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In conversation with Joel Ekelöf (Soen): Imperial and the importance of keeping metal music legacy alive

Photo: Ola Lewitschnik

(Raffaella Mezzanzanica)

Soen is a Swedish progressive metal group. The band was originally formed in 2004 after former Opeth drummer Martin Lopez met vocalist Joel Ekelöf.

They released their first album, Cognitive, in February 2012. Since then, they have published Tellurian (2014), Lykaia (2017), Lotus (2019) and, on January 29th, 2021, Imperial.

In our Skype video chat, Joel Ekelöf talks about the origins of the band, the journey from the release of their first album to Imperial and the reason why it is important to keep the legacy of metal music alive.

Photo: Iñaki Marconi

Q.: Would you give me a little background on the origins of the band and how did you guys meet?

J.E.: Well, I would say most of it started more than 10 years ago when Martin and I met. He had written some demo songs and he wanted to try some vocals on. It was a sort of coincidence that we started. He had seen me singing with my old band and he thought for some reasons that it could work. And it did. It was something that it work out pretty well…my vocals and Martin’s song structure. This was the foundation. Over the years, we had switched some members and a lot of things have happened.

Q.: In terms of music references, who are the artists, if any, you take inspiration from, both personally and as a band? When I listen to your music, now and then, I can hear some references for example to Pink Floyd, mainly in terms of the guitar playing. I was thinking if you have Pink Floyd as a reference and if you have other artists.

J.E.: I don’t think that we have a specific band as an outspoken reference. But, as you mentioned Pink Floyd, I would say: Yes, of course. We all like Pink Floyd a lot. They’re a great band. Their sound is great and the songs are fantastic. Pink Floyd and other prog rock bands who came out during that era, like Genesis, Jethro Tull, King Crimson. We have all been listening to those bands and I’ve grown up with their music. To me, it was my dad who introduced me to this music. I’ve always lived with only my dad. He had one rule and it was that he was the king of the vinyl player. He decided what kind of music we had to listen to. We just had to deal with it. But it was good because now there are albums I don’t have to listen to anymore but they’re simply part of my DNA.

I used to play David Bowie’s Hunky Dory on the cassette player. That was not the kind of music I was really into. I was more into metal. And then, one summer, I just picked one cassette out of my dad’s box of cassette tapes and it happened to be a copy of Hunky Dory which is a fantastic album. I still like that album. I would have never started listening to him if it wasn’t for my father and for that cassette tape.

Q.: You have a real beautiful and intense voice. How did you find out that you can use it to become a singer and why did you choose prog/metal?

J.E.: I didn’t know until quite late. I was fourteen when my school teacher told me that I could actually sing. I was just playing around at music lessons. It wasn’t just the cool thing to do. You were supposed to play football and be a cool guy. It wasn’t that kind of climate where it was cool to be a musician. Sometimes he did force me to sing lead when we were in class which I hated. Then, after a while, I sort of started understanding that I had a voice. I started playing in some bands and that was the period when music started to become everything and I started wanting to sing. It sort of exploded during that period. It didn’t start with prog rock. It started more with The Who and stuff like that. It was mainly because when you had to play with people in your school you have to find a sort of common denominator: “What do you like? What do I like? Can we agree upon this?”

Q.: In Sweden there’s a long tradition of music, also in terms of prog metal but not only. Are there other bands that you like coming from your country?

J.E.: When it comes to Swedish music, I think that for me it was Roxette. I’ve never associated metal to Swedish music. When the metal era came to me, there were some Swedish bands. Normally, what I wanted was the American sound. I wasn’t looking into Swedish bands that much. I remember I used to listed to Tiamat and other bands but I wasn’t really looking for Swedish bands. Metal has always been like this for me: you wanted a larger than life experience, you wanted a big band from the States.

Q.: Your music production as a band has always been extremely conceptual and grounded. Your first album, Cognitive, for example, has deep roots in the analysis of intellectual activities, for example thinking. What did you want to communicate with that album?

J.E.: It has really been a journey for us so far. And it’s fun that you’ve brought up our first album because it makes me think about how Cognitive is so different from Imperial. Cognitive was much more inward looking and I think it was maybe a bit more self-absorbed. I still love that album but, at the same time, I can clearly see how we have developed and matured during this process. And now, with Imperial for example, we are much more outward looking and we talk much more about the community and how we are acting in the community together. There’s a very big difference. Cognitive was much more about self-reflection about “Who am I? What am I doing here?” and that type of questions.

Q.: This month you have celebrated the ninth anniversary since Cognitive was released. How has the band evolved from a creative point of view during these nine years?

J.E.: The creative process has evolved very much since we published Cognitive. In a sense, Cognitive was our very first album so it was very much trying to put something together. We didn’t know each other that well back then. Nowadays, you can see how Soen sound has evolved. Today we have much control on how we want to say and how we want our sound to be. It’s a big process.

Q.: In Tellurian (2015), there’s a song, Tabula Rasa, whose lyrics totally resonate with today’s world: I will fight the system, break it down and redesign it/ I don’t want anything the way it’s created by them/Where is my right to choose if all the options are theirs”. What inspired that song?

J.E.: Maybe the same underlying that we have today. We have to do something about the system of the society. We have to make a change. We cannot simply accept the status quo. We have to be constructive and acknowledge the problems that surround us and do something.

Q.: Lotus, the song which gives the title to your fourth album, has a more intimate meaning. It’s about searching for our inner self, while navigating through bad times and finding our freedom, even if this means being less rational and more instinctive. Would you tell me the background of this song and if it can be considered a sort of transformation compared to Cognitive which was more rational?

J.E.: That song is more about being together and try not to fall apart. This is the general theme. Basically, do something. We did Lykaia before Lotus and on that album we did some experimental things. We recorded it all analog, with strict rules. Lykaia was a very dogmatic album, in terms of what we wanted to achieve with our sound. When we started with Lotus, we decided that we didn’t need rules. We just need to trust what we were doing. And, at the end, when we finished it and we listened to it, we found out that it was exactly as we wanted it to be. Lykaia helped us to understand that we didn’t need all those rules to achieve what we wanted. We used this kind of open approach also with Imperial. We can do whatever we want when we produce and record and the result would be something to be proud of.

Q.: Who writes the lyrics for your songs?

J.E.. Martin writes all the lyrics. He wrote all the lyrics for both Lotus and Imperial. He is a great songwriter.

Q.: On January 29th, you published Imperial, your fifth studio album. Would you tell me more about the characteristics of this album and how it differentiates from your previous releases? J.E.: This album is much more metal compared to our previous albums. I think it has to do with the fact that we really want to preserve the legacy of metal in our music. We come from metal. We have all been listening to a lot of metal and we really want to show that we stand for that. I don’t know how it is in Italy but today in Sweden there is a sort to derogatory attitude towards metal. Metal is something for mid-aged, white, privileged men. That’s always been a great reception for our music in Italy. I hope this misconception towards metal we have in Sweden will disappear. And, as for progressive music, the most important thing is the exploration, the complexity of the arrangements. That’s what I love about it, especially when I think about albums of Jethro Tull and Genesis (for example with their album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway). I don’t think that the most important thing is having musicians shine through technique but the point should be focusing on the song structure. You can find beauty in all music genres, and if you can’t, then it means you’re listening in the wrong way.

Q.: The latest single extracted from the album is a beautiful ballad called Illusion which is accompanied by a touching video. Illusion is a song about dreamers. Would you elaborate on the meaning of the song and the concept of the video?

J.E.: The video is created by Italians and yes, I agree with you that it’s really a beautiful video. The video and the lyrics don’t really go together. The video is a story on its own and so are the lyrics. The thing with Illusion is the theme of Imperial overall: as a community, we are falling apart, we are blaming each other all the time instead of listening to each other. We tend almost intentionally to misunderstand each other. We need to start tolerate other people’s opinions and who they are and that, at the end, we all want the same thing: peace, prosperity and a better world.

Q.: You were almost ready to start a European tour including also two dates in Italy in April. Then, due to the pandemic you had to postpone it to 2022. I think it must be really frustrating having a new album and not being able to play it live. Have you ever considered to postpone the release of Imperial?

J.E.: We’ve never discussed to postpone the album. We really wanted it to come out also because there was so much planning in advance. It’s really sad not being able to tour after its release. The first thing you want to do after a new album release is to start promoting it playing the songs live. It’s a bit of a small tragedy for us not being able to go on tour. But I can’t complain because it’s the same for everyone. It’s Covid. We’re in the same mess. There are some bands broken up because of this situation. It’s a pain to see all this talent thrown away. I hope that when all this will be over we will have this big blossom again in terms of culture. Many people are starting to realize how much it meant to them to be at live shows and be part of this whole community. It’s beautiful to see how people are brought together by music.

Q.: What’s your relationship with Italy and with the Italian fans? Do you like playing here? J.E.: I’ve been to Italy a lot. It’s very beautiful. I really love the spirit in Italy and the environment there. I’ve always had this feeling that in Italy there’s this passion for singing just like mine. To me, it’s the country of Opera. It’s the country where everyone is singing, even in the streets. I can really sympathize with that. When you play in Italy, you’re lifted by the audience because everyone sings along with you. I really love to play in Italy. It’s fantastic!

2021 Tour Dates:

16 November – Train, Aarhus – Denmark
17 November – Lille Vega, Copenhagen – Denmark
18 November – Posten, Odense – Denmark
26 November – o2 Academy Islington, London – United Kingdom
1 December – Hard Club, Porto – Portugal
2 December – Lisboa ao Vivo, Lisbon – Portugal
3 December – Shoko, Madrid – Spain
4 December – Apolo 1, Barcelona- Spain
14 December – Pralnia, Wroclaw – Poland
15 December – Drizzly Grizzly, Gdansk – Poland

2022 Tour Dates:

28 January – Pustervik, Gothenburg – Sweden
30 January – John Dee, Oslo – Norway
2 February – Logo, Hamburg – Germany
3 February – Luxor, Cologne – Germany
4 February – Melkweg, Amsterdam – The Netherlands
6 February – Z7, Pratteln – Switzerland
7 February – Backstage, Munich – Germany
9 February – Largo Venue, Rome – Italy
10 February – Magazzini Generali, Milan – Italy
11 February – Revolver, San Donà di Piave – Italy
12 February – Colos Saal, Aschaffenburg – Germany
15 February – Proxima, Warsaw – Poland
16 February – Fraanz, Berlin – Germany
18 February – Klubben, Stockholm – Sweden
20 February – Tavastia, Helsinki – Finland
21 February – Olympia Kortteli, Tampere – Finland

SOEN: Joel EkelöfVocals / Martin LopezDrums / Lars Enok ÅhlundKeyboards and Guitar / Oleksii Zlatoyar” KobelBass / Cody FordLead Guitar

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