An interview for Background Magazine - November 2009
(Text by Henri Strik, edited by Peter Willemsen)
In 2003, I made an interview with Hansi Cross. At the time, this Swedish musician had just finished an impressive debut album with Spektrum, but also the albums he made earlier with Cross, had a high quality level. I kept in contact with him since then. I was rather disappointed to hear that the new Cross-album had been delayed, because of Hansi’s serious hearing problem. Fortunately, his hearing improved and the new Cross-album The Thrill Of Nothingness has just been released. Now six years later, I had the chance to talk with Mr. Cross again, so I can finally find out what happened between times with the man I once called ‘the visionary fool’.
I enjoyed the latest Cross album very much. You must be very satisfied with the result after having so much health problems. Does it make you feel angry to read a bad review, knowing that it took so long to make it?
“Well, thank you! I’m happy to hear that you like it. No, I don’t get angry if we receive bad reviews. I’m not sure how I would feel if we commonly received negative reviews, but that seldom happens. What I find rather irritating though, are ignorant reviewers acting as if they know more about the band’s music than the band themselves.”
Can you tell our readers what happened with your hearing? Have you ever felt that it might turn out the wrong way, I mean, being afraid of becoming deaf?
“I lost much of my hearing ability due to working with loud music for many years. I used to listen to music through headphones with a high volume. Many hours of rehearsals and concerts were slowly making my hearing cells worn out as well. In only a couple of weeks, it started to become worse. After having experienced what is generally known as a ‘sudden hearing loss’, which in fact was not very sudden, things became extremely painful with loud and intense tinnitus sounds filling my ears and head. There was no way, whatsoever I could work with or listen to music at all. I was so sensitive to all kind of sounds, called hyperacusis. I had to tell my family to talk as quietly as possible. I spent the evenings in the bedroom on my own with the door closed. During daytime, I avoided almost everything. I couldn’t go out, as even the sound of birds was disturbing. I had no life at all, a prisoner in a world of loud and ugly sounds. At the worst, I heard six different sounds going on simultaneously. The strongest sounded like a war alarm, a never-ending high-pitched trumpet. So yes, I was terrified to death that it would stay this way, especially when the doctors told me that I had to learn to live with it. Thanks to Dr. Lutz Wilden’s Laser Therapy, my hearing restored for about 85 percent. I owe very much to this man, who devoted himself many years to develop this treatment. If anyone is interested, feel free to check my personal webpage. That therapy and a disciplined use of earplugs helped me through. Now, the tinnitus is no more than a silent hissing. My hearing is normal, except for the highest frequencies.”
In what stage of recording were you when the hearing problems occurred? How did you perceive these problems?
“Most of the songs were recorded. We only missed the vocals on two songs and some guitar and synth solos. We considered ten tracks to be mixed and finished and I was working hard to get the album ready in time. Then I experienced that the cymbals sounded a bit distorted. We had just invested in a new mixing console, so I thought there was something wrong with it, but I was apparently the only one who thought so. At the time, I felt a strong pressure in my right ear. I went to the doctor who performed a hearing test that showed a loss in the high frequencies. He told me, there was no cure for it and I shouldn’t avoid normal sounds. Afterwards, his advice appeared to be rather stupid to someone who experienced a hearing loss. Maybe I would become better in about three weeks, he said. Instead, a tinnitus sound appeared. Here’s a tip to all musicians and music lovers out there: if you sense that your ears feel ‘tired’ and if you feel a certain ear pressure, please avoid sounds for a couple of days. Wear earplugs and give your ears a rest. If you do, there is a very good chance it will improve very fast, but if you ignore it, things can end up real bad. Ear pressure is a sign of overstressed and exhausted hearing cells. Anyway, when I had become quite well again, I listened to the tracks that I considered to be finished and I noticed that all of them contained far too much treble. It became obvious that I had started to go daft a couple of months before the final breakdown. However, I didn’t notice it, so I decided to re-mix all of them, except one. I had no deadline now, so I also had the opportunity to finish Rhiannian Daëy.”
Did your musical ideas change in the years of your healing process?
“No, not really. On the limited 2CD-edition, you find all material that I wrote after Playgrounds (2004) was released. There’s just one thing that might have had an impact on the final result. When I started to sing the missing vocal parts, I didn’t dare to play loud and I was not comfortable with the idea of singing with a strong voice. Then I started singing softer than I used to sing and I found that it suited the songs well. When we started to write the songs for The Thrill Of Nothingness I wanted to do a more melodic, lighter and warmer album, a more traditional prog album, compared to earlier releases.”
How patient were the other band members while waiting to record the new album? Did they comfort you or help in a positive way?
“They understood my situation and they all said in unison: ‘your health must have the highest priority, finish it when you can, it doesn’t matter how long that will take’.”
Olov Andersson (Grand Stand) didn’t work on the single version of the album, but co-wrote two songs for the album. What ever happened to Olov, how is he doing?
“The Andersson credited on the album is actually our bass player Lollo Andersson. Olov has been suffering from severe diabetes since 2005, but now it seems that the doctors finally found the basic cause and we are all hoping that he will become healthy again. Olov is a dear friend and a great musician.”
New member is Göran Johnsson on keyboards. You worked with him on the Spektrum-album. How did he get involved in Cross and why didn’t he sing or playing drums?
“As you say, I worked with him on the Spektrum-album and when he played in Grand Stand I also co-produced and mixed their latest album. I have always felt he’s an extraordinary talent and I asked him whether he was interested in playing keyboards with Cross - even if it meant that he had to do some extra practice. His main instrument is the drums, but Göran is a man who likes being challenged, so he said yes. It was a very inspiring period when we co-wrote some tracks. He easily adapted to Cross’ style and he added some suitable chord sequences and some other things that I found somewhat ‘Cross-ish’, yet with a slightly different viewpoint. That was inspiring for me too.”
Was it difficult to choose who would play the keyboard parts on the album?
“There were no such choices at all. Göran played the main part of the keyboards. My part was adding things towards the end of the recordings, mostly during the mixing process when I found that I wanted to add something. To some extent, I’m responsible for what he plays, though some of the solos are a result of us composing together. Together we decided what sounds should be used, but he played most of it.”
Why Tomas Bodin from The Flower Kings played a Mini Moog-solo on Eternity?
“Well, that just happened. We had almost everything recorded except the Moog-solo and Göran was too busy working with Galleon. At the time, I had some contact with Tomas about things regarding the Eggs & Dogs -album and I asked him if he would play the Moog-solo. I gave him no directives only the location where we wanted the solo. It turned out to be pretty good, don’t you think?”
Yes, it’s very good indeed. Has the album a certain theme or concept? Did you use some of your personal health problems in the lyrics?
“Almost all lyrics were written at the time I experienced my hearing loss. I was not interested in writing about that problem. The theme on the album is very loose. Actually, we wanted the album to have a certain flow. I have my own idea of what The Thrill Of Nothingness means, and so does Tomas Hjort, who wrote some of the lyrics. However, I’m not keen on letting other people know what it means. The title in itself seems to have different meanings, but all of them interesting. I’ll just give you a kind of philosophical view on what the title could mean: if you are in a ‘state of nothingness’ then you have possibilities to create something. Turning nothing into something is an interesting aspect, I think. It’s a great title, which invites people to use their fantasy. I bet you could come up with something, what it would mean to you.”
Yes, it does. Was it difficult to keep the typical Cross-sound alive on the new album or would you rather say that certain influences changed the music?
“I’d say that we nowadays are mainly influenced by ourselves and our previous works. When I grew up and developed my skills as a guitar player my main influences were Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck and to some extent Terje Rypdal. When I used these Rypdal-influences in our music, many people interpreted it as Steve Hackett -influences. I highly respect and admire Steve Hackett, but he was never an influential musician to me. The members of Cross simply influence each other by playing together. Sometimes my compositions are re-written during the process when the other guys provide me with new ideas. My composing, with or without help from anyone else, is influenced by the creative process itself and by the kicks I get of playing with these fantastic guys. Tomas Hjort, our drummer, usually gets his share of cheering from fans and reviewers, but the part of bass player Lollo Anderson is enormously underestimated. He is one of the best bass players around, with a distinct sound and style that is an important part of our sound. And, as I said, Goran’s contributions had some - within the frame for what is Cross-ish - impact on the final result.”
How do you see yourself: as a singer/guitarist, a keyboardist
or a composer and producer?
“I see myself as a composer and a singing guitarist. I’m not a brilliant keyboardist, but I tend to find it more inspiring to compose our music on keyboards rather than guitar. This creates some interesting situations. For instance, if I compose a riff for guitar and bass on keyboards it sounds great and not too difficult, but by the time, we have to play it on guitar it sometimes turns out to be quite a challenge. What is easy to play on keyboards is not always easy on guitar. I believe this way of working adds a Cross-approach to our music. Riffs and bass lines often have a sort of uniqueness, because they have been written on different instruments. I like most of the parts of that creative process, in different ways, but I think the composing part is the most important to me. Of course, I highly enjoy performing, playing guitar and singing as well. I wouldn’t want to focus entirely on composing.”
Did the album turn out the way you would have it? Why did you release it as a double album?
“We found that the material didn’t have a good flow, so we focused on putting together different combinations for the main album. We all liked the rest of the tracks as well, so we decided to release the album with the remainder as a limited version. I could have made another choice, but I’m happy with the result.”
For me the songs on the second disc are as good as on the first one. Was it difficult to choose the tracks for the main album?
“Thank you! Yes, it was a bit difficult. For example, we often have a shorter, rocky track on the albums, usually with some disharmonic elements in it. This time we had Superstition that I personally like very much, but that one was hard to fit in with the others this time.”
Why did you use Love as a short intro before starting the second disc with Superstition?
“I have no idea, whatsoever. It just seemed right to have it there, I guess. We usually have on our albums a short acoustic guitar based tune. This time it seemed not necessary to have such a track on the main album as the ending song Eternity has much of that atmosphere to it.”
What does the track Bläckfisken on the second disc mean?
“It’s Swedish for octopus. Initially, we intended to have a story about the adventures of an octopus during an ordinary day. Among other things, he meets another octopus, gets involved in a fight and wins! At first, the title was A Day In The Life Of An Octopus, in Swedish En Dag I En Bläckfisks Liv with subtitles like: floating around, the meeting, the fight, victory and bedtime, but there was not enough space to have this all printed on the digipack.”
Did you create Rhiannian Daëy in the studio during a sort of jam session? What does the title mean, anyway?
“This one is the odd track. In 2004, I was in the mood for playing endless improvised guitar solos, just for fun. We recorded this one then and I liked the basic atmosphere of it. I removed the bad improvised guitar parts and added some keyboard stuff instead. Then Tomas added some drums and Lollo the repetitive bass line, which originally was a synth repeating itself in absurdum. Then I got the idea to add just a few vocal lines and as I had no lyrics, I made up a language that I called Thalÿmian. The imaginary land Thalÿma is another of my weird fantasies I’m fooling around with. Maybe I’ll write a book one day… There was also a fake story about a linguistic professor who found an ancient Thalÿmian poem and what he thought to be the meaning of the words. When it was almost finished, I found that it needed more cymbals so we asked former Cross-drummer, Robert Iversen to add some drums. You see, Tomas lives in the USA and it would have been a rather big affair to fly him over to Sweden just for that. Robert did a wonderful job. He’s a good friend and a marvelous drummer.”
On the inlay of the limited edition, I read the words: ‘Disagree with all the voices calling and you will see the liar’s curtain falling’. Can you explain those words?
“It’s an excerpt from Shake Your Enslaver. Tomas wrote the lyrics for that one, so I don’t want to give an explanation, but the track is about the importance of following your own convictions, your own voice and not become a slave to other people’s ideas and hideous control.”
It’s nice to have Cross back with a superb new album; can we also expect some live concerts in the near future?
“Thank you, again. I’m genuinely happy to hear that. There was a period for a year or so when I though that I perhaps never would find myself in a state where I could finish it. At this point, I will not do any live performances before the hearing has improved even more - and this can take quite some time, I’m afraid. I don’t dare to take the risk of hours of rehearsals and playing on stage. It might destroy pretty much of all the improvements I have achieved, but who knows? Perhaps I’m able to do it in two years from now. It would be great to do some shows and have these recorded for a live album, or perhaps a DVD.”
I would like that very much! What are your plans for the future? Maybe it’s time for a new Spektrum album?
“When Göran and I had our composing sessions we also wrote four basic tracks, nearly 30 minutes of music that we felt was more Spektrum. For these tracks, we already have recorded the drums and some bass, keyboards and guitars. The idea was to make a Spektrum-album as soon as we finished this one initially meant to be out in May 2007. Lizette ( von Panajott, singer of Spektrum, edt) was not interested in being a part of it as she wanted to focus on her own band. However, we had intentions to collaborate with Nad Sylvan. Actually, we had some basic ideas recorded, but when it was time to get that one rolling, Nad became more and more involved with Agent Of Mercy and I don’t think he has time to be part of Spektrum at the moment. But never say never. We will take decisions about Spektrum at the beginning of 2010.”
“I already started to compose some more Cross-music. During the making of Thrill I sort of suppressed the more heavy and wilder sides of myself, in order to focus on the more melodic side of Cross. The ideas coming up now is of the more complex and adventurous parts of our music, the Shostakovich-influenced style that appears here and there on earlier Cross-albums. At this moment in time, I feel that I want to make a rather heavy and complex album. We’ll see what the future holds in store for us.”
Do you believe that ‘The Visionary Fool’ has returned and is he still as good as before his hearing problems?
“Well, I leave that for others to decide, but I can tell you that two years without working with even listening to music was good for at least one thing. I’m now extremely motivated to create more music.”
Hansi, thank you for answering my questions.