Evergrey bassist opens up about his metal, R&B and jazz influences — and an upcoming album
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
October 26, 2020
Johan Niemann is no stranger to the Scandanavian rock scene. Since the late ’90s, the Swedish bassist and guitarist has brought his considerable skills to bear for a slew of prog and metal bands in his home country, including Demonoid, Sectu, Mind’s Eye, Tiamat, Therion and Tears of Anger. Right now, he’s perhaps most recognizable for his ongoing role as the bassist for Evergrey, a Swedish prog-metal band known for its darkly introspective lyrics and distinctively melodic approach to making metal.
FBPO: Let’s start from the beginning. How did you become a bass player?
Niemann: When I was 11 or something, I had a really good music teacher at school, and he wanted to start a school or class band. But the week that the instruments were handed out, I was home sick. When I came back a week later, guitar was taken, drums were taken. So the only thing that was left was the bass. And I didn’t know what that was. He’s like, “Oh yeah, it’s four strings. You play one note at a time.”
FBPO: How hard can it be?
Niemann: How hard can it be? I won1 [Laughs] Yeah. And that’s it. And then, I got an acoustic guitar for Christmas from my parents. So, I’ve been playing ever since.
FBPO: Looking back on it, was it worth getting sick in order to become a bass player?
Niemann: Yeah, I think so. I think so, yeah. I think it turned out well.
FBPO: Well, I’m glad you’re recovered. You look fine now.
Niemann: Oh, thank you.
FBPO: Looking back, once you discovered the instrument, who were your bass influences? Did you have any bass heroes at the time?
Niemann: Yeah, I had always been a huge KISS fan. But I didn’t really know the difference between the different guitars. But once I started playing myself, it’s like, “Okay, well, Gene Simmons is cool. So, fire breathing, blood spitting monster.”
FBPO: There you go.
Niemann: You know, I liked that. And I’d been an Iron Maiden fan as well. And the bass on those records were very prominent.
FBPO: So, Steve Harris.
Niemann: Yeah. Steve, yep. And then I heard, Friday Night in San Francisco.
FBPO: Oh, very different from Gene Simmons and Steve Harris! You’re talking Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucia and …
Niemann: Yeah, yeah, John McLaughlin. So, I knew, I recognized the Al Di Meola name, and I saw an Al Di Meola record called Elegant Gypsy.
FBPO: “Mediterranean Sundance,” “Race With The Devil…”
Niemann: Yep, “On A Spanish Highway,” absolutely. Yeah, yeah. Elegant Gypsy. Listened to that and …
FBPO: Anthony Jackson?
Niemann: Anthony Jackson. And that changed everything for me.
FBPO: Me, too.
Niemann: Yeah. And there was this solo that I thought was clean guitar. But my brother plays guitar. He’s like, “No, that’s not a bass. That’s not a guitar, it’s a bass. It’s a bass solo.” How is that even possible? How can you play like that? I think I was like 12 or 13 when I heard that. That was, yeah, mind blowing. And I would still to this day say that Anthony Jackson is probably my biggest influence, biggest hero.
FBPO: Speaking of Anthony, did you ever play a six-string bass? Or any bass with any more than four strings?
Niemann: I did, yeah. I had a bass made by Joe Zon. I had a six string, Sonus Special. It was a fantastic instrument, but it was a little too heavy to me, as in neck problems, so I couldn’t really have it hanging around my neck, unfortunately. So, I sold it.
FBPO: You’ve been with Evergrey for, like, 10 years. But you’ve also played in a lot of other bands. How did your career get started? What kind of stuff were you doing initially?
Niemann: First band was called Mind’s Eye. It was progressive rock, progressive metal sort of thing. We really liked Queensryche and Dream Theater. All that stuff. We did four or five records early on. And then, my brother was a guitar player. And he joined a band called Therion, which is like a gothic and symphonic metal operatic style music. And they were going to Germany to record an album, and they had just fired [the bassist], or their bass player had quit or something. They needed a bass player, so they asked me, “Do you want to go to Germany and record an album?” Uh, yes, yes, please. And so, I joined Therion, and I played with Therion from ’99 until 2007, or 2008. That ended badly, because we had been touring for years and years and just worked ourselves into the ground, basically. When I quit, I didn’t really want to play anymore, I thought. A friend of mine who plays in a band called Tiamat as a drummer, asked me if I wanted to go to Russia on tour. Like, oh yeah, sure! Okay, we’ll go see how that goes. But they wanted me to play guitar. So, I played guitar with Tiamat for two years. And then, Evergrey called and asked if I wanted to (join), because they had lost their bass player and had heard about me. We toured with Evergrey when I played in Therion, so we knew each other from years before.
FBPO: You’ve been with Evergrey longer than any of your predecessor bass players.
Niemann: Yeah, I guess so.
FBPO: It’s interesting, because I interviewed Mike Inez with Alice In Chains. I interviewed Robert Trujillo from Metallica, who was with Metallica longer than Cliff Burton. And I interviewed Jason Scheff who was with Chicago much longer than Peter Cetera. A lot of times, the replacement bass player is in the band longer than the original bass player.
Niemann: Yeah, yeah, in certain bands anyway, it’s still looked upon as the new guy.
FBPO: What’s keeping you busy these days?
Niemann: Well, we just recorded a new album with Evergrey. If you like Evergrey, and if you’ve heard the latest few records, I mean, it’s not spectacularly different. It’s more of the same, I would say. But there seems to be a lot faster songs maybe, this time slightly. And lower tunings. Tom, our singer, has a seven-string guitar that he really likes, and he tunes it down a whole step so “A” is the lowest.
FBPO: He’s getting into your territory.
Niemann: Yeah, exactly!
FBPO: What’s up with that?
Niemann: Yeah, get off my notes, you know? [Laughs]
FBPO: Do you have a title for the record?
Niemann: No, not yet.
FBPO: How about a target release date?
Niemann: February, I would say. The end of February. It’s not solidified yet.
FBPO: Tell me about your gear.
Niemann: I play a Spector bass. I have a Euro 4 LX. I’ve had that one for three years, maybe. It’s fantastic. Yeah, they make some good stuff.
FBPO: Tell me about Tech 21. They really make some great stuff.
Niemann: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve used their gear for years and years. First, I had that … Do you remember the first pedal they did, with like a lot of tiny switches on it?
FBPO: I think I do, yes.
Niemann: Yeah, it had four knobs and like, I don’t know, seven or nine little teeny tiny dip switches. I had that one, great pedal. I had the RBI preamp, the rack stuff. And then, I got the first VT bass pedal. And now, I have the VT bass DI. And I don’t know, it’s something about the tone of the Tech 21 stuff that, I don’t know, it just sounds so real, but better. [Laughs]
FBPO: Better than real! I love it! [Laughs]
Niemann: I like the portability. I should say also that I don’t use an amp. I’ve been ampless for six or seven years, maybe.
FBPO: Yeah, a growing trend. A lot easier these days.
Niemann: Yeah. I plug my bass into the Tech 21 pedal and into a DI box, and now I don’t even need a DI box since I have the DI box already in the pedal. I couldn’t be happier.
FBPO: What kind of strings do you play?
Niemann: DR. They’re Hi-Beam stainless steels. The five-string set. But I play a four-string bass, so I don’t use the G string. And I think the gauges are 65, 85, 105, 130.
FBPO: You don’t use a G string? You’re really down there then.
Niemann: Yeah. I tune my bass B, E, A, D. And I also have one of those Hipshots so I can get that low A for those songs. When that is needed.
FBPO: So your bass is not only heard, but it’s felt.
Niemann: Oh, yeah. It works great, it’s a great combination of things. I’m very happy with my gear and the companies I work with.
FBPO: I understand why you’d want to go B, E, A, D, but do you not miss having a G string at all? You’re never in that territory? Why don’t you just play a five string?
Niemann: Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, especially in this band, we have two guitar players and a keyboard player. So all those notes and all those frequencies up there, they’re already taken.
FBPO: Let’s talk a little bit about bass technique. You seem to be more of a pick player than a fingers player, which is makes sense given the type of music that you play. Is that a pretty accurate statement?
Niemann: Yes. I’ve been a pick player… I was a finger player from the beginning. I was a huge, and still am, a huge Billy Sheehan fan. And who isn’t?
FBPO: Did you use a three-finger technique?
Niemann: Yeah. Because when you’re young, you want to be fast, so priority number one was speed.
FBPO: I know, but when you play with two fingers, you alternate. When you throw a third finger into the mix, how do you keep track of which one is supposed to be next?
Niemann: Exactly, and like Billy Sheehan says in interviews and stuff, you can always hear that third finger. And that was driving me nuts for a while. I actually started playing with a pick because I wanted to use a little bit of overdrive and distortion. And I didn’t get the tone I wanted with my fingers. It didn’t have that sharp attack that I was looking for.
FBPO: Right, exactly.
Niemann: So, I tried a pick and was like, “Oh, there’s the sound I’m looking for.”
FBPO: Probably a pretty heavy pick, I would guess.
Niemann: Oh, I’ve tried so many different … All the different shapes and thicknesses and stuff. But right now, yeah, I use the Dunlop Tortex 1.14. The purple ones, the triangle shaped purple ones.
FBPO: Being a fan of Al Di Meola and Anthony Jackson, it’s not surprising that you play with a pick.
Niemann: Yeah, and I’m still playing along and trying to pick out stuff and practice all that stuff. It’s good practice.
FBPO: At forbassplayersonly.com, we have people coming from all over the world specifically to learn bass. What advice you can impart to somebody who wants to learn to play bass? What do you think is important for them to know?
Niemann: Play along to records. Find music that you really like, and try to learn the parts, I would say by ear. Your ear is probably your best asset if you’re playing music. And so, yeah, playing a bunch of records, trying to find challenging music. To practice, to be better, to become, to evolve. Playing along to records, and also finding like-minded musicians to play with.
FBPO: We all want to learn to play music that we like. But what about learning to play music that you don’t like? Isn’t that important too?
Niemann: Yeah, if you want to be a working musician. I think you have to put your ego aside, if you want to work. But if you’re more artist-minded and it’s your way or the highway, then that’s fine too. But then, you might have to get a day job, you know.
FBPO: What about the future? What else would you like to do that you haven’t already accomplished?
Niemann: Well, I’ve done a lot, but I would like to see touring coming back.
FBPO: Wouldn’t we all.
Niemann: I want to visit your beautiful country again and meet my friends and meet people. It’s all I’m asking for.
FBPO: It’ll happen. I don’t know when, but it’ll happen.
Niemann: Oh, I hope so, I hope so.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player – or a guitar player?
Niemann: I don’t know. That’s really hard. I knew that question was coming, because I followed you. I’ve seen your interviews. I don’t know, I’m interested in very few things. I don’t know, like a forest dwelling monk in Thailand, maybe.
See Jon’s blog, with key takeaways from this interview here.