Olaf Thörsen: "No One Should Be Allowed To Play Music Without Knowing Marillion"
2012 has been a stunning year for new metal. In particular, the Italian scene has seen an explosion of quality material whether you talk about Luca Turilli's Rhapsody or Sound Storm and even those the world has not yet heard such as Wind Rose and Hollow Haze. The pressure was on for Vision Divine co-founder Olaf Thörsen (born Carlo Andrea Magnani). Carrying the distinction of bringing Labyrinth back to its legendary status at the top with the 2010 release "Return to Heaven Denied, Pt. II - A Midnight Autumn's Dream" upon his own return, he "set his destination" back to Vision Divine to dream up the new concept LP "Destination Set to Nowhere." With co-founder and Rhapsody of Fire vocalist Fabio Lione back in the fold since the 2009 release "9 Degrees West of the Moon," the dynamic duo returns with a seventh stunning progressive masterpiece (see Metal Underground.com's review at this location).
Granting interview time, Olaf Thörsen now set his destination for Metal Underground.com where he tells the whole story of "Destination Set to Nowhere": its concept on human nature, how it was written, what it was like to work with the world's best vocalist and just how much it meant to him to NOT have his music compared to generic power metal. What follows turned out to be one of your author's most enjoyable conversations.
CROMCarl: Congratulations on “Destination Set to Nowhere,” it truly is one of the best albums you have ever done. Tell our readers a little about the concept story and how that came about?
Olaf: Thanks a lot, thanks a lot, its really an honor. This album is particular to me because it’s the very first album, including even my other band Labyrinth, where I started writing a concept which was not taken from philosophy, or history or any strange point of view about the meaning of life. It is about some social troubles, which I guess, no matter where you live, I guess everybody is somehow living now with these. The album starts from a man who’s basically completely sick of the politics, economics..all the incidents that people know all too well nowadays. I started working on this concept from a simple idea. I wondered what would I do if I have the money and if there was technology. So, my joke about it, and its not much a joke, is that I would really leave the earth and try for better somewhere outside. That’s how it started, then I then worked the concept over this idea of a man trying to get with other people who feel the same and all of these people are supposed to be “the better side of humanity” and they all leave the earth. They basically leave it as a gift to the politicians, they said “it’s a gift, you can have it, we don’t care.” Then they leave and they explore space and they try to finding a new earth to start a new world based on much better ideals. If you listen to the album, read the story and the lyrics you will find out in the end...the end is bitter. It is not as sweet as we may suppose, because all of the people with all the best idea all together with the goal to create the best society in the end find out that human nature is what it is and you cannot change it. So, once again this man, at the end of the album, realizes it doesn’t matter where you go the human greed will follow you. So, he just goes back to the ship and he decides to leave once again, and as the title says his destination is set to nowhere. So he just leaves and decides to live alone in space together with a space ship.
CROMCarl: Now as for the sound, this album really is a balanced album with so many styles put together. You have lot of progressive elements, you have some heavy elements. Its one of the few albums that I find it hard to stop when it starts. We talked on Facebook about the band being pigeon holed as a “power metal” band and I wanted to ask whether you think that “typecasting” really hurts the band when journalists drive fans away from the band.
Olaf: Yeah, exactly...exactly. When some people ask me when we compose an album like this one, how do we proceed, but we use the same answer to your question. We have no particular scheme in our mind. We don’t proceed like “Okay, lets write this kind of album, in which one song is going to be power metal, one song is more progressive.” No, it is nothing like this. That is why, basically, it sounds a bit progressive, because actually we just wrote, and we recorded, the music that we felt. So, as you may calculate easily, it is the seventh album, which means many years playing and writing music and it is like a collection of all the experiences we had in life. That is why this album sounds more complete compared to the previous ones where you may like it or not, but there are only one or maybe two aspects of the music that we use to play now. This album is now...one guy in Italy called it “the bible”[laughs] of our way of playing. It’s a funny joke, but I may agree. I find it quite natural when a band is not made by teenagers, unfortunately. I mean we are not old, but we are not teenagers for sure. When you have already released many albums, you also produce other bands and you get used to touring for many years, I think it would be a bit scary to found out in the press in 2012 that I would still play and record and write the same music that I was doing when I was a teenager.
CROMCarl: So it is really important for you to progress the sound with every single album, right?
Olaf: Yeah, yeah. You know, I was joking with you on Facebook, but I am serious when I say that it is kind of scary when I read....I mean, I cannot complain about the reviews so far - we are having very good reviews, but it is kind of scary when I start reading something with Vision Divine and then immediately below you read “Genre: power metal.” I find it weird, but most of all I find it not honest with the listeners because if somebody never heard of us, or maybe just heard the name but is not much into the music we play, reading power metal would be distracting I guess. Maybe I’m wrong, but when I think about power metal, I think of bands like Edguy, Gamma Ray, Helloween....bands which I love, but definitely I don’t see how Vision Divine can fit completely into that kind of music. I mean, we of course have some sound, and it is true that we come from that sound, but nowadays “Destination Set to Nowhere” can hardly be put into power metal. That is my point of view.
CROMCarl: I think what it is, is that when you put a speedy riff in a song everyone wants to label it power metal. This happens occasionally on the album, but this album is much more in the vein of Marillion in my mind than anything else. I use that to describe the sound more than comparing the band to any one band. When we write reviews, sometimes we find the need to define the sound, but “power metal” is not what I used to describe this album. I wanted people to know that when they pick up this album and hear the title track...immediately the keyboard reminded me of Marillion and that is such a great style of music.
Olaf: Right, and you got it. I am really pleasantly surprised because you are the very first who ever mentioned Marillion. Of course, it makes me happy. I couldn’t say Marillion is my main band, and that I live only listening to Marillion, but definitely Marillion is one of the [laughs]...it’s a must! I think nowadays no one should be allowed to play music without knowing Marillion. We didn’t intentionally think of Marillion while writing “Destination,” but it is one of those hidden inspirations, I would call it. If you grow up listening to some kind of music, even when you do not do a copycat, I think some of those inspirations always find their way to pop up every now and then. Be it true or not, I’ve been really happy, very glad to read what you said about Marillion and also bands like Genesis, because that group makes me very happy. I mean normally, I open my reviews and I am used to read(ing we are) compared with bands like Gamma Ray and Edguy, which I love, but I think its only one aspect of the many we have as a band. So thank you very much.
CROMCarl: Well that was my pleasure. I wanted to ask you about writing. When you started writing this album what was the first song you came up with.
Olaf: I think the first song was “The Dream Maker,” which is the opening song off the album. We didn’t have a particular plan for this album. We just took the guitar and Fabio was often sitting in front of me with a beer and a cigarette [laughs], and we were spending, even in nights, in the studio composing something. I think this is the very first album we started with something like three or four songs. Normally, in the past we would used to write the songs needed for the album. So, if we say ok we will do eleven songs, then we were ending with eleven songs. This time, we started writing and writing and writing, then we were correcting, then we would cut things - something was good, something was not good. In the end, I’m pretty sure three songs are not included on the album and I also add that if they are not included there must be a reason why. So they were simply not ok for this album. Yeah, the first one was “The Dream Maker.” I think the very last one was “Destination Set to Nowhere,” but it is just by chance, its not something intentional. “Destination Set to Nowhere,” the song, has been written in the end. We were supposed to have another song in the album. I was relaxing outside of the studio and I was just playing something with the acoustic guitar, but just a couple of chords, which actually are the first two chords which you can hear in the intro song. Fabio popped out of the door of the studio, which is a small one, it is the studio where we do our pre-productions, and he had a big smile on his face and he said ‘could you play that chord again.’ Well, I played the two chords which I barely remembered, because I was just improvising and then he was starting to sing and we just ran into the studio and we just took a microphone and we recorded something very rushingly. Actually, it is a song that you can hear. There is no chorus, there is no bridge, there is no verse, its just a melody going on everywhere [laughs]. We decided just to leave it as it was because we just wrote the song...I can say we wrote it in five minutes. That is how it was.
CROMCarl: Excellent. So now at what point in the writing did the concept come into play. Was there something about the music itself that a sci-fi edge to it, or did you already have the concept?
Olaf: I always start first with the concept. I think, to me, it would be not easy to do the contrary because I normally need to know first the story I’m gonna tell. Then I start writing music according to the actual spheres that I need. For this album, because of the concept, still I didn’t know the songs I was about to write, but during our meetings, the other guys in the band, I was telling them for sure we would have needed some more electronic stuff in terms of keyboards and also the guitars would have been much heavier than before. That’s how it was perceived prior, to represent the idea of a space ship and also I was thinking about space so that is why you hear many acoustic guitars and most of them are...this is kind of technical, I’m sorry if I am boring you, that is why most of the times the chords are minor because that gives me the feeling of the open space. You know, something standing still.
CROMCarl: Right, and then the keyboard work of Alessio Lucatti was brilliant. There are parts in there where it has that....and I am not musician, but there is kind of that whooooo oooo [Carl attempts to recreate the eerie sci-fi keyboard from "Message to Home," to no avail], which sounds exactly what you would envision outer space being like, or at least from the movies.
Olaf: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That has been a very hard job. We’ve been working very hard on the keyboards because the typical heavy metal keyboards - its supposed to be the one that uses a couple of pads and then adding a couple of nice solos [laughs] and then going on like we have in the past also. But for this album, I told Alessio that his role in the band was supposed to be like, really for the first time, doing arrangements for this album. So, I was not asking him to play pads or chords, with the piano or the keyboards, I just told him ‘open your computer and lets listen to every single sound you have in your database because I need you to find something peculiar, particularly fitting to the atmosphere of this album.’ I think Alessio did a very good job. When I finished this album, I honestly told all the guys ‘good job, I am very proud of all of you.’ I think everybody did his job very well to make this album sound, of course good, but to give this album the mood we wanted to.
CROMCarl: Is there any song in particular that means a lot to you? If you had to pick one, or a couple, which would be your favorites.
Olaf: My favorite song is “Destination Set to Nowhere.” It is probably going to be my all time favorite song [laughs]. The atmosphere of that song is something magical. Wow, that’s difficult, its like asking a father which of which of his sons are his favorite. I would say “The Dream Maker” and “Mermaids From Their Moons,” are the songs which I like a lot.
CROMCarl: I think my favorite, in case you wanted to know.....
Olaf: Sure I do.
CROMCarl: The song that really made it for me, and I love “The Lighthouse,” but “Message to Home”...I cannot stop that song every time its on.
Olaf: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m used to not mentioning ballads ever [laughs], because somebody told me in the past that the time for ballads is over since the 80's...they’re gone [laughs].
CROMCarl: No, not at all.
Olaf: I’m never mentioning ballads because of that probably [laughs]. I really love the song, yeah, of course.
CROMCarl: Its just amazing because it really conveys the whole story and Fabio.... Speaking of Fabio, how has it been working with Fabio after all that time [Fabio was an original founding member and left in 2003, replaced by Michele Luppi (now of Secret Sphere), and returned in 2008], because I cannot find anybody who is better than him. He is just brilliant.
Olaf: Fabio is insane. I’ve known Fabio since 1993, and you mentioned, its almost twenty years so we really grew up together and I always, always considered him one of the best singers ever... that I have ever have had the chance to see and to hear. Of course, I had lots of playing with other great outstanding singers so I’m not making a competition about who is the better. Fabio, to me, it is really something special and unique because he is not only a good singer but he can really adapt the voice according to the song and even to the lyrics he is gonna sing. So, if you listen to “Message to Home” and then you listen to “Here We Die” or even “The Sin Is You” some people may even think its different singers. Its just him. There is no trick, there is no computer [laughs] there is no artificial stuff on the album, what you hear is what he can sing. I agree with you, Fabio is really amazing and I was particularly happy that Fabio did such a great job on this album, because to be honest, the previous one “9 Degrees West of the Moon” Fabio was the one who weathered the worst treatments in the album. But that was not something we could control because back then we had another producer. I am particularly happy that he did such a brilliant job this time.
CROMCarl: And if anybody isn’t convinced by his singing on any of the albums he has been on, you just got to see him live. I stood in awe, I could do nothing just watching him when he came around with Rhapsody of Fire. I couldn’t believe how great he was live, even better than in the studio.
Olaf: Yeah. That’s what I told you. What is incredible with Fabio is that he can adapt himself even to different songs but even to different bands. He always does....everything he does is the best. So that is just amazing. That is just amazing.
CROMCarl: I wanted to ask you about the album cover. Obviously, it portrays the story, but I noticed that the logo changed and I don’t see the angel anywhere....the usual angel.
Olaf: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! Many people are wondering what happened. That’s something cool, because I also have a booklet which has the good old logo and there was a try to insert some sort of angel originally on the cover, but that was when we just signed with Edel and we were working on the album and they only had the promo we sent back then when we chose to take the band with them. So, they had only four songs and they started working through everything. When I sent the final master to the label, to the guys at EarMusic/Edel, they listened to the master carefully and they called me back and said ‘guys, this album is really great. I think we can do something really great with this album. How would you think If we start sending a message to the listeners even before the album could be released, starting from the logo, starting from the cover. Why don’t we give a strong message of change for the band.’ I found it interesting. It doesn’t mean we abandoned the old logo. The old logo is still there and it will always be there. It is the logo of the band. But for this album, I found that changing so much, even forgetting about the angel for one, changing the logo. I mean, if you just look at the cover, some on the internet...maybe you heard of the band, maybe you know the band...you just look at the cover and you realize that something has changed. So I was liking the idea so much and also the guys at the label were doing such a great job that I told them ‘ok, go on and let’s see.’ I wanted to trust in them. I was really happy with the result.
CROMCarl: When I was preparing for this interview, I did study the cover and wondered whether that atmospheric swirl was supposed to be the angel.
Olaf: [Laughs] No, no, no. I don’t know. Honestly, it has been a tough choice, but right now I am really happy with the results. There will always be time for going back and bringing the angel back.
CROMCarl: No, no...I was just joking with you about that.
Olaf: [Laughs] Ah yeah, sorry [Laughs]. No, because some people took it serious, you know. There are guys who are already stating the album sucks just because there was no angel on the cover or just because the logo is different. I find it funny.
CROMCarl: Do you have any plans for any music videos for this album?
Olaf: Yeah, we are shooting a video tomorrow [Laughs].
CROMCarl: Excellent, can you reveal the song?
Olaf: Yes, actually tomorrow we do the first video and there will be a second one. I can tell you the first video tomorrow is “Mermaids From Their Moons” because everybody is asking for that song. It sounds like “Mermaids From Their Moons” is the favorite song for everybody. The second one, we are still wondering...we are still wondering. I guess, we will go with something easier, so we choosing between “The Sin is You” and “Beyond the Sun And Far Away.”
CROMCarl: Well, I vote for “Message To Home” if I have any kind of pull in this.
Olaf: [Laughs] Yeah. I know that you love the song particularly. That makes me happy, because as I told you nowadays it seems like not so many people enjoy ballads anymore, so...[Laughs].
CROMCarl: I certainly do. Do you have any plans to tour for the album at all?
Olaf: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I was talking about it this morning. We are working on something. I’m happy because I see there are many things moving and at the same time I am a bit scared, because sometimes when too many things move...in the end, you may get nothing. I would say that our main priority this time would be to tour in Europe because as Vision Divine we never did any complete tour. So that is our first priority. Some people are asking me, we started interviews for the USA, and some people are already asking we will ever tour.......
[Call drops out...and connection is re-established]
CROMCarl: Hey Olaf, sorry about that.
Olaf: I was answering the question and then suddenly realized that you weren’t on the line any more. [Laughs] I talked for about five minutes I guess [Laughs]. I wouldn’t know what to say now.
CROMCarl You were saying that people were asking about touring in the United States....
Olaf: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I was telling you that we would like, because we only played once in 2007 at ProgPower USA, but right now it never became possible to tour over there. We have some contacts every now and then from somebody interested just asking [for] information, but we never went any farther. We will see. It will be a dream, I mean touring the USA its...for people like me, the USA is like Eden. We will see. If there will be any chance, definitely we will be there. We are a band that is used to play everywhere possible, so if there is any chance, for sure we will be there.
CROMCarl: I know Vision Divine is the main focus for this year, and I don’t want to take any focus away from it, but Is there anything in the works for Labyrinth at all?
Olaf: For Labyrinth, with the guys we are discussing about what to do in the future, you know. Its been fun to release “Return to Heaven Denied, Pt. II” because that was something new. Now we must see and decide what to do and if we go on because we are all guys who only do things if we have fun doing [it]. So, I’m kind of positive. We already wrote...I think its four or five songs like power metal, the new album. We will see what happens in the future, but as you mentioned we are so busy with Vision Divine that it is really difficult to switch my mind and talk about Labyrinth.
CROMCarl: Ok - That’s fair. My last question is, if you had to pick a musician that you have been dying to work with on anything, who would it be?
Olaf: Ahhhh [Laughs] Well I would do something obvious. It would be my nightmare, I guess, but I would definitely like to work with Yngwie Malmsteen. He has been a guitarist that completely changed my life when I listened to his first albums. There are many artists that I would like to work with, like Ray Adler of Fates Warning has always been one of my dreams. You know something funny, many years ago my dream was to one day become popular enough to get the chance of contacting John Arch and asking him to do something because I was he has been out of it for so many years. Now he is back, and back for good, so there is need anymore. That is something accomplished already [Laughs].
CROMCarl: Alright, I think I kept you long enough. I really appreciate your time and I had such a great time talking with you. Best of luck with the album.
Olaf: For me too. I really like you a lot.
CROMCarl: Yeah, I will be talking with you on Facebook from time to time.
Sure, sure. Don’t you disappear. We are in touch on the internet, so we can easily stay in touch and talk. I noticed from your review that you have really a high culture in terms of musical knowledge. I always stated that I think that nowadays the bad of the internet is that anybody can open a website and start doing reviews, but that is dangerous [Laughs]. I think being a journalist should be something...people that are journalists should have some culture. I am not kissing your ass, I really think you have a very good culture talking about music. So it is an honor when I get people like you.
CROMCarl: That is an honor to hear from you, because you may not think this, but you are one of my heroes.
Olaf: [Laughs] I am no hero.
Carl Frederick is a staff writer for Metal Underground.com. From the early to mid-90's, Carl published his own fanzine called C.R.O.M. In 1997, he released a compilation entitled "CROM: The Resurrection of True Metal," which featured songs from bands from around the world, including the first U.S. release of any kind for bands like Italy's Rhapsody (n/k/a Rhapsody of Fire) and Brazil's Angra. Follow Carl on Facebook and Twitter: @CROMCarl.
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