.:.DEVIL IN THE BACKDROP.:.
An Interview with Leprous
by Conor Fynes
Leprous is arguably the most consistently vibrant and innovative band in progressive metal today. From their 2009 breakthrough Tall Poppy Syndrome to the present day, they’ve released album after album of excellence, each time offering a thoughtful new development on their exciting sound. On a personal level, Leprous have been one of my favourite modern bands. Their album Bilateral represented all of their creative chains coming loose in one of the most inventive progressive metal forays I’ve ever heard. They’ve continued to impress just as much in more recent albums, with Coal exchanging whimsy for melancholy and 2015’s The Congregation amplifying the emotions via condensed songwriting.
Leprous swung through town earlier this month (November 2016) and we had a chance to speak with vocalist Einar Solberg about the band’s past, present, and prospective future. Touring alongside Leprous was Earthside, Binary Code, and Dissona.
Heathen Harvest: First of all, I’d like to say it’s a pleasure to have you playing in Vancouver. I was very surprised that a band like Leprous, who I knew had sway in the prog underground but possibly lacked a wider fanbase, could field a tour as a headliner. What has your experience been of being a relatively young band headlining a tour like this?
Einar Solberg: We’ve always been an ambitious band in the sense that we never planned to stay in the underground. We’ve just tried to make the music that we like and see how far it could possibly go. I mean, to make a living out of it, you cannot stay in the underground forever either. This is our first full North American tour—our first time in Vancouver and along the West Coast.
HH: What’s your opinion been regarding the reception Leprous has received over the course of the past several shows?
ES: It’s been very nice. I mean, here in North America we’re starting a little bit more from scratch; I mean, in Europe we have a bigger crowd than we have here. It’s been going back some years crowd-wise compared to Europe, but the reception has been very good. People seem to have been very satisfied with it.
HH: Expanding on that, it’s interesting that progressive metal has undergone yet another resurgence in the past few years. I haven’t seen something like this since the mid-2000s with bands like Opeth, Pain of Salvation, and Symphony X releasing their best material. Now, for this latest wave, it seems as if Leprous has taken the mantle of the scene’s leader in much the same way Opeth had in the past decade. Would you agree or accept that idea of Leprous being a ‘frontrunner’ act?
ES: Well, with bands like Opeth, they’ve always done what’s right for them. But I think that can be helpful for popularity; in the end, people start respecting you for taking your own route instead of trying to follow the waves of what is popular. We’ve done the same thing; we started with our sound, then gradually changed our thing. It wasn’t a choice that was made to become popular, but rather to be more or less us. Eventually, if you just keep on working very hard, you end up where you want to be.
HH: One of my favourite things about Leprous is that there’s always been a progression from album to album. With every new record I cannot only hear a change, but follow the logic of how you came to one point from another. How would you summarize that evolution from the demos to this point, and hopefully onward into the future?
ES: When you start off as a songwriter, you’re immature. You don’t know—you’re just trying, experimenting… Eventually, you’re getting closer and closer to what feels true to yourself. On our second big release, Bilateral, for instance, you can still hear that we’re a bit here and there with the moods, trying lots of different stuff. And that’s cool, but the further it goes, the more we realize exactly what we want to do instead of staying in this kind of mood. We want to have the mood that feels most right for us. It takes many years to find your own artistic expression, and I think that’s what we’ve done gradually.
HH: I’m not sure I’d even be able to pick a favourite from the last three Leprous records, but I definitely think your last record, The Congregation, definitely feels the most developed—not jumping all over the place like you said. It finally feels like you’ve figured out your expression. Maybe it’s too early to say, but where would you think of taking the sound from this point onward?
ES: It’s not too early to say, actually, because we’re actually getting to recording this November once we get home! All the song sketches are made, and we’re ready to go into the studio. I think it’s going to be the smallest change that we’ve done so far because, as I’ve mentioned, we’ve found the way that we’d like to go about it. I’ve used a very similar procedure with the songwriting because I felt I could perfect that way of songwriting even more.
HH: What is behind the songwriting? I’ve noticed the music has become progressively more vocal-oriented.
ES: Actually, it is funny you say that. The vocals are actually the last thing that are added. The first thing I do is to write the guitars, then the drums, then the bass. Then, later on, I add the keys and vocals. It’s a bit funny that it can sound like it’s very based on the vocals when it’s really just based in the guitars and the drums. The vocals are added later.
HH: Even so, the vocal phrasing and melodic writing for vocals stands out in your songwriting. It always manages to skirt the boundary between being odd but very hook-oriented. How do you write the vocals in?
ES: Normally, the way I’m doing it while I’m in the car! I put on the MIDI files and have them on while I’m driving. Then I have nothing else to do but drive and write the vocals. I sing what comes natural. I usually start with the chorus because the chorus is the main vocal line I like to build the rest around. But I still like to leave healthy room for improvisation in the studio as well. A lot of the stuff on the newest record had improvised vocal lines. I like to leave something open. Sometimes you really feel something in the studio; you catch a nerve that you wouldn’t be able to really write down or arrange. I like to have about 70% of the vocal lines written before going into the studio, but I leave the rest open to experiment with.
HH: Would this spirit of slightly improvising apply to the other musicians as well? I could imagine Baard [Kolstad, drummer] adds a lot of his own flourishes to the performance.
ES: Yeah, Baard does a lot for the drums, but the guitarists are following a very strict idea in a way. You hear the guitars in Leprous these days are very arranged and organized. There’s not a lot of room for them to improvise unfortunately at the moment. I like that combination of improvisation meets order, where certain parts of the music are controlled and others are loose. Especially vocals, keys, and drums are more free in a way.
HH: As a vocalist and songwriter, how do you think the lyrical content fits into Leprous?
ES: The lyrics are usually the last thing written into the music. I think at least now it is melancholic music with quite melancholic lyrics. Tor [Oddmund Suhrke], our guitarist, is the one writing a lot of the lyrical content. I started to contribute to that more and more, but he’s still doing at least 70% of it. We just agreed on the common themes to write about.
HH: What are those common themes and inspirations you’re trying to incorporate?
ES: The main theme of the last album is that society makes it impossible to make the right or good choices. For instance, I’m a vegetarian—that’s a choice I made for myself. But then I started to notice things: Where is this T-shirt made, or where is this made or that made? And suddenly, it’s impossible to do the morally right thing. Really impossible, because the more you try, the more you realize you won’t be able to go without a guilty conscience.
HH: Once a worldview like that sinks in and eyes are opened, it becomes very hard to shake it. Do you think the lyrics will become more and more occupied with these societal frustrations in the future?
ES: Well, maybe! As a band we try not to do the same thing twice. I would prefer a different theme on the next album, but we’re still working on it so I can’t share any ideas so far!
HH: On the topic of theme, I’m interested in knowing your reasoning behind the choice of the name The Congregation for the last album.
ES: Well, we’re all just a congregation for the society, the rules set out by the society. We can try to make the right choices and do the right thing, but when it comes down to it, there’s not much we can do from that level. In that sense, we’re all just followers in a congregation.
HH: Do you think, as an artist, it’s at least possible to create a ripple effect? As in, by spreading a sort of emotional awareness towards these themes for the listeners who care enough to invest themselves, it might help to influence change in their lives as well?
ES: Maybe, but I do think Leprous’s lyrics are too abstract to do that. You can’t completely understand it, and I prefer art like that. I don’t like when ideas are pushed down someone’s throat that way, so I don’t think we’re the kind of band to make a big impact, at least in that sort of way. Everyone can make contributions, of course, but making a big impact is very, very hard.
I am very critical towards the mass-production of meat, for example, and the way it’s done for many reasons. I met a man in Detroit on tour who actually became vegetarian after reading some of the lyrics in a Leprous track. I was really surprised that someone had really understood and felt what we were trying to say. It was the song ‘Slave’ (from The Congregation), by the way. But I prefer to try not to go around moralizing about it.
HH: Back to what we were talking about regarding Leprous as an increasingly vocal-oriented band: How do you manage to keep yourself in the best shape as a singer performance-wise? A lot of Leprous’s songs feature some pretty heavy vocal acrobatics that would be impossible for many other singers.
ES: For tours, for example, I need to do a lot of preparations. I’ve been doing a lot of running before tours, because I end up having a lot more stamina. A lot of running! Singing through the entire setlist every second day a few weeks before the tour at full power helps to get my voice up to par with the material. When I go on tour my voice is already used to that sort of strain over weeks. The worst thing is if you go on tour, and on the first night your voice is clear but it starts to wear out night after night. Suddenly you have no more voice for the rest of the tour! Unfortunately, I just got ill in Eastern Canada; I’ve been coughing a lot, but I’ve been managing, more or less. It’s just a bit harder with stamina when your lungs are filled up.
HH: That reminds me… I interviewed Jorgen Munkeby (from Norway’s Shining of Blackjazz fame) about a year or two ago…
ES: Oh, yeah? He’s a good friend of mine!
HH: I remember he said something similar. At the time of the show we had to cancel our interview because he was too sick to speak—it was postponed to a phone call a week later—but he went up and gave a performance like nothing else I’d seen at the time. It would have been incredible by itself, but knowing he was sick but had trained himself to ignore that in light of the performance brought it up to an entirely new level for me. He said it was all about preparing before the tour as well.
ES: Yeah—I’m not at all surprised by that! [laughs] Who were they touring with, do you remember?
HH: I remember they were playing with the Dillinger Escape Plan. It was a pretty solid lineup in any case. What has the experience of performing live been like, at least relative to playing with Leprous in studio?
ES: Well, it’s always been different. I am looking forward to going back into the studio to make something new. We’ve spent so much time touring for The Congregation. That’s the good thing about being in a band—you can always look forward to the next stage. It’s another thing that helps you stay away from getting caught in a routine. If you end up falling into a rut with playing live or being in the studio, that’s the point where I think an artist becomes obsolete. We always need to stay true to who we are and what we want.
HH: On that note, is there any other advice you would give to other musicians from a creative standpoint?
ES: Never falling into the trap of old routines—I think that’s the most important thing! [laughs] Always evaluate what you’re currently doing. Don’t lose that critical edge. You should be appreciating what you’re doing, of course, but you should always see what you can do better. Never lose that sense of evaluating what you’re doing. That’s the problem with too many bands I know; they fall into old routines and say, ‘Hey, that works, let’s keep doing that.’ I’ve seen so many bands lose themselves to that. They become a boring copy of who they used to be. They don’t have the passion anymore. They just do it for the sake of their routine, because they’re afraid to lose the fans they already have.
HH: Do you think it’s easier to change one’s sound while out on the road? Considering the material is being played organically every other night…
ES: When we do a live show, it’s quite the same every night. Everything is synced to the video, the lights are synced to us, and so on. Unlike some other bands, we’re stuck to one path. It would be way too much work to have flexible set lists for one tour. What we’re doing then next time is thinking, ‘Now we’re going to do something very different from the last tour.’ It’s usually in the time in between that we decide on what should be done to change.
HH: What have you been listening to lately? Anything that stands out in particular?
ES: Hm, what was the name of it again? Would you know the name? It’s a project from Ottawa—a cellist. He recently released some covers of Opeth songs [on YouTube]…
HH: I heard that guy’s cover of ‘Harvest’ a few days back. [Editor’s Note: The name of “that guy” is Raphael Weinroth-Browne.]
ES: Oh, I remember. The project was called The Visit. I didn’t see that cover until later. It was when we played Ottawa a few weeks ago. I was just going down from backstage to make sure everything was on time. It was an opener, but I was taken aback. I thought, ‘Wow!’ I was amazed. And I don’t think that’s ever happened with local support ever for me before. I was standing there the whole time; it was just that one guy doing one of the most emotional performances. It was so inspirational. Music was the only thing that mattered—not expectations, not popularity. It is inspiring to think of people on a local level making music that incredible. It takes quite a lot for a band to make me feel like that.
HH: It’s interesting, because I remember back in 2009 or so when Tall Poppy Syndrome came out, and Leprous could have still be considered one of those ‘direct support’ type bands. You clearly had a similar effect on people when you emerged on the scene.
ES: [laughs] Yeah, thank you! I’m sure back at that point we didn’t sound so great live though.
HH: Well, on the other hand, you did manage to climb up fast as Ihsahn‘s live backing band.
ES: Yes, definitely, but that was after Tall Poppy Syndrome. It was still part of the same stage for us though.
HH: Just one more question: What are you hoping for Leprous in the future?
ES: I hope we can continue staying true and fresh. I want to keep the spark in our music. We’re just going to keep on working hard. It’s getting gradually better and better. I’m trying not to think too much about our career. I don’t want to think, ‘How many likes do I have on Facebook?’, and all that. I’m not in a band for that. I’m in one because I truly love to make music. I don’t mind having fans, but that will never be the main focus.