By David E. Gehlke
When KAMELOT was shopping for a record deal in the desolate, unforgiving mid-1990s, founding member and guitarist Thomas Youngblood was thinking long term. Rather than signing with a stateside label that may not understand KAMELOT's brand of melodic metal, Youngblood and company hooked up with Germany's Noise Records, which was then one of the foremost labels for European power metal. Noise's withering presence in America may have initially hurt KAMELOT in their home country, but the deal wisely put the band in league with European power/symphonic bands waiting for the floodgates to open. Sure enough, they opened for KAMELOT in 1999 via their career breakout, "The Fourth Legacy", an album that began their ultra-important partnership with German producer Sascha Paeth. Cliché as it sounds, KAMELOT has been on the up and up ever since.
KAMELOT has emerged from a five-year span between studio albums with "The Awakening". Unsurprisingly, its release was impacted by the pandemic as the band decided to wait until the dust settled before scheduling a release date and tours. But with strong ticket sales in advance of their European run, KAMELOT may emerge as one of the few American metal bands immune to the skyrocketing costs overseas. As Youngblood would tell BLABBERMOUTH.NET, the pandemic, rising budgets and a disheveled music industry are mere obstacles for him and his band to overcome.
Blabbermouth: "The Awakening" feels like an uplifting album — it comes from Tommy's (Karevik, vocals) melodies, the guitar melodies and the orchestration. Does it feel the same to you?
Thomas: "I think so. For the times, it was important to make a record that was a little bit more inspirational. We always have this balance between darkness and light. Maybe there's a little bit more light on this one. For sure, it's a more melodic album. The choruses are more melodic than 'The Shadow Theory', but there are also dark parts on the record: 'Eventide' and 'My Pantheon'. We have these stark contrasts on the record. The diversity — it's a cliché to say it's our most diverse record, but it is. That's something I'm even more proud of. We're always able to offer the fans something different and new, but there's a massive variety on the record that is one of our trademarks. You can't put on one KAMELOT album and say, 'This represents the band.' There are so many variables."
Blabbermouth: This is the longest you've gone between album releases. Are you the type to re-do songs over time, or did you let them be?
Thomas: "This was the longest time we had and the least pressure for a deadline. For the most part, that's because there was no touring happening. If we released in '21 or '22, there was no touring possible. We didn't want to release a lame-duck album. We just took more time. We spent more time on the record and added more details. We brought in Jacob Hansen for the last six months to overtake the mixing and mastering of the record, which I think was a great variable for the sound. We did release a live DVD and Blu-Ray ['I Am The Empire: Live From The 013'] in between 'The Shadow Theory' and 'The Awakening', so there would have been some kind of natural lag anyway. But the pandemic added a year or two to the timeline."
Blabbermouth: Sascha Paeth is like your [longtime IRON MAIDEN producer] Martin Birch. Like MAIDEN couldn't do an album without Martin during its heyday, it's the same for KAMELOT. How has your relationship evolved over the last 24 years?
Thomas: "Saschav is more of a friend than a colleague or co-worker. There might come a day when he says, 'I don't have time,' or he's not doing production and we'll figure something out. But that's a great comparison. I remember the old MAIDEN days with Birch. Sascha has been the sixth member of the band. It's funny. We just did a South American tour. Luca Turilli from RHAPSODY was on the tour and I told him I went to Sascha because somebody gave me a cassette of RHAPSODY back in the day. I thought, 'I have to find out who produced this album.' It was Sascha and I called him. Three months later, he was in Florida and we were working on 'The Fourth Legacy'. It's been a great ride with Sascha. He's been instrumental in helping KAMELOT hone our sound."
Blabbermouth: "Siége Perilous" is a strong record, but you can't deny the jump in production quality to "The Fourth Legacy".
Thomas: "No doubt. It would be foolish for me to downplay that. I just loved the productions and the sound of the drums, that whole German approach to production, like when you listen to old records from ACCEPT or SCORPIONS. We went from a bunch of kids that didn't know anything, first of all, about writing songs, but also production. Then we went to a guy like Sascha, who had been in a band like HEAVENS GATE and worked in the studio. Sascha was able to do his thing and bring the band to the next level. Also, Miro, our producer then, was instrumental in all these things. I never downplay their contributions. You could argue that we wouldn't be talking right now without them. I have never taken their input for granted. It's been great."
Blabbermouth: The stars aligned on "The Fourth Legacy". It was your second album with Roy (Khan, vocals) and the beginning of KAMELOT becoming more orchestrated.
Thomas: "I was bringing in a lot of ideas from my love for New Age and world music. We brought in Celtic music, some Arabian stuff, film score and also female vocals, which before that, we didn't think about having a female vocalist in our songs. From 'Nights Of Arabia' to 'A Sailorman's Hymn', we started bringing female vocals into what, I guess at the time, was considered power metal. I think of it as the early days of symphonic power metal. We were able to marry some of the stuff I was bringing with Sascha and Miro's genius. Them having a stable of real musicians who played violin and bandoneon, or whatever it might be was really important. We tried to do something fresh and unique. I think it worked."
Blabbermouth: And let's not forget that was a terrible time to be an American melodic metal band.
Thomas: "I didn't think about it that way then. [Laughs] I knew Noise Records was the right label for us at the time. They had HELLOWEEN, STRATOVARIUS and CONCEPTION. That was the number one label that we wanted to be on. We were fortunate enough to get started with them. I can talk about the record deal, but we don't need to go into that. [Laughs] It's all about the process. Your first record deal is never what your last one is. All of those things, the stars aligned for us. We had some personnel changes, but I've never allowed someone else to dictate my path. With every change and every hurdle, I always saw it as an opportunity for the band to grow. That's how I've always looked at it with KAMELOT."
Blabbermouth: "The Awakening" is Tommy's fourth KAMELOT album, but he's more predominant than before. In what ways has he asserted himself in KAMELOT?
Thomas: "His growth in the band has been incredible. First, his songwriting contributions have grown tenfold. You can hear that on the record. There are definitely things that he has brought to the album that we didn't have before. It's a fresh addition. Everything still maintains that KAMELOT DNA, which is most important to me. The cool thing is that Tommy brought ideas on 'Opus Of The Night (Ghost Requiem)', which is part two of 'Ghost Opera'. This was his idea. He said, 'Why don't we continue and finish that storyline?' Thinking about 'Midsummer's Eve' harkens back to the days of 'A Sailorman's Hymn' and 'Don't You Cry'. These were things we talked about. Like, 'Let's make something fresh and new, but I want to analyze what made things special in the past.' A lot of it had to do with details — bringing in music from outside the genre, whether it's Celtic or Arabian, like the opening for 'One More Flag In The Ground', its oriental scales. Those are things that I remember being fun as a songwriter in the band. We spoke to a journalist and he said, 'This is the best of all the KAMELOT eras kind of album.' I thought that was a cool way of looking at it."
Blabbermouth: KAMELOT has a high success ratio of nurturing female vocalists like Alissa White-Gluz (ARCH ENEMY),Simone Simons (EPICA) and Elize Ryd (AMARANTHE). Do you think you'll have the same luck with Melissa Bonny of AD INFINITUM?
Thomas: "The track record hasn't been bad, but I don't want to pat myself on the back too much. I like to see what's happening in the scene. Melissa popped on our radar a couple of years ago. She's amazing on the album. Her growls and clean vocals are spot on. She did our South American tour with us and everybody loved her. We're excited about having her on the record, but she'll be on our European tour. The fans that haven't seen her yet will be pleasantly surprised by her performance."
Blabbermouth: KAMELOT has been a full-fledged enterprise for quite some time. How did you handle Covid and in what ways did it impact the band?
Thomas: "Initially, I wasn't concerned. But then I started to see the industry as a whole suffer. I got hit pretty badly by Covid, so there was a point where I wasn't concerned by anything other than staying alive. But once I recovered from everything, I started to analyze what was happening in the business and look at the costs — how everything has doubled for bands. This is another hurdle you must approach and look at, 'Okay, how can we get through this period?' That's what we did. Other than the health aspect for me and so many millions of people that either died or have long Covid, it forced an awakening to what's important if you want to find a silver lining to the pandemic. You saw stories of a waiter at a restaurant who got laid off and said, 'This is not the job I want to do. I won't go back to it.' A lot of us that had forced time off or forced time to evaluate what you're doing was a good thing."
Blabbermouth: Some of your peers have canceled European tours because of rising costs. How are you approaching touring overseas in light of all this?
Thomas: "We're fortunate the tour is selling well. We have the production we want for the tour. We didn't scale it down at all. Obviously, there are margins you must look at if a show or two doesn't happen, it could hurt the tour big time. We're just trying to look at it positively and put a positive spin on it. The shows in South America were way beyond our expectations. I'm hoping there's enough of a pent-up need to see KAMELOT. Hopefully, there will be enough of that to where we can get back to some normalcy. We're getting ready to announce our North American tour, which will have the best and biggest venues we've ever been in. I don't want to say we're in denial, but we'll approach the situation how it is and do what we do."
Blabbermouth: What's the trade-off, then? Do you scale down the production and bring fewer people to make it over? Did you think about that?
Thomas: "Yeah, we did. Before we agreed, I had to look at the numbers. Our lighting budget has gone up 20 percent. Our tour bus budget has gone up 70 percent. But, somehow, we've been able to manage with the crew and the band and say, 'Look, this is going to be a rough period for the next couple of years.' The bands that can get through this are the ones that will be standing. That's my philosophy. We didn't scale the production down at all. Like the Netherlands, where we shot our Blu-Ray at the 013, we are now playing at a bigger venue. I increased the production for that show. I'm looking at it more like an investment. I hope the fans see that and it pays off."