LEPROUS – Interview with Einar Solberg
By Peter Atkinson
Photos from www.facebook.com/leprousband
Norway’s Leprous have existed at the fringes of the prog-metal universe for over a decade now, but their time as outsiders would seem to be coming to an end. After dramatically raising their profile in the wake of their third full-length, 2011’s Bilateral, with a much more rigorous touring schedule – as well as serving as the backing band for ex-Emperor frontman Ihsahn’s rare solo performance – the quintet will be gigging even harder to support their latest album, Coal, which was issued May 20 through Inside Out Music.
And Coal is bound to garner plenty of attention on its own for its musical merits. The proverbial rich tapestry of jarring metal, engaging hard rock melodies, twisty-turny progressive complexity and daring, and ethereal, almost ambient interludes, Coal sees Leprous hitting their creative stride, and building on the strengths of Bilateral and its predecessor, 2009’s Tall Poppy Syndrome.
During a recent phone interview, Leprous vocalist/synth player Einar Solberg spoke about the band’s creative growth, evolving sound and growing popularity, as well as their somewhat complicated but rather fruitful arrangement with Ihsahn which, in Solberg’s case, goes well beyond a mere working relationship.
Are you home in Norway, or did they bring you to the states for these?
Einar Solberg: No, no, I’m home in Norway now.
I was looking at the Wikipedia page for your hometown of Notodden just out of curiosity and it’s interesting because if you scroll down past the usual geographical stuff and coats of arms and whatnot there are pictures of Ihsahn as well as Mortiis in his full elven getup under the “Notable Residents” entry. Not the kind of stuff you usually see.
Einar: (Laughs) I haven’t seen that, that’s great. They are definitely part of our history and they certainly are notable. Many people know of them outside of the black metal community.
To this point, have you done that much American press, or is this really your big coming out, so to speak?
Einar: We did some for the previous album, but there is definitely much more for this album. Since we’ve been touring more and more, people are getting to know us, our name is getting out more, so I guess the interest is there. It seems so, I hope so.
Most people here probably still know you more as the band that backs up Ihsahn when he plays live.
Einar: Yes, that’s true. We have played in America once as Leprous and once with Ihsahn. But his shows are so rare that when he plays live anywhere, it’s a big deal and we are always his band, so it gets us attention as well.
You’re going to be coming back in May to play with him here?
Einar: Yes. At the Baltimore Deathfest or Maryland Deathfest, what it is called?
Maryland Deathfest. I’m going the day before to see Carcass, so unfortunately, unless I can twist my girlfriend’s arm to go another day, I’ll probably miss you.
Einar: (laughs) Well good luck with that. I promise it will be a good show if you can make it.
You played a few shows yourself over here as the keyboardist with Emperor as well, have you been able to gauge the American audience at all? Is this territory you really want to explore?
Einar: I think it’s a territory we would feel very comfortable playing in because in Europe, in general, it seems to me the audience is a lot calmer, they make a lot less noise, especially in the north of Europe. And also, I think our package that we deliver live, is quite – I don’t know if this is an existing word in English – “maximulistic” (laughs).
We’re quite maximulistic in our approach and I think that’s something that could work very well in the states. The one time we played there we had very good feedback and a lot, a lot, a lot has happened with the band since then, we’re much better live now than we were at that time.
I was noticing on your web page that the number of tour dates you’ve done has grown exponentially in the last couple years.
Einar: Yeah, we’ve done a huge amount of shows in the last two years and this year we have tons and tons of shows and a long headline tour in Europe and a lot of festivals. We really enjoy to perform live, but to perform live in America it’s really expensive, especially for a European band with all of the travel and visas, etc., etc., so it has to be the right offer before we jump on it.
What would be the right package, who could you see yourselves touring with here?
Einar: We would have to do a support tour first in the U.S., because we haven’t played there, except the one time. I think our labelmate Devin Townsend would be a good choice. It could really cool and we know him a little bit already, he’s a really cool guy so that would be nice. Maybe it will happen in the future, who knows, but I think we’re looking into 2014 as the earliest we could tour the U.S. since we’re more or less fully booked for the rest of the year and we all have girlfriends and some of us are married, so there’s a limit to how long you can be away in one year.
Are you guys able to make the band your main focus, your career, or do you still work outside of the band to make sure the bills get paid?
Einar: Right now, everybody has to work outside. It’s a really, really hard business these days. Even though we have a much higher profile now than we had earlier, it just means that we have to spend a lot more money on ourselves too because everything has to be more and more professional and be better and better. When we have more money we just use it for more crew and more effects for our live shows.
There are a lot of expenses with touring, but I really believe if we just continue and we keep our focus and continue to believe in ourselves we will reach the point where we can have this as our job without having to work on the side. Or at least maybe not as much, allow this to be the main focus.
You will be doing festival shows this summer as Leprous and with Ihsahn, and sometimes both, at the same festival and even on the same day. How do you keep all that straight?
Einar: It depends on how we do this. Sometimes we do the shows as if it were just one, like last weekend we did a show in the Netherlands, a festival, and we played first, a show with Leprous, then we went offstage for like 15 minutes and then went back with Ihsahn again. Other times we play at different stages and at different times, it really depends.
I think arranging things so we can go back and forth like this is actually tougher than doing the shows themselves. For me, doing an Ihsahn show is very, very easy compared to a Leprous show, because I have this huge role in Leprous and I have a much smaller role with Ihsahn. But if you asked the drummer [Tobias Ørnes Andersen], you would have a very different answer (laughs). [The rest of the band includes Tor Oddmund Suhrke and Øystein Landsverk on guitars and vocals, and Rein Blomquist on bass.]
You and Ihsahn are brothers in law, is that correct?
Einar: Yes, it’s true. I’ve known him since a bit before [Emperor's 1999 album] IX Equilibrium came out, he was also doing Peccatum with my sister [Ihriel] and brother [Pål, aka Lord PZ] . So I grew up around all that [another brother, Kenneth, played guitar in Leprous from 2002-2004].
And you worked at their studio this time, which must have come in handy?
Einar: Yes, it’s true. We worked in their studio in Notodden. It’s a really, really nice environment to record in. For the drums, we needed a bigger room, so we recorded them at an old analog studio in the same town. None of us, the Leprous guys, actually live in the town anymore, we all live is Oslo, so it wasn’t as convenient as you might think (laughs). But that’s only a couple hours away.
But all of my family is in Notodden, so it is very comfortable environment. And the studio itself is in my sister and Ihsahn’s house, which is a house I know very, very well. When I do the vocals it’s very comfortable to use them as the vocal producers because they know my voice so well and they know exactly to get the best out of me, so it’s really nice to work with them.
Plus you get easy access to Ihsahn for guest appearances. He gives a pretty commanding performance on “Contaminate Me” on the new album.
Einar: Yes, absolutely. And we collaborate quite a bit. So it’s quite easy, if he wants me to do vocals for his album, to ask me and I just come, drop by and do it. And the opposite is true too. For “Contaminate Me,” I asked him about that in advance, and I went in and did some vocal parts and then said, “OK, now we change the roles and I sit at the computer and you do the vocals.” So it’s a good arrangement and a nice situation to have.
How did all of the touring you have done recently impact the songwriting for the new album?
Einar: All of the touring made us so much more confident and when you are confident it’s so much easier to deliver something pure and true and you don’t go around and consider what people will think about it. You just do our thing. And it gets less polished in a way when you’ve been out on the road a lot because you realize that the main focus is to manage to create a certain mood rather than creating something really technical just for the sake of it. And we get more confident with the playing and everything gets less forced and it’s much easier to keep a good focus.
Your website describes Leprous as “Norwegian avant-garde progressive rock and metal.” That sounds like a pretty apt description, but is that how you guys see yourselves?
Einar: I think it’s how our management and our record label see us (laughs). We really don’t think that much about it, we just create music and what kind of genre we don’t really think about it, we just create something that delivers our emotions through the music. I guess it’s a very open term, progressive, it’s a very open genre, so it’s an easier genre to fit into that many others.
Yeah, “progressive” can mean a lot of things to a lot of people.
Einar: Absolutely. If you listen to Yes and listen to Dillinger Escape Plan afterward you will see that the genre contains so many different types of sounds and styles. It’s a category that you can put a lot of bands who don’t easily fit into a lot of other categories, which I think is certainly the case with us.
What’s cool about bands like yours, and also from Norway Shining and Enslaved, is showing what the possibilities of metal really are, that there really are no limits.
Einar: I think one of the reasons, and I can only speak for myself, it’s just because we try to forget about all the expectations and everything around, because everything around you will not help to create good art and expectations will not help you to create good art. You have to trust your own musicality and explore your own emotions through the music and don’t think it should be like this, it should be like that, just do whatever comes naturally.
The name Leprous has more death metally connotations. I’m familiar with your music really from Tall Poppy Syndrome on, was the music more brutal earlier on when you were developing your sound?
Einar: No. Actually, we’ve probably gotten heavier from that point on. The album before, the demo Aeolia, was really the most prog thing we ever did. At that point we wanted to experiment with everything at that same time, it’s quite immature but it has some fun ideas.
So the album Tall Poppy Syndrome could be considered more of a metal album, but still I feel that that album still lacks a bit of the attitude that we have today, even though some of the songs have some growling and things like they, the songs are less energetic in my opinion. And this comes from the confidence. At that time we were less confident in the studio and maybe a little bit too humble and a bit too afraid of showing ourselves completely.
Now that Coal is finished and you’ve had a chance to let it sink in a bit, what are your impressions of it?
Einar: I think it’s the most honest album we’ve done so far. It’s kind of Leprous without all the makeup (laughs). For example, the way I’m singing I don’t think only technique at all when I’m singing I think expression and I think nerve and to have emotions in the music is what matters most for us these days.
Coal is an interesting title, is there some kind of thread that relates to it – metaphorically or otherwise – throughout the album?
Einar: No, no. Coal is every song for itself, especially regarding lyrics. But “Coal” is a very open title, yes it can be interpreted many ways. The main theme behind the title is the subject of diamonds and coal where they consist of the same things but turn out to be something so extremely different.
Are you writing more of the lyrics now? Is that something, as the singer, you’d like to take more ownership over?
Einar: For this album I wrote lyrics for only one of the songs, but I probably wrote 90 percent of the music, the main compositions for the music, even though we put it together as a band. I think that on the next album I’m getting more confident with writing lyrics. I’m so damn, damn, damn self critical when it comes to lyrics that I can just write line, then delete it and close my computer and get angry at myself (laughs). But I learned a new way to work now, so I think on the next album it may be more 50-50 on the lyrics. I guess we will see.
I really taught myself not to be very good at it (laughs). I’m very strict with myself with everything I’m not very good at immediately. So, of course, I never become any better at it. This time, I tried a lot of different things and I ended up with one that I decided to use and next time I know it will be more.
What spurred you on this time?
Einar: Over the last year there has been a lot of changes with me, it’s been kind of an emotional rollercoaster for me where I got to learn to know myself a bit more, and that is what the lyrics for “The Cloak” is about, the most mellow song on the album. It’s about if you spend too much time on the surface without considering diving under the surface and see what lies beneath, eventually you can fall quite hard. This goes for most people, we’re so extremely comfortable on the surface that it’s so rare that people go under the surface – especially in their own head – and that’s what has made it easier for me to write lyrics and write music immediately. It’s not always comfortable, but you can find a lot of great things there.