Nostalgia: Contagion - Arena:
Interview Clive Nolan

"We didn't intend to make another concept album, it just went that way"

(2003 / March 2014, text & pictures by Henri Strik, edited by Peter Willemsen)

In 2013 it was ten years ago that Arena recorded their critically acclaimed concept album Contagion. Recently Contagion Max (2014, see review) was released and it's perhaps nice to find out how founding member and keyboard player Clive Nolan looked at this album back then. In 2003 I had an interview with Nolan for Background Magazine which is now featured in our Special series!

Clive Nolan
I believe you initially started to work on Contagion in February 2002 with producer Mike Stobbie, but later on he quit this production desk and it fully became into your hands. Why did this happen?
Clive Nolan: “Well, it was just a question of timing. Sadly Mike's time was already pretty stretched and we just weren't able to give the album the attention it needed. So, it seemed like the best plan was to change the plan. We took the album back to both Thin Ice Studios and to John Mitchell's studio, The Outhouse. For a month we worked at the same time in both studios to catch up time. Then I went over to John and we completed the album.”

Did you have any doubts about the album that it would not become as you intended, and why was there so much delay?
“The changes in plan led to the delayed release. Once John and I were producing we had to go back a few steps before we could really go forward again. This all takes time. Actually I think we made a great team, and now I'm very happy with the results.”

The new album is once again an album with a story line. Can you explain the concept and why did you record another concept album?
“We didn't intend to make another concept album, it just went that way. I had written a short story, which simply fitted the moods and atmospheres that we wanted from this album. To be honest the story isn't essential to enjoying the album. There are many other layers above that! In brief it's about a guy who accidentally sets off a cataclysmic word disaster and then spends the rest of his life trying to undo the damage. Noah meets Pandora.”

Aren't you afraid that people are going to compare it with The Visitor, your first concept album?
“Not really. As far as I'm concerned this one's stronger. But hey, both albums are rather different.”

You wrote the lyrics for Contagion, but can we on any future release seen lyrics written by Rob Sowden? In most bands the singer also writes the lyrics.
“It's just the way we work. Rob will write the lyrics for his solo album, for example. The writing team for Arena is me, drummer Mick Pointer and guitarist John Mitchell, and I'm writing the lyrics. It's just as simple as that.”

I read somewhere that John wasn't satisfied with the way the guitar parts had been recorded. Is this true?
“Not at all! In fact, he recorded his own guitar parts, and they just sound great!”

On the album you used the Virus, a new keyboard. In what way did it influence the sound on Contagious and did it inspire you to come up with some new things?
“It's a great keyboard. Martin Orford (ex-IQ, ex-Jadis) was waxing lyrical about it when I was on the Pendragon tour while Martin and Gary Chandler (Jadis) were on the tour bus with us. By the end of that tour my mouth was watering! I knew Mike Stobbie already had one as well, so I had faith that it would be a great keyboard. I went into a music shop when we played in London, and I bought one! It's a very inspiring keyboard, and it will certainly lead me in some interesting musical directions.”

The piano we hear on the album isn't a real piano, but a virtual instrument. Am I correct?
“My, my... someone's been doing his homework! Yes, you are correct. It is a virtual instrument called 'The Grand'. It's the best piano I've ever used. I love it!”

The opening track Witch Hunt starts with a bunch of Malaysian voices on top of each other. How did you do this?
“It's made up of loads of different samples and snippets from all over the place and certainly more than just 'Malaysian voices'. We just wanted to create this state of half-conscious confusion.”

Witch Hunt also contains one of the heaviest parts ever recorded by Arena. It almost sounds like heavy metal! Who came up with this idea?
“I came up with the idea, but it's John who got the'heavy' sound. He used a lot of detuned guitars which added a weight and grunginess to the mix. I just love it!”
Ian Salmon (left) and John Mitchell

The guitar solo was initially written for guitar but changed into a keyboard solo but later on it changed again into a guitar solo. True or not true?
“Not quite... it started as a keyboard solo, but I felt it just didn't bite hard enough for the first song, so I asked John to do the solo. He wasn't too sure at first, but once he got going, it was obviously the right move!”

We also hear somebody saying 'it was an err it was an err' or something like that. Would you please explain this?
“Well, I accidentally sent some MIDI notes to one of the voice samples, and it came out like that. I kind of got attached to it.”

This Way Madness Lies is a fine example of how strong Ian Salmon plays the bass guitar. I think it took a lot of time to record his bass lines, didn't it?
“This was the main element to come out of Mike's studio before we moved on. There are some excellent bass lines going on. I believe they both worked very hard on those.”

This track also contains a wonderful guitar solo probably the longest John as ever played. He almost sounds like Steve Hackett here. Do you agree?
“Absolutely; John knows where he's going when it comes to those big Arena solos.”

At the end of Spectre At The Feast I heard some backward talking by Rob. What did he say?
“Tell you that would make it too easy. Someone surely will work it out!”

On The Box contains a message as well: a Morse code played on the Hammond organ. What does it mean?
“Hey... that one's even easier since the Morse code is in the CD booklet.” (however, it didn't come with the promotional copy, HS).

Left to Right: Mick Pointer, Ian Salmon, Rob Sowden, Clive Nolan amd John Mitchell (2003)

On Mea Culpa the sound of a needle on an old record can be heard. Why did you use this effect?
“I kind of wrote that song in one hit. It came out of a difficult time for me, and it's one of those rare times when the words and music pretty much came together. The record effect just seemed right since the song spans about 35 years.”

Why has Cutting The Cards a Spanish flavour?
“That was just John's approach to the track at the time. We wanted something lively and 'up'.”

Rob Sowden, Clive Nolan and Ian Salmon
On Ascension we hear those 'Malaysian voices' again. What do they mean in the story?
“Imagine being able to hear everyone's thoughts and voices and not being able to shut them out...”

Would you please tell us something about the cover? We see a person standing on clouds or is he in hell?
“He's walking through a devastated world searching for something.”

Are you going to play the whole concept live on stage? If you are, it means that Rob has a lot of lyrics to learn by heart!
“Yes we are, and yes he does. Good luck Rob, but mind you, we have a few notes to learn by heart as well!”

Later this year you'll release two EPs that come along with Contagion. What music will be on them?
“There will be new material that we didn't use on the main album as well as remixes, multimedia extra etcetera. We haven't finalized what will be on them, but it will all add to the world of Contagion.”

I suppose you're glad to have the same line-up for this album as for the previous record. Maybe now the press will stop asking about the line-up changes that happened in the past.
“They'll never stop asking about line-up changes. I don't really mind though. These are changes that had to happen for the band to evolve in the way it has done. I'm very happy with the current line-up, but if things ever have to change again in the future, then so be it. Personally, I hope they don't.”

Thank you for answering my questions Clive!
“No problem at all.”

More info about Clive Nolan on the Internet:
       Website Arena
       The Cage

       review album Contagion Max
       review album The Seventh Degree Of Separation
       review Live album
       review album Alchemy
       review DVD Alchemy
       review DVD Smoke & Mirrors
       review DVD Rapture

       review concert 9-Nov-2011 (Zoetermeer)

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