Ahead of the release of Epica‘s new single, ‘Universal Death Squad’, we caught up with the symphonic metal heroes’ guitarist and vocalist, Mark Jansen.
It’s 10am and our phone rings. Mark Jansen’s on the other end.
Wait a minute. Mark Jansen? The rock star? At 10am?
“Yes, I’m starting to doubt if I am a rock star, haha! It’s pretty early, and I also feel pretty good, so there must be something wrong!”
No wild parties then Mark?
“There was a little party yesterday, but not so many beers… When we are on tour the parties are bigger, but now we have to work eh?”
The guitarist and vocalist is busy promoting what will be Epica’s eighth fully-fledged studio album: The Holographic Principle. Due out in September, this disc promises to take the band in a more intense and aggressive direction than ever before.
“I think the reason for [this new direction] is that we focused more on drums, bass, guitar on this album compared to the past. And with all the riffs going on that results in a sound that’s much heavier. Where in the past we were an orchestral band with also metal going on, now it’s more like a metal band backed up by orchestra. There’s a little bit of a difference.”
It’s appropriate, therefore, that The Holographic Principle tackles a big, imposing idea befitting this new sound. Epica are no strangers to challenging lyrical themes. For instance, 2007’s The Divine Conspiracy posed questions about organised religion, while 2014’s The Quantum Enigma referenced quantum physics in asking ‘what is reality?’. But the themes explored in the new opus might just be Epica’s most ambitious yet.
“Personally I’m very much interested in science in general”, says Mark, explaining how he came across the concept of The Holographic Principle. “And I have been all my life. As I kid I was looking at our galaxy, where all the planets are. I was always fascinated by how the universe looks. I kept an interest in science and I started studying psychology and I kept on reading books about new theories.
“And one that really got to me recently was about the Holographic Principle, which says that, in a way, the whole universe as we know it might be a hologram. In the beginning it sounds really wicked and weird and you think it cannot be true, but the more you start reading about it the more you start realising it is possible and it might be true. Also the scientists who are investigating it are really convinced that this might be the thing. And it’s so interesting and you can go really wild with it and with the lyrics and really put so much.
“Also with the lyrics people ask me ‘does such and such a topic fit with the music?’ And then I say yes because you can put everything that comes to your mind in the lyrics!”
Mark is barely able to contain his excitement, and it’s infectious. The freedom which writing for Epica offers seems to be something which he revels in. Yet this opportunity to explore fresh perspectives on science is in stark contrast to Mark’s experience at university.
When we ask if his studies in psychology are a major influence in his lyrics, he responds by saying, “I don’t think a major influence. It is an influence for sure, because whatever you do in life I think it leaves its marks. But it has not been as much of an influence as people sometimes think.
“Like I said, I am in general already interested in these kind of [scientific] topics. Whatever I learn, I don’t take things for being the truth. I always keep an open mind, looking for alternative perspectives. Sometimes I had a hard time at university when I had to write down answers to questions which I disagreed with. And I learned that sometimes you would just have to write down in the way they wanted to see instead of giving your own opinion, because then they wouldn’t let you pass a certain assignment. So I learnt my lesson there, but I always keep an open mind, and whatever I learnt there… it was useful, but also some things I don’t believe.”
So, Epica are promising a new, intense sound, backed up by imposing and challenging lyrical themes. The good news for fans is that they don’t need to wait long to see if they’ve delivered (spoiler: they have, and then some). ‘Universal Death Squad’, the first single from the forthcoming LP, is available worldwide from tomorrow.
“We were thinking about it and many bands often take a short, catchy song to be the first song off the album to be released. And that’s something we all don’t feel so good about because then the fans don’t get the right impression of the album. So we thought we can take a song which is a good representative of the whole album.
“And ‘Universal Death Squad’ contains basically all elements that are present on the album: really heavy riffing going on, melodies, choirs, grunts, Simone [Simons] singing… Everything that’s Epica is on that song. I think that the fans who are really into Epica will be happy with such a song, where when you release a typical single track then I think fans would be not so happy and even disappointed. So this, I think, is a perfect statement: a heavy song to release first. A perfect representative of the album.”
In just a few short hours fans will be able to wrap their ears round one of The Holographic Principle‘s many highlights, and a track which is bound to be a highlight of Epica’s indomitable live shows too.
Following the release of the album, the band will embark on a five-month tour, taking them across North America, Europe, and beyond. With more than a decade of concerts under their collective belts, they’re relative veterans of this game now. But even the best in the business still have to make sure they’re prepared.
“I personally always prepare the day before the tour by warming up my voice. Especially when we haven’t done shows for about a month, and the voice needs some time to get ready for the tour.
“Because when you are playing a show of about one and a half hour, one hour forty-five, the first 60% of the show the voice is fine. Then it suddenly starts getting difficult. And when I warm up the day before it’s all fine. But when you start off after one month it’s a hard job. So I learned that I have to do that.
“Besides that I also warm up for guitars. I go through all the songs that we’re gonna play. And everybody does that on their own as well. Fortunately, as we have played so many times together and we live so far away from each other in Europe, we don’t need to rehearse before a tour. Everybody studies their own parts at home. Some things we have to make work. There’s always the soundcheck to try some things we’re not certain about. So it always works well for us so far. Also with the distances where we live, this is the perfect solution.”
Another preparatory step is putting together the setlists, which, considering the size and quality of Epica’s oeuvre, is no mean feat.
“What we usually do is we have a ‘skeleton’, a ‘spine’, on which we put a certain amount of songs. They stay the same, but within that framework we do some rotating. So this night we play these songs, on the next night we play these other songs… And we keep also looking at the old setlist for the last time we played a city, and we don’t want to play too many we played already before. There’s always some overlap, of course, but we try to keep it interesting for people that follow us around or that saw us already in that city so that we don’t do exactly the same things. And of course we play some new songs live – I cannot way to play them!”
Any tracks for the new album you’re particularly excited to play, Mark?
“Yeah, ‘Universal Death Squad’! At the moment I’m also studying the songs to play live: to stand and play and walk around. But that is certainly one of the most fun ones to play.”
And what about old tracks? Are there any deep-cuts which diehard fans can look forward to hearing live on this tour?
“We definitely also play stuff from the first album [2003’s The Phantom Agony]. In the last few years we’ve been playing ‘Sensorium’ and ‘Cry For The Moon’ [a real highlight of their Rock In Roma set] and ‘The Phantom Agony’. We also added ‘Façade of Reality’ on two or three occasions because the fans were asking for it. Yeah, we definitely want to keep on doing that because we’re still proud of that album. Even though it was like fourteen years ago for many fans it’s still a very important album so we would be a bit stupid to ignore that album. It’s our album and there’s still some magic around it because it was our first album, and people are still talking about it. I notice that some bands, after a while, they don’t wanna play songs from their first album anymore. But I think it’s important to keep playing songs from the old discography because there’s fans always arriving for so many years who would love to hear the old stuff.”
As much as Epica are a band which are (rightfully) proud of their past, they’re also relentlessly forward-thinking. November 2015 saw a major breakthrough in the form of the launch of their own Epic Metal Fest in Eindhoven, The Netherlands.
“There was already an old plan to have our own festival. It was a plan we had like ten years ago and it never really evolved into an actual idea of doing. But then, for four years, we’ve been working with a new guy in our team. We added a guy with a lot of management skills and we call him our manager even though he’s not really our manager. When he heard about that old idea of the festival he took that idea and started working with it right away. So, since he is with us we can use and do something which we couldn’t do before ’cause we simply didn’t have the time for it. He took the idea and we started discussing the format and the bands and looking for partners to start up this festival. And of course we took the experience of doing our [2013 10th anniversary] Retrospect show, the DVD show, we took all of the experience to organise the Epic Metal Fest.
“And yeah, it was a success, the first edition. Which is why we decided to do a second one in the Netherlands [Tilburg, 01/10/2016] and also one in Brazil [São Paulo, 15/10/2016]. So every year it’s a success we [will] try to keep doing it, and also expand it a bit.”
Both editions of this year’s Epic Metal Fest boast ridiculous lineups: incendiary cocktails of new talents and some of the biggest names in heavy metal. But who is Mark most looking forward to seeing?
“The Ocean. Somebody mentioned we should book them because the Brazilian guy we work with, he’s a big The Ocean fan. Before I’d never heard about them and I checked them out and I really enjoyed the music, so I’m really curious to check them out.
“Also Paradise Lost. We have them in Brazil. That was a band that I was a fan of when I was a teenager. I remember my first time at Dynamo Open Air in the Netherlands watching Paradise Lost and I was really amazed by their music and the show, so it’s really cool to have them on our festival now.
“At the Netherlands edition I’m looking forward to Katatonia. Because I’m a fan of their music, I really like what they’re doing – the combination of the quiet parts and the more progressive stuff, they’re doing that really well.”
And if you could invite any band to join Epic Metal Fest 2017?
“I would like to add Megadeth. If Dave Mustaine is in a good mood, haha! That’s the only thing he has to agree on: if he wants to play Epic Metal Fest he has to be in a good mood!”
The lasting impression Mark leaves as he hangs up to go and deal with hotel reception is one of a man who knows the power of always being in a good mood. He’s an indomitable presence on stage, with equally monstrous riffs and roars. He’s helping to steer Epica, already one of the most ambitious bands in metal, in a more bombastic and intense direction than ever before. He pens lyrics dealing with concepts which give the world’s brightest minds headaches. And he’s about to set off on five months on the road, encompassing two of his own festivals.
Yet despite all this, Mark remains a warm, friendly, and positive person, full of love and enthusiasm for everything he does. He’s the kind of man who can accomplish anything he sets his mind to: and with him, Epica will achieve total global domination.
Special thanks to Sarah at Nuclear Blast UK for setting up this interview.
‘Universal Death Squad’ will be released this Friday 29th July.
The Holographic Principle will be released on Friday 30th September.
Epica will be on tour from October 2016 to February 2017.