Epica's Coen Janssen: Designing His Universe

We are the masters of our own universe. This is the message conveyed by symphonic metal group, Epica, in their most recent album, Design Your Universe, released this month. Having also released a live album in the last year, they are now touring across Europe. Three concerts into this tour, keyboard player Coen Jansen took the time to chat to us about living his dream.

Epica's music often deals with metaphysical concepts – their previous studio album, The Divine Conspiracy, put forward the idea that God created all the religions to test us; their new album, Design Your Universe, deals with a more existential theme. Pianist and master of the synthesiser, Coen Janssen explains: 'Basically if you put your mind to something and make your own choices then you can make what you want happen. You can create your own world. You design your own universe.'


The universe they have created for themselves is certainly hectically busy and increasingly successful. This last year has seen Epica not only release the studio album Design Your Universe but also the live album The Classical Conspiracy, a recording from the Miskolc Opera Festival in Hungary. Featuring a 40-piece orchestra and 30-piece, which required months of work rearranging the music, all of it had to be written in scores. Coen described the experience as the feeling of a dream come true. This was undoubtably the most memorable show the band has ever done.


'To hear what your music sounds like in an orchestra it was, awwh, amazing – to hear that all around you!' He enthused. 'Every show is different. It doesn't matter if it is a big or little show, or the venue; they are all different. Classical Conspiracy was different again ... It was overwhelming.'


The Classical Conspiracy included classical, soundtrack and Epica-created music, giving the band a chance to perform great music they appreciate that is not of their own composition, and not even metal: a chance for them to explore more symphonic elements than they can through their own music. Janssen's favourite composer to play of the selection was Dvořák (Ninth Symphony, Adagio). He chose the piece and said the others were skeptical due to its length: 'They cursed me because they had to study it,' he said.


However, he thought it sounded amazing and it was great for him to hear it turned into a band song.


Though it is Mark (Jansen) and Arien (Van Weesenbeek) who really love the soundtracks, Coen has gained an appreciation of this music from working with them and producing the Classical Conspiracy show; he became quite animated as he listed his personal favourite soundtracks: 'Lord of the Rings ... And Harry Potter, after six movies the soundtracks are still really strong ... And I love the original Batman soundtrack' - and confesses he could go on all night listing great soundtracks.


In contrast to writing scores, the usual song writing process uses computers and synthesisers, which was the method they returned to in the creation of Design Your Universe. Each member writes music individually before coming together to complete the final versions. This is a process that cannot be forced.


'It comes naturally. I cannot sit down for writing music, it can only happen when I have something in my head. I might sit down by the computer and play something nice and sometimes it all comes together and I have created a song – and then sometimes it takes years,' he told me.


The ballad he wrote for this last album he had been working on for a more than a year, trying to make it perfect for the rest of the band. Then, when he was told they were going into the studio, and was asked if he wanted to add anything - explaining that he must send it that night, he had to complete it. He came up with a good chorus, which he had felt was missing from it, with the pressure on. Therefore, he says deadlines are good:


'I need deadlines to get stuff done, I'm a little bit lazy to be honest,' he admitted. 'So I need to have that deadline to get me to finish what I'm working on.' 


Though the band members of Epica are very hard working, their work is perceived more as a dream come true than a job.

'It's a little boy's dream to be a rockstar, and we are living that. You know, we're not selling out stadiums but that's not the point: it's not about that,' Janssen emphasised. 'We are doing what we love (and) love every minute of it. I never dared wish for anything else ... All the band have always wanted to be musicians. It's amazing that we got together this team of people who all love their music, that is all they want to do – and we are doing it!”


The band is currently touring with Amberian Dawn and Sons of Seasons promoting the Design Your Universe LP, only released this month. Having toured with Amberian Dawn before, Coen is pleased to be touring with them again.

'It's really nice to be on tour with people you know. We're in a tour bus with eighteen people, which is quite a tight space, so it's great to have friends touring with you.'


And, playing such newly released songs, they are finding the crowd reaction very positive.


'We had a CD presentation and some try-outs and people didn't know the songs, so it is hard for people to get into it when they don't know it ... And now, with the album released and some of our stuff on the internet, people are starting to come along knowing – the reactions of the crowds gets better as people know the songs so it's really good to see.'

When the band presents its music to live audiences, it finds that the songs change on stage, so Coen is not yet sure what the strongest new song is.


'It is hard to say because songs have a different feel in the studio as they do on stage,' he explained. 'My favourite is maybe Unleashed and then Martyr of the Free World is really powerful too and Kingdom of Heaven has all the Epica ingredients; it is great that it is a long song that is still interesting ... So they are all my favourites because they have all just been released, but after the tour maybe I will have some not-so-favourites.'


The song Unleashed was the track chosen to produce a music video to. The video was shot in Berlin, Germany, as that is where the production company is from. The band had to drive from Holland to reach the location, and despite the hard work, Janssen believes that it is the best clip they have ever made.


'For us, it was a rough night of driving, we had to drive all through the night, so were not really feeling very into it driving there, but we were very pleased with how it worked out.'


Though the idea was mainly borne from the lyrics of the song, they did not want to produce a clip too explicit in its meaning:

'We wanted it to be a little bit fake,' Coen said. 'We don't like our clips to be too obvious, they have to be a little bit fake and then maybe people will talk about them more.”


The biggest difference with their latest album, compared to previous releases, is the new guitar player, Isaac Delahaye. Coen describes his style as more varied; the latest album including some great solos. Classically trained Simone Simons has also further improved her vocal capabilities.


'I think you can really hear that [about her work]!' he enthused. And he sums up Design Your Universe simply: 'I think we have taken the Epica sound and made it more improved, with more flair.'


Epica's plans for the immediate future: more touring, Janssen stating: 'The best thing about touring so much – is that we are touring so much!'


Though they do not currently have plans to come to Australia, Coen said they would love to see the country one day. 'We've never been to Australia, never met Australian fans, so we really to hope to get to Australia to meet you.'


So, though Aussie fans will have to wait until that day – unless they catch them abroad – European fans are bound to find them in a nearby city; their current tour encompasses Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, the Czech Rebublic, Austria, Italy, Spain, Portugal and France.


This hard working band has created and is living its dream, designing the universe they desire. Performing high quality, complex, symphonic metal; their career has seen only increasing success. 


Epica's Design Your Universe is out now on Nuclear Blast/Riot.