By Nefeli Mosaidi
Arts in Greece | Progressive metal band POEM in an exclusive interview just before their first European headliner tour
Greek metal may not be too familiar with mainstream audiences, yet for the past years now it has earned a following in the world metal scene, with several bands enjoying international success with both their album releases and concert attendance. Since the 80’s, several bands from around the country have ventured into the genre, which is particularly popular in Greece, as was confirmed by a recent charting of the amount of metal bands per-capita worldwide. Black metal is one of the most highly represented sub-genres, while stoner, power and classic heavy metal are also widely performed.
POEM is a four-piece progressive/alternative metal group formed in Athens in 2006. After various changes over the years, the current line-up consists of founding member Giorgos Prokopiou (vocals/guitar), Laurence Bergström (lead guitar), Takis Foitos (bass) and Stavros Rigos (drums). Their music is characterised by a wide range of influences and love for experimentation. POEM have released two studio albums, The Great Secret Show (2009) and Skein Syndrome (2016), which have both met with critical praise, while their live performances in Greece and abroad (as headliners or opening for prominent artists like Ozzy Osbourne, Opeth and Rotting Christ) have also earned them stellar reviews.
February 23, 2018 marks the international release of their third studio album Unique, and on the very next day POEM embarked on their first European headliner tour along with Damnations Day (a progressive power metal band from Australia). Greek News Agenda met* two of the band’s members, front-man Giorgos Prokopiou and drummer Stavros Rigos, to talk about their trajectory and the contemporary Greek metal scene. Both have received extensive musical training from an early age, are music instructors themselves and are also involved with other established acts: Giorgos is also the lead singer of progressive rock band “Mother of Millions”, with whom he has released two albums, while Stavros, who joined POEM in 2011, was previously member of progressive metal band “Tardive Dyskinesia”, with whom he had also released two albums.
All members of the band have extensive studies in music. Is this the case with contemporary metal bands in general -as opposed to the often self-taught musicians that were more common back in the day- or does it have more to do with the stereotypes often associated with progressive rock/metal musicians as being more cultivated in this respect?
Giorgos Prokopiou: Well, if you want to play music and be serious about it, reach a certain level and do it professionally, you just have to study and to really invest your time and effort, whatever type of music it is that you do. Obviously, progressive metal is a highly technical kind of music, so all this applies even more in our case than if we had a more simple “brutal” style, and we need even more preparation. But it’s not about adhering to a certain “prog rocker” standard.
Stavros Rigos: Moreover, in the internet era, “self-taught” doesn’t even mean the same thing anymore; you can Google “how to” and find the instructions for anything. But, of course, that’s not really learning. It can take you through the early stages, but if you want to become a musician of quality you must really study.
So you do actually identify as a progressive metal band, or is it more of an outward description?
Giorgos: We didn’t actually start off with the perspective of playing music belonging to one particular genre. We weren’t even big fans of the genre to begin with, each of us had various influences, and I personally had an affinity for grunge music.
Stavros: You basically start creating music and see where it takes you and, when you come up with something, others suggest that it belongs to this or the other genre, so you’re like “if that’s what you would call it, it’s OK by me”. These are basically labels, and they are useful because they help people reach some kind of understanding, but they shouldn’t limit your expression or make you work having a specific outcome in mind.
Your first album is rougher, with a rather “raw” sound, while the second one features a more accomplished production, but is also more melancholic. What should we expect from your third, upcoming release?
Giorgos: Well, the style of this album actually places it somewhere between the first and the second; there are riffs alluding to our first work, and other -fewer- elements reminiscent of Skein Syndrome. It sounds as if this were our second release, and yet I think it is more mature as far as compositions are concerned, which is due to the circumstances of its creation. I believe we had the proper reactions to these circumstances, and this maturity makes for more forwardness in our work, making our songs more easy-listening but also more dynamic at the same time. Whereas our previous album did have a dynamic character and the atmosphere we wanted, but fell short on “aggressiveness”, something the band lacked until now, in my opinion, but we achieved it now through this album. Hopefully, our fourth release will encompass elements of all the previous ones and the result will be even better (laughs)!
Stavros: Also Laurence (Bergström)’s taking over the position of lead guitarist played an important role…
Giorgos: And same goes for Takis (Foitos) on bass, as they both contributed to the musical compositions Laurence didn’t take part in the composition process for the previous album.
So how does this process work exactly? In previous interviews you have said that the final compositions are basically the outcome of the four of you jamming.
Giorgos: Well, that was the case for our two first albums…
Stavros: That’s how it was, thankfully, since that left us with many ideas which we were able to use for this album. Because the conditions under which this album was recorded were -as Giorgos was just saying- very different. Our contract with the record label specified a deadline, and when you work on a deadline while already having a lot of other obligations you have to strive for a result that is quick but not wanting in quality, to be efficient without foregoing attention to detail. This aspect was most defining with regard to the final outcome. So no, there was no time for jamming for that one.
Giorgos: No, this time, each piece was the conclusion of constant, daily collaboration between Stavros, Laurence and me, for about 95% of the album, until Takis took over as bassist. We would talk on the phone for hours and also meet frequently and write the songs directly on a computer programme. We hadn’t heard the songs being played live in the studio, to see what they would feel like; we had to feel that by listening to them through the PC. That was truly risky, and we had no previous experience of this sort! That’s where the maturity I was talking about played an important role in helping us concentrate, get down to work, and being to the point.
Stavros: Just think that we only got to play the songs once in the studio, when I had to write the percussion parts.
Giorgos: When the album was finished, we didn’t really know how to play the songs, we hadn’t rehearsed.
Stavros: Well we know how to play them now, though – we have a tour ahead of us (laughs)! I’m not saying that this pressure was a negative thing though. It has rather proven to be a good incentive.
Something you are quite often asked about is regarding the fact that you have been active for over a decade but have had relatively few releases.
Giorgos: Yes, bands are usually supposed to have a new album every two years, more or less. We faced a lot of obstacles though, after the release of the Great Secret Show, which was at the time the crisis really began. Some members of the band decided to explore their options, like leaving the country and pursuing a career abroad and, obviously, I wasn’t going to pose any objections; it was their decision to make. It was also quite hard to find a bassist that would actually invest in the band, make it his true priority. When Stavros joined us it made a difference, because that was someone sharing the same goals and priorities. And now, with a record label that has set specific objectives for us, there is no way we take that much time to prepare an album, that’s for sure. Our first album had a partly amateur quality; it contained songs I had written ten years earlier. Things are more serious now, we are more responsible, and if we want to maintain a certain level and keep up the momentum we have to release a record every two years.
I figure you have also been encumbered by the fact that all of you also hold jobs, as the band does not provide any financial security. In this regard, it is even harder to compete with foreign bands you work with in a bigger market that can support themselves through their music.
Stavros: Not to mention the fact that some bands also receive support from the state, especially in northern Europe.
Giorgos: Right, and the main problem with this is that we don’t have the time we need to practice and work on our skills. Some of them devote hours on end, on a daily basis, to practicing, and we don’t have that luxury, especially if we talk about practicing together, as a group. And we have to deal with countless other issues like bills, not to mention errands relevant with the promotion of the band.
I guess most local bands go through the same trouble, more or less.
Stavros: Yes, of course. And it’s not just a Greek thing, other artist go through that too, like the bands we played along with in Spain. When you have to do that, you must obviously choose a line of work that allows flexibility, such as giving private music lessons. A full-time job with standard hours is impossible to sustain.
Is it difficult at live performances when promoting a brand new album? Meaning, is it harder to stir the audience when they hear the songs for the first time, and they can’t sing along…
Stavros: Well, that’s the way it’s done; when you have a new album you must immediately promote it through touring – usually the release date is scheduled after the tour starts off. People know what they have to know, through social media and the web in general. If your promotion is successful, people will find out about you, come to your show, buy your album, learn your songs, hopefully come to another show when given the opportunity. The correct approach when promoting an album is to actually have two tours per year, one for the winter season and one for the summer season.
Giorgos: Since an album is released roughly every two years, you must promote each one as much as you can in this given time. Ideally, you must be on tour for one album right until the time a new album is released; that means going on tour every winter and fall for both years until the next release. That’s how you get people to know you and care for your music. So, even when they don’t know the new songs, they come to hear the band they like and are actually curious to listen to your new stuff. What you have to do is release a video, a song for streaming, so that the audience can get a taste and decide to come for more.
Who is the one to decide which song will be released in a video etc.? Is it the record label?
Stavros: No, we’re the ones to make this decision.
Giorgos: We must of course take some factors into account, like a song’s length: you can’t make a video for a nine minute song.
Compared to your previous experience touring abroad, how do you weigh your upcoming venture? Do you think it’s going to be harder to be the headliners?
Giorgos: Definitely. Much harder! As a support group, all you have to worry about is to have a good performance. The audience sees you as a warm-up band, they have no real expectations – they can only be positively surprised. The headliner carries the weight of the concert’s success – even the support act’s success. What’s more, when you play abroad you may perform at a venue where, only the previous night, there was a concert by some internationally revered band with a huge production company. This comparison is what you play up against. So when you perform, you must show the audience that you can match up to this level; that you’re of the same calibre as these bands. I’m not saying be conceited, but you must be assertive, or you lose them.
So, Greek bands, where are they within the international metal scene? Does the country’s financial state in this last decade reflect on the way artists are perceived abroad?
Stavros: About ten years ago I was actually on tour in Europe with my previous band, and there were many negative reactions to the fact that we were Greek. This however later seemed to change. When POEM toured with Amorphis as a support act in 2016, people were totally different towards us; they came up to us and asked us how things are in our country, because they didn’t just trust everything they heard from media. So you can see that, within the music scene, people can manage to see things differently, and they don’t blame simple people for the problems that are mostly created by politicians. There was, to be honest, one case of a record label that decided they wouldn’t sign with us due to our nationality, because they didn’t think they would be able to market a Greek band to audiences from central and northern Europe. But I can’t say Greek artists are looked down upon, as I also see other bands like Need or Mother of Millions -Giorgos’ other band- who have received a very warm welcome everywhere they performed.
Giorgos: Let’s not also forget that Greece boasts two huge metal bands, Rotting Christ and Septic Flesh, who are also big on an international level. After all these years of hard work and successes, they have made a name for themselves that actually helps the rest of the Greek bands; they have created a brand name for Greek metal. Theirs is a different, more extreme sound, not the type of music we make, but just the fact people tell you “You’re Greek? I know Greek bands!” is definitely helpful.
There is however one common element between you and Rotting Christ: your influences from Greek and generally Mediterranean traditions.
Giorgos: This is quite more evident in their music, especially their more recent albums. In our own music, these influences were owed mainly to our previous lead guitarist, Giorgos Anagnostou, who really loves traditional rural Greek music, and this did add interesting elements to our compositions. Obviously, we have all grown up here, so we all have been influenced by certain musical scales and harmonies, and we might use them. These are not really present in our latest album though, although we could’ve included such influences. However, I didn’t want to “colour” my vocals this way, as I didn’t want to repeat myself or resort to mannerism.
Stavros: Greek music draws from a long, rich tradition, with great musicality.
Giorgos: If it does come natural, we obviously use elements from Eastern music, but we don’t want it to sound intentional.
So what are your influences?
Stavros: As far as Greek music is concerned, I wouldn’t call it an influence, it’s more like a part of our culture, our identity, something you are exposed to throughout your life when you are Greek; it is not something you can choose. If it does emerge in your music, and not in a mannerist way -as Giorgos put it- it’s magic. That’s what progressive music is about, combining rock or metal with elements that are quite distant from it and have not been often used in this context. Legendary rock band Socrates did that, because their guitarist Yannis Spathas had really delved in music from Epirus and used it in his technique.
Giorgos: Other influences definitely include classical music, due to our studies. I think this applied to anyone who has received formal musical education, regardless of whether one becomes an actual listener of this type of music in their free time. We might not deliberately use it in our music, but it obviously helps us; like, for example, I use classical placement in my vocals, or you may track a harmony that is primarily based on classical music.
So when you started on your musical education at a young age, were you already aspiring to later do that professionally?
Giorgos: When I began to learn music it was because I had a passion for Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, etc and their live shows; I really loved the idea of performing live and have people appreciate your work. But I think the turning point was when I first attended a rock concert, and I was really ecstatic, I just wanted to experience that first hand. I wasn’t interested in getting into university any more. I found a music teacher and focused on that; at the age of 14-15, I was set on becoming a musician.
Stavros: I remember myself at second grade, using piles of books, pen holders and any object as makeshift drums, to beat the rhythm to any foreign music I could find at home, Beatles, whatever. I had seen someone in some video play drums and I was like “that’s what I want to do”. I wasn’t interested in going to university either. When my father asked “what are your plans” I responded that “I want to be a musician”, and he said “No” (both laugh)! Thus I didn’t have any support in this effort, I did it all by myself.
From your official site, one can stream both your previous albums in their entirety. Does this affect sales?
Giorgos: Nobody relies on record sales anymore. From the moment the album is released, someone will upload it online anyway. Nowadays, labels actually want you entire album to be on YouTube, so that people can listen to the songs; if someone then wants to by the CD, they’ll do it anyway, to also get a premium quality. What’s more important, they will get familiar with your music and it may attract them to your live shows. If you don’t have some free samples, you might not bother go to a show of a lesser known band.
Stavros: Plus, people who come to your show will try and support you in some way, buy some merchandise, a T-shirt. The time of CD sales has basically ended; that’s not how a band supports itself. It’s the live shows that provide some income, so that you can put money back into your music making. That’s exactly what we hope to achieve now, starting with this tour, now that we have a record label that takes the band seriously and has specific goals for us: having the money to really support the band.
Thank you very much for your time!
Giorgos and Stavros: Thanks for having us!