Most well-known as the founder and lead guitarist of the rock band Europe that quickly became Sweden's biggest rock export with the songs ‘The Final Countdown’, ‘Carrie’ and ‘Rock The Night’, John Norum has sold over fifteen million albums worldwide. Hugely respected, thanks to his fluid style, flair, and incredible technique, the Norwegian-born player is readying the release of a new solo album ‘Gone to Stay’. Recorded during the COVID pandemic, it’s his first solo release in over a decade. We caught up with John for a chat about the album, his guitar and vocal style, and what reunited him with Europe. Back on the streets; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi John how are you today?
I’m pretty good. I’ve just kind of woke up, so I’m just trying to wake up my brain!
I’m on the phone from Ireland, and given you’re a huge fan of Thin Lizzy, I thought that would be a good place to start.
Yeah, totally. I’ve seen Thin Lizzy many. many times. I saw them the first time in1977 on the ‘Bad Reputation’ tour, and became a huge fan right away. It’s the best gig I ever seen until this day.
What was it that drew you to the band?
It was everything, really. I mean, it was the guitars, and his [Phil Lynott’s) voice was so unique and had a lot of character. In the '70s there was a lot of screamers around, so his voice was very different to a lot of the other hard rock bands that were around at the time.
It must have been a big moment when you got to play alongside Scott Gorham a few years ago.
Oh yeah! It was amazing. I mean, I met him a couple of times before that. I saw one of the Thin Lizzy shows, the reunion, well, not the ‘reunion’, but the other thing they did later, like a tribute band with John Sykes fronting it, and I talked to him after the gig, and he said that he had heard my version of ‘Opium Trail’ from the album ‘Face the Truth’ , and he really liked it a lot. He actually said that he preferred mine over the original, [laughing], which was crazy! When I listen back to that one, my version now, my vocal is not that great. I mean, I was very young at the time, so my voice was still kind of high-pitched, but that was great, flattering.
We’re here to discuss your news album ‘Gone to Stay’, and it’s been over a decade since your last solo release; what’s it been like to work on new music again?
Yeah, it’s been great, it’s been a lot of fun. Like you say, I haven’t done it for a long time and I’ve been stupid busy with Europe and touring and stuff, and also being a pretty much full time dad. I have three kids, and they’re a handful! They’re quite smart, quite young still, so there’s a lot of things going on there! There’s a lot of things going on, and it takes a lot of time but at the same time, it’s fun. When the COVID thing hit, we [Europe] had a lot of shows booked in the States to tour with Foreigner, and then a bunch of other shows, and everything got cancelled, so I took the opportunity to go in the studio and make my on album.
There’s a lot more finesse to the production than the last few Europe albums which have been deliberately rawer.
Yeah, definitely. I mean, there’s a lot of change in the equipment and things like that, how I approached the whole thing. The previous solo album [‘Play Yard Blues’ 2010], I mixed myself together with the drummer [Thomas Broman], and this time around I didn’t want to get into that sort of thing because it will take forever; it’ll take like a year or something. So I had Wyn Davis mix it, who is a great engineer and producer that I worked with before in Los Angeles. He did a few of my other solo albums and also the Don Dokken ‘Up From the Ashes’ album that I did in 1990, I believe it was. So yeah, I got the best guys now, and I wanted to go in with more of a cleaner sound; not so distorted, and the amps are old, pretty much like they used in the old days like in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s all Marshall and Hiwatt amps with no master volumes; it’s just straight into the amp with the overdrive pedal and a wah-wah pedal sometimes, so yeah, it’s a more dynamic sound this time around.
Click here to read eonmusic's 2020 interview with Don Dokken.
That sounds like a nice old-school set up.
Yeah, I’m very old-school. I grew up in the ‘70s, so I wanted it to be kind of like ‘70s type of in-style!
The album kicks off with ‘Gone to Stay’ which has Deep Purple keys, and a Black Sabbath lyrical reference; where you harking back to those bands?
Yeah, yeah, definitely. You know, you can definitely hear Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, and Frank Marino as well. I’m a huge Frank Marino fan, so I’m just basically going back to the roots. And also David Bowie, who as a huge influence on me, so I decided to do a David Bowie cover [‘Lady Grinning Soul’] as well for the first time.
Your singing voice covers so many bases; you’ve got David Coverdale on ‘Gone to Stay’; your Bowie sounds just like him; and you got to Chris Cornell when you reach your higher register!
[Laughing] Yeah, it’s a mix. It just happens, and it’s very strange. I mean, you obviously can hear my influences; it’s Phil Lynott and David Bowie and Coverdale and Glenn Hughes and all my favourite singers, basically, and you put it in a pot and you stir it all together and then it sounds like me.
‘Sail On’, which features an amazing video, definitely has that Cornell side to it.
Yeah, yeah, definitely! I mean, I don’t know, it just happened, it just came out. I was just laying on the couch in the studio and I didn’t have a clue what to do with the vocals. I’d already recorded the music and suddenly it kind of just hit me; “I have an idea. Let me just go in”. I don’t have any lyrics or anything, so I just mumbled something and that’s what came out, and then afterwards, you know; “that really kind of reminds me of Cornell”, but you know, it wasn’t intentionally.
The album is very varied; ‘One by One’ is a soulful ballad, and ‘Here to Stay’ is funky; you’re not pinning yourself down to any one style, are you?
No. I like to mix it up, you know? I mean I always have this kind of thing that a good song is a good song, and don’t really care what style it is. As long as it’s a good song, I like to record it, and it could be any kind of music; it can be pop, it can be blues, hard rock, metal, even reggae; whatever! I don’t like to be stuck in a certain style or anything like that. That’s what I loved about David Bowie; he always changed all the time, changed his style and all that stuff, so I like to mix it up.
Another example of that is album closer ‘Face the Truth (Revisited), which is achingly soulful; it’s the most unexpected track on the album.
Yeah, totally. That song just happened by accident, really. I mean, I was just goofing off in the studio. I was about to put a guitar solo on another song, and while the engineer was messing around with the knobs and stuff, I was just playing ‘Face the Truth’ slow, for like a minute, and he said; “what’s that?”; “well that’s just an old song from the past”, ['Face the Truth' is the title track from John's 1992 release] and he said; “well that sounds really cool, let’s record it!”. We recorded, and we had one minute of it, and then I went on to this other song, and after I was done, I listened back; “can I hear what you recorded”, and “wouldn’t it be cool to actually do a slow version of this song?”, and he said; “yeah, that’s a great idea!”. And it was supposed to be a bonus track only for Japan, but in the end I decided to put it on the album and Japan got the instrumental song that was supposed to be on the album.
So the instrumental song is now the bonus track?
Yeah, it’s an instrumental song with just a bunch of guitar solos all over the place, but it’s still very a very melodic song. But I know the Japanese are kind of fanatic about guitarists and the instrumental stuff. They’ve very much into Joe Satriani and Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen, they really do like the instrumental stuff. So I gave them the instrumental song, and I put ‘Face the Truth’ on the European version instead. I think it came out really good, and I’m very pleased with it.
Speaking of guitarists, and you a big fan of Gary Moore, even covering ‘The Loner’ on Europe’s ‘Last Look at Eden’ tour.
Oh yeah, it was very emotional because it was right after he had passed away, and just being a huge influence on me, and one of the greatest guitar players of all time. I had just met him, just right before then too; he was in Sweden doing promotion for one of his blues albums. So yeah, it was pretty emotional actually, doing that, but I wanted to do something so I chose to do ‘The Loner’, even though I don’t think he’s the composer of that song, but still, but I wanted to do something as a tribute to him, and I think it came out great.
That brings us onto guitar solos, and there are some amazing pieces on this album; how do you go about constructing your solos?
Well, I always like to have some kind of melody in there. I mean, it depends on what kind of song it is; if it’s a slow song, I always like working out a nice melody, and I might borrow something from the vocals, like from the chorus or something like that, incorporate that into the solo. But other times, when it’s more like a fast song, I just wing it and see what happens; I just improvise and see what comes out! So it’s all different stuff.
Your solo in Europe’s ‘Last Look at Eden’ is a great example of how you incorporate the song's melody in there.
Yeah, exactly. I like to do that sometimes. If there’s a good chorus, has a strong melody, I like to put some of that into the guitar solo, so it kind of fits together with the song.
I wanted to touch on your return to Europe; it all started with that six-piece one-off show the band did for the millennium.
Well, that millennium gig we did, that was just two songs; ‘Rock the Night’ and ‘The Final Countdown’, and it was just basically, they asked me to do it, and I thought it sounded like a fun thing to do. I hadn’t seen the guys for a very long time, to it was nice to get back together and so it. And of course there was a lot of money there too, so I can’t say no to that, just to play for eight minutes or whatever It was [laughing]! But mainly, it was to get together with the guys again because I hadn’t seen them for like ten years or something. I had seen Joey [Tempest] - we did a song together in ’92, I think it was, on ‘Face the Truth’; I think it was a duets thing - but the other guys I hadn’t really seen at all, so yeah it was just a fun thing to do.
You joined Dokken for a while during that period.
After that I went back as I lived in Los Angeles at the time, and I got asked to join Dokken for a second time. Well the first time it was Don Dokken actually, but now this time around it was like Dokken with the original drummer Mick Brown, and I did an album ‘Long Way Home’  and we did a tour on that.
So how did the Europe reunion come about?
After that, in 2003 I got a phone call from Ian Haugland the drummer of Europe, and he said that they were interested to put the band together again and that they were going to have a meeting, and asked me if I was interested to come and hang out and have a chat. So That’s what we did, and we’ve been together ever since. It’s been eighteen years since we reunited.
The band has made consistently great albums ever since, including ‘Secret Society’ .
Yeah, that’s one of my favourites of all the Europe albums. There’s a lot of cool songs on there. I like all of the songs. I don’t think there’s a band song on that album, but my favourites are, obviously I like the heavier stuff, so like ‘Love is not the Enemy’, I think is great; ‘Getaway Plan’. There’s a bunch of good songs on there; I can’t remember the title right now, but I think it’s the last song on the album.
‘Devil Sings the Blues’ is the last song on the album.
Yes, I love that song; ‘Devil Sings the Blues’ is great. That video is great too, and there’s just such a great sound on that song. But there’s another one too; ‘Forever Traveling’, I love that one, that song is cool.
‘Last Look at Eden’ followed in 2009, and the title track is a monster.
Yeah it really, really is. That is one of my favourite songs, and you know, I’ve said it so many times to the guys in the band that that song is like timeless. I never get tired of playing that song, you know. I can play it every single day, over and over again, and I never get tired of it because it’s such a great groove. It’s just a groove thing; when you get into that groove it’s such a good feeling. It has kind of like a Led Zeppelin-type of a groove to it. That’s a classic.
You must have felt like it was coming full circle when you re-joined the band again; did you feel like the wrongs of the past were righted?
I have no idea really. We just have chemistry that is really good. It’s something that just happens. I mean, we met when we were teenagers, very young, and we just have a chemistry. It’s just the energy when we play, and I haven’t felt that for a long time. Throughout the ‘90s I did a few solo albums, and some other things like guesting on other artists’ albums and things like that, but I never felt that chemistry with any other band. So that was a big part of it, that I thought it was a good idea to get back together again, and I think they felt the same. So there was no big masterplan behind it or anything like that; we just got together and started writing the songs, and took it from there and recorded ‘Start From the Dark’ .
‘Start from The Dark’ was quite a heavy album with a lot of down-tuned guitars.
I was listening to a lot of heavy stuff at the time, like Black Label Society, that Zakk Wylde band, as you probably can hear on that album. It is quite a dark album. There’s a lot of low tunings and things like that.
The opening riff on the title track is just so heavy.
Yeah, it’s tuned down to B actually. It’s like super, super low, so I’m using a like a 60 [gauge], it’s like a bass string on there, otherwise it gets just flabby. You have to use some heavy, heavy strings when you tune that low.
Incredibly, it’s been five years since Europe’s last album ‘Walk the Earth’ was released; have you any plans to get ack in the studio?
Has it been five years?! Oh wow! That seems like a very long time. I thought it was something like three years ago, wow! Time just flies by, it’s crazy. Well, we’ve been talking. We did a gig a couple of weeks ago, and we had a meeting before the show, and talked about future plans and things like that, so we plan to go in the studio in around April / May , something like that, but we are writing songs at the moment for the next Europe album, and we’re looking for producers. We hope can work with Dave Cobb again because he’s the greatest. He’s so good, he’s amazing, so hopefully we can do it with him if he's not busy, and hope that we can do it in his studio because that would be a lot of fun. He has a studio in Nashville, so that would be fun to go there and record the next album.
How did you enjoy the European shows you did with Whitesnake earlier this year?
Yeah, that was a great tour. We really had a lot of fun on that tour, and the band sounded great. Whitesnake, they were amazing to us, they were so nice. We were the support band so you take what you get. I don’t know if it was forty-five minutes, but yeah, it was still great. I really enjoyed it. We were out for like six weeks, and yeah, one of the best tours we ever done, I think!
Back to ‘Gone to Stay’, and have you plans for live dates to support it?
Yeah, we are planning to do a few shows in December in Sweden, first in Gothenburg and then Stockholm. So yeah I’m really looking forward to revisiting some of those old songs. I have quite a lot of songs now. I think it’s nine solo albums; I haven’t counted them, but some say eight, and some say nine [Laughing]! But anyway, I have a big catalogue now, so I have a lot of good songs to put together a fun set list, so yeah, I’m really looking forward to doing some solo shows. That will be a lot of fun to just go out there and enjoy yourself, and when Europe is not doing anything, I’m going to do some solo stuff because I really enjoy playing those songs, and you just go out there. Sometimes we have very long breaks; sometimes it’s like three or four months we’re off, and instead of just being home and doing nothing, I like doing something; I like to play so I’d like to go out and definitely do some more stuff.
Like this interview? Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for regular updates & more of the same.
John Norum's 'Gone to Stay' is released on 28th October 2028. Click here to order. For Europe limited edition vinyl and more, click here.