The antiMusic Interview: Joey Tempest of Europe
Watching Joey Tempest, lead singer of the Swedish hard rock band Europe, onstage at Chicago's House of Blues earlier this year was an eye-opening and enlivening experience. Tempest and the rest of Europe played the club like it was a stadium. Best known for their 1987 smash "The Final Countdown", the prevalent keyboard riff is synonymous with the final two-minutes of sporting events and is a song that love it or hate it, has endured. However, the most distressing element of the lasting impact of "The Final Countdown" in America is that many people assume this is all they have ever had to offer despite having a handful of Top-40 hits and ten studio records. The band followed the enormous success of The Final Countdown with a pair of records 1988's Out of This World and 1991's Prisoners In Paradise before they went on a twelve year hiatus.
When Europe emerged in 2003 to take their finger off the pause button they could have taken to the burgeoning nostalgia circuit and never looked back. Instead, they took the road less traveled. They re-grouped with the line-up that created The Final Countdown and over the last dozen years have crafted five exquisite hard rock records steeped in their influences of Thin Lizzy and Deep Purple with a keen and heavy eye on the future. Mach II of Europe all but abandoned their pop-metal sound and embraced a more gripping sound that is hard to deny. John Norum's guitars are like a gut-punch, while keyboardist Mic Michaeli shifted his focus to the organ conjuring the spirit of Jon Lord every time he touches embellishes a song.
The band's latest album, War of Kings is a bristling collection of songs that sounds more like a throwback to the 1970s instead of the 1980s. The band enlisted the help of in-demand producer Dave Cobb who has made a name for himself in recent years by producing critically acclaimed records by Rival Sons and most notably, Jason Isbell's Southeastern and Something More Than Free. The result is the band's best sounding record of their career. If you think you know this band, you will be turned on your head by this record. With an awareness that less is more, the band captured the feeling of their live performance on War of Kings. On the band's recent tour of America, their first in a decade, I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Joey Tempest where we talked about the band's new album, the upcoming anniversary of The Final Countdown, Dave Cobb's influence, the Prisoners In Paradise sessions, a potential documentary on their career and how they crossed paths with Rod Stewart and Nirvana in 1991. Here is the interview:
antiMusic: How is the tour treating you so far?
Joey Tempest: It's been really good, we getting more excited as we go on. We're in Chicago tonight at the House of Blues and we really love that venue, we haven't played there in ten years. We're looking forward to that and then onto New York and some other shows including M3. We're having a lot of fun.
antiMusic: I wanted to talk to you about the new record, War of Kings where you had Dave Cobb produce, can you talk to me a little about his process?
Joey Tempest: First of all we heard Rival Sons Head Down and we were blown away by that production notably the drums and how Dave Cobb handled a band like that and how they sounded so fresh with a foot in the past. We called him last year and took a chance, and he said "Wow this is a coincidence, I used to play drums to your tracks when I was growing up, I would love to produce you guys". We met up in Stockholm and rented a bunch of vintage gear, which is something we wanted to do and Dave did as well. We had a truck loaded with all this vintage gear come from Stockholm, which we rented from another band called and started a very creative two-and-a-half week period with Dave in the studio where everybody chipped in. Dave was helping out with keyboard lines, helping co-write tracks and he really helped us lift our songs even further. We were prepared and had eleven songs when we went into the studio and we re-wrote some of it with Dave. He introduced the idea of using a mellotron instead of a regular keyboard to create a vibe. He told us early on "why don't we try and find a way to make one of those classic records with a vibe around it". So we used a mellotron and a Hammond and a lot of classic rock gear like Marshall amps to give the record an identity, so in years to come you can go "Oh yeah, that was the sound for War of KIngs". So it was not only the playing where we wanted to have more expression and more blues and soul in there. Dave really captured that and pushed us further. We had a really creative time with him and were blown away when we started hearing the mixes.
antiMusic: He produced one of my favorite records by a guy named Jason Isbell called "Southeastern".
Joey Tempest: Oh yeah- I know that record, with the song "Elephant"
antiMusic: Exactly- it's one of my ten or fifteen favorite records this decade. I love the sound.
Joey Tempest: That was one of the reasons we wanted to work with him as well, because of the other stuff he does, like old country. He doesn't do the sweet country stuff, he does really cool country stuff, but he does rock as well and he's a rock fan. He did Rival Sons. When we heard the latest Rival Sons record we were like "let's call this guy, he knows how to capture this expression". There are only a few who can really capture this, Dave Cobb and Kevin Shirley, whom we worked with on record before this (2012's Bag of Bones). These guys know how to capture a live recording with a band playing around a drum kit and make it into an interesting record.
antiMusic: How did he handle your vocals, because I know with Isbell he was making him try and go and get your vocals in one take. Did he do the same with you, or with a band dynamic was it a little different?
Joey Tempest: Obviously with a band you have to setup the sound a little bit. He gets to hear when we set it up to rehearse in the studio for a few weeks before we started recording, so he could get the mics right and everything so he could keep an ear on that. He is very good with vocals. When we started doing the real takes, he came to me and said "This is amazing, I want you to pretend you are onstage and just go for it, but maybe try this on that line". He had a few ideas and they were interesting ideas. he's really good with singers. He always says he can't produce a record if there is not a good singer in the band, it's not going to happen because the voice is very important to him. He pushed me and helped me go further. The guys in the band think these are the best vocals I have done. It has a more husky, warmth and depth and expression to it. I just went for it.
antiMusic: It's a great sounding record. How did Cobb insert himself into the songwriting process. Was it a matter of him simply offering up suggestions when you guys go together?
Joey Tempest: Yeah, he waited for that (laugh). That was cool because we trusted him. We studied what he had done everything he had done. And we also checked that he had writing credits on a few things with Rival Sons. He was very late with it, because he didn't want to hear the demos. But what happened was the night before we went into the studio, I asked him if he wanted to hear anything and he said "all right, what have you got?". I had rehearsal demos and they sound like crap because they were recorded on a phone. "All right let me have those". Then the next day he came in and told us we had great songs but he had some ideas for them "so let's talk through it". So we sat down in the studio with Dave and guitars and talking through the songs and we changed a few arrangements on four or five tracks and he wrote bits and small segments for others. He got involved but we are so advanced and happy in our own skin that we can let people in like that because we can judge if it's good or not. The ideas he had were great. He got involved in instance on "War of KIngs", "Praise You", the intro to "Second Day" without him we don't have that cool keyboard into line. He got involved from day one and it was a great idea.
antiMusic: You just mentioned "Praise You" and the other song that I am loving is "Hole In My Pocket". The one thing that really jumps out to me about those two songs is John Norum's guitar. What's even more interesting is neither of those have a Norum co-write. So how does he come in and do his guitars when he hasn't had a hand in the songwriting? (Note: Norum co-wrote four total songs on the album).
Joey Tempest: John is very determined and knows what he wants. He knows his sound and he can change a riff around slightly. He comes in and has such weight behind him, he's the heart and soul of the band. He has three kids now and is very busy so he hasn't been writing as much with us but I'm so lucky because I have (bassist) John Leven chipping in with great ideas. He had the riff for "War of Kings" and "Hole In My Pocket" and we developed it from there. Mic Michaeli had the ideas with "Second Day" and "California" and John came in with a few ideas. Everybody is chipping in and John obviously chipped in on a few tracks; "Angels" was his riff from the beginning which we finished in the studio with all of us together sitting with Dave Cobb and writing it in one hour. "Light Me Up", the album's last song was also John's riff built around him. He has such weight when he comes in and start playing that everyone listens to his advice and starts changing the arrangements. He's integral to the band. He wrote more on Start From The Dark and Secret Society where he was still in that mode and had more time on his hands. He's immensely important to the recording process.
antiMusic: You guys have made five records in an eleven year period, which is astonishing considering many of your contemporaries are lucky to have one or two new records every decade.
Joey Tempest: We made a decision in 2003 when we met at Mic Michaeli's apartment in Stockholm. We said "let's do this for real and let's do this long term while building up a relationship with the fans and the press. It's going to take many albums"... and it did. It's really only on the last two or three records that the UK and US press to realize "hang on a second...these guys are back and they're doing new stuff, they're adventurous and they are invested in their career and are not cashing in on the old stuff. There's an adventure here with the new sound and music. So we knew it would take time. It's that it is a slow burn obsession like we did when we were kids when we saw bands like Thin Lizzy. Deep Purple when they came back with Perfect Strangers (released in 1984) we went to see them live together as friends as a band starting out and it really made a great imprint on us and we just kept going. We think "long term" and I think sometimes with many bands they listen to outsiders too much and think "short term". There are going to be some tough times and some arguments but think long term, we are friends and we are partners in crime here for the long haul. We've taken the long way around and have not taken any shortcuts so maybe that helps in the long run.
antiMusic: It does help and it is why you guys haven't embarrassed yourselves. There's nothing wrong with nostalgia and I have some questions coming up, but I have to ask about the new single, "Days of Rock N' Roll", which reminds me a little about the Start From the Dark cut "Hero" which was inspired by your love of Thin Lizzy. Does "Days…" come from the same vein?
Joey Tempest: Yes it does, it's one of the more uplifting songs on the album and we kind of remembered the records from when we were kids where they had a more uptempo song for the live performance. That's what we thought we had with that song. We thought this would be great live. It's actually an old idea and the main riff, I had that as a follow-up to "The Final Countdown", it was on keyboard and I didn't finish it back in 1988. We picked it up last year and decided to try it on guitar and put another drum tempo to it and the guys all felt it would be great to perform live. It's a great song and we are going to have fun with it. Lyrically it is about the rise and fall...and rise of rock n' roll I think. If we really believe in it and talk passionately about it, people like you, people like us and new bands can hopefully
New bands needs to stop overproducing and over emulating the 80s. They really should to find a core in the music and believe in yourself and record live. Believe in yourself, record live and surround yourself with people who believe in you. Have good people around you and try not to please too many people around you as well. There's hope for rock n' roll and I think Rival Sons is there to help with that and for some strange reason Europe is also doing good stuff for rock n' roll because we are working with people around us who can handle it and also going for a deeper expression and a bit of soul and emotion in our music. I think we can do this if everyone chips in.
antiMusic: You have balanced creating new music by acknowledging your past but not living in it. I loved the 30th Anniversary live record you put out (Live at Sweden Rock - 30th Anniversary Show), it's a reflection of the breadth of depth of what Europe is capable of as a band. Was "California 405" inspired by your time in California? I know you spent a long time there writing and recording the Prisoners In Paradise record in 1990-91 (ironically released on September 24, 1991, the same day as Nevermind by Nirvana).
Joey Tempest: It connected to that period, we spent a lot of time in California and obviously driving that road. When I go to California now, everything has changed. The late 80s and beginning of the 90s, it was a completely different place as far as music and MTV, airplay and rock music on radio. But I still get a great feeling driving south. Things have changed but there is still hope. You can still feel free. Get in the rental car, put some great music on and drive south in California and feel that sense of freedom, it's still there! That is what the song is about, it's a hopeful song with a metaphor with California 405, drive south and you can still hope and still dream despite the fact that everything has changed. The headlines can be quite gruesome these days but it's kind of a ray of light song I suppose.
antiMusic: Back to that period, and I am not sure if you are aware of this, I read about this in a book a few months ago. I believe when you were finishing the mixes for the Prisoners In Paradise album back in 1991, did you know that Nirvana was staying at the same hotel as you recording Nevermind?
Joey Tempest: Yeah, they were around and this is ironic because everything was changing. We were staying at Oakwood Apartments and allegedly there was allegedly some writing on the wall from a party where some of our band and some of their guys wanted, it may have been crew members i am not sure because I wasn't there, Both camps were there at that party and there was a change occurring which both bands saw. Nirvana was a great band, so there are no hard feelings. Apparently on the wall there was written, allegedly by Kurt, "Who the f**k is Joey Tempest?" We always talked about that and how it was a great symbol of the new times. When we went to the Black Rock CBS office in New York and Pearl Jam was on the desk, we didn't get the warm handshakes like we had before, this was '90-'91. It was kind of cool for us because we wanted to do solo albums, educate ourselves and eventually come back. We didn't officially split, we took a break and it became a bit longer than anticipated. It was an interesting period during the beginning of the 90s.
antiMusic: The Prisoners In Paradise album is an album I am really fond of because it's so diverse and different. I've only heard bits and pieces over the years that the label kept asking for more songs, several of which wound up on the Rock the Night: The Very Best of Europe compilation from 2004, but every song is really good. Do you look fondly on that album? Is it an album that got away?
Joey Tempest: We spent a lot of time in LA so the production became a little more American since we had not been back to our roots in a long time. Beau Hill did a great job and we had a great time with him. It came at an awkward time, but there's some good stuff on it. We still play "Girl >From Lebanon" almost every night and "Prisoners In Paradise" is pretty cool, which we play sometimes. It just came at an awkward moment when the biggest label in the world, which we were on, were shifting their eyes to Seattle. It's still a great album but we were ready because we had been going for ten years and it was time to take a break, even if it became a bit longer than anticipated.
antiMusic: There is a song on the record called "Homeland" and I heard a rumor, I am not sure if it is true or not, but was Rod Stewart potentially going to record it?
Joey Tempest: We were in contact with a writer who was working for Rod Stewart, we actually met him in California at that time. Whether he heard the song or wanted to write it's possible, I'm not sure. It's possible but I don't think it was ever confirmed 100%. I know we were working with the Rod Stewart camp for writing purposes but I can't say that it could have happened. that was a song about our homeland and us missing home.
antiMusic: I wasn't sure if it was true and when I found out I was going to interview you, I knew I had to ask that question. Is it exciting to tour with Black Star Riders (formerly Thin Lizzy)?
Joey Tempest: It's kind of exciting because they are friends of ours now. We did a big UK tour with them as co-headliners. Over here in the US they still have some work to do but they're a great band and they started off as a new band after being Thin Lizzy. To play with Scott Gorham (lead guitarist) and have him on tour with us is amazing. We used to go and watch Thin Lizzy as young kids and to dream and being influenced by him and the other guys, so it's really cool to be able to hang with those guys.
antiMusic: I know you do a lot of the lyric writing, do you get your inspiration from a wide array of sources? I was reading an interview you did a few years ago where you wrote "Bring It All Home" from watching The Last Waltz and I know "The Seventh Sign" also came from a movie. Do you pull a lot from films and books, anything specific?
Joey Tempest: Oh yeah, it could be films, books or just walking down the street, as I was in Chicago today and I felt there could be a song in here, I have a great feeling about this city. I went to a blues place last night and went to a great breakfast place this morning and just walking the street downtown, I love this place and I am sure there is a lyric in there. It could be for anything; a visit through town, an art gallery or a book or some albums have been about relationships from within the band and the band's relationships with others with parents passing away maybe. It could be stuff like that or someone being born. I remember when John Norum lost his wife Michelle, it could be anything, there is no rule for me. I make notes all the time and call myself all the time. There will be words and expressions for when we start making the record I can go to these notes and tap into that emotion.
antiMusic: You have the new record, War of Kings out which is a really great record and helps give the feeling that you're a new band. But I have to ask about the 30th Anniversary of The Final Countdown which will occur next year in 2016. Do you have anything planned for that or is the focus to take the new songs on the road?
Joey Tempest: We want to do something and we will market it. We haven't forgotten about that. We want to celebrate it but we don't want it to take over our new career which is the second breath of this band which is working really well for us but we also appreciate that song and we appreciate that album so there will be some sort of marking of this event. I don't know if we can get over to America which would be great, but it will be a smaller amount of shows. We won't go out for the whole year doing just that. We have to focus on the next record but we want to mark it somehow and celebrate it, we're going to do something.
antiMusic: Do you have a lot of material left in the vaults. I know you have put a lot of it on some of the larger compilations we discussed earlier and you mentioned how "Days of Rock 'n' Roll" came from 25-years ago or have you gone through most of it?
Joey Tempest: I have to be honest with you, we are absolutely terrible at having bonus tracks. When we go into the studio. We usually wind it down to twelve tracks and then we go in. We are not that band who writes twenty-five tracks and just works on eleven. We are so prepared when we go in, these eleven are tracks we record. There's not much outside material.
Someday we will do some sort of documentary or film on the band, which we have started talking about now and do it properly. We have video, VHS and film material dating back to 1982 when we did our first album, so we do have a lot of stuff and a lot of things have happened to the band over the years. There's something in there and maybe something interesting can be done. That is something probably in the pipelines three, four, five years ahead.
Europe hits the road again in support of War of Kings starting September 19th in Denmark through early December in France. Check their website out for all dates here
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. He has covered hundreds of concerts for antiMusic for the last several years. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMusic DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
The antiMusic Interview: Joey Tempest of Europe