Imperia are one of a growing number of female-fronted melodic metal bands that seem to be taking over Europe the last few years, but the band has enough character to be considered different than most others.
Interview with: Imperia's Jan Yrlund
First, the band's vocalist – Helena Iren Michaelsen – one of the best female voices in metal today, and second – the band's adherence to pure metal. This may be melodic, but it's still heavy. The band also has a sister group which released an album under the "Angel" Moniker, and we spoke with veteran guitarist Jan Yrlund, an former thrasher from Finland's legendary Prestige, about the two groups:
Hey Jan, I'd like to start out with the band's latest release – "Queen Of Light" – first, what's the meaning of the title?
It’s a symbolic title and describes the theme of the album in general. For us it’s about the wonder of birth and in our case the birth a new album in a way. For Helena
the title has a deeper meaning, since she gave birth to a daughter during the recording process.
In what ways is it different, or similar, to your first release – "The Ancient Dance Of Qetesh"?
It’s quite different I like to think. The first album was recorded and written by session musicians and just before the release a steady line up was formed. John (guitar) and Gerry (bass) and also Audun (keys) were part of the band already on the debut, me and Steve (drums) joined in just before the release. The debut was written in a long period of time by a lot of different people. “Queen Of Light”, then again, was written by me and Audun and I like to believe that due to this the album also sounds more complete and as a whole. We also paid a lot of attention to the production and of course we have played quite a few years now together so you can hear a band playing on the new album. Also the songs are perhaps more thought through with all the arrangements and vocal lines. I think it is a step ahead in many ways…
Compared to most Goth/symphonic metal bands, your material is quite heavy, how much aggression do you think this genre can take before it's turned into thrash, or power metal?
Oh yes, can’t help putting some heavy riffing in there of course. After all, we’re not a pop band. We do have some slow songs, but in general it all should sound heavy. I’m sure the next one will be even more to that direction production wise. I think you can put a lot of energy and power in the music and I don’t consider us as a so called gothic metal band anyway. Going completely thrash wouldn’t fit to Helena’s voice of course, but the music sure can be even heavier. You just have to find a nice balance between the heavy and the melodic.
The album has some controversial song titles, and lyrics, such as "Raped By The Devil", is that a result of Helena's personal problems prior to the birth of her Child?
No, actually she told me that this song was based on a dream she once had. She didn’t say it was a nightmare though…
What's the Idea behind the album's cover?
I wanted to create something fitting to the album title and also make it look atmospheric and in a way sacred. So I picked Helena as a sort of statue of a saint, holding the source of life – the light – between her hands. The booklet itself contains pictures which have a direct context with the lyrics at hand.
Why did you change labels, and moved to Massacre Records?
The label of the debut album just stopped in fact. And we wouldn’t have continued with them anyway, mainly due to the poor distribution outside of the Benelux countries. For the new album we first signed a deal with Black Lotus Records. This we did because we were really happy with the label and the promotion of our Angel album. But in the middle of the recordings Black Lotus stopped as well, so we were without a label. But we had faith in our music, so we just continued with the recordings. Meanwhile we went shopping for a new label. In the end we had I think four established metal labels to choose from. At that point we just compared the offers, the labels and what other bands had told us about them and it was obvious that Massacre could offer us the best deal at the time. So far the co-operation has been just excellent I might say.
Why did you choose to record the album in Spacelab studios, in Germany?
Well I guess I’ve recorded about everything there since ’98 or something, so I know the guys and their capabilities at the studio very well. It is not the biggest studio around, but they have some clear advantages. One is that you don’t have the pressure of a tight schedule. Also on the creative side of things, the co-operation works just excellent.
Now back in time, how did Imperia start out?
Helena started the band in 2004 after she left Trail Of Tears. I think she wanted this time to create something of her own and to bring out her own ideas. So she just collected musicians for song writing and the studio sessions.
You're originally from Finland, how did you end up with a Dutch band?
Oh, that’s a long story. I moved to Amsterdam in ’92 to study Art History at the University. And needless to say I wanted to play as well, so I ended up in many bands during the years. I also did my Lacrimosa years from Holland and later Ancient Rites. After I quit with AR I was not actually searching for any band, but our bass player Gerry of Imperia contacted me nonetheless. And he told me about Helena. So I travelled to Groningen to meet her. I liked their recordings and she obviously liked me, so we have been playing together ever since.
In 2005 you released an album under the moniker "Angel", why not just call it a second Imperia album?
Because I think the music wouldn’t fit. Angel is more a pop/rock album in fact. It is true that there are few songs, which could have been on both albums, but generally Angel is more 'easy going'. I like to write rock music as well and for Helena that album is clearly very personal – a sort of solo-thing if you like. It is true that the same band performs on both albums and we produced and recorded the both in the same studio, but I think Imperia is more a band-product, more metal too, while Angel will always stay as a – hopefully – beautiful side-project. In fact I think the next time Angel will go on a totally different direction. We will see, a lot depends about Helena and her wishes. I have some pop tunes still available.
In a band with a female vocalist, a lot of it's success is usually attributed to the vocalist's sex appeal, as well as it's music, what part do you think that plays with Imperia?
I think it’s a cliché that sex sells. I don’t think that works in metal at all. Metal heads are in a way very traditional. They like half naked woman wearing leather on their album covers and on posters on their wall, but are quickly intimidated to see one on stage. A strong female person on stage is still kind of undone. Said that I think the most vocalists then again try to be too sweet and poppy on stage, meanwhile they play in a metal band after all. I think people measure the female singers on a different way that they do with male singers, which is kind of unfair. Female singers have to be double so good singers, double so good looking and even act as angels on and off stage – and probably give a hug after the show to everyone who asks for one.
Helena does both regular melodic vocals, and more operatic ones, how do you decide in which parts to use which vocals?
That goes in hand in hand with the song itself. Helena has a very good feeling about the atmosphere we are trying to create. And many times we also plan things together with our producer Oliver.
As with most female fronted bands, the Nightwish comparisons are always there, what do you think separates you from that band?
I think it’s a completely different thing, but I do understand why people sometimes make these comparisons – after all it’s a metal band with a female singer. My goth-projects always get compared to Sisters Of Mercy – and not because we sound like that at all. I think it shows a little bit of ignorance from the reviewer/interviewer not to dig deeper into the music, but just categorise bands out of the blue. Our Imperia drummer Steve for example plays also in a band called Bethlehem and they sing in German and have sometimes heavy monotonous riffs. So people compare them to Rammstein then. Just because they are heavy and sing in German. Nonetheless, Nightwish is not a bad comparison at all of course, but I think our music is quite different in the end.
What did you think of them firing their vocalist, and about the new one they hired?
Well, they probably had the best reasons to fire Tarja, so I’m not even commenting on that. All I can say is that I’ve met her and she was very nice to me, but so are all the guys too. And what Olzon concerns, I think she has a very lovely voice. She’s very different from their previous singer, but I think that maybe that is exactly what does the trick here. I think they have made a good choice, how good – the fans will tell shortly no doubt.
You've played in the past in some important gothic and symphonic metal bands, is there anything different about guitar playing in such genres than the one you used in your first band, thrashers Prestige?
Sure there are differences. With Prestige everything was played out of the sleeve and the aggression and being fast were important issues. With the later bands I learned to actually think what I was playing *laughs". That said, I think that the thrash metal past is still very much present in my playing – at least between my ears. I’m not that much of an all around player, my roots are in that speed/thrash and that all still kicks ass to my taste.
You have your own graphics studio, Dark Grove, how did you start out with it?
I started during the Prestige years actually. We had very much of a "do it yourself” feeling towards everything, so we did the covers by ourselves too. Later some other bands asked me to design something for them so I did. A bit by bit things started to roll and around ’97 I started making this also as my profession. I have some very cool clients nowadays and I’m proud of my work.
What artists influenced your work, classic ones? Modern cover artists?
I started actually as a comics illustrator, so my heroes lie on that field, Moebius, Bilal, Manara etc. I used to run a comic magazine, way before I got into this graphic design stuff. I don’t think I’m so much influenced by other artists on the field of graphic design actually. But sure I do enjoy work of many artists - there are just some brilliant guys out there. From the classic ones sure Ken Kelly, Derek Riggs and some others.
What album covers that you did are you especially proud of?
I’m proud of them all, no matter if it’s a small or big band actually. Some of the latest bands I’m really fond of are the new Trail Of Tears, Korpiklaani and a Swedish Viking metal band Wulfgar.
On the web-design side of things I’m really proud that I had a change to design the official Manowar site. That was a real quest indeed. It is the longest and largest production I’ve ever worked for and I’m really happy with it. Also the Magic Circle label site looks really nice I think. So it is really cool to be part of the Manowar family. On the other field I’m really pleased that I had the chance to work for the Eurovision Songfestival. I designed on-screen projections for some 7-8 countries and some of those really looked cool to my opinion, like Iceland, Cyprus, Slovenia etc. And when Serbia won I felt like I won a bit too since I had made the on screen symbols they had on their show. It was an extremely big production and it was cool to be part of that. And seeing this mega-production being made was something really special. Also seeing everything live on the telly was a nice feeling – so we made it then…
The band recently appeared in several summer festivals, which ones did you enjoy most, and why?
I liked the Magic Circle Festival the most because I could meet all the people I have been in contact so much in the past years. As our performance goes, I think that was also the best. It was a really huge stage and it was fun to play there. But I liked also Tuska festival in Finland, because it has been some years for me to perform in my own home country. And Battle of Metal in Geiselwind was also a great experience. We had a lot of fun there too. So, as you see – I just enjoy it all *laughs*.
One of the big festivals you're scheduled to play is the Female Voices festival, what bands over there did you meet in the past, and would like to meet there again?
We’ve played on a same festival with Leave’s Eyes before, but actually I’m looking forward to see Battlelore. The reason is that I know their new singer from his ex-band Evemaster – in fact I designed a cover for them in the past. And I’ve been following Battlelore a bit and I really like their stuff. Also – for another reason – I’m looking forward to see Delain. I played guitar on the album, but I’ve never seen this being played live yet. Martijn (the song writer) has put up a live band and it seems to go very strong, so I’m curious about that.
Finally, what is next for the band? Live shows? A new Angel album?
Actually I think I will write the next Satyrian album first. I’m busy building up a new studio and once I’m finished, I try to start things rolling again. In the meanwhile we will of course be busy with Imperia and I have many ideas for that too – as I’m sure the other guys as well. So I’m already looking forward getting started.
That's it, thanks for doing this interview!
Always a pleasure, thank you my friend!