Interview by Martin Jones, June 2017
"Gorgeous!" The continuing rise of Prog´s own Vampirate.
Interview from 2013 can be found here.
“It's been a while Nad. How are you doing?”
“Gorgeous! That's how I'm doing, I'm just gorgeous!”.
With just a sentence I knew that my carefully planned out interview with Sweden's very own Prog Vampirate, Nad Sylvan, had just been holed below the water line and I was heading for the life boats with cries of “What the hell – let's wing it!” For there was no doubt that Nad was in a playful, carefree mood, relaxed and very happy and therefore unlikely to be restricted in terms of questions or replies. And so it turned out, making the hour long interview just fly by. It turned out to be more like a meandering conversation between two friends who hadn't had a chance to chat for a while rather than an interview per se, at least that's how it felt. So what follows is more my recollection of a roller coaster evening with a thoroughly entertaining Nad than a traditional question and answer session.
I first interviewed Nad back in 2013 just prior to going on stage at the Royal Albert Hall, or Royal Albert Pub as Steve Hackett called it, as part of the Genesis Revisited Tour with Steve Hackett and his group of brilliant musicians. (In fact I think it might have been the very first interview Nad conducted after he had emerged as Steve's singer) It was to be Nad's 62nd gig of that long world tour and by far the most important in terms of prestige and venue. The stakes were even higher with the entire show being filmed for a future release as a “live” DVD / CD set, so no pressure then. Although I've bumped into Nad backstage at Steve's gigs almost every year since 2013 this was to be the first chance I'd had to talk with him properly since that legendary night in London.
Fast forward to the present day and Nad now has well over 300 gigs under his belt, two successful solo albums and a fast emerging profile as one of the most gifted and flamboyant singers in Prog rock. So it's fair to say that things have changed a bit since the RAH interview.
“Oh in so many ways! It's been such a change. Now I'm fully professional having quit my “proper job”, I'm healthier, happier and more alive than I've ever been. And excited too! I'm inhabiting a totally different world on a personal level. Sometimes it's hard to take it all in, but I'm loving it, every single minute of it.”
Home for Nad is still rural Uttran, roughly a thirty minutes drive to the south west of Stockholm. “Moving here ten years ago was probably one of the best decisions I ever made. I like Stockholm of course but I found it increasingly difficult to live there and relax, I seemed to be getting stressed pretty regularly. Sometimes I didn't find it easy to relate to the place or the people living there in the way I thought that I should have, so I moved out. Yeah, moving here made all the difference. It's my little bit of paradise and I love it. And so does Skrut!”
(For those of you who don't know who Nad is talking about Skrut is the name of his beloved cat – the “Ships Cat” from “Courting the Widow” fame and provider of purrs on the same track. She made her presence felt several times during our chat and it's fairly obvious who rules in the Sylvan household Clue: It isn't Nad).
But back to 2013. “What went through your mind during “Supper's Ready”?
You walked off the riser and ended up on your knees for quite a while. What was going on?”.
“Well during that tour I really did want to disappear during the closing section of “Supper's Ready” but often I found that there was very little space between the riser and the edge of the stage for me to do that, so I used to hide by sinking to my knees. But that night... Well it's kind of difficult to remember all the things that were whirling round my head at the time. There were a lot if jumbled, seemingly disconnected thoughts, that's for sure. It's hard to recall them with any certainty but one of them was probably “Shit! I've done it! I've just realised a life long dream!”. Obviously there were thoughts of immense relief too as I could sense that it had been a great gig, a full on experience for the fans. So yeah, it was certainly a night to remember and for all the right reasons. I suppose I might have felt something like “That's it. I've finally arrived”, whatever that means. But like I've just said it's hard to recall exactly what I was feeling with any clarity now”.
Nad was certainly correct in his assessment of the RAH gig; it was a show for the ages. It was one of those shows that have people proudly boasting to their friends “I was there”. With family and friends in attendance it was also a very lively after show party too. Nad's brother and father had flown in from Los Angeles for the show and other family and friends had made the journey from Sweden to be there for that most special of evenings.
“Both my dad and brother have been to see me in LA whenever Steve's tour has lead us there, so in a way the gig is still on going I suppose”.
It was at the end of that tour that Nad began to realise that a huge decision was looming on the horizon, one that would change his life for better or worse and one that couldn't be put off for much longer.
“With the success of Genesis Revisited and the ensuing tours there naturally came more and more demands on my time. I wasn't fully professional and still had a “proper job” back in Sweden, so yes – a decision had to be made. The company had been more than kind to me in so much that I was granted extended leave to tour and sing but it became increasingly obvious that there would be a cut off point, a point of no return if you like. So I mulled over the idea of turning pro – at the age of 56 for God's sake! Of course I'd talked a lot to Steve and Jo Hackett, Nick Beggs and all the other wonderful people I was now associating with and they were all incredibly supportive. Steve just said “Go for it” and then Brian Coles kind of summed the whole thing up when he said “It's a huge and very brave decision. But in your case I think it's a sensible one”. Meaning I could make it work as as professional singer.
And sure enough one day I found myself in front of my bosses after an excruciating commute from south west of Stockholm, across the city and then to the north. “So what do you want to do ?” was the first question asked so I knew it was going to be a short interview. I distinctly remember thinking “I've been touring the globe with some of the best musicians on the planet, singing to thousands of people and you ask me what do I want to do? Well it sure as hell isn't commuting five days a week to do this damned job”. But I was very polite and calm, thanked them for their patience over the past few years and resigned there and then. I had jumped off a cliff and into the unknown”.
“And so the Vampirate launched his ship into uncharted waters and into the gaze of an unsuspecting public with the release of “Courting the Widow”.
“Well, I was at last doing something I really love. I was living, or at least starting to live, my dream once more. And when the album proved to be a success I realised that my decision to turn professional was the right one. According to my record label, Inside Out, it's quite unusual for a début album to be so well received and of course it was so encouraging to hear that. It seemed to justify all the hard work and all the commitment I and others had put into the project. And of course it spurred me on to writing the follow up, “The Bride said No”. In between I was still touring with Steve, meeting fabulous people and great musicians. I don't think I could have wished for things to have gone better”.
“Because “Courting the Widow” and “The Bride said No” are part of a trilogy there are distinct links and a natural flow between the albums in terms of themes and their obvious dark elements. I assume this was quite deliberate even though there is a distinct difference in the way they are delivered?”.
“Oh for sure it was deliberate, but not in the way that some people seem to think. I've heard it said that my albums are concept albums, but to me neither are. Yes, they are linked in some ways and both are quite dark in terms of imagery and content but that doesn't make them into concept albums in my book. Of course there are story lines, but to me you need more than that to be a concept album in the truest sense.
The Vampirate is a character, of course he is and that goes without saying, but he's also a vehicle, sailing his crumbling galleon, investigating new musical oceans and seas. He's looking for something – recognition, a soul mate, contentment... Sometimes I don't think he knows what he's looking for or what he truly wants”. Could he be looking for acceptance, I ask. “Oh most certainly he is in some way, most definitely. Much of his melancholy is rooted in the numerous times over the centuries he's found himself rejected, not just by individuals but by whatever society he's found himself in.”
“So would it be fair to say that he's not your normal, everyday throat ripping vampire of the horror movie genre?”
“He most certainly isn't that type of vampire. For a start off he's a Vampirate, a very different type of character, and he's much more subtle than the traditional Gothic type of guy. He's got a lot of hidden depths. He's not aggressive, though there are things that piss him off, but he's certainly not a monster. In some ways he's almost like an Odysseus type – a seafarer charting unknown seas, trying to be accepted, trying to find his way “home” and trying to overcome obstacles in his way”.
“And will our Vampirate find solace?”
“Ah that would be telling... There's the final part of the trilogy to come yet, so who can say”.
“I find the contents of “The Bride said No” as dark, if not darker, than that of “Courting the Widow”, yet it's delivered very differently. There's a lot of energy and often shades of lightness and humour in the way the songs pan out. Again, I assume this was quite deliberate?”.
“Yes. You can deal with dark subject matter without driving people into the ground. So I took the opportunity with “The Bride said No” to inject a little humour and a different approach and when that's combined with a more energetic style I think it can work rather well. Don't forget the characters are human, even the Vampirate himself was once, so it's simple common sense to explore more accessible ways of delivering a message through musical styles. Just because a subject or theme might be regarded as “heavy” it doesn't mean that it has to be presented that way – heavy just for the hell of it doesn't do it for me.
And as to delivery, some people have said that it's Genesis “Wind and Wuthering” in feel, and again I have to disagree. Of course there are bound to be moments that remind you of certain bands or sounds, but that's just where I'm at whenever I've been putting down a track. It hasn't, and will never be, a case of go for a particular sound – I want my own sound and style to shine through. And lets be honest, I've been influenced over the years by dozens of bands, styles and sounds so some are bound rub off aren't they?”
“The Bride said No” is a great follow up to “Courting the Widow” and it's getting very positive, sometimes rave reviews. I checked a fair few sites and media outlets and it seems that the two tracks attracting the main attention are “What have you done” and “The Bride said No”, so I'd like to explore those tracks in little bit if that's okay?”.
“Sure, but I've already talked about them on a couple of videos I've put out”.
“Yeah, I know but I don't want to go down “this is what the track is about” avenue, I want to ask about how the tracks turned out like they have”.
“Cool. Fire away”.
“You've got two fantastic guitar solos on “What have you done” via the talents of Steve Hackett and Guthrie Govan. Two brilliant but very distinctive guitarists, stylistically very different. How did this come to be ?”
“Ah well that's interesting. I'd actually asked Andy Latimer for a solo on that track as I didn't want to ask Steve to commit to even more work than he had already made and I hadn't even spoken to Guthrie at that time. Well weeks, and then months past and there was no contact and I was starting to worry. Then one day I found out that the poor guy had fallen seriously ill – the hospital, and so, naturally enough there wasn't a solo waiting for me and of course he wasn't well enough to attempt one. However there was still time, and my thoughts turned to Guthrie, a player I'd long admired. I ran the idea past Nick Beggs, about asking Guthrie to play, and he was very supportive and encouraged me to make contact and so I did just that. I was really, really pleased when he agreed to work on the solo.
But then it all went quiet again. More weeks passed and the deadlines were getting closer and closer. I must admit I was getting really worried and so I talked to Steve Hackett about the whole deal. I told him I really didn't want to impose on him to contribute more material but he said he'd be pleased to help out and would put something together. I was so relieved you couldn't believe it. But even I wasn't prepared for what happened though.”
“And that was ?”
“Steve's solo and Guthrie's solo arrived in my studio on the same day. I was astounded. You honestly couldn't make this up. I listened to each one, of course I did, and was totally blown away by them both. Not only by the musicianship of course, but by the way two brilliant guitarists had soloed to the same piece of music but in totally different ways. It was fantastic! And it left me with a bit of a problem. Do I use one solo and discard the other? Think about that. You get two fabulous solos from two fabulous guitarists and you say to one of them “You know what, I'm going with the other guy. Thanks”. No way did I want to do that. And I didn't want to cut them short either. So the only thing I could do in all honesty was to extend the song to accommodate them both. So after a little bit of thought and tinkering around that's what happened; an extended piece. And I'm pleased to say I think it worked out rather well”.
“The Bride said No”... I think part of the punch the track packs is down to the vocal interplay between yourself and Tania Doko. She's got one hell of a presence on that track, a ferocious delivery. But I'm ashamed to say I've never heard of her. Where did you “find” her ?”
“That's another story in itself. Back in 1999 I heard an album ("Waiting For The Day") by a band called Bachelor Girl. The single “Buses and Trains” was released in their native Australia in 1998 to massive success but it hit Scandinavia and Sweden in particular in '99. It was huge here too and in Finland as well. I played that album to almost destruction! It's still one of my favourite records of all time, I simply love it. It's pure pop joy. Don't forget that in Sweden and Scandinavia in general, pop isn't a dirty word. It's far more of an accepted, serious genre than, say, in the UK. And the vocals! Oh, the vocals! Tania was simply stunning! Powerful, soulful, funky, jazzy, rocky – you name it, she had it absolutely nailed.
Now jump forward to the summer of 2016. I've got this track that needs female vocalist who can really deliver, really give me some serious power. But the question was who? I told Jade Ell, who´ve I´ve been working with off and on for more than 20 years, that if I could have any singer to take on that song it would be Tania Doko, she'd be right there at the top of my wish list. I was floored when she told me Tania was now not only married and a mom but she had been living in Sweden for the past five years! I had absolutely no idea. So I got very excited when she offered to introduce me to her, and more than a little nervous too for some reason, but in September of 2016 I met her and plucked up the courage to ask her to sing on the track. When she said yes...man, I was so pleased. She cut the vocals, sent it over and the rest you know. I just love her singing and I think she has that ability to bring a song to life and in this case take it to another level. I'm so pleased I asked her to sing and even more pleased that she agreed to”.
“So, here you are. Two albums out and the trilogy still to be completed. You must be pleased with the way things have played out so far. Do you have a time scale for the next offering and what can fans expect in terms of themes and content?”.
“Well, with “The Bride said No” being still new I'm still very much at the planning stage at the moment. There are songs to be written and stuff like that. Being the third album of the trilogy it's safe to say that some characters from the first two albums will sail away over the horizon but new characters might make an appearance too. Some doors will close and new ones open; parts of the story will end of course, but new tales are almost certain to emerge. The Vampirate is charting his course as we speak.
And yes, of course I'm pleased the way things have turned out. Pleased but not complacent is probably more accurate”.
“Three albums. That's normally when bands consider touring their material as they would have a decent catalogue of songs to showcase. Would the Vampirate consider dealing with the roar of the grease paint and the smell of the crowd any time in the future?”.
“What? The smell of the crowd? Oh, you mean tour... Jesus, your English! Let me think. Well I'm aiming to release the next album sometime in the fall of 2018 and it's only then that I'll seriously consider touring my material. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to tour it as I think it would be one hell of a show as I've now got great belief in not only my ability as a singer but a showman too, a performer. Bowie, Alice Cooper, Peter Gabriel and many other great artists have combined music with great visuals – I call it musical theatre – and that's what I'd like to do as well. The visuals are so important now. I mean just look at Steve's shows – great lighting is the norm, clever use of light and dark, LEDs... And with me having been his singer for over five years now I'm pretty certain that fans would expect a decent show in the first place and rightly so.
The problem is obviously that of financial risk. I'd love to deliver a full on in your face extravaganza with all the whistles and bells, but realistically speaking there has to be a solid demand for something like that to be viable. Mainstream musical hitters do take chances every now and then but for a new guy, a solo guy, on his own... Well it's a very tough thing to call.
A hell of a risk.
After all, there wouldn't be just me to factor into something like a tour but obviously there would be the band, sound guys, lighting guys, riggers, techs, drivers and all the other elements that a decent tour needs to have to be successful. I'd need a really good group of people around me as I don't think I could honestly take on a project like that and have a good chance of pulling it off without a hitch. I'd need people who really know what to do at any given time.
Don't forget I'll need the right musicians on stage too. At this time it's pointless me even thinking about putting a band together, even as a wish list. So much would depend on who wants to tour with me and them being available. For example, I'd love to have Nick Beggs along for the ride but not only is he incredibly busy he's got his own project, Mute Gods, that he might be want to take on the road too. I'm fairly sure that if he has the time he'd come along, but at the moment it's all ifs, buts and maybes.
It's too far in the future to seriously think about right now.
But do I want to tour? You bet I do. Will it happen? Hopefully yes, but not in the immediate future. That's almost taken care of to a large extent as I'm still touring with Steve and the guys, and he's already booked into “Cruise to the Edge” in 2018. Traditionally that's been followed by more dates, so I'm waiting to see how things play out there too. There's the third album to write and produce as well, so it's not exactly like I'm going to be lost for things to do. Once the third album hits I'll sit down and seriously look at my options”.
“So what of the immediate future?”.
“I'm getting ready for a party this weekend. Skrut and I are having a get together at my home for about 15 friends, Tania and her family are coming over so it's going to be fab. Nick Beggs is arriving on the Friday before the bash and he's going to stay for the week after too. He's going to be my guest of honour and I've have every intention of having a good time. Actually it's not going to be good – it's going to be gorgeous!”.
Which is where I came in...