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Echoterra Interview

Echoterra Interview
Performed via Skype in August 2011

Talk about coming full circle! American symphonic metal band, Echoterra, originally approached Melissa Ferlaak to become their vocalist, but she had just joined Visions of Atlantis. Spin the clock forward four years to 2009, and voilà, the timing was right. Echoterra is now hard at work preparing for the October 17, 2011 release of their full-length sophomore album, Land of the Midnight Sun -- an album that draws from musical influences ranging from symphonic and power metal to rock, opera, and progressive. Prepare yourselves for pounding drums, soaring female vocals and intricate keys, along with tight guitar solos and thrumming bass lines.

Sonic Cathedral’s Robin Stryker chatted with Melissa Ferlaak (vocals) and Yan Leviathan (guitars) for a sneak peek at Echoterra’s new album, the making of their first video (available on October 1), weapons of mini-destruction, and their return to metal’s raw, organic roots. Dive in for a closer look!


Robin:  Hello, Melissa and Yan, and welcome to Sonic Cathedral webzine. We’re so glad to have you with us tonight to talk about Echoterra’s upcoming full-length album, Land of the Midnight Sun!

Melissa:  Thank you!

Yan:  Hi, thank you for having us!

Robin:  Yan, it’s sometime in the mid-2000s, you are the guitarist for Avian, and Jonah W is the keyboardist for Pyramaze. What made the two of you decide to form yet another project, Echoterra?

Yan:  Well, Jonah and I were in Avian together on the first album [From the Depths of Time]. After the first album came out, we started getting together and working on songs. After a while, we realized that these songs don’t really fit the raw Avian sound, which is basically just straight-up power metal. There were a lot of symphonic elements and a bunch of different things that we hadn’t done before. So, we realized we needed a new vessel to release these songs through. (Melissa laughs) We both sort of realized: “These songs would sound great with a female singer.” We both felt the same way, and we just decided to form Echoterra and search for a singer.


Robin:  Your first singer was Suvi Virtanen, formerly in the choir of Therion, who was Swedish, yes?

Yan:  Yes, Therion are a Swedish band. Actually, Suvi lives in Finland, but she’s Swedish.

Robin:  She was the vocalist on Echoterra’s first album, The Law of One, and then the marvelous Melissa Ferlaak joined the band in … was it late 2009, Melissa?

Melissa:  Hmmmm, was it 2009?!? I think it was, yes. 2009.

Yan:  Yeah, it was 2009. Actually, Melissa and I met the previous year … actually, no, it was 2006, I think. …

Melissa:  We met in 2005 because it was right after I joined Visions of Atlantis.

Yan:  Yes, so we had a mutual friend, he introduced us. We only had a couple of Echoterra songs at the time, and it just wasn’t the right timing. So, Melissa went on to join Visions of Atlantis, and we had to search for a singer. But originally, our intention was to go with Melissa.

Melissa:  And of course, I don’t remember that at all. (laughs) Funny how life comes full circle!

Robin:  Well Melissa, when we saw you last and most actively, it was 2007 with Visions of Atlantis, then you got married, had a baby, and were doing lots of guest vocalist work and opera performances. What made you get that yearning again to front an active band?

Melissa:  As you said, I had sort of come to a different point in my life. I went from touring all over the world with Visions of Atlantis to married, a kid, mortgage, and real life. I was doing a lot of things here and there. But didn’t really find a HOME with any of those projects, nor was I looking for a home because having a little child is an enormous task on its own. I really got antsy to get back on the stage again and working with people in a more family kind of context, as a group. So I just talked to a friend, and that friend said: “Hey, you should really get in touch with Echoterra.” So we did, and it’s kind of history from there.

Frankly, the appeal initially … why I could do Echoterra … was that all of us are family people. All of us have been in the industry for a while and understand it, and understand that there is a real industry and a there’s a fake industry. So we are all very clear about it, and don’t have delusions about anything in the industry.


Robin:  Considering that there is so little symphonic metal in the US, it’s stunning that Minneapolis has both Echoterra and Aesma Daeva. What are they feeding you there?

Melissa:  It’s because we’re all Scandinavian, it’s in our blood. (laughs)

Yan:  None of us really listens to radio, which many Americans unfortunately still do. So, we go on the internet and YouTube and all that stuff, and we are constantly exposed to great bands, mostly ones that come out of Europe. That inspires us, and we enjoy listening to it because there is so much SUBSTANCE in that music, where you don’t get bored with it. Whereas, if you put on the radio, you’ll want to shoot yourself.

Melissa:  Minneapolis and St. Paul have a really strong history with metal, actually. It’s always sort of been a hub, there’s always been a really strong metal scene here. In the last couple of years, it seems like its dwindled a little bit, but it’s probably just entering a new phase.

Robin:  On to the album … Land of the Midnight Sun will be released in mid-October 2011. Would you first tell us a little about the title of the album?

Yan:  We didn’t title the album until all the songs were completed and we kind of had a general feel of the album. Actually, the cover I ran across on the internet from some artist’s website (Nathanel Jady - http://www.iamgaia.eu/). It really grabbed me, and it inspired me ... actually, we only had a couple songs written at that time. I emailed the artist, and I asked him: “I want to purchase this from you.” It was kind of like a spur-of-the-moment thing. I wasn’t even looking for a cover or anything because it was way too early to look for a cover. But it just grabbed me, and then the songs were kind of built around the cover. We figured that, out of all the songs, Land of the Midnight Sun -- which we have a song called “Midnight Sun” -- kind of captured it the best way.

Robin:  Do you recall what it was about the imagery that grabbed you so much that you knew it would be the polestar around which everything else would be structured?

Yan:  It’s hard to explain, but you look at so many other covers of bands in our genre. It’s dark and gloomy, blood and gore and death, and all that stuff. We wanted to do kind of a more upbeat, positive album, and I think this cover definitely explains it in that way. When you see it, you get a positive feeling out of it. At least I do. (laughs)

Melissa:  When Yan showed it to me and I knew the direction that the album was going in and the songs were going in -- as Yan was educating me on what some of the things were that this album is about, which is pretty intriguing in its own right -- it almost looks like there is an explosion of energy emanating from a person. And you look above at the very top, and it washes up. You know how, at the top of a storm, there is an anvil that sort of appears? It was sort of like the overcoming of all of the obstacles in life and reaching to heaven … well, not heaven, but outside of the earth, outside of where we are planted, and reaching beyond. For me, that’s what resonated with me.

Yan:  I think it’s definitely a unique cover and kind of different than what you’d expect from a band like us, I suppose.


Robin:  (laughs) The endless sepia-tone and black & white album covers do destroy the utility of having a high-resolution iPod screen. Without ruining the mystery of the album and still letting listeners discover it for themselves, could you give us an idea of the feel or concept that Echoterra was going for with Land of the Midnight Sun?

Yan:  Well, like I said, we wanted to go with a positive message. It SEEMS like everything is hopeless in the world right now, but you kind of just have to pick yourself up, wake up, and realize there is a lot more that is going on. You have to open your eyes, and it’s up to each individual to make a stand and to reach for better things ... and not to just sit back and wait for someone or something to come and save you. It’s up to you to save yourself, become a better person and a positive influence in this world.

Robin:  As far as writing and composing, you two are in Minneapolis, and Jonah (who did the orchestration and musical composition) is more than a thousand miles away in Florida. Logistically, how did Echoterra work out creating this album?

Yan:  Actually, it worked out really well because my parents live in South Florida, and Jonah lives in Central Florida, which is about four hours away. So, every couple of months, I would just go down, visit my parents, borrow one of their cars, drive up, and hang out with Jonah for three or four days. He has his keyboard set up in his house, and I have my portable studio, which I can take with me to record stuff. So, we’d just get together and work on ideas and our arrangements. We recorded all his keyboards over, I don’t know, maybe like 10 to 12 sessions over the year-and-a-half or so. Basically, about once a month, if you average it out. Then I went back home to my studio here in Minneapolis and put it all together.

Melissa:  Yup, and then Jonah came up to help with the vocal harmonies and putting all the vocals on. And that was that.

Yan:  When we were ready to record Melissa’s vocals, Jonah flew up for that week, and the three of us worked on it together because Jonah has a really good ear for pitch. The three of us working together really get the best performances out of each other.

Robin:  I was interested to read that Echoterra actually played four of the new tracks out live, early in 2011, almost a year before you recorded them. Were there things from playing out live that you then took back to the studio to tweak the songs?

Melissa:  For that particular concert, I think we did three of the new songs …

Yan:  Yeah, three or maybe four. I don’t remember.

Melissa:  Frankly, all of them have changed pretty dramatically. Like “Midnight Sun,” for instance, we took off the male vocals, and we changed a lot of that. In fact, with all of them, I can’t even remember what they sounded like before.

Yan:  But then we changed lyrics around too. Basically, we knew we had these songs written, and we were kind of excited to get a feel for them. You know, take them out for a test drive, but they were by no means 100% completed at that point.


Robin:  In describing Land of the Midnight Sun, Echoterra announced that you are going for more of a raw, live sound -- as opposed to a highly polished, studio sound – which is something that is a bit unusual for a symphonic metal band.

Yan:  Yeah, it’s meant to be a little bit different. First of all, we don’t have a major label behind us, so we don’t have tens of thousands of dollars to go into the studio and go nuts. (laughs) We all financed this ourselves, and we just do it all ourselves. From my point of view, I love bands like Iron Maiden, Helloween, HammerFall, Gamma Ray and all those kinds of bands, which are basically just raw, stripped-down metal bands. They’re not very over-produced. When you have a female singer, for some reason, I think the tendency is that people think it has to be super-polished and over-produced. Why does it have to be that way? We all just basically love metal; we just love the rawness of it.

Melissa:  Meaning no disrespect to other bands in the genre AT ALL, when we say “over-produced,” what we mean is that metal is a raw, organic, hearty, earthy music form. It feels like symphonic metal, more than any other genre, has gotten so far away from that earthy and raw feel, and it’s something that we talk about frequently. Granted, we don’t have the funds to go into Finnvox Studios and have them clean up every little thing. Even still, we did make a deliberate point not to go through and produce and polish and spit-clean dry every single little piece of the song. I’m sure that some people are going to disagree with us that it was a good choice, but that was the choice that we made.

Yan:  The thing is that, because people are so used to female-fronted bands that all pretty much follow the same (or a similar) formula, this might take them by surprise initially. But I think that, after getting used to the album, they’ll realize what we’re going for and get into it.

Robin:  Melissa, it seems like on this album, you really get to use your voice in a lot of different ways, which may be surprising for people who are accustomed to hearing you a the clean soprano, soaring vocals the entire album. What all can people expect from your voice on Land of the Midnight Sun?

Melissa:  Hmmm well, it’s interesting. After singing for an eternity (laughs), one of the things that always stuck with me was reviewers saying that I came across as cold and emotionless. And it was like, “that’s not how I FELT.” So, what the hell?!? I guess I needed to do some exploring in my voice and figure it out. If that’s the way my voice is coming across, then I need to fix that. And so, I actually actively studied some different techniques. I practiced and I worked on my pop voice a little bit more and on grabbing that height of emotion as well that resonates as emotion in a voice for people.

Working with Jonah and Yan, I felt like I could get to that place; that I could actually FEEL it much more than I had in the past. Now granted, a song like “Return to You” (from Visions of Atlantis’s Trinity) was a very song hard for me, and maybe it came across as cold because I had to go to a cold place in order to be able to sing that song with Visions of Atlantis. That sucks because that’s not how I meant it to be, but that’s what I had to do to survive recording that song. I hope people hear a little bit more dynamic contrast in my voice, maybe a little bit more emotion. And my voice wasn’t over-produced in this album, so maybe some of that won’t get lost in the production. (laughs)


Yan:  Also, the way we record, there isn’t the pressure of using up studio time, where it’s like: “Okay, we need to get this done! Melissa, you have to do this; you have to do this NOW.” We didn’t have that. We could relax, take our time, and make sure we got it the way we wanted it. There was no pressure on Melissa. Even though things did get tense in the sessions …

Melissa:  Oh yeah, I walked out once!

Yan:  … that is part of the passion, of each artists wanting what they want. But the bottom line is that there wasn’t that underlying pressure of “okay, the meter is running, we have to get this done.”

Robin:  For each of you, which track or tracks on the album do you feel the strongest emotional connection to right now?

Melissa:  Oh shit, hmmmm …

Yan:  I’ve got one, while Melissa is thinking. For me, it’s “Genes Of Isis,” the final track. That’s a very unique song, and it was probably the song we worked on the hardest as far as Jonah and I getting the correct arrangement and making sure that it was just right. I spent A LOT of time on those lyrics. You know, like a long, long time working on those lyrics because I knew that, musically, it is such a powerful song that the lyrics had to live up to the music. And, of course, Melissa’s vocals on it are just phenomenal, especially what she does in the pre-chorus. It’s like goose-bump city every time I hear it. So, that’s probably the one that resonates the most with me.

Melissa:  For me, I think it’s probably “Genes Of Isis” too, but it always goes between that one and “Midnight Sun.” I think “Midnight Sun” has got some real weird stuff going on (and I happen to like weird stuff), but it’s also really raw. (laughs) When we first started doing it, I sort of laughed because it felt like a rap, sort of like hip-hop metal because it’s very like da-da da da-da. It’s just fast, it’s punchy, and it’s something that I don’t think female metal singers get a chance to do much of. So, I guess for me that was a fun song to sing. It’s a good party. They’re all good songs, but I think that one is sort of intriguing.

Robin:  As you guys were developing the album, I saw a post about the Echoterreans -- the secret Echoterra society, sworn to secrecy and perhaps allowed to hear things in pre-release. Did you turn out to use the Echoterreans as a sounding board, and if so, was it helpful?

Melissa:  Definitely helpful, but I think we launched it prematurely because we weren’t quite close enough to putting product out. It came about during the EP, but the EP was just re-recording songs that had already been done … just made to test my range and my style. We did use them, and they did get to see some stuff. But I think it’s something that we will definitely come back to because it’s great having a group of people whom we can bounce ideas off, and they can be really candid with us -- a group that we can consider our close inner circle. And you’re right, a secret society … they get stuff first, and they get to have it in-progress of how our music will sound.

Robin:  Last Saturday (August 6), you went and recorded the video for the first single, “All The Lies.” How did you pick that track, and would you tell us about your video shoot?


Yan:  We felt that it was time for us to get a visual image of Echoterra out there. Especially for bands like us that don’t get to play live as much as we’d like to, we kind of need something out there for people to see us. So, the timing worked out well, and we just found this really cool place online that is not far from us at all, in a city called Hastings. It looks like this broken-down castle; it doesn’t even look like it belongs in America at all …

Melissa:  It’s an old mill.

Yan:  Melissa and I went and checked it out a few weeks ago, and we just thought: “Oh wow, this will work out great!” Then we just set it all up and shot the video last week. Actually, we just saw the first rough draft tonight, and I think it looks FANTASTIC.

Melissa:  We were originally going to go with “After The Rain”. But we all rethought it and thought maybe our stronger song is actually “All The Lies,” so we decided on that one. We did put out the whole “After The Rain” song, but I guess now we will have TWO singles. (laughs)

Robin:  The more, the merrier in my book! One of the earliest promo shots for Land of the Midnight Sun shows y’all heading up a staircase, and Melissa has a mini-sledgehammer in your hand. Truly, you guys look like you’re up to no good. (laughs) What were you out to destroy that day?

Melissa:  The courthouse! (all laugh) The government? …

Yan:  Just taking back what is ours!

Melissa:  Yeah, in a way, I think that image encompasses a lot of what this album is about. Like Yan said, it’s about taking back what is ours, taking control of your own destiny, and calling to light some of the forces that are out there that are making decisions for you, even though you don’t realize that they are. Knowledge is power. You need to understand and know what is going on, and if you don’t, then you are powerless. That image is like this album, calling attention to what we know, which is that the government is enslaving the human population, if I may be so bold.

Yan:  The image you’re speaking of, for those who haven’t seen it, you will see it in the CD booklet.

Robin:  The building you are heading toward with your weapon of mini-destruction has a slightly ecclesiastic look to it, but more of a monument of government. I’m sure that the fact that the stock market fell off a cliff today (down 6.66%) was not lost on you guys.

Melissa:  I’m sort of new to all of this. Yan has really done a good job educating me about a lot of things that are going on. I think that there is some blatantly obvious symbology, but it’s whether or not you choose to look and understand what it means … or get to know what it means, all the symbolism. I think that you just have to pay attention.

Yan:  Yeah, everything is hidden in plain sight. You just have to open your eyes.


Robin:  I understand that Echoterra will soon be welcoming a new member to its line-up. A new bassist?

Melissa:  Yes, Sam Van Moer is his name. He is a bassist whom I’ve known for a long time, and Sam plays in a band called Gracepoint here. (They are a progressive band.) He played with me in Aesma Daeva way, way, way back when, for a little bit, we were between bassists. Echoterra needed a new bassist, and we wanted to find one before the new video. So, I just reached out to him, thinking there was no way he would be interested because Gracepoint is his mainstay -- not that we’re asking him to leave at all! We want for him to stay. We asked him to join us, and he did! It’s great; he’s wonderful. He’s an EXTREMELY talented bassist.

Yan:  Yeah, he fits very well with us, and I think it will be obvious when we play live. He’ll definitely add a great new element to our live sound.

Robin:  Speaking of the which, when can your Echoterra fans -- both here in the US and also abroad -- see you playing out the new album live?

Yan:  We’re working on dates right now, and as soon as we have dates finalized and 100% confirmed, we will let everybody know. But we’re definitely working on a bunch of things. Obviously, we would love to go to Europe and South America, even Canada, ANY place. But the right opportunity has to arise because, like Melissa mentioned earlier, we’re all family people, and family comes first. We all love the music, but we all have commitments that we have to honor.

Robin:  You are not a bunch of 22 year-olds who are footloose and fancy free; instead, the members have families and jobs. As a band, how do you balance touring with the other commitments in your lives?

Melissa:  Well, we don’t take on those commitments, actually. We don’t take on tours where we’ll be away from our families and our jobs and our lives and our spouses. A week is about the most that we can do, so we have to be really picky and choosy about what we decide to do. But again -- with no disrespect to 22 year-olds because we were there once -- we can’t …

Yan:  We’ve been there and done that. Now it’s time to grow up.

Melissa:  Exactly! I think we can accomplish a lot, while not being on the road all the time, by just being very strategic and smart about our decisions.

Robin:  What would you most love to see fans take away from Land of the Midnight Sun?


Yan:  I’d like to see them just get a good, positive feeling and vibe when listening to it. You know? If somebody’s had a rotten day or is going through a rough time, they can just put on this album. Hopefully, they will feel better after listening to it, and just be more positive.

Melissa:  Yup, I agree with Yan! (laughs) There is enough dark metal out there, and that’s fine. But, at the same time, metal transforms too; it’s transformative.

Yan:  Don’t get us wrong. It’s not like we’re shiny happy people kind of music. The subject matter is very serious, kind of like what is going on in the world today.

Melissa:  It’s like taking control over your own power, your own destiny. That’s the kind of positive energy we’re talking about.

Yan:  Yes!

Robin:  Well, Melissa and Yan, we’ve reached the end of our time together. What final words would you like to leave your friends and fans at Sonic Cathedral with?

Yan: I’d just like to say thank you for everything, all the hard work you guys do. We appreciate you thinking of us. We’re definitely happy to be a part of this.

Melissa:  And kudos to the staff of Sonic Cathedral for supporting female-fronted metal for 10 years running. We really owe a huge debt of gratitude to you guys, so thanks so much!! And THANK YOU to everybody for listening.

Robin:  Thank you so much, and we wish you all the best on your album release!


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