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Erik Martensson: "I just go for it and I always try to make the best possible album"

(Image credit: Mats Vassfjord)

While it was once unusual for established musicians to play in multiple active bands, the practice has become increasingly common in recent years in the hard-rock and metal genres.

Drummer Mike Portnoy is the reigning poster child for multitasking, as he currently juggles recording and touring commitments with Sons of Apollo, The Winery Dogs, The Neal Morse Band, Flying Colors and Metal Allegiance. Guitarists George Lynch (KXM, Ultraphonix, The End: Machine, Lynch Mob, Sweet/Lynch) and Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne, Black Label Society, Zakk Sabbath, Generation Axe) aren't far behind. 

Recently, a new contender for the genre's top workhorse has emerged: Erik Martensson, a prolific Swedish songwriter, musician and vocalist who not only records and tours with multiple artists, but also produces, mixes and masters a number of albums at his Mass Destruction Production recording studio (formerly Blowout Productions).

In 2018 alone, Martensson wrote, produced and performed on three of the year's most celebrated melodic rock/AOR records

In 2018 alone, Martensson wrote, produced and performed on three of the year's most celebrated melodic rock/AOR records: Earthrage, the third album by W.E.T. (a group fronted by Sons of Apollo vocalist Jeff Scott Soto); Second Coming, the sophomore effort by Nordic Union (a project with Pretty Maids vocalist Ronnie Atkins); and the self-titled second album by Ammunition, a band featuring former Wig Wam singer Age Sten Nielsen.  

Then there's Eclipse, his primary musical outlet, and a band with whom he spent a fair chunk of 2018 on tour in support of last year's acclaimed Monumentum. Martensson recently took a break from writing the group's next album to discuss how he's been able to successfully juggle such a large workload, and whether he thinks he'll be able to keep up the pace in 2019 and beyond.

You've been on an incredible creative roll as of late. What's your secret?

"The more you do something, the better you get at it. While there's a chance that you start repeating yourself, I think that while writing - even if I write for other artists - I develop new skills and new ways of doing it. I think the one thing you can't do is take a break and then try to start writing again. Then, you lose the craft."

How exactly do you manage the logistics? It would be one thing if you never left the studio, but you've toured extensively over the past two years with both Eclipse and Ammunition.

I can get a pre-production demo in two hours, from the initial idea to something you can listen to and send over to someone

"When I start writing and start working on music, I'm pretty fast at it. That kind of saves me, because I don't spend day after day trying to write a song. If I have inspiration, I write pretty fast, and sometimes, I can get a pre-production demo in two hours, from the initial idea to something you can listen to and send over to someone. Sometimes, of course, it will take days - you're not satisfied with a part, but you still like the song, so you rework it - but most times, it goes really fast."

Your newest release is the second album by Nordic Union, which feels like a darker and moodier record than the band's debut.

"That's absolutely spot-on. That's what we wanted to aim for - the more moody kind of songs. From the first album, some of those songs, they had a kind of sound that doesn't sound like every other band. That's what we tried to focus on.

"Personally, I really like these moodier, darker, more minor-key songs that have a tiny spice of folk music flavour to it. It's a style we did quite a few times with Eclipse as well. I've been listening to a lot of folk music since I was a child, so I have it in my blood."

When did you and Ronnie decide to make a new record together?

"We started discussing this just over a year ago. The business side of the whole thing wasn't settled until the start of the new year. The main writing and recording was going on from January up until the summer."

Having already worked together once, was it easier to write and record your second album?  

"The first time, we had no idea what to do. There was no plan; there was no sound; there was no nothing. I had no idea what Ronnie would like, so it was trial and error. This time, it was much easier.

"He's a real nice guy, and we know each other pretty well now, both musically and personally, so it was so much easier to do this album because we knew what to do. We had something to aim for, and we picked the bits and pieces that we liked about the first album - the songs that sounded most [like] Nordic Union."

You recently opened a new studio, Mass Destruction. Did your new surroundings or any new gear you used affect the sound of the new Nordic Union album?

"The whole studio is brand-new. It's a house up north in Sweden on a beautiful island called Sollerön that was built from scratch just for the purpose of being a studio, so it's 100 per cent professional in every way [and has] fantastic sound.

95 per cent of the melodies and the music is mine, and lyrics, a lot of them are Ronnie's

"I recorded the Nordic Union album with a 1985 Japanese Squier Stratocaster through a Peavey 5150 amp, and a Gibson Explorer through the same amp with a cabinet loaded with Celestion Vintage 30 speakers. With Eclipse, I usually use Kramer guitars and a Wizard amp, so I wanted to make it a little different for Nordic Union - subtle, but still different."

Since Ronnie lives in Denmark, how much of the album did you two write individually as opposed to together there at Mass Destruction?

"I write every melody and every riff, and I deliver more or less fully-produced songs - like, pre-production demos with my vocals. Sometimes, I even have lyrics written in advance. Some songs, I send over for him to write, just singing nonsense lyrics over it, and he can come up with whatever he wants.

"Ronnie's mainly into lyric-writing, but he has also written melodies on some songs. I'll say, 'We need a middle-eight to this song. Do you have any ideas? I can't come up with anything.' But 95 per cent of the melodies and the music is mine, and lyrics, a lot of them are Ronnie's. Songs like Because Of Us and a few other ballads are written solely by me."

As you're writing, do you ever have to decide which band would be the most appropriate outlet for a particular song?

"When I'm writing for Nordic Union, I have Nordic Union in mind. Even if Nordic Union and Eclipse have a lot of similarities - we could easily record an Eclipse song with Nordic Union, and a Nordic Union song with Eclipse - if you step back and look at the whole picture, Eclipse has a specific sound, and Nordic Union has another sound.

"I try to always write all the songs consistently in a specific period, just to keep the whole vibe of the album intact. Sometimes, of course, it happens that I come up with riffs or even songs like Walk Me Through The Fire. That was actually written while I was writing the previous W.E.T. album. [I thought,] 'This really sounds like Nordic Union, not W.E.T.,' so I saved it. It happens, but not usually.

It's not that I'm keeping the best songs for Eclipse or something else. I always try to make the best record ever

"Usually, I just go for it, and I always, always try to make the best possible album. It's not that I'm keeping the best songs for Eclipse or something else. I always try to make the best record ever."

Even though you're carrying much of the workload, you're not the frontman in Nordic Union. Does that reduce any pressure?

"I think it's easier to write for Nordic Union, because it's not my band. It's not Ronnie's band either - it's something in the middle, and I think it's the same when I write for W.E.T. If the song is good, that's enough. A great song is all it takes.

"When it comes to Eclipse, we have so many [rules]: 'We can't do this; we can't do that' - but it's more open with Nordic Union. I'm usually more open-minded while writing, so that makes it easier. [Also,] I can send over the vocals to Ronnie, and he'll make it perfect. In some sense, I guess it's easier to write for Nordic Union, but it doesn't mean I don't put in as much effort - I still put in just as much effort."

When you write, do you usually start with a riff, a melody or lyrics?

"It can be anything. Usually, the hardest part is to find that initial spark of inspiration. It could be when you come up with a melody for a verse, and then you have something to build on. It's like the first brick in the wall.

"I always try to make the chorus [memorable]. The worst thing is when you listen to a song and the chorus comes, and you didn't realise it was the chorus. I try to avoid that on my songs. When the chorus kicks in, you should really hear it - even if you don't like it."

When I started doing music, everyone hated it and thought I was a complete idiot for doing this kind of music, because it was so out of fashion

Those giant hooks have become your trademark. It's almost as if your music exists in an alternate universe where rock never went underground.

"I made a decision around 2008. Before that, hard-rock was completely out of fashion. When I started doing music, everyone hated it and thought I was a complete idiot for doing this kind of music, because it was so out of fashion. People were laughing at me: 'Are you stupid, doing melodic hard-rock?'

"In the beginning, I tried to do hard-rock that pleased other people, but never pleased myself. After a while, it was like, 'I don't like what I'm doing. If I'm going to do this, I have to start writing the music I love and write the music for myself. Otherwise, it's not worth doing.' That was the big change for me, when I started trying to pursue the sound I was hearing in my head - the kind of songs people are listening to now. When I started doing what I loved, then other people liked it [too]."

Which is your favourite: touring, writing or making albums?

"If I would just be touring, it would be the most boring thing in the world. The combination is the winning formula, because when you're touring, you play in front of people, and then you know which kind of songs work well live. Playing in front of people, that's when the songs come alive for real.

When you're writing a record, you're building a car, and playing live is actually to drive the car

"When you're writing a record, you're building a car, and playing live is actually to drive the car. Otherwise, it's just this very nice-looking car, but [live,] you get a chance to really try it out and see if it's good or not."

On that note, some people believe that studio projects like Nordic Union aren't 'real' bands until they take the stage.

"I agree that is isn't a band until it's played live. I'm personally fed up with a lot of these projects, because some of them are just stupid. It can be 10 different songwriters on one album. It's just done to get some money from the record label, and the label can sell it because of the names on the record. I don't consider those bands at all - it's really projects.

"I think Nordic Union and W.E.T. are somewhere in the middle. While doing records, we are doing it like a band, with our own songs, with no outside writers at all. But I agree that until it's performed live, it's a not a real, proper band. Having said that, I've never seen Led Zeppelin live, but I still enjoy their records. There is value in just a record."

(Image credit: Mats Vassfjord)

W.E.T. just announced their first show in several years - a spring festival date in Italy. With Sons Of Apollo off the road until 2020, might that create a window of opportunity for additional W.E.T. shows?

"There's a lot of festivals and people who want to book us. People ask all the time. We know we have to make it work with Eclipse, and we have to make it work with Jeff, who has 65 different projects as well. I only play live with Eclipse and sometimes with Ammunition as well, and I'm going to take a little step back with Ammunition, because I have to focus on one thing.

"I'm still going to be involved in the writing and production, but I've got two kids, so if Eclipse aren't playing, I should be at home. But we are trying to work it out logistically, and I hope there will be at least a few [W.E.T.] live shows next year."

How far along is the new Eclipse record?  

Sometimes, you've got to go with the flow and do what feels right at the moment, and if you're too booked, it kind of nails you to the wall

"It's going well. We have around 10 songs already written so far. We have two more weeks of writing, and then we have to start cracking. The plan is to deliver by the end of this year. It's going to be released in May.

"Even before that, we're going to start playing a few live shows. We're going to start with the festival season here in Europe and focus on playing as many festivals as possible during the summer. Hopefully, there will be some US dates as well as Japan, but the main focus is going to be Europe, because that's where the audience for this kind of music actually is.

"Besides that, I've got a lot of albums already scheduled for mixing and mastering, and some production work to do for others. I don't want to be booked too long, because it gets stressful knowing that you have no options to do anything [else]. Sometimes, you've got to go with the flow and do what feels right at the moment, and if you're too booked, it kind of nails you to the wall."

Is there anything you'd like to say about the direction of the new material?

"We're going to keep trying to find out what is Eclipse - what is our sound? - and wash away even more of the influences we've had since we were kids, and try to come up with something unique and original."