By David E. Gehlke
Drummer Martin Lopez is the first to admit that his post-OPETH career in SOEN has required a lot of work. The band's 2012 "Cognitive" debut was immediately hit with TOOL comparisons, perhaps justifiably so, rendering bass legend Steve DiGiorgio's (DEATH, SADUS, TESTAMENT) inclusion somewhat moot. (DiGiorgio left SOEN a year later.) But Lopez, vocalist and co-founder Joel Ekelöf persisted, gradually forging its progressive, textured path, most notably on 2019's excellent "Lotus" and 2021's "Imperial", albums that etched complex metal with moody, atmospheric motifs. With a dedicated touring schedule and a stellar live album in last year's "Atlantis", SOEN has methodically built a global fanbase while sticking to its guns. And after starting his career with AMON AMARTH before jumping to OPETH in 1997 before leaving in 2006, Lopez is proving that the third time is the charm.
Returning to the live setting after the Covid pandemic and recording "Atlantis" led SOEN to its newest studio foray, "Memorial". It's a heavier, punchier affair, with Ekelöf pushing a more aggressive side to his normally graceful and melodic vocals. "Memorial" proves to be yet another wrinkle in SOEN's multi-faceted career, which has also seen the band taking a more open and overt approach to its lyrics, many of which touch upon human rights issues. With the war still raging in Ukraine and their new album on the way, Lopez and Ekelöf connected with BLABBERMOUTH.NET.
Blabbermouth: I thought the "Atlantis" live album you released last year was next-level for SOEN. What did you learn from playing SOEN songs in such an environment?
Martin: "Because of technology and how you record albums, and the help you have live with triggers, etcetera, we discovered we're just a band. We can play live together like back in the day, reach that emotion and get that groove. We were really happy with that part. Just playing together with a few mics and playing the songs was great."
Joel: "No matter how we dress up the songs, we know they work. If we re-arrange them with strings, we still had the hunch they would hold up. We've always wanted to do that. 'Atlantis' proved that it's possible and works for SOEN."
Blabbermouth: Was "Atlantis" responsible for the heavier approach on "Memorial"?
Joel: "I think the correlation is that there was a pandemic. The pandemic made it possible for us to do 'Atlantis' because suddenly, there was a lot of time to do what we wanted. When we came out and were able to play the songs live again, I think during the pandemic, we realized how much we missed playing live. And how much we missed the live setting. When we again played live was good fuel for 'Memorial'. We were really pumped up. That shows on the album. It shows that we wanted to do something powerful."
Martin: "We did 'Atlantis', then got this urge to play heavy and go crazy again. There's something special about playing a metal show you don't get in other shows. At the same time, the war in Ukraine happened. The revolution in Iran happened. All of a sudden, there is all of this anger in the room. I think that had a big influence on the album."
Blabbermouth: Let's jump to this topic: Oleksii ("Zlatoyar" Kobel, bass) is Ukrainian. How has the war affected him and SOEN?
Martin: "We brought him to Stockholm. He was living here days before the invasion. Of course, it impacted the band. Also, for him, having his family there and not knowing what was going on impacted the whole country and society. Just that little fucking thought that it's 2023 and there are people, families and kids being bombed to death — it's a thing. It's not about which team you're rooting for, but these things still happen. It's demoralizing."
Joel: "We had this feeling that when these conflicts are around us and it's so real, we cannot write an album about the cosmos and the stars aligning. It's very close to us and it's happening around us. It's very tangible, everything we write about."
Blabbermouth: Martin made a good point that it's 2023 and these things are happening. And it may be hard for people over here to understand because they've always had safety, but it's much different for the people of Ukraine.
Martin: "What also pissed us off is this wave of people trying to explain that you have one team, 'NATO has been pushing Russia.' Then you have the other team, '[Vladimir] Putin is a psychopath.' The whole thing is that it doesn't fucking matter. Someone is pushing a button that will send a bomb to a house and kill a family. Just that thing. When you get to the stage when you have killed a family, it's impossible to understand."
Blabbermouth: And it's also hard to understand there is a segment of people in America and other countries who don't think the war has major worldwide implications.
Martin: "That is a little bit of the problem for you in America and for us in Sweden that because you are so far away from the actual conflict, whether it's in the Middle East or Ukraine, you become numb. Now and then, something happens. Like, you see a few pictures of the bombings. Or this attack in Iran where they beat this girl to death for removing her hijab. Sixteen years old and some guys beat her to death. You see that…"
Blabbermouth: And that's why Joel said it's hard to write about the solar system or other topics.
Martin: "I feel like after that, whatever poetry you want to write, write it for yourself. But if you have a microphone, fucking say something."
Blabbermouth: Why, then, has SOEN never been afraid to tackle subjects that most metal bands stay away from?
Martin: "I don't know how you can be afraid to say something when you're addressing logic. We're not choosing sides. We want everyone to have a warm meal. We want kids to be able to go to school. We want people to be free. We all agree on that. It's very fucking simple. I don't know how to get there. The guy from the right doesn't know how to get there. The guy from the left doesn't know either. It has never existed. If we spend time attacking the other side instead of focusing on the solution, our lyrics have always been about that. We don't have the answers. I'm a drummer. He's a singer. That's what we do. There is this thing where something needs to happen. We have to unite to try and change things. It's what we must try to go for, what little we can do."
Joel: "At the same time, it's like when you have a conversation with somebody who is always only ironic and satiric, like joking all the time. You feel that you can't get close to this person. It's the same thing with music. If everything is a joke all the time, it gets uninteresting after a while. In a way, we choose to be a little more serious and a little bit more true to make it so that we are worth listening to."
Blabbermouth: Joel, you've always had such a smooth vocal delivery. You're now pushing into aggressive territory on "Memorial". Can you explain what that was like?
Joel: "It felt more natural to push it more and make it more aggressive and energetic. It felt like the right thing. We wanted to make music with more power and energy, raw, desperate and less intellectual. It just felt right and like it was something new. For every song, we tried different expressions. On this album, it felt almost all the songs needed this desperate measure with powerful singing. It came out in a good way. Also, you don't want to repeat yourself on every album. Same expressions. Same singing. Same dynamics. It has to be something different."
Martin: "As we were talking, coming out from 'Atlantis' and all the wars, it came naturally that the songs came out aggressively. The lyrics are more direct and need to be sung this way — more honest, direct and in-your-face. Joel is amazing at embracing the songs and giving them the right character. He worked a lot on that. He found the perfect voice for these songs."
Joel: "The thing is like a philosophy we all have in the band: You're supposed to master your instrument. You're supposed to do all this stuff. When it comes down to it, you put the song on top. If you need some smooth vocals, yes, it's there. You get it. If you need some intricate bass playing, then Zlatoyar will deliver. It's not about showing off the technicality. Everything is for the song. Then, if you need it, we're there. But only smooth vocals? It didn't feel right for these songs and this album."
Blabbermouth: It's fitting because SOEN has been a slow build. If you go back to the debut, you were often compared to TOOL, but that's not so much the case anymore. The band has grown a lot in a decade by trying new things.
Martin: "The thing is with metal and this kind of music is that hard work pays off. Maybe in pop and R&B music, you may need a 'hit' to be discovered. There's got to be luck. And you'd imagine there's money behind it. In this kind of music, you record it, play, record another album, tour, keep on writing and make the songs better and people will be there. There will be a hundred more every time you play. It's a great thing. At the same time, it took us many years to find our DNA or place where we felt comfortable doing the music we do."
Joel: "And it takes time for people to recognize the DNA. In the first album, it's obvious that everyone has to find references to other music. Then, it comes naturally that people start recognizing something SOEN-esque after a few albums. Like, 'That feels like SOEN.' It's not planned. It's not something we have as a thing. After a while, you can start to recognize that. Now people are talking about the 'SOEN sound'. I don't think we even know ourselves what that is."
Blabbermouth: Martin, you were in the band when OPETH finally broke through. Has the ride on the way back up with SOEN been more satisfying?
Martin: "Definitely. The best part is the chase. Getting there. Building this huge thing with your friends, having these goals in common and slowly getting there. And, of course, we're doing the music we love. That's the most important thing. To be able to do it for the third time is truly a blessing. This time, because Joel and I have been really working on this fucking daily for so many years is really rewarding. We have control I didn't have in prior bands, not only because of age but because of our current experience, which is different. I don't want to say it's a blessing, but it is. I'm not sounding cocky, but I've always been convinced that everyone has the same notes — the same instruments and rhythms, but it always comes down to hard work.
Joel: "Martin has a certain drive that is very rare. I got home from Berlin with my last band and we tried a lot of stuff, but I felt fed up. I had been doing music for ten years. I was doing okay, but I considered keeping it amateur and fun. Then this moron [Lopez] says, 'Let's go. We're going to start a band.' [Laughs] I told him I was done with it. But he said, 'Let's go!' Now we're here 20 years later. You got to have a certain mindset which Martin has. It's fantastic."
Blabbermouth: It sounds like Martin is a persuasive guy.
Joel: "He really is."
Martin: 'It's for a simple reason: What else will we do? I'm too old to be a soccer star now. I'll stick with drums and try to make the best out of it."
Photo credit: Jeremy Saffer