Interview with Erik Norlander

All of the hyperlinks to music and the pictures featured on this page are © righted by Erik Norlander/ Think Tank Media

Interview conducted by Remco Schoenmakers for DPRP, © 2000

First of all, thanks for granting us this interview, which we are conducting via email. Do you use the Internet a lot professionally? And, as a musician, are you as concerned as some of the major record companies about mp3 and illegal copying?

You're quite welcome -- it is a pleasure for me to do the interview as I am a reader of the DPRP myself. Regarding the internet, I use it EVERY day, and usually for 3 or more hours at a time. It is more important than my telephone and my television. I have so many friends and associates thousands of miles away in different countries, it is an essential part of my life now and I think that it would a great hardship to live without it! Okay, I can even compare it to the invention of electricity. Before electricity, people managed just fine, but after we had light bulbs, powered appliances, automobiles and so forth, it is difficult to imagine going back to a time without it.

Professionally, the internet is what has allowed my own company Think Tank Media to succeed as an enterprise. We can promote our releases and keep the listeners updated with constant news at very little expense. Five or six years ago we used to do mailings which of course very expensive and also quite slow. And now we can also do great things like conduct *interviews* via email! As you say in Dutch ... "gaaf!"

The mp3 situation is in a dangerous state right now. Currently there is no real regulation of it, so the possibility exists for someone to rip our entire CD catalog into mp3 and then post it on a newsgroup or website for free download and subsequently put us out of business. I don't think that will happen, but the *possibility* still exists. I am very much against censorship and regulation of the internet on a general level, but this is really a piracy issue -- not a free speech issue -- and so I think there some need of policing. I know that sounds Machiavellian, but the artists do need to be protected somehow. If mp3 can evolve to a more secure format, I will be much more excited about it. Now we do post one song from each of our release in mp3 for free download (http://www.thetank.com), but that's all. Our newer releases are published in really low quality RealAudio format so that a listener can hear the entire album's *music*, but of course not really benefit from the great audio quality. Our idea of both mp3 and RealAudio is to use it for auditioning purposes only, such as on the DPRP. We strongly discourage any trading or retransmission of our material -- that quickly becomes piracy.

Moving to music: you are portrayed with an impressive amount of synths and keyboards (both modern and antique). Do you actually own all these instruments? Which is your favorite? And why use so many, isn't it enough to just use a good master keyboard and plug different sound modules in it?

Those are some good questions. I do own all of the keyboards from the 'Into the Sunset' photos, and these are the instruments that I used to make the album. I get to look at all of this stuff everyday in my studio, but up until now, unless you come visit me in my studio, no one else sees them. Of course they sound great, but I think that they are also quite nice to look at -- both aesthetically and from an historical standpoint.

My favorite instrument has to be my Moog modular synthesizer (the big black wall with all the knobs on it in the photos!). This instrument was the first Moog synthesizer to be delivered to the American west coast, and it was built in April of 1967 which is exactly three months before I was born! It is quite a classic instrument, and I have even spoken with its inventor Dr. Robert Moog about it on a few occasions. I have been restoring this particular instrument for about five years now, and in 1999 it finally reached a playable state! I first played a Moog modular synth back in 1994 -- it was Keith Emerson's Moog that I borrowed for some sessions and some sampling work. Once I played this thing -- this BEAST -- I knew that I had to get one for myself. It was the best sounding synth I had ever heard. I compare it to a guitarist seeking out the perfect 1957 Les Paul or the perfect pre-war Martin acoustic.

Another quite notable instrument of mine is my Hammond Model D organ. This thing is even older than the Moog. It was built in 1939, so not only is it older than me, it is older than my father as well! This instrument pre-dates the Hammond B3 and C3 models, and I believe that it is a superior instrument because it has two generators instead of one. I have had modern percussion, spring reverb and preamp sections built into it (quite a big project!), and now I can confidently say that it is the best sounding Hammond I have ever heard. I proud of my baby! Like the Moog, this was about a five year restoration project. I hope to tour with it in 2001, because previously I have always used a rented B3 for tours.

Okay, next you asked why I use so many keyboards instead of just one and a MIDI controller. The reason for this is that these analog instruments cannot be duplicated by digital technology -- at least not to my ear. I worked for a digital synthesizer manufacturer for 7 years before working full time on my music career, and I can honestly say that I have tried to push digital technology to its limits. There are some great sounds you can get with digital, but they are not the *same* sounds that you get with analog. You can never get a digital sample or model of a Hammond organ to sound like the real thing. The spit, the growl, the distortion and all of the imperfections and irregularities are what make the Hammond such a beautiful instrument -- again, like an electic guitar. The analog synthesizers are also quite alive and changing at every moment. Sampling technology only captures moments in time, so you end up playing those same moments over and over again. Physical modeling technology is an improvement over sampling with instruments like the Nord Lead, Roland JP8000 and Yamaha AN1X, but it is still not there yet. Maybe one day it will be, though. I think that all three of these companies are doing great work in this area, and I am watching their progress!

Lastly, the reason why I don't just use one controller keyboard is that I like to play multiple instruments at the same time. A typical situation is where I will play Hammond chords with my left hand and then Moog leads or melodies with my right hand. Alternatively, it could be Rhodes piano chords and Mellotron lines. Yes, I could split up a big 88-note keyboard, but often times I need the whole range of the instrument for each hand. Also, the feel of a keyboard is important to me. A weighted hammer-action keyboard is perfect for playing piano sounds, but horrible for playing Hammond or Moog. The Hammond keyboard is perfect for playing ... well ... Hammond sounds! And I prefer a lighter touch keyboard for the synth leads. It all sounds decandent and excessive, I know, but it's really quite a practical decision for me. Believe me, if I could travel on an airplane with just one keyboard and a small rack of digital synths, I would prefer it! But I just can't get the same sounds and the same feel. Not YET, anyway!

On the new album Into the Sunset you work with a lot of people from the "Ayreon-gang" and you've worked with Arjen on the latest Ayreon albums as well. Aren't you afraid this album will be considered as Ayreon pt. 3?

Yes, there are a lot of commonalities between Ayreon, Rocket Scientists, Lana Lane and my solo album 'Into the Sunset'. But I truly believe that each project has its own very characteristic sound and that there is not much chance of confusing one for the other. For example, I don't think that anyone would confuse a Lana Lane song with an Ayreon song, even if Lana sang them both. Likewise, I think that Arjen Lucassen and I arrange our music quite differently, so I further think that there is a good distinction between 'Into the Sunset' and Ayreon. Even if Edward Reekers and Robert Soeterboek (both *great* singers) sing on each of our albums, the music and the production is clearly different. You can recognize the guitar style of Arjen and the keyboard style of myself on each different project, but again, I think the general sound of the projects make them all quite unique.

One of the most beautiful tracks is Dreamcurrents, a very melancholic almost classical piece. Did you have a classical music education?

Dank je wel! I like this piece very much, too. I did have some classical music education during my school years. I started on the piano when I was 8 years old, and I continued on with classical and "traditional" music education (jazz, contemporary, etc.) all through my days in high school and at the university. I actually wrote the song "Dreamcurrents" way back in 1986 when I was studying piano at UCLA, which is a big university here in Los Angeles. I was supposed to be learning an Erik Satie piece in a private practice room, but I got bored with it and started writing my own song which became "Dreamcurrents". I have played this piece over the years in live concerts with both Rocket Scientists and with Lana Lane, but I have never recorded it until now on 'Into the Sunset'.

On Rome is Burning you have Deep Purple's Glenn Hughes on vocals. How did you meet him and why did you do only one track with him?

I met Glenn Hughes through Keith Emerson, who is a mutual friend of ours. Keith and Glenn were playing some gigs together here in Los Angeles along with guitarists Marc Bonilla and Ronnie Montrose. Keith invited me down to one of the shows where he introduced me to Glenn. I of course knew Glenn's voice from Deep Purple and some other projects, but this show really completely blew me away. Glenn sang "Tarkus", "A Whiter Shade of Pale", "Rock Candy" and a few other classic songs all with this incredible power, emotion and conviction. I met Glenn backstage and really got along well with him -- he is quite a nice guy. Interestingly enough, the first time Glenn and I worked together was on an ELP tribute album done by the Magna Carta label. We recorded the song "Knife Edge" along with drummer Simon Phillips, Marc Bonilla on guitar and Robert Berry on bass (hey, that's quite a good band!). So Keith Emerson had introduced Glenn and myself, and here we were recording an Emerson song -- it was quite ironic! After I heard Glenn's voice on "Knife Edge", I knew that I had to have him on 'Into the Sunset'. I phoned him up and asked him about it, and he was quite enthusiastic. He really liked the song "Rome is Burning". Honestly, I can't think of any other singer I would have rather had on this piece. Glenn's performance is absolutely brilliant. Why didn't Glenn sing on other tracks on the album? Hmmm. I don't know. I had written all of the songs for the album with specific voices in mind, but I also wanted to have Robert Soeterboek from Ayreon sing a track ("Lines in the Sand"). That song would have been a good one for Glenn as well, but I think that Robert did a fantastic job, and I am quite happy and grateful to have his performance.

Of course we can again enjoy the beautiful voice of your wife, Lana Lane, for instance on my favorite track Fly. Both your lives revolve around progrock. Aren't there any artistic clashes between you? And how do you keep work and private life separated?

Lana and I have a very good working relationship. It is a bit apart from our personal relationship, which sounds strange, I know. In the music, it is really an artist/producer relationship. We have built up a good mutual trust where each of us can express ourselves artistically in the way that we want to, with the other supporting that expression and then bringing even more out of it. Does that make sense? It is hard to explain, of course. We have been together for over 13 years now, and this relationship took a long time to reach this level. I can't imagine any relationship like this -- musical or otherwise -- happening overnight.

The lyrics of Into the Sunset deal with time and dreams. Now I am really bad at interpreting lyrics. Is there a lyrical theme on the album (I can hear the musical theme though).

The lyrical themes vary from song to song, but there is one global theme that goes throughout the whole album, and that is the theme of self-reliance and self-exploration. When you are in a band situation, or even when you are working with a producer, it is very much a collaboration -- everybody helps out. But with a self-produced solo project such as 'Into the Sunset', I am very much alone and have to rely on myself for everything. That is a big challenge, but it is why I do solo albums. I have great collaborations with lots of great musicians, but sometimes I need to test my own limits and capabilities, and the solo albums seem to be the best way to do that. This helps me to grow and to evolve as an artist.

The title track "Into the Sunset" also has a double meaning. Of course, on the surface it is about a lone man traveling off an finding himself, his soul, his future. But on another level, it is a veiled metaphor for me as an American musician. What? Okay, here's the story. I have many, many friends and associates in Europe and Japan, and so quite often I feel very conspicuously ... American. We tend to stick out for some reason -- maybe it's our loud, nasal language or our overly commercialized culture -- I don't know. Probably some combination of both. So I wanted to come up with a really good stereotype for an American. I thought "okay ... a cowboy -- now *that's* very American!". Now if you think about the old western films, whether American or Italian, at the end of the film after the hero has saved the girl and saved the town, he always rides off alone ... into the sunset! So this image was the basis for the song as well as for the album in general. Of course I couldn't have a cowboy on the album cover because then it would have looked like a country western album. So I have the prog metal equivalent -- a knight on a rhinocerous. And there's a bit of humor in that image as well!

The European version contains a rerecording of Neurosaur (which by the way introduced me to your music when I first heard it on a sampler CD). It's heavier than the original with Arjen's guitar taking over some of the keyboard tracks. Why did you decide to rerecord it?

My first solo album 'Threshold' from 1997 was an all-instrumental album with no guitars. It was very much an experimental effort. I wanted to see if I could make an interesting album without the two main elements that make up rock music -- vocals and guitars. Now over the last 2-3 years I have been listening to a lot of progressive metal -- bands like Symphony X, Angra, Luca Turilli's solo album and of course ... Ayreon! This music has really inspired me because I find all of my influences in it. When I was young, I listened to the classic prog bands Yes, ELP, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Procol Harum, Jethro Tull, etc., but I also listened to hard rock and "proto" heavy metal bands such as Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult. Furthermore, I liked the "production" bands like ELO, The Alan Parsons Project and Supertramp. Now in the late 90s and 00s, there is this growing new movement of progressive metal that combines all of these influences. It is really fantastic, and I certainly consider it to be the next stage in the evolution of progressive rock. I wanted very much to make an album in this style, and so 'Into the Sunset' was born. As to the song "Neurosaur", the main riff in this song is very much a guitar riff, but for the 'Threshold' album I firmly decided against using *any* guitars. This was the rule of the album. So now that I was recording this much heavier album, 'Into the Sunset', I thought that it would be great to explore this "Neurosaur" song again in a more guitar-oriented environment. I think Arjen connected with the song very well and did a great job on it. It now even reminds me a bit of the old song "La Villa Strangiato" from the 'Rush - Hemispheres' album, which both Arjen and I like a lot.

The Japanese version seems to contain a 17+ minutes bonustrack. How do we European get it, and why use bonustracks anyway?

Well, the bonus track situation is quite a difficult one, and I wish that it did not exist. It all started with Japan. Because CDs are so expensive in Japan, the Japanese labels were (and are) afraid that the Japanese shops will just buy the American or European import versions at a cheaper price. To combat this situation, the Japanese labels started asking (and then demanding) bonus tracks to protect their market. Then the European labels started to suffer from Japanese imports with bonus tracks, and so now the European labels include *different* bonus tracks! This means that once I have recorded an entire album, I still have to record two more songs to use as bonus tracks. It is really quite frustrating for me as an artist because I know that there won't be any one version will *all* of the tracks. So while I know that it is a difficult situation for the listeners, please know that it is much more difficult for me as an artist! As far as the various international versions, my company Think Tank Media stocks every international version of every title we have ever released (now over 20!). They can be ordered over the internet directly our secure website (http://www.thetank.com), and we ship to anywhere in the world. If someone in Holland *really* wants the Japanese edition, they can order it from our website. Likewise, if someone in Japan wants the Euro version, the same situation is available. Of course we try to pick the best tracks for each territory. The song "Neurosaur" really fits the style of the 'Into the Sunset' album better. The Japanese bonus track "Alchemy and Astronomy" is quite nice (and quite *long* of course!), but it is much more atmospheric and a little bit outside of the concept of the album.

Any chance of seeing you live in Europe (preferable Holland) soon? You could actually do a quadruple gig: Lana Lane, Rocket Scientists, Ayreon and solo ;-).

I am really looking forward to playing in Europe again, and especially in Holland. The last time we toured Europe was in 1997. That was Rocket Scientists and Lana Lane, and the mix was a big success. We have done that lineup here in the USA a few times, and it still works well, so I think we will continue with it. While it is too late for us to do a 2000 tour, I am trying to arrange a good European tour for the summer of 2001 centered around Holland, Belgium and Germany. Please keep a good thought for us and hopefully it will work out! During all Lana Lane and Rocket Scientists tours, I always play at least one piece from my solo work. Now that 'Into the Sunset' is receiving so much good attention, it is a sure thing that we will play some music from this album regardless of the "offical" name of the project. As far as Ayreon goes, I would love to tour with this band. But I don't think that Arjen will ever go for it. He has played so many live dates with Vengeance that I think he has lost all interest in live performance. Well, if he ever wants to join us, he has an open invitation to do it.

Having said that and looking at the enormous amount of projects you have been involved in over the past couple of years, do you ever take a holiday?

Lana and I had a nice vacation in Hawaii at the beginning of 1999, and then later that year he had a brief holiday with our Japanese label executives at a traditional Japanese ryokan resort down to the south of Tokyo. We occasionally take a few days off to go to places like Las Vegas or Palm Springs, which are quite close to Los Angeles. So far no big vacation this year, but maybe around Christmas time we can do it.

Which artist would you like to work with on your next project, or is your particular idol.

I would love to work with any of the members of Rush, Yes or Deep Purple. It would also be great to do something with Keith Emerson. It might be difficult since we are both keyboardists, but hopefully I can think of some way to do it. I tried very hard to get Keith to play on the new Ayreon albums, but he was too busy with another project. Arjen and I were both really disappointed, but it did give me good motivation to play "my" Hammond solo on the Ayreon song "Journey on the Waves of Time".

What will be your next big project?

Oh, I am tired just thinking about it! Well, now we are working on 'Lana Lane - Ballad Collection Volume Two' for release in Japan during the Christmas season. Lana's first Ballad Collection was released there in 1998 and was a big success -- the fans really liked it and appreciated it. So now we think it's time to do another one. It is a nice format to explore. We are also working on releasing the Lana Lane back catalog in Europe, which would likely include these Ballad Collections and of course Lana's first two albums. We are talking to a few labels about it, and hopefully we have a good plan in place soon.

Anything you would like to tell our visitors, but I forgot to ask?

Well, of course I have to say a big "thank you" -- or make that "bedankt!" -- for the great support of all of my projects including this new 'Into the Sunset' album. Europe, and Holland in particular, is such a beautiful and artistic place, and I really love to work there and visit there. Holland has so many great musicians, and the Dutch people really have a great understanding and appreciation of progressive music -- probably more than any other country in the world. One day I would like to live in Holland, or at least have a home there. That would be a great experience for me. If the albums continue to be successful, maybe it will be possible.

Thank you, Erik Norlander, for taking the time to anwser all these questions extensively!