Saturday, August 31, 2019

August 31st, 2019 - This Ocean: An Interview With Johan Niemann

Good afternoon my friends!  Your pal the Meista here with something very special for you today... an interview with the incredibly talented, and very friendly and down to earth Johan Niemann! 

Johan Niemann is the bass player for the wonderful Swedish progressive metal / power metal band Evergrey.  And as one of the hardest working musicians in the industry, he also plays in Beyond The Katakomb, Demonoid (with his brother Kristian), Mind's Eye, Sectu, and Tears Of Anger.  He also played with Therion (also with his brother) from 1999 to 2008 as well as several other bands during the early 2000s.

After a great chat about King Crimson, I sat down with Mr. Niemann yesterday, August 30th before the Evergrey show at the Metro Music Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah to discuss the current The Atlantic North America Tour, balancing his busy schedule, his influences and inspirations, and music and life in general.

Here's that interview... enjoy!

B&T: Alright!  I'm here with Johan Niemann of Evergrey.  Thank you for meeting with me.

JN: Yes.  Thank you.

B&T: So current tour... "The Atlantic"... new album out.  Came out in January.  Wonderful album!  All your albums are great, but the last two albums... wow!  I listen to them constantly.  Some of those bass lines are beautiful... really beautiful.  And I think that's a thing I've always loved about Evergrey is that there's an intensity and there's also this beautiful, mellow kind of melancholiness to the music that Tom [Englund] writes.  

JN: Yeah!

B&T: And that's something I've always wondered about, is it a collaborative effort in terms of writing the music for Evergrey albums.

JN: Yeah, it is a bit different from song to song.  Sometimes someone brings in like a complete song and either it's good and it stays that way or we go through it and decide maybe this chord could go somewhere else or maybe the chorus... we change things out.  For instance, "Departure" off the new record, Rikard [Zander] came in with a piano part... just one bit of piano.  And we said, "Wow, that's a great part!  Let's do something with that."  And so we built the song from that in the studio in just a few hours.  Obviously Tom writes all the lyrics, but we all collaborate.  Everyone has equal say in everything.  

B&T: Now it probably differs from song to song, but does Tom come in with lyrics first or is it music first?

JN: Music first.  Yeah, we usually... what we have done in the past - the past two or three records anyway - we go in with a "vibe".  Like, this is what we want.  It could be anything... it could be a picture.  It could be a keyboard sound.  Um... or a song.  The last record, "The Storm Within", we had a couple of soundtracks that we really, really liked... "Okay, this is the vibe we are aiming for."  Okay, so we'll try to find sounds that represent that vibe.  It's a little weird.  For "The Atlantic" it was the same thing.  We had a picture and a couple of sounds and we went, "Okay, sound lends itself to this kind of vibe, this kind of music."  

B&T: That's interesting... wow!  

JN: And then [Tom] writes lyrics.  I think he gets ideas as we are doing the music, but I don't think he writes anything until the song is done.

B&T: Now do you all get together and start doing that or is it kind of on your own?  Is this happening in the studio?  Do you go into the studio and say, "okay, I've got some ideas.  Let's start messing around"?

JN: We have in our rehearsal space... we have a small studio set up and that's were we do the demos.  I live in Stockholm and the other guys live in Gothenburg.  So they might be in the studio... maybe all of them or just Jonas [Ekdahl], or just Tom or whatever... work on stuff and then they send stuff out to me.  And then I'll go to Gothenburg for a couple of weekends like we did for this album.  I went for two weekends for songwriting sessions.  We put everything together and send it out so I could learn stuff and then we record it.  Me and Jonas rehearsed for one week... just me and him in our rehearsal studio.  That was really nice.  It's nice to know what you're going to do when you actually get to the recording studio so you don't have to sit there.  "Oh, I don't know what to play!"  [laughs]  We know pretty much what we were doing so we could bash it out.  That was nice.

B&T: Now as far as the tour goes, prepping for a tour, how much rehearsal time... what's your usual process for that?

JN: It's a bit different.  For this American tour, we are playing pretty much the same set as we did in Europe so we didn't rehearse for this.  We've done a couple festivals.  We did two weeks of festivals in Europe so we were already warmed up.  But before the first shows for this album cycle, we rehearsed for a bit... a day or two... mainly focusing on the new stuff.  Everybody has to do their homework of course so when we get to the rehearsals... "okay, let's work on the new stuff."

B&T: You are probably one of the hardest working bass players out there.  You are currently in, what four bands... active bands?

JN: [laughs]

B&T: Demonoid with your brother Kristian?

JN: Yes, but it's not super active, but we did one record and we have one record recorded.  It just needs vocals.  

B&T: So no release date... nothing planned?

JN: No, we recorded that album like in 2006 or 2007?  Something like that.  Drums, bass, and rhythm guitars are done.  We had a singer, but he had some personal issues so he stepped out.  That's the lay of the land.

B&T: Let's go back in time a little bit if you don't mind.  So a young Johan... how did you get into music?  What inspired you to become a musician, a bass player?

JN: Yeah, I have an older brother.  He plays guitar.  He's my first musical hero.  He's six years older.  He plays guitar really well.  He's an amazing guitar player.  He's in Sorcerer now.  We played together in Therion a well, yes.  

B&T: For quite a long time.

JN: Yeah, yeah... almost ten years.  He was into Kiss and Iron Maiden... that stuff you know?  So I got into music because of him basically.  We shared a room as kids.  Everything he brought home I listened to... "this is great!"  Of course being six years young with an older brother that you look up to who is quite proficient at guitar.  And then when I was like ten or eleven or music teacher at school wanted to start a school band.  I had been out sick, home for a week.  When I came back the only instrument that was left - all the cool instruments were taken - the only instrument left was the bass.  "Oh, that one has only four strings and those guitars have six strings.  The four strings must be easier.  Yeah, I win!"  [laughs]  And then my dad bought me an acoustic guitar for Christmas.  And I've been playing ever since.

B&T: Very cool!  Who have been your heroes as far as bass players?  I know that's probably a loaded question.

JN: Ooo... so many!  But one guy that got me early on and later on I realized just how amazing he was... a guy named Anthony Jackson.  He played on the old '70s Al Di Meola records.  I got an Al Di Meola record, an album called "Elegant Gypsy" when I was twelve.  I bought it because I had seen his name in a Guitar Player magazine that my brother bought.  That name just kept coming up... Al Di Meola.  Okay.  I saw the record and it was from 1977... the year that I was born so I though, "Oh I'm gonna buy this record and see what it is."  I put it on and I was totally floored.  There was a bass solo on that record that I thought was a guitar solo because it was so high up on the register.  But my brother said, "No, no no.  That Anthony Jackson.  He plays a six-string bass.  I've seen it in a magazine.  That's a bass."  And that just blew my mind.  I've been an Anthony Jackson guy since.  And then of course there's so many good bass players... Steve Harris.  I'm a huge Kiss fan so Gene Simmons.  Maybe he plays on all the records, maybe he doesn't.  [laughs]  It doesn't matter.  I don't care.  They're still great bass lines.

B&T: I love Kiss.

JN: Yeah, yeah, me too.  And I got into Queensrÿche.  Eddie Jackson is a huge, huge inspiration  for me... both playing-wise (really tasty).  He doesn't do much... he's not flashy at all... just a couple of things here or there, but always the greatest bass tone.

B&T: That's key... that's why I love your bass playing so much.  I think tone is key.  I mean, you can be fast, but tone for me as a listener is key.

JN: Yeah, absolutely!  I mean the fast stuff is only... not even one percent of music.  You have to play for the song and provide a good foundation for your fellow musicians.  And hopefully with a good tone.  For me it's more satisfying to dial in a great tone than to play fast.  It's fun [to play fast], but no more than fun.  A good tone is really satisfying.  I love it.

B&T: So you joined Evergrey almost ten years ago... around ten years ago.  Probably a little bit of a transition to some degree musically.  A little bit of a different vibe.  How did that come about?  How did you... did you already know Tom?  How did you get involved with Evergrey?

JN: Yeah, I used to play in a band called Therion.  And the second tour that I did with Therion in 2001... we had Evergrey opening for us in Europe.  That was a great tour.  We really hit it off with the Evergrey guys.  We kept in contact over the years... me and Tom and Henrik [Danhage] as well.  And then Henrik and Jonas left.  Through mutual friends, Tom contacted Marcus Jidell [former Evergrey member], the guitar player and he got involved.  I know him because we had played metal covers around Stockholm a bit.  Both of them said, "We should get Johan involved with this."   Actually, at that point I was playing guitar in a band called Tiamat as a touring guitar player.  After Therion ended, and it ended not super great...

B&T: The entire band quit right?

JN: Yeah.  So I really didn't want to play bass because every time I picked up the bass it was as if I relived the Therion thing so I said, "Oh no... I'm not going to play bass."  The Tiamat guys called and asked if I could do a couple tours with them on guitar.  So I thought, "Yeah, sure. I can do that."  So I did that for two years.  I was just getting to the point of... "Maybe I'm a guitar player now.  Yeah, it actually feels quite natural to be on stage and play guitar."  So when Marcus calls, "Hey I'm in a new band.  I'm in Evergrey now and we need a bass player and we want you."  And I said, "No... don't do this to me.  I think I'm a guitar player now."  A week later, I run into him at a local rock pub in Stockholm.  We had a couple beers and a good talk and we decided that I should join.  And that's the story.

B&T: Beer can persuade people to do lots of things.  [laughs]

JN: [laughs]  To do good things and bad things! [laughs]

B&T: So current tour... Northern America.  This goes until about mid September, end of September?

JN: Yeah, yeah... mid September.

B&T: And then where are you guys off to?  A break?  More touring?

JN: We'll be home, but our booking agent is working on getting some shows maybe in October.  We are looking at Finland or that area.  I hope that happens.  The next thing that is booked is in November.  We are going to South America... Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Peru.

B&T: I've always wanted to see a show in South America... not to bad mouth any fans, but there seems to be an intensity there more so than here.

JN: Oh yeah.  There quite loud.  Very passionate.  It's almost like... I draw a comparison to Eastern Europe... Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria... that part.  It's the same kind of feeling in the air... screaming at the top of your lungs.  And then we have a break for Christmas.  And then... next year, we are working on some stuff. I can tell you later.  Next fall we are going to try to record a new album.  

B&T: Oh wow.  That's fast.  

JN: So we are going to have to start writing soon.  

B&T: You've been in the band for ten years and in that time it has been four full-length albums so to put an album out one year... less than a year... that's cool!

JN: Yeah, yeah, yeah... we are psyched.  We are just gathering ideas.  We have stuff on the horizon and it feels really good.  

B&T: With all the other bands that you work with, do you have other things going on there too?  Anything in the fire right now?

JN: Yeah, I'm in a band... a really cool band with a drummer called Fredrick Haake, who is related to Tomas Haake the drummer from Meshuggah.  It's him, it's me, and a guy named Carl Westholm, who is a keyboard player.  In our band he plays organ mainly.  He's on every Candlemass record.  He plays the Hammond.  He's very good friends of Leif Edling, the main guy in Candlemass.  As a result, every record that Leif has done, Carl is on.  So we have a progressive trio.  Oh, we are a four piece now.  We have a singer now.  So we are working on material.  

B&T: So progressive rock?

JN: Yeah, progressive at least.  No guitar.  Just distorted Hammond and distorted bass, drums, and vocals.  Should be really fun.

B&T: Is this going to be a touring band?  Are you going to record?

JN: We are going to try to record first and shop it around to see if someone is interested.  Then we'll take it from there.  And then just before we left for this tour, I got a call from Pontus Norgren, a guitar player in Hammerfall.  He's also in Talisman.  So they have been talking... Pontus and Jeff [Scott Soto] and Jamie [Borger], the drummer about trying to record a couple of new songs maybe.  He sent me two songs.  "Oh yeah we need bass in this."  "Okay, but I'm leaving in like three days.  I can't."  "Oh, okay.  We'll sort it out when you get home."  So two Talisman songs too.

B&T: You are a busy man.  

JN: Yeah, I think so.  I'm just amazed that people call me.  I love it.

B&T: So my blog... I pair craft beer with heavy metal and hard rock.  The question I always ask at the end of the interview is... so end of the long day in the studio... what beer do you crack open and what album do you put on to relax?

JN: I'm a huge Guinness fan.  I love Guinness.  So Guinness and umm... what would that be?  "Close To The Edge" maybe?  Yes.  

B&T: Thank you very much for talking with me Jonas!

JN: Thank you!

Don't miss Jonas Niemann on tour with Evergrey right now!


Oh, here's the Evergrey setlist from the show:
  1. "A Silent Arc"
  2. "Weightless"  
  3. "Distance" 
  4. "Passing Through"  
  5. "The Fire"
  6. "Leave It Behind Us"
  7. "Black Undertow"
  8. "My Allied Ocean"
  9. "All I Have"
  10. Encore:
  11. "Recreation Day"  
  12. Keyboard / guitar solo
  13. "A Touch of Blessing"
  14. "King of Errors"

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