Nad Sylvan is on a mission to make progressive rock sexy. When Prog catches up with the image-conscious vocalist, he’s full of enthusiasm about a “funky” pair of Italian boots that he bought while on tour with Steve Hackett. He’s dressed immaculately in the sort of elegant red shirt you might expect to see on a vampiric dandy, and carefully scrutinises each photo our photographer snaps.
Such care and attention over personal image certainly isn’t typical in the prog scene, but then again, Sylvan is anything but a typical prog star.
Born in California in 1959, Sylvan and his family relocated to his Swedish mother’s homeland when the musician was just a few months old. By the age of five, he began playing the piano, and by the time he reached his teenage years, he was writing and singing pop songs.
“It started off very innocently with ballads, mostly in the vein of Elton John, Gilbert O’Sullivan and stuff like that,” Sylvan remembers. “When I was about 15 or 16 years old, I drifted into progressive rock when
I discovered Genesis and Yes. By 1975, I was touring Sweden with a [rock covers] band called Envoys, and that’s how it really started for me. The year after, I joined a progressive band [Avenue] as a keyboardist. I had an arsenal of keyboards around me and I was singing lead when I was about 18 or 19.”
Sylvan speaks quickly as he recounts his early musical endeavours. There are tales of bands that didn’t quite make it, a Scandinavian disco single and even two shows supporting Lionel Ritchie in Sweden. It wasn’t until 1995 that he finally released his very first solo album, The Home Recordings, which he later renamed Blue Waters. This was followed by the pop opera The Life Of A Housewife. Inspired by the suicide of an old friend, it became his first release as ‘Nad Sylvan’ – Sylvan was his mother’s maiden name – and was followed by the flamboyant Sylvanite in 2003. It was this album that opened the next chapter of his musical career and sent him back to his prog rock roots.
Sylvan’s vibrant backstory paints a picture of a musician-turned-singer who has been determined to make it in the music biz for as long as he can remember. There’s a hint of sadness but also disbelief in his voice when he reveals, “I’ve never been known in Sweden and I’m still not…” He quickly adds, “I hope this album changes that.”
And that brings us round to why we’re here. In the 12 years since Sylvanite, Nad Sylvan’s life has been turned upside down, twisted round and given a good old shake. In the autumn of 2003, he began a virtual friendship with fellow Swede Christian Thordin. They met on the Genesis online forum after a trip to London to see Genesis tribute band The Musical Box at the Royal Albert Hall.
“He’d written his own tribute to Genesis and it sounded like a long-lost Genesis song.
I thought it was interesting,” Sylvan recalls. “At this stage, I’d done a few solo records but never been able to cut a proper record deal and I was thinking, ‘Fuck it, this is not going to happen, so why not do prog for fun instead?’ That was the stuff that was closest to my heart.”
The pair began writing together – Thordin using the moniker Bonamici – and the results were eventually released as Unifaun via Swedish label Progress in 2008. The 12-track album brought Sylvan back to his progressive origins, and to the attention of The Flower Kings and Transatlantic guitarist Roine Stolt. One thing led to another and the pair began working together on Stolt’s new side project Agents Of Mercy. They released their debut, The Fading Ghosts Of Twilight, in 2009 and played their very first show almost straight away at Germany’s Night Of The Prog Festival.
After a period of respite, Sylvan was back on the road and starting to get some of the recognition he deserved. He and Stolt collaborated on four Agents Of Mercy albums, but less than a year after the release of their last one, 2011’s The Black Forest, Sylvan got the phone call that changed his life. “[Night Of The Prog promoter] Winfried Völklein had recommended me to Steve Hackett a few times already,” Sylvan recalls. “When the idea for doing Genesis Revisited came along, Winfried called Steve and said, ‘You have to get Nad in – he’s the perfect guy for it.’”
A few YouTube videos later and Hackett himself invited Sylvan to join the tour. “There was no audition – I just got the job,” he says, still sounding surprised. “It was life-changing for me because I became a professional. When I started work on the Unifaun album, I had given up on my dream of becoming a professional artist. I was 44 or 45 years old and I didn’t even have a goal of making an album. I’d tried so hard for many years and nothing happened but when I started to relax a bit more and have fun, that’s when it all started to happen. Isn’t that funny?”
Nad Sylvan’s career really took off in 2013 when he embarked on the first series of Genesis Revisited shows, and he’s still touring with Hackett three years later. “Steve is a fantastic, sweet person and he’s very supportive in every sense of the word. I’ve now done more than 170 shows with him and I think what gave me confidence is that he gave me the chance to go out and play.
“It’s Steve’s show but he allowed me put on whatever I wanted to wear: strange costumes, be theatrical… anything that could enhance the show. I knew I had it in me but it made me more confident. My fanbase started to grow and they said: ‘Why don’t you make a record?’ It was just the perfect time, really.”
That record is_ Courting The Widow_ and it’s something he’s been working on for quite some time. He started writing the title track at the beginning of 2009, around the time that his mother Agnete passed away. “I hadn’t finished the song so it wasn’t a soul cleansing experience for me to go through that. It was a very hard time but that’s what made the song the way it is lyrically. The Killing Of The Calm was written in 2011 as a sequel to Agents Of Mercy’s Cinnamon Tree, but the band didn’t really think it was suitable for where we were so I shelved it for later.”
Written, arranged, produced and mixed by Sylvan himself, the album’s concept gives context to his elaborate stage persona, the Vampirate. “It’s a very dark, Shakespearean tale,” he reveals. “The album starts with Carry Me Home, which is almost like a lyrical overture. Death is courted throughout in one way or another. Where The Martyr Carved His Name is about beheading so it has that darkness to it, but there are also lots of shiny moments. To Turn The Other Side, which is 22-minutes long, is about the afterlife. There are a lot of positive vibes with this album.”
Although the narrative draws some parallels to Bram Stoker’s classic Gothic novel Dracula, Sylvan’s inspiration came entirely from a character he’s been developing for several years. “It was actually a fan who said I looked a little like a pirate but also a vampire, and I thought it was a great idea,” he reveals. “It was around 2011, when [Agents Of Mercy] toured the States and Canada. I went into a medieval shop in Quebec City and spent a fortune! The tailor provided me with a lot of the stuff I use [on stage] now, and I just developed into this character… I don’t have fangs or blood but I see myself as a French aristocratic prince from the 17th century who’s been in his coffin for hundreds of years.”
Courting The Widow is packed with an incredible cast of special guests, from Steve Hackett, Jethro Tull’s Doane Perry and Roine Stolt to his acoustic guitar-playing neighbour and even his pet cat Skrut, who lends her purrs to Ship’s Cat. “This is the album I’ve always wanted to make,” he grins. “I’d love to tour it and if I have the money to do what I envisage, it would be one helluva show!”
However, one thing Sylvan is keen to point out is that this album isn’t just an extension of his work with Hackett. “I think I’m original enough to say it’s not a Genesis rip-off, but it is influenced. That aspect comes and goes throughout the album and there are other parts that don’t sound anything like them. My vocals are varied as well. If you listen to The Killing Of The Calm, my vocals are sort of ‘bluesy folk singer’, and on Where The Martyr Carved His Name, I sound like an R&B singer. I want to do that – I think it’s interesting.
“The funny thing is, I suggested this to Steve because we sing songs from his solo career from the 70s [on the Acolyte To Wolflight Tour]. One is called Icarus Ascending [from _Please Don’t Touch_!] which was recorded with R&B singer Richie Havens. I’m singing just like him and people hadn’t a clue that I could sing like that.”
Despite his busy schedule with Steve Hackett, Sylvan is already working on new solo material and Prog has a funny feeling that we might not have to wait too long for the Vampirate to take his next flight.
_Courting The Widow is out now on InsideOut. Visit www.nadsylvan.com for more information. _
In The Beginning…
Nad Sylvan’s life in bands.
Sylvan’s very first band, formed when he was just eight years old. As the singer and harmonium player, he even sent some of his tunes to a certain Jimi Hendrix!
Around the age of 14, Sylvan fronted this somewhat ill-fated rock act. They didn’t even last the year.
Undeterred by White Lightning fizzling out, Sylvan quickly became the frontman of this rock covers band. He ended up touring Sweden, playing Uriah Heep songs, when he was supposed to be doing his homework!
Inspired by Genesis, Yes and Gentle Giant, these chaps represented Sylvan’s first real foray into the world of prog. They even released a seven-inch called The Enormous One before their demise in 1979.
CHRIS STEWART BAND/CHRISTOPHER STEWART
Performing under his given name of Christopher Stewart, Sylvan’s jazz-influenced band paved the way for the singer’s very short-lived career as
a Swedish disco star.
HASSE CARLSSON & THE TECTIVES/ ONE BY ONE
Sylvan toured with Noice vocalist and guitarist Carlsson’s side project for about a year in the 80s. After Carlsson left, the band continued as One By One with Sylvan as the lead singer. They recorded two singles but their label went bankrupt before their debut album was finished. They did, however, end up supporting Lionel Ritchie in Sweden in 1987.
Sylvan’s true identity revealed itself in the late 90s when he started sowing the seeds of what would become his solo career. Initially performing as just Sylvan, the Nad part was a gender neutral abbreviation of Nadine, inspired by the feminine forenames of Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson.
Originally called Sylvan 6 Bonamici, Unifaun sprang into existence in 2003, although their debut album didn’t actually see the light of day until 2008.
**AGENTS OF MERCY **
Accidentally formed in 2008, this was Sylvan’s big project with The Flower Kings’ Roine Stolt. The band are currently on hiatus.
THE STEVE HACKETT BAND
Sylvan was invited to perform on Hackett’s Genesis Revisited shows back in 2013, and remains on the touring line-up to this day.