Walking the Earth with Europe Bassist John Levén
To many rock fans Europe solely represent a band with a hit single in the eighties called “The Final Countdown”, and that is essentially all that they tend to know about them. However, dig a little deeper and the fact that the band are still around in 2017 affirms a band with a solid back catalogue of songs who continue to tour regularly all over the world and also continue to release quality and multi-faceted albums. True, the band had a brief hiatus like many other bands when the music industry changed and reshaped itself. However, where many bands did not return, Europe regrouped and returned stronger and reinvigorated. The series of albums since their reformation have illustrated an evolving music machine that has only improved rather than mellowed with age. If anything, I feel that the band have become harder edged in recent years. 2015’s War of Kings represented a superb release and was in my top 3 albums of that year. Fast forward two years and another Europe album release which builds and improves on its predecessor. Walk the Earth stands above anything in the band’s musical discography; yes, even my favourite, Wings Of Tomorrow. The band are set to join rock legends Deep Purple next month around the UK arenas which will also tie in with the promotion of their new album release. Walk the Earth builds on the classic Europe sound but additionally showcases and adds some different elements to the established mix. Ahead of the album’s release, I managed to Walk The Earth with their bassist, John Levén
ANTIHERO: Hi John.
John Levén: Hi, how are you doing?
ANTIHERO: I’m good. Okay, I’m here to talk a few things and firstly let’s discuss the new Europe album.
John Levén: Yeah, it’s coming out 20th October.
ANTIHERO: Just listened to it, it nearly seems like the band’s got a different sound.
John Levén: Well, we try to; every time we record an album we try to do something different I think that we do that pretty much each time.
ANTIHERO: What about the recording process, did it differ maybe in comparison to your previous album War of Kings? Did you do anything differently to create that unique sonic difference?
John Levén: Yeah, we recorded it at Abbey Road Studios and we had pretty much ten or eleven song ideas but we never really made them really finished before we went in the studio because the band do some writing in the studio so we finished up all the songs in the studio and we just kept banging them out playing and recording live.
ANTIHERO: Is that something that you’ve always done, you prefer to work that live chemistry and create songs in the studio or did you generally in the past come to the studio with all the songs already done?
John Levén: Yeah pretty much before Bag of Bones album we used to have all the songs pretty much done and ready to record before we went in the studio but then we started working with Kevin Shirley on Bag of Bones and War of Kings, and Dave Cobb on Walk the Earth and they had a similar approach to recording and it’s pretty much, fast and it was live, keep it fresh.
ANTIHERO: Yeah, certainly, a lot of bands don’t even do that these days, maybe even bands don’t even meet up in the studio, they swap a lot music files online and maybe create an album where all the band members aren’t even in the same room.
John Levén: Yeah, yeah, we don’t want to do that, we have the excitement of being a band like when we first started out and generate passion and have excitement when you first started playing a new song. Capturing on a feeling in the studio recording so I think we pretty much made it that way, it’s an exciting album to listen to.
ANTIHERO: Yeah. Just one track that stood out for me personally when I heard it, if I could talk to you about the track Pictures, there’s a real David Bowie vibe with that one in particular, I’m getting David Bowie every time I hear that song, is that something that the band would agree with?
John Levén: I agree with you, I think we actually call it the Bowie song. Yeah, it came about from John Norum, the guitar player, he’s working on a solo album, and he did a cover of a Bowie song, I’m not sure which one though, and he played it in the rehearsal and Joey said, “I have something similar” that he started working on five years ago and he had saved it for us, and with all the chord changes and everything it’s very similar to a David Bowie song. Instead of just doing the regular old eighties power ballad, we don’t want to do that, we want to do something modern. I’m proud of that song.
ANTIHERO: Looking back through the history of the band you and Joey are the only guys that have been there right through. I just wondered when you look back, do you regret any of the lineup changes over the years or were they just necessary steps in moving the band forwards?
John Levén: Yeah, every time we had to do a change it’s something that we had to do at the time. I mean, John wasn’t happy in the band and I think there was a time when we weren’t that happy because we ended up doing all these TV shows, we had a dream when we started out that we’re going to be a touring band, go out and play live and all of a sudden, we were standing in TV studios all over Europe. But he got fed up with that, so we had to change, it was a crucial time for us to go on so we didn’t really have a choice back then. Now we feel like an original band, so it’s definitely been better that way.
ANTIHERO: How do you look back on the band’s legacy, some of those early albums do you find they’re still comfortable? Do you actually go back and listen to them yourself or do you prefer just to move forward with the next album?
John Levén: Me personally, I’ll never go back and listen, I go back and listen to the latest album which comes out and then I just stop listening to it, I mean I will never go back to listen to any of the older stuff because I’m not very nostalgic like that. I just want to move on, move forward.
ANTIHERO: What about the follow up touring? I note that you’re coming over in November, and you’re doing a tour with Deep Purple. Will there be any of the new material featured in those sets with Deep Purple, or will you be sticking to a sort of greatest hits type of structure?
John Levén: Yeah, the album will be out by then, so we’ll definitely be going to do some newer stuff. We only get one hour before Deep Purple and we’re talking about having maybe three different particular tour setlists and swapping around every night. We squeezed in as much new material as possible.
ANTIHERO: It must be very difficult for a band though because obviously some people only know you for those eighties hits and it’s very difficult for you as a band to introduce the newer songs to them.
John Levén: Yeah, yeah, there’s some songs that we could not stop playing. I mean “The Final Countdown” is obviously essential to play, and “Rock The Night”. It’s getting harder and harder to put set lists together actually because we want to squeeze in as much new stuff as possible, but there’s some songs that we’re going to have to do.
ANTIHERO: You said there you’re not a nostalgic kind of guy, you prefer to look forward. I just wonder how you felt then about doing those “Final Countdown” shows? Because that’s essentially an old album that you were re-doing live?
John Levén: Yeah, that was fun. We did a full album of War of Kings to start with, and then we did the tour with Final Countdown, but it was fun to do songs that we hadn’t done for a long time.
ANTIHERO: You don’t have any plans to maybe do something similar with maybe some of the earlier albums like Wings of Tomorrow, for example?
John Levén: Yes, we did tour in Sweden when the anniversary for Wings of Tomorrow was out but we only did that in Sweden.
ANTIHERO: Okay, the band have been around a long time and you had most commercial success was in period of the eighties like a lot of bands. How did the band adapt to the subsequent changes in the music industry? Was that difficult for a band like Europe to go from a band that were very successful through that difficult period of the nineties as the music business changed?
John Levén: Yeah, well we called it quits back then in the nineties because we got swept away from all the grunge stuff. All the record companies wanted another Nirvana.
ANTIHERO: It must have been particularly difficult for Europe, given the high level of success that the band had worked hard to achieve.
John Levén: Yeah, I mean we waited for a while, we came back after twelve years and we found there was a place for us as well, especially if we continued the path that we’ve been doing, trying to copy everything we had done in the eighties and try to do it the way we want and we are totally in total control these days over everything that we do so there’s nobody telling us you should do this or do that, I mean people produce their own records and we do it, it’s better the way we want it.
ANTIHERO: Just wondering if I could take you back when you first developed an interest then in music. Why the bass, why did you choose bass as your music instrument?
John Levén: I used to be a guitar player anyway but at the same time I used to, I was playing around with lots of different sounds; sometimes I play guitar and sometimes I play the bass, and then Joey and John Norum came and asked me if I wanted to be the bass player in Europe and I said yes, so since then I’ve been majorly a bass player of course, but I do play guitar and write songs, I write songs on guitar.
ANTIHERO: Have you any plans to release those or is it just purely for yourself?
John Levén: No, it’s when I write songs at home. I write with guitar and yeah, I play guitar as well.
ANTIHERO: Ok, the band are huge, huge stars in Sweden. Are you still able to go about in Sweden? Has fame come basically at a price for you?
John Levén: No, not really, I mean it was crazy in the eighties, I couldn’t go out really and people were hiding out outside my home but we didn’t really live here in Sweden during the real, when it was at the craziest time. But there’s people coming up to me now, I go on the subway sometimes and people come up to me but I don’t think there’s a problem, I don’t think you should make that a problem, I mean what is the big deal, people come up and say they appreciate your music.
ANTIHERO: But at the height of all that fame and success, was fame something that the band as individuals found very difficult to deal with at that time?
John Levén: I haven’t really had a problem with it, I mean there must be some guys in the band that don’t think it’s too much fun to be approached by people when they are having some private time but I don’t really have a problem with that.
ANTIHERO: Looking back on your life so far, what in your life are you most proud of? Is it the fact maybe that Europe are still around and still making good music?
John Levén: Yeah, I’m very proud of that and I’m proud of the body of work that we’ve been putting out and there’s eleven great albums out now and we keep going.
ANTIHERO: Is there anything in your life that you haven’t achieved yet, do you still have ambition, targets, goals, dreams?
John Levén: Just keep going at it and try to make better and better albums and as long as we feel that we are making better and better albums that we like ourselves, then it feels great, I mean you couldn’t expect anyone else to like your new albums if you’re not proud of them yourself.
ANTIHERO: What do you do outside of music, when you’re not touring with Europe, when you’re not recording music, do you have any sort of outside interests or hobbies maybe? How you spend the time?
John Levén: I try to do some work outs, I hang out with my son mostly.
ANTIHERO: It’s important to try and get that balance and have some family time as well.
John Levén: Yeah, yeah, I don’t really have any hobbies like that. I try to paint a little bit but I’m going to try to do that some more actually.
ANTIHERO: Is that something that you are keen to develop, keen to learn?
John Levén: Yeah, absolutely, I used to draw and paint when I was younger a lot but it’s something that I want to get back into absolutely. I mean music is not just my profession, it’s my hobby as well so it’s what I do when I’m at home when I have free time I just, maybe after tour I take a week or two off from playing but then my guitars are hanging on the wall but you know, it’s my hobby.
ANTIHERO: What’s next for Europe after these days with Deep Purple? Will you be coming back to the UK to maybe do a tour yourselves promoting the new album?
John Levén: Yeah, I really hope so. Everything is… People are working on it and working now so I’m not sure what we’re doing but we’re doing this Deep Purple thing in the UK and then we go out for a week or two all over Europe and then it’s time for Christmas and in January or February we’re going out again, then I think we’re going to Australia for the first time.
ANTIHERO: Yeah, for the first time? It’s nice that after all these years for Europe you’re still able to visit and play in places that you’ve never even played before.
John Levén: Yeah but we’ve been pretty much everywhere now, New Zealand and Australia left.
ANTIHERO: And then you’ve conquered the world then?
John Levén: Yeah, sort of. We’re trying to get an American tour together and we’ll probably be coming back to the UK and I mean we’re going to do a lot of touring again, and probably do festivals again.
ANTIHERO: Do you think, the band seem to have focused a little bit more on playing the UK more than maybe you had done in the past?
John Levén: Yeah, we’ve done a couple of tours now in the UK it’s for obvious reasons you want to become successful in a country like the UK because that’s where a lot of music that we grew up listening to came from so we want to be successful in the UK, absolutely.
ANTIHERO: Are Deep Purple a band that you’ve toured with before? I’m sure your paths have crossed with touring over the years?
John Levén: Yeah, we’ve done a couple of shows with them here in Sweden actually and this is going to be great. At first, they said it was going to be their last tour but I’m not too sure about that, I saw Deep Purple when I was a teenager and I never thought I would get to tour with them, it’s fantastic being on stage looking at them every night.
ANTIHERO: So you still get star struck yourself?
John Levén: Not really star struck, but I mean they’re such professional, experienced guys, there’s always something you can learn from them.
ANTIHERO: Ok Jon, thank you very much. I’m looking forward to seeing you guys play with Deep Purple in Manchester and thanks for chatting to me today.
John Levén: Yeah, thank you very much.
ANTIHERO: And finally, congratulations both with this album and thank you for all the music over the years.
John Levén: Alright, thank you.