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Xandria Interview 2012

Performed via Skype in February 2012

After nearly five years of anxiously anticipating a new Xandria album, the wait is finally over! Will their new vocalist, Manuela Kraller, rise to the challenge? And is Neverworld’s End worth the wait? Because my answers would pale in comparison to Sara Letourneau’s CD review, I will shamelessly plagiarize her words: “The songs on Neverworld’s End are terrific, from the melodies and structure to the overall execution of each track. And if the music is like kerosene, Kraller is the match that lights it up.” Amen sister, amen.

Sonic Cathedral’s Robin Stryker sat down with Xandria’s founder/guitarist/keyboardist, Marco Heubaum for his first ever Skype interview. (Thanks for agreeing to try it out, Marco!) Dive in to find out what Marco had to say about the making of Neverworld’s End, his boyhood dreams of becoming a popstar, his love of sci-fi and fantasy, and much more!

Robin:  Hello, Marco, and thank you for talking with Sonic Cathedral today about Xandria’s fifth album, Neverworld’s End! Although it is not a concept album per se, would you give our readers an idea of what the album is about?

Marco:  Well, it’s about the dreams you have as a child -- what you think you will be as a child … you’ll be an astronaut, a pilot a super-model, a singer, or whatever. “I think I’d like to be several things!” You know, when you’re a child, you want to do this one day, and another day, you want to be something else when you are grown up. You have a certain view on the world from the stories you read and from the stories you see on TV. And of course, you’re a little bit held back from the bad things that are going on in the world by your parents, if they care about that. (laughs) So you’ve got maybe a bit naïve picture of the world and what you can be when you’re grown up.

Neverworld’s End is about these fantasies and these dreams, and how these dreams are being destroyed when you grow up … when you see “oh, maybe one-half of my life is now over, and I see that I have not become everything I wanted to be as a child.” In your teenager and school years, you thought: “My generation will change the world to a BETTER place.” I’ve been in a very progressive school, where they had these ideas of telling the children things like how revolutions turned dictatorships into democracies and how we can save our environment. So we really thought our generation would change the world.

But now, as I am already grown up … well, at least I’m not a teenager anymore. (all laugh) If you’re 18 (or, in the US, 21) it doesn’t mean that you are grown up. It just means that you’re 21 … especially as a musician, but this is another topic! (laughs) What I was about to say is that you realize that this world maybe will never change to a place where every man and woman can be free and will not be starving or something like that, or that we can really do something about the way we are destroying our environment and live in harmony with nature. I don’t know if I have become cynical in a way, but I think it will never change. I think mankind will never change in this way. All we can do is to care about the ones we love and try to make the little world we are living in with the ones we love a better place. And to not harm other people too much. (laughs) This is the only thing we can do. Some of the songs on this album, when I was writing the lyrics, I realized that many of my thoughts were circulating around that theme, so it became a bit of a main theme for the album -- this Neverworld, this dream world that you have in mind as a child is ending when you grow up.


Robin:  Marco, when you were a little boy, what did you dream for yourself? Were you going to be a rockstar, an astronaut … maybe a rockstar-astronaut?

Marco:  (laughs) My only dream about becoming a part of the music scene was that I was a big fan of ABBA, the Swedish pop group of the ‘70s. Do you know them?

Robin:  (laughs) I LOVED them, and actually still do!

Marco:  When I was seven years old, I was a big fan of them, and I wished to become another lead singer in that group when I grew up. When I was seven, I thought about bands like a company. You could join them, and they are not something like … hmmm, I don’t know the word … a bit closed up, where they have their members and not everyone can join them when they want to be in that group. (laughs) Well, one year later, they broke up anyway. I think in 1983 when I was eight, they broke up, so wasn’t something I could make happen anymore.

Robin:  That was an early end to your popstar dreams. (laughs)

Marco:  Yeah, but that wasn’t the only one! I also liked to become the leader of a company who builds spaceships and also become an astronaut and explore space. I think a little bit earlier, I wanted to become a pilot. I can’t figure out really when this or that dream was in my mind. (laughs) There were LOTS of them.

Robin:  Did those dreams grow out of your love of science fiction?

Marco:  Oh yeah! I’m totally in love with science fiction -- the good old science fiction stories. You know, like Isaac Asimov, Stanislaw Lem, Ray Bradbury and James Tiptree, who was a woman, in fact. It was just a pseudonym. Is that the word you use in English?

Robin:  Yep.


Marco:  It was only later that I also fell in love with fantasy stories. They are a bit close to each other, but there is a certain difference between them. In fantasy stories, it’s mostly about the fight between good and evil. In science fiction stories, it’s about how mankind or our society will develop in the future and what kind of technologies could influence that, and there’s nothing like good and evil. It’s just about how society will react to something … to technology or being on other planets or something like that. It’s very interesting I think.

I love both, and I think you can also find it in my lyrics. There are some lyrics on this album that have not really much to do with the main topic. They are really fantasy-like. The last song, “The Nomad’s Crown,” it’s kind of a fantasy movie … just a very short one. But it has a story, from the beginning to the end like a little fantasy movie. (laughs) I really enjoy it, to create something like that.

Robin:  If you had free rein and an unlimited budget, would you record a mini-movie music video for “The Nomad’s Crown”?

Marco:  I think doing a video clip for this song would be REALLY interesting! I know that there’s another very well-known band that is doing a movie right now. Yeah, I think they are called NIGHTWISH. (laughs) Well, I like them very much, but I don’t expect us to have $4 million to realize this in all our life. It’s just another dream, but we don’t stop dreaming!

Robin:  Is it correct that you wrote most of Neverworld’s End back in 2008?

Marco:  2008 and 2009, and also some of it was finalized in 2010 and 2011. It really stretched over all those four years. Of course, it began in 2008 with some basic ideas and the whole vision for it. By the end of 2007 even, I was thinking about what direction the next album could take. In 2008, it grew more and more, and the first songs came to my mind in that year. In 2009, some more of the songs … it’s not that the main bunch of songs were ready in 2008.

Robin:  It seems that Xandria have staked out a direction that is still recognizably Xandria, but also different. What new identity have you forged with Neverworld’s End, which you have called Xandria’s “second debut album”?


Marco:  A second debut, that’s right. You know, all of us are coming from the metal scene, so we wanted that album to become something that would be more fitting with what every one of us likes. Well, in the beginning when I founded the band, it was only about my vision for the band. I was only searching for musicians who would like to bring life to this vision with me, but without sharing this vision really … just liking it, somehow.

I remember in the beginning when I was searching (even before Xandria did the debut album or the demo CD that we recorded in the year 2000) that it was very hard to find musicians for this band because I was very much influenced by bands like Tiamat or Paradise Lost -- all these so-called gothic metal bands of the ‘90s that emerged from that death/doom metal scene in the beginning of the ‘90s. They were experimenting very much with the sound, and got more and more atmospheric. Some got even more into rock, and some of them also became more into gothic music. Like Paradise Lost’s Host album from 1999 was almost Depeche Mode or something like that. (laughs)

I was always into metal music, but the kind of music that bands like Tiamat made at that time or The Gathering or Anathema. There was some kind of metal in them, but also atmospheric rock. And they did it in kind of a simple way … musically simple ... not like Dream Theater, which has complex structures, odd rhythmics or something like that. That was the way for me to go because I liked the atmosphere, and I was technically not a very good musician because I started very late to play guitar. So, the kind of music that I was a fan of was also the thing for me to do myself. But this kind of music, it wasn’t really easy to find musicians for, because all the musicians in my hometown wanted to do either no metal or extreme metal or a hard, complex kind of metal. For example, Gerit (our drummer) was a fan of complex music like Dream Theater or more complex death metal like Morbid Angel or Cannibal Corpse.

I liked that kind of music too, but I couldn’t write stuff like that. So I focused on the thing I liked most and could do, which was this atmospheric kind of rock/metal … like what Tiamat did at that time. But then I realized I was not such a good singer, so we included a female singer in it. I think Xandria’s debut album, Kill The Sun, is like a late-90s Tiamat album, but just with a female voice. (all laugh) The interesting thing is that most of the people -- even most of the journalists -- mistook it for being something like Nightwish, but very simple. But at that time, I didn’t like Nightwish very much.

Later, I really loved that band. It was in the last five years that I more and more got into the music of Nightwish. Even before that, I was beginning to love more bombastic, more complex music … more filmscore-like music. I fell in love with filmscores, and realized that I always was a big movie fan and that the filmscore is a big part of the movie. So I got interested in that too.

It was around the Ravenheart album, where I already included much of these bombastic and filmscore-like elements. But back at that time, I wasn’t able to do that in a more complex way … even though I liked those kind of bands like Dream Theater, or Metallica in the early phase when they were much more complex, or Pantera back in the beginning of the ‘90s when they did very extreme kind of metal but also very sophisticated technically. I always liked that kind of stuff, but I never was able to do that by myself.

Maybe you realize that every album is a bit different. On every album, we (or I as the main songwriter) try to do something challenging for ourselves. So, the challenge after the Salomé album would be to do something that I had never done before as a songwriter -- to do some more complex and sophisticated stuff musically and to combine more metal, because we like metal and it was a bit held back in the past by our producers and our label. We got to combine metal with more filmscore and symphonic stuff. This was, for me, the only way to find a new challenge for the band. Otherwise, for me as a songwriter, I would have seen no future for Xandria.


Robin:  As a songwriter, how did you learn to compose in the complex, layered way that you envisioned?

Marco:  It was a mixture of learning from others … to listen to filmscores and learn from them how to create atmosphere. But of course, from filmscores you can’t learn how to combine it with metal music. (all laugh) That’s something that has to happen in your head. Of course, there always had been some other bands that had done this before in a very good way, like Nightwish or Within Temptation or Epica. When I got more and more into the music of Nightwish, I thought: “This is really great what they are doing, and I would like to do something as great as they do too!” Not just to do the same, but to do it my way -- to understand what they do and to do my own creations from what I understood.

I think this is quite different from copying what other bands do. I think there are quite a bunch of bands that takes riffs or melodies from other bands. But when I try to learn from another band that I like, my way is to understand how this music works … how the things I like with this band work. Then I try to work with this myself and of course combine it with other things I like, so it becomes something new. This is something I will try to do with many things I like ... in the past with bands like Tiamat or Paradise Lost, and now with filmscores and also some things I like with Nightwish. But that’s not the only source for me.

I think there’s already much feedback for Neverworld’s End and people only focus on Nightwish, but there are so many influences on this new album because me and the other guys are also fans of classic metal bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Pantera and Metallica (from the ‘80s). From these four bands, there are many influences on the album, but I think many people don’t really see that. They only see: “Oh, metal with symphonic stuff and a female voice, so it’s like Nightwish!” Of course, it was AN influence, but not the ONLY one.

Robin:  Did you feel that your new label, Napalm Records, gave Xandria the freedom to create the album that you wanted to make?

Marco:  Yes, they did, and this was the reason for us to sign to Napalm. There was never a moment they came to change anything. The whole production was in our hands alone.


Robin:  On Valentine’s Day, Xandria released a video for your first album single, called appropriately enough “Valentine.” I was thrilled that it is not a romantic ballad, but a snarky tweak at the music industry. Would you tell us more about the song, and for those of us who are scared of clowns, why the video features a harlequin?

Marco:  (laughs) Yeah, I know that there are many clowns in the symphonic metal scene right now. I have been wondering why there is this strange coincidence. This idea with the clowns was something that someone in the environment of the band had even before the “Storytime” video from Nightwish had been released. When it was released, we thought a bit like: “Should we do that anymore?” But we still liked the idea, and it’s another kind of story and part of the story. I think in the Nightwish video, it’s kind of like a “making of” for the movie, and clowns play a role in that movie (I think), so they are in the video clip.

In our video clip, the harlequin is part of the story for the video, so I think it is a bit of a difference. Another funny thing too, by the way, is that we were creating the basic idea for our cover artwork back in the summer of last year. I still remember that the artwork designer came up with some ideas, and one of the ideas was the picture of kind of a dead theme park. Now, look over at the Nightwish cover. (laughs) I’m very happy that we didn’t choose that idea back then because everyone would accuse us now of having copied the cover of the Nightwish album, even if that cover was in print long before the Nightwish cover was released.

That’s something that is very difficult in the music business. Ideas are being in the works a long time before they are released to the public. So if there are coincidences like other bands releasing something similar about one month before, all the people say: “Ooooo, they are copying that!” In most situations, this is not the case.

Oops, I think I lost the original question about the story of the “Valentine” video. (laughs) Many people thought it would be a love song, but it is not. In fact, the lyrics of the song are a very sarcastic view on the music business that says to the artist: “Be our Valentine! Fall in love with what we tell you, so we can earn much money with you.”

The story of the “Valentine” song is about an artist … it can be a musician, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be ... it could be the harlequin that you see in the video or a painter or an actor. It is about an artist who realizes that he has sold his integrity to the business that told him what to do to get easy fame and money. Then years later, he realizes that he was also selling his soul. He couldn’t make reality of the dreams he had in the first place, and he looks back and thinks: “Oh, I totally sold my soul to the business, and I can’t really be myself anymore.” And this is the moment at the end of the video clip when the harlequin shows his own, ripped out heart to the audience.


Robin:  It was exciting to read that some of the first show that Xandria will be doing will be with Epica, starting in March. What do you have planned for those shows?

Marco:  As it will be support shows, I think we will not have so much time to do a long show. Support shows are, in most cases, about 40 minutes or something like that, so we will present of course much of our new stuff and also two or three of the old songs that people always would like to hear. I think as a support act, you can’t do a really big show that you might have in mind. It’s not like you can do theatrical effects or pyros or something like that … you can’t do that as a support act. The only thing that we can do is to show the people the passion that we have for the new songs, and I think we will do that!

As far as I know, there are many people who are really happy to see both bands, because it’s quite a good-fitting package for the people. It would be really nice to do a bigger tour with Epica, for us and also for the people. It would have been great to do a European tour or even to come to the US with them, because we have never been in the US. This is something that we are REALLY heading for. In the past, we have been waiting for a chance to do that, but we all hope that we will be able to go to the US with this album.

Robin:  As a US-based fan, I sure hope so too! One of the things that I’m curious is whether you guys are nervous about how fans will react to hearing a new vocalist on Neverworld’s End. Is that something that concerns you, or are you counting on loyal Xandria fans to give Manuela and her amazing voice a fair chance?

Marco:  The feedback that we have had so far is a sign that people see us as a collective. People see Xandria not only as the face of the female singer, but also see us as a musical vision. I think that’s very nice to know! This is something that we’ve gotten from all the feedback during the last weeks, because we released some teaser material and also played two of the new songs live. There are many clips on the internet from fans who filmed us live with the new songs and the new singer, and also with the singer, Kerstin Bischof, that we had in between.

Well, it wasn’t easy to search for another vocalist, but finally it all went well! But even in that time, when we had our first shows with Kerstin back in 2009, we had been in South America. I remember that some of these shows had been among the most successful that we had with the band ever, as being the headliner for a show. This was a very good sign for us to see that people would stay with Xandria, and that gave us a lot of courage for the future and for releasing that album.

I think in these days when the album is about to be released, we don’t think so much about how people will accept the singer anymore. We have so much grown together as a band with Manuela that we are all only thinking about how people will react to the album itself.

Robin:  Marco, we have nearly reached the end of our time together. What would you like to tell your fans directly?

Marco:  First, what I said just a few minutes ago, that we would really like to come to the US and play for you. I’ve been there privately about three times. I really loved your country, and would love to get back to you with Xandria. That would be a really great experience! We hope that you in the US will give us the chance to do so. (laughs)

We also hope that you give our new singer a chance and our new album a chance. There is so much passion and heart’s blood in it. We all worked so hard for it in the last years, and I hope that you people realize that and that you FEEL it in the music. It would be really great to see you out on tour.


Robin:  I certainly hope that your US fans will have the chance to see Xandria on tour in the upcoming year. From Sonic Cathedral, we all wish you guys a mighty release for your new album! Those of us who have heard the pre-release copy LOVE it.

Marco:  Thank you so much! It was really great that especially you liked it so much, because Sonic Cathedral has followed our way for some time. It would be really nice to meet you personally.

Robin:  Thank you, Marco!

Photo Credit for Live Photos: Hugues Timmermans


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