John Norum is a legendary guitar player, a well-established musician on a global scale, with international success for much more than 40 years. Co-founder of Europe, with a remarkable journey in five consecutive decades (with a small pause in the 90s, focusing on his solo albums), he has walked his own path as well, with his solo career and outstanding records, since the debut album ‘Total Control’ in 1987. It has been a privilege for me and Myth of Rock to speak with him about his new album, coming out soon, ‘Gone to Stay’, and a few other hopefully interesting topics. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.
Hello John and thank you for your time, much appreciated. I am happy to speak with you today on behalf of Myth of Rock, I hope you are doing well.
Oh, hello Antonis, thank you, I appreciate this, I am doing very well, thanks, I hope the same for you.
I would like to ask you about the new album, especially involving friends, people that you have played with before or even been in the same band. So how did that feel while working on the new album?
Yeah, it’s always easier to work with people that you know, and what they can do, what they can contribute to the songs and everything. We have been very close friends, for example with the drummer, my co-producer Peer Stappe, we have been working together for 16 years now, we started working together on the Europe album ‘Secret Society’ and we did a lot of guitar stuff together. Actually, he has been working with me on all Europe albums ever since ‘Secret Society’, on over dubbed and guitar stuff. He also did my solo album ‘Play Yard Blues’. With Mic (Michaeli, keyboards), we know each other since we were teenagers, so it makes it very easy and more fun, when you know the people you are working with.
There is a kind of slight shift to a bit heavier sound on this new album, if we compare it to the previous one (“Play Yard Blues”), which had a more bluesy orientation. Share with us a bit about what you would like to achieve with this one, what is the music direction you wanted to follow?
Well, I wanted it to be a bit heavier than ‘Play Yard Blues’, I was into blues rock at that time, and I absolutely still love that stuff, but I wanted this one to be heavier, more hard rock, and I wanted this to be even more straight through. I arranged the songs a bit better this time. On the previous album, the arrangement was not that great overall, this one feels more solid from the beginning to the end, I guess. On ‘Play Yard Blues’ there were some songs that on a second thought I might have not put them there, I believe. This one definitely feels more solid and concrete as a total result.
Among other influences on this new album, I personally distinguish here on your guitar playing: Michael Schenker, Frank Marino and Jimi Hendrix. I love your improvisation on the guitar leads and solos too. Would you like to share some of your thoughts, inspiration-wise on the ‘Gone to Stay’ album?
When I was recording it, I mean, of course my main influences are Ritchie Blackmore, Gary Moore, Michael Schenker, Thin Lizzy, the usual guys that my generation grew up with in the ‘70s. You will definitely hear the influences there on the new album for sure. But I wanted to add some good melodies as well, instead of only the fast licks and the fast and heavy ‘runs’. I like to have a melody on my songs, so that people can remember it as well, sing a long too, if you like! I think this is very important, without the melody it would sound boring, I guess, it does not really say much, it’s just fast and that’s it. I was listening to a lot of David Bowie albums while recording ‘Gone to Stay’, especially the ‘70s albums, because I grew up listening to Bowie a lot. I am a huge David Bowie fan! So, this time I was listening to ‘Aladdin Sane’ and ‘Diamond Dogs’, I thought that, especially ‘Diamond Dogs’ is a dark album, and I also wanted to make a darker album myself, with that kind of vocal style and also heavy guitars at the same time. That was a big inspiration, and then I said to myself, I had never done a David Bowie cover before, so I picked ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ from ‘Aladdin Sane’, one of my favorite songs, and paid a kind of tribute to David Bowie, a thing that I am very happy about and proud of.
Covering David Bowie on this album was a happy surprise for me! I think you have done a fantastic job with “Lady Grinning Soul”, paying this tribute to David Bowie and showing us another perspective of how good singer you are actually.
Thank you very much. My voice fits that kind of style and type of songs, I think. Even on the first album, I was doing some David Bowie style on singing. That was the first time I did it on the studio, it was fun, and this happens on the studio of course. I just went in the studio, opened my mouth and this voice just came out naturally, and as I said, this was very fun and cool thing to do. Of course, I had other singers during my records, more specifically for the heavier stuff, where I believe my voice does not fit very well, I’d rather do the bluesier, soft, and mellow stuff, rather than the heavier ones. But, even though I sang ‘Sail on’, which is a quite heavy track, it worked really great there, otherwise I’d rather have someone else doing the heavier or more ’metal’ tracks. And that’s why I brought in Åge Sten Nilsen (vocals) this time.
I have another question regarding your vocals. Personally, I consider you a fantastic vocal performer, to me this is one of your greatest virtues. I am interested to know how much you have worked on that aspect, whether this is an easy or not task for you and generally, how do you see this development of you throughout the years.
I am pretty much like a walking juke box, I drive my family crazy, you know! I always sing, constantly, I sing along to whatever albums or songs I hear, I really enjoy, it’s a lot of fun! I do have a lot of heart and soul, when I am doing it, I put passion on that. It comes naturally. I just walk around singing for example, I sing in the car listening to radio songs which I like, it comes very easy for me to do it. I never went to one of those teachers to learn to sing or to excel my vocal performance, no ‘vocal coaches’. I don’t wanna lose the roughness and the feeling of just be technical or ‘shinny’ in vocals. When you do a solo album, it is important – if you can do it – to sing on your own as well, instead of only having other people doing it. It gets more personal that way, it is interesting to have others of course, just to kind mix it, it makes the album wider and gives it a bit more range. But if you can sing, you should go ahead and do it. For example, Steve Vai or Joe Satriani, any of those great guitar legends, they sing on their albums, I’d rather hearing them sing than other people on their solo albums. I like to hear their voices and sing their lyrics. They are great, when they sing on their albums!
“Face the Truth” is one of my favorite albums and songs, therefore I was extremely happy to see that on the list of the songs of ‘Gone to Stay’, although a very different version, more mellow and slow paced. Would you like to share the story behind ‘revisiting’ this one and doing it in a very interesting and brilliant way?
I was in the studio, working on another song actually, the engineer was getting the stuff together, working on the console and mixing things, so, I was just messing around, playing a slow version of ‘Face the truth’, and he said, ‘what is that?’ – I replied ‘Well, it’s one of my old songs I did a while ago, 30 years back, early ‘90s with Glenn Hughes’, ‘That’s really cool!’ he said. He suggested that we should record it, we did so, then I got back to the other song I was working on previously. So, after that, we listened to that short version of ‘Face the truth’, it was really cool to do this slower, more mellow version, so it happened by accident actually and I am happy it turned out this way.
I am very eager to ask you, whether there are any plans to see you playing live together with your band in the near future, supporting the new album, or any ad hoc live appearances in the horizon?
At the moment, as things are, we are doing a South American tour in December with Europe, but I have a couple of offers to do a couple of solo shows, I would love to do that! It’s in the works as we speak right now, it would be fun to revisit these songs again, since I have not played them for a long, long time. I miss playing those songs ... I have not done a solo gig since the end ‘90s actually ... We were in Japan, and recorded a live album in 1997, and then I joined Dokken again, for the second time. We did a couple of gigs, I remember, in 1999, but I remember one in Stockholm, we had Brian Robertson as a guest and did a couple of songs together...! After that, I did an album with Dokken, in 2001, we also did this Europe Millennium show playing ‘Rock the Night’ and ‘The Final Countdown’ in Stockholm on New Year’s eve, and that is how the seed was planned to get the band together and start recording again. I went on the tour with Dokken for a year then, promoting the ‘Long Way Home’ album, and just out of the blue, Ian Haugland (drums) called me in Los Angeles and asked me, if I was interested to have a meeting, get up and talk about ... He didn’t say much, but, you know, just to have a meeting and talk, have a few beers and laughs, so, I did go, we met at Mic Michaeli’s house and started talking about a reunion tour. I was thinking it would be a one-off thing at that time, probably just go back and play all the old hits.
But it ended up being more than that. We got together and did an album in 2004, ‘Start from the Dark’.
This is actually one of my very favorite Europe albums, not just because the band got back together and actually reunited, but also, because I really love the feeling on this album, it is very heavy, very dark and intuitive and your guitars on that record are super heavy, which made me really happy! It is the heavier Europe album, no doubt about it!
We were going much heavier at that time, that’s true!
And If I remember well, I recall a press/media picture of the band, promoting ‘Start from the Dark’, where you are wearing a Black Label Society long sleeve t-shirt! Wow!
Yes, exactly, I was very much into Black Label Society during that period, and honestly, I am still now as well into their music, I love Zakk Wylde and Black Label Society, so, ‘Start from the Dark’ had a little bit of Zakk Wylde influences as well! It’s heavier and doomy. So, we decided to tour for that album and we’ve been together ever since back then, touring, making albums, we still have a great time!
I saw you playing a couple of days earlier at Gröna Lund and that was an awesome gig!
Yes, that was a really nice show we did, it’s always special for me and us to be playing in our hometown, you know, with our families present, our friends, it’s such a legendary place, Gröna Lund… I saw Thin Lizzy there in 1977, for the ‘Bad Reputation’ tour, and I have seen so many cool bands there, like Blue Öyster Cult, Status Quo, and others. Knowing that Jimi Hendrix has played also there, it makes it such a cool and legendary place to see concerts. It’s always special to play there for me.
And last but not least, some quick questions – quick answers:
- First LP you ever bought yourself:
That was actually a compilation album, and this is how I discovered David Bowie, because he was on that compilation album. It was a kinda glam rock album, with bands like T-Rex, etc. That was the first time I listened to David Bowie, and he also looked so cool on the picture inside the compilation and his voice was sooo good! Amazing! And I have been a fan ever since, of course ...
- First rock/metal gig you ever attended as a fan and where:
Thin Lizzy in Gröna Lund, in 1977, that was the first ever rock gig I ever attended, I was 13-14 years old and I was totally blown away ...
- Which is the gig that you have played yourself and you will never forget, because it was super special for you:
As a solo artist you mean, ok... it was in Japan, in Tokyo, we did a tour in Japan in 1997, and that was very special to be able to tour in Japan as a solo artist, we also took the opportunity to record a live album there, and that album is one of my favorite albums I have ever done, so that was very special for me. The performance on that album is just fantastic!
- If you could assemble a band of five musicians, who would be your picks (guitar, bass, drummer, vocals, keyboards):
Ohhh ... This is a very difficult question, Antonis…. Well, the first names that come to my mind then would be: Cozy Powell on drums or Simon Phillips also, Geddy Lee on bass, Don Airey on keyboards, Glenn Hughes on vocals and Scott Gorham on guitars… he is also one of my big heroes ... I saw Thin Lizzy many times in the past, but to play also with Scott Gorham together on stage, during the anniversary show, at the Sweden Rock Festival, for ‘The Final Countdown’, was a very special moment for me ... He got up on stage with us and we all did ‘Jailbreak’... We all had so much fun, it was so cool! We have had so much fun together him and I, we are also the same star sign, we are both Pisces, so that must have played a role as well, I guess! Haha! We have a great chemistry together and he has been a great friend as well. We had been touring together with Europe with Black Star Riders, his other band, and I have had a lot of fun and nice stories, which I will tell you next time we meet!
- What did you play last time on your Spotify player:
ABBA, actually! Yesterday! My favorite song, ‘Knowing me Knowing you’, this is my absolutely favorite ABBA song. Actually, when I am home, I use to listen to more pop stuff, blues stuff, to Bee Gees, to Celine Dion, I think she is a fantastic singer, and the Swedish singer, Agnes, she has a fantastic voice, she is amazing! She has so much feeling and soul to her music and performance ... Brilliant! Her song ’24 Hours’ is such a great song! I love it! I get chills, when I listen to her latest album, she is so unique.
Thank you so much for being with me today on the phone and taking this time, much appreciated. Hope to see you soon live with your band!
Yes, it’s sure gonna happen this year, I promise that, and thank you very much for this interview, it was really nice to talk with you, Antonis, a pleasure!