Kamelot Keyboardist Discusses Current Tour, Songwriting, “Musicians’ Police,” And Teases Something “Really Big”

The name Kamelot, by now, represents something of an institution for heavy metal fans who like their music both blissfully melodic and pulsing with intensity, at once a personal stream of emotion and an epic rush of symphonic glory. Even the recent departure of operatic Norwegian frontman Roy Khan hasn’t diminished the power of this influential Floridian act, as delighted crowds on their current North American tour are now learning. In his place is talented Italian singer Fabio Lione (Rhapsody Of Fire), exceeding expectations and keeping the Kamelot train rolling.

Prior to the band’s packed gig at Club Soda in Montreal, QC, I had the pleasure of sitting down with their brilliant and versatile German keyboardist Oliver Palotai, a longtime Kamelot collaborator and permanent member since 2005. He gracefully shared his thoughts on a range of subjects.

Mike Smith (OverkillExposure): This is a fairly unusual – some might say controversial – tour cycle for Kamelot. How have you perceived the fan reaction to the current lineup?

Oliver Palotai: Well, starting the tour, there were a couple of negative factors, not only with the lineup, but also with the economic situation. I don’t know how it is here exactly, in the U.S. or Canada, but for example in Germany, when you have a bad economy, ticket sales really go down. So then there was the hurricane [Irene], but that wasn’t as bad as we thought. As far as the lineup goes, we had the cancelled U.S. tour last year, and we didn’t know how that would influence presales. And of course Fabio jumped in for the European tour and for this tour. The European tour went really well, so we already have some experience with him. We’re really relaxed now, because the first concerts went great and the audience reaction was perfect, and ticket sales are great.

Mike: So no misfires or awkward moments when you first went out?

Oliver: Well, we played with the former lineup for years and years, and we were so used to each other. There was a lot of unity. So whenever a new factor comes in, especially a new lead singer, you’ve gotta get used to that. Of course, the first concerts felt kind of strange, but it also felt good, because Fabio is able to sing the songs perfectly. Especially the older songs, where Roy didn’t really have the capacity anymore. It took a while, of course, but now it’s a smooth running machine.

Mike: Speaking of Roy and his vocal capacity, I’m curious if that has anything to do with your latest couple records, “Ghost Opera” [2007] and “Poetry For The Poisoned.” [2010] Tempos were slowed, the earlier speed metal elements were dialed down, and the symphonic component was dialed up. What steered Kamelot in that direction, and do you foresee more of that sound in the future?

Oliver: First of all, many bands keep repeating themselves, doing the same stuff for 20 or 30 years, and are successful with it. But other bands reinvent themselves every time, and Kamelot is such a band. Especially after “The Black Halo” [2005], it was time to try different stuff. Of course, you know there are always some fans that don’t like that, and there was some negative feedback. But the majority jumped on it and liked it. And regarding songwriting, there isn’t always a conscious decision or effort to take a new direction. We tried out new sounds and production methods, of course – “Ghost Opera” sounds quite different compared to “Black Halo,” especially in the mixing. “Poetry For The Poisoned” took it one step further, and we’ll see what happens with the next record. And of course, the lead singer is very, very important when it comes to new styles and directions.

Mike: Does Kamelot have any idea of the permanent status of the lead singer?

Oliver: No final decision has been made so far. Fabio is a great guy, and he’s doing a fantastic job, but we still can’t confirm anything. We get a lot of people sending MP3s or videos, so after this tour, we’ll go into an audition process, when we’ll HAVE to make a decision because we’ll be writing songs for the next album.

Mike: Do you have a favorite Kamelot record?

Oliver: For me personally, maybe with my European background, it’s “The Black Halo.” The whole thing – songwriting, production – is almost flawless, y’know? There are so many guys in European studios that use that album as a reference.

Mike: Let’s discuss genre labels. It’s hard for me to specifically pin down what subgenre Kamelot belongs to, if any. If forced to do so, how would you guys classify yourselves?

Oliver: That’s the point, though – “if forced.” As a musician, my background is in jazz and classical, so I’m very hesitant to categorize music at all. But I understand that for genres, it’s a necessary thing. So “symphonic metal” is fine, or whatever it takes to describe us, and then you really need to listen to the music, which will answer all the questions.

Mike: What also defies categorization is the fact that Kamelot is based in the U.S., but features two European members and plays a sound most commonly identified with Europe. Have you guys ever felt awkward or confused over where you fit into the whole global rock/metal scene?

Oliver: Well, I feel at home in both the U.S. and Europe. And within the band, everybody has such widespread tastes and listens to so many different styles, in metal and other types of music. So I’ve never had a problem there.

Mike: Speaking of branching out, tell me about your side projects. You formed the band Sons Of Seasons and released your sophomore album this year. Anything else you’re working on?

Oliver: I have a lot of stuff. My main job is producing, mixing, and orchestrating at home when I’m not on tour. I’m also teaching, of course. So I have a lot of projects going on, but mainly production – film music and stuff. For bands, Kamelot and Sons Of Seasons are my main things. I was on tour with Epica recently as keyboardist, and in the past I had many different international touring bands, but I’m slowly getting away from touring TOO much. I’m actually more of a studio guy. I love to work all day, writing and creating songs.

Mike: Do you ever have situations where you’ve created a great riff or melody, but can’t decide which band’s sound it fits with? Do you ever struggle with the question, “Where do I put this?”

Oliver: Normally, I’m writing pretty straightforwardly for certain projects. But then, certain ideas don’t totally fit in, so I try and see if I can alter them, and maybe they’ll end up in a different band. That actually happens all the time.

Mike: I understand you’re continually altering your set list on most dates of this tour. Who has the biggest influence in those decisions? Do you all discuss it?

Oliver: We discuss it before the tour, and normally we prepare many more songs than will end up in the set. During the tour we try and figure out how well the set works, and if we have parts that aren’t getting a great audience reaction. And then we change it and put in another song. So we always have a pool of songs that we can use to alter the set list during the tour. That’s very important. The longer and more complex songs sometimes work really well in certain places, but then at the next venue, don’t work at all. It’s really weird. For example, “Memento Mori” from “The Black Halo” is a really long, complex song. And sometimes while playing it, we feel the audience isn’t reacting the way we imagined they would, and we may kick the song out of the next set list. But sometimes we love a song so much that we try it a couple times before we finally give up on it. [Laughs]

Mike: There obviously are certain mandatory fan favorites that will never leave the set list. As Kamelot keeps adding to its long line of albums, does it ever get difficult choosing which deep cuts to include in a set?

Oliver: There are some songs that are totally important to the set, like “Forever” or “March Of Mephisto” or “Karma.” Those are points in the set that are totally reliable regarding the crowd reaction. And then the rest… With every album it gets more difficult to pick. There are so many good ones that we like from our musicians’ perspective, but we also do polls on our Internet forums, where we ask the fans which songs they want to hear. Those reactions are really important for us to choose songs.

Mike: I’d love to hear “Up Through The Ashes” from “Ghost Opera.”

Oliver: We’ve never played that one! There are also songs that sound great on the record, but never or rarely work live. We tried a couple because we loved them, but they just didn’t function right.

Mike: What artists are really floating your boat right now – in any genre?

Oliver: A lot of jazz, obviously. Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, players like that. Also classical music, a lot of the old composers. Chopin, Mozart, Bach, all that stuff. And then in metal, I really love Opeth. For me, they’re probably the number one band in the scene, because they dare to make such a complex and different sound, and they’re successful with it. That shows me that there is hope for anyone outside the mainstream. That’s a band I totally love. I haven’t heard the new album yet, so I’m curious. It’s hard to imagine that “Ghost Reveries” will ever be surpassed, but it’s the same thing with Kamelot and other bands. There’s always one album that totally sticks out.

Mike: I tend to ask this of a lot of musicians, because I’m always curious to hear different approaches. Do you feel that Kamelot, musically or lyrically, has a message or general feeling you want to impart to your audience?

Oliver: I think we just represent a very open approach to everything, y’know? We get a lot of inspiration and themes from the subjects of religion and philosophy. As a musician, I don’t feel a straightforward “message” is all that important. We’re not politicians. Music is a very subjective thing; you can take it and it becomes yours. It becomes your own message. So we try to be very open on every subject and feed our listeners so they can form their own thoughts. I don’t like it when bands try to tell people what to do, when they give them rules. Like, “People are so evil, humanity is destroying the earth!” But then their own lifestyles contradict those statements. So I have my own problems with that.

Mike: Speaking of other bands, and getting back to touring – do you have a major desire to go out with any specific artists?

Oliver: There are musicians I’d like to play with, maybe, as an instrumentalist, but as far as tour packages go, anything can happen. Right now we have something really cool that we’ve confirmed. I can’t talk about it yet, but it’s going to be really big. That’s something I’ve already thought about for a couple years. So we’ll see.

Mike: Where do you have left to play on this tour?

Oliver: Good question. [Laughs] I come out of the bus in the morning, and in Europe, I listen to the language around me, so I know what country I’m in. [Laughs] Next, I try to figure out what city I’m in, and sometimes I just don’t know where I am. We’re going to the West Coast after Quebec, and there’s a lot of stuff to look forward to – interesting cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. So far, the whole thing has been really smooth. I’m always happy about that, because touring is difficult enough. For example, with the Epica tour we had an accident in the Canadian mountains. Sure, it’s a crazy story for later, but if everything runs smoothly, I’m really happy – especially for the crew.

Mike: In the past couple of years, a lot of bands have had trouble at the Canadian border. Has Kamelot ever been affected by these seemingly arbitrary rules, here or anywhere else?

Oliver: Yeah, in certain countries you have problems, and the funny thing is, they treat different nationalities differently. Maybe it’s a prejudice, I’m not sure. Our U.S. members have trouble here and there, and I don’t understand it.

Mike: The metal genre has its prejudices as well. In the States, I’ve experienced a certain “club” mentality that curtains different subgenres off from each other and sometimes breeds hostility between fans. What’s your take?

Oliver: Actually, my experience has been the total opposite, especially at the big European festivals in the past few years. They now mix everything. You have a hardcore band, then a death metal band, and then a symphonic metal band in the same running. And people are so peaceful at those festivals. Often in Europe, you have big news reports about the metal festivals, and it’s really, really peaceful. I think people channel their aggressions into the music, so it’s not necessary to let it out on other things. At least that’s what I’ve experienced. Of course though, we have the “true” metalheads, and in Germany, we have something we call the “Musicians’ Police.” Those musicians who stand there in the crowd with their arms crossed and don’t move, thinking they’re better than the musicians onstage. And every little mistake you make, they talk to each other about it, and we say, “Somebody called the Musicians’ Police!” because we imagine these little lights on their heads. [Laughs] It’s just silly. The more mediocre people are, the bigger the arrogance, and when people are really good at what they’re doing – whether it’s music or something else – they have humble personalities, y’know? Because those people can actually see how limited they still are. I want to stay a student my whole life, and I’ll never be able to play everything. So any kind of arrogance is just plain dumb.