It’s been a few weeks since the new album by Zornheym, “The Zornheim Sleep Experiment”, was released. I had the pleasure of interviewing Tomas Nilsson, alias Zorn (lead guitarist, composer and mastermind behind the band) a few months ago, when they were still cooking that album. And I also wrote a review for it… loving their previous album as I do, I couldn’t resist. Now that it’s finally out, I wanted to ask him a few things about the music and the work that he and the rest of the guys in the band have put into it.
Hi Tomas, so glad to have you in Blessed Altar Zine again! How do you feel, now that Zornheym’s second album has been released?
Zorn: It is such a great feeling to finally be able to release the album. We have had people asking for the album for years now and all we could have done during that time is to tell them that it will be worth the wait, something that they are now agreeing in unison with us!
It’s been a long wait but let me tell you it’s been totally worth it, ‘cause “The Zornheim Sleep Experiment” is really amazing! How do you see the reception of this album by the fans? Are you happy with the reactions?
Zorn: I am very happy with it, in fact blown away by the reception so far! I was quite nervous to release a different song like “Slumber Comes in Time” as the second single, but it seems to have been the right thing to do. Since a lot of people say that it is their favorite song of the album. We showcased some new tricks on this album and they seem to have worked out well!
Four years have passed between the two Zornheym albums. At which point did you start composing “The Zornheim Sleep Experiment”? And did you have the idea of doing a concept album since the beginning?
Zorn: I started composing this album pretty much right after the recording of the first album. I remember doing the final touches of the solo part for “Dead Silence”, which was the first song I wrote for it, before a new years eve party in 2016/2017. The concept was already decided during the recording of “Where Hatred Dwells and Darkness Reigns”. The whole cover art for “Where Hatred Dwells and Darkness Reigns” shows how Dr Bettelheim is taking the inmate from “Hestia” down to “the Chamber” where the sleep experiment is being conducted. That’s why you can pretty much see the outro of Hestia as the soundtrack to when they are descending down to the bowels of the asylum and intro to “The Zornheim Sleep Experiment”. The first graphic novel also gives away the whole idea of the concept for this album. We also like to place these kinds of easter eggs in our music and in the concept. Once you discover things like this you start realizing how much thought there is behind everything behind the concept.
The story that this album tells us is totally wicked: a sleep deprivation experiment realized by doctor Bettelheim (who is in charge of an asylum) with patients with aggressive personalities, to see if that permanent non-sleeping state can make their inner demons take control of them. Well… can you tell us how you came up with this? And, can this be interpreted as that perhaps some of the craziest and devilish people are not the ones from inside the asylums?
Zorn: I took the idea from an urban legend about “the Russian sleep experiment”. The Russians supposedly conducted a sleep experiment on German prisoners after the second world war and told them that they would be given their freedom if they took part in the experiment. To me this sounded twisted enough to adapt to the Zornheim universe. Once it was brought in we started adding our own ideas for it and did our own take on the whole story, but it originates from that story. And yes, the most evil people seem to be the ones guarding and “caring” for the inmates at Zornheim. There is some sort of evil lurking in Bettelheim’s mind and in Zornheim itself and I think that is something that we are going to have to explore on coming albums! That’s also why we differentiate in spelling between “Zornheim Asylum” and “Zornheym” the band. Maybe Zornheym is more than just an asylum…
The symphonic elements in this album are massive, not only are mere details but they take control of the music on several occasions, which is impressive in the Extreme Metal scene. Do you come up with them the moment you compose a song, or do you fill it with this “garnish” stuff when it’s already finished?
Zorn: I usually start with composing a guitar part. I have a riff or a melody and then I compose around that. I record a pre-production where I also add orchestral parts. Sometimes the song starts writing itself and I just know what will be coming next. I always add a lot of dramatic elements, even though I just know the general idea of what the song will be about. When I feel that there is a need for an orchestral part I write it in as the song is being composed, we never add stuff like that afterwards. It is essential for telling a dramatic story.
What is outstanding, at least in my opinion, is that there’s a real string quartet playing in “The Zornheim Sleep Experiment”. Was this the original idea? Do you think that songs would sound different if the symphonic sections were “canned”?
Zorn: Yes, we want to have as many real instruments as possible! We already recorded with a real string orchestra on “Where Hatred Dwells and Darkness Reigns” and with a real choir. Once you do that, you don’t want to go back to a sample library. What we wanted to change with this recording however was to let Sverker Widgren (owner of Wing Studios where we recorded) get more control over the sound. So we decided early on that we wanted to record the strings in the studio this time. On the first album they were recorded in an old asylum in Vadstena.
I know that the songs would have sounded different if they would have been replaced by sampled sounds. That’s how me and Scucca compose the original ideas, with samples, so I know that the album wouldn’t sound the same with sampled sounds. The musicians we used have spent so many hours with their instruments and that is something that you can’t fake with a synth.
Do you think it’s possible for Zornheym to incorporate live musicians for playing the string instruments in future gigs?
Zorn: I think it is possible if the band grows and becomes bigger so we will get a budget for it. The dream would be to perform with a real orchestra. The end game with Zornheym is gonna be a whole theatre spectacle with a string quartet, a small choir, some actors and tons of stage props!
By listening to this album repeatedly, I notice there’s an insane work put into it. And I have the impression that everything on it (and I literally mean ALL: every note, riff, beat, scream, even the slightest sound…) is in its place deliberately, that nothing has been left to chance. There are a lot of details to be appreciated in your music! It’s the same feeling that I have for example with the album “Beyond the Red Mirror” by Blind Guardian; as if every sound in every song had to be perfectly placed. Is that true in your case? Do you look for perfection before releasing your music?
Zorn: There is an insane amount of work put into “The Zornheim Sleep Experiment”. And yes, I look for perfection. Just like you are saying, I want all the notes in a melody or a guitar solo to fit perfectly and have a meaning. Everything is put in the mix for a reason. The idea is that if you listen to the album with headphones you should almost feel like you are entering the gates of the asylum and heading down in the bowels of the asylum.
And I must say that “Beyond the Red Mirror” by Blind Guardian has the best intro to an album ever recorded. Once I listen to the “Ninth Wave” I loop that intro 3-4 times before I can finish the song.
What’s your favorite song in this album? And which one was the most difficult to compose and/or record?
Zorn: Hmm, that’s a tricky question because I’m very pleased with the album and I don’t think that there is any part of the album that shouldn’t be where it is. At the moment I think I would say “Corpus vile” and that was also the most difficult song to compose. The reason why it was so difficult to compose was that I had to transpose the main riff from E-minor to C-minor at the end of the song. This was to give an extra punch to the ending. Bendler wanted us to switch to a lower key than a higher key, that most people do. He said that C would be perfect for his voice, when singing the chant parts. The problem is that the riff is written with a lot of open strings for the guitar and when you play it in C there are no open strings. So it took me quite a while to get the guitar parts right and then also the overall arrangement around it. I think that last bit of “Corpus Vile” took me a whole weekend to write and arrange to get it the way that I wanted it. Once we recorded it in the studio me and Sverker got a good feeling so we kind of improvised the melodic guitar outro for the song. Since I worked on it that hard and that long I really got it down the way I wanted it and it really became my favorite part of the whole album when we were done.
When you released your first album, “Where Hatred Dwells and Darkness Reigns”, there was a fantastic graphic novel that went along with it explaining the stories happening at Zornheim asylum. Maybe there will be another piece of art like that about “The Zornheim Sleep Experiment”?
Zorn: Yes, there is a second one in the making. The two lyric videos from the album actually show a preview of what to expect from the new graphic novel. This one will of course be done by the super talented Anu Bring-Saari as well! I hope we can see the release of it early next year. It is not completely done yet and I still need to write the text for it together with Scucca. I think that Anu really has outdone herself this time, so prepare for an even cooler graphic novel!
I can imagine you must be eager to hit the stages soon again. Do you have some gigs scheduled already, in order to start performing your new songs live?
Zorn: Yes, we are eager to play these songs live! We have a bunch of gigs booked and some more in the pipeline.
Many thanks for taking your time answering this interview! Is there anything more you want to add or say to Blessed Altar Zine readers?
Zorn: Cheers to you Silvia for having me back on Blessed Alter Zine and thanks to everyone who checked out the whole interview, now go and check out “The Zornheim Sleep Experiment”, thanks in advance!
Interview by Sílvia
NOTE: band photos by Jens Rydén.
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