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Ex Libris Interview

Ex Libris
Sara Letourneau chats with members of one of the Netherland’s most promising female-fronted bands / Photos kindly provided by: Erik Schepers


The Dutch female-fronted metal scene is one of the most crowded in the world. And, it’s usually not a question of which bands are good, but which ones truly stand out from the pack. Last year, however, the Sonic Cathedral staff stumbled upon Ex Libris – and we were collectively smitten. This quintet plays a style of classically influenced progressive metal with hints of gothic, neoclassical, and folk music that’s complex, heavy, and impressive. Ex Libris is no overnight sensation, however. Since the release of their 2008 debut album “Amygdala,” the band has slowly built a loyal following and developed a reputation for intense, high-quality live shows. They’ve also opened for a number of well-known Dutch acts, most notably Epica and ReVamp.

Recently, Sonic Cathedral writer Sara Letourneau talked with all five members of Ex Libris: Dianne van Giersbergen (vocals), Koen Stam (keyboards), Joost van de Pas (drums), Peter den Bakker (bass), and Paul van den Broek (guitars). They talked about the band’s distinct style and “Amygdala,” as well as what it’s like to open for some of their country’s more famous female-fronted bands. Read on to learn more about this ambitious and talented group of musicians.

Ex Libris

Sara:  Let’s start with the basics. How was Ex Libris founded? Who are the current members?

Dianne:  When I was 16 years old, I had singing lessons at the local school of music. It was here that I met Joost van de Pas, who was studying drums and classical percussion. He and I connected almost immediately, and we decided to form a band together. We shared a great interest for both classical and metal music, and we set out to find other musicians with the same interest. Over the years, several musicians joined and left our band that was then called Erinyen. When Paul van de Broek and later Koen Stam joined the band, we knew this was a formation that could really work, and we decided to change the name of the band to Ex Libris. Later on, when we were recording “Amygdala,” Peter den Bakker also joined and completed the band.
I believe that each one of its members brings a different aspect to the sound that is Ex Libris, and I feel very blessed to be surrounded by these very talented and driven musicians. Next to musicianship, there is also friendship. Though Joost has been my best friend since I met him, we are all very close to each other. We often go to concerts and festivals together and plan a “band getaway” (last year we went to Paris for the weekend) every year.

Sara:  I’ve listened to many female-fronted bands with classically trained vocalists. Ex Libris is by far the most intriguing of the bunch. Tell us about your music and what your vision was when the band first began writing songs.

Koen:  Even though I'm not technically a member since the very beginning, I’d say the initial idea was to combine the operatic and classical side of metal music like Nightwish with the progressive tendencies of bands like Dream Theater. Those ideas have gradually been refined into a more unique sound, but that's pretty much where it started!

Ex Libris

Joost:  When we started the band, Dianne and I were fascinated by bands like Nightwish who successfully combined metal and opera-like singing. So, we started a band, and we began playing about four of their songs and some other songs from bands we admired, like Moonspell, Dream Theater, Symphony X, the metal opera Aina, etc. As soon as we started playing, we also had the urge to write our own material. We came up with the first songs pretty early. Paul was already a member here. Then, when Koen joined our band, it was clear we had to exploit our love for different styles and put it together to create something that's a bit off compared to what "mainstream" classical metal in our country is doing. Since Dianne has a very powerful, dramatic, and sometimes intimidating voice, and Koen and I have a great admiration for black and death metal, it was clear that this was a powerful combination. Not to take and exactly copy elements of it, but to try and combine what it feels like to listen it: the intensity and aggression found in black and death metal, the epic grandeur of opera, and the melody and technical aspects of progressive, which came mostly from Paul and Koen. Since then, our songs are becoming darker, more bombastic and epic, and more refined. Having Peter on board as our bassist since the “Amygdala” recordings really put everything in place. We are currently working on our second album, and we believe this will be a recording that will define us and our sound. “Amygdala” was an innocent and youthful endeavor which came with the necessary bumps. But we've learned a lot since then, and we believe the next one will return what we put into it.

Sara:  The phrase “ex libris” is Latin for “from the books.” It also has other meanings besides this translation. How did you come up with Ex Libris as the band name?

Dianne:  Ex Libris means “from the books,” but an ex libris is also an object (like a seal, stamp, or a brand) which is used to indicate ownership of products of a guild. You could say that by naming the band Ex Libris, we would like to brand our products as our own.

Joost:  Sitting on the couch with my brother-in-law, I was looking through a portfolio of his when I came across a page which had the words “ex libris” on it. I asked him what it meant, and after explaining I knew it was the right name for the band. Until then, we've called ourselves Erinyen, but that name didn't sit well with us. The rest of the band agreed, and Ex Libris has been our name ever since.

Sara:  The arrangements of your music are quite complex. How does the band go about writing its songs? Is there a principal songwriter/composer, or is the process more collaborative?

Koen:  Most of the songs on “Amygdala” have been written in the rehearsal studio, based on different ideas. A case of going back and forth, trying different melodies, riffs, and rhythms. The compositions are really the result of us getting together and trying stuff out. For the new album, it’s a combination of time in the rehearsal studio and me and Paul working together. Paul and I often come up with a riff, idea, or melody, or sometimes even complete songs. We write those parts down and put them online so everybody can weigh in on them and see if the arrangements work out. It's a very easy way to get an idea of how a song will turn out, get feedback, and to make sure everybody stays up-to-date! Vocals usually come at the end. Dianne and I work together to write challenging, exciting vocal lines, sometimes from an existing melody, sometimes from scratch.

Ex Libris

Sara:  Dianne, you have a stunning voice. Could you tell us a little about your training and the shows you perform outside of Ex Libris?

Dianne:  I received my first singing lesson when I was 4 years old – a birthday present from my parents, who had noticed my interest in music and singing. At the age of 7, I sang my first solo with a “fanfareband” during a Christmas concert, and over time I was taught by several teachers and joined various choirs. When I was 17, I sang at a concert with a Windband Orchestra, and I met conductor and vocal coach Sef Pijpers, Sr., who offered to help me enter the auditions at the ArtEZ Institute of the Arts, School of Music in Arnhem, where I was accepted. During my bachelor years at ArtEz, I was taught by soprano Elena Vink, did a short internship at the Nationale Reisopera, and received master classes from Barbara Hannigan, Claudia Patacca, Constantin Nica, and others. In 2009, I completed the master program. Currently, I am in the second year of the master program where I specialize in classical music written between 1850 and today. I hope to sing my final exam this June. The concerts I sing outside of Ex Libris are very different from each other. I have duos with a pianist and with a guitarist. I've performed with various ensembles and have been asked to perform as a soloist with large ensembles, choirs, and orchestras. The pieces I sing can be opera and passion arias, classical lieder, or newly written pieces. For me, there has to be a connection with the lyrics, a challenging vocal line, and a little bit of drama throughout the piece. When I sing arias, lieder, or Ex Libris songs, I really want to be in the music, in the vocal lines, and singing the words as if I just made them up. To keep my voice flexible, I practice a lot. Five to six days a week, I start my day at eight-thirty. I vocalize for a half-hour. After that, I study for two hours and take a short break. After this break, I study for another hour and take a lunch break. In the afternoon, I mostly have rehearsals with classical ensembles, lessons, concert meetings, or I do my research. For a singer, it is very important to live healthily and to keep your body in good condition. The four things I always keep in mind are: eat healthy food, sports, have enough sleep, and listen to your body! Furthermore, I always make sure to keep away from places where people smoke.

Sara:  Peter, you played with a few other bands before joining Ex Libris. What about this band has been so fulfilling for you as a musician?

Peter:  I was searching for a symphonic metal band and applied to Ex Libris after hearing samples from their website. I was immediately impressed by the songs and their structures, in combination with the vocals of Dianne. After entering the rehearsal room, I was tied to a chair, gagged, severely beaten, and informed that I was their new bass player. They told me that they knew where my family and friends lived and suggested that it would be unwise to think about leaving Ex Libris – ever. (laughs) I know it might sound strange, but that's the way these guys showed their appreciation back then. Nowadays, Ex Libris makes complex music where I can put all of my creativity in. Besides that, the guys and girl are as crazy as I am, and we're always having a party onstage and backstage!

Ex Libris

Sara:  I read a little into your history as a musician, Peter. You’ve played bass and electric guitars in different bands, then took a break from the bass and played guitars for a while. And now, you’ve switched back to the bass. What do you like so much about that particular instrument?

Peter:  I started playing bass over 15 years ago when the demand for bass players was high in my area. While playing both electric and bass guitar, I found that the bass is my true love. You don't play bass guitar to hear it, you have to FEEL it! The six-string bass has a very big range. From fluttering your pants in the lowest notes, to – as guitarists name six-string bassists – “playing the frustrated guitarist who can't play well enough and switched to bass” in higher regions. When playing bass in Ex Libris, I'm not “restricted” to the path of the melody of the songs. Instead, I have the freedom to find my own way through the notes.

Sara:  Ex Libris’ full-length debut, “Amygdala,” has been out since 2008. How has the album been received by fans and critics?

Paul:  Because it was our first full-length album, there were no expectations whatsoever. We did what we liked at the moment, not being influenced or pressured by others. Therefore, I was really surprised by all the positive critics we received. Both fans and media reacted very positive on the songs, style, and recording. There's so much going on in the album that sometimes people might lose their attention. The songs are pretty long and technical, not your typical 4-minute radio piece. But every time I walk off-stage, people tell me what I want to hear. They compliment us on our good songwriting and music structures, nice blending of styles, and – maybe most important – that it’s not the typical female-fronted-gothic genre, but just that little bit more.

Ex Libris

Joost:  The reactions we get about our album and from live shows are quite overwhelming sometimes. This is what drives me and the band further. Knowing you're doing something right and seeing and hearing people’s reactions are very stimulating.

Sara:  “Amygdala” is a very interesting title for an album. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of the word before! What does the word “amygdala” mean, and how does it relate to the music on the album?

Dianne:  The amygdala are almond-shaped groups of nuclei located deep within the medial temporal lobes of the brain. They perform a primary role in the processing and memory of emotional reactions. Since every song on our debut album is a memory or emotion set to music, we could not think of a better name than “Amygdala.”

Joost:  I've always been interested in medical, scientific, and physiological-based programs and channels. When we were searching for a name for the album, I was watching a documentary about the human brain and its workings. Since our album is the converging of our emotions into one, the resemblance with the amygdala is appropriate and quickly made.

Ex Libris

Sara:  I’ve got to ask you about “The Day Our Paths End.” It’s one of my favorites of yours – and creating an 18-minute-long song as interesting and solid as that one is quite an achievement! Tell us a little about this track. Did you imagine this song could reach its current length? Or, did it evolve and surprise you in the end?

Koen:  We didn't know up front that this track would be as long as it turned out to be. There were different parts from other songs involved, songs that didn't make the cut but that still had a cool riff or two in them. We sort of found out along the way that they could – and should – appear in this track. I wrote the instrumental piece at the end as a short piece that would encompass most of the major themes from the other songs on the album. It wasn't really until we were recording that we decided it would be a good idea to glue it to the end of “The Day Our Paths End.” Again, that sort of evolved on its own. So yeah, it definitely surprised us along the way!

Paul:  We did know that “The Day Our Paths End” would be the closing piece of the album and therefore should be awesome, no matter the length of it. We also added some little jokes! When you listen very close, you can hear a reference to the classical piece “Danse Macabre” from the French composer Saint Saens. The first one to discover where in “The Day Our Paths End” we used this reference gets a free t-shirt! (laughs)

Joost:  After writing some parts of the song, it became obvious it wasn't meant to be a short song. This was to be our closing track on the album, so we went all out on this one. We all pitched in [when it came to] writing some of the lyrics, and it was kind of a group process. The song tells about the moment you lose faith in faith, and in this song we taunt the “creator” to show itself – which, of course, doesn't happen. To me personally, this is one of my favorite songs because of the way the intention of the song and lyrics embrace each other.

Sara:  What are your favorite songs on “Amygdala,” and why?

Peter:  “Love Is Thy Sin” for its huge amount of finger-crushing riffs, and “The Day Our Paths End” for containing everything Ex Libris stands for.

Dianne:  I cannot say that I prefer one song above the others. My voice is still developing, and because of this the song that I prefer the most can change every few months. At first, I was most fond of “Love Is Thy Sin.” But since my voice grew more heavier, I find that I can pull the vocal lines of “Destined” even more intensely than on the album. The songs which are special to me outside of the vocal lines are “‘Sail...”, “... Out to Farewell,” and “Death Becomes Us All.” They are combined into one epic and resemble the end of my 3-and-a-half year relationship with our drummer Joost. We founded Ex Libris together, and so this was not only to us but also to the band an impressive moment to put into music.

Koen:  I have to go with “Love Is Thy Sin” simply because I have a very vivid memory of recording the vocal lines with Dianne and feeling the song come into its own. The listening session afterwards was haunting!

Paul:  Purely based on the song, I would go for “Dawn of Sugars” because it builds up pretty nice and works out really great on stage. But, there's a lot of other cool stuff I like in the songs which at first we didn't expect but happened while recording the songs. For example, the way “Sail...” builds up towards the solo is huge. There are six to eight guitar tracks at once! Not everyone might notice this, but I know they add an important feel to the song.

Ex Libris

Joost:  Like I said earlier, it would have to be “The Day Our Paths End.” Simply because everything in this song comes together so beautiful, and that gives it even more power.

Sara:  Ex Libris has played numerous shows in support of “Amygdala.” How have those gone? Have more and more people come to see you over time?

Peter:  When evaluating the 18 gigs we did in 2011, I can conclude that we've grown stronger and better after each gig. They were all fun to play, and we gained a lot of experience, both on- and off-stage. It's nice to see people, other than relatives or friends, wearing Ex Libris t-shirts and coming to see us play.

Sara:  You’ve also opened a few shows for Epica and ReVamp – big names in the Dutch metal scene, and bands whose music is a little different from yours. Were you nervous when each band initially asked you to play with them? Have you found that fans of these more famous bands are now following you as well?

Peter:  Opening for such bands puts a kind of pressure on me. To be honest, my opinion on support acts is that they have to kill time before the headliner starts. People come to see, for example, Epica, but first they've got to go through Ex Libris. I want our performance to be as pleasant as possible, and that people are really “warmed up” for the headliner. We’re getting lots of positive reactions, and it puts a smile on my face when people ask me after the show for an autograph on their Ex Libris CD.

Sara:  Would Ex Libris like to play outside of the Netherlands at some point? Maybe a tour with another band, or at a festival such as Metal Female Voices Fest?

Peter:  I think Ex Libris is ready to take over the world! 2010 brought us a lot of gigs, and I hope 2011 will bring us even more! A tour would be great, festivals like MFVF even better! In 2011, our worldwide booker EAM Agentur will help us promote ourselves to the world.

Ex Libris

Sara:  You’ve mentioned that Ex Libris is working on its next album. At what stage is the band in terms of creating this album? Do you have an idea as to how it might differ from “Amygdala”?

Paul:  Right now, we are recording a three-track promo EP for our upcoming album called “Medea.” It will be a concept album about the story of Medea from Greek mythology. Creating this album will be a great adventure!

Koen:  Just like a Hollywood sequel, it's going to be bigger, better, and bolder!

Joost:  We are indeed working on our second album. We cannot release too much information about it, or we would spoil the surprise. People who've been going to our live shows might have an idea as to where it will be about, but we're not going to tell much more. We are currently in a phase where we are recording three songs, which will appear on the album, in order to present it to companies who support what we are doing, believe in us, and are willing to stick their neck out for us.

Sara:  What else is on the agenda for Ex Libris in 2011?

Paul:  We signed a worldwide booking deal with EAM Agentur from Germany. So, hopefully there's some serious touring going on in 2011. Be sure to check out the website since we might play overseas this year. ;)

Ex Libris

Sara:  Thanks very much for your time! Anything you’d like to say to your fans and our readers at Sonic Cathedral?

Peter:  Rock on! I hope to see you somewhere in 2011. SLAAAYYEERRRRRRR!!!

Dianne:  Thanks for experiencing our music with us!! Hope to see you soon!

Koen:  Come to our gigs! Buy our stuff! Drink beer with us! HAIL!

Joost:  Thank you for reading, and whatever you do, love it!

Thanks again to Ex Libris for taking the time to talk with us. Best wishes to the band in 2011 and beyond!

Extra thanks to Peter den Bakker for arranging the interview & also a VERY special thanks to Erik Schepers (Website) for allowing SC photo usage in this interview.

Be sure to check out Ex Libris at the following websites:
Official Website
Ex Libris on Myspace
Ex Libris on Facebook