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XENO's Ruben Willemsen: "Progressive music is an ever changing genre. It doesn't shy from reinventing itself. That is also why we love it so much. We are mostly influenced by the more modern Progressive bands, but most Prog music is quite timeless."

Interview with Ruben Willemsen, Edwin Hann, Sean Lubbersen, Daniel de Coninck from Xeno
by Dave “That Metal Guy” Campbell at 11 November 2020, 7:13 AM

XENO is a Dutch Progressive Metal band, formed in 2011. They have released two studio albums; “Atlas Construct” in 2016, and now “Sojourn” in 2020. The band members are Ruben Willemsen (Vocals, Bass), Edwin Haan (Vocals, Guitars), Daniel de Coninck (Guitars, Vocals), Jasper Bruggeman (Guitars), Sean Lubbersen (Keys), and Richard van Leeuwen played drums on "Sojourn", with Lars van Mourik joining the band as permanent drummer during the release. Metal Temple Editor-In-Chief Dave "That Metal Guy" Campbell recently caught up with the band to talk about the new album, and other things.

You are a relatively new band in the genre. What obstacles did you have to overcome in order to get signed and release your debut album, “Atlas Construct?”


Hey Dave, thank you so much for the interview! The release of our debut album “Atlas Construct” was pretty rough to be honest. We were pretty new in the world of music and didn't really know what to expect. With recording the album we had multiple big setbacks and went 6 months over deadline. That resulted in a record that was not bad for a first album but we knew we could do much better. Also, making an album is expensive. We had a successful crowd funding campaign (we really have the best fans!) to finance the album. With “Atlas Construct” we didn't have a record label to back us up, and made many mistakes. We learned a lot!

I am a Progressive Metal freak, and can’t get enough of the genre. Can you talk about the changes that there have been in the genre, since the early days of bands like FATES WARNING and QUEENSRYCHE, to where XENO is today, and what specific elements your band has brought to the genre?


Progressive music is an ever changing genre. It doesn't shy from reinventing itself. That is also why we love it so much. I think we are mostly influenced by the more modern progressive bands, but most prog music is quite timeless. So older prog bands still have a big influence in our music. The coming of djent is also a big factor I think, it is a pretty new genre. Although I don't see our music as true djent, we are influenced by it. We try to pick up little pieces of everything we like and shape it into our own.


It can sometimes be difficult to come up with ideas within this genre as so many things have been done before! I think Xeno is at the start of a long journey full of inspiration and the coming together of us as musicians, and that our sound and style will keep being polished and updated along the way. As to the question about what we bring to the genre, I think we should leave that up to the listener to decide. We are far too biased to be able to give an objective answer!

Let’s talk about the new album a bit. What was your vision for it and how does it differ from your debut album?


With “Sojourn” we wanted to up the quality of everything. Better songwriting, better production, interesting lyrics, etc. “Atlas Construct” was meant as a concept album, but I think we did a lot better on “Sojourn”. It feels so much more connected, musically and lyrically . The new album also marks the coming of new talented musicians in the band, only Daniel and me remained from the line-up of the previous album. I even switched from keys to bass. In the end it all worked out pretty good. With the experience from the first album we knew what to expect and everything went way more smoothly.  Our label, Art Gates Records, has been tremendous for us. We really went from 'guys who like to play music' to professional musicians with their help.


We as a band also feel close to the narrative of the album. It reflects the changes we have been undergoing when looking for the sound we have now. Switching band members brings a lot of change in the process of writing songs, so we wanted that to be a part of the story. About the journey of the band.

One thing that struck me right off the bat is that you have three guitarists and a keyboardist. The guitars bring a full, rich sound, and I have always contended that keyboards/piano are essential for a Progressive Metal band, because they add another element to the music. Would you agree, and if so, why or why not?


I agree with you. Metal is of course a big love letter to the guitar. But in adding keys to the mix we can expand our sound in interesting directions. Its great for creating atmosphere and harmony or sometimes just really weird stuff. I feel like the possibilities with keys haven't been explored as much as with guitars in the genre, so I'm very excited to experiment further in future albums.


The initial start-up with three guitarists was also one of the many struggles we faced with this album, as we all came from very different backgrounds instrumentally speaking. However we were able to sync up and find our strong and weak points together, which has resulted in a complimentary style of playing.

The mix of clean and harsh vocals on the song “Epiphany” really drew me in, along with the piano notes towards the end. Who did most of the songwriting on the album, and how do you know when to go fully harsh or dial it back a bit?


We all wrote different parts on the album. Each of us has a different style of writing, sometimes that is a real puzzle to put together. But if it all fits together we can make something really special. We believe dynamics in a song is super important, if you go hard all the time it loses it's power. But put a heavy riff after a soft passage and it hits way harder.


During writing and recording this album we frequently discussed about ideas and whether or not to use them, resulting in some hotheaded discussions haha. I think this was one of the reasons why we were able to take the time for dynamics and contrasted features, trying to make the pieces fit together.  But we all write, experiment, analyze and share our music and I think that creates the mix of styles that we have at this moment. There simply isn’t ‘one’ songwriter.

What are some of your favorite songs on the album and why?


My favorite song is Sojourn. That song really has it all, and is also super challenging to play.  It brings the whole album together for one last enormous blast.

All of you guys are very talented musicians. At what point in your lives did you make the decision to become full-time musicians? What would you probably have done if you didn’t become full-time musicians?


Thank you! But we aren't full-time musicians yet. Maybe in the future! It's pretty difficult to be completely financial depended from music. Especially now… But it is something we slowly build up to.


Joining this band was the clear point when my life changed to revolve around music. These guys literally blew me away with the drive, ambition and skill, and fed my hunger to match. We started recording within a year after the lineup change, which resulted in an even more ambitious collective mindset, and I simultaneously got accepted into a college of music. So a slow build up isn’t true for everyone haha! It is safe to say we all got a few gray hairs at the time.

Did you get to tour on your debut album? If so, what was the experience like? What were some high points, and some low points?


With our debut album “Atlas Construct” we didn't do a real tour, but we played shows throughout our whole country. We played with some amazing bands, met a lot of super nice people and learned a lot. High and low points  for me were both the crowd. I've played shows with an amazing crowd, nothing feels better than that. But I've also played shows for almost empty venues where the couple of people watching wish you get off so they can see their favorite band. But if I see only one person in the crowd enjoying it, it is more that worth it for me.

Can you please share some touring road stories of anything funny or crazy that happened to you while on the road?


Haha well… In the early days we've done some.. questionable.. things. I was always the designated driver so couldn't drink, so fun being the only sober guy… We had this tradition of taking a “trophy” of the gig that went in the trophy case. First couple of times it was something innocent, but one time we went home with a toilet seat!

What inspires you when composing music? What bands are some of your biggest influences?


For me, inspiration comes at unexpected times. I tend to get creative at like 2 A.M. in the morning, or when I'm traveling with public transport for example. You will probably find me with my headphones on in public, and I'm frequently checking out new music that way. It's like setting a mood to a scenery. Continuing on that, I think what inspires me most is the Dutch scenery when I'm traveling by train, the Dutch countryside is very flat and repetitive, almost hypnotizing. I've come up with a lot of Drone-like riffs in that state of mind. Traveling is like a state of standby for the body, but the mind keeps on going, it's a unique kind of focus that's not easily summoned at home. If I had to name bands that influenced me in composing, the list would go from bands like Oranssi Pazuzu (very cool experimental black metal) to Gojira (powerful hook-driven riffs) to stuff like Enslaved (for the esoteric feel). There's just so much to take into account when creating or composing, and every aspect carries its own weight. I hope this gives a little bit of insight in my creative process!


I love long story driven compositions. It started when I got into Pink Floyd and Steven Wilson and from there it got a little out of hand. Taking the time to set the mood and shifting towards something in contrast within the same song captivated me. That feeling of getting completely lost in a song.  It comes with a lot of creative freedom but also challenges when writing a song like that. But I can't think of anything more rewarding than when all the pieces come together. That's what I love about being in a band where everyone has a different preference in music, we learn so much from each other.

What do you guys do when not composing music or touring? Any fun or interesting hobbies, or is it strictly music?


Between playing and writing music and working/studying, we consider ourselves gamers and self proclaimed meme-lords. I think having a good sense of humor and being able to have a laugh together, or at each other, is a very healthy social construct for a band. We obviously share a lot of time together, so it's great to know that we all get along as good as we do. In terms of video games: FIFA, World of Warcraft, The Witcher and Monster Hunter: World are games that come to mind.


Strictly music.

Can you talk about the current state of affairs in the Netherlands when it comes to the COVID-19 virus, and how it has impacted you specifically?


At this time of writing the Netherlands is in a light lock-down. Only shops and schools are partially open. Normally when you drop an album you want to play as much as possible to promote it. That is impossible for us. We did a live stream concert, that was amazing to do. But I really miss the energy from our fans!

Considering you probably can’t tour right now, what are you plans for the future?


At the moment we try to focus our attention on social media. It's pretty much the only way right now to reach other people with our music. And writing more music of course!

Thank you kindly gentlemen for this interview, and I wish you and your band nothing but success in the future!

Thank you Dave!


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