"When we do progressive rock, there’s no rules – we just keep writing, keep putting together whatever parts we like." How The Flower Kings made By Royal Decree

The Flower Kings
(Image credit: Lilian Forsberg)

The Flower KIngs 2022 album By Royal Decree reunited the founder and original band member Roine Stolt, and younger brother, Michael. Prog discussed their new material, the upcoming reissues campaign and why Stolt’s keeping an open mind on the future. 

Roine Stolt has been reheating some of his old music of late. He’s been working 15-hour days in the lead-up to both the release of The Flower Kings’ sprawling new double album, By Royal Decree, and the impending reissue campaign that will eventually see the band’s entire back catalogue back in print. That’s where the cooking comes in. 

“I have the old reel-to-reel tapes,” Stolt tells Prog from his studio in Uppsala, Sweden. “They degrade over time, so what you do is put them in the oven. I know it sounds weird, but you sort of bake them for about 24 hours on a low temperature, and that makes it possible to play the reels again. Then you can transfer the tracks to the digital medium, and from there you can do anything. But it’s like a Cinderella thing – you can only play them once after baking them. Then they start to fall apart.”

So far he has delivered remasters of the band’s 1995 debut, Back In The World Of Adventures, and the follow-up, Retropolis. He already had the stems – the separate master tracks – for those records backed up onto hard drives, but as we speak to him those old reels for Stardust We Are (1997) and Flower Power (’99) are being lovingly prepared, in the Stolt family cooker.

Stolt’s home studio is well equipped for the remastering task, but one thing he can’t do (as Marillion discovered recently with their Fugazi reissue) is remove the albums’ heavy compression, something that was in vogue in the 80s and early 90s. “That’s the way everybody did things back then,” he says with a knowing sigh. “I was totally in love with David Foster’s production of The Tubes’ The Completion Backward Principle [1981], and even Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Trevor Horn’s production I mean, that’s some heavy compression! Even on Grace Jones’ wonderful Slave To The Rhythm – when I really need to listen to something for pure sound quality, that’s the album I put on. So, I can’t change the compression on the albums, but I can rearrange the EQ, make the kick drum a little fuller, make the cymbals less harsh. They sound much better now, I think.”

By the time those four early Flower Kings records first appeared, Stolt had already played in Swedish band Kaipa as a teenager in the 70s, his own group Fantasia into the 80s, and had a solo career too before forming The Flower Kings in ’94. Since then he’s played with Karmakanic, Agents Of Mercy and prog supergroup Transatlantic, and he’s worked with the big-name prog artists Jon Anderson and Steve Hackett, and all along he has written music copiously, and archived it all. So when it came time to make By Royal Decree last year, Stolt – who’s 65 now – had plenty of material to sift through.

“I write a lot,” he says, “and I try to at least give each idea a chance without being too critical in the first place, then I just save it. Back in the day it was on cassettes, even reel-to-reel, burned onto CDs, and of course nowadays it’s MP3 files. So I just went through all my old demos, I’d get inspired by something, and I’d start developing that. Looking at the songs I did back in the old days, I was in a different space. I wrote a little bit differently, so my basic idea was to take those [older] ideas and develop them now, in the way I write today.” 

The Flower Kings

(Image credit: InsideOut Music)

By turns beautiful, melodic and densely proggy, By Royal Decree is a typically expansive Flower Kings album, packed with those unearthed, revitalised snippets from the past. The symphonic opener, The Great Pretender, comprises some melodic fragments demoed by Stolt in the mid-90s, now flowing smoothly into newly written sections. Parts of the baroque, upbeat rocker Revolution date back even further. “The final part of the song was developed later,” he explains, “but the basics were written in 1992. Then there’s [clever, hooky mid-tempo tune] The Soldier, which is from very early in The Flower Kings days, but with new parts to get the song over the finish line.” 

A more recent composition, the haunting, piano-led Moth was mooted for Transatlantic’s last album, The Absolute Universe, but for reasons clearly unrelated to quality, it went unused. Not that this record’s all prog bombast though. The breezy and positive We Can Make It Work harks back to 10cc or The Beatles; A Million Stars is a radio-friendly mid-tempo ballad. “They’re simple,” Stolt agrees. “I really like that kind of thing too. Then something like The Great Pretender is put together with lots of different parts and segments, in true progressive rock style. When we do progressive rock, there’s no rules – we just keep writing, keep putting together whatever parts we like.”

That ‘we’ this time is, once again, Stolt’s regular Flower Kings co-vocalist Hasse Fröberg, keyboardist Zach Kamins and drummer Mirko DeMaio. These latter two young recruits joined up for 2019’s Waiting For Miracles and have brought a new creative charge to the veteran band, making their presence clearly felt on the band’s 2020 lockdown album, Islands

This time however, the bassist’s chair is a revolving one. The band’s usual player, Jonas Reingold, is present, but when it comes to live activities, Stolt says bluntly that, “Jonas can’t be in the band anymore. He’s the bass player with Steve Hackett nowadays, and we cannot adjust The Flower Kings’ activities waiting for Jonas. When everything opens up, hopefully Steve will be touring, and touring heavily.”

That said, there’s no bad blood – Reingold still plays on half of By Royal Decree. He shares bass duties with Stolt’s younger brother, Michael. He was in the band for those first four albums, before leaving in ’99 and going on to perform with some of Sweden’s high-profile homegrown artists, such as Tomas Ledin and Carola Häggkvist. Michael will be joining The Flower Kings on tour in Sweden in March, for Cruise To The Edge in May and – fingers crossed – other forthcoming 2022 shows too. 

As a kid he would sit with his elder brothers Roine and Pierre and soak up their album collection – Zappa, Crimson, Weather Report, Vanilla Fudge. “Michael was about 16 when I drafted him into my band Fantasia in 1979,” Roine recalls. “He’s family, and it’s very natural having him in the band. It makes sense now, because we’re releasing the early albums, and when we go out the setlist will be focused on those first four or five first albums. 

“In terms of bass playing, he’s more like me – the starting point is more from intuition than looking at the right notes. Jonas is really professional. He can read music, so if you send him a song he’ll print out the score and play the bass parts you’ve written. Mike would listen to the song and think, ‘What can I do with this? What parts do I like and what parts could be different?’ With our common musical history I can say, ‘Remember that Joni Mitchell album where Jaco Pastorius plays this nice little thing?’, and he knows instantly. And we can talk about Chris Squire’s bass sound on Awaken, things like that.”

The third bassist here is rising InsideOut signing Jonas Lindberg, who plays on Revolution. This was a payment in kind for Stolt’s guitar turn on Miles From Nowhere, the 25-minute epic title track on Lindberg’s latest album. “It’s really good,” Stolt says. “Before he signed to InsideOut he sent me music and asked me to play some guitar. Many people do this and normally I say no, but I thought, ‘Wow, this sounds fantastic! Here’s a guy from Sweden, making progressive rock, and the sound is super-professional.’ So I said yes, and instead of taking money I said he could play on a Flower Kings album.”

The Flower Kings

(Image credit: Lilian Forsberg)

By Royal Decree was laid down at Sweden’s plush Fenix Studio, using (much to audiophile Stolt’s delight) their new, top-of-the-line Neve analogue mixing desk. Whereas Islands was recorded remotely, the band were all present this time. Whether it’s tweaking a Hammond’s draw bars or choosing between different snare drums, the recording process is, Stolt says, much faster and easier in person. “But also being together, having dinners – for the ‘band feeling’, I think it’s crucial to be together.”

Stolt is warm, and also astute and shrewd. He can appear a little reserved – especially among the more loquacious American members of Transatlantic – but you don’t have a long career like his without nurturing a certain steeliness. Throughout his band’s gloriously intricate symphonic prog, there are moments when his philosophical outlook peeps out – in the gorgeous, self-explanatory Open Your Heart and Time The Great Healer – and listeners get the clearest sense of his interior life. 

“My starting point every day is that it’s a wonderful world,” he offers. “I’ve been lucky in life, in so many ways, and I am grateful. I was born in Sweden, I have a place to sleep, a nice house, all this equipment. I can make music, travel, I have lots of great musician friends. I understand I’m a lucky person, but I think it also starts with you – it’s a mindset. Yes, there are things that are worrying and sad, and people die and there are accidents, and that goes into my lyrics too. Some people say, ‘Oh, Roine just writes his hippie lyrics’, but if you look at them, it’s a balance, like the world itself. Lots of good and bad things happening, all at once.”

He seems more spiritual than religious, but perhaps this mindset puts him on a similar plane to his friend and Transatlantic bandmate, Neal Morse? Stolt thinks for a while. “Well, Neal’s a committed Christian and comes more from that perspective. Mine is… well, it’s not that far away, to be honest.” 

With The Flower Kings and Transatlantic both set to tour this year, Stolt’s positive, pragmatic approach is holding him in good stead in our uncertain times. “I don’t want to sound like I don’t care, because I do, but I learned that you cannot control the situation, really. We have our gigs booked, we have the Cruise, and I hope it will happen. But I always keep the door open – what if this [pandemic] goes on longer? So you learn to live with it. I try to just shift the focus – what I can always do is write music, and do lots of production. I’m remixing and remastering the older albums. I can always go to work, but I cannot control the world. We just have to wait and see. For now, I’m gonna bake my tapes…” 

Grant Moon

A music journalist for over 20 years, Grant writes regularly for titles including Prog, Classic Rock and Total Guitar, and his CV also includes stints as a radio producer/presenter and podcast host. His first book, 'Big Big Train - Between The Lines', is out now through Kingmaker Publishing.