Sheffield Metal To The Masses winners Aonia have been plying their trade for a good few years. I was fortunate to be able to ask the band the a few questions before they head to Bloodstock for their show on the Hobgoblin New Blood Stage. This is one interview I’m glad I did via email as the band appeared to have sufficient fun answering the questions I’d sent them. If I was interviewing them in person I think I’d still be there! Massive thanks to the band for adding some humour to a rather dry process. If you weren’t sure about whether they were worth seeing at Bloodstock, hopefully this interview will help you make your mind up. Or maybe not. Brace yourselves.
Paul: You’ve got quite a mixture in the line-up. Seven members, all from completely different backgrounds and with a huge range of influences. Can you give us a potted history of the band and introduce us to the current line-up?
MEL: Line-up – Jo and myself on lead vocals, James (‘Carrot’) and Przemek (‘Slick’) on guitars, Tim on keys and sex jokes, Matt on bass, and Dave on drums and sarcasm. Carrot and Matt also provide backing vocals. As for a potted history of the band -
TIM: Historically, Aonia prefers deep, preferably glass or earthen-ware pots with no hole but plenty of depth to fit as much beer in as possible. Off shoots tend to prefer smaller glasses filled with Jack Daniels or Single malt whisky, though there are some who are happier with a nice cup of tea. We also have a Polish variety who prefers black coffee and enjoys floating on top of a lot of water. My likes are food, alcohol and big boobs. I love Aonia.
MEL: I’m not sure how relevant -
DAVE: We all started life as little seedlings, trying to make our way in the world of music by learning our craft and working hard to be better than we were yesterday. As we grew stronger we were potted up with a good compost mix to energise us to grow into far more productive and vibrant beings. Through the years as we all grew stronger and bigger and began to take on our own defining shapes and colours, getting potted up in bigger and bigger pots where we got more recognition for our defining characteristics and appreciated, someone somewhere decided we 7 little seedlings, which had grown into 7 mature vibrant plants should all be planted together in one big pot called Aonia, and with some manure from the past and sunshine in the future, we should be one great combination. Blame Monty Don's influence for that one.
MEL: Carrot’s old band and my old band folded at about the same time. He and I joined forces with our remaining members, who left over the course of the next few years. We’ve had some line-up changes, which is always sad, but each time it’s made us stronger and more determined. Our current line-up has been going strong for nearly two years now, and we’re releasing our first full-length album on October 6th at AoniaFest in Sheffield.
Paul: There is no doubting where your sound sits. The latest single Violet Hours is certainly much more developed than City of Shadows and demonstrates how the band has developed. Whilst we hesitate to label bands, how would you describe the band’s sound?
TIM: Vibrations that travel through the air or another medium and can be heard when they reach a person's ear.
MEL: Okay, so we’re going down the science route again. Just please don’t bring temporal relativity into it again, dude. I’d describe us as operatic, progressive metal – I think Jo came up with the name ‘oprog.’ And it has certainly evolved since the City of Shadows EP – for one thing, we’ve got Tim now. On the City EP, all the keys were done by me…and because I wanted to replicate them live, they had to be simple enough that I could play and sing at the same time. We also didn’t have the dual vocals – or any vocals other than me. I actually sing the tenor line on the title track on that EP. It’s nice to have an ACTUAL tenor now!
DAVE: I would describe the band as for most people, just another band.
MEL: True. We once sold an EP to a guy wearing a Beyoncé t-shirt. He was a work-friend of our ex-bassist who stopped by a gig out of politeness. I consider that one of our greatest victories.
DAVE: We have a few odd quirks that make us unique, which is great. If we're not your cup of tea we might not blow you away, but you might just think we were pretty decent. But for a select few, not many can really describe why but they love our sound. Not for cold hard labels matching their iPod’s catalogue, but just because something in our music tugs at their heart and their guts and connects with them.
SLICK: The band's sound is a blend of many different styles that we express in our instruments when playing. It is heavy, melodic, soft, hard, sharp...
Paul: It’s a bit of a challenge to ask you to name the main influences for the band, given there are seven members with a wide range of influences, but I will anyway.
TIM: Each member brings his own influences – mine are pretty much everything I hear. At the moment I am listening to a lot of Aonia music – I blame the new album and Bloodstock for that! I understand one of our many influences is Mary Berry – it isn’t entirely clear how this works, though we have had some spectacular cakes at our gigs!
DAVE: Indeed Mary Berry is one of my great influences, as with Monty Don.
SLICK: My main influences are guitarists like Greg Howe, John Petrucci, Steve Vai, Plini, Polyphia, Sithu Aye, exceptional multi-instrumentalist Jordan Rudess, Jazz/ fusion expressed by Scott Henderson, Frank Gamable and many more. I very much like to listen to bassist like Jolenda Charles, Victor Wooten, Richard Bona....Their sound, expression, interpretation, and compositions are the biggest influence to the way how I play the guitar and interact musically with other members of Aonia.
MEL: There’s definitely a huge range in the band. Jo and I listen to a lot of operatic metal – Nightwish, Avantasia, Epica…Jo’s a huge Kobra and the Lotus fan. We also both used to sing opera – Jo still does; she has a couple concerts a year with the Nottingham Symphony Orchestra – so we have influences like Lesley Garret and Sarah Brightman along with classic composers like Bach, Handel, Delibes, Sullivan. Carrot’s really into his black metal as well, so that adds an interesting aspect with melodies and progressions you wouldn’t really expect.
Paul: Melissa and Joanne have played with Blaze Bayley and recorded with him. He’s one of the nicest people in metal today. What were the experiences in Sweden like?
MEL: Actually, we’ve all played with Blaze – he was kind enough at the first AoniaFest to join us onstage for a rendition of “Man on the Edge!” Plus he’s a guest vocalist on our upcoming album. And I completely agree – he is definitely one of the nicest people in metal today! Blaze is a total legend and a really lovely, down-to-earth guy with a great sense of humour. He’s also ridiculously intelligent. After recording the backing vocals and voice actor parts for the second album, we had a celebration at his house and he was making jokes about the laws of thermodynamics and quantum theory. He’s completely passionate about his music, the story he tells through his song writing and his lyrics, and the performance he puts on for the fans. Beyond that, he’s given us advice on our stage show, our song writing, our lyrics…he gives so much of himself to build others up. I can’t praise the guy enough for how amazing he is or for all the help he’s given to us.
JO: The whole experience with Blaze has been phenomenal. From being in the studio for each album to the gig in Sweden it's just been an unbelievable. Blaze and the Absolva guys are so good at what they do and they are such nice people. Sweden was such an awesome experience; we were treated like rock stars throughout by Blaze's manager (Mark Appleton) and the rest of the band. That show actually was one of the best live experiences I've had, so many talented people on the same stage...I just wanted to do it again and again. The after party was also something I'll never forget....what happens in Sweden, stays in Sweden!
Paul: Many of the bands that get through to Bloodstock tend to be thrash, black metal or hardcore and yet Within Temptation and Nightwish have headlined in the past, Nightwish close the festival main stage this year and Delain have headlined the tent in the past. Are you surprised that symphonic metal doesn’t feature more heavily amongst the new bands?
TIM: I would like to think that the bands are chosen on their individual merits, whether they be black metal or symphonic, or progeratic metal. There are very many great bands out there, and I think Bloodstock tries its best to represent the whole genre of rock and metal music.
MEL: Is it ‘progeratic?’ I thought we were going with ‘oprog.’
DAVE: No, I’m not surprised at all. It’s all about demographics. Yes some big symphonic type bands have headlined, but a much larger number of headline acts have been other genres, making them smaller in scale too. We're just a representation of the metal scene in the UK; there is just a lot more thrash and such out there, of sufficient calibre to make Bloodstock, so to have more symphonic type bands would be over representing the genre.
SLICK: I found out that there are certain periods in which metal style has bigger and smaller popularity. In the early metal days, it was thrash metal, then it moved to death metal, then black and doom. Now we have an interesting mixture of all of that and symphonic metal is slowly getting its recognition.
Paul: Metal To The Masses 2018: You obviously worked as hard as every other band to get through to the final. Tell us your road to the final story.
TIM: That’s the one-way system in Sheffield again. Next time, we hire a van and driver!
MEL: That one-way system is a nightmare.
DAVE: Sat nav really was the only way I’d get to the final, and that’s having lived in Sheffield and had many goes at driving there in the heats.
JO: The metal to Masses competition was an awesome journey. We had every faith in ourselves that we would make it quite far in the journey but when we got to the final we had no idea who would make it through as the competition was so intense.
MEL: We’ve been entering the M2M competition since the Earth’s crust was cooling and primordial life was starting to form. Or it feels like it anyway! Every year we’d get knocked out and go home crushed. But we didn’t give up. And all those setbacks were for the best for a few reasons.
First, when you win the M2M, you have to send a shedload of information through within 24 hours – logo, photo, video link, etc. This year was the first year we had a proper professional logo, a decent band photo, a professional video.
Secondly, the timing was right this year. We’ve got an album coming out in the autumn. We just finished our European tour with Alwaid. We’re in a position to be able to ‘ride’ on the hype from Bloodstock and use it to propel us forward, rather than just being a flash in the pan.
Finally, we are in a position now to deliver a performance worthy of Bloodstock. Our stage show is the best it’s ever been. Our music is the strongest it’s ever been. Our line-up is the best it’s ever been. If we’d been put through in the past, we’d not be as professional, as memorable, or as prepared as we are right now. Bloodstock knew – better than we did – when the best time for us to play Bloodstock is.
As for the actual competition this year, it was intense. The bands were of a superb calibre – the Steel City really is metal to its core. Any band in the competition would have done Sheffield and Bloodstock proud. After each stage we were certain we’d be knocked out, so we went away, tightened the nuts and bolts, added more visual aspects, and pressed on.
The line-up for the finals was incredible. So many bands with amazing musicianship, great crowd interaction, phenomenal stage presence - so it came as a total surprise to find out we won. (No one was more surprised than Jo. Seriously, she full-on ugly-cried. There are photos and everything.)
Paul: How strong is the scene in Sheffield? Did you feel confident you could get to the final?
DAVE: Very. Yes.
TIM: Well, after the first round, we pretty much knew the way so getting to the final proved quite easy, the only major problem being that all the bands with which we played were awesome and any one could have won, especially in the final itself.
MEL: Speak for yourself. I’m directionally impaired, even with a sat-nav.
SLICK: Yes. The scene in Sheffield is strong and some bands out there are amazing. We are working hard to be where we are and I believe we are confident in what we do.
MEL: There are some incredible bands in Sheffield. People are very supportive of the scene, and there are some fantastic venues who give up-and-coming bands a chance to shine – Corporation, The Mulberry, The RS Bar, The Dove and Rainbow, and West Street Live to name a few. People like Jake and Gareth – who organised the M2M – are really driving the scene forward. There are so many talented bands in Sheffield, and they – and the amazing support from the metal fans – are one reason we moved AoniaFest to this city. Great local bands to check out include Burn Down the District, Arkdown, This State of Ours, Soul Shredder, Firegarden, Ba’al (last year’s M2M winners), Air Drawn Dagger, Psython, Sobriquet, and Dychosis. I’ve probably forgotten one in that list. Or ten.
Paul:. Tell us about the build-up to the final; how did you manage to balance gaining support and avoiding saturating everyone?
TIM: We stopped using the bubble machine.
MEL: That poor bloke in the white T-shirt…
DAVE: We just made it all up as we went along. You say this like there was a plan involved...
SLICK: We did what we can the best that we can.
MEL: That’s basically it! We tried to just focus all of our energy on the M2M competition, made sure we spread the word – and people are so lovely and supportive and really wanted to see us make it, so they made the effort to come out and show their support. I can’t thank our Aonia Family enough. Without them, our music is empty.
Paul: That winning moment, when you get announced as the winners is something special. I’m sure there were a range of emotions going through but tell us a bit about how it felt.
JO: When they said we had won I actually fell to the floor because I couldn't quite believe it. I also cried....what a girl. Rob Bannister has banned me from crying at all at Bloodstock!
MEL: It was weird for me. I’m totally histrionic and I think everyone expected me to cry or shriek or run around like a lunatic or something. Hell, *I* expected to cry or shriek or run around in an overwhelming flood of emotion. I just didn’t. My husband and friends who came to the final were totally bouncing in the car on the way back; they kept saying, ‘You’re playing Bloodstock!’ and I was just…deadly silent. I think it was such a shock – a good one, of course – that I flipped completely from my normal way of reacting to things and became a to-do list android. That still hasn’t worn off. Expect a 100% complete breakdown as soon as we finish playing.
TIM: If you could put the feeling into a pill and bottle it you’d make millions until it was listed as a Class A drug and made illegal (after which, of course, you’d make even more money)! To play against such tough competition and come through, to hear Aonia announced as the winner, to be there with all your band mates (well, except our lead guitarist who was in Germany selling his Jordan Rudess endorsed guitars), to have all that pent-up adrenalin released in one sublime moment was incredible. I almost shat my pants!
DAVE: My only thought was ‘oh.’
MEL: You have no soul, dude.
Paul: You play on Saturday on the New Blood Stage. 30 minutes to capture interest and win some new fans. What can we expect from you guys – why should those who are undecided come and watch?
DAVE: Boobs? Nuff said.
MEL: That’s normally Tim’s line.
TIM: We will give the full Aonia show – expect smoke, lights, passion, loud music, big solos, extreme boobs and all round good-eggness.
SLICK: We are getting prepared to be the best at what we are doing. We are hoping to offer rather a unique mixture of metal styles which for an open-minded person should be interesting.
MEL: To borrow a phrase from Monty Python: “And now for something completely different.” We are LOUD. We are big in every way. (No, not just our boobs, Tim.) With four vocalists, two guitars and keyboards, there is a huge mix of melodies going on. Our drums and bass desperately try to keep everything together like a teacher on the last day of term who’s been told they aren’t allowed to show films. (NB: I’m a teacher. I’m doing this interview on the last day of term. I wasn’t allowed to show movies.) Every band says they’re different. I know that. But I firmly believe that we are – with the exception of Therion, I can’t think of another band that is similar to the sort of music we make. Also – our corsets light up, thanks to our Mistress of Merch and Costumes, Laura. It’s neat.
Paul: For anyone who has yet to experience Bloodstock, why should you go?
TIM: Dude – its Bloodstock!
JO: Great bands, a sense of togetherness, beer and so much fun!
DAVE: If you’re a nice person, you should definitely come; it’s lovely. If you're not...well...just come and be nice.
MEL: Bloodstock is amazing. I’ve been every year since 2007. It offers something for everyone. Every year I see people complaining, asking for ‘More [subgenre of metal]’ – which tells me that they must have a great mix because everyone feels like there isn’t quite enough of their preferred subgenre.
Also, the people who go are incredible. You can have the best conversation with the person behind you in the queue for the bar because you’ve seen the band that they have on their T-shirt. My husband regularly disappears on escapades with people because he ‘met a nice dude’ and wandered off to drink and play games. (One year he disappeared and we couldn’t find him for AGES. We all summarily freaked out and eventually found him in the SOPHIE tent drinking with Evil Scarecrow.)
Additionally, it’s laid out so well. Once you’re camped, the arena is about a 5 minute walk – maximum – from wherever you are. Bloodstock is just an incredible four days where ‘weird’ is the new ‘normal.’ Then you go home and spend a couple of days wondering why you can’t hear music in the background and why random people in the street don’t want to have a conversation with you.
Paul: Apart from playing BOA, you’ve got some history over the past few years. Give us a couple of highlights.
DAVE: For highlights, that sounds like a job for a hairdressing professional. I mean, I’d give it a go, but I don’t think that is a 'how hard can it be' sort of job.
SLICK: Performing with Blaze Bayley, playing great festivals, the road to Europe…that was cool.
TIM: For me it is Dames of Darkness and our recent tour of France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
MEL: Definitely Dames. Also, SOS Fest in Manchester was incredible, such a well-run event and a similar feel to Bloodstock, with the likeminded metalheads meeting up, but on a smaller scale. The Eurotour was incredible; Alwaid are such kind people who really looked after us while we were abroad for the first time. And we’ve had some great shows at the Corporation – Leaves’ Eyes, Xandria, Kobra and the Lotus…and playing the Resolution in Whitby during Whitby Goth Weekend. You haven’t lived til you’ve performed “Bohemian Rhapsody” and watched 250 goths singing along. That’s another place with such a great vibe, full of friendly, lovely people.
Paul: I must ask, why is Tim called ‘The Machine’ and how do put up with all that Dream Theater?
JO: He's actually a robot.
DAVE: Who is Dream Theatre?
MEL: Dream Theatre are Tim and Slick’s tribute band to Dream Theater. (No, seriously, “Dream Theatre” exists. Aonia have played with them and everything at a Metal Mayhem event.)
TIM: I’m ‘The Machine’ because I always keep going and give 100% to everything I do. I live life to the full, take everything in its stride and don’t complain, just get on with it. I was introduced to Dream Theater very late - by Tracey Abbott of Overdrive and Witchfynde - with the Systematic Chaos album - but was blown away by the musical skill of the whole of the band and, moreover, the range and styles they play. You get everything from crunching, hard driven metal to intrinsic, beautifully orchestrated and written anthems. I have met Jordan Rudess and consider him one of the greatest keyboard players of all time. If anyone wants to listen, there are 4 albums I wholly recommend – Systematic Chaos, Metropolis 2, Scenes from a Memory, Images and Words, and Train of Thought – but all their albums are worth checking out.
SLICK: Tim plays some badass section on the keyboard, possible only to him or a machine! If you compare him to Jordan from Dream Theater, you will see that both are exceptional and simply cannot come from this planet.
Paul: Finally, you’ve got the album in progress. What does the future for Aonia look like?
MEL: ‘Finally’ is right, haha. It’s been a long time coming!
DAVE: Who knows? It’ll never go to plan, even if we had one!
JO: The future is what we make it...we are going to smash the hell out of Bloodstock, keep pushing to be better and keep bringing you more and more music!
SLICK: The future looks busy and interesting, promoting our music, enjoying playing it. Happy days!
TIM: BOA is a huge step for us and we are doing everything we can to justify being on that stage. Keep an eye out for AoniaFest II on October 6th when our new album, The Seven, will be released and for many more gigs hopefully this year but definitely next year when we shall try our hardest to play as much of the UK and Europe as possible.