Epica - Conspiracy In Israel
By: Ofir Messer
Interview With: Simone Simons (Vocals), Epica
There are very few people today that are not aware of Holland's Epica, currently celebrating about 6 years to its formation. What started as a project by ex-After Forever guitarist Mark Jansen has turned into a real band, currently on top of the list in the Symphonic Metal genre, alongside such bands as Nightwish and Within Temptation. The woman behind the band's female voice is the young and excellent mezzo-soprano singer Simone Simons. Not only good looking and an amazing vocalist, but also an intelligent and very funny individual, which leads me to think she just might be the perfect woman... But that is not why we are gathered here, since Simone and her band members are coming to Israel once more, and that's a good reason to get updated about their last album, The Divine Conspiracy, the disease she recently recovered from, her boyfriend (Damn!) and just generally on what has been a long year for her.
Hello Simone, I understand you don't live in Holland anymore...
Yeah, I live in Germany with my boyfriend.
Why did you decide to leave Holland? It's such a beautiful country.
Well my boyfriend is German... we wanted to move in together, and because he's also teaching he would prefer to stay in Germany, but I live very close to the Dutch border. I moved only 30km away... so I also live in a beautiful town in Germany and I'm very close to Holland anyway.
Well, I want to start with your latest album. It's been more than a year since "The Divine Conspiracy" was released... what is the overall response on the album and how it affected the band during this time?
This was our first CD with a new record company [Nuclear Blast], so aside from the music it was a little bit interesting for us, because it's a big record company, they sign many good bands and they have experience, so we were very happy to have our new album with such great record company. "The Divine Conspiracy" is an Epica album but a little bit different than the others because we have a different drummer, the songs are little bit harder and it's also a concept album.
We have done many tours to support it, we also had some bad luck because I got very sick so we had to little break as a band but overall "The Divine Conspiracy" is another step forward. We are very happy that we are still growing as a band, our popularity is also still growing and we are gaining fans all over the world. I think that's great. We can be very happy with the result of the new [upcoming] album, and that we're still going up the hill. Right now we are busy working on the new album which is going to be, of course, also a little bit more different than the last album. We want to include some different elements to keep it fresh but we will stay true to the Epica sound.
It has been some time since you worked on this album. What do you think about it now that it already sunk in your head? Would you change anything?
Writing an album is a very long process. You can work forever on the songs, because there's always things you would like to change but at some point you have to record them and then they are done, so you can't change anything about it. If you listen to it with fresh ears, like a year later, you think "Ah, that could have been this and this could be that" but that's because as musician you're also growing and you're changing a little bit (your personal style) so you always think that things can go better. But I really love the album I think there are some really good songs on it.
The only thing which I would do different is the first song "The Obsessive Devotion". I would have more of my singing on it because when we do a live show we always start with that song, I sing only 3 verses and a chorus, and then I leave the stage, which is a little bit weird situation. So that is actually the only thing which I would do different. Other than that, for the album we had chosen the song "Safeguard To Paradise" as a ballad, but there was also another contestant called "Higher High" (which became a bonus track). There were 2 band members who liked "Higher High" and 3 who liked "Safeguard To Paradise"... So I lost the bet [Laughs] to have it on the album. But besides that I think we did a good job on it.
It seems 2008 has been a busy year for you and especially for Epica... since we're nearing its end I want to go through some of this year's events. First, like you mentioned earlier, at the beginning of the year you announced that you were in infected with MRSA. Can you tell us how the recovery process was for you and what was the reaction of the fans and the people around you to your condition?
I was already sick in 2007, I think it started around September... I've been working too hard, we had a little bit stress, like always, and I wasn't taking good care of myself so I got this infection which you can get if you have a very low immune system. You can actually get various things from it like ammonia, blood poisoning and it can go really bad. Luckily it was not that bad for me, but it was a sign that I had to take it easy. We had a European tour in 2007 as well and right after we would have gone to do the South American tour but we had to cancel because I was at the hospital again. The doctors ran some tests again in December and they found out that I had this kind of bacteria which you get at the Hospital, and that I had to take a break to be stronger again.
You can't take any medication for that, you just have to take it easy. Doing shows, traveling around the world and having an irregular working schedule is not really good for your health, especially for singers. It such a strain to travel, don't sleep enough and then sing - singers are very vulnerable to get sick. We had to cancel some stuff unfortunately, the South American tour, and European tour in February. The year started very bad, we were all very sad and we didn't know if we would get back on the road.
We waited two weeks before the North American tour to see if the doctor would say if I'm ready or not, but he said I was not, and we all decided that the band should go and tour with Amanda [Sommerville, vocal-coach for Simone], which is a very good friend of us, knows all our songs and have been involved with our records. Of course it was not nice for me [Laughs]... Because I was home, sick, and I had to let the band go, which is very hard thing to do... it's really a big issue that your band is little bit like your baby and you have to give away...
But now, we are couple of months later, in December, and actually a year have passed and I'm feeling great! I have learned to listen to my body and let people know where my boundaries are. That's hard when you're a singer, you can't just stay home and take a day off because it's a whole group you're working with, a whole group depending on you to get its salary and you have a lot of fans which you don't want to disappoint. Luckily the fans have been really kind to me... I received numerous of very sweet emails and that has given me also a lot of strength. It was not that I just wanted to get better, it was also that so many fans told me that Epica meant so much for them, so it gave me a little bit of feeling of importance, that I have a message, and that I had to get better.
We have now done the South American tour which was really successful and the European headlining tour with a Finnish band called Amberian Dawn - it was also very successful. I'm very happy that this year finally got back on track and it was not only a bad year. The start was not so good but the ending was great, and now we have one last show in Israel, we're looking forward to that too... and then its Christmas time! [Laughs]...
A lot of people attribute some of the band's success to both your voice and looks. How much of an influence on the band's popularity would it have if you were not that attractive?
Well... First of all the most important is the sound of the band, because beauty will fade one day, and I hope my voice won't [Laughs]... But, yeah, you have two aspects of the band - the music (the CD's) and then the live side of it (the show), and part of the show is also that it has to look nice, so I take good care of myself, I make sure that the fans have something to look at during the show. I love to design cloths, to shop, put makeup, and do my hair - all that stuff I really like (Well, I'm a woman so I guess all women like that). It's a compliment that I have good looks, but there are some people who value that more than the music. For me it's important that they would like the music and not see me as some sex symbol or something, because I have more than that, I also have brain! [Laughs]... I don't have just tits and an ass... [Laughs]...
On other subject, Epica celebrated 5 years for the "The Phantom Agony" album with some special shows. Do you plan to release anything from these shows or you just wanted to give your loyal fans a celebration?
There were just these special shows... We are now working on the "Classical Conspiracy" that we did in June in Hungary. We're releasing a live CD from that show, because that was something really special with an orchestra and a choir, and we played also some classical songs.
Speaking of the "Classical Conspiracy" concert, what can you tell us about it?
We've got in contact with the organizer last year, on the Sonata Arctica tour; he came to our show in Hungary. I think he already had some contact with Mark [Jansen, guitar / song-writer] before, but that's when I met him. He brought us some material from Therion, which was the first edition of a classical show with metal musicians, and we thought it was a great opportunity to finally play Epica fully live because we never did that before. We once had the opportunity to play with an orchestra, but the cost for the band to travel around with a full orchestra and a full choir was too much.
This was something extra special because we also played some classical songs in a metal design and I also sang some classical song. I think that the classical side of Epica was really emphasized, and it was a magical feeling to hear all those little details and to see that the music was really created at that moment. We were in Hungary a week before the show, so we rehearsed every day, and did some interviews with the press; we also watched the opening of this classical festival in Hungary.
It also was a great learning process to work with an orchestra because it was totally different than when we play only with the band. We always have a metronome running when we are playing so we can play very tight, but with the orchestra, it's moving so much so it's almost impossible to have them play on time. Normally the band members have the orchestration of the CD in their ears and we play with that, but now that was gone and we heard a real orchestra playing - of course they make little mistakes here and there, so that was a little bit insecure... But all the hard work was definitely worth it. We had friends that came from all over Europe, traveling down to Hungary to see it, and I hope the live CD will turn out great, we're working on the design of the album right now....
Would it be released only as an album or also as DVD?
Only as an album... we didn't have any time to organize film crew in such short time span so we decided just to make a CD out of it.
Just a month and half ago Epica also did special pyrotechnic shows at Holland. How was working on these concerts? Did you take any special precautions while on stage?
Yes, the pyro-technician has some little blue lights in the front of stage and about ten seconds before he's about to shot the fire, we see the lights going on like a siren, so we are warned that there's going to be a fire. Of course before the show we know which songs are going to have pyro, and on which part, but when you're on stage, when you're in the moment, you sometimes forget [Laughs] that the fire might come out of the pipes so the blue lights are always a great warning. Also, the pyro-technician is always watching the band, and if he notice that we don't recognize that there's going to be fire coming out, he is not shooting, he's not pressing the button... So there's no Metallica accident [Laughs]...
No one got scorching marks or anything?
No... [Laughs]... luckily not!
Besides Epica, over the year you have done some guest appearances with Kamelot on stage and participated in numerous projects, such as Sons Of Seasons, and the "Equilibrio Metal Opera", alongside the band Xystus. What can you tell us about these collaborations?
On Sons Of Seasons it's very easy because Oliver [Palotai, Keyboard player of Kamelot] is my boyfriend [Laughs]... so I am very involved with the whole project, I hear the music every day and I work with him on it a little bit. I help them out, I make photos for the band and I do some promotion because I think the music is great - it's his [Oliver's] first band, his own band. When he played with other bands like Kamelot, Doro, Circle II Circle, he was always a band member and it was not his music, even though he also wrote for the other bands, but Sons Of Seasons is really his thing.
I'm very proud of it and I'm very happy I can work with him on some songs and be part of the whole creating process. I think its something great to create a band. Epica is running for some years now, but this is something fresh and it's nice to see how it's evolving. Hopefully the album will be released somewhere in March next year, and they will do some shows in Holland, Germany and Belgium. I'm going to be there as well to do some guest performances...
With "Equilibrio", the Metal / Rock opera as they say... First of all we recorded the CD, which was released at the end of the summer, and the musical was in July. We had five shows in a row in a very nice theater in Utrecht [Holland] and it was very successful. Last two shows have been recorded, the DVD will be released in January and there's also going to be special show with Xystus. It has also been something completely different than Epica because I had to act on stage and I wasn't sure if I was up to do that.
If you think about it, real musical artists have to study for 4 years in order to do that, and we were 3 rock musicians - George Oosthoek from Orphanage, the singer of Xystus, Bas Dolmans, and me - who had zero experience on stage (when it comes to theater and acting) so we had 2 weeks time to take little acting courses and singing lessons to get it done. We also had two actors, which are really big stars in the musical scene so they helped us out here and there, they had much experience.
For me it took a while to get into the story and to really act at the end. Only on the very last show, the fifth show (we did 5 shows in 4 days), I felt really as if I was not myself anymore and I was really that character. So it took a little while for me to get into it, but I still think that the whole project was really successful. Everyone worked really hard to get it all done in such a short time, and we've only had good responses because many people did not expect it to be so professional and such a big production. I was very happy to be a part of it, and of course I learned a lot. Now let's see what will come in the future [Laughs]...
How do you find time with Epica and all the other projects? Are you working on anything else right now?
Now we are working on the new Epica album, and I'm still working with Sons Of Seasons and some guest projects. With Epica we always have a busy period and then we have a period where we don't have so much to do so that leaves some time and space for other projects. For example, when I recorded a song for Kamelot I've done it in a day, also for Primal Fear and Ayreon... for every project it only takes about one day... Of course I have to study the songs in advance, but I can do that at home. I still have a lot of time to do other things that I love. It's not that my schedule is super full, its all manageable.
Since we're near the end of 2008, can you recall over your favorite metal albums of the year? Anything special you listened to?
I have to say I'm a very big fan of Opeth, so I really love their new CD, Watershed. I was planning to go the show they have in Cologne [Germany] on the 10th of December, but we are flying to Israel, so I got to tell Mikael [Åkerfeldt, vocalist of Opeth] I'm not coming, It would have been the first time I would see them live. I had the chance to see them in Wacken when I was there with Kamelot, but it was such a bad weather, I had to be careful not to get sick, so I had to go back to the hotel... I'm also listening to other music, not metal music... I bought the Soundtrack of a French movie called "Amelie" during the European tour. When we did a signing session in a record store, we could pick up a CD so I took that. I have to say I also like Katy Perry [Laughs]... which is like pop music...
It's ok! I won't burn you at the stakes...
[Laughs]... I like Eva Cassidy, who is not alive anymore, but she recorded very great covers... I have many more CDs... Ah, I bought the new CD of Guns N' Roses, Chinese Democracy - that's a Christmas present for Oliver so I can't say anything about that yet.
I wont tell him!
Oh, he knows he's going to get it! [Laughs]... I heard some people like the CD and some don't because it's not really Guns N' Roses, its just Axl...
Yeah, I will listen to it in a month or so because now with all the buzz that gets into your head it's hard to decide on if it's good or not.
Yeah, that's true, you got to listen to it yourself and make up your own mind about it.
Now let's get to the real reason behind this interview, your upcoming visit to Israel. First, what can you tell us about your experience from the last time you were here?
I think I was there in 2005... or 2006...
Yeah, it was 2006...
Wasn't it also sometime during December?
I think it was around the end of May [Actually it was at the beginning of June]...
Ah ok, I'm a little bit confused [Laughs]... That's what you get if you tour around the world, you just lose track of time. So yeah, we went to Tel-Aviv, and we also had one off-day, we went to the beach and I got sun-burned of course [Laughs] because I forgot my sun lotion. We walked around a little bit and I had this Israeli drink which is like some kind of Soda with Peppermint and Lemon, I don't know if it has a name, but I really liked it.
The show itself was amazing, it was our first time in Israel and it was loud! the crowd was screaming so loud I couldn't hear my own voice, I could've just give the microphone to one of the people in audience and they could fill out the show. We had great energy, it was very warm, very sticky and sweaty, but yeah, I'm really looking forward to go back. I believe you still have a good weather down there?
Yeah, the sun is still shining.... Weird, but I guess it's Ok for you guys...
Do you have any special tourist plans for your upcoming visit?
We fly on the day before, I think we arrive in the middle of the day, but we're going to be tired because we have to be at the airport at 4 in the morning. Then we have the show, and on the day after we leave quite early in the morning and arrive late at the evening back to Germany. We don't have so much time to go sight seeing, we will be tired of the flying, but maybe, we'll see... if I have time and the weather is nice then of course I would love to walk around and take some photos.
What can we expect and not expect to hear at the concert? Any special surprises you're willing to spoil for us?
[Laughs] Then it won't be a surprise anymore! We'll play some old songs... we're not only doing the songs from our latest album, we make a mixture out of all 3 albums... Maybe we'll even play one of the "Classical Conspiracy" songs...
Besides touring, what are the next plans for Epica in 2009?
Hopefully in January we can start recording our new album and we've already confirmed for some really cool metal festivals in the summer. We won't do a lot of touring before the album is released - maybe do some shows here and there where we can play some new songs - but I guess the real touring starts in autumn, next year. We will take it easy and make sure that we write an even better album than "The Divine Conspiracy". We also have our private lives. Mark has to travel a lot to America because he got a girlfriend there - that's also time consuming [Laughs]... So in 2009, we will focus on the new album and our private lives.
Please explain to everyone who hasn't already made up his mind, why they should come and see you next week and what will happen if they don't?
[Laughs]... If they don't, I will come and kick their ass! [Laughs]... I hope everyone will come because now your'e are also going to hear songs from "The Divine Conspiracy". It's going to be an energetic show, it's the last show for us of the year, and it would be great if we can celebrate it with our fans from Israel... and then we can all have a Marry Christmas [Laughs]...
...You should say "Happy Hanukkah" instead!
Happy Hanukkah! Yes! I have to practice that... [Laughs]...
And finally, can you send a nice closing message for your loyal fans?
I hope you're all patient to get the new album which is going to be very great. It's so great that people are supporting Epica, even in the bad days like at the beginning of this year... so many people were kind, and also our fans from Israel. I think it's wonderful that we have the opportunity to come and visit Israel, to meet different cultures, meet our fans, and basically to travel the world and play our songs. Thank you for that, and I hope to see you again at the concert!