NOTE: Greg Hasbrouck interviewed Circus Maximus vocalist Michael Eriksen in May of this year.
Michael: I’m doing good… how are you?
Greg: I’m doing really well. It’s a pleasure to speak with you. I appreciate you taking time out of your schedule.
Michael: Of course. Anytime my friend… anytime.
Greg: I was thinking about approaching this interview chronologically. So with that said, let’s begin at the beginning. So tell me, when did you first begin to develop an interest or love for music?
Michael: Well… I still remember the first time I heard the song “Hysteria” from DEF LEPPARD (laughter).
Greg: Oh really?
Michael: Yeah. That was the first album I ever bought…. Hysteria by DEF LEPPARD. That’s when I became a fanboy. I grew up in the 80s, so bands like DEF LEPPARD, WHITESNAKE, SKID ROW had a huge impact on me.
Greg: I’m with you… I’m also a child of the 80s. So at what age do you begin to realize, “Hey… I can sing a little bit”?
Michael: Well… I first started playing guitar when I was 12. And after a while, me and some friends started a band playing cover tunes from SKID ROW, BON JOVI, KISS, DEF LEPPARD. And those kinds of bands have a lot of big choirs on the choruses, so I had to learn to sing while playing the guitar. I was not the lead singer, a friend of mine was. He sang some songs and I sang some songs. And after a while I started to develop more and more stamina and getting more control of my voice and started to get a love for singing.
Greg: As you began to develop your voice, were there certain singers you began to emulate or try to learn from?
Michael: Yeah, sure… well of course I have a kind of natural, high pitch in my vocal chords… so Tony Harnell, Sebastian Bach… and of course Geoff Tate. So when you try to sound like those guys, it takes a lot of power and exercise. And after many, many years, you start to have some control over your voice.
Greg: So you mentioned that you started a band with some friends. Were you in any serious bands before Circus Maximus?
Michael: No… nothing like that. Just some fun stuff, playing cover songs and of course some home made songs, but nothing serious at all.
Greg: OK… and Circus Maximus actually started in 2000… correct?
Michael: Well, that’s when we became a full line up… me, and Mats on guitar and Truls, his brother, our drummer, had been playing together for something like 12, or 13 or 14 years. We all took notice of each other when we grew up playing all those cover tunes. So they played in another band and I played in another, but I really liked the playing of those guys. So I ended up being in their band, and it ended up being Mats, Truls and I, playing together for many years alone… like a trio. It’s not easy to find members for a band who fit perfectly. So in 2000, was when we became a complete line up.
Greg: So when the line up takes form, is the plan to just play out, have fun and meet girls or is the intent to evolve into an all original band?
Michael: At that time, we just wanted to play together as a band. We were not thinking about our future or record deals. We didn’t think about that till later on. Then we saw an ad in a magazine, and it said you could win a record deal. So we thought, “What the heck… let’s make three or four songs.” So we did. And none of those songs are officially out… that’s just old, old stuff. But it ended up that people liked it and said we should send it to some record companies… so we did. But then we recorded three new songs, “Glory of the Empire”, “Imperial Destruction”, and uhhh… a song called “Maryanne”. And then Ken Golden from Laser’s Edge said, “We should do an album together”. And that’s when we finally said, “Hey… we got a record deal”.
Greg: So was Ken the first person to approach with an offer to record a record?
Michael: Yes. We sent a demo to Ken Golden and he said, “Wow… we should do a record together and here’s somebody you should contact… Intromental.” So we contacted them and now it’s history.
Greg: Very cool.
Greg: So changing topics a bit… Norway tends to be known for Black Metal. Was there then or is there now, much of a scene for melodic Metal?
Michael: There are a couple of bands that make music that is all about the melodies. Of course the majority of bands you’ve heard of from Norway are Black Metal bands. That is actually what Norway is known for.
Greg: OK… so when Glenn announced you were going to be one of the openers for ProgPower VI, I remember most people on the forum were like, “Circus who?” Then, a couple months later you do your set, you kill, and by the time the weekend is over, you’ve begun to cement yourselves as a ProgPower favorite. Talk a little bit about that performance and that experience.
Michael: Wow… it was the best time we ever had, getting to come over to the States and getting to play for totally new people. And of course the festival is so damn good. Everything is taken care of from the moment you arrive. I remember when we arrived in the airport in Atlanta. There was a limo driver with a sign that read, “Circus Maximus”. And of course we came in with our guitars and people were like, “Oh my god, who are those guys? Are you guys in a band or something?”
Michael: So they thought we were hot shots, but we were an unknown band. But the entire ProgPower festival was amazing. And the crowd… I remember we were set up to do a signing session and we ended up staying for one and a half hours. Without a stop, we just signed and signed. There’s a moment for that signing session that I will never forget. There was a girl and a guy and they said, “Michael, you have some awesome pipes.” And I was like, “OK. Thank you. I’m glad you like it.” And they said, “Would you mind signing The First Chapter album for our daughter?” And I was like, “Of course. What’s her name?” And suddenly, you know, she pops out… she’s there.
Michael: Eight years old or something. And she’s standing there with those big, big eyes. I remember when I was that little. She’s actually growing up listening to our kind of music because of her parents. So that’s something I will remember for always.
Greg: Do you have any idea why you so immediately connected with that audience? A dozen bands play that festival every year. Yet you seem to have established this special connection.
Michael: Maybe people who hadn’t heard of us before, who like either Prog or Power Metal or whatever… 90% of all Prog Metal bands focus on making odd time signatures, crazy drum patterns, trying to blow away any guitar player in the venue, “Oh my god… he plays so good.” While the Power Metal bands are all about Metal and melodies. And that’s what Circus Maximus is all about, melodies. Though, at the same time, making guitar riffs that will get an eye open for guitar players, “Wow, that’s a cool riff playing” or crazy keyboard stuff right there. So, we’re a good mix. So instead of just making all the Proggers happy, we also show that we’re Metalheads, a Power band.
Greg: That makes a lot of sense. So… the following year, Glenn brings you back to play the showcase. Did you feel any pressure to recapture the energy, or the magic if you will, of that first performance? Was that second performance more pressure?
Michael: No. We looked forward to playing again, for the crowd, and after the feedback from everybody. This time we were like, “Wow… this is going to be great.” The first time we were like, “OK guys, let’s go out and do our best.” And the second time we knew it was going to be a great show. I definitely remember, we were standing in the back of the stage, and they hot the lights you know… and the crowd went (high pitched screaming sound).
Michael: I love that.
Greg: In 2006, you guys played Sweden Rock. Aside from the obvious size difference, what’s that like comparatively speaking?
Michael: Well of course it’s a big, big festival. It’s like 35,000 people there. But it’s very well organized. It’s a perfect festival. And there’s a lot of big stages all around. But I understand now, why people say its more fun to play for people in a smaller club, than to play for 15,000 at a big venue. I understand why they say that now. When you standing there singing, and there’s a big line of people walking back and forth, in the rear, you’re like, “OK… they’re here to drink and have fun. It’s strange”.
Michael: Actually… funny thing. When we played there, I remember the day before, Symphony X was playing. And we’re great fans of the band, so we got up there and stand in front of the stage and sang our asses off! We were trying to sing like Russell (Mike demonstrates his Russell impression)
Michael: And the day after my voice got fucked, you know, because of that.
Michael: I was so much looking forward to doing that Sweden Rock show, because… it’s going to be great and my voice was not there that night. But it was fun.
Greg: So that’s interesting. As a singer, you instrument is your body. How do you deal with it when you’re not feeling right?
Michael: Of course, rule one, don’t think about it. Although it’s easy, waking up on the same days as a gig, and you’re thinking (cough, cough), “What was that? Oh shit… this is going to be bad.” And people say, as vocalist, we’re hypochondriacs . And everything is like, I can’t do that, I can’t eat that. But if you don’t think about it, it’s much, much better.
Greg: So in 2007, you record Isolate. What do you think was the biggest difference in how you approached your second album, compared to your first?
Michael: On The First Chapter album, we experimented a lot more, trying out stuff, making that riff there, trying to sing like that, making a song like that. On the Isolate album , there’s more of a thread to the songs. The songs are more mature, more to the point. Instead of having a long instrumental section in the middle, we we’re like, this song doesn’t need that. I think the songs are much better. Of course on forums and everything people are like, “We like The First Chapter the best.” But that’s how it is.
Greg: Are you ever surprised by the amount of success that the band has enjoyed already?
Michael: Yes. We get e-mails everyday. Not on MySpace, but directly to us saying, “Come here … do that song… blah blah blah.” And we’re pretty nice guys and we interact with our fans all the time. And of course it’s thanks to all the fans out there, because of the Internet, they’ve spread the word about us. And we feel really honored, to already now be at that point in our career, after two albums… I think we’ve achieved much more than other bands who have only two albums, you know what I mean?
Michael: Actually, we just posted a link on our site, to some kind of site, that had voted us, the hundred best songs that will stand the test of time… in Metal. And we had five or seven songs or something. And together with all kinds of great bands. And “Glory of the Empire”, from the first album, was actually song number seven on that list and I was like, “What the hell is this?”.
Michael: And another cool thing. Even though it’s like two years since the Isolate album came out, we saw this web site, this voting site to vote for the hot, upcoming bands in the Prog scene. And of all the votes there, I think we have 40%.
Greg: So you guys toured a lot last year in Scandinavia and Europe. You got to support Queensryche and Kamelot. When opening for a well established act, like a Queensryche, do you guys learn anything by watching how they approach things?
Michael: Yeah. We learned from all of those great bands. Nothing extraordinary, but you like to see how they do things, how they warm up… how does Geoff Tate warm up his voice, you know for me as a singer. It’s strange being backstage and hearing him warming up and singing Queensryche songs, and I’m like, “Wow… this is cool.”
Greg: So in 2008 you were supposed to tour over here (the U.S.), but pulled out to tour with Symphony X. Can you talk about some of the factors that went into that decision?
Michael: Well… there’s three sides to every story, and we got e-mail from a couple of fans, well maybe not fans of us, but fans of Glenn and everything saying, “We are a stupid-ass band and we’re not going to buy a record from you because you ditched Glenn.” But let’s just say there’s three sides to every story, about how we ended up doing the Symphony X show instead of the States tour with Manticora. But of course in our situation as a band, getting an opportunity to play for Symphony X; that is something any band would have done.
Greg: I agree with you. I think you guys made the right decision, to do a tour opening for Symphony X. I see on your web site, the next show you have scheduled is ProgPower X. I assume you guys are working on the new album in the meantime?
Michael: Yeah. Well, I think there are four or five shows booked now, for after the summer… Norway, Portugal, and the U.K., and of course U.S.A. And of course during all this time, we said to each other, this time around let’s focus on making the next album. Let’s not do a lot of shows every second week. Because you have to rehearse all the songs instead of making the album and you get drained. Of course there have been a lot of offers to tour here and there, in the States, here in Europe with great bands. We’ve said no. Although we would love to go on tour with bands all over the world, but these things cost a lot of money. For instance, the Symphony X tour, we’re all going to pay a lot of money, each month, for the next five years.
Greg: Really!? The cost, out of your pockets, just to be on that tour?
Michael: Everything is out of our own pockets. On that tour we paid for everything ourselves.
Greg: Wow. .. wow. For the new album, do you guys have any songs written? How far along are you in that process?
Michael: We write stuff every day. I guess we have, more or less, seven songs really. This is one song; this is one song here, this eight minutes of that song. We got pretty far on some of the songs and we have ideas for ten or fifteen others.
Greg: Are you guys working on any schedule? Is there a date or month you’re shooting for, to have the new album out by?
Michael: Well of course we said to each other, a year ago when Glenn asked us to play at the ProgPower again, oh we got to have an album out by then. But of course, you can’t put that pressure on a band, trying to make an album. But we should take our time. The third album is very important. We’re planning on doing two or three videos, taking it to the next step of course. So we don’t want to rush anything.
Greg: So we’ve talked about your previous ProgPower experiences. Now you’re returning on a night being dubbed, “Returning Heroes”. What are your expectations this time around?
Michael: Well of course, we’re going to do a cool thing at the pre-party. Yeah… I think that’s going to be a cool treat for the fans, see us playing cover songs, and of course regular songs. We haven’t decided which songs we’ll play yet, but you can imagine playing the song “Abyss” as an acoustic song. We’d have to redo the whole song… but you never know. I’m looking forward to it. And of course, we’re gonna put on a great show for the main festival and play songs that the Prog Metal people like to hear. “Mouth of Madness” would be great song for that, because that’s what they want to hear.
Greg: Speaking of the Pagan’s Maximus thing, do you expect you’ll get together with the Pagan’s Mind guys, given that you’re both from Norway and figure out what you’re going to do ahead of time, or do you plan to do an impromptu thing and just figure it all out on stage in Atlanta?
[Important note from Glenn Harveston, July 2009: "I just received word that due to the time commitments involved with the Stratovarious tour, Pagan's Mind will not be arriving to Atlanta until Friday afternoon. The acoustic Pagan's Maximus show has been changed as a result. Circus Maximus will now play a full electric set consisting of cover tunes and Circus Maximus songs that will NOT be performed on the main stage on Saturday. Both Pagan's Mind and I apologize for the change in plans."]
This ends Part One of Greg’s interview with Circus Maximus vocalist Michael Eriksen. The complete interview can only be found in the official (printed) ProgPower USA program given to all attendees. If you want to read the entire interview, you have to come to the show!
Final Note: All photos/images used to illustrate this interview are used in compliance with the principles of Fair Use. They illustrate reviews, opinions, and interviews with the band members who created the albums and on whose official web sites and MySpace pages some of these images reside. No copyright violations are intended. The photos of the band are borrowed from the band’s official web site.