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2nd October 2009
METAL DISCOVERY: The new album is completely mindblowing. I had the album on promo a couple of months ago and rated it ten out of ten in my review as it’s just perfect on every level.
JOHANNES BERGION: Thank you very much.
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(Johannes Bergion on Diablo Swing Orchestra's progressive essence peripheral to the genre of prog-metal)
"...progressive metal music, I mean, what is that?! It sounds like bands from the eighties still, but it’s supposed to be progressive. So, of course, we can’t consider ourselves to be a progressive metal band because there’s already a genre for that. But, of course, we are."
Johannes in the Hope and Anchor pub, Camden, London, UK, 2nd October 2009
Photograph copyright © 2009 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
Interview and Photography by Mark Holmes
Every once in a while, a new band bursts onto the scene that is unlike any other. When Diablo Swing Orchestra unleashed 'The Butcher's Ballroom' three years ago, it amazed, astounded, and thrilled in equal measure with its genre-bending approach and unique fusion of styles, combining elements of metal, rock, swing, opera, prog, and symphonic (to mention but a few) with aurally riveting results. The avant-garde Swedish musicians were originally scheduled to make their debut live appearance in the UK in 2008 at ProgPower although, following the cancellation of this festival, it's not until early October 2009 that Diablo Swing Orchestra finally make it over to these shores for a sold-out album launch show for sophomore release 'Sing Along Songs for the Damned & Delirious'. I settled down mid-afternoon in a Camden pub with cellist Johannes Bergion before the band's performance in London's Purple Turtle venue later that night to learn more about the musical enigma that is Diablo Swing Orchestra...
MD: It’s more stylistically diverse and much more experimental than ‘The Butcher’s Ballroom’ - did you consciously set out to make a more innovative album or has the music progressed in that direction more naturally over the last few years?
JB: I think that when we recorded the last record…we live in so many different spots in Sweden so it was really hard for us. You know, we had like an internet life…we had a forum and we had discussed things, and then we could meet up once a month for a very long time. We had to travel really far just to have a rehearsal so I think, before the first record, we really didn’t know exactly what sound we had. Then we went into the studio, and then everything fell into place. I think ‘The Butcher’s Ballroom’ is a mindblowing record, and I love the record, but I think that everybody thought afterwards that we have more in us. So it feels really natural - now I listen to the two different albums, I can really see that it’s a huge difference. I think it was maybe a little more like…I wouldn’t say Gothic but the last record was a little bit more…
MD: It got labelled by a lot of journalists as having a Gothic element. I think because of the operatic vocals, it got linked to Nightwish and that kind of thing.
JB: Yeah, and the funny thing is that we had no idea about Nightwish when we started this project. People were just telling us about this band Nightwish and, of course, maybe it’s embarrassing because they’re really big, but we didn’t know about it. Of course, now we know about them, for me, even ‘The Butcher’s Ballroom’ is not similar to Nightwish at all. I think it’s really different, but I can see why people make the comparison because we have operatic singing.
MD: Yeah, it’s a lazy comparison, just because Nightwish are the biggest metal band with operatic vocals.
JB: She sings more beautiful. We have put a lot of effort to have this really powerful operatic sound.
MD: Yeah, Annlouice is far beyond the style of operatic vocals in bands like Nightwish. Her’s are more glass shattering.
JB: Yeah, it’s two totally different styles. We have never tried to be like them. For me, it’s kind of stupid. If you say you have a band like Iron Maiden and then you have another eighties band and the singer is doing kind of the same things, but people wouldn’t compare them directly just because they have this heavy metal vocalist. Because we have a woman singing, and she sings operatic, it just feels like…our music is so different but still everyone puts us in the same sense.
MD: With all the musical innovation in your songs, it would be really easy to become inaccessible in one sense, but you still retain a good structure to the songs and it’s still very accessible, catchy music. When you compose, are there conscious attempts to be a little restrained with the experimental parts?
JB: I think it’s a beautiful process. The first time I met Daniel, when I was only nineteen years old and I’m the youngest in the band and play cello, he sat with his acoustic guitar in a really dirty kitchen in a really small town in Sweden, and I was invited there by Pontus, also from the band, because I knew him before, we’re from the same little town. And the first time I heard Daniel play and, you know, on an acoustic guitar, I think it was ‘Velvet Embracer’, like….“dum-d-dum-d-de-dum…”…and “okay, what is this?! I’m gonna be here all weekend so…”. But Daniel is the main composer and, for me, he’s a genius. He has no musical education but he has a bigger vision all of the time. He says - “and here we’re gonna have a clarinet, and here we’re gonna have…”, and I’m the one who’s always like “do you think that’s a nice idea?”. He has to try his idea with me all of the time because I’m musically trained and I’m always the guy who like, “ohhh, I don’t know about it…”, and then it turns out that, “oh, okay, you’re right, it was a beautiful idea!” He’s the main composer, and I think he’s a visionary. He can see in the end how it will be.
MD: So just like starting with a guitar riff but he knows how it will end up with all the layers and…
JB: And especially because I play the cello so, of course, it’s like me and Annlouice maybe also that kind of sticks out, you know, because the cello is…the intentions with the cello from the beginning was not to have a string background. The reason was going to be to have an instrument in the band you can’t take away, so you can’t have a gig without the cello. I think that’s one of the reasons that makes us special more than others.
MD: Definitely. You’ve sort of answered this next question - there are some fairly complex arrangements on some of the songs, so do you start with a basic song structure that maybe Daniel writes and then the rest of the band contribute to the arrangements with all the different layers?
JB: Yeah, I mean Daniel mainly has the ideas for the songs but, this record, we developed it. ‘A Rancid Romance’ on the new record is my song. This is really nice because this is an old cello concerto that I wrote when I was eighteen years old and I played it with a symphony orchestra. It was like a school project that I could write a thing for them…they had to play it! [laughs] Actually, this song we’ve made now with lyrics and stuff, and made it into another song. In the end, I play…it’s only cello, accordion and bass, and it’s my father who plays all the piano on the album. It’s more like a family feeling!
MD: Oh really, he plays on the actual album?
JB: Yeah, he plays on the second album. He’s my father; he’s the one who plays piano.
MD: The cover artwork for ‘Sing Along Songs…’ is kind of like the polar opposite to ‘the Butcher’s Ballroom because you’ve abandoned the dark aesthetic in favour of a more colourful approach. Did you give that brief to the artist, Peter Bergting, to design something like that, or did you just say, here’s the music and…
JB: No, we had an idea. We discussed it and tried to analyse it and what kind of music we’re actually doing. For me, I think it’s a perfect cover. Peter Bergting was the one who did the last record as well, and we love that guy. He’s really famous now in Sweden.
MD: Oh, really?
JB: Yeah, it was really funny - it was just a month before the record was released here, and he got a breakout in Sweden because he did a comic book serial with a famous author. Now, a lot of people know about this guy. I think he’s awesome. But, yeah, we had a discussion, and we gave him kind of specific details that we want this…you know, it’s like tragedy and comedy at the same time with the funny smile on the girl. I think that’s the thing with our music. We see it as a party in hell…at it’s best!
MD: I have to say that when I first saw the album cover, I hated it. But then I heard the new album and the progression of your music and it made perfect sense! I love the album cover now!
JB: That’s nice to hear! [laughs]
MD: I gather, like we chatted about earlier, band members are from Stockholm, Karlstad, and Gothenburg - quite far apart cities in Sweden - do you find it hard to rehearse and get together to do stuff?
JB: Yeah, of course, yes, I can take an example. Last weekend we worked with horn players, they’re from my city…most of the extra musicians are my contacts that I have since before. So I went by car and it’s like 500km to Stockholm from my city. When we got there we slept for two hours, had a rehearsal there, and then went back. So I actually spent more time in a car than I slept and rehearsed together last weekend. That’s the way it is with DSO, so it’s really…[laughs]…yeah, we have been doing this for six years, so it’s been really tough. But I think everyone’s really devoted so we know that we like the music we play, so…
MD: You’ve got used to the distance and long travelling…
JB: Yeah, it is what it is.
MD: I love all the song titles and the lyrics as they’re very different and original, which fits in with the music which is very different. There are some fairly ambiguous song titles - can I ask you some of the meanings of the song titles?
JB: You should really not talk to me about it. You should really talk to Daniel who wrote the lyrics, of course.
MD: Could I run just a couple by you; would you know what they mean?
JB: We have not discussed in the band actually what the songs mean to Daniel who wrote them. I know the lyrics for the songs but have really no idea what he’s talking about, so perhaps it wouldn’t be a good idea to try to say what he’s trying to say! [laughs] I think Daniel’s a kind of person that speaks not so much about himself to the rest of the band, but I think he expresses himself in the lyrics. A lot of things in the lyrics I think is like something he’s thought about so, no, I won’t say that I know exactly what they’re about. I have respect for him, so I won’t say what his songs are about! You should really talk to him about the lyrics.
MD: Okay, fair enough, lyrics can be a really personal thing, so I know where you’re coming from. Maybe I’ll try and do another five minute interview later and ask him that question!
JB: [laughs]
MD: You released an EP in 2003, ‘Borderline Hymns’ - are there any plans to reissue that EP, or is that going to remain a hard to find thing?
JB: Yeah, I think it’s going to be like that. If you really like us, you know, the people who are really big fans of DSO have already checked this out and heard of those ones. But, I was only nineteen years old, it was a long time ago and we met just before that, and it’s hard for me to compare those things . We’re like another band now. It’s the same members though, but it’s like a new band; we have developed together with this new one.
MD: Yeah, a proper progressive band. Not just like progressive as a genre, but actually progressing.
JB: Yeah, and I think that’s the funniest thing - progressive metal music, I mean, what is that?! It sounds like bands from the eighties still, but it’s supposed to be progressive. So, of course, we can’t consider ourselves to be a progressive metal band because there’s already a genre for that. But, of course, we are.
MD: Yeah, there’s genuinely progressive and generically progressive, and DSO are genuinely progressive, I think.
JB: Yeah, we do our best. The thing with DSO is that…I would never consider myself to be a metal cellist. I’m just a cellist that plays in a band and…we can have in our music cello, and piano and have running at the same time double bass for a while, and then we can have really, really heavy guitars. I mean, this record is actually much more heavy than the first one. We are a band who are very dramatic. The dream that we have, I think, is to be on a theatre stage. You know, having it as like a performance. We’re not in the band playing for…we are more like going to the theatre and seeing DSO. I think that would be a dream for us, selling out theatres and operas and stuff, and do a real show because it’s more like that. The response in Europe has been so good, and in South America. In Sweden, it’s not.
MD: Seriously?
JB: Yeah, I think it’s too much for the Swedes. People have problems with it in Sweden.
MD: Maybe one day when you start getting even more recognition abroad, then they’ll pay more attention.
JB: Yeah, I kinda like that idea. I think it’s funny that most of the people in Sweden have no idea what we’re doing. And then we can be in Mexico and people are like crazy about us. Sweden has big acts, you know. We’re kind of a big music country even though we’re a small country and we have a lot of famous artists. I think people in Sweden, when they pay for a ticket, they want to see….okay this year they’ll pay two hundred to see music, and then they will go to see Iron Maiden and maybe big Swedish acts, like pop acts, so the scene for middle bands and maybe small bands as well is really hard to get people. If you go to Germany, they say you have a Swedish band in Germany each night of the year. And you can just see signs everywhere for different shows. There’s so much more going on, but in Sweden it’s like you spend your money and go to see your favourite artists.
MD: Do you classify DSO as a metal band at core, or would you say that metal is just one element of the music you play?
JB: I would definitely say that metal is just one element in the band. I wouldn’t consider ourselves to be…it’s really a problem when people ask me. We are not a metal band, but we have strong metal influences and we have, for me, some really good heavy riffs that when you compare to other metal bands, it’s even more heavy than they have it. We have a lot of other things as well. I think that’s the nice part. I love playing in this band because you…my role in the band is cellist…it’s also, I do everything - I play with the vocals, and…no other band has cello and guitar. I think most people won’t hear the cello sometimes because they don’t realise it’s part of what they think is a nice guitar sound. I don’t have frets on the cello; I don’t have frets like they have so I can do a lot of bending and stuff. So, really, I can do both. I can do a really low guitar, and I can play solo parts, and I can play with the vocals. I have a role like I can play with everybody! [laughs] And I think, also, Pontus who plays the guitar and didgeridoo, and he’s the one who makes all the beautiful synth effects on the record…I don’t know if people notice it, but they’re everywhere. I can still listen to the music and I can hear something and go “ah yeah, Pontus!”. Every member in the band has a specific musical background. I think if you’re six people who listen to Iron Maiden, for example, how would this band sound like? They would sound like a bad copy of Iron Maiden, even though they can be brilliant musicians, but they will. The thing with our band is we come from such different musical backgrounds and then when you have a struggle…it’s not a struggle, but you try to combine all elements…
MD: That’s what makes it so interesting.
JB: Yeah, I think that’s what can make music original.