How The Flower Kings made Islands

The Flower Kings
(Image credit: Press)

It wasn’t really meant to happen this quickly. The Flower Kings have now released two albums in less than a year – and the latest is a double behemoth that spans more than 90 minutes. But really, what else is there to do in a pandemic than write a 21-track epic?

“We have a drummer from Italy, so he couldn’t really get out of Italy, and the keyboard player is from America – we couldn’t get in there, and he couldn’t get out,” explains the band’s ringleader Roine Stolt.

“I think we probably would have started working on an album anyway this year, but probably more like October or November, I think. We just moved everything and started pretty much working as soon as we decided to make an album.”

The unexpected release of Islands makes it a double salvo for the global prog rockers, after the well-received Waiting For Miracles was released in November last year. A rich vein of prolificacy for sure, but the five-piece are a writing machine, the cogs always whirring, with a lot of the music already part formed, waiting to be developed and ready to be charmed into life.

Files were zapped around the globe like bouncy balls, with Stolt piecing together the record at his home studio in Uppsala in Sweden. You wouldn’t know that, though, with the organic aura which floats around much of the album belying the fragmented approach.

The record, ironically for a remote affair, feels like another bonding session for the relatively new line-up which sees vocalist and guitarist Stolt joined by longterm peers Hasse Fröberg (vocals and acoustic guitar) and bassist Jonas Reingold, as well as keyboard player Zach Kamins and Mirko DeMaio on the drums.

“There’s some similarities [to previous material] of course, because you can’t really escape yourself or your ideas or the sort of trademark sound of the band, even if you tried,” Stolt says, reflecting on the identity of Islands.

“But with this album, what I told the guys is: don’t hold back. If you have some material that sounds a little bit different, send it round.

“The album has moments that are very typical of The Flower Kings, and it has moments that are not so typical of The Flower Kings. We wanted to stretch
in any direction.”

This approach has paid off, with the album a cornucopia of sounds; deeply rooted in symphonic prog rock, but with feelers splaying out and tickling myriad spin-off genres.

There’s also the dichotomy of playful, uplifting and accessible moments that hint at Yes in their floral pomp that mix with detours that are often brooding, wacky and cinematic.

“We do not necessarily need to restrict ourselves to being very typical Flower Kings,” Stolt adds. “It could be anything: it could be electronic, it could be symphonic, it could be folk music, it could be a pop song. If it’s good it’s good – that’s the sort of mantra we have.”

The Flower Kings

(Image credit: InsideOut Music)

Grand albums usually come with a grand theme, and the overarching subject shining through the lyrics – somewhat fittingly for an album titled Islands – is isolation.

“It mysteriously sort of worked out that way, and I think probably half of the lyrics were written while we were working on the music,” says Stolt.

“Then of course I think that the idea of: here we are, isolated and we can’t get together to record this… I think there were elements of that coming into the lyrics. Then there’s stuff that was lying around already, and then when you take it into the concept, mysteriously it works.”

The roots of the title track, meanwhile, were conjured up while Stolt was sunning himself on a beach, iPhone in hand, “somewhere outside of Africa a couple of years ago.”

He recalls, “I was just on the beach and I came up with the theme for the closing song for the album. I had nothing but a mobile phone, so I was just singing into my iPhone. I did that to remember it, singing this little melody while I was in the sunshine on this beach. Then when you save it and you have to name it something, I just named it ‘Island’, or ‘Islands’.”

The arrival of the fresh-faced Kamins and DeMaio, who are both in their 30s, to the fold in 2019 has injected fresh vigour into The Flower Kings. Not that the 60-something Stolt has ever lacked youthfulness.

When Prog rings him in his studio he says, rather matter of factly, that he has spent the day “working, as usual. Right before you called I was just working on some stuff with Jon Anderson, because we have sort of a half-finished album,” the musician teases.

“The songs are shorter, but I can’t really tell right now. There’s a lot of work still to be done, but when everything is finished maybe we’ll connect the songs. We will see. 

“We also just finished recording with Transatlantic [The Absolute Universe, due out in February] and it’s been mixed now.”

It can be easy to forget that Stolt has been creating music under various guises since the 1970s and is an elder statesman of the prog scene. However, The Flower Kings usually nail the tough task of feeling current while simultaneously bowing to the glories of the past.

The Flower Kings

(Image credit: Lillian Forsberg)

He grew up immersed in the bold scope of The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa in the heady 1960s, and music has always flowed in his veins.

“I had an older friend who was three or four years older than me, and he had a record player,” Stolt says as he reflects on his musical origins. “We usually went to him and he had all these singles from The Beatles and from The Hollies, Manfred Mann, Jefferson Airplane.

“Even before there was pop, I listened a lot to the radio. My mother had a radio on all the time, so I got connected to that. It’s difficult to tell exactly the point where you start really getting into music, but I think when the pop music started getting interesting, that’s when I really realised that this thing was something that I would like to look more into.”

Stolt’s initiation into music making was with chords on the guitar in the late 60s, in the heady days when Sgt. Pepper ruled the airwaves. Soon afterwards, he set out to practise more studiously. Did he ever expect that he would have enjoyed such strong, lengthy career in music?

“Definitely not,” Stolt says with a smile. “Even thinking about making one record was impossible. I remember I was sitting at home, at [the age of] maybe 11 or 12, drawing made-up record covers for some future recording by myself or my band. Honestly I think the prospect of even recording in a professional studio wasn’t really on the table until I got into a band called Kaipa when I was 17.

“To be able to look into what I have done now with all these recordings, well over 200 I think now, and even playing with people like Steve Hackett from Genesis or making an album with Jon Anderson from Yes, or playing with these people from Focus or from King Crimson… that wasn’t really what I could imagine at that time. It’s a strange world, you know, but if you just practise enough and do your thing, it will take you places.” 

Back to the present, and Stolt sounds pretty chuffed with how The Flower Kings are sounding right now, and there’s a modest but bullish confidence about the future.

“I think the band are in a really good place,” he says. “We have had lots of great players playing with the band over the years, but sometimes offstage things don’t work that well, there could be things that are more like on a personal level. But with this band, everyone is relaxed and everyone is nice on and off stage, and they do their job and they play well. What else can you ask for? I think The Flower Kings are in a very, very good spot right now.”

Roine Stolt

(Image credit: Lilian Forsberg)

With plenty of music already part written and stored in The Flower Kings’ vault, Stolt is adamant there’s no danger of the band’s creative juices running dry after letting two double albums loose into the wild within a year. After such a prolific run of activity it’s a little brain-melting to think that The Flower Kings might already be considering a follow-up to Islands without taking a breather, but that’s exactly what seems to be happening right now.

“We actually talked on Skype three days ago and then we were talking about it: what will happen now? What are the chances that we can actually get out and play shows? The natural thing would be to use the time wisely and just write and come up with more music. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to release a new album in nine months or something like that, but we can at least start working on music and it will give us lots of time to develop and shape the music that we want for the next album, whenever that will be.

“In terms of creativity for a band like The Flower Kings, I think it’s a very good time right now. I think for this album and for an album next year, I think it looks really promising.”

From the sanguine nature of Stolt’s words, it’s obvious he’s content to keep on working, and carry on creating. Having been in the business for five decades, it’s all he really knows. Stolt has no grand achievements left on his musical bucket list – dreams of playing guitar with the Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney are deemed a tad too unrealistic – and he’s happy right where he is. And why wouldn’t he be? The Flower Kings, his labour of love, are bang on form and you wouldn’t bet against the momentum continuing to swing in their favour in years to come.

“I think it’s more like the day to day things: writing music, having these great record labels that support us all over the globe,” Stolt says when asked if he has any goals left to achieve.

“To be able to be creative with your friends and without anyone interfering or telling you what kind of music to write or what you need to do to be more commercial, because that never happens. We just do whatever we want and it’s up to us to decide where to go. I think that situation is freedom, and it’s wonderful to be able to do that.” 

This article originally appeared in issue 116 of Prog Magazine.

Chris Cope

A writer for Prog magazine since 2014, armed with a particular taste for the darker side of rock. The dayjob is local news, so writing about the music on the side keeps things exciting - especially when Chris is based in the wild norths of Scotland. Previous bylines include national newspapers and magazines.