INTERVIEW: Stephanie Stevens talks with THEM guitarist Markus Johannson about where the band started from, touring with Helloween and his favorite tracks off the new album - READ IT HERE
BY STEPHANIE STEVENS
THEM a German/American theatrical heavy metal band comprised of Klaus Konig—vocals, Markus Ullrich-guitar, Markus Johansson-guitar, Mike Lepond—bass, Angel Cotte-drums and Richard Seibel-keys are making waves with the bands metal roots and horror/fantasy epic conceptual tale that began with the band’s debut disc, SWEET HOLLOW and follow up MANOR OF THE SE7EN GABLES.
A lyrical story of a man caught between unfortunate circumstances and unspeakable evil. On Oct. 30th, 2020 the story continues with the third installment entitled RETURN TO HEMMERSMOOR on SPV/Steamhammer. The band hits you hard with layers of pure power metal, guitar aggressive ambiance, thrash elements and progressive metal attributes. With BATTLE BLOOD, the first single/video out for your listening ears you can hear the maturity and growth the band has produced with writing this new album. I think it’s just the ice breaker of some intense, impeccable and diverse playing from this globally enriched band.
I had a chance to speak with guitar player Phenom, Markus Johansson about where the band started from, touring with Helloween, and his favorite tracks off the new album.
Q: For music fans who might be new to the band THEM can you tell me what inspired you guys to start a project like this and personally what did this band help enhance in your guitar playing?
A: The band was originally a King Diamond tribute act, THEM being the name of one of King's all time legendary albums. Our singer Troy (KK) wanted to take things to the next level with originals, and he then started to build what would become the current formation of the band. As far as guitar skill enhancement, ULLE and I are both cut from the same mold, so we love the same things, and want to play the same things more or less, haha. That said, you cannot be in this band if you don't stay on top of your shit.
Q: your debut album SWEET HOLLOW was a concept album, who came up with the story idea and how is writing an album conceptually different than just writing a record with songs on it?
A: Our singer Troy (KK) writes all of the lyrics which have now become one gigantic story spanning all three of our albums. The new record RETURN TO HEMMERSMOOR, is the third installment of the story that begins with SWEET HOLLOW. Not having written it personally, but having written lyrics for a multitude of songs I've released over the years, writing a concept album, let alone one continuous trilogy is no easy task.
Q: BATTLE BLOOD gives you a small taste of the new disc, what made you guys choose this one as the first “single”?
A: The band and the record label felt that "FREE" was a song that could stand on its own and help to showcase the identity that the band has carved out for itself. Also, we are fairly versatile in our songwriting across the albums, so there are always going to be ballad type songs and then straight rippers. "BATTLE BLOOD" being a straight ripper, it was a great juxtaposition to leading with "FREE."
Q: Would you define this song the meat and potatoes of the album or is it just one layer of what the rest of the album has in store?
A: The singles are really the tip of the iceberg, they are not paving the way for replicates. There are plenty of differing songs on the album, and I can't wait for people to hear the ENTIRE thing.
Q: Do you have a favorite off track off the album and if so what makes it a stand out for you?
A: "BATTLE BLOOD" is absolutely one of my favorites, as it's loaded with riff and riffs that is a blast to play, and there are some fun leads as well. That said, I think "WAKEN" might be my favorite-favorite, but I won't give away why. No spoilers!
Q: As a band how can you say you guys have grown in songwriting since the bands inception?
A: The first album was deliberately what some may call King Diamond worship, so the material was really one gigantic tribute. Very similar to how Gruesome pays homage to Death. Each album has morphed and grown as we have played together over the years, and we are pretty far from King Diamond these days, but the visuals and overall aesthetic seem to distort that a little.
Q: You also are band members that are globally located how does that make for interaction for promotions like videos etc. and also when it comes to writing it must be done all via internet. Do you find a heavy difference from doing it this way vs. having jam sessions to hash out ideas?
A: We are gigantic fans of how we write and file share the songs as we build each album. The process is super refined, and we have no issues with recording individually and remote, as needed. Everyone knows the very deliberate needs of the albums, so we lay everything out first, and then attack it. Everyone does their homework, so we have zero issues. It's such a solid crew.
Q: The band had the pleasure to tour with Helloween. On that tour did you guys learn anything from them or given any advice? If so, do you still use that to this day?
A: The tour with Helloween was a phenomenal way to start the band off and running. If I learned anything from Helloween on that tour, it is to FLY from show to show when the dates jump from Chicago, to Seattle, to Los Angeles! Haha, it was a lot of driving. But no, they were great, and it was great to watch them every night.
Q: If you could take yourself away from being a musician and just look at music as a fan what personally makes a well thought out and solid album to you? And what is your number one record that you’re a fan of that comes to mind when answering this?
A: As a fan, the best kind of album is one you can repeatedly revisit and continually hear new things that you missed before. Layered, epic, thought out. Sometimes less is more, but when the entire album has a continuous vibe, regardless of conceptual things, it is more enjoyable for me. It is way too difficult to narrow down a definitely number one favorite, but one that fits this mold perfectly is Opeth's Blackwater Park. Phenomenal songs, phenomenal production. Holds up every listen.
Q: It always intrigues me when a guitar player like yourself can play so fast and intricate. Do you have certain warmup techniques you do before shows/writing? And best advice to give any new musician starting out on guitar?
A: Before shows it can obviously be beneficial to warm up and run some scales, stretch out, etc. Sometimes though, with the way the scheduling goes, you don't always have the time right beforehand. Playing every day on the road helps, whenever you can find the time.
Q: Growing up did you listen to a lot of European music?
A: Without really having a specific desire to seek out European music, but it certainly found me, and one band lead to five lead to fifty. There are so many great bands from multiple genres, from multiple countries, but people seem to say I maintain a strong European influence when I write songs, or leads, or solos.
Q: How do you view the European music scene vs. American music scene and vice versa from what you have seen touring there?
A: Europe is a whole different world when it comes to the music industry, but they both have their merits. With THEM we have played in Europe almost entirely, only having our short run in the states with Helloween. One thing I will say is that Europe seems to juggle multiple genres in the mainstream, whereas the US charts are majorly pop, etc.
Q: Any other new stuff going on with THEM other than the release on Oct. 30th of RETURN TO HEMMERSMOOR? Also drop how fans get pre order this album and buy all over merchandise and music by you guys?
A: We are always hard at work cultivating the live show, set lists, new songs, etc. We can't wait for people to hear the new record, and then the next most exciting thing is seeing where we end up taking the next one. Fans can pre-order across all platforms, Amazon, directly from Steamhammer, iTunes, etc. At the end of the day, we update our social media with links that will take you where you need to go. That or our website will get you set up!
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