Interview / Tom Englund is Evergrey’s Phoenix from the Flames (Part Two)
24 February 2021
With his highly acclaimed work, not just with Evergrey but with side project Silent Skies and also as a member of American Prog Metal kingpins Redemption, Tom Englund, the perpetually working Swede, is a force of nature.
Friendly, genuinely charming, witty and with a razor-sharp mind and real emotional depth, he is the sort of easy and enjoyable company that makes him a pleasure to spend time with.
Here is Part Two of the conversation with MetalTalk’s Paul Monkhouse. Part One can be read here.
The run of recent albums ‘Hymns for the Broken’, ‘The Storm Within’ and ‘The Atlantic’ were classed, conceptually, as a trilogy weren’t, they? Is the forthcoming ‘Escape of the Phoenix’ a new chapter where you are not as constricted so write about what you want, or is there a central theme?
“Doing this whole trilogy thing…we were not really sure we were going to be able to accomplish it, so didn’t discuss it heavily during the process. When we did ‘The Atlantic’, which was about me going from one place in my life, to divorce, to the aftermath of divorce, and even though ‘Escape of the Phoenix’ is not like a fourth album of the story, it is still where I am today, so in a sense it is.
“It is way more loosely tied to who I am, because it also involves how I view the world and how I viewed myself as a kid. Instead of painting this huge DaVinci painting, we have painted ten different postcards, which I think has added a freshness for ourselves, a revitalised vibe to approaching and writing an album and I think it sounds energetic and hungry.
“If you can say that it sounds uplifting then maybe it is this album, it brings that energy.”
For me, it’s a very emotional album. Tracks like ‘Run’ are incredibly powerful and moving but also uplifting. Similar to Silent Skies, there is melancholy but there is also hope.
“Yes…’hope’ is one of the key words here. I think I have discovered the best way to describe, in that if you look at how I have written about solitude and loneliness, it has always come from a perspective of desperation, sadness and sorrow.
“But if you look at how I have written on this album it comes from a perspective of strength, self-esteem and power and that is the difference.
“I still write about the same thing, about feeling and being an outsider, but it is not something that holds me down and makes me a smaller person as it did before. It is something I am proud of and brought me to become a Metalhead and where I am today basically.”
Of course, the opening track and also first single from the album, ‘Forever Outsider’ is a declaration.
“Absolutely. It is my declaration about who I have become…or at least who I am today [laughs]. I am not saying much about who I might be next month [more laughter].”
As you said, I think the previous three albums were such an intense and personal view of things from your life and I think that people can draw certain things from that, particularly if they have shared those experiences.
The new album seems to paint more vignettes, a possibly more universal work thematically.
“Yes…and I think that makes it more accessible to me in a sense. I am more outspoken about exactly what I am singing about. ‘Eternal Nocturnal’ is probably the most direct song we have ever done.
“That has actually taught me that if I am more direct with my words, then more people will attach to it and I never understood that it had that power as well. On the other hand, I have always been saying and writing what I wanted to write, I was not interested in writing as clearly as possible.”
You are known for the depth and intensity of your writing and it was fascinating watching the video you did with Floor [Jansen – Nightwish] about mental health.
You mention during it, that a lot of Scandinavians seem to be attracted to that darker, maybe slightly more depressed or depressing aspect of the music that springs from that part of the world.
“Yes…and at the same time, like Floor said, we get energy listening to dark and melancholic music and get energy from the debating the darkness, rather than living in jolly good, made-up, happy place where we do not see ourselves fit in.
“Like Kiss, we are ‘Creatures of the Night’ [lots of laughter].”
…but without the make-up. It is a great album…
“One of my favourites. I met Gene Simmons briefly for about ten seconds once…it was not the greatest seconds of my life, but it was alright.”
You get exactly what you expect meeting Gene, don’t you?
“Yes, exactly…but that is nice in a way.”
Going back to the discussion with Floor, I think that is part of the appeal with Evergrey, as people can relate to those feelings and it becomes a much more personal connection between you and the people who listen to and buy your music and come along to the shows. There is an honesty there.
“Yes…that is all there is. I usually say this, because I do not have strong connections with killing dragons or fighting with swords or spewing fire…I don’t know [laughs].
“So, I would rather write about things that are closer connected to me, so I write by myself so it is not hard to be honest at all. If I write about myself, then I have something to say and the words come easier.”
Of course, you have had Floor guesting on an album before and on ‘Escape of the Phoenix’ you have James LaBrie (Dream Theater) on ‘The Beholder’. You have known and crossed paths with him for a while haven’t you?
“Yes…I would not say we are friends but we are friendly colleagues at least. We have toured together and played with Dream Theater a few times, so we have run across each other of course.
“Being in this genre, they were one of the bands I look up to, and the reason I started Evergrey was Dream Theater…and then I quickly realised we could not play like them for shit [laughs] so we had to create our own sound.
“So, in part I would say that they were responsible for how we sounded.
“When the keyboard part came in, we sat down in our Evergrey studio and everyone turned silent and I said “we need a guest singer”, and this is the God’s honest truth, we all said pretty much in one voice: “it needs to be James”
“Now, either it was something in the melody or something in the vibe and I remember that Rickard [Zander] our keyboard player was practically jumping up and down like a small kid at Christmas saying “He’s going to do it! He’s going to do it!”.
“I said “slow down! You do not even know if he is going to do it”.
“I wrote to him that night, telling him about the lyrical content that I had in mind and also said that we all thought of him. I hope he was flattered, because that was what we wanted and he said “yes”.”
It works incredibly well.
“Yes. For me writing his vocal melodies and knowing he was going to sound exactly like I wanted him to sound was a very humbling and honouring experience. It is amazing. It is great to have his and my voice blending and singing together on a track that we wrote.
“If I had have known that twenty years back, I would have never believed it…now I am going to aim for David Gilmour to play a part…so good luck with that eh? [lots of laughter]”
You never know…a friend of mine interviewed Nirvana years ago and Kurt Cobain indicated to Dave Grohl in the dressing room and said “ignore him, he’ll never do anything” but now the guy has Paul McCartney, Rush and all these other people in his phone book.
I can see the same thing happening for you Tom, you’ve got this wish list and Dave Gilmour will come knocking one day (laughter)…
“Yes, I hope so…but it is more likely to be that I will be knocking [more laughter].”
I think a friend of a friend knows Nick Mason, so I’ll put a word in…
“[Laughs] Well, that is how these things happen, it is like that.”
Did James record his part in America and then send it to you digitally?
“Yes, exactly. So I sent him the music and my vocal ideas and he sang them in, I added my harmony onto his so I adapted to his rhythm and his style. It was extremely smooth. He is a gentleman, a comedian and extremely professional. It was just very easy to work with him.”
When was the album actually recorded?
“We started writing for ‘Escape of the Phoenix’ in November / December 2019 and we kept on going with the individual ideas for the album until March, right when the pandemic happened.
“We were set on the ideas we would have and so for us the pandemic, more or less, gave us more time to be in the writing and recording process without having to fly to wherever.”
Geographically, are the band all living fairly close?
“Well, Johan [Niemann] the bass player lives in Stockholm, but nowadays we meet before we go on tour and when we record albums of course.”
I know you did a socially distanced gig last year [in Gothenburg] and a mutual friend of ours went along and loved it. How was that for you?
“We were one of the first artists that did it, in a professional way, with these five, six or eight cameras on a real stage with sound and at that we time we could have fifty people there.
“It was weird, but in the end of the day, that is what made the difference. If you had ten people, we would have performed for ten people, just like we do for ten thousand and broadcast it live on the internet…which was a great success for us to be honest and people were extremely happy.
“Everything worked technically and it was a blast. It is not something I prefer to do though.”
So, once we get this global pandemic out of the way, are you going to be touring with this new album?
“Yes…and I guess if this drags out for much longer, we will make another album and we will tour on two albums.
“I think that is the reality of it, but we have a tour that we have postponed three times already and now it is set to start on the 8th of October. But…I don’t think it is realistic to think we could do five weeks in Europe and the UK in October.
“I think it is too early, but I don’t wish for anything more to be honest, because it is heart wrenching to not be able to get an immediate reaction from your fans and that is why you play music.”
I think the anticipation for the new album is huge among the fans and this means they will have the time to get it seated into their consciousness.
There is a lot to absorb in ‘Escape of the Phoenix’ and new material is difficult to play on the road when everyone wants to hear the older tracks that they know and love…
“Especially when you have done one hundred and forty songs, it is getting a bit tough [laughs].”
There is going to be people who know every word of every song by the end of the first day that the album gets released…
“I hope so man, I can not wait. Like I said, it is why we do this. It is about recording the music but even more about travelling, meeting different cultures…something we have been doing for a quarter of a century now.
“When we don’t get to do it…it rips half of our hearts out…it is really what it is.
“We met as a band just to meet as a band and did a video…and we needed that because we sort of forgot that we do not have that identity, so stepping into the album and releasing it, we get to remember.”
There was that camaraderie, that joy that you had by being on stage again together.
“Yes, sure. As soon as this has gone it is going to be gigs every damn day, Monday to Sunday…and they are all going to be full and they are all going to be happy [laughing].”
So, we have the album coming out shortly and hopefully gigs coming back, but what does the future hold for you personally?
“Today actually, we started the next Silent Skies album. We are heavily involved getting to the vocals and lyrics…and also the new Redemption album is being written this year…then I am doing all the fan stuff and maybe another Evergrey album [laughs].
“If I am not away travelling for four months, I do not have an excuse not to do more music.”
You are always keeping yourself busy and seem to always want to keep your brain ticking over.
I can imagine you doing what Neil Peart used to do when Rush were on the road, as he used to read all the time. Some bands on the road make the most of that hedonistic lifestyle, drinking all the time…
“I can do both [laughs]. That is the nice thing about having your own bunk…you can go back and sleep [more laughter].”
There is the feeling that whilst the music you make IS entertainment, it is also so much deeper for a lot of people and that will be your legacy as a band.
“Thank you so much, that is incredibly kind. That is not my aim…my aim is to make music…and music is overly important for me and that is how it comes out, I guess.”
That really sums up Tom Englund: a man to whom music is not so much important, but vital to who he is, entwined inextricably with his DNA.
Beneath the volume, beneath the heaviness, beneath the musical complexity, there’ is a humanity and an honesty in Evergrey that draws you in and does not let you go.
Irrespective of their level of success or how many albums they shift, the one thing that blazes here is true soul, a genuine human connection that speaks to us all. The battle between weather and technology may rage but the fight for our hearts is won, a global bond that brings us all closer together.
That has been the ever growing legacy of Tom Englund and long may it remain so.