The Flower Kings are back. There was no absolute declaration of a split, of course, but when guitarist/vocalist Roine Stolt blogged about a “short intermission for what might be labelled TFK” in November 2008, many fans went into mourning.
A retrospective live DVD and double-CD package entitled Tour Kaputt was released in May 2011. Then an official Flower Kings page appeared on Facebook in October, and those same fans had new hope. They saw activity from the group and figured that had to mean good news. They weren’t wrong.
In February 2012, a press statement announced vague details of a new Flower Kings album. But it also included definite confirmation of a reunion gig, with Stolt, bass guitarist Jonas Reingold, keyboard player Tomas Bodin and guitarist/vocalist Hasse Fröberg joined by a new young drummer, 26-year-old Berliner Felix Lehrmann.
Then in April we discovered that the album was to be called Banks Of Eden and would be quintessential Flower Kings fare. But still one question remained unanswered: why did the band get put on hold in the first place?
“We never did any big announcement or anything,” says Ronnie Stolt. “There are lots of ways of getting the news out, whether on Facebook or MySpace or whatever, and I think we just said, ‘We are taking a break’. We couldn’t say for how long – half a year, a year, 10 years – but until it feels right to come back and write some new music, release a new album and play live onstage again.
“We’d been going for some time [since 1994] and after 10 or 11 albums and a couple of live albums and DVDs, we were just on autopilot,” he continues. “Everyone was expecting another album – the guys in the band, the audience, everyone – so a little bit of the excitement was taken away, and it’s a dangerous thing when you just go on making music. But there are other options, and one option is to stop for a while and work with other people, get inspired again and do different things. And that’s what happened with The Flower Kings.”
It seems that The Flower Kings just needed a break from being The Flower Kings. There was no hidden internal turmoil or angst; they were just fearful of churning out music they didn’t really care about. It was an artistic decision. As well as carrying on playing guitar with international prog supergroup Transatlantic, Stolt continued to work with The Flower Kings’ bassist Jonas Reingold in both Karmakanik and Agents Of Mercy, making three albums with each group. Clearly they didn’t hate each other, then.
“Jonas and I have been playing all the time and in almost daily contact. Sometimes we call each other three or four times a day,” he laughs. “So there’s been discussions going on, and he may have asked me a couple of years ago, ‘How do you feel about The Flower Kings?’ Either you feel inspired to write something or you don’t.”
But in the end, it seems that no amount of badgering from fans or bandmates changed Stolt’s mind about getting the old band back together. Instead, it was a little bit of Flower Kings-related work he was carrying out that whetted his appetite for more.
“We released a live DVD called Tour Kaputt a year ago,” he explains. “I was actually editing the film and mixing the music, and it’s possible that at that moment I felt like, ‘Maybe we should get together and do a couple of shows or even record an album.’ Then I probably started talking with Jonas and he felt the same way so we contacted the other guys.”
Does Stolt have any idea why the break was so long though? Judging by The Flower Kings’ history, five years is usually at least four albums worth of output.
Stolt pauses for thought. “We never said let’s wait four or five years – we just stopped and waited to see what happens,” he explains. “I can’t really tell why. I can’t look into myself and say why I stopped for that long. That’s probably too complicated. It was just a feeling I had.”
Luckily for everyone, Stolt finally got that feeling and it was strong enough to start writing a new album. Banks Of Eden is the result, and the official spiel accompanying it crows about how the music contains all the trademarks of The Flower Kings and celebrates their position as one of the world’s leading modern prog bands. A beautifully self-deprecating teaser trailer doesn’t contradict any of this but there must be something new about the band’s 11th album, otherwise what was the point of taking time off to refresh their sensibilities?
“It’s probably easier for the fans to say what’s new than me, because you try to do something a little bit different but you can’t really run away from yourself,” he replies. “You are what you are – and I think that goes for just about any artist. Ask Metallica to write a prog rock song and it’s still going to sound like Metallica. Once you have a singer, you recognise the voice, the guitarist doing the riffing or their solos in a certain way, or a keyboard favouring certain types of sounds, then it’s really hard to get away from that, even if you really try.
“I think it’s a question of balance to make something that works live onstage, that people will buy tickets to see the band play and that people will download or go buy [the record] in the shop,” he says, with the practicality of a man who’s been around the block and knows exactly what’s what. “With the history of The Flower Kings it’s been about melodic, symphonic progressive rock. Sometimes more riffing and sometimes a little bit softer, and I think for the new album, it’s probably more of the same.”
So how has the break helped Roine Stolt personally? What new and exciting experiences have been inspiring him?
“I’ve basically been playing the same style of music but with different people and in different venues,” he says. “So it’s very much been business as usual, but at the same time there’s been a kind of freshness playing with other people.”
Surely playing with Transatlantic is a very different experience, both musically and in terms of popularity?
“I never really regarded Transatlantic to be metal,” he says. “Sure, Mike [Portnoy, ] was coming from Dream Theater, and that’s supposed to be some sort of prog metal, but the music in Transatlantic as I saw it is progressive rock. Sometimes it’s symphonic and sometimes it’s with acoustic guitars, and the melodies that Neal [Morse] writes are almost like sing-along melodies. There’s a little bit of hard riffing but not all the time. So in my mind it’s not really that different from what I’m doing. There’s been riffing in The Flower Kings and Agents Of Mercy, especially in the latest album. The main difference for me is that it’s on a different level in terms of sales and how many people come to the concerts.”
With Stolt active with The Flower Kings, Transatlantic and Agents Of Mercy, it might seem like as if he spreading himself a bit thin – certainly one of the reasons why he felt it necessary to pause TFK – but having clearly thought hard about his career and how he approaches each project, he’s also aware of the benefits of being involved in three different projects.
“The good thing about being in three bands is that there’s always some sort of activity with one of the bands,” he says. “If it’s not The Flower Kings, it’s going to be Transatlantic, and if it’s not Transatlantic, it’s going to be Agents Of Mercy. I think it’s a good thing because if it’s The Flower Kings all year long and every year, we’ll end up in the same situation where we’ll just keep doing albums and tours one after another and the freshness is gone.”
As one can imagine though, it does get slightly confusing sometimes.
“It gets to a point when you’re standing onstage and you have to remind yourself what band you’re actually playing in,” he chuckles. “You lose yourself in the music.”
With 11 albums released over 18 years, The Flower Kings are absolutely Roine Stolt’s major project. While his early work with Kaipa is held up as some of Sweden’s finest symphonic prog, it’s The Flower Kings who have toured internationally and sold enough records to sustain a career.
“The very, very first album [1994’s The Flower King], I don’t think there even was
a band,” he exclaims. “It was just me and a couple of friends. After a couple of gigs it was clear that we actually could play the music live. For the first four or five years we started doing albums and then we got into doing double albums, so we’re kind of famous for doing double albums, but I don’t think I could envision that we would go and play in the United States or Japan or South America at that point. I just thought we might go and play in Stockholm.”
How about the fact that The Flower Kings are seen as one of the premier Swedish rock bands of all time, and that Stolt is held in high esteem worldwide? Being asked to join Transatlantic was no accident, of course, he had the pedigree.
“It feels good,” he laughs, before bringing any notion of fame right down to Earth. “With just about anything, when something is really good and the sun is shining, you always expect it to stop shining in half an hour.
“I have the possibility to record and compose music that is considered to be a little bit weird and not that commercial,” he continues. “I can make a living out of it, and I can play with musicians from around the world and be in interesting projects, and in a way it feels like it can stop any day, so it’s good to just be happy with what you have and hope it goes on for a couple more years.”
Having been in and around it for almost four decades, how healthy does Stolt feel the prog scene is at the moment?
“The situation right now is that you can actually tour,” he says. “There are a number of prog festivals coming up and there is Prog magazine in the UK, of course, and I would say there are actually more prog rock bands today than there were in the 70s. Then you had Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, ELP, Focus, and you had to be really, really good to get a deal on a record label.”
What is it then that keeps The Flower Kings in so much demand then? All the way through their hiatus, their fans were clamouring for their. What’s the secret?
“We just write songs,” he laughs. “We’re inspired by lots of music from back then – bands like Fleetwood Mac or Led Zeppelin – but we’re also inspired by music that’s more recent. There are bits of Coldplay or Muse in our music as well but it seems that most fans don’t really detect it. If say that I think we’re a modern prog band, someone else will say we’re just like the second Gentle Giant album or we sound like Focus’s first album. I’m sure we do.
“There are also bits of Swedish folk music in The Flower Kings,” he adds. “Maybe people don’t detect it, because they haven’t heard Swedish folk music. I think people coming from South America or Japan find the folklore influence in the music very exotic and interesting, so I think it’s a mix of everything, but I would agree that The Flower Kings is more of a symphonic rock band.”
That’s the secret then. If you’re an aspiring prog band, Roine Stolt reckons that – a vast breadth of influences aside – you should “just write songs”. In all fairness, it’s worked out pretty well for The Flower Kings.
This article originally appeared in issue 27 of Prog Magazine.