An interview with Nad Sylvan by Martin Jones
Photo © Janet Craig
"It's taken a long time to get here."
I first met Nad Sylvan at the launch of the Genesis Revisited II album in London in 2012. Apart from his obvious height (at 6' 3" he's just a few inches off me in the tallness stakes) and the mane of blonde hair I remember being struck by how very much 'alive' he was. He couldn't wait for the tour that was planned for the coming months to start. He was so excited you could feel the enthusiasm coming in waves from across the room.
This was a guy who couldn't wait to tread the boards, grab a mic and sing. It was partly this boyish enthusiasm that intrigued me. I wanted to know more about the mysterious Mr. Sylvan. He had appeared seemingly out of nowhere, yet Steve had seen something that made him pick him to front, arguably, the most important and potentially controversial tour he'd undertaken in years.
Nad had already guested for Steve at festivals in the Isle of Wight and then Germany, a single song per set, the famous "Watcher of the Skies". He'd also provided key vocal offerings on the album itself, but the tour would be different, a true test of his vocal skills. It would also be brutal in terms of scale.
After seeing the band almost obliterate the venerable Liverpool Philharmonic Hall in May this year I again crossed paths with Nad. He seemed distracted, somehow not quite at ease - it turns out that he is his own worst critic and I don't think he was pleased with his personal performance. Can't think why, most fans I talked to after the gig were more than pleased with what they'd heard and seen that memorable night.
This just served to intrigue me still further. What makes this guy tick? I had to find out. So in August this year I asked Steve and Jo Hackett if it would be okay with them if I attempted to interview their lead singer. I was more than pleased when they not only agreed but also thought it was a very good idea into the bargain.
Now all I had to do was get the man himself to agree. After several emails the reply came through that I'd been waiting for. It was on, and the time and place? The Royal Albert Hall, London, just prior to going on stage.
I couldn't wait.
The Royal Albert Hall, 4.30 pm, October 24th 2013.
Photo © Lee Millward
Five floors down is a fully lit, seemingly tiny stage; two people are going through a final sound check. Steve Hackett strums his Yari acoustic guitar as Amanda Lehmann puts "Ripples" through its paces. Looking down at his fellow performers far below is Nad Sylvan, accompanied by yours truly. A small smile flitters across his face as he quietly says, "It's strange to think that pretty soon my voice will have to fill this space. Look at it. It's huge!"
Was this sign of nerves? Time, and the forthcoming interview, would tell.
Sylvan is a quiet, often softly spoken man. He chooses his words with great care, often starring into the distance, then fixing you with a smile or boyish grin. It was obvious from the outset that he's taken this association with Steve Hackett very seriously indeed, Sure, he's enjoying every minute but he's not about to let apathy set in. But that lay a little while down the line.
Born in America, Nad was raised in Malmo, Sweden, by his grandparents for the first ten years of his life. Then came a move to Stockholm with his mother and there he remained until he purchased his own home in Uttran, a small rural community some 30 k south west of the capital, in 2007.
"Oh it's small alright. It's also so very, very quiet. I appreciate it so much now when I get back from towns or cities. It calms me. I can reconnect with nature, spend time around horses. They are everywhere where I live and I'll try to go riding whenever I'm able... Just relax in a way that I don't find possible elsewhere. I truly do love the place."
He draws absentmindedly on an electronic cigarette - he's been trying to kick the dreaded tobacco whilst touring. "I used to be a light smoker... perhaps just two or three a day, but I quit when we were in Japan. It's already made a big difference to my voice so I'm pleased that I made the move to give up..."
He paused as if to collect his thoughts..."I always remember a piano being in the house belonging to my grandparents. I seemed to be drawn to it somehow. Nobody pushed me into music as such; it drew me in at the age of four. My family has always supported me in the truest sense but I was never pushed into playing. So there was never any tutor or stuff like that. I'm self taught. I began to compose my own stuff a few years later, I think I must have been about six or seven years of age. I performed publicly when I was eight... But it didn't go according to plan. I was so nervous I actually fainted on stage. How embarrassing..." A little smile again.
The sound check is now over, the stage deserted. Up in the high gallery the place is eerily quiet, as if the iconic venue was holding its breath in anticipation of what was to come. "I've been here before," said Nad. "Almost exactly ten years ago to the very day. I was in the audience to watch The Musical Box tribute band from Canada in October 2003... They were really very good... I didn't realise until just now how big this place actually is."
Nerves again? Possibly, but strange to relate I didn't think it was. He certainly didn't sound or act nervously.
When did you begin to sing? "Oh that was in my teenage years. I was about fourteen or fifteen when I began to sing properly. By the time I was 16 I was fronting a band called The Envoys. I was at least ten years younger than the rest of the guys, but it was cool. We were basically a covers band and every weekend we'd be on the road to somewhere in Sweden.
Then came Attacus, I would have been 17 then. It was a prog rock band, quite like Genesis in feel. I joined not only as lead singer but I also played keyboards. The band was re-named Avenue and in 1979 we cut a single. I was writing a lot by then... You know the song "Mr Marmaduke and the Minister" off the Unifaun album?" I nod. "Well that's actually a song I wrote for Avenue back in '79. It was the last song I wrote for the band come to think of it." Nad found himself in Sweden at the time of Abba at their creative peak, arguably one of the greatest pop groups of all time. But there were also other influences on the young singer.
"Oh for sure, yes there were many. When I was four or five years of age I distinctly remember hearing the Stones and being rather taken with them. In the early 70s David Bowie had a big impact on me. I loved the way he seemed to be able to re-invent himself, not just artistically but stylistically too. He was a risk taker, a guy who always seemed to be a couple of steps ahead of the rest. I found him quite fascinating."
Then one day the 16 year old Sylvan heard the music that was to change his life.
"I was working in a record shop at the time and one of my co workers put on an album that had just arrived. It was "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway". It was mind blowing... I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It was the music that hooked me, had me under its spell if you like, from the very start. It was a massive soundscape... Complex yet accessible. A huge musical world just seemed to open up right there and then in the shop. It really made me sit up and listen. It was like nothing I'd ever heard before. Even though I didn't get the lyrics because my English wasn't good enough then, that was when I fell in love with the music of Genesis."
As his English improved so too did his appreciation of the band.
"They were so quirky, so English in their language style, their word play. The use of imagery and ideas, often astonishingly varied within an album, for me set them apart. I listened to Yes, but they always had an American edge to my ears that Genesis shied away from. They never lost their "Englishness" in their classical period. I don't think there has been anything like them before or since, they were that special. I managed to see them on the "Wind and Wuthering" tour... Strange to think that it was the last tour Steve was to play with them. And now here I am, singing with his band, singing the great songs of Genesis... Life is very strange at times."
Does he have a favourite album from that time?
"Oh yes. "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway." It's a brilliant, though often maligned album for some reason - at least by the press - and I have no idea why. Sure, the story line is very disturbing, very dark... But I found the sheer weirdness of it very compelling in a strange way. But the music... Just fabulous. "The Lamia", "Chamber of 32 Doors", "Carpet Crawlers", "Back in New York City"... I can't pick a favourite track so please don't ask... Perhaps "Here comes the Supernatural Anaesthetist"... It appeals to my instrumentalist side."
Then came a stint of work with Michael B Tretow of the Abba organisation, the engineer and co producer of every Abba song ever recorded, and a brush with success with the Rednex single "Cotton Eyed Joe", where Nad provided the vocal arrangements for the project.
Photo © Gene Steinman
But it appears that Nad was writing and composing music that never quite hit the mark, and he wasn't sure why. It seemed that he was out of time or out of style with the music around him, music that often didn't appeal to him that much anyway. There was something missing, something that it would take a chance encounter to correct over a period of time.
The by now multi instrumentalist Nad Sylvan discovered the Internet and the Genesis forum site.
"I think I first hit the Genesis forum site in about 2003. It was early days then, but the site appeared to be full of interesting people, all commenting and mailing each other. In many ways it was quite an eye opener as it became very apparent that there were hundreds, if not thousands of people around the world who were as disillusioned with much of the then current music scene as I was. They were nearly all looking for something more musically fulfilling.
It would have been around then that I made contact with a guy who seemed to have a similar mindset to my own. I was more than a little pleased to find out that he lived in Sweden too and soon we were chatting away over the 'Net."
Enter Christian Thordin (aka Bonamici), keyboard player / pianist, technology guru and massive fan of the classic Genesis music.
"Oh we chatted for quite a while and then one day in 2003 Bonamici sent me a song that he had written. It was very obviously Genesis inspired both in style and content. I asked if I could add my vocals / lyrics and guitar work, stuff like that. He liked what I did and things took off, albeit a little slowly, from there.
The song would appear on the Unifaun album as "Maudlin Matter". It was the true start of our musical life together. Our second song was called "Mr Marmaduke and the Minister", the one from my time with Avenue, and when that appeared on line we got a lot of feedback. It was so positive, so very encouraging.
People wanted more from us and so from this strange position Bonamici and I came up with the Unifaun project. It was all very innocent at the start - and the end too if I'm honest. We never thought it would prove to be as popular as it turned out to be. We took over four years to get to the stage where an album of songs was ready, and we finally released it on an unsuspecting public in 2008.
It was done as our tribute to Genesis and as such it meant a great deal to both Bonamici and me. It was something we both felt compelled to do... We just had to express ourselves, to get our music heard. I kind of see it as a group of songs that Genesis never made, if you follow my drift. The 70s sound is pretty much spot on and for many of the fans it was like "coming home" - at least that was the feedback we got.
I suppose it could be viewed as a serious tribute in some ways, but for Bonamici and me it was done in an almost light hearted way. It was fun to do. We were both really delighted with the response to it. It was quite humbling in a way but great at the same time."
There was an almost immediate response from fellow Swedish rock legend Roine Stolt.
"Roine is one of the best guys around. He's one of the Swedish greats of the prog rock genre and with his bands Kaipa and later The Flower Kings he's done so much to keep rock creativity alive and well in Scandinavia. He heard the Unifaun project, got in touch with me and pretty soon we were working together on a range of material that eventually led to the formation of our band, Agents of Mercy. So far there have been three albums and supporting tours to go with them. I would like to think that there might be other chances for me to work with Roine and the Agents in the future but at the moment I'm very busy with all of this." He gestures into the hall.
"Yeah, I guess I owe Roine a lot because there were times in my wilderness years were I almost gave up. It's taken me years and many setbacks to get to where I am now. But yeah, working with him is great as we have a very similar mindset and an eye for detail.
It turned out that Steve knew Roine very well through another of his bands, the Transatlantic project, but strangely enough it wasn't Steve who first made contact with me but his tour manager, Brian Coles. Brian got in touch and after a short while an email arrived in my inbox. I'll never forget the opening lines. "Hi Nad, This is Steve Hackett". It was a good job I was sat down at the time; I might have fallen over with shock!" Again the boyish grin lights up his face.
Like nearly all the musicians on the Genesis Revisited II project, Nad found himself recording his elements, in his case the vocals, at home and then mailing them over to the UK for further work at the hands of Steve and Roger King. "It was no big deal for me, working this way. That's how Unifaun was made after all and it was also the preferred working method for Roine on the Agents of Mercy albums. So I wasn't fazed by that at all. I was able to get over and meet Steve, Jo and Roger and lots of other musicians involved in the album. It was really, really cool... A great atmosphere that felt like all the efforts of a huge creative collective was coming together in Steve's studio."
Photo © Lee Millward
Nad's first chance to sing with Steve came at two big festivals, first in the Isle of Wight and then Germany.
"I must admit to wondering if I could do it live. I was concerned that the projection needed for live work might not be there. I really wanted to deliver, not only for Steve and the fans of course, but for myself as this music means such a lot to me on so many levels. I knew I needed to get "Watcher of the Skies" nailed and quickly and then all of a sudden the projection was there... It just sort of clicked into place."
What followed from those two gigs was an invitation to the albums launch in London and then the world tour. Did he have any nerves at all about playing in front of Genesis fans, both old and new?
"Strangely enough, no. And that's probably down to two things. Firstly, I've been made so welcome right from the start by every one that nerves didn't really come into it. Secondly, I guess that sub-consciously there was a bit of me thinking that this was fate. It was my chance to deliver, my chance to make my mark if you like. I was determined not to let that chance go. So, no, nerves have never played a part in this at all, thank heavens Of course you do feel a sort of pressure, though perhaps responsibility is a better word. After all, you are going to be vocally fronting for one of the rock greats in Steve Hackett and singing songs that are often incredibly demanding to audiences who really love the music you are performing... So it's not like a vocalist can have an off night as you are quite literally in the spotlight and anything like missed cues, bum notes, forgotten lyrics and things like that are right there in the open and you can't hide, not on stage.
So I think I have a responsibility to deliver, to sing to the best of my ability on the night, every time I go out there to perform. Failure to do so just isn't an option or even one that I'm prepared to contemplate. I owe it to Steve; I owe it to my fellow musicians, the fans and to myself... But most of all I owe it to the music."
Back to the music... Everyone knows that the music of Genesis is notoriously hard to play - even Steve has admitted to having to relearn some passages and songs that he actually wrote. But what about the vocal challenges? What songs have been the most challenging and why?
"Oh, that's a tough question as all the songs are complex and have vocal demands in them - often several in one song. Let me think... "Afterglow" because of the projection needed in this piece... Lyrically it has to be "The Lamia", it's very complicated from a vocalist view point.... "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight" is a bit of a beast as the sheer range of flexible projection needed in this song can really put a strain on your ability to hit and hold high notes that seemingly come from all directions when you least expect them.
But truly all the songs can be challenging in their own unique way - and that's part of the reason why I'm enjoying it so much. Meeting these challengers head on and testing my vocal skills against the music."
It's obvious talking to Nad that the music of Genesis means an awful lot to him, so the next question was one that gave him pause for thought. Where there any songs from the classic Genesis back catalogue that you wish Steve had put on the album but isn't there? Is there a song that you would really like to have sung given the opportunity?
He smiles again. "Another hard question... Let's see... I love "Lilywhite Lilith" and "Back in New York City" from The Lamb... Both great songs that really hit the mark I think... "Can Utility and the Coastliners"... But no, not really... I'm happy to sing the songs that Steve has chosen. They are all great songs in their own right and have stood the test of time far better than many of their contemporaries after all."
After seeing the band perform in Liverpool earlier this year I wrote that you seemed to be like a cross between Gabriel and Collins, and it appears looking at reviews from the world tour that I'm not the only one. But how would you describe your style?
"I'm really just trying to sing the way the songs tell me to sing them... They truly move me and so I sing from the heart... As to style, well... I'm just being me. I can't be anyone else; it's not something I wish to do anyway. I believe that I can adapt my voice or tune it, if you prefer, to suit the style of the music itself. I see myself as a vocal chameleon in that respect. My style and presentation changes from project to project.
But you know something weird? As the tour has gone on I honestly think my voice has got stronger. I didn't really notice it until we did a sound check in Japan and it was like 'Jeez, is that me?' I had no idea my voice had grown so powerful. It came as a very pleasant surprise though."
Photo © Stephane Pellerin
The Royal Albert Hall would be the 62nd time Nad had performed this year since the tour kicked off with Cruise to the Edge in the spring. He's sung to thousands of fans in that time, but tonight it's the RAH... Surely there must be some nerves?
"The 62nd time? You're kidding! I had no idea it had been that many until now... Well, the answer is still no... for the moment. I guess I'm enjoying it all too much to get truly nervous, but looking down on the stage from way up here... It's beginning to hit me just how iconic this place really is and that in a few hours time this hall will be packed with fans..." He looked down thoughtfully at the stage, taking it all in.
Which song did he think was going to really hit home tonight? A smile formed very quickly.
"Supper's Ready. I don't know why but I get the feeling this is going to very, very good. Don't get me wrong, the performances so far in this tour have been uniformly high but even so... I can't explain it but tonight I think it's going to be very special indeed."
Of all the shows he's played which ones stand out and why?
"Oh for me it has to be Stockholm. My home town, family and friends there... It was just great.. A real home coming for me personally. It was quite rightly Steve's show of course, but I loved every minute of it in an almost selfish way. That sounds a bit weird but you know what I mean?
I know that Gary and Rob think that Hammersmith was great. Roger has already gone out on a limb and told me tonight is going to be the one we will all remember . Steve plays his cards pretty close to his chest so I don't really know in his case... With Lee being a southern chap I think he would plumb for Hammersmith too."
And what does Mr Sylvan have planned for the future? What can we expect in the next year or so?
"Do you know I haven't got a clue, not the faintest idea. Perhaps the time to ask that is when the tour finally comes to an end in 2014. That's all I'm concentrating on at the moment. May be when the tour winds down this year and I get back home... I need to re-charge the batteries and enjoy a break with my family and friends... You know, catch up with all that's been going on while I've been on the road with Steve. I'm looking forward to that very much indeed. It's not time to consider the future just yet."
And what about the fans? Does he have any message for them? Nad takes a few seconds to once again pick his words with utmost care...
"I thank you, thank you all from the bottom of my heart. I'm a fan first and foremost and so I think I know what the music means to them too, so to be received so positively .... Sometimes it's been almost overwhelming in the nicest possible sense. But it's also been very humbling too.
I guess that's why I've been singing the way that I have. I feel that they've taken me to their hearts in some respects and so in turn that's how I sing. It comes from the heart, I can assure you of that. I don't want them thinking that it doesn't matter to me, as nothing could be farther from the truth. I genuinely want to give my all for them, the fans who've been so very kind to me. It's the least I can do."
I thanked Nad for his time and his openness and we headed back down stairs to try to find his dressing room, deep in the bowels of the venerable venue...
Photo © Lee Millward
Five hours later Steve Hackett, Roger King, Lee Pomeroy, Gary O'Toole, Rob Townsend and Nad Sylvan left the stage having given one of the greatest performances I've ever heard of the music of the classic Genesis era.
Roger King was quite correct; the RAH gig was right up there with the very best musical experiences many people had ever had. There had been standing ovations from the off and the band were just awesome throughout that memorable evening.
And Nad was right too; "Supper's Ready", and his singing, was very, very special indeed.