How did you come to the idea of a new album being inspired by the artwork for ‘A Fine Day To Exit’ released in 2001?
The idea for the story came quite easy. I think it was John’s (Douglas – drummer – Vera) idea to make it so and then I wrote the story. It really comes from the front cover. You know the new front cover? Driving at night? That is really the foundation of the story. It is about trying to escape from your past, about driving. The song ‘The Optimist’ was written before this story was. We thought the story was told, so I would have written that song anyways. And it was based on that image. And when John said: ‘we can do a story’, then I said: ‘yes maybe we can start with the car.’ The theme of escape, of trying to cope, trying to run, trying to leave the past behind… which is all themes that we are writing about in our own lives, but we used this surrogate to do something different. I am really after the idea for the driving at night, trying to escape. It is very easy to make the connection to ‘A Fine Day To Exit’. It happened naturally. I even don’t remember exactly when we came to that idea, but I think I must have been alone and it just came to my mind. It came from the song, it came from the driving, from the image, the theme of escape and from this the idea to the link to ‘A Fine Day To Exit’ was very easy. I actually don’t remember how or when.
And what about the narrative which is running through the album?
It is up to other people to make up their minds about it, you know… We don’t say exactly what happens. We don’t say exactly who is this person? What happens to him? How do they finish? What are they thinking and why are they thinking these things. These things are all to the audience to decide. The story is just a suggestion. It is not very precise. We don’t know any names, we know just one location, the beginning location. San Diego. Obviously it is in that part of the country, driving through those areas which is great, I think he goes to a hotel, but apart from that… We don’t actually say pretty much about this person. It is all about his mind. It is all about his feelings and really it is all about our minds, about our feelings. We didn’t really sing about another person. We sang about our own lives, as we always did. But it was quite easy to make our songs about us with another person as main character and that is what we did.
That’s fine, because I think people dream and think not enough these days…
Yes they do and also it is a very kind of visual album. So people will be up to close their eyes and imagine stuff and that is the idea. A visual album, a little bit like a film. I think it will be quite successful. Some people are saying it is the best album we did and I think it might be. It is different, it is dark, it is strange, it is original. I think it pulls people in, Vera, a feeling of someone getting in a car, driving away, listening to the radio, these things they pull people into the story. They immediately start listening close and wonder what’s going on and they will probably listen again and again to discover new things. And they can always decide which way it ends. You know, John has a feeling that the whole story happens in his mind as he was drowning in the beginning. That is John’s feel It is quite clear that it has a cinematic feel, a movie feel. As John said, he thinks the whole thing happened in his mind a few seconds before he died. He was in the sea, he never left the sea. That is John’s theory, but there is no right way and no wrong way. It is what it is, people will take what they want. They can say it is crap or not, it does not matter.
I am more on the positive side, at the end you hear a family, so I think the guy survived…
(whispers) Well, that is for you to decide.
By the way, I had never expected that an album of Anathema should be called ‘The Optimist’…
Yeah, there you go… the title is ironic.
Indeed, I was thinking that too. The album is also rather dark tinged, so some sarcasm makes sense…
(laughs) It is. The title actually comes from a documentary of a German refugee from Syria. He lives in Germany now. He had a very difficult time, travelling and so on, and he said that the music of Anathema saved his life. That’s what he said. I met him and he is a very nice guy. A very nice person. He is now living in Germany, learning the language, doing school and all of that stuff. And they were making a documentary about him, about his life and about what he is trying to achieve, his feelings and that documentary was called ‘The Optimist’ and I met him. They arranged a meeting for me, as a surprise I met him, we connected and we are still friends. When I began writing on piano for ‘The Optimist’ I was a little bit thinking about that story and I called the song ‘The Optimist’ on my phone and went to bed. That was it. I just left it and then even though I wrote a song about something else, it is still a feeling about trying to escape, so I kept the title. If I had never met this guy, probably this album was not called ‘The Optimist’ and maybe even that song did not happen.
Coincidences often change life. I think you have been working with a new guy for the production: Tony Doogan. What about this experience? How did you get in contact with him?
Yes, that’s right. We got in contact with him through our manager. He suggested a few other names. Well, it was one of those things happening... We spoke to him, we saw that he had done a lot of good things, like Mogwai, and he said yes to the project. I am very grateful that he said yes, because he was fantastic and amazing. He pushed us all over on this album. I am very thankful about that.
It was in Scotland and Ireland you recorded…
Mostly in Glasgow. It was ten days in the beautiful countryside in Northern Ireland and then in Glasgow.
It says here that the album is recorded live, everyone playing together in the studio…
Yeah that was Tony’s idea. It wasn’t as live as you think. It was not my idea to make people think it was live. It is kind of live, half live. The drums were recorded most of the time with me playing with John. Maybe with Vincent as well. So the drums have that feeling and groove that you got when looking at each other playing music. It is different, you connect with each other, mentally. Obviously that influences and changes the way we play. If the drums are played differently, then everything is different, because the drums are the foundation where the music is built on. This was Tony’s idea to try and catch something that was more than just a good performance, you know.
One of the most familiar and excellent songs is ‘Springfield’. Can you tell anything more about it?
It is a song we played on tour, even before we recorded the album and it seemed clearly a favourite song of the audience, because we played six new songs on tour before we recorded the album. ‘Springfield’ seemed to be the favourite of everybody, during performances and on YouTube later. The recording went very well. When the record company asked us which song they should release first, it was ‘Springfield’ and it happened to be a good choice.
Why did you split the band name in Ana_thema?
Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t. I like the pronunciation ‘Anathéma’, not Anathemà. It is a good word, but not for a band. For a band I prefer Anathéma. It does not have to mean anything.
When talking to Vincent in 2015, he told me he was already writing bits and pieces of the new album and that he likes a kind of constant flow. And you?
No, I usually take a break after the album is finished. Little things will come, but I don’t push it. I will look later at what we have and see if I have any good tunes. I remember this time last year, I was thinking that I had not any good songs, I got nothing and I did not know how I was going to do it, because I thought everything I had written was shit. That was in April or May. To get from that to October – with the kind of finished ideas – that process is what it is all about for me. The so-called writing and recording process. I love that. Playing live is good, touring is difficult, singing live is good fun, but writing and recording I like the best.
The creative process is the essence of a band…
I am not interested in the lifestyle anymore. At least that is how I feel. Studio is like a home away from home. You wake up, have a shower, have some cereals and play on the piano, enjoy coffee. That’s my favourite thing about what we do. I love that.
It is actually quite strange. Sometimes I think the music that you wanted to make and do create now, is turning into a kind of post rock, ambient, shoegaze explosion of many bands. Don’t you think so?
I don’t know about shoegaze but ambient, post rock… yeah absolutely, I can assert that. I love Sigur Ros and Mogwai. If you are open, you have the benefits. You can do a lot of things.
Usually it is quite dull to zoom into gigs, but one concert I’d like to have your memories of. When you opened for Opeth at the Wembley stadium That must have been special…
Yes, the concert was great. We were enjoying it and we played ‘Springfield’ at the end and I enjoyed that. We all tried our best and it was okay, but we had a party in the backstage afterwards and this was very, very funny. The concert was great, but the afterparty was really funny.
Are there other projects you are involved in at the moment or planning anything?
No. Or yes, I will release my solo album this year on Kscope, just me, and Anneke van Giersbergen is on it as well. It is lots of ambient, shoegaze type of stuff. I don’t know the name yet, it is a solo album. Maybe it is called ‘Monochrome’. Maybe, but apart from that I don’t have any other projects right now.
And for your feeling, what is the best experimental passage on this album where you can really go all the way in being free of boundaries?
I think there are two. I think the passage when going from ‘San Francisco’ to ‘Springfield’ is really good. And I like ‘Close Your Eyes’. You know, the hotel, the TV, sitting on the bed, the jazz, the trumpets, the dark cinematic jazz feel of that song and then the whisper into ‘Wildfires’. I think those two moments are the most cinematic moments on the album.
You worked together with Travis Smith (again) for the artwork. What about this experience?
It was good. I really enjoyed the process. He sent me the files via email and we made small adjustments. We made so many little decisions together. A pleasure. I enjoyed it very much and I think Travis did too. He was the one to go into details, because he lives there. In many ways he became ‘The Optimist’. He went to the hotel. He drove to the beach. He became a little bit a part of the story. Really nice. I think he really felt comfortable with the story and the theme. And I made him feel comfortable. Our cooperation was intense, but I really let him be himself. A big chemistry.
A massive amount of gigs, tours and selective concerts are coming up in the rest of the year, for instance in June two gigs in the Netherlands and one at Graspop (Belgium) and a tour with Alcest in Europe in October and November. We will all have the opportunity’ to check out ‘The Optimist’ live!