In Search of a Lost Paradise: An Interview with Nick Holmes

Few bands can pride themselves on starting a genre, let alone a whole social movement. Paradise Lost is one of the few bands that can: They are responsible, in a way at least, for what we now know as “Gothic Metal”… even if they don’t really feel connected to the current understanding of the term.
With a career spanning over 25 years, Paradise Lost need no introduction, let alone praise for their work. Hailing from the United Kingdom, their releases have been critically acclaimed all accross the board, and their shows have become almost legendary in the metal scene.
If anybody can tell you anything about this legenday band, that’s Nick Holmes. Singer and founder of Paradise Lost, he was kind enough to take us down memory lane into the gothic history of Paradise Lost.

We’ve always stayed true to ourselves


Metal Blast: Nick, thank you very much for taking the time today.
Nick Holmes: 
Cheers man, it’s pleasure.

 MB: Just last year we saw the release of Tragic Idol, an album that got excellent reviews all across the board and that was even named album of the year by several publications (including a bittersweet mention in Decibel as “metal’s most underrated band”). This year we are getting ready for Tragic Illusion 25, which commemorates your enormous career by going through some of the B-sides. The obvious question here is why did you decide to go with a “best of the rarities” album?
NH:
That’s a good question. There are a lot of song that (if you’re a fan you probably know them and have them in various formats) that sort of fell by the wayside; songs that we think are very good and that even though didn’t end up in the album, in hindsight we think that they should have. We have quite a few songs like that (like the song “Sweetness”, that I think should have gone on the album [Icon]). We have a few of those, so it’s kind of fell through the net. We also did a lot of covers that I think are very good covers as well: Plus, we recorded a brand new song, which was written specifically for this album, and we re-recorded old songs, very old songs, proper death metal songs… those are kind of new and never heard before, so that’s three new songs that no one has heard of before.

cerf couleur

MB: Actually, about that, this release coincides, kind of, with the release of “Dethroned and Uncrowned” by Katatonia, which is also a re-imagining, reworking, call it what you will, of a previous record. You’re doing something like that now with the song “Gothic”, so the question is, do you usually encounter tracks that although you like, and have been well received, you still think could, and maybe even should, haven been presented differently?
NH:
I think that if it’s a long time; if there has been a passage of time, like over 15 years, then I think that it’s fair enough in that respect. Perhaps now you think that you should have done them in a completely different way to how you originally recorded them; if it’s a song that you did like 2 years before, then it’s kind of pointless. I think that you have to allow a certain passage of time for it to happen; there are songs that, when we recorded them, the recording was kind of basic and they sound pretty crappy, even if at the time they were fine; they’ve really come to life much more with the new versions.

MB: As a recording artist, does it happen to you that when you look back into some of your music you actually think that “this music could have been better; I should have worked it differently?”
NH:
Funnily enough, no, because when you’re recording you record just with the equipment that you’ve got; you’re as good as the material that you’re putting down. It wasn’t until the last 10 years that we became really meticulous; the first three albums were pretty much just rehearsed in the rehearsal room and then we recorded them, so you didn’t know exactly what you were going to get, so sometimes was better than you thought and others worse. It was still part of the time and the recording process of that period, so in hindsight I can’t really regret any of it, because at the time we felt that it was fine. There are certain songs where I think that maybe we could have done it differently, but it’s a fleeting thought, it doesn’t last very long.

MB: Since now we’re going to see the release of this “best of the rarities” album; what is the process like to actually decide what ends up in this release?
NH:
For a compilation it’s pretty easy; we just write down 25 songs out of the band’s catalogue that we think should go in the compilation, and then we just compare everyone’s results [laughs]. It’s just like that. It’s what everyone decides; it’s everything thrown in a hat. I think that’s that best way to do it.
I know what songs people wanna hear live, so for a live album is easier, because I know what songs are popular; for a compilation. in a way, is nice to let other people decide. Sometimes it’s songs that I haven’t even played since I recorded them, but that a lot of people like. I’m kind of laid back with that kind of thing.

MB: Since you mentioned what fans want to hear in concerts; I’ve done quite a few interviews and I often encounter two types of bands: Some say that when they record albums and songs they don’t care about what people think (“if the people like them, good for them”), while others say that the opinion of the fans is important and does play a role. After 25 years, how much weight do the opinion of others have?
NH:
I would like to think that I know what Paradise Lost fans want to hear, but if I don’t like it then there’s no point, because you would hear the insencerity in it. It’s something that we have to like ourselves. We’ve been the same with every album we’ve done; if there’s anything we’re not sure about then we won’t use it. It’s not a question of “well we’re not using it but the fans might like it“, we won’t use it because we don’t like it.
After all these years, I would like to think that I know what people like in our band; you have to bear all these aspects in mind but, ultimately, it starts with the band, with what we like.

Photo: Paul Harries
Photo: Paul Harries

MB: On that topic; do you think that, in light of the fact that the recording industry seems to be holding on to life by the skin of their teeth, there’s a higher pressure on the artists? Like “maybe you don’t like it, but this sounds like a radio hit” or “this sounds like a potentially popular song, so just go ahead and do it”?
NH:
I felt more pressure like that when we were with EMI. Around those times, in the early 2000s, we felt more pressure to do singles, etc.; we haven’t felt that kind of pressure for a long time. Now it’s all about writing a good album, we don’t think “oh we have to put out a single” anymore. There was a time when we felt that pressure but, as I said, it was mostly when we were with EMI; it was all about that, that’s all that it seemed to be for maybe 5 years.
I think that, as a band, we’ve always stayed true to ourselves, we’ve always followed our hearts regardless of what anyone has said. If you start worrying about it then a crack is going to appear; I think that it’s best to remember what you loved of that music when you started writing it, get into that frame of mind and write more of it. We’ve always tried to do that for each album

MB: In the end the problem is that if you try to please everyone you end pleasing nobody. There is such a wide array of tastes within the Paradise Lost fanbase that it just simply wouldn’t work. If you tried to do something that would appeal to everyone it just won’t work.
NH:
We’re totally aware of that. We’ve said many times that if we’re happy with what we’ve written then there’s a good chance that the people will like it as well. It’s kind of a cliché thing, but I think that it’s a very honest approach to writing.

MB: Still on the topic of labels. You used to be on EMI, now you’re on Century Media; they’re both big labels, EMI being one of the biggest in the world, if not the biggest. Yet, last year Decibel Magazine named you “Metal’s most underrated band” while, at the same time, choosing you for album of the year. Do you think that this is an accurate depiction of Paradise Lost? Do you see the band as a bit of an underdog within the metal scene?
NH:
We neglected to tour America when we had an opportunity to get the ball rolling on a bigger level. We toured in 1993 and we never went back there. If I’ve got any regrets it’s that we didn’t do that again. Once you go you have to keep coming back, that’s the only way you can get a foot in America, but we never did.
In Europe we’re a quite well-known band, we have been for many years, but the States… it’s tough there, it’s hard, everybody knows that; there’s no easy way to do it. You could have a great band and for some reason they just won’t work there, while others that perhaps I don’t regard so well did do very well there. There’s no rules, you just have to keep going back, and we didn’t.

MB: And why didn’t you? Why did you decide not to give the US a shot? Do you think that it was because, as you said, it’s a very hard market, so that taking that risk was perhaps too much for a band like Paradise Lost back then?
NH:
No, we just didn’t enjoy the tour that much. The tour was pretty rough for us; we were used to be at home, we hadn’t toured that much back then, we were kind of little kids and we kind of felt a long way from home [laughs]. It’s funny now, because America is one my favorites places to go, I love going on vacations to America but, for whatever reason, when we were kids it just didn’t take for us, and we’re kind of still pissed off. Plus, around that time the band also started to pick up in Europe as well, so we thought that we would concentrate on that.
We didn’t go back to the US until many years later; we’ve been there a few times since, and I love touring the States, but I just wish that I had been more like-minded when we were a bit younger.

MB: So if we were to find any regrets in this massive career, you think that not trying to penetrate the US would be right up there at the top?
NH:
That’s the only one for me! There’s no other one, seriously.

Photo: Ester Segarra.
Photo: Ester Segarra.

MB: Paradise Lost is seen as a precursor, if not the creator, of Gothic Metal, marked by the release of Gothic back in 1991. As times have passed, however, the definition of Gothic Metal has changed a lot, encompassing bands that do not sound anything like Paradise Lost sounded in the early 90s. In light of this, how connected do you feel to the term “Gothic Metal” and its applicability to Paradise Lost?
NH:
I know what Gothic Metal really is, and it’s not about Hot Topic, black nail polish and female vocalists. I know what it really is; it’s the same with Venom and Black Metal, you can compare it to that. Black Metal is more or less synonymous with Bathory-esque type Norwegian bands, whereas Black Metal, when I was a kid, was about Cronos and Venom; that to me was Black Metal. It has changed in that respect; Gothic Metal is now associated with big commercial bands and, as I said, Hot Topic-type… we don’t feel like we have anything to do with that since, as you said, it’s like a completely different type of music.
In my heart I know what it really is.

MB: Well then I gotta ask you! What is Gothic Metal? Give me a definition so that someone will use it to fill the Wikipedia entry on it.
NH:
Just put Paradise Lost! That’s all you need to know [laughs]. Otherwise put Paradise Lost/Evanescence [laughs]

 MB: Right! Right on the same level [laughs] It’s funny that you mention Hot Topic… As a veteran of metal (I’m not trying to call you old!) you’ve definitely seen a lot of changes in the genre. Nowadays you see that some labels that were traditionally associated with metal are taking a more pop-ish approach, trying to get as many commercial bands as possible, all the metalcore, electroniccore and whatever core-genre-of-the-week we have going on. What do you think exactly is happening? Do you think that it’s perhaps a little bit of lazyness on the part of the recording industry or is it simply that, as Dylan said, “the times, they are a-changing”?
NH:
It’s a weird thing; it has become more commercial and there are maybe people who think that they can sell these things as “rebellious”. When I was a kid it was actually quite rebellious; people’s parents were scared of metal guys, they were kind of the scary guys in town. It’s the same thing the punks were in the 70s, and when I was a kid the metal guys were the scruffy guys that you shouldn’t go near to. Now it has become totally acceptable and the rappers are the scary guys now, they’re the most “rebellious” ones with the bad lyrics, etc.
There’s always going to be a new thing to be rebellious against the parents. I don’t know if that works for my kids, because nothing they do is rebellious [laughs].

MB: Right, but you’re a metal musician, so you do set the bar quite high in terms of rebellion. You end up looking at them like “yeah, whatever, been there, done that, try harder”.
NH:
Yeah, but I wasn’t running around graveyards and biting bats’ heads off, but still, you could be affiliated with that.
Everything goes around and metal became sort of trendy. The “real” metal that I grew up with is kind of creeping through again though; there are annual festivals that are being held and where the real metal bands that I know are playing, and more and more real metal people are attending, not the kind of trendy people.
It’s always there; sometimes it pops up and then it drops off again. I mean, Nirvana completely changed metal; I was there when that happened, they turned it on its head and made heavy music acceptable. It’s as simple as that.

MB: In my opinion, and I think that this is important, it’s not so much that metal becomes popular (Iron Maiden is my favorite band I love to be at one of their concerts surrounded by 20,000 screaming fans) but rather that it is being used as part of what I’d call an “industrialization of rebellion”. Companies and the media sell this watered down rebellious attitude, and kids fall for it. You have all these “special little snow-flake” kids who think that they’re really unique by looking like everybody else.
NH:
Yeah, that’s it. At the end of the day we’re all human, you don’t think about it when you’re younger… It’s like The X Factor, they get a guy who has a little huskier voice and he is ” the rock guy!”. It’s a cliché; “he’s got a tattoo on his forearm, so he is the rebellious one!”

MB: When it comes to The X Factor, American Idol and all of that crap, Bruce Dickinson said something quite good about it, which is that we should always keep in mind that we’re not talking about people who want to be musicians, but rather about people who want to be famous.
NH:
Totally; I mean, there might be an old guy who is genuine about it, but he just won’t get taken seriously anyway because that’s just the nature of the program.
The mind boggles when I think of how I got into music… it’s just so different to how younger generations do it. I just don’t know how they find good bands now; they’re just bombarded with fucking music from everything. I mean, the music that my kids listen to is absolutely rubbish, you know? [laughs]

Photo: Paul Harries
Photo: Paul Harries

MB: They’re never going to see this interview anyway, so what sort of rubbish do they listen to?
NH:
The fucking R&B shit… they listen to it when I’m driving the car and they have their headphones on in the back. I can hear that stuff and… what the fuck is that crap? [laughs]

MB: I can imagine how frustrating that must be. ” I invented a genre of metal! you can do better than that crap!”
NH:
They’re not interested; they don’t care.

MB: Actually, how do they feel about your music?
NH:
They’ve got no opinion! [laughs] They’ve got no opinion; I mean, their teachers are more interested than they are.

MB: How old are your kids?
NH:
My eldest is 17 and my youngest is 12.

MB: Well, at least at 17 they’re past the age of yelling at you, in the middle of an argument “you know what dad? Your fucking music sucks!”
NH:
It’s just not their thing; it’s fine, it’s not a problem but… yeah, the stuff they listen to is… Jesus Christ! What is this?!
I know it makes me sound old, I don’t care, it’s shit!

MB: It’s a phenomenon that is all across the musical landscape though; a dumbing-down of music, always aiming at the lowest common denominator. I’ve never been the least bit interested in rap and hip-hop, yet you can still see a difference between the origins of the genre, in which it was about the struggle of poor people in black neighborhoods, and its current position of “I have money and I fuck bitches”. And these are the top charting songs!
NH
: Again it makes me sound old, but I’ve heard the lyrics of some songs and.. what the fuck is this? I mean, I don’t mind swearing, but this is terrible!
I watched the new Miley Cyrus video and she was smoking in the video! And I was more angry at that fact, thinking that was really bad![Laughs] I mean, that’s not a good thing to show young kids. [Laughs]. There’s no need for that!

MB: The thing is that at some point it goes beyond taste; it’s almost like you can objectively say that something is crap. There is this kid, Justin Bieber (well, now he’s more of an older douchebag), who became really famous with a song called “baby”. That shit took 6 writers. SIX PEOPLE were involved in writing that!
NH:
It’s just music for people that buy albums on a Saturday afternoon.
Back to what were saying, the majority of people who get into heavy metal music don’t stay into it all of their lives, they might get into it for 2 or 3 years and then kind of tap-out of it. People like ourselves, we’re probably going to be into this for life. You said Iron Maiden, I still love Iron Maiden, I’ll always love Iron Maiden, but people kind of tap-in and tap-out of metal. The hardcore guys stay in it for life, and there are still enough of us [laughs].

MB: Since we’re going to run out of time, and I know you’re on a tight schedule, let’s get back to Paradise Lost for a second.
Feel free to disagree with me here, but Paradise Lost have had a change in terms of sound since you guys started 20 odd years ago. You have, if you will, adopted a more “metal” sound, in spite of a more electronic/darkwave period in the late 90s and early 2000s. When the band goes through these “changes”, is it something conscious, like “hey guys, I’d like the next album to sound like this or that”, or is it something that just happens when you’re writing.
NH:
The growling thing… I just wanted to start doing more melodies with my voice, so that it wasn’t just the music that was melodic. I felt like I was just barking all the time and that gets a little bit boring. That’s why we stopped doing that; also, when it comes to touring, it’s hard to bark every single night for 30 days in a row, so it was killing me.
All the changes were kind of subtle over time; even the electronic songs they were still very dark, you could electrify them and play them on guitars and they’d still be very much Paradise Lost songs.
Your music changes while you’re still writing music, so everything gets sort of thrown into the pot. Things have moved smoothly, it’s not like we went overnight to Glam Rock or something, you know?

MB: When you’re writing something though, how influenced are you, Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber aside, by current trends in music in general and metal in particular?
NH:
I’m not influenced by anything anymore; I don’t think about it like that. I’ll like something and feel that it’s great, but I won’t feel that we have to go down that route, it never has that impact. Maybe when I was younger, but now if I like music I just like it. Stuff like Dead Can Dance and the old Black Sabbath, that’s, to me, the inspiration for when we started the band, and it’s still there. I can still listen to new bands and love them, but it doesn’t have an impact on me personally on the writing process.

MB: Back at the beginning of the band, when Black Sabbath were these idols of yours, how hard was it to decide “I love Sabbath, I love their sound, but I don’t want to sound like them”, as a way to create your own thing.
NH:
Once you start singing or playing guitar… I mean, Gregor [Mackintosh] has always had his own style of playing; he could play Sabbath songs but they would sound like Greg playing Sabbath songs, since he very much has his very own style, and that’s something you either have or you haven’t.
When you start you hopefully develop your own kind of sound; if you’re not going to do that then I don’t see the point, you might as well do covers.

MB: Since we touched the topic of this “commercial metal”; one of the problems that you do see in the metal scene, which although always existed it seems to be now more common, is that although sometimes you encounter bands that are good, you still get the feeling that they sound like 30 other bands you listened to that week
NH:
I think that a lot of it has to do with production as well, since everybody wants the same fucking drum sound… the tiniest amount of tweaking can make a big difference for the sound. It’s a case of just having too much there. If you look at the new Black Sabbath album, they stripped it down a lot and it sounds like a good classic metal album, which you don’t hear very often these days.

Photo: Paul Harries
Photo: Paul Harries

MB: And in this ocean of music, bad, good, mediocre, what bands have actually caught your attention lately?
NH:
I really like a noise/death metal band called Nails; the new Sabbath, the new Bad Religion. I’ve always loved Bad Religion, they’ve always sounded the same but I love that, I take comfort in it. A Swedish band called Bombus; they have a new album called A Poet and a Parrot” which I really like. They sound a lot like Motorhead, they’re really good, I like them; not many people copy Motorhead, so that’s cool.

MB: That’s actually a funny thing about Motorhead, which is that even though they’re this massive band, and that Lemmy is now part of popular culture, Motorhead hasn’t been replicated as much as Black Sabbath or Metallica.
NH:
Definitely. They [Bombus] did a couple of songs and they do sound like them (although they’re probably sick of hearing it) but that’s a good thing. The same happened with Poison Idea, which I used to love because they had this real Motorhead sound on the guitars. So because, as you said, you don’t hear a lot of people trying to replicate Motorhead, when you hear it you do think it’s cool.

MB: At the end of the month you’re embarking on this 25th Anniversary tour, with Katatonia and Lacuna Coil in some selected dates. Will the setlist for these concerts still be focused on Tragic Idol or will we see a review of your 25 year career?
NH:
We wanted to do songs from every album and then we realized… “no, we don’t wanna do that” [laughs]. We’re going to continue with some songs from the last tour, which we know the people wanna hear, but we’ll also do at least 6 songs we haven’t played for years, and there’s a couple that I’m not even sure if we ever played them. There will be a couple of surprises for sure.
Of course, if somebody has seen the band 70 times and still complains that we didn’t do this or that song, well, 70 times is a lot to see a band. I don’t know what to say to that [laughs]

MB: Have you encountered VERY devoted Paradise Lost fans? I’m talking about pathologically devoted fans.
NH:
Definitely, for sure. There’s people who have seen us hundreds of times. Part of their life is to come as many shows as they can, it’s almost like an obsession.

MB: “Almost” an obsession? Really? If you do it hundreds of times can we really say it’s “almost” an obsession?
NH:
[laughs] I remember that I went to see Celtic Frost twice and the second time I was already kind of sick of it. If you see a band a couple of times on the same tour then you’ll wish they played other songs but, well, that guy wasn’t meant to be at the next gig [laughs].

MB: I get it, I’ve seen some bands twice in the same tour and it does get boring, but it’s understandable. The band is not touring for you to see them twenty times; the band is touring so that a lot of people , from different places, can see them once!
NH:
We’ve got people that complain that we have the same setlist but, yeah, that’s because the setlist is tight and it works

MB: It’s not  just for you!
NH:
[Laughs]That’s it.

MB: When it comes to tours, and despite the melancholic atmosphere surrounding Paradise Lost, you are known as a bit of a joker, cracking jokes at concert and lightening the mood. Throughout this long career, have you encountered situations in which the jokes simply got lost in translation for non-English speaking audiences? I saw this happen in Germany but, then again, it’s Germany, so you never know.
NH:
Possibly; I mean, I kind of mess around all the time anyway. I feel more comfortable when I can joke around, because I do that all the time anyway. If everything is dead serious it makes me feel nervous and I don’t like that, so I try to relax and be myself.
The band likes to have a laugh, we have a lot of fun as a band, the music is a different thing. Sometimes people can’t differentiate between them; I mean, just because our music is miserable it doesn’t mean that we’re going to be miserable, it’s not the same thing.

MB: Since we’re in the topic of this melancholic and, as you said, miserable songs; as you’ve grown older, you have a nice life, a family, a career, etc., do you even encounter songs that, although you sing, make you feel “… that’s just not me anymore”?
NH:
It’s the opposite! The darker the better! [laughs] I like to make it darker and darker. Greg is the same, we want to make the music as dark as possible. We’ve never lost that, we’ve always wanted that.

MB: But is it because, and it’d be completely OK if that’s the case, you see yourself playing a role, a character, in Paradise Lost? Or is it that you feel that this music and these miserable themes do represent part of yourself?
NH:
It’s probably a little bit of both. There’s certainly a dark side of me; I have a very dark sense of humor… probably too dark, so it gets me into hot water sometimes. I’m completely happy to have people think of the band like that, I like that.

MB: Nick, I’d love to continue, but I know that you’re in a tight schedule for today, so we have to wrap it up.
Thank you very much for taking the time for the interview. I give you the last word.
NH:
Check the album out, I hope you like it. We hope to be able to come and tour America, we loved it the last time, so it’d be great to go back again.
And if we don’t go to America, just come to London and see us!

Tragic Illusions will be out on November 5th in the US, so everyone should just get ready and get their copies as soon as possible.

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