Interview with JOHN NORUM (EUROPE)

John Norum

In between recording and touring extensively with Europe, John Norum has found time to record a new solo album exploring the Bluesier side of his playing. Mick Burgess caught up with John to chat about his new album Play Yard Blues.

It’s been 5 years since your last solo album Optimus and in a few weeks you’ll be releasing your new solo album Play Yard Blues. Are you excited now that it’s finished and ready to go?

Yes, I’m very excited. I’m so pleased it’s finally coming out as it’s been done for quite a long time. I had to put it on ice for a while as there’s been a tragedy in the family. So now I’m excited it’s coming out.

How long did it take to produce from your initial idea to now?

I started about a year and a half ago; in fact I started doing some writing before that. I guess you could say it all started when I did a Frank Marino tribute album and I had so much fun doing that and I thought “Wow, I want to do a bit more of this kind of style on my next solo album.” I’d just been stupid busy with Europe and we’d done a new album, Last Look At Eden and I’d done a bit of work here and there. I’d be in the studio for a week then had a couple of weeks off then I’d be back in the studio again for a week. I’ve been doing bits here and there so it’s taken quite a long time. As well as my time with Europe I’ve been so busy just being a Daddy. That’s a full time job. My son is 5 years old now and I’m a single parent so there’s a lot of things to do all the time like washing dishes, washing clothes, taking him to school. You know the deal.

Is that your lad on the front cover?

Yes, that’s him on the front.

How does he feel about being on an album cover?

Oh, he’s very excited about it. He’s taken a few copies to his kindergarten. It’s basically a tribute to his Mum who passed away two years ago. I wanted him to be on the cover. He’s really great, He’s totally into the guitar, he got that from his Mum and from his Daddy, and it’s in his blood. My sister is also in the music business and has released some albums. She was known as Europe’s little sister. Joey Tempest produced and wrote most of the stuff on her first solo album in the late ’80s and I played guitar. She’s out there and is planning on doing a new album soon. She has two kids so she’s pretty busy but she wants to get into the studio to do some new songs.

So he’s following in the Norum tradition?

I hope so; he’s going to take over the throne. We’ll see how it goes. He’s also very interested in singing and has an extremely loud voice. I’ve never heard a 5 year old with a voice like that!! He’s singing all the time. We’ll see what happens but he can do whatever makes him happy…so long as he doesn’t play the drums.

On Play Yard Blues were you looking to explore different avenues to those you usually do with Europe?

Oh, yeah definitely. I don’t see the point of doing a solo album that sounds like Europe. I grew up with Blues Rock so I wanted to do something different this time around.

There’s a real organic Blues feel with a huge groove running through the music. Is this the vision you had when you started writing for the album or is this how things developed over the sessions?

I just wanted it to groove. That’s the most important thing in music getting the vibe and the groove going. I’ve got a great bass player, Tomas Torberg and drummer, Thomas Broman. I’ve known these guys since the beginning of time and they’ve played a lot of shows together with different bands so we just went for a kind of groovy album that you could feel in your bones. It’s a very spiritual album too and I went into the studio when it felt like the right moment. It was when the sun was in the right place in the sky as the saying goes. Sometimes when you go into the studio it doesn’t really feel like it’s happening but everything felt right recording this.

Talking of writing, did you approach things differently than you do when writing with Joey and the guys in Europe?

I did really as I wrote most of the album but the bass player was in on three songs and I did a couple of covers too and wrote a couple with singer Leif Sundin so I was writing with different people than when I’m in Europe.

What about the actual recording process. It has a real stripped down sound compared to other work you have done. How did you achieve that? Did you all play together in the studio?

Yes, definitely. The drummer finished all the basic tracks in 2 or 3 days, he was really quick. We rehearsed for about a week and these guys are so good and we kept pretty much everything that we did on the bass, drums and rhythm guitar from the basic tracks that we recorded. I wanted to do the album like they did in the ’60s and the ’70s instead of trying to concentrate on getting the drum track right then doing the bass and guitars all separately. I wanted everybody to play together in the same room to capture that live feel. We did 3 or 4 takes of each song and I listened back to them and picked the ones that I liked best. If there was a mistake we’d just fix it there on the spot.

You do most of the lead vocals on the album. Do you think that people that haven’t heard your earlier solo work will be surprised at your singing voice? There’s hints of Gary Moore and David Coverdale in there especially on “Over and Done”!!

Ha!! That’s a total Coverdale rip off that one!! I’ve never taken a singing lesson in my whole life. I actually started off wanting to be a singer so I practiced a lot back then by singing along to David Bowie albums like Ziggy Stardust. I was totally into that and you can probably hear that influence on the second song on the album “Red Light Green High” the vocal has such a Bowie vibe to it. Singing is something that I do and enjoy very much but I don’t take it too seriously. People seem to enjoy it when I do albums and sing myself. I’ve had quite a bit of flack in the past as I’ve had some great singers on my albums like Glenn Hughes and Kelly Keeling. The fans still enjoy my singing even though those guys are a lot more technical than I am and are much better singers than me but I think it makes it a lot more personal when I sing on my albums. If you can sing your own songs when you’ve written the lyrics it just gets the song closer to the heart so to speak. The song “Over and Done” was recorded after I’d been out with the engineer having some Indian food and some Cobra beer; we had a few of those. For some reason I wanted to go back to the studio and I wondered how I’d manage to sing after all that. Something happens to your voice after a curry. I went in there and for some reason got into this California Jam Coverdale mode, I don’t know why but it just came out like that. He’s one of my favourite singers so it’s kind of a tribute to him. I don’t sit down and analyse it too much. I just go in and that’s how it comes out.

Why did you decide to get Leif Sundin in to sing on “Born Again” and “Got My Eyes On You”?

I’ve worked with Leif in the past. I did a live album with him a while back; he has a cool voice and is one of my favourite singers. He’s got a style a little like Paul Rodgers. Another thing is that I get bored with my voice really quick so I like to break it up a little bit. I brought him in to do the heavier songs.

On your earlier solo albums you’ve always made some good choices of songs to cover from the likes of Thin Lizzy and Cream. On your latest album you have chosen 3 songs from Mountain, Frank Marino and again Thin Lizzy. It’s good to see that you don’t cover the obvious choices. “It’s Only Money” is not one of Lizzy’s better known songs

I always wanted to do “It’s Only Money” and it’s a kind of tradition for me to do a Lizzy song on my solo albums. That’s one of my favourites and not a lot of people know that one as it wasn’t a big hit or anything; it was on their Nightlife album. If you’re not totally into Lizzy you might not know that one but you will know “The Boys Are Back In Town” and stuff like that.

Most people seem to cover their better known songs like “The Boys Are Back In Town” but they have much better songs than that to do.

Oh, yes, they have so many better songs and I always liked the ones that were a little odd. In the past I’ve covered songs like “Opium Trail”, Killer Without A Cause” and “Wild One”. I like more of the darker Lizzy. Bon Jovi covered “The Boys Are Back In Town” so that’s probably the only song they ever heard and I felt “Why? Why do that one?”. There’s so many other songs and so many better songs that you could do. I just prefer the ones that are a little odd, not to be different or anything; they are just the ones that I happen to really like.

You’re obviously a big fan of Thin Lizzy what did they mean to you when you were a lad growing up in Sweden?

The first time I saw them was ’78 or ’79 and I was very young at the time and it was the Bad Reputation tour. I didn’t really know who they were at the time but I was totally blown away by them. A friend of mine, Tony Reno the original drummer from Europe, his brother had the Jailbreak album and he played me the record and I thought it was really cool. I saw the picture of the band and I thought at first they were an R&B or Soul band but I was blown away when I heard it. When I saw them live there was all this smoke and Marshall stacks and everything, I was in the front row and I was covered in goosebumps. Thin Lizzy played in Sweden a lot so I saw them 8 or 9 times. Even when they weren’t on tour they still came over, Phil also came over on a solo tour and also he was over as the Three Musketeers with Brian Downey and John Sykes and a couple of other guys so I got to see them play a lot over the years. I think they liked the girls over here; we have beautiful women in Sweden.

I see the latest incarnation of Lizzy includes Vivian Campbell from Def Leppard. Will you go and see them and if you had the chance would you like to play with them?

I’ll be definitely checking them out. I’m a huge fan of Scott Gorham; he was a big influence on me. His playing on Black Rose and Bad Reputation is incredible so I’ll be checking them out. If I ever had the chance to play with them, I’d love to do it. That would be incredible to do. I’ve met Scott a few times and he’s a super nice guy. He heard my version of “Opium Trial” from my Face The Truth album and he thought it was really good and said it was better than the original but I told him he was taking it a little too far but it was so exciting to hear that coming from him. My head exploded after that, nobody could talk to me for a week after that.

Mountain are a band that don’t seem to get the recognition they deserve from a wider audience however Leslie West has been cited as an influence by the likes of Hendrix and Blackmore. What is it about Leslie West and Mountain that inspired you?

It’s his heavy tone and his vibrato. He’s one of those guys who maybe has played 5 or 6 notes throughout his whole career but those 5 or 6 notes means more than a lot of these shredders. He has a great tone and feel and he plays so economically, you can feel it when he plays. He’s a big influence on me.

Frank Marino is another often overlooked guitarist. Have you ever had the chance to catch him play live?

I was a huge fan of Frank in the late ’70s when I discovered Mahogany Rush. His playing is incredible. I’ve seen him play live many times. One of his shows he did in Sweden in the early ’80s was the loudest gig I’d ever been to, my ears were ringing for days. He was totally supercharged throughout the show. He’s heard my version of “Ditch Queen” and he really loves it. We email each other sometimes but it my latest solo album really all started when I did the Frank Marino Tribute album, Second Hand Smoke which was really cool as I rediscovered Frank again and ended up buying all the remastered CD’s so I just had to cover a Frank Marino song. Compared to what’s coming out today it was so much better back then. I’m very old school. I do listen to new bands but there’s not that many who have the same feel as the older bands and guys have. The ’70s were so great, what happened? Back then there were no computers or Pro Tools now everything can be fixed on a computer while then you had to work out how to play something just right. Now they can do just about anything, even make someone who can’t sing sound good. It doesn’t have much heart and soul and can be so sterile and cold when it’s all done through a computer.

Soundwise I’ve always thought of you having a Michael Schenker/Uli Jon Roth type of sound with that smooth, fluid melodic tone. What sort of set up do you use to get your sound?

I use two 50 watt Marshall amps and they have kind of a singing tone to them. I’ve used those for about 15 years now, before that I used 100 watt amps but I couldn’t really get the tone I wanted so I switched to 50 watt amps and I immediately thought “Wow!!”, they had that sweet singing tone that I’d been looking for. I also use old cabinets from the early ’70s with the grey fronts. I actually have an old JCM800 Marshall amp that Michael Schenker used to have. Michael Schenker and Uli Roth were a huge influence on me and I love their sound. I’ve always tried to have a strong melody in my playing and try to pick out the melody in the vocal or in the chorus or something that I can bring out in my solo so I like doing something that you can sing. I do like a little bit of shredding in the middle where I can have a bit of a blow out too.

On the subject of your influences, you were a big UFO fan. A while back you were lined up to play with UFO when Michael Schenker left. What happened with that?

I was in America at the time around 2003. I actually knew the guys from UFO from when I met up with them on the Walk On Water tour. They knew about me and wanted me to hang out with them on the bus and stuff like that. One night we were drinking beer together and I gave them a copy of my Face The Truth album which they popped into the boombox they had on the bus. They seemed to really like it, especially Phil Mogg. Anyway I said if Michael ever leaves, for the 100th time, to give me a call. You know, I just said that as a sort of joke and after a while Phil called me up and asked if I’d be interested in coming to England to play as Michael had left. I was like “Wow, this is great.” What happened is that a few days later Ian Haughland, the drummer from Europe, called to say they were having a meeting in Stockholm to talk about a reunion of the Final Countdown line up. There seemed to be a lot of things happening at the same time. I flew straight to Stockholm and had a meeting with Europe. I thought that maybe it was just going to be a reunion tour and that was it but they wanted to push ahead and write new music too. I called up UFO’s manager and the first thing he said was “Hi, welcome to UFO!!” and I had to say that I couldn’t do it as I was doing the Europe reunion thing and he said “can’t you just do both??” I decided to do the Europe thing as they are like my family but it would have been nice to do something with UFO as they are one of my favourite bands. I used to listen to them all the time and used to play along with Strangers In The Night and learn every solo. I pretty much knew all the songs but I thought it was better for me to play my own stuff that I wrote and recorded myself rather than be a copy of someone else. I think after a while I’d have gotten bored with it just like I got bored with Dokken where they just wanted me to play as close to George Lynch as possible. It started getting boring after a while. It’s probably OK if you’re in your 20s but it was a little silly in your 40s playing other people’s material.

Now that your album is just about to be released have you got any touring plans lined up?

Yeah, with Europe at the moment we’ll be doing the summer festivals and we’ll actually be in the UK to play at Sonisphere in a couple of week’s time. We’re really looking forward to that. After the summer when the band is taking a break I hope to play a few solo shows and it would be wonderful to come over to the UK. I’ll do the shows as a four piece with the same band that I have on the album. I will have Leif Sundin with me too so we can do some of the older stuff that Glenn Hughes and Kelly Keeling sang on the albums. I’ll do some singing too but we’ll divide it up. My voice is suited to the Blusier, more mellow stuff and Leif the heavier songs and I can then concentrate on my guitar playing. A lot of that stuff is way too high for me to sing anyway!! Leif has such a wide range so he can cover all of that stuff.

You’ve always had a reputation as a great live band but recently you seem to be winning over a new legion of fans. When you were named as headliner at last year’s Bloodstock Festival many people were surprised to see you on a bill with the likes of Cradle of Filth, Sodom and Kreator. Were you a little apprehensive at the prospect of playing with some of these extreme Metal bands?

We were a little nervous beforehand but that was such a great show. We were hearing all these really Heavy bands playing and we were wondering if they were going to start throwing tomatoes or bottles or something but we went out and crushed them. We had to put on a set list which focussed on our heavier songs, no ballads or anything and they got to see a great performance. The sun was in the right place on that particular day.

The general consensus was that you were the band of the festival. You really proved your doubters wrong.

A lot of people that haven’t really heard much of our stuff think of “The Final Countdown” or “Carrie” when they hear our name and think that we are more of a Pop kind of Bon Jovi style of band. You know on our night we can Rock hard and we can make Metallica sound like a Pop band…Ha!! We have some doomy stuff too. Listen to “Start From The Dark,” it’s heavy stuff.

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

After the summer we’ll begin writing for the new album and hopefully I’ll do some club dates with my own band but otherwise I’ll be being a full time Daddy and that keeps me so busy.

John Norum’s new album Play Yard Blues is released on July 5th on Mascot Records.


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

    View all posts

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.