Interview | Martin Lopez – drummer Soen
A good conversation
Sometimes things just pan out in the most unexpected and remarkable way possible. Little belated, Martin Lopez, drummer of Soen checks in to chat with us about their brand-new banger album `Memorial’ which I recently dubbed ‘best progressive record of the decade’, a term he is proud of reading.
Funny, as Martin mentions he is dialing in from his daughter’s room with ‘the best internet possible’, requesting not to use the footage for airing the video-chat, being very much aware of his status as a heavy metal drummer and “the mystique around the band”. These remarks mark common ground as yours truly relies to the fact of the princess’s rooms having the best internet connection, and certainly most stuffed animals (and stuffed Taco’s) at hand. We have a laugh and share stories, especially how fatherhood affects the heart of a metalhead. Fun especially, as it will make up for lost time of the session before running late with Martin admitting he is tired. How I can make this a good conversation? “Make it like hanging with a friend”, he says. I try… Steer away from the obvious, make room for the personality he is, it is exactly what is needed and the interview enrolls pleasantly.
“We just got home last night, from a festival in Germany. We spent time at home for 3 or 4 days before we leave and return back home again to stay with our families. It is nice, but we spend way too much time at airports, which is not the most wonderful thing you know…”, quickly adding; “… it is the life we chose, right?”, concluding the statement with a smile.
MEMORIAL – THE NEW ALBUM
Staying busy and warming up for the new album tour. Testing new material already?
“No no, not yet. We really want to do it as good as possible. Bring it across in the right setting, and at festivals you don’t have the sound and light, making the new songs go down right.”
With rave reviews dropping and the band working on the new album for a long time, I wonder if it isn’t unfulfilling to revert back to the older and classic tracks. `Memorial’ in the waiting it must feel like scaling back, but Martin immediately responds:
“No! It is pure excitement, in the sense that we have been cooking up something better with `Memorial’ and still able to bring the old stuff to the audience. It is still fun to play all the songs and `Imperial’. We do the festivals and prepare for the best thing we can…”
He lights up when I make him aware of the buzz that started with the new album’s single starting to drip on YouTube. Martin admits it all looks very promising and it has them very excited. Interviews on the way and reviews dropping I ask him for the status…
“It all starts with the interviews. Having this time to chat and talk with our friends. To me it is a pleasant moment, really. I only get tired of the interview revolving around dates and numbers… I will tell the journalist to just stop.”
Me tugging away my notes and data makes him laugh and Martin continues:
“…Man I saw this first review by you guys. People are really excited to read what is going on and what to expect, especially as it coincided with the first two songs of the album making it to YouTube. ,,Unbreakable” and ,,Memorial” are further from our regular material. Perhaps people wanted to read and feel safe. It being the first review to air gave us a lot of energy and ‘piece of mind’. It is very rewarding to read how someone experiences the music you created and where you put all this love and effort into.”
THE FEELING OF A LONG-TERM FRIENDSHIP
Over the years Soen has landed and established themselves delivering topnotch songs that grip with intention and emotion. Your music goes down with a wide array of metalheadz from all genres as well as music purists, so to say. With you guys constantly delivering it surprises me you are on top of the feedback. You still, after all these years and successes, need validation and feedback on your music?
“It is intense. There’re different stages obviously. When it comes to the writing sessions of the album, we can only do what we love. It is the only way… (weighing his words carefully and smiling admitting) … honestly: to be happy. We chose to be musicians and travel the world to share your music. You want to share what you really, really believe is the best you can and what you love the most. It truly comes from the heart and it is how we feel songs should be written.
Then you release the album. You want to make everyone happy. We have a fan share really digging our music and loving our lyrics. We don’t want to disappoint them. We want them to be a part of this and stay connected. Not just be part of the show, but really intensify our bond. In the end it feels like a long-term friendship, and you don’t want to let them down even though that is impossible.”
Martin elaborates: “It is impossible as people change. We change! What I felt was interesting to write 10 years ago I don’t see as interesting anymore, you know? You have different goals to reach, a different view on writing and understanding music. There’s always fans that judge music differently. Fans from our early days might not like where we are going while new fans won’t like our past recordings. It’s evolution. So, you can only relay to your own feeling and please yourself, hoping you connect with everyone.”
Living in the present, I opt, to which the drummer wholeheartedly responds: “EXACTLY!”
Addressing this personal growth as a musician and songwriter I wonder how he looks back onto his years in Opeth, and how he experiences this intense change.
“More than that; I started with Amon Amarth, which was way different even. Then I moved to Opeth. I could see me play with any of these bands a couple of songs still…” Martin smiles, to proceed with fond memories “…celebrate our younger years and relive how much fun we had. I could never do an entire tour or play a full album as it will feel too much like going back, reversing time. What I do with Soen now is what I love doing the most”.
It is a raspy rapid side way we wander, soon to return to topic. When I get to ‘Memorial’ I see excitement grow. Pointing out how much the title justifies the strength of its memorable content Martin acknowledges the rich texture and depth of the sonic endeavor, ‘Memorial’ turned out to be. Peeling back their songs towards its intense inner being for the recordings for ‘Atlantis’, the band channeled a different momentum.
“I think it has to do with a number of things to be honest… before ‘Atlantis’ we were already composing and writing for ‘Memorial’. Revisiting after the recording of ‘Atlantis’, which is our softest and most subtle album recorded, we questioned how raw and powerful we could swing our music the other way.” Holding his hands in front him fingers crooked intense, like holding his heart, Martin emphasizes. “But keep the emotion… and keep the groove… and then; how hard can it get and how direct can we make it? We went for that!”
He lingers to regenerate the moment and his eyes light up:
“And then, while we are going for that, the world starts to fall apart! Russia invades Ukraine. Soon followed by the people’s uprising Iran after they beat Jina Mahsa Amini to death (13/09/22) after not complying to the strict veiling rules, resulting in mass demonstrations and the killing of 500+ protestors. A lot of anger sets in. We were so fucking pissed off man… and the last 4 to 5 songs we wrote were extremely heavy. In contradiction to the earliest songs, it creates an ice balance. It is an album that really works and never gets boring. It touches a lot of issues of today’s world. It’s really crazy for me to say, but ‘Memorial’ feels like an important album. For me! When I play it, I hear the music and the lyrics, and it really strikes me in the heart. I hope it does the same for the listener.”
It is inevitable ‘Memorial’ is a benchmark record that stands as a timestamp of the current situation and despair globally. With Lopez telling his story, he constantly seems to look for the right words in order to convey his message and not put things in the wrong perspective. Martin feels confident about the new material but also tends to seek refuge when it comes to ‘the eye of the beholder’. There’s a certainly frailty to be felt. When I address Soen’s social critical standing judging `Imperial’, and bass player Oleksii Kobel personally affected due to the invasion of his homeland, the band’s scoping qualities get impacted with the world coming scarily close to the band’s core.
“Yes. You don’t even have to know anyone. You know, I have daughters. They’re free. But when you have kids, you unwillingly project them into this situation. Imagine these children in Ukraine relentlessly being bombed by this psychopath. Imagine your daughter in Iran, deciding not to follow their rules. It is just too much to handle, and I think it has nothing to do with choosing sides. It has nothing to do with Ukraine joining NATO. It has everything to do with the decision to wage war, bomb civilians, kill kids… attack innocent people. It is that which pisses everyone off!”
Martin is certainly affected by this when he continues:
“Remove the politics and power games. It only boils down to the point that, somewhere on earth, in 2023 innocent civilians are being bombed, on this same earth in 2023, there’s a woman walking in the street being beaten to death by government officials. It is impossible to be at ease with…” He looks into the webcam and I see the frustration firing from his eyes. “I think that it’s an important album, because we try to bring this to the attention.”
CONNECTING WITH PEOPLE
Bringing my finding forward of Soen being a ‘thinking man’s band’ drilling a different crowd without dismissing rock and metal fans for their social critical viewpoints as well. Some raise glasses, but the vast majority stands united and in solidarity amidst a world of people looking away. Metalheads and Soen fans are an intelligent breed…
“I agree! And I certainly hope so. We are not only here to entertain. I don’t just want to be a circus-act, you know. I am from South America and seen injustice and poverty. Now I live in Sweden and I witness a different kind of injustice. But it also shows how a society CAN work. It gives me a duty to share our vision. It’s the same with Joel, who grew up in a working-home with only his father providing, not experiencing an easy childhood. Give us instruments and a microphone to make us talk about these situations, not astronomy or dragons and princesses. Tell people something that means something. Connect with people and do whatever you can to make this world a better place.”
Giving their social critical approach it also surprises Soen never takes a political standpoint.
“I don’t think you need to. I think that it is common sense and we all have to just agree on the goal: Agree on all children to have a warm meal every day. Agree on that. We agree on civilians not to be bombed. We all agree on that, the right and the left. We just don’t seem to agree on how we have to get there. Music is universal and unites. We are in this band that is made up of different people. We have different ideologies. We have different views and standpoints, different backgrounds. We think differently, but we all agree on the goal.
How the world is today, as soon as you identify with a political branch, the other side will go through great lengths to ridicule you. When you are on the right you are a homophobe, a fascist, a racist, and a fucking psychopath. If you are on the left, you are gay, you’re a communist, and make the world a place of sissies. Sheer stupidity! Really?!”
That’s opinions that go down the right way and exactly word my disgust of our modern society that seems to have lost its ‘place in the middle’. We lost our reason…
“I guess we did. With social media we lost the stage where stupidity is stopped by a friend or relative. Statements that don’t get corrected, nobody been put into place. The neighbor who corrects you for generalizing viewpoints on groups or race, you know. Counter balance an opinion with simple statements as “I have a friend from that group and he is the best guy you’ll ever meet…” BAM! It stops.
But now, they generate a view safely from their homes, and everyone sharing that idea joins to empower it. It spins out of control with a group going viral and a lot of people believing it without even knowing personally whom they (mis)judge. We miss the face to face; the logic being directly conveyed.”
Aren’t we all just being locked down too long? It seems as if everyone blames anyone and people start to go into a frenzy.
“Yeah, Yeah! Certainly, a combination of the lockdowns and forced rules, with everyone losing trust in politicians and governments. In the meantime, the media makes idols out of nobody’s that make big headlines. News being blown out of proportion. Look, if I say “I’m a N@zi”, I will make headlines in all the metal and music magazines. If I say the opposite, it is not even going to make it to any media outlet… “
THE MADNESS OF TODAY’S MEDIA
I promise to not make this a headline as the statement is used to bring across the madness of today’s media. How polarization rules and angst is injected through news outlets with society suffering from counter points. This being put out there, Martin elaborates on the lyrical content of ‘Memorial’ and the balance it features conveying stories from different viewpoints and opposing camps.
“The whole album is literally about these topics we’ve been discussing. It displays different angles. My angle and Joel’s angle… (pauses), we really go for it. We don’t have fear for repercussions. It can be hard for bands and talk about these topics as they have weight to them. It’s easier to sing about astronomy (chuckles). We stand on something…”
Pushing on the shortsighted view of many, this is why it is hard to get into these topics. With ‘Memorial’ touching all the angles and checking the boxes, the titles are easily explained. ‘Sincere’, ‘Unbreakable’, ‘Violence’, ‘Fortress’, bam, bam, bam; Powerful words summarizing the prowess and content of the tracks underneath.
“Man, summing them up makes me aware of that indeed. I didn’t even realize. To me the album felt like disconnected songs and naming them like you did really makes sense. It makes sense on the mindset when we wrote them! Intense!”
Very intense indeed.
It is impressive how you master the art of subtle heaviness. The thick grooves and those heavy loaded riffs on top, the ploughing bass lines pulsing underneath. It feels impossible. All this bliss and vigor, with the sudden break when Joel intricately calms it into an almost melancholic stillness oozing serenity amid all this musical technicality. How the hell do you accomplish unity over such textural contradictions?
“Joel is fantastic. He’s such a great singer. Not only his technical abilities, but more how he manages to work himself into character in the songs. He assimilates the lyrics into his, even though they can be mine. He delivers true honesty. And we put a lot of work in this outcome. It has to be real with him being a 100% right on how delivers the song. We have to get into the heart of the listener. This is what we grew up with, all these classic prog bands. It is also why we throw out a lot of ideas and lyrics. When it doesn’t feel right, or Joel’s doesn’t connect to them, we part from it. When I listen to the songs, I really believe everything that is being said. That is key!”
Touching subject, I ask if it is challenging to construct the music towards Joel’s typical voice. His voice and range are sublime, yet very unique and typical. The calming and whaling tone of voice that is more alt-rock than metal, so to say. I can imagine this proposes an occasional challenge or possible constraint…
“Part of the magic with Joel is the fact that he is completely uninterested in ego-centric behavior or showing off. He only works for our music. He is the only singer I met that is obsessed with the craft of building together. What the voice needs to, not what it can do to inflate a song. Not maintaining the same note to display skill, it is more in the approach to silence. The stillness you mentioned. Every musician has an ego; like the guitar player that is all over the place, or the drummer hitting everything in the most insane time changes, a singer also displays his abilities. All their tricks and chops. Joel has zero interest in that, making our music very honest and free of ego. The songs start to get alive the way we see and want to hear them”
As one of the main songwriters and drummer, how do you convey the groove and riffs into balance for them to work. Especially when you also add lyrics. Isn’t it hard to get yourself into that driving seat?
“I’m not the main songwriter anymore. There’s much more of a band effort. When it comes to music, I still write all the riffs and music. We have reached a standard, or level, in which the work Joel and I bring forward just make the song. When you have played for 25 years, a simple riff doesn’t do much for you anymore. It can give you a door to lead into something. But to really feel it is working as a song, you need the combination of lyrics – vocals – riff and groove to build a song. It has to build. Convey something. When it comes to building it is as much mine as Joels.
When me or Joel write a song, it just doesn’t work, it is our interaction that builds what we want to set free. This is definitely why we also need Oleksii, Lars (Åhlund) and Cody (Lee Ford) in the mix. They are very talented musicians adding to the Soen style. Whatever we I do, they do make a lot better.”
TWO SIDES TO THE STORY
One thing that really struck me listening to ‘Memorial’ was the build of the title-track. Its Military drums and the sudden aggravation of the track, those ingredients reoccurring on ‘Incendiary’ making them feel like they’re tied together by theme and content.
“Yes, they are. They touch the same theme from different angles. Lyrically and musically, as well as the way Joel sings them. They are made that way to connect them. It is not that we initially went for this, but it evolved during its creation. The lyrics tell the story, while the next song displays the opposing angle, the other side of the fence. That’s also why they are backed by the military drums tying them together with the vibe of the stories.”
Both songs are then the CenterPoint of the album, right? They bring both angles and tell two sides to the story?
“Yeah indeed. But it is not that ‘Memorial’ is centered only about that. It still counts ten songs individually building stories. It is not a concept, like the prog records of the past. They rather touch with the topics as stand-alone forces. On ‘Memorial’ there’s 3 songs that really touch deeper on the war-theme. It is interesting you bring this to my attention, especially as also ‘Icon’ addresses the topic. It’s the third way of seeing a conflict, the family member seeing their young son or daughter going to war, unaware if he or she will return home, possible traumas. The father or mother staying behind versus ‘Memorial’, where the person goes into battle returning home to their loved ones with P.T.S.D. unable to function. ‘Incendiary’ reverts to how the other side sees the military apparatus, how they see the person that came to wage war on them.”
From what do you get the inspiration for lyrics like these. Does it come from books or movies, newspapers?
“Of course, a lot of this comes from within. Oleksii who is from Ukraine feeds us, me, being the son of political refugees who were at ‘war’ with the Uruguayan military. I have friends in the military and I’m friends with parents whoms sons are in the army. It comes from everywhere and it is sad that we have to be prepared for conflict. That people have to be sent to war. People defending something they want to have defended…”
Wouldn’t it be better to send the politicians to the table in order to negotiate peace rather than carry guns sending people into battle? Let them fight and leave the people alone…
“I agree. I think we wouldn’t have that many wars anymore… sure!”
SOEN FUTURE PLANS
Where do you go from here? There’s a lot coming. The tour is mapped out, the interviews are scheduled…
“I’m happy with the album and confident we did a good job. I’m ready to stand the storm, (laughs) and mostly I’m happy to go to work and take this to the road. Talk to our audience, reach out and find out how they feel about the album. It is always very interesting and it is also why we keep doing this, what keeps us going for all these years.”
Any chance you are going to play the entire album on the upcoming tour. It certainly makes for a great evening.
“That could be a good idea. There’re a few songs we definitely want to play. Going through the songs we go for the vibe for the song we want to add to the setlist. It’s all about the vibe and the spirit of music we connect to. It has to feel right for the band. Doesn’t need to be a heavy song, or a soft song. It is hard to grab what song will work onstage. The magic of music that makes it work.”
The reason why I ask is ‘Memorial’ and ‘Imperial’ being closely connected in terms of content and its present rooted strong opinion.
“I can add ‘Lotus’ to that also. It’s more laid back musically, but somewhere in there we found something that gave us a go and felt right. Our reason, our mission. This is what we want to say, this is how we want to sound. That just get better and better, and more direct!”
Is this collective mission found also what unifies Soen?
“It does. We never have a fight within this band. We really respect each other and are happy that we have this. Life is what it is, and to keep a line-up is harder than it seems. People have children and prioritize different things. They want to move elsewhere, or don’t want to sit on the bus together for this long anymore. Because we grew close as friends, these topics have to be addressed and talked about. It isn’t always as simple as it seems, but we are a real brotherhood. The best I have seen. The best we’ve been.
So many bands I’ve seen and been around with. There’s always one or two that down stay together. Cast outside on tour. It is tough to see, because all of us musicians start off this path with the same dream. We want to tour the world and play rock ‘n roll music, make a living out of it. Then suddenly you realize you are there, being touring and recording for years and years and years, but not having built a real family or contact. You play a show and take a few drinks together. And so on. It is something we as a band fight to stay together and connected. We have our families and our connection and we focus on what we want to do. We are here and want to put our mission out there, because it is good for all of us. As long as it is that way, Soen has the strongest line-up in the world. When someone is not one with that mission, it will make the bus stop.”
Hey, you have all these nationalities. All these different characters. And you’re a still that band with the name nobody seems to pronounce correctly. You are still here, even though bands from one country fight each other off and onstage…
“True. It’s really hard to find people at this level. It’s not only about being a good musician, but also about being friends. I’m 45, I don’t want to be on the bus with someone I don’t like. I want to be friends, share the same goal. Be happy. I want to write songs and be happy with it. Have friends that will be happy with the music I write. It is comradery, yes!”
Comradery indeed. You guys remind me of my heroes in Rush. They stuck together and chased their dream. Challenged everyone on their path, went on their mission. Outcasts for many, but writing history. They stuck to their goal and were backed by their home front. Dreams come true.
“Man, I hope you are right. It is hard to be away from the family as long as we are. It is great to know there’s people that care for you. They care for me on the road and at home.”
Can you live from your music?
“Yes! It is challenging times and you have to be on the road a lot to make it work. We can’t complain. We are at a point where we can make a living, have a solid fanbase. People come to the shows and provide a base for us to make a better album and invest in a better record. The only goal is that: make a better record. Every time. It is what makes me go on. Make the best record. This is about how much and how good can I be at doing what I love.
I constantly hear you referring to here and now. Being in the present: “It is al about now. All about being here.”
As for the best record: I think you really succeeded. This could just be the best of its kind on the last decade. I think you succeeded…
“Don’t make me cry man. Hahaha! But really; that makes me really happy to hear.”
Emphasizing how prejudice I always been about Soen, I admit to Martin ‘Memorial’ touches all the boxes of timeless greatness. Especially the fact of my prejudice hits…
“You know; I do understand what you’re saying by that. The band has changed a lot, we’ve grown over the years. Developed our style and art. You think we changed for the better, that is great to hear. Though not everyone will agree, I’m glad to hear you feel that way. It is the growth wo aim for. I’m looking forward to the tour! See you there Edwin.”
Header photo by Monica Duffels