It’s hard to believe but ‘desolation rose’ is The Flower Kings’ twelfth studio album since 1995’s ‘back in the world of adventures’. A truly beautiful voyage into progressive pastures that succeeds both in paying homage to the ghosts of the past and the visions of the future, it may well be the band’s finest moment. We were fortunate enough to gain a phone interview with the band’s soft-spoken leader, the multi-talented Roine Stolt who handles vocal duties as well as, at various points, guitars, keyboards and bass and who spent a precious half hour talking to SonicAbuse about the love of music, the inspiration that lies at the heart of the band and the importance of creating a complete package for fans to enjoy. It was the sort of interview that could, freed from the constraints of a hectic press circuit, have gone on for a long time indeed and it was an honour indeed to have had the opportunity to conduct it.
I’d like to talk to you a little bit about your history before we talk about the new album if that’s OK?
Thank you. Just to start off with, you formed the band back in 1994 and you released a first album only a year later – was the music for that album something that had been formulated for a time before the band formed or did it come together that quickly?
Well. To go back to the very beginning, actually when I started playing the guitar and when I joined my first band as a teenager, probably back in the seventies or even ’69 I think, I played a little bit of, I would say, progressive rock and jazz rock. So that’s what I came from, being a fan of… well going all the way back to the Beatles and all that… but what caught my interest were all the bands that tried to mix regular pop rock with any different style like jazz, classical, folk… different music, for example folk music from all around the world, you know? So that was the spot I was in already at the beginning of the 70s. And then as a 17 year old I had the chance to become a member of a professional working band in ’74 – Kaipa – and also recorded my first album in ’75. And we played music that was kind of similar to what I do nowadays in Flower Kings, because that was based on king Crimson, ELP, Yes. Genesis and that kind of thing – that symphonic or progressive rock music so this is music that… [Conversation breaks here due to phone call]… So we were talking about the origins of the sound… I think this is music that has been with me for a very long time. The reason I came back to playing this, well, I tried a lot of different styles in the 80s and 90s, anything from hard rock to funk and blues and stuff like that, so coming back to play progressive rock was a sort of home coming and I probably realised that this was the music I have the most fun playing or writing. So what I did was, without even having a band I wrote some music which I recorded in ’93 I think and that was released in ’94 and I titled the album ‘The Flower King’ and the interest I got from that album pushed me in the direction of forming a band and it became very natural to call the band The Flower Kings at that point. So that’s really how the band came to be – I was just asking a couple of friends: my brother was playing bass at the time and Thomas Bodin on keys and a friend of mine recommended a drummer from the south of Sweden – Jaime Salazar – so that’s how we came together. I knew Hans Froberg from before because I’d been recording his band in the studio and producing them so… yeah that’s pretty much where we took off.
Certainly in England, back in 1994, it seemed that progressive rock was a dirty word commercially: was it a challenge, back then, to find an audience?
I don’t know really, at the time we started the band I had lots of other commitments also, I was working in a studio as a sound engineer, and I sometimes did live gigs, sometimes playing, sometimes just doing the sound, so I was quite busy working on other things and I didn’t really put much hope into Flower Kings being what it is today. It was more like this is the music I love to play and I’d like to record it and release it without any hope of going out to any other countries and playing, so it was kind of a low profile thing from the start. But, frankly I didn’t know much about other countries and how prog was seen in countries like the UK, Germany and the US. This was also a time when the internet took off a little bit, but I think mainly that time was, for me, keeping contact with people through a fax machine, so this was before you could just go onto a website and see what was happening with bands around the world and at the time also we hadn’t played much… we played our first show outside of Sweden in ‘95 I think and then we were invited to play in America etc. etc. but… it was a different time so, maybe through magazines… I got a feeling there was something going on in England, Japan, Germany and places like that, but… nowadays information is so fast that you have access to everything so if someone releases something, or even before, they put up snippets or Youtube clips, and the flow of information now is much greater than it was when we started so we know much more about bands and we can even use the internet to book tours so it’s a very different situation actually in terms of knowing what’s happening elsewhere.
When I started listening to music in the late ‘80s, one of the things about the rock bands at that time was it was very hard to find information about them outside of the odd magazine or official publications and there was this air of mystery about Pink Floyd or King Crimson or whoever whereas now, as you say, you can find out anything. Do you think that, although it can be very helpful, the internet has taken away some of that mystical quality of bands?
Yeah, actually I was having that discussion with someone, I can’t recall who, maybe just a week ago. We were talking about, as you say, there’s a certain mystery. Bands that don’t release an album every year, or a DVD or bands that don’t do that many interviews or put youtube clips everywhere – there’s a certain mystery. Sometimes, looking at a band like Pink Floyd who didn’t do much in interviews even back in the day, it adds to the mystery, whereas modern prog bands, they go to the rehearsal room, put up a camera and then go home and it’s on Youtube as soon as they get back and so we get constant flows of information so, I don’t know, maybe it takes away the mystery because we know everything about them – we know what they had for lunch and we know when they rehearse new songs and six months before the album comes out we know the titles and the song lengths, so there’s nothing hidden anymore.
Listening to the album and thinking about mystery and, possibly, dispelling an illusion… when I listen to the new album one of the things that comes across is it sounds like you are just in love with multiple genres of music, that you’re a huge music fan and avid record listener – is that accurate?
Well, I’m definitely a music fan I would say. I would be truthful if I say I don’t buy as many records as I would like to simply because I don’t have that much time to listen. So of course I buy records every now and then but I frankly do not own a vinyl player but, yes, I do have kind of an extensive vinyl collection. I don’t have a player though, so that’s a problem. I am planning on getting one because vinyl seems to be coming back and now, with Flower kings, we’re releasing a beautiful vinyl edition of the new record. I try to listen to music as much as possible and, as you say, influences are quite wide. I have an open mind and, also, the guys in the band have an open mind – they play different kinds of music, they write different kinds of music: they listen to everything from Yes to classical music, folk music, world music, whatever you call it, or electronic music. We have an open mind, so it’s not like we shy away from pop music – we love pop music – but we also love some more avant-garde music so that’s pretty much where I am. I keep an open mind, I don’t like everything of course, but if there’s a new band that everyone is raving about I try to give them a chance and listen to it and I keep an open mind about some very beautiful and melodic music and, at the same time some very disharmonic music, so that, in combination with the what’s passed over the years (because we’re not like 25 any more – we’re old guys!) so that’s probably what comes through in the music we are writing because simply we are trying to write the music that we would enjoy listening to ourselves. We try to entertain ourselves by writing what we think is interesting music and, hopefully, along the way we’ll pick up some fans because they have a similar taste in music to what we have. That’s probably what you hear on the album.
One of the things I love to hear in any record is when musicians are heavily involved in and passionate about what they’re doing – and I think that’s a quality that comes out on the new record very much.
Yeah, I think that none of us would do this if it wasn’t for the love of music because we’re not exactly getting very rich doing this! I mean we can… we have some other gigs and jobs also, you know, so we can make some money but I would say honestly Flower Kings is not about making money, it’s about playing the music we grew up with and the music that we love, so if that comes across in the music then I think it’s a good sign – we did something right.
You’ve referenced a few times in other interviews that you’ve taken the lyrics in a more political direction than on other albums, is that correct?
It depends on how you define politics really. To me I would say it is more a ‘concerned’ album in a way. It’s a kind of difficult time as far as economics go in some parts of the world, and a time of conflict between different religious groups and all sorts of political and economic conflicts in the world and big parts of the world are really struggling day by day just to eat, while other parts of the world are struggling with eating too much and definitely something is going wrong and we’re struggling to find out and to see it. it’s like parts of the world are completely blind to what’s happening and I think conflict could, sometimes, be solved, but some people are hell-bent on making the biggest profit possible and I think that’s what’s standing in the way of making progress with these issues. Even the religious conflicts are, in the end, not down to religion but to power and to money. Unfortunately, I would say.
It seems that in this age, even with access to a lot of information, there is almost a blindness amongst certain groups of people. Music, I guess, has a history of bringing politics to a mass audience – artists like Peter Gabriel with ‘Biko’, Neil Young and Bob Dylan – are you thinking lyrically in those terms?
Well, those are the kind of lyrics that stay with you. I mean, I love what Paul McCartney does but I rarely hear anything from him that is remotely political, but I still love his music. But then, as you say, there are artists like Peter Gabriel who take a stand and Bob Dylan, back in the day at least, and then, as you say, CSNY and Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne – you have people that will stand up and say what they think… and of course Jon Lennon back in the day… and these, for me, are the lyrics that stay with you. And it’s not like we’re sitting down and saying let’s make a political album – I don’t think in those terms, I just start writing and if something’s on my mind then I write about it. I think for me personally the boy and girl thing is not really for me to write about. There are so many songs about love and that’s fine – there are some beautiful love songs, but I can’t really find it inside of me to write those kinds of lyrics you know. I can’t write lyrics about dragons and trolls, and people sometimes joke about progressive rock being about Hobbits and stuff like that, and there may be some, I don’t know. I haven’t heard it yet, but for me it just happened to be this time that the album focuses on topics like the uncertainty of war and political corruption and stuff like that.
As lyric writing is such a personal thing, but which needs to reach a mass audience, is it a challenge to write your lyrics in a second language?
I suppose it is. As you say, if I was writing in Swedish, and the fact is I used to do that some 25 years ago… frankly I found it to be as difficult, if not more difficult because in the English language you have… if you want to say something… you have a couple of options. For one meaning you have 4 or 5 words, whereas in Sweden we often only have one. But, it is my second language and I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered it yet, but I try the best I can and the reason we do it is because we’re not really selling all our albums in Sweden so if we were singing in Swedish and the album sells in Germany, England or Japan then people wouldn’t understand, so it seems very natural to sing in English. We try, and I try the best I can and try to express myself and I am sure that sometimes things may sound or look funny to an English person or an American, but it’s not a big deal to me and I am certain there are lyrics written by people from the UK or the US and you don’t really understand their meaning or it just isn’t correct, but it really doesn’t matter because music is very much about feelings and trying to make people start thinking about something, or you’re pushing people in certain directions and they have to formulate for themselves what the song is about, which is interesting because you hear interviews with anyone from Peter Gabriel to Paul McCartney and they say, when asked about lyrics, “I don’t know really what point I was making when writing this song!” And that sometimes, I wouldn’t say shocked me, but to know these guys are writing, probably more from a… source we really can’t define. It’s like when you write a song – you sit at the keyboard or with the guitar and you play something and you have absolutely no idea where it comes from, and it’s the same with lyrics I guess – I don’t have a master plan when I start writing. I sit down with the song, maybe with a guitar, and I play the song and start writing the lyrics. The words just come to me – I have no idea where the words come from, I just try and collect them as best I can and.. it’s actually a mystery to me, I just keep my fingers crossed that people listening can use the music in the way they want to – or they can make out the lyrics as whatever they want them to be about, you know. It’s entertainment, in the end, and it has to be taken that way and nothing more really.
Another facet of progressive rock is the artwork, and Flower Kings are no different – the artwork for ‘Desolation rose’ is beautiful – how important is that to you and how much are you personally involved?
Well, to me it is important. I know that in the end people are just putting on the record and now they even may just download it from iTunes, I don’t know – I wouldn’t do that – but some people do and then they don’t have the artwork. But for me it’s part of the music, it’s part of the journey, it’s like the cover of a book. I prefer a book that has a very, I don’t know, interesting or colourful or vivid image than just a white or black page. So I think it’s another element and if you’re looking back at other acts I think possibly the best example is the Roger Dean covers that Yes used for their albums – I think many people bought the album, they went home, put the record on the record player and while they were listening for the first time, they were looking at this cover that Roger Dean made and all his weird, surreal landscapes, looking at anything from the artwork to the liner notes, the credits and the lyrics and all that stuff. It’s part of the experience and for me personally it’s a good thing that it’s coming back now and we’re selling the vinyl version of this and people think it’s amazing. Some people even buy it without a player – I don’t know what they do with it! Maybe they put it on the wall or something – but just having it because they love to have it. I think the artwork is definitely important. I try to spend some time finding nice artwork, I try to spend some money having beautiful artwork and we’re lucky to have the guy that made this one and made the previous one also and there’s just something about the way he works that attracts me to what he does and I think, in a way it works really well with the music in the same way that Roger Dean and his covers for Yes or Hipgnosis and the stuff they did for Pink Floyd did. It’s so connected with the music now, so if you say ‘atom heart mother’ it’s so connected with the Pink Floyd cow, or if you say ‘Dark side of the moon’ you think of the pyramid with the spectrum of light or if you say whatever Yes album you’ll think of Roger Dean’s work. It’s engraved in your brain for years and years. You’re talking about an album, for example ‘lamb lies down on Broadway’ and the first thing you’re thinking of is the cover – the first thing I think of is not a song, but the cover. So artwork is really, really important and the sad thing is that once we had only the CD record, which was smaller, but the good thing is now that we’re back on vinyl, so you can see the artwork in its full glory and that’s something that we in the band really appreciate our record label doing.
It seems to be a prog rock standard having a carefully balanced sequence – how long did you spend sequencing your work?
Well, frankly, I didn’t spend that much time. I tried a few different options. I knew what the first song was going to be and I knew definitely what the last song was going to be, and then I suggested a few different options to the guys in the band and we were listening and discussing a bit and it came out that everybody was happy with the sequence. It could have been a different way, but on this one it’s not so much a story as short stories put together, but they have connections through the lyrics and melodies, so maybe it’s a mini-opera or, as I call it, a song cycle, so you have to take into consideration the dynamics, of course, so you wouldn’t have four upbeat, very heavy songs at the beginning and then all the slow songs at the end. You look at the dynamics, so if there’s a very heavy song then maybe the next one will start with a keyboard to get the variation. You also take into consideration the key of the song and the soundscapes. Sometimes, it’s really nice to have a cross-fade from one song to another which makes it a nice flow. But in the end it’s very obvious and some of it is more by chance.
Any final words for your UK fans?
We hope to see you soon. We’re in the stages of booking shows, but we’re not going out till April next year, so that’s when we’ll be out with the Flower Kings alongside a couple of guys from Pain of Salvation. So we’re going to do an evening where we play Flower kings music and also some Pain of salvation and we’re going to guest in each other’s bands so as to make it a very special evening. If I’m not mistaken I think we’re playing the UK for one or maybe two shows – our booking agent is negotiating 0 so it seems like we’ll come soon anyway.