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Dario D’Alessandro

After a couple of months of silence, I am glad to have the opportunity to post this outstanding interview with Dario D’Alessandro of Sicilian outfit Homunculus Res (undoubtedly one of the best modern bands to come out of Italy for a long time), conducted by fellow music enthusiast Michael Björn.

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Homunculus Res
Dario D’Alessandro interview

(Japanese language version originally published in Strange Days #198, March 19 2016)

Text & interview: Michael Björn

Already with the first propulsive beats in odd time signatures on their debut album in 2013, Homunculus Res made it clear that great things were happening on the island of Sicily. With their new album Come Si Diventa Ciò Che Si Era, there is no longer any doubt that they are the new heirs to the throne of Canterbury-inspired progressive rock bands.

When the organ resolves the last 40 seconds of “Doppiofondo del barile” you could swear that Hatfield & the North are in the studio control room, clapping their hands. But although the humour, the inventive song writing, the short pop songs, the mass of ideas piled on top of each other and the complex arrangements all firmly root them in the Canterbury music tradition, Homunculus Res are no copycats.

Whereas Egg, Caravan and National Health all had a lovely cup of tea waiting for them at the end of a song; there is no such romantic dream of Albion in the music made by Homunculus Res.

When you leave that cup of tea behind, strange things happen. One could argue that Henry Cow did exactly this and the result was the RIO movement. Homunculus Res, however, are less overtly oriented towards politics; their focus instead seems to be the modernistic tradition of mainland Europe. They re-examine and re-invigorate their Canterbury influences in every twist and turn, outfit them with retro-futuristic sounds from space machines and dance moves from the Cabaret Voltaire nightclub.

Although such modernistic influences were certainly an integral part of the Canterbury scene, particularly during Soft Machine’s early years, here they are developed into a unique strain of rock music that touches a deep nerve in the listener.

How did Homunculus Res manage to develop their singular vision? We asked bandleader Dario D’Alessandro to tell us more.

How, when and why was Homunculus Res formed?

Dario: The band was founded in 2010. At that time, I wanted to play progressive music that was complex but at the same time pleasant to listen to and fun. I had already written several songs. The meeting with the Di Giovanni brothers – Daniele on drums and David on keyboard –  has made this possible because they also wanted to experiment with odd time signatures and musical mathematical games. Like me, they also they a strong taste for melody.

The current line-up is a prog-rock quintet, including Mauro Turdo, to whom I willingly leave the most difficult guitar parts, and Daniele Crisci on bass. When we play a live show, we try to involve horn players, flute and /or sax, to complete the arrangements.

We are all interested in the arts. As for myself, I am primarily a painter and graphic artist. In fact, I curate all the graphical parts of our project.

 

Davide Di Giovanni, Dario D’Alessandro

 

Is it true that the band name Homunculus Res comes from Otto Rippert’s six-part science fiction film “Homunculus” from 1916? What does the name signify to you?

Dario: I wanted a band name that was mysterious but also funny. Initially, it was Homunculus REX, haha! A graceful mockery of the seriousness of certain themes that still fascinate me. The name can also be a derogatory version of Man himself; a small man with no soul, morally poor. Probably this character metaphorically represents a critique of modern society. The inspiration mainly comes from Goethe’s Faust.


You have a different approach to music than most other Italian progressive bands.

Dario: True, we have a different approach than the Italian style in general; less “romantic”, more amused and perhaps more geared to the North-European and American tastes.

I don’t know why.


My two favourite Italian bands are Homunculus Res and Breznev Fun Club. Would you count yourself as part of the same scene?

Dario: We can probably both broadly be called Avant-Prog, but it is obvious that there are huge differences in our styles. Breznev Fun Club leader Rocco Lomonaco is a great meticulous composer who looks to the contemporary avant-garde music; whereas we are a band that basically uses the rock language.

But Rocco and I hold each other in high regard and we will write something together soon.


You have called Picchio Dal Pozzo the most important Italian band. Do you see Homunculus Res as a continuation of their music?

Dario: For me, Picchio dal Pozzo is something wonderfully unique and unrepeatable that happened on the Italian music scene. I am very pleased that the critics compare us, but we feel very tiny compared to them, although they are an endless source of inspiration. Maybe what we have in common is a surreal sense of humour.

Picchio dal Pozzo founding member Aldo De Scalzi has in fact collaborated on a song on our second album. He is very nice to us; a very kind and cheerful person.


How did you get so many artists to guest on the album?

Dario: Well, I just expressed my admiration to them and vice versa. For example, I found the music of Regal Worm very fresh, unconventional and similar to our intentions.

For us it was a real privilege. Dave Newhouse (the Muffins / Rascal Reporters) played many horn parts, showing great mastery and naturalness with the modesty that is typical of great musicians. He’s a wonderful and sensitive person.


There is also a track called “Egg Soup” by Steve Kretzmer from Rascal Reporters. Did he write it for you? I thought Steve Kretzmer had left music for good?

Dario: I included the opening theme from the fantastic Rascal Reporters album “Happy Accidents” on our first album. Then, I came in contact with Brian Donohoe (Volaré, Alpha Cop), who has taken over the huge Rascal Reporters tape archive in order to digitise and remaster it.

Brian put me in touch with Steve Kretzmer, who was amazed that someone had done a Rascal Reporters cover. I tried to convince Steve to play or make a song together, although he has not played for a long time. However, thanks to Brian, they had the brilliant idea to give me an unreleased 1977 piano piece, “Egg Soup”.

From what I know, Steve Kretzmer will return to write music.


What is Canterbury music to you?

Dario: For me, as for many others, it is music that quirkily and smartly blends electric jazz with the progressive rock and psychedelia: A quest into complex rhythms and delicious harmonies with a pataphysical and surreal attitude. Everything is so graceful and refined, both in the most violent raids of Egg and in the most ethereal Wyatt melodies.

You seem to have a strong affection for the nonsensical elements of that music. The absurdism as well as the humour shines through even though I do not understand a word of Italian.

Dario: The absurdity attracts me, and I am attracted to music that explores the unknown. I am fascinated by eccentric literary authors such as Rabelais, Sterne, Kafka and Jarry; and I love Dadaism and Surrealism. However I would not call my lyrics “nonsense” – it is more appropriate to think of them as symbolic texts.

I try to give a musicality to the words. If the humour comes out even for a not Italian listener, this pleases me!

Top: Daniele Crisci, Mauro Turdo, Davide Di Giovanni Bottom: Daniele Di Giovanni, Dario D’Alessandro

 

Many of your songs are extremely short…

Dario: Many things can happen within a short space of time – and we tend to get bored when repeating or stretching phrases or riffs. This may stem from our love for beautiful “pop” songs, and we hope it is also stimulating for the curious listener


Your new album also contains the 18-minute track “Ospedale Civico” that seems to reference National Health. Why keep some things together and divide others up?

Dario: My way of composing is similar to the method of a writer of short stories. “Ospedale Civico” is connected by various internal references, recurring themes and self-citations, in a coherent continuum and self-sufficient form. The song is definitely a reference to National Health; it is a hallucinatory journey inside a public hospital, treated as in a J.G. Ballard story. Full of disjointed phrases uttered by patients, the general feeling is grotesque and restless but, because of that, it is tragicomic as in the Italian cinema tradition.

I also involved Wyatt Moss-Wellington, who sang some magnificent choruses. He was making a beautiful, long piece entitled “Sanitary Apocalypse” during the same period; an enjoyable coincidence, so it was perfect for the cause.


Is there any collaboration on the writing or on arrangements?

Dario: I write almost everything and propose it to the group.  I have not studied music so I do not write a score, even if I try to translate the music to midi files. The songs originate on guitar or keyboard or, in the case where I need to understand things concomitantly, they are born on a computer.

We then try to find the best arrangement together, and witnessing a song take shape with the band is the thing I enjoy the most. On some parts I’m inflexible (some chords, a sequence of notes, or a precise rhythm), while for other things I leave it the group to decide all together.

On each record, there are also one or two songs written by keyboardist Davide.


I saw a live concert recording of you online. Is it very difficult to play your music live?

Dario: Some songs are not very easy to play. There are so many things to remember and many steps are very tight. Maybe we mostly love the studio atmosphere; we work on the arrangements and we have fun during recordings and postproduction.

In any case we do rehearse frequently and our few concerts are appreciated even by those who don’t know us.

 

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Websites dedicated to progressive rock seem to be multiplying these days, with a host of newcomers joining the more established resources such as ProgArchives or DPRP. Most of them are operated by a team of people who devote their free time to their favourite music, providing reviews, news and other items of interest. ProgSphere – the brainchild of Serbian-born Nikola Savić – was first conceived as a glorified blog, manned by a handful of volunteers, but has since expanded into a much more ambitious operation than a mere repository for  reviews, interviews and assorted news items. As a supporter and frequent contributor to the site, it was a pleasure for me to have Nick answer some questions about how the site came to be, and how it gradually developed into what it is today.

First things first… How did you get the idea for your website?

I have always been interested in running websites where I can talk about the music. It’s funny because music journalism is totally my kind of thing, but I decided to approach totally different professional career. My first website, called Metal Explosion (back in 2003), was a metal dedicated webzine, and after that I contributed for a few Serbian music web and magazines. Some time during 2004, the whole world of progressive rock entered my life, and I listened to the likes of King Crimson, Camel, Jethro Tull, Yes almost maniacally. In late 2009 I got an idea of creating a website that would serve as my look on progressive rock. In February 2010, I created a Blogger account (http://prog-sphere.bandcamp.com) and, besides the few reviews I already had written with the help of my friend Dan (Thaler), we conducted an interview with Andy Tillison of The Tangent. In the beginning we were mostly focused on interviews, but later we started writing about albums (both classic and contemporary). Meanwhile, we moved to a paid domain and hosting (www.prog-sphere.com), and the website slowly shaped into a standard news/review/interview portal.

As I pointed out in the introduction, progressive rock websites seem to be a dime a dozen these days. When you first started ProgSphere, did you set out to be different from what was already available?

To be honest, we didn’t actually care too much about any other websites. My idea at first was just to talk with the bands I love. But with time, I wanted to do something new and different that other websites did not offer. I guess that I literally took the term “progressive” and decided to implement it on the website (and even my life). I wanted to keep the website recognizable for its content and put some kind of a seal so that people can always pick Prog Sphere out from the crowd. 🙂

Did you have ambitious plans for your site right from the start, or was it something that developed gradually, after you realized there was a positive response to what you were doing?

As I said, in the beginning it was only about interviewing my favorite bands. But with time I saw that there is plenty of space for progress. The response from progressive rock fans on what we did was really great, and, to keep that feedback always high and positive, we introduced many different features. The Progstravaganza compilation series is one of them.

As one of the so-called “Millennials”, you did not grow up with prog as most fans of the genre (including myself) did. How did you get into this kind of music, which is not exactly hip or popular with the younger generation?

I’ve been surrounded by music since my childhood. My father  introduced me to many good bands/singer-songwriters he used to listen to in the late 60’s and early 70’s. During my teenage years I mostly listened to metal, exploring absolutely every subgenre this genre has given over the decades. Whether it’s traditional heavy metal or the most extreme subgenres such as black-death metal, I enjoyed that music. But then I (re)discovered that progressive rock world through my father’s record collection, and since then I have (mostly) been stationed in this wonderful genre. I never cared about what is popular. Maybe that’s why some of my friends considered me a codger, haha!

Is there a prog scene in your home country of Serbia? What about the neighbouring countries? Do you have the opportunity to go to concerts, or do you have to travel abroad if you want to see live music?

Former Yugoslavia had some pretty strong bands with progressive rock leanings (Time, YU Grupa, Smak, Leb i Sol, Tako, Igra Staklenih Perli, etc). After the breakup all hell broke loose, and the rock scene as a whole was marginalized. With the arrival of the new millennium, Serbia besides political changes started to improve its position musically as well. I cannot say that there is a prog scene in Serbia, but there are bands flirting with the genre, taking its elements and putting them into the modern mix. The best-known bands from Serbia doing so are Consecration, Temple of the Smoke, Draconic, Burning Circle, Through Art, Igra Staklenih Perli (who are active again)…

Serbia is lacking in progressive rock concerts; there are no promoters who would take the risk of bringing any prog bands – for obvious reasons. There are few jazz festivals with tradition and they are struggling every year to manage the organization. Most people are traveling to Zagreb, Budapest or Sofia to see bands in live.

A couple of years ago you introduced ProgSphere Promotions to help up-and-coming bands and artists gain more visibility on an already overcrowded scene. Has it really worked in this sense, or do you think things could be improved?

Yes, Prog Sphere Promotions (www.prog-sphere.com/promotions) was established to help bands getting attention from media and most importantly from the fans of progressive music. Our mission has been successful; we are sending the music of our bands to many radio stations all around the world (currently that number is 250 and counting), to webzines, magazines, TV channels… But, as you indicated in your question, there is always something that can be improved, and we are always looking to offer something new to our artists. And, actually, for the time being I am working on bringing a new service called Progify. It’s still in the works, but I can reveal that it’s about music distribution and streaming with tons of other ideas on how to expand it further. We are introducing some new aspects of promotion besides standard press promotion and public relations. Also, our plan is to get more involved in concert booking, so there is a lot of going on in the PSPR headquarters. 🙂

Another of of the site’s strong points, in my view, is the availability of podcasts and compilations –  another means for artists to achieve visibility and attract more fans. While podcasts are far from uncommon, compilations are much rarer. How did you get the idea, which has been very successful so far?

The Progstravaganza compilation series is the thing I am most proud of. Introduced back in 2010, the idea was simply to give people something actual, something to explore and enjoy and, at the same time, to give the bands some sort of recognition for what they do. I was spending a lot of my time searching for new bands, and it led me to start releasing the compilations. With the help of my friends, graphic designers Pahl Sundstrom (Klotet, Vallebrad, Usurpress) and Chris van der Linden (Fourteen Twentysix, Bow) who provided their skills in contributing cover arts and booklets, we showcased more than 100 bands from all over the globe. So far, we released 12 samplers and one “best of” compilation (with tracks from the first nine samplers that were originally available as lossy mp3 downloads), and reached over 25,000 downloads. And right now I am working on the 13th part, which should be released next week. Now, besides the compilation itself, we have a separate mini-site where we put basic information on the bands in addition of reviews, interviews or any other special features. The compilations are available for free from Bandcamp, so make sure to check out our page at http://prog-sphere.bandcamp.com if you haven’t already. As for the podcasts (or, as we call them, AwesomeCasts), it seems like it’s a trend now, so we decided to go with the flow instead of being trendsetters, haha.

While keeping a healthy balance between vintage prog and newer music, ProgSphere seems to have a definite bias towards metal – which can be a turn off for older fans. What is your take about the importance of metal in the development of the modern progressive rock scene?

Metal is very important for the progressive rock scene. It comes naturally that many contemporary bands base their sound on metal and if well implemented it can sound really great. As an example I would mention Norwegian proggers Leprous. These guys do absolutely everything right in mixing progressive rock with metal. My opinion is that the future of progressive rock scene will largely be based on this genre, as these two genres have a lot in common. No matter if it will be metal or any other genre, progressive rock needs to change. It is in the genre’s nature to evolve, no?

 I have to say that Prog Sphere (including Prog Sphere Promotions) is NOT only about progressive rock or progressive metal, as some people would think. It happened to me that, after sharing a post on Facebook about a band that is not related for progressive rock/metal, somebody commented saying that it’s not prog. We do not limit ourselves to writing only about Rush or Jethro Tull. There is a whole new world waiting to be explored, and that’s what we do – explore.

ProgSphere can also boast of a roster of fine reviewers. How do you “recruit” them, so to speak?

I love reading any kind of reviews, especially music reviews. And when I see that a reviewer is really into it, without any hesitation I get in contact and ask if he/she would be interested to contribute for Prog Sphere. That’s how I did with you, Roger, Conor and other Prog Sphere reviewers. I prefer “descriptive” reviews rather than ones that strictly require having a release rated with stars, numbers or percentages.

And now for a rather tricky question… What, in your opinion, are ProgSphere’s strengths if compared to other large prog websites? And what would you like to improve?

I think we are not snobs like some other large websites. We are treating all the bands equally, no matter if it’s Rush or Gösta Berlings Saga. Some of those large websites will only write about bands / artists that are a commercial success, and that will bring visitors (readers) for commercial purposes. I’m not going to poke anyone in the eye; there is enough on the Web for everyone. We have always been driven by enthusiasm. Speaking about improvements, we are in constant motion. Adding new features on the website (I am currently working on getting some big names of the scene to write occasional columns for Prog Sphere) is something I am trying to achieve all the time. The website is largely lacking in interviews and it would be really great to have someone who would only work on this. Other than that, what I would really love to improve is the performance of the website itself, speaking from the technical aspect. My plan is to move to a dedicated server hosting plan in the near future.

What are your plans for the future? Have you ever thought of branching out into the organization of festivals or similar events?

First things first… The new Progstravaganza compilation is about to hit the Internet shores. After that, sometime in August we will be unleashing the Progify service, which will closely be connected to our work with Prog Sphere PR. There are some talks about releasing another digital release on our netlabel Prog Sphere Records, but I cannot say anything more on that as everything is still under negotiation. Perhaps in the future Prog Sphere will be involved more in music publishing. Time will tell.

It has always been my plan to organize a festival under the Prog Sphere name, but due to my frequent movings from Serbia to Turkey it simply couldn’t be done so far. I have some thoughts for putting together an event in 2014. It’s a delicate process to have an event like that organized on a high level. Maybe we will be asking people to pledge through the crowdfunding campaigns and help us in organization, but for now it’s all under a huge question mark. However, there’s a lot going on and we will be taking one step at a time to achieve our goals. I would love to thank everyone for supporting Prog Sphere over the years. And special thanks to you, Raffaella, for having me interviewed for your website. It’s great to see with how much devotion you work on it, there are many people who appreciate it. Keep up great work!

Thank you for your time and patience, and best wishes for all your future endeavours!

Links:
www.prog-sphere.com
www.prog-sphere.com/promotions/
www.progstravaganza.com
www.facebook.com/ProgSphere
www.twitter.com/ProgSphere
www.youtube.com/user/ProgSphere

 

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signage2

 In spite of their young age, New Jersey band The Tea Club have already been around in various incarnations for almost a decade, and have already attracted the attention of the progressive rock fandom both in the US and in Europe. Their brilliant set at the 2011 edition of ProgDay confirmed them as one of the most exciting acts on the modern prog scene, and the recent release of their third album, Quickly, Quickly, Quickly, is quite likely to consolidate their position. To celebrate this new milestone in their promising musical career, brothers/band founders Dan and Pat McGowan and drummer Joe Rizzolo have kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about the past, the present and the future of the band.

As your site includes some very thorough biographical info about The Tea Club, I will skip the usual introductory question about the origins of the band, and go instead for something less usual (and perhaps loaded). Why did you decide to play progressive rock, instead of opting for a trendier – and possibly more financially profitable – genre?

Dan: The music that we wrote when we first started the band was a little more accessible, but that might be because the songs we wrote when we first started out were simpler. We took a whole bunch of different influences. Some of it was King Crimson and Yes. But our whole thing was that we weren’t hearing the kind of music that we wanted to hear coming from new bands, so we tried to make it ourselves. We saw a lot of other people in bands that were trying to intentionally do something in a style that was trendy or popular, and instead of achieving any popularity, they would just wind up looking like people who were pretending to be a popular band, and it was just uncomfortable for everyone involved. There are a billion bands that already have that exact idea. Bands that are in a better position than you are. Bands that have more money, who are better- looking, who are already connected in the business. So in our experience, there seemed to be no point in dumbing down our music to be more accessible and make something that isn’t all that it could be. We decided that it’s better to just make music for ourselves, and chances are, there are people who are just as crazy as we are who are going to get it. And they might even give you some of their money to support you because you have the balls to try to make something unique.

Joe: I enjoy composing and performing all styles of music and progressive rock lends itself to including many of these styles in a rock setting. Harking to what Dan said, composing music, in my humble opinion, is done best by throwing out all genres and gates that are put around it. To truly create something unique and interesting, you must draw from all experiences musical and otherwise and include them in your music. Whether you end up being described as a progressive group or a techno-pop-rock-indie band is up to those who listen.

Pat: I think a lot of bands are afraid of the word “prog” and all it entails. I am not. I fully embrace it because in my mind all it means is that we are “progressing”. Everything else associated with “prog” is for people to argue about in forums. I’m only interested in getting better as a musician/artist and having the freedom to do so.

 

Let’s talk a bit about names. Why did you choose that particular name for your band?

 

Dan: Pat came up with The Tea Club and it was the one name that everyone in the band liked. We are notoriously terrible at naming things.

 

Pat: I didn’t want a band name that gave you a hint as to what our music was gonna sound like. Some bands names kind of give it away but I wanted a more ambiguous name so we could do whatever the hell we wanted to.

 

Judging from the eclecticism of your sound, you listen to a lot of different music. What are your main influences, inside and outside the prog spectrum?

 

Dan: When it comes to prog rock, I love pretty much everything that King Crimson has ever done. I love 70’s Yes and Genesis, Gentle Giant, PFM, Magma, Van Der Graaf Generator… I think even a lot of the bands that I like that aren’t “prog” are still kind of “proggy”. Bands like Trail of Dead, Sunny Day Real Estate, Flaming Lips, Doves, Radiohead, Björk… bands that are in that twilight area where it’s not quite prog rock epic but it’s still adventurous and extremely emotionally moving. What else… Well, I love Nick Drake, The Beatles, Tom Waits, Jeff Buckley… I like a lot of old 90’s grunge like Soundgarden and Nirvana and Alice in Chains. I’m a pretty big Michael Jackson fan too. I’m also really into old video game music. Koji Kondo, Keiichi Suzuki, Dave Wise, Grant Kirkhope, these are all guys that are musical geniuses in my eyes. And I love Danny Elfman’s film scores from the 80’s and 90’s too.

 

Pat: I’m pretty much gonna second everyone Dan mentioned. I’ve been listening to a lot of Todd Rundgren lately as well as The Tubes and The Cardiacs. I love a lot of classical music, jazz, Motown and R&B. Some of my favorites are Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, The Heartbeats, The Orioles, and James Brown. Some of my favorite composers at the moment are Ravel, Stravinsky, Debussy, Handel, Shostakovich, Bartok, Schubert, Shoenberg, Berlioz, and Wagner.

 

Joe: Everything and everyone.

 

Though I am aware that this is a bit of a hot-button issue, this is a question that I find it hard to resist. I saw you perform as a six-piece, and I thought that the additional band members added a lot to your sound. What is the deal with all those lineup changes? Do they affect your songwriting process?

 

Dan: Well, it’s been a different situation for every person who’s been in the band and then left. Being in a band is a relationship, and any kind of relationship with other human beings is going to be an extremely complicated thing. Everyone’s different. You can’t predict what’s going to happen when you have a group of people playing music together. It’s all part of the craziness that comes with being an artist.As far as the songwriting goes, everyone who’s ever been in the band has contributed to the music and brought their own unique personality and soul into it. But that’s part of the beauty of being in a band; how people interact with each other and what they bring out in each other. It’s unpredictable. All I know is that I’m extremely excited about the lineup that we have right now. I’m really looking forward to writing music with these guys.

 

Pat: A fluctuating line-up has its blessings and its curses. The first 5 King Crimson records are great examples of them all. You can hear the triumphs and failures in those albums of what comes with re-inventing a band from record to record. You also get a very powerful glimpse of what can happen with a (semi) stable line-up in the last three records of that period. The Beatles would be the go-to example for that. So we’ve had to balance those blessings and curses over the years.  The goal is to be always balancing, but never achieving balance (my fortune cookie philosophy moment of the interview…). The vision that Dan and I share for The Tea Club is a musical world where things are constantly changing, and moving, and (dare I say) progressing. For some musicians that’s a terrible place to be, for others (like Joe) it’s the only place they want to be. So, sometimes things happen and you don’t all see eye to eye and a decision has to be made. All the musicians who have passed through this band are great players and gave their all to help us make some great music. I respect them all and the decisions we made.

 

Are you planning to continue as a trio, or have you already contacted some prospective new members?

 

Dan: We have a new bassist named Jamie Wolff and a new keyboardist named Renee Pestritto, and it’s going really well. Right now we’re just focusing on playing the stuff from Quickly Quickly Quickly and Rabbit, but we’ve already started to throw around some new stuff, and I’m extremely encouraged by the sounds that we’re making.

 

Pat: It’s a very exciting time right now. There are all kinds of ideas and music flying around. Jamie and Renee are wonderful players with big ears and at this moment the sky’s the limit. I’m looking forward to seeing how touring will grow the band and develop the ideas into new music.

 

Are any of you professional musicians, or otherwise involved with the music industry for your day job? What is your view of the current state of affairs that, to all intents and purposes, does not allow most non-mainstream artists to make a living out of their music?

 

Dan: Me and Pat don’t have any kind of musical training, so basically everything that we’ve done musically has gone into The Tea Club. So far it’s been easier for us to work a simple job during the day, just make the money to pay for rent so we have a place to make music and art. If that’s what I have to do to make sure that the band has a place to practice, then so be it. As long as it isn’t interfering with my music, or something that makes me start treating the band like it’s something that needs to take a back seat.

 

Pat: Whoa, those are loaded questions! Again, I believe it’s a matter of balancing the good and the bad. In some ways I’m immensely grateful we’ve had to work dead -end day jobs. There are things that you learn from being ‘in the kitchen’ that you would absolutely never understand without spending some time there. And for a musician/artist those lessons can enrich your art in a way that cannot be imitated. I think popular or ‘mainstream’ music in general could benefit from spending some time pumping gas.Of course the downside is the toll it takes on your personal life. But it forces you to be real and if this is your path it separates the hobbyists from the lifers. For some it’s a price you must be willing to pay. No one is making us do this. We are CHOOSING to endure all the insanity. But very good things are starting to happen for us and there does come a time to get out of ‘the kitchen’ because staying there too long can become a trap. Once you get past the fear of not ‘making it’ you come to terms with the real reasons why you’re doing what you’re doing. And, in my opinion that’s when you become dangerous.

 

The current state of the non-mainstream music scene encourages artists to stick together in order to promote and perform their music. Do you have any ongoing collaboration with other bands or artists in your area, or elsewhere in the US?

 

Dan: Sure, there’s a bunch! There’s some amazing music happening around us. And for me, it’s easier to believe in the music when you know the people and you see the hard work they’re putting into it. Rexedog, Thank You Scientist, Goodnight Lights, Suit of Lights, Craig van Hise, Banned Books, Advent, Changing Modes, and Rasputin’s Secret Police are some of my favorite acts that we’ve played with. And of course, those Echolyn gents.

 

Performing live is an essential part of your activity, as anyone who has seen you on stage will not fail to realize. Is it hard for you to find gigs (as it usually is for prog musicians), or does the “modern” component of your music give you access to a wider range of opportunities?

 

Dan: We’ve been able to play some really great shows. We’ve played with some interesting bands in these cool little venues in Philly. I suspect that some people might find it kind of hilariously awesome when they see us play, and they might be thinking, whoa these guys are in their 20’s and they have the balls to sabotage their careers and sound like Yes! There are apparently some clubs in Philly who literally refuse to book “prog rock” bands though, which is pathetic. There is still a hilarious stigma about “prog rock”. I still read it in certain music magazines and reviews. You can’t do this or that because that’s “proggy” and you’re not allowed to sound like prog rock or else no one will like you. It’s kind of like, well you want to sit at the cool kids table right? But I think that limiting what you are and are not allowed to like or write or play will ALWAYS suck. All I know is that when prog rock is great and it hits, it hits hard and it leaves a lasting impression. Like Close to the Edge or “Gates of Delirium” or “Supper’s Ready”. Those moments where imagination and musicianship come together to create something that is almost impossible not to be moved by. Maybe college kids don’t dance to it, but I don’t think any form of rock music has EVER moved me the way that prog rock has at its best.

 

Pat: I’m consistently surprised by the shows we get and the shows we don’t get that we really thought we would get. We manage to get away with a lot and play places I never thought we would, but we do tend to stand out musically just about everywhere we play. Sometimes it can be quite hilarious.

 

What about your most important live experiences so far – your ProgDay appearance and the mini-tour with Beardfish?

 

Pat: There are countless things to learn at every show and if you want to be a great live band you must look for them. Years ago we did a live radio show and minutes before we began the vocal monitoring system died. We were in a small room with all our gear playing at full volume singing into mics that were plugged directly into the radio station’s soundboard and going live over the air without being able to hear our voices AT ALL. We had to play for 90 minutes like that. We overcame it and played a pretty damn good show but you can’t prepare for things like that. You have to get through it and each show builds your confidence.ProgDay was a challenge because it’s a very smart crowd and they know your music and are expecting you to be great. Many, many great bands have played that festival and much of the audience comes back year after year. They’ve seen good bands and they’ve seen truly great bands and the burden was on us to rise to the occasion.The Beardfish shows taught us many things. Watching how they play to their audience was incredible. It forever changed my understanding of the relationship between audience and performer. They were brilliant and I learned a lot.Our most recent NJ Proghouse show was something of a milestone for me. We did not play it safe in preparation for that show. It was our first performance since releasing Quickly Quickly Quickly and we went for broke. There were 4 part vocal harmonies, multiple keyboard players, improvisation without any visual cues: stuff that we avoided in the past. I learned a lot from that show as well, but most importantly I learned that we must be progressing as a live band just as much as we are as a studio band. A musician at the end of the day is a performer and that is an art all to itself.

 

Let us talk a bit about your new album – starting with its title. As I wrote in my review, I applaud your decision of not releasing 80 minutes of music, though other artists would have done so without too many qualms. How did you end up writing so much material?

 

Dan: Well, like I mentioned earlier, we are horrible at naming things. It took forever to name Quickly Quickly Quickly. No exaggeration, there were probably about 100 titles we were throwing around that would have been really good titles, but we just couldn’t decide on one. With naming an album, just like naming a band, there’s a lot of pressure. It has to be memorable, it has to sum up the album or at least fit with the album in some way, and everyone has to agree on it. And it had to match the album cover that Kendra DeSimone made too, and that album cover is just beautiful. For me, there was so much riding on it that eventually I started coming up with really silly names because I wasn’t having any fun. “Canine Suspect” was one I came up with. “Fleas on a Crab” was another one. When I get to that point I’m pretty much out of the picture, I just become useless.

 

Pat: Dan and I always have to be working on “the next thing” whatever that may be. More often than not it’s new music and the compulsion can borderline on mania. For me personally I have difficulty with down time. If a few days go by and I don’t have anything creative I’m working on I start to get very anxious. Being productive is essential and after we finished Rabbit it was essential to our survival. There were a lot of difficulties going on at that time (both band related and not) and we had no outlet that felt productive other than to write. So we wrote a lot of music. The band could have very easily ceased to be during that time but the new music would not be denied.That’s a reason why I love the album title so much. It sums up what we were going through. Also, just to go on the record, there was a night or two there where I actually considered “Fleas on a Crab” as an album title.

 

Unlike many other prog bands, you put a lot of attention into the lyrics. Where do you get your inspiration?

 

Dan: From my experience, inspiration is an extremely mysterious and spiritual thing. It can come from anywhere and everywhere and I can’t force it to happen. When I’m writing lyrics, I tend to feel like it’s not good unless it feels like it has come through me and not from me. Like I’m just guiding words together that are supposed to come together. I think more than anything, I’m good at recognizing what’s inspired and what’s not. Sometimes there will be weeks where I create absolutely nothing of worth, because I have no inspiration. And then suddenly it’s there. And it can come from something as serious as a panic attack or the death of a loved one, to something as silly as an old cartoon or an inside joke. Or just from nowhere at all. I don’t understand it. I believe that it comes from God. It’s one of the most important ways that I can connect with God. But I don’t understand it.

 

Pat: I read a lot and I read on a variety of subjects. I love to pick weird topics that interest me and drink them in with the goal of mixing them all together and seeing what comes out of it. It’s that fascinating struggle between discerning randomness and specific intent. It’s really just a lot of fun to give your conscious and subconscious a voice and try to navigate your way through the insanity. For me, going to that place is a bizarre way of worshiping God. But it’s very important for the words to be meaningful. I love poetry that is nonsensical but I also love poetry that seems nonsensical or whimsical but is really loaded with deep meaning. We’ve tried to provide many a long and mystical night for those interested in such things.

 

The visual aspect of your albums also deserves a mention. Do you see the artwork as a necessary complement to your music?

 

Dan: Definitely. It’s totally essential to creating our own little Tea Club world. I plan on integrating it more and more for years to come. I’ve been working a lot on music videos for our songs, messing around with things like stop motion animation and puppets. I don’t really know what I’m doing, I don’t have any experience with animation or film, but it’s a lot of fun and it’s turning out surprisingly well. But it’s SO much work if you really want it to turn out even remotely watchable, and I have the utmost respect for people who can really do it well.

 

Pat: My favorite records are ones where you are pulled into the weird little microcosm the band creates. I love the cover to the King Crimson album Lizard. I would stare at that cover all night as I listened to the record and try to find the hidden meanings and references to the lyrics. I was pulled into that record. The same thing could be said for Kid A by Radiohead. The art for that record is nightmarish and perfectly fits the atmospheres created by the music. I remember the first time we discovered the hidden booklet behind the disc tray, it was like Thom Yorke had accidentally included his diary in our CD. My connection with the music only deepens when I find those little breadcrumb trails bands leave behind. I want to offer that experience to our audience and it’s been especially enjoyable for us since we do almost all the art ourselves. 

 

Have you ever been in touch with a label, or are you happy with releasing your music independently?

 

Dan: I’d like to work with a label, but it would have to be a label that can legitimately do something for us that we can’t do ourselves. And if that doesn’t happen, we’re just going to have to keep going, even if people think we’re completely delusional in the idea of trying to make a career out of a supposedly unmarketable product. We have faith that people will get what we’re doing.

 

Pat: We’ve had contact with a number of labels but the right offer hasn’t come our way yet. I’m certainly open to the idea of working with a good label that understands what we’re doing. But we’ll keep doing this on our own whether anyone helps us or not.

 

When can we expect to hear the second half of the recording sessions that produced Quickly, Quickly, Quickly?

 

Dan: Soon, but probably not as soon as we were originally thinking!

 

Pat: A lot has happened since QQQ was released. Plans have changed many times but the music endures. We hope to have a new record out sometime next year. 

 

What are your plans for the next few months? Are there any live appearances in the pipeline?

 

Dan: We’ll be playing the Terra Incognita Festival in Quebec City this May, which is extremely exciting! This will be the first time that we’ve ever played a show outside of the United States, so we’re really looking forward to that.

 

Pat: We’re booking a lot of shows right now and will be doing some touring in the summer. We also hope to be back in the studio by the end of the year. There’s a lot going on right now and it’s a very busy time for us but that’s just how we like it. QQQ has done us a lot of good and there’s plenty more on the horizon for us and for the fans.

 

Thank you so very much for your answers, and all the best for your future ventures!

 

Dan: Thank you Raff!

 

Pat: Great questions, this was a lot of fun!

Links:

http://www.theteaclub.net/

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New Jersey band 3RDegree have been around for close to two decades, but only in recent years have they come to the attention of the progressive rock community. The 2008 release of their third studio album, Narrow-Caster, followed by their appearance at ProgDay 2009, paved the way for the extremely positive feedback garnered by their fourth recording effort, The Long Division, definitely one of the strongest releases of 2012. With their distinctive sound, effortlessly blending catchy hooks and gorgeous vocal harmonies with elaborate arrangements and plenty of technical fireworks in a song-based context, 3RDegree offer a refreshingly modern take on the old prog warhorse that may appeal even to those who find the genre too pretentious for its own good. The band members – Robert James Pashman, George Dobbs, Patrick Kliesch, Eric Pseja and Aaron Nobel – have kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about the past, the present and the future of the band.

Your biography is exhaustively detailed on your website, so I will limit myself to a couple of questions on the subject. What led you to disbanding after Human Interest Story, and why did you decide to give it another go (which, by the way, seems to have become increasingly common among prog bands)? 

George:  We saw our differences more than we saw our similarities.  As for the re-formation, Rob had a vision, which expanded as time went on. I didn’t have anything going on to speak of at the time, and I liked the new songs Rob and Pat were writing, so that’s how I ended up back in the fold.

Robert: We got frustrated with “the scene” and we were in the New York City area! It feels funny complaining about the lack of our ability to create a fan base when there’s such a population center surrounding us, but getting the sort of music we were doing in front of the people who like it was killing us.  The Internet hadn’t taken hold yet as a music marketplace, and the festival scene was not known to us, so we were playing aimlessly all over NJ and NY.  The only thing we did that was a bit inventive was that we befriended a few other prog bands, and I would present a group of us to bookers and club owners.  All those bands are now gone, although one of them was You Were Spiraling, fronted by Tom Brislin, who went on to play with Yes, Renaissance and Camel, and is now a solo artist.

Now something about your individual background as musicians. How did you start playing music, and what other experiences did you have prior to joining 3RDegree?

Eric:  I’ve been singing since I was about eight, first in my church choir, then in my high school madrigal choir.  I also landed singing leads in my high school musicals for all four years, which helped me to get comfortable with performance.  Also in high school, I taught myself to play guitar.  In college, I learned bass guitar and pursued a music minor.

George: When I was 14, I had these cool friends who had all been playing music for years. It was sort of contagious, and eye-opening. As for everything else leading up to and inclusive of my first round with 3RDegree, I have wished it to the corn-field (reference: Twilight Zone).

Patrick: I started in fourth grade playing clarinet for the school band and then I took up guitar in seventh grade. I had a couple of high school bands where we did mostly Rush and Yes covers. 3RDegree was the first “real” band that I had joined.

Robert: I took piano lessons when I was 12 and continued to 17. I then got a portable recording studio and got lessons on that instead of piano from my piano teacher Angelo Panetta, whom I then started working as Assistant Engineer for, followed by Pat when I left college.  Angelo now mixes all our albums.  In junior year of high school I taught myself bass and started a power trio where I sang, played keys and bass doing Rush, Genesis and other things like that.  3RDegree was started out of the ashes of that band in 1990 with my meeting with Rob Durham, our drummer until 2008.

Aaron: I started playing drums when I was nine and did the usual routine of playing in the school orchestra. I had an aunt that had great taste in music and made me tapes I used to play along to-along with the rock radio du jour: Dixie Dregs, Permanent Waves/Signals-era Rush, Abacab-era Genesis, Van Halen, Men At Work, The Police. In high school I played in basement bands with classmates and was a bit more advanced than the guys I was playing with… We’d end up playing crude Metallica and Slayer covers. After graduating I started taking private lessons mostly focusing on technique, jazz, funk, reading. Around that time I tried out for a locally successful metal band, Know Idea, and ended up landing the gig. I was the very green 18-year old among semi-seasoned mid-20’s guys, we had full lights, pyro, professional sound system, box truck, roadies. We were very briefly signed to a subsidiary of Warner. The week after the band broke up I got a call from my step brother, who was a professional musician, to join his keyboard based funk project. Best thing about that was he was the engineer at Star Castle studios so we had a wicked rehearsal space there and free recording. I also played in a progressive rock trio a la Rush called Showcase with two local prodigies – my recordings with them happen to be among my favorite. I was restless and decided to take a stab at music school, auditioned for Miami U and New School – decided it wasn’t worth the money. I ended up doing studio work for a local rock band and playing in a desert rock band a la Kyuss called Amnesty Underground . Things were great music wise, but, still restless, I moved to Orlando, did some convention band work, some original music, tried out for some Disney stuff (serious competition down there). When I came back a few years later the two guys I was in Showcase with had another project going and enlisted me. Called Selfmadesoul, the music contained a lot of electronic elements and orchestrations so I played a hybrid acoustic/electronic kit with an octapad, foot pedals, and electronic pads. Everything was automated, so I played to a click which was great training. Incidentally it was while I was in Selfmadesoul that I became friends with the guys in Spiraling, which is my link to 3RDegree.

Aaron Nobel behind the kit

Are any of you professional musicians, or with a day job related to the music industry? If not, how do you juggle your day jobs with your musical activity?

George: None of us presently make “a living” playing music. Balancing a day job with music, easy – balancing personal life with music is the tricky thing. My solution so far: personal life centered around music.

Patrick: I work as a writer/director/editor, so some times I write music for the things I produce. My brother is a professional musician. He is the composer for the new Disney series Sophia The First.

Robert: It’s tough.  I work odd hours and have kids like 2 other band members as well, but with my trusty laptop I eke out band work whenever I can.  My difficulty comes in with the many hats I wear in the band and when I should take off one and put on another.  It’s very unartistic promoting a new album and tending the social networks. When to stop doing that and start writing is like restarting a computer rather than just minimizing one window and opening another – to use a computer metaphor.

Aaron: I’m in a 9-5 as a senior tech support for one of the largest manufacturers of HVAC actuators in the world. It doesn’t get in the way too much- it’s the other bands, quality time with my girlfriend, and fitness endeavors that get in the way!

Are any of you involved in any other projects besides 3RDegree?

Eric:  In college, I joined my fraternity house band CRUST, where I took on bass guitar and vocal duties.  Our music is very tongue-in-cheek, in the vein of Spinal Tap.  After we graduated and moved apart (to New Jersey, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan), we’ve still made it a point to get together every year to write and record.  We’ve been doing this for over twenty years.  It’s a great outlet for the “less technical” side of my musical personality.  As a matter of fact, we’re on the verge of releasing a new album this winter!

George: I’ve been recording a few tracks with some friends, at Rave Tesar’s Studio X (where the last Renaissance album was recorded).  I keep my chops up with bar band gigs every few weeks.

Aaron: I’m in a progressive rock instrumental trio in my hometown. I do a bit of jazz gigs around the New Haven, CT area. I play with the Lyric Hall Silent Movie Orchestra providing the live sound track to silent movies. I sub for a couple local cover bands and a Celtic rock band called The Ruffians. I always complain about how busy I am, but I rarely say no to an offer.

George Dobbs – the voice of 3RDegree

3RDegree do not sound like “traditional” prog, and, rather than going for lengthy, elaborate compositions like many of the iconic Seventies bands, are undeniably a song-oriented band. What is your relationship to the genre, and your opinion on its future developments?

Eric:  We’re all very well-versed in rock history, and progressive rock’s important contributions to the development of modern music, but I believe the true essence of being progressive is allowing your band’s natural chemistry to dictate the direction of the music regardless of current commercial trends.  We don’t have a “formula” for our music.  As technical and meticulous as it sounds at times, our music is developed very organically, which is why people find it hard to define.  Every song we write has a varying degree of each band member’s personality within, and our personalities are quite diverse.

George: We come out of a “crossover prog.” tradition. Even Yes, with their Awaken/Delirium/CTTE/Tales epics, had shorter songs, often with very well defined refrains – (and I’m talking pre-90125… hell, even pre- Tormato). I think those other efforts are to be cherished and emulated -not to be merely tolerated.  The future of prog, ehh, what do I know?  I think it involves nanobots.

Patrick: I’ve always approached songwriting as melody first and arrangement second. The melody is the foundation, and, with a good foundation, you can play around and have fun with arrangements. Rob and I never were into the esoteric prog stuff that ventured into long solos and experimentation. Then when George came along, his writing meshed with ours and defined our song-based prog rock even more so. I can’t speak for the future of prog as a whole – I can only say that we as 3RDegree are going to keep pushing new limits. I never want our listeners to think they know what the next album is going to sound like. I always want to surprise and challenge our fan base.

Robert: For 3RDegree to pursue a song idea, I think there has to be an element of one or more of the hallmarks of what is generally considered prog mixed with just good songwriting a la XTC, Todd Rundgren and other songsmiths that aren’t particularly considered prog artists. We don’t run into any huge arguments over which of our songs are to be included in our repertoire, but we sometimes have a slight crisis over it.  I’d say on any given album of ours, there is a song or two that may be far from the prog tradition but, when tucked into the running order of an album, fits just fine.

What music do you usually listen to, and what are your biggest influences – prog and otherwise?

Eric: My musical tastes are all over the map, so there really is nothing usual about what I listen to.  For instance, the other day I listened to The Doors’  Strange Days, followed by Opeth’s Blackwater Park, then AOMusic and Miriam Stockley (I absolutely love her voice)!  Prog-wise, I’m a fan of the usual suspects:  Yes, Genesis, ELP, etc.  More recently however, I’ve grown to be a huge fan of Porcupine Tree and Devin Townsend as well.

Eric Pseja and his home-brewed ale

Aaron: It depends on my mood. I actually listen to a lot of jazz – Coltrane, Miles, Monk, Wayne Shorter, Louie Armstrong. My formative years I listened to A LOT of Rush, Living Colour, ings X, The Police, Dixie Dregs. I dig anything that Ty Tabor has a part in. I love old school hip-hop, funk, French house. I had a Dream Theater phase, but lately in prog-world I’m really digging Gavin Harrison & 05RIC. Gavin’s linear playing boggles the mind. I’ve spent entire commutes to work over going over one section of song trying to figure out his licks.

George: No regular listening habits.  4 albums I bought in the past few months: Broken Bells, Ambrosia’s 1st album, Walter Becker (Circus Money), and IZZ (Crush of Night).  Artists that have probably left their greatest mark on me are are Genesis, Floyd, Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder and XTC.  More current artists that I admire and keep my eye on are Mutemath, Beardfish, Self (Matt Mahaffey) and Bird and The Bee.

Patrick: Let’s refer to my starred files in Spotify: And So I Watch You From Afar, Cut Copy, Grizzly Bear, Holy Fuck, M83, Amanda Palmer. They’ve all released my favorite albums of the past year or so. Biggest influences in prog – Yes, Rush, Genesis. Non-prog biggest influences – Beatles, Zeppelin, Radiohead.

Robert: Prog favs are Rush, Yes, Genesis, Gentle Giant, Marillion, Ambrosia, David Sylvian, Kevin Gilbert, etc. Songwriting favs are XTC, Jellyfish, Todd Rundgren, Joni Mitchell….Pop favs include Level 42, Thomas Dolby, Tears For Fears.  Love Cocteau Twins, Björk, Radiohead.  Newer prog favs are Echolyn and Izz.

One of your founding members resides on the West Coast, thousands of miles from the rest of you. How do you negotiate the physical distance during the songwriting and the recording stage?

George: It’s really not that difficult, if and when we are motivated.  FTP and the universal “WAV” file make it somewhat negotiable.

Patrick: Yeah, it’s really not too tough. A month ago we all FaceBook chatted for several hours and spoke about the direction of the next album. Additionally, I can FaceTime as the rest of the band rehearses. Soon there will be a way where I can play along real time with them. JamHub is close to that right now – I think there is a 200-mile distance for real time playing.

Guitarist and founding member Patrick Kliesch

Robert: JamHub is enabling us to play at decent volumes and to hear each other better.  Whether we will be able to integrate Pat into that in real time 3000 miles away – and cheaply – remains to be seen.

Your songs are clearly the work of people who put a lot of attention in every detail.  How do you handle the songwriting process? Would you call yourselves perfectionists?

Eric: Our recording process is a balancing act; making sure the music is well-produced without sounding too sterile.  While we take great care to make sure the complexities of our music are clearly defined, we also believe there’s something to an album that’s got some live-band feel as well.

George:  Robert always keeps us to a pretty strict time line, so there’s only so much room for perfectionism. He’s like Roger Corman in that regard …He’s also a bit like Harvey Corman, only shorter.

Patrick: It’s hard to define the songwriting process, because every song takes on a life of its own and each one dictates the way that the song will be sculpted. But generally, the principal songwriter will present his song idea to the band with his initial arrangements and flourishes, and then the rest of us will add keys, guitars and other touches on top of that.

Robert: Or that song that’s presented isn’t finished (just a chorus or verse), and another band member is encouraged to run with it.  We’re good like that.  We never have an argument over who is writing too much or too little.  Members get busy in their lives in different times and slack is picked up when needed. We also have a pretty harsh song filter -a built-in quality control within the band that ensures that we all feel good about everything that gets to the recording phase.  We’re not going to spend time on a song getting it ready for the drum recording sessions that start off the process and not see it through.  That would be too much wasted time.  I – as band “leader” – do my utmost to not waste anyone’s time, be it at a rehearsal or whatever else.  The reason for this is because we’re not in our 20’s with a short list of commitments.  Quite the opposite.

What is your relationship to the other prog bands in the NJ/NYC area? Do you have any ongoing form of collaboration with other musicians, especially as regards finding opportunities for playing live?

Robert: There’s a camaraderie between the band leaders of a bunch of bands out there – mostly aided by Facebook.  I’m in the same “boat” as a lot of these guys and, while we’re sort of “in competition” for the prog fans’ hard-earned dollar, so to speak, we seem to have empathy for each other’s rough road.  Shadow Circus, Edensong, IZZ, Pinnacle – just a few names of bands near us who are fighting the good fight.

Talking of what, what have been your experiences as a live band? Do you think that releasing albums is more important than treading the boards of a stage, or the other way round?

Eric: It’s been quite a while since I’ve been able to simply jam a weekend away.  Both Rob and I have two little kids at home, and all of us have full-time jobs that require most of our time.  While we strive to get out on stage if at all possible, we’re beginning to accept that it’s becoming more difficult to do so, especially on short notice.  For me personally, I am simply grateful that I’m able to be creative even when I can’t “tour” to support the music I’ve helped create.  Playing live is a wonderful thing, but to me, I don’t find it as important or gratifying as the creative process.

3RDegree having a good time

George: Live music means never having to say you had a sound check. Writing is absolutely more important to me, in terms of 3RDegree; and what are we going to play if we aren’t building and perfecting the oeuvre?

Robert: It’s such a double edged sword.  We have had a difficult relationship with “the stage” since it always had seemed we have to drop everything to ready ourselves for a particular gig.  Problem is, there’s only so many places you can play and you can only play them so many times SO, what happens is you find an album done, maybe a few shows and then the rust sets in again.  When The Long Division was done back in June, I had spent so much time getting it ready to get out there (mastering, final mixes, pre-funding, pre-orders, album cover-concept, finding the artist, going back and forth with him until final draft, music video shooting and editing, advertising, mailing to press and radio and more) that we couldn’t get a live show together in time for the proper “tour”, and found out in the process that we really need two guitarists live since Pat cannot join us in the flesh.  Good thing about playing live is the ability to move some merch.  It’s very, very hard to sell shirts and non-musical gear from a website, no matter how much you take pictures or video of it.  Same thing with our new beer glasses.  After someone sees a band live, they often feel like a “souvenir” and that’s where it starts to make sense to get on stage again from a monetary point of view.  Even the positive energy from playing a live gig can be squashed by a host of issues.  I will say that, since our regrouping, the quality of the audience at our shows is better tenfold.  We do not set up shows willy-nilly like the old days.

Since its release, The Long Division has garnered a lot of critical praise. Has this positive feedback translated into sales?

George: Not as much as some airplay would. But it’s nice to know that someone gets us. And the fanbase does grow in no small part due to this acknowledgement.

Robert: It seems to be selling better than Narrow-Caster so far, given its short time frame and word of mouth seems to be better and reviews and buzz have been exponentially more positive.  We were surprised by how well things went with Narrow-Caster, so to say press is noticeably better is a pretty good place to be in.  The only downside is the expectation going forward, but we just do what we do and hopefully everyone comes along for the ride.  Although there are a handful of people who like our last album better.

You are one of the very few bands on the modern prog scene whose lyrics are based on current affairs rather than on more abstract topics. Why is it so, and has it always been that way?

George:  It’s always been that way.  Right back to the 1st album, current affairs seems to be Robert’s passion, when he was writing about Wall Street, the Cold War, AIDS.  Well, you certainly run less of a chance of turning someone off if you stay away from “social commentary.” But this is true of all music, not just the prog scene – hardcore punk excepting. My M.O. is that all subjects are fair game for lyrics, just as long as you are making art and not propagandart.

Robert: We released our last album as the world was falling apart – the fall of 2008.  While I was busy getting the 3RDegree name out there in various ways, Pat and George started on two of the pieces that would define The Long Division almost four years later – “You’re Fooling Yourselves”, started by Pat, and “The Socio-Economic Petri Dish”, started and almost entirely written by George.


Robert James Pashman and one of his concerns

How has the album been received outside the US, seen as its lyrical content is firmly rooted in the US socio-political situation? Do you think that its plea towards mutual understanding and cooperation may find an echo in other parts of the world?

George: If anything, the salient political topics may have helped us to finally reach a wider audience in the USA. Prior to The Long Division, we seem to have historically gone over best in “Germanic” countries.

Robert: I think we’ve been lucky that it’s been doing quite well in Europe as I was concerned not that people outside the US wouldn’t know about the subject matter, but that they wouldn’t particularly be interested in it.  Many of the reviews point out that we spend quite a bit of time on the general subject of divisions in the American political system, and that it’s done well.  We certainly labored a bit making sure the songs weren’t taking a hard political stance, but rather coming at it all from an apolitical angle.  We all have our leanings, but I think none of the band are in love with the personalities or politicians we tend to agree with.

Now that the new album is finally out, what are your plans for the future? Do you have any new material ready, or is another long wait on the horizon for your fans?

George: Less of a wait this time, but we’re still looking at 2014, at best.

Patrick: Yeah, I’d concur that 2014 would be the release for the next album. It’s already half recorded. We’re shooting for another half dozen songs to be recorded in the next studio session. And, speaking of the future, that’s exactly what this next album is going to concentrate on – futurist themes.

Robert: I’d say we may play a few shows in the spring if our rehearsals go that way and we find a lead guitarist.  If not, we will focus squarely on writing a few more songs and fleshing out the ones we’ve recorded already.  Four songs are recorded on drums from The Long Division sessions.  I’d say roughly six more need to be done in a final drum session hopefully this coming summer.  Four songs are written-at least in part-but not recorded.  One of the upcoming songs is the longest we have ever recorded.  The Long Division has 4 of the longest songs we have ever recorded up to that time, so you can see the trend towards song length, but we still keep to our solemn pledge: “Gnome-Free Since ‘93”!

Thank you for your answers, and all the best for a great 2013!

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On the evening of June 24th, 2012, I had the pleasure to interview Alexander Skepp and Gabriel Tapper, respectively drummer and bassist of Swedish outfit Gösta Berlings Saga, whose career-defining performance on  the morning of the same day – the closing day of the festival – wowed the audience and earned them many new fans. While their bandmates, guitarist Einar Baldursson and keyboardist David Lundberg (who is also a member of Änglagård), remained downstairs to man the band’s vendor table, Gabriel and Alexander kindly answered my questions while sitting at an outside table on the Zoellner Arts Center’s third floor.

As it was my first attempt at a video interview, I apologize to my readers if the quality of the final product is not stellar. However, I hope the content of the interview will make up for any technical shortcomings.

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In the past few years, rarely has a debut album by a completely unknown act taken me by surprise – and won my approval –so much as Herd of Instinct’s self-titled album, released in the late spring of 2011 on the brand-new label Firepool Records, legendary southern California outfit Djam Karet’s own label. With an impressive roster of guest musicians, and a sound that brings together atmospheric, cinematic and ethnic elements, the album garnered a lot of praise in the progressive rock community, though some people have tended to overlook the actual band members in favour of the high-profile names. However, the Texas-based trio  are experienced musicians who deserve much more exposure than they have got so far. While we wait for their second album to be released later in 2012, the three members of the band – Jason Spradlin, Mark Cook and Mike Davison –  joined by Gayle Ellett (Djam Karet founder and unofficial fourth member of Herd of Instinct),  have kindly agreed to answer some of my questions.

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Let us start from the basics, for those readers who are not yet familiar with your history. How was Herd of Instinct born?

Jason: Herd of Instinct formed in 2007. We’re from Arlington, Texas. Before Herd of Instinct, Mike Davison had played in a band called Nervewerks, while Mark Cook and I were in the band 99 Names of God. Both bands were friends, and we played many shows together. A few months before 99 Names broke up, I invited Mike to come out and jam with Mark and I. A great time was had by all. When it was official that 99 Names was done for good, the 3 of us decided to form a new group. Meanwhile, in a separate project, Mark Cook and Warr guitarist Dave Streett were writing and recording music and employing various guest musicians. At some point it was decided to merge our group with Mark and Dave’s project. That is basically the birth of Herd of Instinct.

Mike: As Jason mentioned, over several years both bands (99 Names and Nervewerks) had seen each other’s live performances, played shows together, enjoyed each other’s crafts. , when 99 Names had  a show on my side of town, 40 miles north-east of Mark and Jason’s home town, I would go see them play. It was after one of these shows, Jason asked me to come out and jam with Mark and himself. Nervewerks had already disbanded into a few different projects, and 99 Names had, unknowingly, played their last show the night Jason invited me out. The three of us have developed a great chemistry over the years, and with the addition of all these amazing players, it just took the CD over the top. There’s a lot of nice flavors being added to the Herd Trio on the upcoming album as well.

Gayle: My involvement began many years ago, when Dave Streett approached me about recording on some of his songs. And through Dave I later met Mark, their great drummer Jason Spradlin, Mike and the other members of Herd. And later I decided to release their debut CD on a new record label that I created with Chuck Oken jr., called Firepool Records. And we are very happy to be releasing their new Herd CD too. A few months ago Herd Of Instinct flew me down their studio in Dallas, Texas, for a week to record on their second album. That was really fun and productive, and it’s been very enjoyable for me to be working with these great musicians!

Your very striking name comes from an album that is somewhat of a cult item. What led you to choose it?

Mark: Jason and I are fans of O.Rang’s album Herd of Instinct. The recording is a masterpiece of texture. We spent some time trying to come up with a name that was open-ended. HoI just seemed to feel right.

Jason: Before we decided on the name Herd of Instinct, we were calling ourselves Mirror People. Just when you think you’ve picked a name no one else has used, a search engine reveals otherwise. Mark and I are fans of Talk Talk, and one of our favourite albums is by an off-shoot of them –  .O.Rang, and their 1997 LP Herd Of Instinct. The 3 of us each made lists of possible band names. As it turns out, Mark and I both had the name Herd of Instinct on our lists. We hope that Lee Harris and Paul Webb can find it in their hearts to forgive us!!

What is your musical background? Was the music of the 70’s (prog or otherwise) influential in your development as individual musicians and as a band?

Mark: I started playing guitar when I was very young and moved on to the Warr guitar. King Crimson, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Rush have very much influenced HoI. Other musicians, outside of “prog”, that have influenced the way I approach music are John Zorn, Philip Glass, Bill Laswell, Ennio Morricone, Scott Walker, Brian Eno, and Miles Davis. I should also note other art mediums have had a major impact on my playing – Salvador Dali, Philip K. Dick, Kobo Abe, Margurite Duras, Nicolas Roeg, David Lynch, William S. Burroughs, and David Cronenberg. The way these people approach their craft is a great source of inspiration.

Jason: My love of music has been snowballing since I first sat behind a drum kit in 1977. Music of the 60’s and 70’s was very influential to me as I learned the basics of rock drumming. As the 1980’s rolled in I developed an obsession with hard rock and underground heavy metal. Along with some school friends, I helped formed the doom metal band Last Chapter. While I was in that band we released a CD called The Living Waters, which has become a minor cult favourite in doom metal circles. I guess it was the late 80’s when I developed a love for jazz, prog rock, Krautrock, and psychedelic music.

Mike: For me I think it was the “Whole Lotta Love” solo that started my guitar addiction. I learned as much Zeppelin as I could, which for a study is good with the wide range, acoustic guitars, open tunings, the picking techniques, blues, rock, metal, folk, and so on. Hendrix, Floyd, Jeff beck, rush,  I couldn’t get enough of it. I was into everything from SRV to Metallica. It was the early 90’s when I fell heavily into King Crimson, early Genesis, Frank Zappa, Miles Davis and on and on. From Townes Van Zandt to Porcupine Tree, classical to jazz, night to day, it’s all influential. I’ve played with rock, jazz, pop, folk, prog, and flamenco bands. That’s been some of the best influence and inspiration for me. Playing the different, and with many great players, you can’t beat it!

Gayle: I was a teenager in the 1970’s, and the music of your teen years is always very influential and significant to a person’s view and appreciation of music that stays with you for the rest of your life. So I am heavy influenced by the music of the 1970’s, especially groups such as Pink Floyd, Allman Brothers, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Gentile Giant, Yes, King Crimson, ELP, Return To Forever and others.

Your debut album took four years to complete, which is not unusual nowadays. What prevented you from releasing it sooner?

Mark: HoI builds songs slowly. It’s a process that takes time, and when a piece “feels” finished we move on. Sometimes it’s a waiting game for a piece of music to settle.

Jason: The musical tastes within this band go in many directions. So much so, that our music goes through several evolutionary phases. An aging process occurs with the music as well. The politics of merging our band with the side project, along with job schedules, and just the ups and downs of everyday life all combined in such a way that it took forever to complete our debut album in a timely fashion. It was a learning experience for all. We now work at a quicker pace.

How did you manage to involve artists such as Pat Mastelotto and Gavin Harrison in your debut?

Mark: Dave Streett and I began collaborating on a recording project that included material with Gavin. When HoI was formed, the approach was very close to the music Dave and I were writing. Dave was also participating in the material HoI was developing. We eventually came to the conclusion to combine the material and focus on making it a band effort instead of two separate projects. Dave would periodically fly to Texas to work with the core band. Pat got involved because Dave and I were working with Markus Reuter on the track “Anamnesis”. Markus was in Texas working with Pat a few days before he came to our studio to work on music. He mentioned Pat might be interested in participating. We were honored to have musicians of their caliber collaborating with us. They both created some amazing parts that really took the track to another level.

Touch guitars seem to be an essential component of your sound. What is that first attracted you to those instruments? What about their role in the musical context of Herd of Instinct, both live and in the studio?

Mark:  Initially the attraction to touchstyle instruments was the expanded range. Having very low notes and high notes increases the palette and choices I have when writing. Warr guitars are stereo, which allows me to play two distinct parts or utilize two radically different processed signals. HoI’s live sound is very full for a trio. I’m usually doing two parts. Mike plays guitar and guitar synth, so he can also have two distinct sounds happening at the same time. This layering of sound can give the impression of a lot bigger band.

One of the most intriguing features of your sound lies in the world-music suggestions, particularly evident in tracks such as “Road to Asheville”. What role does ethnic music play at the compositional level?

Mark: The harmonic and rhythmic characteristics of non-Western music have been very influential on our melodic writing and our use of repetition. How we incorporate the influences varies. On “Road to Asheville” the approach was to blend the Middle Eastern tonalities with other genres. The whole approach of the track “Possession” was basically influenced by dub music.  The new material continues to have strong elements of ethnic music. A few tracks feature Gayle playing the dilruba, which is a bowed Indian instrument.

Jason: As a band, we are very curious about music from around the world. We try to incorporate various ethnic elements into our compositions when we feel it will make the music more interesting. When I first began playing with Mark in 99 Names of God, they were already using drone techniques and Eastern-flavoured sounds. Naturally we continued this tradition when we formed Herd of Instinct. Some of the most beautiful music can be found outside the Western world, and we do not shy away from these influences.

Mike: I’m a huge fan of what artists like Bill Laswell and John McLaughlin do with combining Eastern and Western music and musicians…..or whatever it may be.  Having easy access to the sounds of  instruments from all over the world through a guitar synth has  opened new paths for me personally.

Recording mainly instrumental albums with only one or two vocal tracks seems to have become increasingly fashionable. Why did you decide to do so on your debut, instead of going the totally instrumental route?

Mark: The voice is something people immediately connect with. We placed “Blood Sky” in the middle to break the cd into two instrumental halves. The piece is kind of like a pacing element for the listener to latch on to something sonically very different from the previous tracks and also to lead into the 2nd half of the album.

Jason: For the kind of music we play, I prefer taking the all- instrumental path. However, the human voice, whether it is spoken word, vocalizations, or singing actual lyrics, does seem to be a necessary ingredient for most music lovers. Unless the singer is very good, or charmingly unusual, I prefer instrumental. Kris Swenson’s vocals on the track “Blood Sky” are, in my opinion, beautiful, and are what absolutely MAKE this song. For us, vocals are another color to paint with, and they are not used as a device to make a song more accessible.

Mike: Some of my favorite songs that I’ve been listening to for 30 years, I still couldn’t tell you how the words go. Usually the words are the last thing i focus on. When I’m listening to music, i never think, this has a voice or words…or it doesn’t. Not to demise the importance of a singer or vocals in a song. It usually ends up being the most important ingredient. It can certainly make or break a tune.

Your second album is already well under way. Is it going to sound noticeably different from its predecessor, and, if so, in which way?

Mark: We’re still trying to take the listener on a journey with lots of twists and turns. There will definitely be some sonic surprises. We’re very happy that Gayle’s elegant keyboard playing is heavily featured in the new music.

Jason: The album is coming along nicely, but is very challenging for me in that an attempt to play outside my comfort zone has been established. Old habits die hard. Having said that, the new album will contain many of the hallmarks of our debut. There’ll be more use of various electronics and programming, and less involvement of hi-profile guests. Gayle Ellett from Djam Karet is providing most of the keyboards for this album, so expect a more pronounced dynamic there. My one word description for our new album: cinematic.

Gayle: To my ears, the new Herd CD will be similar to their debut album, and that’s a good thing! Their music seamlessly combines elements of electronic space, with lots of strong grooves, beautiful melodies, and wailing solos, all in equal share. Their music is dynamic and interesting. But it is always flowing smoothly along in a very natural way. It’s a real treat to record with this great group (and yes, I am biased).

This question is mainly meant for Gayle Ellett. How did Firepool Records come to be, and why were Herd of Instinct chosen for the label’s “test drive”, so to speak?

Gayle: Dave and I had been talking about the new CD they were recording. And while they were working on their debut album, they asked me for help in finding them a record label to release it. We tried approaching a few labels, but then I thought “HEY, Chuck Oken jr. and I should just form a new record company and we could release their CD for them.” And so, Firepool Records was born, initially to release their CD. Then Chuck and I thought we’d use that label to release some other CDs, and so far that has included the Henderson/Oken album Dream Theory in the IE, and a CD by my free improvisation group Hillmen (named after our jazz drummer Peter Hillman) called The Whiskey Mountain Sessions. So far we have been VERY happy with our relationship with the members of Herd of Instinct. They are really nice guys, but more importantly, they are all GREAT MUSICIANS! So its been a real pleasure to work with professional players such as them. And now we are recording music for their second CD, and it is all going very well.

Are any of you professional musicians? Are you involved in other projects besides Herd of Instinct?

Mark: Jason and I participated in a Liquid Sound Company CD last year, called Acid Music for Acid People, with John Perez (Solitude Aeturnus). This is John’s psychedelic solo project. I’ve also recently worked on music for the gaming company Acceleroto.

Jason: We all still have day jobs for now. Since 1996 I’ve been the drummer for Liquid Sound Company with my friend John Perez, of Solitude Aeturnus. We’ve released 3 albums, the most recent being 2011’s Acid Music For Acid People, which includes Herd of Instinct’s Mark Cook on Warr guitar. It would be nice to see Liquid Sound Company become a live act, and those details are being worked out. I know for certain we’ll be making another album.

Mike: There is the day job….must support the music habit. I’m currently playing some nylon guitar and guitar synth in a Nuevo Flamenco band with an amazing guitarist, David Gallegos, and some old mates from Nervewerks. 

Gayle: I’m a full-time professional musician, I’ve played on over 90 CDs, and currently I am playing/recording with 6 bands: Djam Karet, Herd Of Instinct, Hillmen, Fernwood, Joee Corso Band, and the Jim Crawford Band. I also write music for TV shows such as General Hospital  and Knock First on ABC-TV, Swingtown and Rebecca’s Garden on CBS-TV, Next and Exposed on MTV, The Osbournes Reloaded on FOX-TV, Bad Girls Road Trip on Oxygen-TV, House Hunters International on HGTV, Surfer and Powder on ESPN-TV, Clark Howard on CNN/HLN, etc. And I’ve also written music for such projects such as Brad Pitt’s feature film Year Of The Dog, Kiss The Bride (with Tori Spelling), The Devil’s Muse (directed by Ramzi Abed), and others. I’ve also written a lot of music for TV commercials, art installations, animations, music libraries, computer games, educational websites, and numerous corporate applications.

As I have often pointed out in my writings, finding gigs is becoming increasingly difficult for non-mainstream bands. What have your experiences been in this respect? What is your local scene like, and have you ever had the opportunity to perform outside your home turf?

Jason: In the Dallas/Fort Worth area there is a thriving metal and indie scene. For progressive rock, however, the bands that play this music, or anything avant-garde, it is difficult to build a dedicated following. We are still able to book shows for ourselves, but we are rarely on a bill with like-minded bands. To give you an example of this, at the last show Herd of Instinct played, a mariachi band opened the show, followed by HoI, and then after us there was a metal-ish cover band. It begs the question: whatever happened to continuity? As far as playing away from our home turf, this has not happened yet. We hope to one day play at one the prog festivals that happen annually.

GE: Speaking of Los Angeles, where I live, I’d say that finding any good-paying gigs is difficult these days. But there are also many places where you could perform live, if you did not mind not being paid any money. I think that it is better for a band to spend a year making a new CD, instead of spending a year just doing live performances.

And now, a loaded question to wrap up this interview… A little bird told me that you do not like to be tagged as “prog”.While I cannot blame you for a number of reasons, this attitude seems to be increasingly common in artists that, nevertheless, keep on sending their material to prog websites and magazines for review. Can you expand a bit on this topic?

Mark: Definitely there is a contradiction there. If “prog”defines an approach to making music then it’s a positive thing. If the label “prog” sets up a list of rules to follow then it’s a negative thing. I think most artists generally do not like being limited by the expectations of a specific label. On the other hand, if a band is tagged with a label this can bring a certain acceptance and openness to what you create.

Jason: Haha!! I think I know who that little bird is! Well let’s face it: The progressive rock community is the one audience that would most likely connect with Herd of Instinct’s music. We don’t sit around and play Yes, Genesis, or Gentle Giant albums exclusively, but we do own those albums. We’re not musically trapped in a world of aerie faerie nonsense. What we play is a kind of hybrid music that fuses together many ingredients. We are definitely progressive and moving forward.

Mike: Unfortunately, everything in this world has to be labeled, categorized, and narrowed down. Louis Armstrong said “There is two kinds of music, the good, and the bad. I play the good.”  When it comes down to it, that’s all that matters. How old or new it is, who or where it comes from, what matters is…..is it good, or is it bad? 

Gayle: If the term “prog” included the style of music known as Art Rock (music made as an art-form, not towards commercial success), then I would say Herd of Instinct is a prog band (and Djam Karet is as well). You could also say that the term progressive rock is about rock music that has been pushed forward (progressed) by the composers into new and complex forms. And if prog rock has “progressed forward”, from the early years of Genesis and Yes (and Marillion and Dream Theater), to now include new groups that really don’t sound like them at all, such as Herd of Instinct, then you could say that Herd is a prog band. Speaking just for myself and my group Djam Karet, we do not refer to ourselves as a prog band because we feel that a large amount of our music falls outside of that category. In Djam Karet there are influences of surf guitar music, electronic, hard rock and other styles.

Thank you very much to all of you for your patience in answering my questions. Looking forward to your new album!

Mark:  Raffaella, thank you very much for all your support.

Jason: Thank you for giving us this opportunity Raff! We are extremely grateful.

Mike: Thank you for all you do!

Gayle: Many thanks for giving Herd of Instinct the exposure I believe they truly deserve.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/herdofinstinctband

http://www.wix.com/herdofinstinct/herdofinstinct

http://www.djamkaret.com/firepoolrecords/herdofinstinct/

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Bassist Michael Schetter (born in Poland as Michał Pruchnicki) moved to Germany with his family at the age of 7, and his now based in the German city of Nürnberg  (known to English speakers as Nuremberg), in the south-eastern region of Bavaria.  He made his recording debut in 2010 with the multi-national progressive fusion band Relocator, whose self-titled first album featured keyboardist extraordinaire Derek Sherinian as a special guest, and was very positively received on the prog scene.

The difficulties encountered by modern, non-mainstream bands and artists in finding live gigs spurred Schetter to try his hand at organizing his own festival, Generation Prog – a two-day event that took place in Nürnberg  in September 2011. A few months later, Schetter unveiled his latest venture – a brand-new label, called Generation Prog Records. To further the debate on the future of progressive rock, and support the endeavours of those who are striving to move the genre forward, I have approached Michael and asked him a few questions about his experience as a festival organizer and independent label owner.

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First of all, what prompted you to take the plunge and organize your own festival? Was it a spur-of-the-moment decision, or rather something that developed in your mind over time?

 It was something that developed over time. The original idea was just to play a few gigs with my own band Relocator – preferably with a decent number of people in the audience! And how do you do that when you have just one album out? You team up with other bands. We had already been working on plans for a small tour with a couple of other bands in late 2010 and, while that didn’t quite work out, we ended up using some of the contacts from that time to lay the groundwork for the festival. In early 2011 we put together a gig that teamed Relocator with fellow German proggers Effloresce and Dante as a test run. After that we figured that if we were going to do this, we should be going for something bigger than just two or three bands. After all, the ads in magazines and the posters all around town cost us the same, no matter whether it’s a tiny gig or a full-blown weekend festival.

Effloresce

Though the European situation, in spite of the well-publicized debt crisis, is quite different from the one in the US, I am sure my readers on this side of the Atlantic will be curious about the steps you took to make the festival come to fruition. Can you expand a bit upon that?

 We had been talking to a few bands about possible gigs together – Exivious (even back in late 2009!), Haken, Andromeda. When all of them had signaled interest in playing a possible prog festival in Nürnberg, I was convinced that we had a potential lineup special enough to attract people from quite far away.

The next step was finding a suitable venue. We had been talking to the staff of the Luise in Nürnberg before and my enthusiasm for this international festival finally won them over. It’s a great venue, but since it’s a youth center first and foremost, it can be quite hard to land a gig there – unless you’re a punk band composed of local 16-year-olds.

Then came the search for sponsors. We got some great press for the Relocator/Effloresce/Dante gig and I think that helped a lot – I managed to secure some financial support from the city of Nürnberg, and then some local music companies (Meinl, BTM Guitars, Musik Klier) helped us out with gear –it’s not easy to find a rental drum kit that will satisfy the typical prog metal drummer!

I also managed to secure a collaboration with our biggest local newspaper, the Nürnberger Nachrichten, and both Eclipsed magazine and local radio afk max officially presented the event, so we had quite a bit of support from the media.

Exivious

 

I remember that, when you were in the process of putting the lineup together, you stressed that you did not want any old-timers on the bill. What can you tell me about the band selection process?

The initial idea was simply to team Relocator with some bands where our music wouldn’t seem totally out of place. As a fellow instrumental band, Exivious were always my first choice, so I was very happy to have them on board. But I didn’t want too many instrumental bands on the bill, so the idea was to add bands who have great singers, but who also know how to write gripping instrumental sections within their songs – that way we’d satisfy those fans who want vocals in their prog while (hopefully) having many of their fans appreciate our material as well.

There were other considerations as well: If I was going to stage a prog festival, it would have to be a platform for the newer bands shaping the prog scene right now! If people want to see any of the more established bands play, they can just attend their tours anyway. But if you look at a band like Andromeda, who I think are easily one of the best progressive metal bands on the scene, they had four albums out when the festival took place – and yet the last time they had played a gig in Germany was in 2006! Haken were lucky enough to score a slot at the Night of the Prog festival last July, but other than that there was no way to see them live in Germany, and Exivious played their first gig on German soil at our festival. So it was a pretty special combination! People easily forget how unique these things can be – maybe the next time you’ll get to see a band, they won’t be playing those great songs from their current album anymore? Or maybe some key members will have left? Or they will break up before you ever get a chance to see them? People like to get nostalgic about gigs from some prog legend’s classic period – well, for some bands that future “classic period” is right now! Maybe if people were supporting them instead of buying some 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition reissue of an album they’ve already bought twice, there would be more gigs for the current bands to get nostalgic about a few decades down the road.

Andromeda

So I was very aware how few good opportunities there are for bands to present their music to an appreciative audience, both as a musician and as a fan myself. Most of the time, the bigger bands who can afford to tour either bring their own support act (often picked by the label and not a particularly good fit musically) or just play all by themselves. I think it’s a shame and it makes it really difficult for newer bands to get noticed. That leads to another idea that played a part in the band selection: Since a prog festival won’t draw thousands of people, adding local bands with a following can really make a difference. So in the end we ended up with a 50/50 ratio of international and local bands. I’m not sure it’ll be possible to do that again without too many repeats (the regional prog scene here isn’t too big), but we certainly take our local bands seriously.

Ocean Spout

The festival lineup was mostly oriented towards progressive metal, which is somewhat controversial among older prog fans. As you are also a jazz and fusion fan, what made you decide to keep to more or less to a single subgenre, rather than branch out?

First of all, I somewhat disagree with this assessment. We had only three bands who were decidedly metal: Andromeda, Effloresce and Exivious – the latter even with a strong fusion element to their sound. The other five bands had some metal elements to their sound, but I wouldn’t say those were predominant. For example, Subsignal are hardly a heavy metal band, but they don’t shy away from a nice riff if it works for the song. And I think that actually goes to show why metal had such a presence in the overall sound: It’s just quite hard to find a modern prog band who doesn’t assimilate at least some of that into its sound. After all, being open to different musical styles is what leads many people to prog in the first place!

Subsignal

But all that aside, I think your preface already answers the question: prog fans tend to be picky and often dismissive of certain subgenres. If you mix things up too much, there will be a lot of coming and going between bands. With really large events that is not much of an issue, but with the smaller audiences that prog gigs usually draw it can be a real problem. I didn’t want an event where the total numbers were satisfactory while individual bands ended up playing to just a tiny fraction of the audience. I’ve seen that happen at local gigs too many times, it’s just frustrating for the musicians. I wanted a lineup that maximizes turnout while keeping the audience somewhat homogeneous throughout. I might actually put together some fusion festival at some point, it would just have to be separate from the prog metal stuff.

 If you had to mention the most frustrating and the most rewarding aspect of the whole festival organizing experience, which would you choose?

Most frustrating: Doing accounting work in the back office while Haken were playing their headlining set on Friday was pretty frustrating. But the worst was clearly the fact that not ONE website, magazine or newspaper actually sent anyone to cover the whole event. Quite a few told us they were going to, but for various reasons in the end none of them came. So while we ended up with lots of photos from the event, there was not a single review. Very disappointing!

Most rewarding: Getting off the stage with my own band Relocator and getting our backs patted (literally and figuratively) by the guys from Andromeda. It was quite daring to schedule our set right between the two main bands on Saturday, but rather than flee the scene, the audience stayed with us until the end and gave us a huge applause. It was great!

Haken

Have you already started planning the 2012 edition of the festival? Will you be implementing any changes, or are you happy with the way things worked in 2011?

I’ve been working on some plans, but it’s too early to tell if there’s going to be a 2012 festival. I don’t necessarily want to stage an annual event at all costs. Sure, it would be nice, but if I can’t get the right lineup together for a 2012 festival, I’d rather skip one year than put on a show that I don’t fully believe in. It’s just too much work – to a certain degree, I am doing this for myself.

How did you get the idea of starting your own label? Was it a consequence of the festival’s success, or something that you had already been thinking about?

It had nothing to do with the festival, although obviously expanding the “Generation Prog” brand to include the label was the logical decision once it all got started. No, the idea was born out of the experience with promoting the Relocator album on our own and from discussions with some other artists (especially Effloresce, who became the first to join the label). It’s pretty hard for a single band to generate some media interest all on its own and buying magazine ads just for a single album (with little distribution) rarely makes sense financially. A label can run ads for several bands at the same time and it has more than just one CD to advertise and to distribute, so it makes a lot more sense. The idea was for this to be beneficial for everyone involved.

Theory of Elements

You have two bands signed to Generation Prog Records so far – Relocator and Effloresce. Have you already approached other bands or solo artists? Are you planning to concentrate on local acts, or provide a haven for bands from other parts of Europe (or even outside Europe)?

I don’t care if the band is local or European. I have been talking to some artists and I have been approached by a staggering number of bands, but I don’t want to rush things, my day only has 24 hours, and on top of that I am pretty picky when it comes to the music. But there’s one band in particular that I would really like to work with and unless they get snatched up by a bigger label first, we might well end up putting out their album later this year.

On the label’s Facebook page it is stated that Generation Prog Records specializes in “modern progressive music”, and, as also pointed out on its official website, Relocator and Effloresce occupy different ends of the prog spectrum. Are you planning to sign even more diverse acts, or rather concentrate on the fusion and prog metal side of things?

I’m open to all sorts of things, but I tend to dismiss bands that I would classify as more regular (non-prog) metal or pop, for example. It’s not necessarily because I don’t like the music, but the whole label idea only works when there’s some sort of synergy. If I promote a bunch of stylistically somewhat similar bands, I can deal with mostly the same media in promoting them, and hopefully some fans of one band will discover a few of the others through the label affiliation. Ideally, you end up with a label whose name implies a certain style and quality level. That won’t work if I end up working with death metal and pop/rock bands, no matter how good they may be, and they would be worse off because in many cases I wouldn’t even know where to promote them.

Are you planning to release physical CDs, or rather opt for a digital format?

Ideally we would always have a physical CD release, but I could imagine some things like live recordings being download only.

Are there any independent record labels that you would like to take as an example for your venture, or would you rather want to provide something unique?

I don’t want to emulate anyone, but I’ve always been a fan of Ken Golden’s labels – The Laser’s Edge, Sensory and Free Electric Sound.

You will agree with me that it takes some courage to start a new independent label at a time when artists are threatened by the seemingly uncontrollable (and uncontrolled) diffusion of illegal downloading. Do you think it is still worth bothering with record labels in this day and age? Do you see Generation Prog Records as a sort of mission to help fellow artists?

1. Yes (don’t even get me started…).

2. Yes, if both the label’s and the artist’s expectations are realistic – then it can be mutually beneficial. If not, it can be a very bad idea.

3. Yes, but there’s only so much we can do, and it has to be a collaborative effort.

What are Relocator’s plans for 2012, and possibly beyond that?

Right now we are preparing for a couple of gigs – on April 13 we’ll be playing at a smaller Generation Prog live event (a bit of a mini-festival, if you will) with Dreamscape, Counter-World Experience and Effloresce in Nürnberg, and on April 14 we’ll be joining the mighty Haken and Flaming Row in Rüsselsheim. Two gigs in a row – for us that’s a record!

After that, we’ll hopefully start working on our second album. Stefan [Artwin, Relocator guitarist and co-founder] has been writing new material, and right now there are six tracks in various states of completion. It might be enough for an album, especially once everyone starts adding ideas to the basic demos, but it’s too early to tell.

Relocator

And now for the million-dollar question… From your unique perspective as an artist/festival organizer/label owner, how do you see the future of the progressive rock scene? Do you think that the genre’s popularity has already reached its apex, and a decline is inevitable, or do you still keep an optimistic outlook?

First of all, there’s probably no such thing as *the* progressive rock scene, which is what makes these events so much more difficult. You have various sub-groups of people who all consider themselves prog fans but who couldn’t agree on anything. But I think the music itself is doing quite well. There’s a lot of variety to the prog of today and no matter whether you want your prog to be adventurous and fresh, or just the way you know it from the 70s, there’s a lot of music being released. I think one of the most interesting aspects of prog is the openness to new influences, so I think (the retro bands aside) the music remains as interesting and modern as ever if you know where to look – especially since the technological advances make it possible for even obscure bands to put out albums that sound quite professional. So there’s no lack of interesting new music. If anything, I’d say these days the abundance of well-produced recordings is becoming a problem – there’s only so much music that listeners have the time to deal with! And with every year, a new band has to compete with even more classic albums out there.

But while there’s a lot of recorded music coming out, I think there’s a striking lack of gigging opportunities for prog bands, especially the newer ones. It’s pretty bad, because so many people have been convinced that playing live is where bands make money these days (a popular excuse for piracy). The reality is very different for most prog bands. Decent gigs are rare. Decent gigs that you don’t lose any money on are even rarer. But at least I’ve seen quite a few new people promoting prog gigs in their region recently, so maybe the situation is about to improve?

 Thank you very much for your patience in answering my questions, and all my best wishes for your new label! I will be looking forward to reviewing some of your releases.

Links:

http://www.generation-prog.com/

http://www.relocator-project.com/

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