The Swedish progressive band Soen are back with their latest album Imperial. I caught up with the band’s founder, drummer Martin Lopez (ex-Opeth) for a chat about the new record, their newest member, the uncertainty of live shows, his thoughts on live stream concerts and more.
Chad Bowar: How did your newest member, bassist Olekski Kobel, come to join the band?
Martin Lopez: We had the same bass player before him for seven years. A friend of mine sent me an Instagram link with this guy, Oleksii. And I saw the guy play and he definitely had the chops. So, I contacted him and it happened that he was a Soen fan. So, we started talking and I started sending him some files for the new album and see what he could come up with. And it was a match made in heaven. So, he joined the band.
Did you start working on Imperial before or after the pandemic began?
Before. I think we had like 90 to 95 percent of the album already written before the pandemic hit us because we had so much touring scheduled that we knew that we would have some time issues. So, we were ready. And then we embarked on this South American tour and after four shows in Mexico the pandemic came, we had to come back. From there, we had six months to improve everything and make everything a little bit better. And there were some lyrics that we decided to write again.
Was the recording affected at all? Were you all able to get in the studio together, or did the things have to change because of that restrictions?
We had to change some things. Lars, Joel and I, we live in Stockholm. So, we could meet and it wasn’t a problem with that. But Cody is Canadian and Oleksii is from Ukraine. So with them, we have to work via FaceTime and files back and forth. And we couldn’t really meet in the studio and do it like we usually do. It worked out fine, actually. If we had the time, which we did, we could work, relax and we really made the best out of the situation.
You’ve had various people mix and master your albums over the years. How did Kane Churko (In This Moment, Papa Roach) come to your attention for this one?
We had all the songs and we felt we needed something else. The typical production that we get here in Stockholm, you get all instruments separated and clear. And we wanted to have more of a punchy and direct kind of sound, more of a song based record instead of instrument based. Kane and most Americans are really good at that, removing everything that can be in the way of the song and the message. In Sweden, at least, or in Europe for instance they wouldn’t tell you stuff like, “You’re doing too much,” “We don’t need any melodies here,” “Remove that guitar.” It’s more of, let’s try to make it work together. And Americans do things in a certain way. And that is the way that they’re going to do it and you have to try it, and we kind of needed that.
How involved were you in that process?
Because he normally doesn’t make this kind of music where there’s a lot of relaxed parts, we were working a lot on Skype, Zoom meeting, stuff like that. He would make something and send it to us, and then we would go through it and then I would go on a meeting with him. We would mix it together so that we reached his vision and a little bit of our vision, too.
Did that take a little longer than it normally would have just because there was more involvement on your part?
Maybe a little bit, yes. But it was good. He was a really, really nice guy. And he had a completely different approach from what I’m used to. So, it was very interesting and I learned a lot. It was very positive, a new experience which after so many years playing this kind of music, I felt that I needed.
Was there any difficulty in figuring out the track order or did that come pretty easily?
Actually, when we mixed, we already knew the order because we did so much pre-production. So we had pretty much decided how the album was going to look. But before that, we made 30 songs, we’re only using eight on the album, so there was a lot of “kill your darlings” involved.
Will we hear any those other 20-some songs at some point?
At least 19 will be gone forever, I think.
Any others that might be a b-side or included in an expanded version or something like that?
We may. We have actually three songs that we really felt were good enough to be on the album. But it just didn’t make sense to have them because of the balance. So, we have those and there’s no plan to release them, but we’ll see. We also have songs from prior albums somewhere on a hard drive.
It seems like every one of your albums is better received than the last. Does that increase the expectations for Imperial?
Yeah, I guess it does. The band is growing with every album, which is a good thing. For us as songwriters, I don’t think it really changes anything. We always do the best we can, and if we’re not sure that the album is better than the last one, we won’t release it. So far, we have the will to work harder and harder with every album. And it seems like our audience understands that and really appreciates the effort.
So yeah, the band is growing, but doesn’t really change anything in our lives, to be honest. We don’t have any dreams of taking over the world. We are just people who love music and love our families. We love the lifestyle we have and we want to continue doing the small amount of touring that we do and spend time with the ones we love and record songs. We don’t have any plan of doing 200 shows a year and changing what we have because we’re not that hungry, which to some is a little bit sad, but it’s true.
You’ve been in bands that have done that kind of touring. I guess as you get older and have more responsibilities you have to set that balance in life.
Yeah, you have to find the important things in life and for me, besides my family and my closest friends, music is number one. And I want to love music, I want to love what I do, to be able to love it. I cannot spend my life on a tour bus. I don’t want to see shows like a job only. I want to get out there and be excited every night and be a little bit nervous before I go onstage.
And to keep that, you have to be wise and just do it when you really feel that you want to do it. Otherwise, it would be just like working on a factory. You have to be there because it pays the check. We really work on keeping all control within the band and making all decisions. We don’t have a manager. We are not very commercial. We don’t do everything that we should do to make the band bigger, we just do what we think is right and what we find pleasure doing.
You’ve got some live dates coming up in April. How confident are you that those will actually be able to happen?
I’m not feeling confident at all about that. I don’t think it will happen. We may just have to postpone it. We have shows every month, we have every summer festival in Europe. We are booking Wacken, Hellfest, Graspop. So, we are hoping that we get to do some of our shows because we have a new album and we’re really eager to go out there and play the new songs, the best part of being a musician. But I don’t think we will be able to. We just have to wait and hope that things get better, maybe the vaccine changes things around and we get to go out there.
Do you think outdoor dates later on in the summer would be more likely to happen?
I don’t know. We’re talking about that a lot because we really want to play Wacken Open Air and all that again. But 150,000 people all together, I don’t think it will happen unless the Germans are really fast giving out the vaccine and everyone is willing to go. We’ll see.
One thing that’s become popular during the pandemic is live stream concerts. Do you think that that’s going to be something that will go away once everything gets back to normal?
It’s hard for me to read because I feel so old when it comes to all this streaming on the internet. But I think the younger generation is completely different from us. I always feel like there’s nothing like a good rock live show. Connecting with the crowd and all being in the same room, there’s something else than just the show. And that’s why we haven’t even thought of doing streaming ourselves. But, of course, it seems like people are really into it and I’ve seen some streaming that I really liked. I might be open to give it a try, but it’s difficult for me. I’m just so used to the live show and I love that. To play in front of the camera, I don’t know if it’s the same. I have to try and see.
The way that albums are promoted has changed dramatically since you’ve started in music. These days, it’s all driven by social media. Do you like having that direct pipeline and transparency to fans or do you prefer the old days of things had a bit more mystery to it before an album came out?
I like being able to connect with our audience just by writing something and knowing that they will read it. It’s a great thing to be able to do. But maybe there will never be any bands like there were for me when we were young. Alice Cooper or KISS, when I was a young boy, they were gods, unreachable gods. Maybe that part of the music scene is gone. Because now, for good or for bad, you’re a few clicks away from knowing what your favorite artists had for dinner.
But yeah, it removes a lot of the mystery around the music. But it’s a different era. The whole rock star thing really doesn’t have any value. So, I guess that artists who are actually good at doing music, and also people who have something extra to give, and are also interesting, intelligent human beings may be able to, by connecting to their fans, may be able to bring a little help to change things and influence these kids. Maybe show them a better way and show them options that they didn’t know about.
(interview published January 29, 2021)