Interview by Ed MacLaren
“A Strange Utopia” is the latest progressive metal release from Lisbon-based Factory of Dreams. Combining dramatic vocals with intricate guitar lines and atmospheric keyboards, Factory of Dreams creates an epic journey into chaotic worlds of broken perfection. Not without a sense of humour, multi-instrumentalist Hugo Flores and vocalist Jessica Lehto join Femme Metal for a candid conversation about alligators, lip piercings… and, of course, music.
The CD focuses on the divisions between and within us while “A Strange Utopia” projects a more unifying intent. How did the concept for the CD develop?
Hugo : “Poles” had a well defined concept of exploring dark and light and the good and bad struggle within us, absolutely. The new album, even though it does have a defined concept throughout its 70 minutes, was basically done with the intention of exploring rather strange and impossible worlds which turned out to be strange Utopias. So, in the end, a universe called Utopia was thought of and the lyrics were written according to that perspective. What’s curious is that these some of these places are pleasant Utopias and some are definitely bad visions such as “Dark Utopia”. You can definitely think that “The Sight of a Better Universe” from “Poles” can be planet Utopia in a way, but the good side only. So, indeed this album is more unifying and I think the overall feel of the album transmits that idea and also provides a sense of connection to the previous album. As for the development of the CD, like most of my music, it started with the basic musical compositions and later the lyrics and concept started to revolve around the music. At a certain point, the music and probably the vocals were also influenced by the lyrical themes and moods.
Two albums in two years is considered prolific in music today. What inspired this creative outburst? Did you have some incomplete ideas from “Poles” that you built on or was it a fresh burst of creativity?
Hugo : “Poles” was concluded, totally. However, as soon as “Poles” was done, new ideas started to build and slowly the composition process began. We even managed to make a connection with “Poles” at the end of the track “Slow Motion World”! It was indeed an outburst of ideas and also the hunger to compose, and I also felt like making an in-between album featuring both Project Creation’s complexity and “Poles”’ simplicity. So, I basically took the previous album’s genre and decided to provide an epic and heavier feel to it – more progressiveness too – and make it a bit more complex in terms of performances and structures. So our fans will definitely find the “Poles” sound there, but with a much more open and epic feel to the music. If they hear it several times, they’ll be embraced by the music I’m sure – more than with “Poles” perhaps. As for the inspiration, I really can’t recall but inspiration comes just from playing with my keyboards and that was it. I had two tracks that were not used in “Poles”, however these were not used in “Utopia” either. In the trash with those!
“Poles” contained many elements of 70s-style prog rock along with strong electronica influences while “A Strange Utopia” feels much heavier with less ornamentation. Was this a conscious decision to reflect the CD concept and lyrical content or was it how the music organically developed? Did the lyrics shape the music or vise versa?
Hugo: I agree, even though it is more proggy than “Poles”. There’s less ornamentation, yes, but there’s a definite focus on the main melody while some tracks tend to have several arrangements around the main melody or several melodies. I love that feel – having a peaceful part and then a sudden burst or a more chaotic approach. Some people out there don’t get this type of sound approach. Well, try to get the overall picture of the concept – that’s the whole idea behind “A Strange Utopia”. “Poles” is a very unique album, It was made in a time when I really wanted to simplify my music, I suppose it really reflects that, and with that in mind, I love “Poles” and the more I listen, the more I really enjoy it. The simple things tend to be immediately likeable, but may not last long. “Poles” contradicts this to me because it also grows within the listener while being simpler in terms of structures, but more dense in ornamentations. “A Strange Utopia” was deliberately more progressive, more band-like sounding and more chaotic. Plus, I really wanted to use much more real drums instead of a deliberate electronic feel just like “Poles” had. I was also determined to add much more diversity to the songs too and I think that is audible. The lyrics began to take shape soon after the early compositions were made and I just started writing and writing and when I looked at the overall picture, I realized that I was really exercising my imagination with several fantasy worlds. Diversity is a word that comes to mind when listening to “A Strange Utopia”.
Since this is your second collaboration, did your personal and professional relationship change after the success of “Poles” and how is that reflected in “A Strange Utopia”?
Hugo : Yes! Now I enjoy playing pranks on Jessica more than before and teasing her pets too, especially her alligator that she keeps in her room hidden from the public. (This part may not be true… heh heh… really?). People are always evolving, and yes, when we did “Poles” we already had a good chemistry I suppose, however as time passed we became friends. Professionally, we collaborate basically in the same manner as with “Poles” but things are faster now because I know what she can do more easily, and she knows better what I usually like in a song as well.
Jessica : He’s always trying to take a swim with my alligator – yes! I don’t know what’s up with that. Despite that fact, yes, the friendship bond is stronger now than it was during the “Poles” recordings and by now we have even met face-to-face which was very lovely. When it comes to the music, this album has been easier for me to record than the previous one since I’m now more familiar with Hugo’s way of writing and arranging.
Hugo : Note the last time I checked the alligator was gone… (I was hungry…)
The vocals on “A Strange Utopia” are a big standout on this CD. The vocal overdubs and effects are well-placed and shaped a very strong compliment to the music. What was the vocal approach when recording “A Strange Utopia”?
Hugo: Better for Jessica to speak about this one. My idea was really to let the vocals stand-out, however, and as you listened, this time the instrumental parts are much more predominant than with “Poles”. So it’s not totally vocally focused like “Poles” was most of the time. One must recall that “Poles” has about 50 minutes, a bit less music, and this one takes up a full CD, so, it’s natural!
Jessica: Just like I did on “Poles”, I wanted to contribute to the atmosphere of each track, and at the same time I wanted to challenge myself a bit more by arranging vocals in a way I’m not used to. This approach resulted in, for example, the vocals in the ending parts of “Garden of all Seasons”. In general, I think I’ve played around a bit more on this CD than on the previous one. I did some arrangements in “A Strange Utopia” that to me somehow felt quite unexpected and I don’t really know where those ideas came from.
Hugo: Yeah, “Garden of All Seasons” – that’s some crazy tune.
Jessica, your vocals can range from the operatic to a soothing caress. I could hear what seemed to be a more than passing nod to Kate Bush in “Broken”. Who are your vocal influences and how much of an impact do they have on your own style?
Jessica: I have heard the Kate Bush thing before, although I must admit I’m not familiar with her work. Perhaps I should change that! My main vocal influences are Anneke van Giersbergen, Sharon den Adel, Enya and Tarja Turunen. It’s hard to say what impact they have on my own style. I suppose that’s up to the listener to decide since it’s too tricky for me, but I started singing before I started listening to these singers (apart from Enya, she was there many years before I started singing) and I found “my” voice pretty quickly. What I’ve done since then is to mainly polish it up and learn to be more versatile. So I suppose you pick up a thing here and there when listening to other singers.
Hugo, has Jessica‘s vocal perspective changed the way you approach the compositional process?
Hugo: That’s always a difficult question. I can say – without a shadow of a doubt – that for “Poles” the music was done independently and vocals were thought of after. I knew, however, that I wanted an operatic feel to them, or, if you will, a rock/operatic voice. So even though the music was pre-composed, I had that in mind. Now, for the new album “A Strange Utopia” that might have changed. I mean “Sonic Sensations”, “Slow Motion World” – I believe I thought of Jessica‘s voice for those and maybe for a few other tracks. This time we even had some guests too, so I also had to think of how to mix those parts with the lead vocals from Jessica. It was fun, and hard work too.
The dream-like imagery of the videos for “Weight of the World” and “Sonic Sensations” are beautiful to watch. How much input do you have in their creation? Do you find videos add a new dimension to the musical experience or are videos merely a necessary evil? Maybe they’re a way for Jessica to show off close ups of her lip piercing?
Jessica : Yes! I actually, and very, very, honestly, wanted to do those clips and focus only on my awesome lip piercing, you know. It should be the only thing visible for the viewers throughout both videos; the piercing and then darkness. So of course now I’m very bummed out that I actually was appearing in the video too, I thought the director was shooting my lip piercing only!
Hugo : (Laughs) No, it’s not at all a necessary evil – on the contrary – I love cinema and video, and making this type of art along with the music is just a way of complimenting everything so it definitely adds a whole new dimension. It only makes big seem bigger and epic much epicquier…erara. Heh? A lot, I really mean a lot, of work and production was placed in these clips. Actually two clips. I consider that a luxury, because only one would already have been a lot to produce really. So, I really, really, hope people will be aware of the work put into those and, most of all, like the videos. Yes, the piercing! Emil [Jonsvik] is a director that looks to every detail so I suppose he just likes her piercing – or maybe he’s afraid and wants to exorcise his fears? Hmmm… now I’m a bit afraid of that piercing! Really, Emil is very talented, and the way he works is just so much fun. Working with the crew, with Jessica, and all was just a fantastic experience. People not familiar with our clips should perhaps begin by watching the first one, “The Weight of the World”, and then the second one to get an overall picture. “Sonic Sensations” is a very mysterious video… As for inputs, just check http://www.youtube.com/projectcreation. People are really nice and do comment regularly, and love the videos.
Jessica : I agree with Hugo, making these videos was nothing less than two of my loveliest experiences within music so far and I’m very happy to say my video camera fear is now cured. I was very nervous before the first video shoot because I totally hate video cameras and I didn’t know if it would really work out for me. But during the first take I felt very comfortable and the camera did not feel like a problem at all. Many kudos to Emil, he’s a great director and I very much liked working with him.
This is your second consecutive Factory of Dreams CD. Has Factory of Dreams become less of a side project and more of a full-time focus?
Hugo : That’s a good question; it’s a main band for me, a main focus now, even though Project Creation is also on my thoughts, of course, for the near future.
With that said, Hugo, with your musical ability and production skills is there a full-blown metal opera in your future?
Hugo : I don’t have anything else in mind apart from Factory of Dreams and Project Creation really. I have a few projects that are waiting, but standing still on the shelves. I’m not that enthusiastic with those right now. I may, however, take those concepts and use them in my main bands though.
Together you’ve created two excellent CDs of progressive rock. Has your successful collaboration reached a logical conclusion or will Factory of Dreams go for the trilogy?
Hugo : There are no limitations, so I hope to keep going as long as we both want to do music and people keep following us, and ultimately, buying the albums. That’s the only way to get things going. So, leave those torrents, P2Ps, and alikes alone and buy the stuff. There is no trilogy, just a band or project, if you will, that makes music. As long as it’s fun, like it’s been up to now, it’s just great to be able to do what we do for as long as possible.