeah, he’s doing way better now. He had a sort of heart attack while riding his bike. So he ended up in a coma for a couple of weeks. Luckily, he has no nerve damage or anything. So everything turned out great. It’s always kind of a worrying time, because someone in a coma is neve really a pleasant thing. But we had no other option but to cancel the tour, really. And this is a rescheduled run, it’s not the full North American run we usually do, because we have the 70,000 Tons Of Metal cruise coming up, and shows in Puerto Rico and Columbia which we already had booked. So yeah, we tried to make up for that a little. For the next album, we’ll be back sooner, because we’re working on a new album. So [we’re] glad that we could make it over again.

Well, we’d love to have you back for that next run! Speaking of that 70,000 Tons Of Metal cruise next week; you’ve played that before, yes?

Yeah, the first edition.

Are you looking forward to going back after so long, now that it’s been a couple of years?

Yeah, it’s a bigger ship, I’ve heard. So, more people and more beer, I guess [laughs].

Hopefully more wine too, for you. And it’s on Superbowl Weekend, too.

[Laughs] Yeah, and more bands. It’s good to have that. It reminds me of the European summer festivals. You get to see [the] bands you’ve toured with… Like, everyone’s there, and it’s just a cool place to have a couple of shows. And we’re going to Jamaica! So, hell yeah; [get to] smoke some herb [laughs].

*In my best Jamaican accent* “Ya, mon.” [Laughter] The only difference to a festival is that you’re floating.

Exactly!

And then you smoke some herb, and you’re really floating! [Laughter] So, let’s talk about that new album that you just mentioned you’re working on. I read that you hit the studio just about a month ago, in December 2015, for pre-production. Do you have any idea when the album could be released?

Not an exact date, but it’s going to be this fall. So, we’re supposed to be wrapping up the recording process and everything around it this summer. So that gives us a couple of months to promote the album, and do a video clip, and lyric videos. This fall, there’s going to be a release, so I’m looking forward to that. We’re in the middle of the recordings, actually. Ariën (van Weesenbeek, drums, spoken word, vocals [2007-present]), bass is recorded, guitars are almost done, I just need to do my solos and some acoustic guitar. And, as you can see, *gestures to fellow band member wearing headphones at desk, playing portable keyboard connected to notebook computer* Coen (Janssen, keyboards, synthesizer, piano [2002-present]) is working on the choir arrangements.

Coen Jannsen (keyboards, synthesizer, piano; 2002-present) live at The Ready Room in St. Lous, MO - photo credit: Nick Licata [2016]
Coen Jannsen (keyboards, synthesizer, piano; 2002-present) live at The Ready Room in St. Lous, MO – photo credit: Nick Licata [2016]
Yeah, he looks like he’s in the zone, I don’t want to interrupt him.

[Laughs] So, we’ll record that after this run. And we’re checking all the brass and string arrangements as we speak, so that’s going to be recorded in the next couple of months. Somewhere in April – because we have an Australian and Asian tour as well – Simone (Simons, lead vocals [2002-present] going to start recording vocals, backing vocals, grunts… Well, Simone won’t do that, but Mark (Jansen, rhythm guitar, growls/screams [2002-present]) is going to do the grunts and all that. So yeah, it looks good.

Actually, it’s funny that you should mention that about the vocals. Because, one of our contributors, Chris, wants to know if there has ever been any talks of switching up the vocal style. Has it ever come up to have any of the male members of the band do some clean singing, and have Simone unleash her death growl attack?

[Laughs] No, actually it didn’t. Because the clean male [vocals] would be [coming from] choirs. And we already have so much to choose from. Simone is doing, sometimes, more of the “poppy” stuff, then more operatic, you have the grunts, you have the screams, you have choirs, backing vocals; there’s so much going on already, so it’s already enough, I guess. But it would be fun to try out, but I don’t think it would ever end up on any album. Maybe the acoustic – Oh, yeah! We have some bonus tracks on the previous album [The Quantum Enigma (2012)], like a bonus disc with acoustic versions of certain songs. And we had a kind of… Sort of pirate, “La-la-la-la-la” [vocals].

Ah, a drinking song!

Yeah, exactly! Campfire stuff. So we had fun with that, but that’s just a bonus thing; a little extra for the fans.

Our contributor, Chris, has said that he’s also heard some tidbits mentioned that your next album may be heading in a heavier direction. Does the fact that several band members are also in the symphonic death metal band MaYaN bring out more musical aggression in Epica?

Not necessarily, I think. I used to play in MaYaN, but not anymore; same with the bass player, Rob (van der Loo, bass [2012-present]). It’s basically a sort of project of Mark and two other guys outside of Epica. I don’t think that’s kind of an influence. But, for instance, Ariën and me are actually coming out of the death metal scene back in the day, and I guess that helps. And I really like modern thrash metal, that kind of style, groovy stuff with great riffing. I think, back in the day, Epica, with the previous guitar player, was more, like, you had a lot of melodies and orchestration, and the guitars were more backing up that orchestration. Whereas now, we start more out of the riffs – not always, but quite a bit of songs are more riff-oriented. And that’s the difference with “old Epica,” so to speak.

For the last two albums – the one coming up, and also The Quantum Enigma, our current album – we actually sat together [and] rehearsed, which is probably a normal thing for any band out there, but for us it’s not because we’re located in three different countries. Because, we’re already on the road so often, so it’s was easier in the past to just write everything in the home studio and send it over, go into the studio and record it, and the first time we would play it was actually on stage for a CD-release party. So, [with] Simone being pregnant a couple of years ago, that gave us a little break from touring, and then we just went into rehearsal space first, and just rehearsed the song with a three-piece band; so, only just guitars, drums, and bass. And that basically took the whole thing to a little heavier, a more “metal” kind of band, and I think you can really hear that on the new album, and definitely on the next album, we took it a step further. So, I guess all these elements together, that’s kind of the reason we got more “heavy,” more “aggressive.” You just don’t want to make the same album twice, it’s a kind of direction we took. Some bands in the genre tend to slow down over the years, and that’s a good thing for them because they got huge [laughs]. And we just like metal; it seems like we’re getting harder and harder every album.

Rob van der Loo (bass; 2022-present) of Epica, live at The Ready Room in St. Louis, MO - photo credit: Nick Licata [2016]
Rob van der Loo (bass; 2022-present) of Epica, live at The Ready Room in St. Louis, MO – photo credit: Nick Licata [2016]
I’ve always said that Epica is one of those bands that gets better with every album, so keep up the good work!

[Laughs] Thanks, we will!

My next couple of questions are from another fan of ours named Jackie. Let’s talk a little bit about the area where the band formed and started out, The Netherlands. What kind of music and metal scenes existed when Epica started out? How did that influence you? Did it have any kind of positive or negative effect on you as you started touring outside of your home base?

Well, I think for the genre, you had The Gathering, Within Temptation, bands like that. First of all, I’m the only one not from the Netherlands, I’m from Belgium. But, I’ve been there a couple of years, I’ve studied there, and I’ve played in a Dutch before Epica. So, Mark actually came out of After Forever with Floor Jansen, who’s now in Nightwish. So it’s a very small country, but apparently, something’s in the water over there. So all of these female-fronted bands kind of popped up. I’m not sure what the exact reason is, but it just kind of happened, I guess. As far as Epica goes, Mark was no longer playing in After Forever, and he just looked for people who could make Epica happen, and that’s basically what happened after that. It was his intention to start a similar band, also female-fronted, and everyone took it from there.

Jackie also wants to know more about your lyrics. There are themes including science, religion, and world events. Why are these topics important to the band from a writing perspective? Do they contribute at all to the musical approach and composition?

Well, we actually always first write the music. And then after that, Simone and Mark write the lyrics. Simone’s approach is a little more personal, not always, but overall she has more personal, emotional, “lady stuff,” I would say, which is good for ballads and all of that. And then Mark is more into the scientific kind of stuff; quantum physics, or how the brain works and all that, and how the world around us works. He’s really interested in these topics, and criticizes some stuff here and there.

Actually, a couple of days ago, I had an interview, and someone asked me a similar question, like, “Why don’t you write about killing people like most metal bands do?” [Laughs] Simone and Mark just write what they want to write about, and it happens to be that. And I think it kind of suits the music as well, because it’s not this kind of “easy-going” music; [it’s] not like you would have a three-minute song which is easy to digest, there’s a lot going on… The whole orchestra, the whole choirs and all that, so lots of ingredients. And I think these kind of lyrics which have a little more depth suit the music. But it all starts with the music and you get a certain vibe of what it can be about, and take it from there.

Mark Jansen (left - rhythm guitar, growls/screams; 2002-present) and Simone Simons (right - lead vocals; 2002-present) of Epica, live at The Ready Room in St. Louis, MO - photo credit: Nick Licata [2016]
Mark Jansen (left – rhythm guitar, growls/screams; 2002-present) and Simone Simons (right – lead vocals; 2002-present) of Epica, live at The Ready Room in St. Louis, MO – photo credit: Nick Licata [2016]
Do you have any special pre-show preparations, rituals, or tricks that you do before you go onstage? Do you have any certain regiments to keep healthy during a tour, especially during winter?

Oh, yeah. Simone is a real mom, she takes good care of us. She sometimes makes us smoothies or healthy stuff. I used to do workouts, but then I had cervical disc herniation a couple of months ago because of all of the headbanging, I guess. So I had to slow down on that unfortunately, so I don’t do that anymore on tour now. But, maybe someday I can pick it up again. And then, as far as the show goes, like you mentioned [with] winter, my hands are cold, so I have to warm up a little. Mostly, I have to just play through all the solos I’m playing that night, and I would just repeat some of the more technical things we’re going to play that night. And that’s my warm up, something like five to ten minutes, max. And I drink some wine, that’s a warm up [laughs].

This is another question from Jackie. What first interested you in music? What is the first song learned and/or played?

I think my parents got me into music. Both are huge music fans, so they always had a certain CD on the player. So I heard about Elton John, Lou Reed, The Beetles, you name it. So all of these older bands, Dire Sraits, Pink Floyd… And I have a couple of brothers; my oldest brother listened more to techno music, so I got a lot of that – not that I really enjoyed it – but I kind of know about it. And my younger brother was more into R&B, hip-hop, underground hip-hop, and stuff like that. So, from all kinds of sides, I come out of a very musical family, lots of musicians in the family. So it kind of came naturally, but I was around ten, eleven [years old], something like that, when I picked up Use Your Illusion by Guns N’ Roses. And from that moment on, I was like, “Oh, this is really great!” My second album was kind of a mistake back then, it was Effigy Of The Forgotten by Suffocation, and I guess I was too young to understand what it was all about, because I was like, “Wow, what is this? Too heavy for me.” [Laughs] And then later on I kind of grew into the death metal scene.

Actually, my first electric guitar, I got from my stepmom. Because she said, “If you can play the solo from ‘Sultans Of Swing’ by Dire Straits on your classical guitar, then I’ll buy you an electric guitar.” So I got to work and I figured it all out, and I got the guitar. I didn’t know with it back then because I was used to playing classical stuff. I couldn’t hold a guitar pick, didn’t know how to do it, and it took me until I was around fifteen or sixteen at a music academy where I was having classical guitar lessons. They actually did a one-week electric guitar kind of thing during a break from school. So then I learned some power chords, learned some songs. Probably the first one was a Nirvana song or something like that, or The Offspring, stuff like that. Pretty swiftly after that, I started my first band, and it was kind of a thrash metal band. But we were just fooling around, it was good fun. I was around sixteen around that time, and it kind of evolved from there.

The rest is history.

Ariën van Weesenbeek (drums, spoken word, growls; 2007-present) and Simone Simons (right - lead vocals; 2002-present) of Epica, live at The Ready Room in St. Louis, MO - photo credit: Nick Licata [2016]
Ariën van Weesenbeek (drums, spoken word, growls; 2007-present) and Simone Simons (right – lead vocals; 2002-present) of Epica, live at The Ready Room in St. Louis, MO – photo credit: Nick Licata [2016]
Yeah, exactly [laughs].

My final question comes from Chris. How much do we have to bribe the band to add “Omen – The Ghoulish Malady” to the set list?

 …You don’t have to bribe.

Is it already in the set list?

Not tonight, we’re at sound check, so there’s no way that we can get it in the set list. [Laughter]

If we really impress you as a crowd, could you play it as an encore?

I don’t think we’ve played it since the CD release, so it’s not in my motor skills. So unfortunately, I guess we’ll disappoint someone. [Laughter]

So, you’re saying that the bribe is priceless?

Exactly. [Laughter]

Well, as you said, hopefully you’ll be coming back to North America on a future tour, so there’s always hope for another opportunity.

But, by that time, we’ll have a new album out with more, awesome songs.

Right! So maybe there’ll be some even better songs and he won’t care about that one. [Laughter]

Special thanks to Kristin Torres of Nuclear Blast and Epica tour manager Beau King for setting up this interview! Be sure to check out Nick’s photo gallery from this show!

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