Interview with Collin Leijenaar and Robin Z. of Dilemma
2018 was an exciting year for progressive rock in general, and also marked the unsuspected return of Dilemma. Years in the making, their latest album was embraced internationally with raving reviews, DPRP included, in the end resulted in gaining top position on two of our writers top ten list. High time to have a chat with drummer Collin Leijenaar about the album, the past and present of Dilemma and future plans. Robin Z. (keyboards and founder) joined in. DPRP's Jan Buddenberg reports.
Hello Collin and Robin Z! Thanks for this opportunity to dive a little deeper into the world of Dilemma and your recent release Random Acts Of Liberation. To start things off, you sent the album prior to its release to Mike Portnoy which turned out to be a little stroke of genius. I suppose you were caught off guard and totally unprepared when he asked Dilemma to go on tour with Sons Of Apollo?
[Collin] I had sent Mike the album, and on a Friday morning I woke up to loads of emails and messages from people all over the world that they would like to hear our album, as they red Mike’s statement on his socials. We were blown away that he liked the album and he even included our album in his top 10 year list of 2018! So awesome! And then he asked us to join the Sons Of Apollo tour. We were so honoured!
[Robin Z] Yes, of course we were lost for words for a while when they asked us. And we knew we had to work our asses of in the weeks remaining, to live up to their standards and expectations. Nevertheless ‘no’ was never an option: which band would ever decline a unique chance like that? So we decided to go for it and started rehearsing as soon as possible.
Judging from your Facebook page and its reactions, the band gathered lots of new fans and had a blast on tour. What’s it like to have literally have been promoted overnight from First Division (meaning only having played live in the Netherlands) to the Premier League of Europe, so to speak?
[Collin] That’s awesome of course! For some of us this was something we had done before with other bands, but as Dilemma this was our first European tour. And we loved every minute of it. But it’s one thing to get asked, it’s another to deliver the goods, so to speak. And how awesome it is when in the middle of the tour Mike says on Instagram, 'These guys are kicking ass every night'! But it was not an easy thing to do. Nobody knew our music so we really had to win them over. Every night we had to build it up from zero. And luckily with great success. We got so many awesome responses from the people attending the shows.
Portnoy gave the album two thumps up and rates it as one of the best releases of 2018. DPRP gave it a perfect score as well (twice), and with just a quick glance on your website as to whom recommends the album I guess you couldn’t be more happier?
[Collin] Yes, we are very, very happy with the response. And the good reviews keep coming in. It’s what you hope for when you are in the creative process. Because it’s one thing that we like the music we make, but we never know what the ‘outside world’ thinks of it. We put all of our heart and soul into making this album.
[Robin Z] Like Collin said, we were just writing and recording songs and not really thinking about the expectations of the outside world. Of course we felt that we were working on something good, but it’s hard to be sure of that until other people start hearing it. We could never have dreamed that the response would be this amazing. It motivates us to write great stuff again for the next album...
Nowadays Dilemma consists of founder Robin Z., Van der Vlis and Crezee, all of them relatively unexposed/unknown, and two more well-known musicians; Dec Burke (Frost*), and you. Has this semi-new line-up opened up new doors which were locked in the earlier years of Dilemma? Maybe even altered Dilemma’s angle of perceptions to the music industry, in Holland or in general?
[Collin]: Well, the line-up of Dilemma has not been changed in a long time. Right after the release of Imbroccata, drummer Frank van Essen started to play with Iona. I joined Dilemma somewhere late 1995, and in the same period our current guitar player Paul Crezee replaced original guitar player Toll. Two or three years later bass player Case left the band and was replaced with current bass player Erik van der Vlis. So with exception to Dec Burke, this line-up has been together since the late 90s. Dec Burke joined Dilemma in 2015 after a long period of auditions for a new vocalist.
[Robin Z] Of course it helps when members of the band have become well known prog musicians in the meantime. Collin got to work with some of the best names in the business, like Mike Portnoy, Neal Morse, Jordan Rudess and Dave Bainbridge. And so did Dec in his collaborations with guys like Jem Godfrey, Simon Andersson and Richard West. On the other hand: when Imbroccata was released in the 90s, we also gained some popularity and sold quite a few albums. So I guess it’s also the quality of the songs and our signature Dilemma style that helps us out with that. So let’s say it’s the combination of these to that brought Dilemma where we are right now. And don’t forget that Collin is one of the hardest working guys in this genre, as a drummer and producer but also as the main man when it comes to the business and promotion side of the band.
The overall theme of the album deals with acts of liberation. To enhance this theme several tracks on the album are guided by graphic visualisations inside the booklet; for instance the stairs on Amsterdam (This City) or the hands trying to break free on The Inner Darkness. To enlighten our readers towards certain insights could you depict a few in the sense whether the songs deal with social observations, perhaps personal experiences or just random loose thoughts?
[Robin Z] It’s all of the above, I guess. Some stories (songs) are based on personal observations or experiences, other are just works of fiction. Sometimes (in one or two occasions) the lyrics almost seemed to write themselves, and only by looking at them afterwards we discovered what they were about or what they tried to say. One thing soon became clear during the writing and recording sessions: almost every track talked about being liberated. From thoughts, fears, places, people or life on earth. And since that was also how we felt as a band at that time: free to write and compose what we wanted, without boundaries or NO!’s. This eventually led to the title of the album, and to the (sometimes symbolic) visualisations in the booklet.
Musically it’s a very diverse album, which ticks a lot of boxes and even to this day I find more and more “evidence” of influences I have not included in my review. Interestingly, these references never relate to anything coming from Holland. Rich Mouser’s mastering and mixing responsible for a huge part of this turn but it’s interesting to know whether this liberation towards this new international feel already occurred during your time with Butler. Or is it his replacement by Dec Burke which caused a big turn on sound?
[Collin] From the start of working on this album, I already envisioned this end result. As a producer I really sought for a broad sound, with modern influences. And I wanted to make an album that was not only filled with great songs, but also sonically would be a great sounding album.
Since I was a young teenager, I have always been busy with (high-end) audio equipment, music and sound and always searched for the best sound and best recordings. I listened to a lot of music, in a very mindful way. That was my favourite activity: playing a CD or LP, sitting down and listening analytically to what happens in the music. Not only in terms of instrumentation and which parties the musicians play, but sonically. Where are the instruments placed in the sound stage; in terms of frequency, and balance, but also in terms of placement. As a young boy, I was fascinated by all those facets of music. Everything in my room that made a bit of noise went out, so that I could really hear the smallest details. I think that was the basis for how I am now working on music and producing. That has formed 'my ears' and musicality. And that's how I still listen.
As a producer, I look for a pleasant balance between the extremes that can be found in prog. Large - small, full - empty, dark - light, tension - relaxation, bombastic - fragile etc. Good placement in the frequency spectrum and in the sound image are very important to me. Everything that happens must be in the service of the song. Especially in building multiple layers, in which some parties or melodies only are noticeable after a number of spins. Almost inaudible, but adding something substantial to the whole. I want the music I make to grow with the listener. So that again and again something different can be discovered. A voyage of discovery within the music. I like that kind of music, not music that comes in and flies out again with the same speed. Fastfood-music I call that, which is occasionally nice, but I rather have the experience of an exciting seven-course gastronomic musical diner. And Rich Mouser was the right guy for the job. He is amazing!
There are a lot of pop-influences in your music ranging from the years 1984 to 1993 embedded with divine touches of melodic progressive Marillion, Enchant, Toto, It Bites, and Spock’s Beard, to name a few. Where do the different members of Dilemma get their inspiration from?
[Robin Z] I think it’s true that the influence of personal musical heroes will always be wandering through the songs you write. But it’s hardly ever intentional. Still the associations are there when you are jamming as a band, or composing alone at home. The music that you grew up with is always in your veins. In our case, the fun part is that these bands are quite different for every member of the band. From pop, prog and glam-rock to even more bluesy vibes. Which probably explains why we, I hope, never sounds as a clone of other acts. If there’s one thing that we’re proud of, and always work hard for to achieve, it’s our own distinctive Dilemma sound.
[Collin] Looking at the band members, we all have such a different personality and musical taste that some people would wonder how these five guys can come to making music together. Of course we also have music in common, but due to our differences we are able to bring in so many viewpoints on the music when we are writing. That gives us a lot of creative freedom to not stay in one box or style, but expand to where our creativity takes us.
The whole album feels in perfect balance and harmony. Most tracks are solidified song-base structured with melodic guitar, accompanying keys, supportive bass, functional playful drums and tuneful vocals; no typical endless noodling. A slight exception to the rule is The Inner Darkness showcasing Dilemma being perfectly capable of doing epic progressive rock, but I guess that’s were your bond with Transatlantic and Neal Morse comes in?
[Collin] Seven years of totally immersing myself with the music of Neal Morse as drummer and bandleader of the live band for Neal did leave a very positive mark. So yes, of course his influence is big on what I do. As well as Mike Portnoy’s playing. I had to learn all his parts note by note, so a lot of that stuck with me. But we did not think of writing a long song. It just happened. One thing led to another.
Without Burke constantly living in Holland did you experienced difficulties in the recording process, or where they easily overcome? And were any older ideas from The Underneath used, or are the tracks all new and recent?
[Robin Z] No, we didn’t expect much problems with that. The UK is not that far, after all, and Dec has some nice recording facilities at home. He came over to us a few weekends and pulled off his vocal parts perfectly. He was able to add his final bits (and one of the guitar solos) at home in Northampton. Regarding the compositions: most of the songs consist of new and recent stuff, but for example in Prodigal Son and Openly a few parts were added that we came up years ago, including some from the few years we called ourselves Underneath.
Most progressive rock fans I know like to own the original issues of CDs. Some might even go as far as buying the limited edition double vinyl edition which supports this album or dive into the back catalogue. If further success is imminent then Imbroccata, your previous album from 22 years ago, and the iO Pages sampler which features one non-album track, might prove to be a problem since the original record company no longer exists and copies are rare. Any plans or thoughts?
[Collin] Ha! I am a music fan like you describe. I have many albums both on CD (sometimes the normal and special edition) and the vinyl. About the older releases, we had talked about re-releasing them, or even re-recording them. But in the end we decided not to spend our energy on things from the past, but keep building on the momentum and look to the future.
2018 has proven to be a good year for Dilemma. New album, a European tour and good reviews. Looking at the aspect of Dec Burke being in Brexit UK, and you personally as one of the busiest musicians in the Netherlands (although you gained some time by parting ways with Kayak, recently), that leaves us with just one question: what can we expect from Dilemma in 2019 and onward?
[Collin] We want to play live as much as we can. If it was up to us we were constantly touring. But it proves to be hard to get gigs that at least cover travel and production costs. So we keep investing in the band (that will never stop I guess). And we love to play, so we will do whatever is needed to be done to be able to play live, and meet our fans.
As for confirmed shows, we will play on March 9 as support for Lifesigns in De Boerderij, Zoetermeer (Netherlands), and we are very happy that we have been included to the Night Of The Prog festival line-up, where we will play on Friday, July 19. There are some other things brewing, but I can’t say anything about that yet.
And we already started writing songs for a new album. No release plans yet, but we are full of ideas, the creativity is flowing!
Thank you very much for this interview and I look forward to seeing you live on those occasions!
More than welcome! Thank you for your support!
Photos used by kind permission of Dilemma.
The concert opening for Lifesigns on 9 March 2019 that Collin mentioned had already taken place at the time of publication of this interview. You can read the live review here!