Progressive rock is certainly no stranger to independent efforts. In fact, with major record label support practically inexistent and the number of labels specializing on the genre still far from sufficient to house every act available on the market, a good number of bands have seen themselves forced to go the independent way. Circles End is one such band. And with its first full-length release, In Dialogue with the Moon, the Norwegian act has boldly put out and supported a record that, judging from its overall quality and detail, could have very well come out on a professional record label. The statement, however, applies not only to the sonic product of Circles End, but also to elements such as artwork and packaging; factors that are certainly not indispensable in a good record but that make the experience all the more enjoyable. And as one soon learns from Omar Emanuel Johnsen and Trond Lunden, quality is a hard burden to bear, but one that certainly does not go unrewarded.
The beginnings of Circles End hark back to 1993, when the band Venture was formed. Approximately three years later, you were playing a cover of Iron Maiden's "Hallowed Be Thy Name" at the Kjellerrock 96 and felt that Circles End was finally coming together the right way. During that same year, the music started to acquire a more progressive direction, as you'd started listening to progressive bands around the same time. What was it about this new approach that caught your attention and got you interested in working with it?
Trond: I think at first it was very much the many gifted musicians and technical playing that caught my attention. Later I started appreciating the emotions that the old boys from the '70s so eloquently express in their music more. There are few bands that do that as successfully as the prog pioneers did. It was fun covering Iron Maiden though... (smiles)
Omar: In '96 we were around sixteen years old. I was into Metallica and that stuff until this guy introduced me to Dream Theater. That opened up a whole new world to me. I figured DT had to be inspired by someone, and discovered bands like King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, Anekdoten, and those bands. The progressive music was more challenging in every way. The musicianship, the tensions, melodies, timbre, rhythm and harmonies were done in a more interesting way than I had ever heard before. Of course it influenced and inspired us to go in that new direction.
Omar ended up doing vocals on your debut EP Circles End because you hadn't found a vocalist by that time and his high school singing lessons allowed him to do the job. Did you decide not to wait until finding a vocalist because you were trying to get a record deal at that time?
Omar: We had been looking for a vocalist for ages. And of course we were eager to take another step and record our music, thus hopefully getting a record deal. I must admit we could have waited until we found a better singer than myself. I wouldn't actually call myself a singer, but the job got done - in a way. And I don't think an instrumental album ever was an option, so I gave it a shot. I don't feel comfortable singing and playing guitar at the same time. Actually I sung an old tune on our latest performance. It was weird, but fun. I hadn't done that for a couple of years.
...and now that you've decided to remain independent instead of actively pursuing a record deal, is it a decision you regret?
Omar: No, not at all. Of course, if a company does find interest in us we would be glad. It is a lot of work being independent. You have to do everything yourself. Writing the letters, making distribution deals, shipping, doing the artwork, licking the stamps and so on and so forth. But then again, when we get the feedback we get, it is very rewarding. We get great responses from distribution companies, and we haven't got a single bad review in any magazine. It's stressful sometimes doing this, since we have to do it in our spare time. But fun too...
Trond: There are advantages and disadvantages by being signed and not. I don't regret that we stopped pursuing a record deal because we feel very free now when we work with our music. Nobody is pushing us around, and we do things in our own pace. Being independent is hard when you have to raise a lot of funds in a fairly short time prior to a release. Although you get more money per CD when you sell the way we do now, you probably won't sell as many. Working up a distribution network is hard, and it takes time. But we have achieved something! We have sold the license for Dialogue to Disk Union in Japan and Pängg in Germany/Switzerland, and we have a number of smaller deals all over the world. Also, we have a few people who believe in us and help us a lot. If we do sign up sometime in the future, however, it is vital to us that we keep our musical liberty.
One of the things that can be noticed about the discography of Circles End is the fact that the debut EP was written completely by Omar and Trond, while In Dialogue with the Moon seems to have been written by the entire band. Did this have something to do with the fact that you'd had a couple of lineup changes by then? Is sharing songwriting duties more relaxed, or does it mean that you get into more fights about it?
Trond: Most of the musical themes on Dialogue are by Omar and me. All the members, however, add their color to them and it turns out Circles End. Writing together calls for compromise in some cases, but the songs turn out better in most. When you write something and take it to the band, it is sometimes hard to get used to their ideas, as you often have your own picture of how it should be to begin with. There are few fights in CE, but there were a few "discussions" while working on Dialogue.
Omar: Adding to Trond about the writing of In Dialogue with the Moon... most of the material was written before Helge Finne quit and Gøran Kristiansen came in. Gøran brought Landmark into the band. Gøran and Landmark had a tune, which turned into "el mar, la mar." Most of the other tunes had already been written back in '99. (If you're lucky you might get hold of a demo which has been sent around. The demo featured three of the tunes which ended up on the record, and on that demo we had another singer named Øyvind Kurszus). We informed the two new members that we wanted to record the music we had already written. They added their stuff to the music, and the result was our first full-length album.
The band has been compared to acts such as Rush, Dream Theater, and Fates Warning, all progressive metal bands and the latter two considerably heavier. Although I haven't heard the Circles End EP, this doesn't really seem like an apt comparison when one listens to In Dialogue with the Moon, as the album seems to be more song-focused and has some musically more upbeat moments. Is this type of comparison a danger when people who are into progressive metal may not be into Circles End that much, while some other public would perhaps be more interested?
Trond: Yes and no. Obviously, comparing CE to prog metal was considerably more correct three years ago. We still have heavy elements that perhaps are appreciated by prog metal fans, but we have very much drifted away from the metal genre as such. There are many prog fans who are against the new, Dream Theater-like prog by principle. This is a group who probably will distance themselves from CE if they read articles based on our EP.
Omar: I know from experience that many "metalheads" tend to be patriotic about their music. If the music hasn't got the term "metal" somewhere in it when describing it, they almost refuse to listen to it. I'm not trying to offend anyone, I listen to metal myself, but this phenomenon goes for pretty much every genre in music. Music is a sociological phenomenon. People with same interests gather in groups. That, of course, goes for music too. Music binds people together but also creates distance. I think it's important to remember that music is for listening to. Of course we all have different taste, but it's foolish not to eat the food before even tasting it.
While we are at the food metaphor; I like combining different types of music, trying not to worry about the genre, like using different spices when cooking. But then again, you can't please everyone. We do what we like, and like what we do. Our music ranges from rock to pop, funk, jazz and metal. This is our attempt of doing something new, something progressive. It is hard to come up with something new nowadays. There are few prog rock bands which are truly progressive nowadays, and I can't even say we are in that group. I admire Robert Fripp and what he's doing with King Crimson. He is always moving on, exploring new areas - but still with the "Crimson touch."
In Dialogue With the Moon features some rather depressing lyrics, which seem to contrast with some musically upbeat stuff like the beginning of "The Fine Line." This kind of message seems to have become a lot more common since the nineties. What is it in your case that has drawn you to write such lyrics? Why do you think more bands tend to explore this kind of emotional state more often nowadays?
Trond: I can only speak for myself when I say that I can't write when I'm happy. This, of course, results in depressing lyrics. More or less consciously, we emphasize contrasts. I think contrasts add interesting twists to many kinds of music.
Omar: I write what I think and feel. The writing of my lyrics happens to be during depressing moments. It seldom works to be forced to write. And the conclusion is: We must be a bunch of really depressing guys! (smiles) In my defense, I have to say that I did only two lyrics! I think when people are in a bad mood or in a depressed state it's therapy in putting your thoughts on paper. Maybe music and the lyrics nowadays are becoming more personal? There are few bands singing: "Rock around the clock" or "Waterloo" anymore.
Alright, now we're moving into the typical oddball series of questions, in which we try to get you away from all kind of seriousness and get some answers that you probably won't give in any other interviews! One: If you go to a movie and someone in the theater is talking loudly you:
a) Ignore the person and curse him to death in your mind.
b) Get up and politely ask the person to stop.
c) Start attacking the person with popcorn and other assorted goodies.
d) Other (explain).
Trond: I would definitely not waste any candy on him!
Omar: Probably throw litter and empty bottles at him... (smiles)
Two: Do you watch Britney Spears videos and turn the whole volume down?
Omar: I seldom watch MTV, but when I do...
Trond: No comment.
Jarle: Trond, nice try, but we have to tell the truth... The fact is that the whole band have been huge fans of Britney since we spotted her brilliant music and videos a few years back. Some nights we get together and watch her videos for hours. It is in fact becoming a great inspiration, and our next recording will sound a bit like Oops.... What a fantastic song! If we sometimes in the future should be fortuned to meet her, we would very much like to fuck her in the ass with a shotgun!!!
Three: What do you think about Kuala Lumpur?
Omar: It's the capital city of where my mother comes from. I'm half Malaysian. The other half is of course Norwegian.
Trond: I drove through Kuala Lumpur once on a 23-hour bus drive. Didn't see much though...
Alright, thanks for bearing with us on that! Anyway, among the recent lineup changes in the band, you've added bassist/cellist Patrick Wilder. Now, the bass part is obvious of course, but the cello part sounds interesting because most bands have string players and such only as guests on their albums. Do you plan to expand the Circles End lineup to feature other musicians, such as saxophonists, violinists, etc.? Or would this mean that the band would not be as united emotionally and therefore it'd be wiser not to do that?
Omar: Pat is a great guy with great talent. He comes from a musical family where both parents are organists. All his brothers and sisters also play instruments. His uncle was in fact a member of Depeche Mode! He provides a new dimension to the band by playing the cello, but it's hard for him to do both the bass and cello at once. (smiles) Therefore, I may step in on the bass on occasions, or do the bass work with my Chapman stick. Audun, our new keyboard player, is very versatile. He has got a band on his own called NIFS where he's playing the bass (Pat is their cellist also). I replaced Audun as a guitarist in another band called SPOT. He is an all rounder musically! The good thing with this new outfit is that the band has gotten more united. The chemistry is very good. And as a bonus, if we feel like it, we might jump around on different instruments. We also have a very talented saxophone player, Jon Trygve, who we are planning on cooperating with in the future. We haven't decided whether to include him as a full time member or just keep him in our so-called "circles extended" section. It also depends on what he wants. The reasons for expanding are obviously to create a new timbre or sound, and I can see a future for that.
Trond: We are experimenting with analogue synths, piano, Rhodes, and we just bought a pump organ which we will try to fit in someplace!
We originally mentioned that you recently decided to stay independent instead of dedicating all your efforts towards getting a record deal. Something that struck me instantly is the high quality in all aspects of In Dialogue with the Moon, since a lot of independent releases have lower quality production, artwork, etc. Do you think that this is because of laziness on behalf of those bands? Is this the only way that you can get closer to reaching some success while staying independent?
Trond: I don't know... It sounds so arrogant to answer yes. (smiles) Sometimes I think it may be laziness, but often also lack of money. We are so lucky as to have a reasonable recording studio near our homes, run by a guy who knows what he's doing and likes our music. We did the artwork ourselves. I took a lot of pictures (and borrowed some) and did most of the Photoshop work. A friend who is a graphical designer helped us getting it ready for print and that's it! Being independent, you have to work hard to project in a professional way. All the record companies know how to do that, but we need to feel our way through, and maybe fail sometimes. That's part of the game! We learn a lot from this process though...
Omar: We are in many ways perfectionists. I don't know if I would say that's necessarily a good thing. We do things until we are satisfied. The album is only a result of that. Of course there are limitations in the form of thin wallets. Trond has been working a lot with the artwork, and I have helped him finding pictures and ideas. And all of the other work, as I've already mentioned, has been done by the band. If we keep on doing this, hopefully something should happen. The best thing to do as to reaching some success must be to keep on gigging, make some fuzz, record demos, and spread it out. Give me a tip if you could come up with a better idea...
Somewhere along the same lines, you once mentioned in an interview that you wanted the band to remain in the underground during the beginning and then continue to grow from that Why exactly is this? Do you feel as if becoming really big all of a sudden would place too much pressure on the band?
Omar: The reason I said that, is of course the reality as I see it. I believe in working. For a small prog rock band from way up north, what are the odds of making it? We must be crazy believing in this music. Prog rock isn't the most popular genre in the business and amongst people in general nowadays. We play the music we like and are quite happy with that. Hitting it real big has to be a bonus, but I can't really see that coming. Most people who listen to prog rock are in one way or another connected to the underground. There are very few bands in our genre getting played on the big radio stations or TV. There has to be a revolution if that should ever happen again. But we are waiting for it...