Solving An Enigma: An Interview with Simone Simons

Together with Nightwish and Within Temptation, Epica are one of the few symphonic metal bands that have made it big. Starting with their 2003 release The Phantom Agony, Epica’s combination of operatic vocals, provided by Simone Simons, and death growls, provided by guitarist and founder Mark Jansen, managed to capture the attention of fans coming from all sides of the metal spectrum.
Nowdays Epica are anything but the small band that shyly appeared in the spotlight of Dutch metal over a decade ago, having become a massive international success. With a career spanning 10 years of nothing but success, it’s no wonder that their newest album, The Quantum Enigma (Nuclear Blast, 2014) was received with nothing but praise all across the board.
Simone Simons met with us to tell us a bit about the process that lead to The Quantum Enigma, as well as to share some personal stories about her role in Epica.


“As a woman, there’s always the sexual side which men react to…”

Metal Blast: I’ve been listening to The Quantum Enigma non-stop since I got it from Nuclear Blast, and I’m really glad you guys went in a heavier direction than previous albums. Would you agree that this album is heavier than your previous ones?

Simone Simons: Yeah, definitely, I like it too, since we are a metal band. One of the many things we did differently this time around was working with  a new mixer, which I think of contributed to the heaviness. Also, we now have five different songwriters contributing to the record, so we are in a more luxurious position to pick the best songs. We had a huge selection of songs and they were all kick-ass metal tracks.

Epica 2014 1
Photo: Tim Tronckoe

MB: Actually, one of the things that interested me about The Quantum Enigma was that you stopped your collaboration with Sascha Paeth and opted for the Dutch producer Joost van der Broek. What brought about that change, and what differences do you feel these producers actually brought into the album?
Simone: We were in the studio The Sandlane a couple of months ago and we basically fell in love with it; also, since it’s in Holland we felt it was more practical. Joost was working in the studio at the time, so when we came in to record the album, he sort of came in as a package [laughs]. Sascha was still working with us at that point, and he did so in the demo stages of the songs working with me, Mark [Jansen] and Joost on vocal lines and song structures in the songs, so he has definitely been a part of it, just not as a producer or a mixer. After Retrospect, when we celebrated our ten-year anniversary, we wanted to prepare ourselves for the future, to reinvent ourselves and come up with the best possible results again, getting out of our comfort zone and try new things. This can be great for the creative process, and it was a great decision and really got the best out of all of us.

MB: What was the creative zone you were in before The Quantum Enigma? What new things were you trying to do here?
Simone: We lived quite far apart from each other, so for each record we would write a song at our home studio and just email them to each other and keep working on them until we entered the studio; then, during the demo, stages the band would come together and rehearse and perfect them, removing any parts that wouldn’t be there if the songs hadn’t been made digitally. This new studio helped, since it’s a very cosy, homely studio, and Joost is super-talented, very positive-minded, stimulating, and very much like a metal coach at some points. He was there from the beginning to the end, he even went to Denmark for a bit to help Jakob with the mix since Joost he knew the songs the best and could help him emphasize the correct parts. I think all of this helped us in many ways.
We are Epica, we’ve been together for many years, and it’s good to have a producer who can sustain the vitality of the band and get the best out of you.

MB: Was it complex to suddenly have so many new people involved in the process?
Simone:Yes, but sometimes it’s good to not go with the familiar. Working with new people and having a new environment can be really stimulating and creative. In the past I recorded my vocals alone, but these new sessions were often ‘hangouts’ recording together, which was a cool thing.

Photo:  Stefan Schippers
Photo: Stefan Schippers

MB: You said that this album was a group effort, more so than the previous ones. Do you think that this time around every member got a chance to contribute to this album this time around?
Simone: It was like that the last time as well, but now all the band members write songs that were finalised in a group and not through the internet in our home studios; this was a much more creative process, since we were doing everything together at the same time and not by e-mail. There’s more creativity when you’re together and not online, and that way you can have different results from what you would have done on your own.

MB: I noticed that for the third time in a row you’re using the work of Stefan Heilemann on the cover. What attracted you to this artist to use his artwork on your albums?
He’s really a genius. He knows Epica so well, after all these years, that we need to give him very little input on what the record is about; we can give him total freedom. We trust him, since he always delivers quality work, and he did it again this time. The cover that you see now is basically what he had the first time, with only a few minor details we changed ourselves, but he got it right from the start. That’s why we like working with him; we know we get great results and, besides, he’s a friend of mine.

MB: Since this album is heavier than last time, how do you feel that your taste in music has changed in regards to your role in Epica? Do you feel you want to do heavier things with the band, or do you feel closer to the more symphonic parts?
I like the balance; I already know I’m going to bang my head to the heavy parts on stage, and the orchestral stuff pumps up that epic-ness. It’s the perfect combination, since I love classical music and metal. Both styles offer immense range and dynamics and complement each other greatly.

MB: Have you ever considered doing what, Tarja Turunen did when touring with other Finnish sopranos, and perform arias or other classical pieces?
Simone: I wanted to do that when I had classical singing lessons. When I was performing classical pieces I really enjoyed it, but as the years went by I lost it. If I ever go back to classical singing again, then why not? I have many projects that I would love to do, but it’s almost impossible for me to do them since now I have a son and there is very little time to do side projects.

MB: How did your life as a musician change now that you have a child?
Simone: It’s going to be a challenge, but I always knew that I wanted to have a child. I’m in a metal band so while I was pregnant I prepared myself for the fact that was m going to be away once in a while. I’m also home a lot, so its an exchange of extremes. I love being in a band and I love being a mom; I’ve got both, so I’m going to do my best to make it work. Luckily I have a family that can help out so… so far, so good!

MB: I think I read that you were able to bring your son to some of the recording sessions, is that correct?
Yes! He was on almost all the vocal recordings and in the studio with us, because back then I was still breastfeeding, so I had to take him with me since I was his milk supply. [laughs]

MB: I remember that during your pregnancy you gave an interview mentioning how headbanging and such had to stop because of your pregnancy, do you feel you’re ready to hit the stages in the same way you did before, or are you going to take it a bit slow?
Simone: No, no, I’m ready for it! [laughs] I can’t wait to start headbanging again and get that adrenaline rush from performing, it’s unique and I’m looking forward to it. Just a couple more weeks and we can hit the stage again.

MB: Last year, you had your Retrospect show in the Netherlands, and from this three-hour show it became clear that Epica have become a big player in heavy metal music. We even saw some of your music used by the Czech figure skater during the Sochi Olympics. At what point do you think Epica became this huge player in heavy metal?
Simone: I don’t know. I never really realised we had reached that point. I just do my thing, and don’t think too much about it. We have so many fans, over two million Facebook likes, and that’s kind of a good way to measure your popularity. Just the fact that we’re still around and we can still tour, it’s just amazing and we’re really blessed in that we’re able to do all this and keep on doing so, hopefully.

MB: In regards to your fans, I saw a couple of incidents on YouTube where fans were a bit too loving or close, mostly in Latin America. Sometimes they’d throw things on stage, or they’d chase your or hit you trying to hug you. Was it weird for you the first time you encountered that sort of energy?
Simone: It’s like a gigantic force. When they all come together you feel like a little mouse. But yeah, sometimes it gets a little too rough, where things end up thrown at me, or in my face. Our drummer accidentally threw a drum stick in my face once, but that wasn’t on purpose! [laughs] But it does happen, and I think that the fans often don’t realize that we’re just human; for one person all those people combined can be a bit scary. I know they mean well but it can be suffocating, and they can invade your privacy.

Photo: Stefan Schippers
Photo: Stefan Schippers

MB: Anette Olzon mentioned that her first tour of South America was quite scary for her since she had never been in a band this big, and suddenly when they were driving, dozens of people would just start banging on the windows. Was it scary for your to encounter this amount of fans in person?
Simone: Yes, basically almost each tour it happens. Sometimes it’s not that bad, but if it weren’t for the bodyguards we’d get almost eaten alive by the fans. Plus over there it’s a different culture since everyone is so passionate, very fanatic and in Europe things are a little more toned down, we keep it sensible, we like our privacy. Latin America is very cordial, very touchy and physical so that can sometimes be overwhelming. Definitely a bit scary at some points. On top of that, when we’re travelling it can be extremely exhausting for us, flying and not getting enough sleep, and then you’re already fatigued and less able to interact with fans, who can sometimes go a little too far. I love being on stage, but off stage I prefer to be invisible sometimes.

MB: But considering the size of Epica, is it still possible for you to be invisible in Germany and the Netherlands?
Simone:Yes. Every once in a while I encounter a fan, and we talk or hang out, but never hordes of people running after me. That’s only really in Latin America. Plus there I look like an exotic alien, definitely not Latin American, so I sort of jump out of the crowd, so there’s no point in hiding.

MB: How do you feel about the name ‘female-fronted heavy metal’ as a genre? I’ve talked with other musicians about this and Angela, the former singer of Arch Enemy was always bothered by this, arguing that they were not a ‘female-fronted’ metal band, but simply a metal band. How do you feel about that?
I share her opinion. Although back in the day a female-fronted metal band would be a symphonic metal band with a female singer, now there are so many different styles of metal with a female singer, from symphonic metal to thrash, death and black metal, that it’s just not a genre. It’s just part of the metal scene, so I share the same sentiment Angela does.

MB: When you see ‘female-fronted metal bands’ still being used to define music, just because the singer happens to be a woman, do you think there’s a long way to go before female heavy metal bands or female metal musicians are seen on the same level as men? It’s not, of course, that they are seen as worse, but rather differently?
Simone: As a woman, there’s always the sexual side which men react to. I think from the fan’s perspective there’s just as many female fans listening to all-male metal bands. Often people think female metalheads are not into makeup or dressing to look cute or wearing colours other than black, but there are a lot of female metalheads like me who love girly things. I mean, you can be a totally girly woman and still be into metal.

MB: What is your perception of the metal scene as a woman, especially since you mentioned the ‘sexual’ element of you being on stage for male fans looking at you?
Simone: I just do my thing and not think too much about it. Thankfully, I haven’t had too many incidents regarding the male/female metal scene. I can also say you can put it to good use. Guys are weak and you can easily get their attention by dressing up nicely… not completely naked. My bandmates are also really good-looking and female fans love to see them on stage like male fans see me, so besides writing good music you want to present yourself in a nice way. It’s also a good way to get people’s attention to get them to listen to some good music. It’s like packaging the CD, we always try to make great artwork to get people’s attention.

MB: You mentioned that you have a lot of projects but not enough time to do them. I remember you were going to work with Timo Tolkki’s Avalon, but is there anything you’re planning to work on in addition to Epica?
Yeah, I’m going to record a jazz demo with my husband, but that’s not going to be very interesting for the metal fans. It’s just something I wanted to do for a long time, so I’m trying my best to make it happen. Once that project progresses a little more I’ll probably throw something online.

MB: I really appreciate taking the time to talk to us, is there anything you want to say to your fans?
Simone: A huge thank you, and we can’t wait to come back to the States. We’re trying everything we can to make another big tour happen, so our fans in America will hear from us and see us very soon!