PoP: Thank you for sitting down with us here at Power of Prog.
John: Thank you. It is a privilege!
PoP: Tell us a little about yourself, your musical training?
John: I started taking piano lessons when I was five years old but stopped at around ten years of age. My teacher, a wonderful elderly woman, would only let me play classical music and hymns…but it introduced me to some gospel-type playing. I then did not play much until I was about 14 when I got into my first rock band. At that point, I returned to the piano and taught myself all about chords so that I could start to write music. In college, I took a few music theory courses and I continue to learn to this day.
PoP: How long have you been a professional musician, and who or what inspired you to become a musician?
John: My first inspiration to get into a band came from artists like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, Humble Pie, Deep Purple, and many others. My first paid gig was when I was 15 in a band named Anxiety’s Moment. It was a good introduction because most of the band were at least 4 years older and experienced. I fronted that band as lead vocalist but didn’t play keyboards. We did a lot of Uriah Heep and Deep Purple. After that I started to get into prog-rock bands like King Crimson, Genesis, Yes, and ELP, which led me and my close friend, guitarist Ron Dominicis, to start bands that largely did original material. That culminated in the formation of a band named Harlequin (currently renamed Harlequin Reborn) that booked out of Pittsburgh and played the Pennsylvania/Ohio/West Virginia market. That band was a combination of prog and glam with a lot of theatrics. I gave up on music for quite a while to get my Ph.D. and become an active biomedical research scientist. After a twenty-year hiatus, I started playing with other musicians in blues bands in San Antonio where I rediscovered my love of the piano, songwriting and playing live.
PoP: You are working on your debut album with your band Sun King Rising an Americana Rock band, can you tell us a bit about the album? For example who is on the album?
John: Sun King Rising is just what I call my solo non-prog project versus being a full-blown band, although it is likely that I will put a band together around it. This album is really focused on my love of more organic rock music like that of Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, early Elton John, Dan Penn, and a host of others. It reflects my love of southern rock and country soul. The album is calledDelta Tales because it focuses on southern themes and I live in the Texas delta of the Rio Grande Valley. I have a lot of great musicians on this album. Steve Acker, from the great 70s band LAW, is producing. He also plays guitar and provides background vocals. Without Steve, this album would not be getting done as fast or be as good as we think it is. My cousin, Steve Schuffert, is playing lead guitar on the album. He is an amazing musician who spent a lot of time in Nashville as a session musician as well as producing quite a few albums as a solo artist or as part of his blues band. David Granati of the Granati Brothers is also playing some guitar, as well as doing some of the engineering. The drummers include George Perilli who played extensively with Michael McDonald, John Sferra of the incredible band, Glass Harp,Andy Taravella of the ADD Band, and Mark Francis who is my drummer from Harlequin Reborn. The bass players include Jeff Bremer, Bambo Kino, and Eddie Costa (also of Harlequin Reborn). Hermie Granati, also of the Granati Brothers, provides some additional very soulful keys. Jacob Wynne wrote the horn charts and provides the talents of the fantastic Cold City Horns. Katherine O’Neill also plays some pretty violin parts on it. Most of these players are from the Pittsburgh and Northeast Ohio area where I grew up. There are also some fabulous back-up vocals by great singers such as Shawn Mayer of Nashville.
PoP: Who writes your songs? What are the main themes or topics for most of your songs? Do you think these topics will change over time?
John: I’ve written most of the songs on the album. Steve Acker is contributing an additional two songs and Steve and I have co-written another. While not a concept album, Delta Tales is thematically coherent. It is about the southern experience. The songs reflect vignettes of love found, love lost, family, faith, historical burden, betrayal, sin, and redemption set in a southern cultural landscape. The root subjects are pretty universal.
PoP: What makes a song stand the test of time such as The Beatles’ Let It Be?
John: The song needs to have a great hook and it needs to connect to the listener emotionally. Most of the great classics have these features. Take the songs of the truly great songwriter, Jimmy Webb. A song like Wichita Lineman paints a picture that draws the listener in and then imprints it in memory with an awesome melody. The true greats of Americana songwriting like Randy Newman and Leon Russell have this ability. They are literate, melodic, harmonically interesting, and classically memorable. Their songs are strongly evocative, loaded with atmosphere, and can mean different things to different people.
PoP: What is the creative process like?
John: It varies quite a bit. Usually, a song comes to me when I’m sitting at my Yamaha grand piano and playing, which I try to do for at least an hour a day. I’ll develop a chord progression and a melody. Sometimes, I’ll already have a lyrical theme in mind or even a title. I keep a document filled with phrases that I come up with that I can incorporate in songs. The Sun King Rising songs tend to be simpler and shorter, of course, than what I write for Harlequin Reborn.
PoP: Where do you sing besides the studio or a live performance?
John: I sing in the car a lot when I’m working out phrasing! Also, I’ve been known to go out to do competitive karaoke.
PoP: What instruments do you play?
John: I mainly think of myself as a singer/songwriter but the piano is my number one instrument that I connect with the most strongly. I’m not bad at playing Hammond organ either. I play both on the SKR album. Of course, I play lots of other keyboards in HR including various synths and my prize mellotron.
PoP: What is the most trouble you’ve ever gotten into as a musician?
John: Ha! Luckily, I’ve not been in much trouble at all.
PoP: What was the most memorable time in your music career?
John: It probably has been working on the Delta Tales album. It has been a truly wonderful experience to work with such great musicians. The first Harlequin Reborn reunion show in 2015 also was awesome.
PoP:` How about a track by track break down?
John: Sure. We are still working out the exact list and running order of songs. Because we want to put it out on vinyl also, we have some physical constraints that remain to be worked out. Beneath the Southern Sun is a new song that I wrote for the album that is a real rocker and features a jaw-dropping guitar solo by Steve Schuffert. It is a song about a fictional southern family’s history. Let There Be Light is a song with a hope-filled message that I probably wrote 10+ years ago. It is also up-tempo and has a pretty good hook in it. Milkweed and Thistle is one of my favorites. It’s a new song about loss but still rocks and probably has my favorite lyric on the album. It has the flavor of an early Elton John song when he was in his more country period. Horns play an important role in several songs since I am a big fan of those powerful horn sections heard so often on southern soul records. Love Turns Grey is a Leon Russell-Esque funky song that has some awesome horn lines in it. In a State of Grace is a mid-tempo rocker that also has a good horn section in it. There is also an amazing cover version of an old R&B song, The Snake, with a huge horn and background vocal sound that is like something that Joe Cocker and Leon Russell could have put together on their Mad Dogsand Englishmen tour! Down the Delta Road is a poignant southern love song with a cool violin part by Katie O’Neil. Evangeline is a newer song I wrote with Steve Acker. It is a beautiful southern ballad of lost love with only piano and strings backing it. Steve also has contributed two other songs on the album including a remake of his wonderful song Take It Down that he originally recorded with LAW. He also wrote The Lions of Gettysburg which is a song about the Civil War with an awesome hook in the chorus.
PoP: Let’s say I asked you to describe your musical style as if you were a painter. How would you describe your music pallet using vivid colors?
John: For the Sun King Rising, I’d use the colors of earth, sea, and sky to depict the cotton and cane fields of the southern delta country. Maybe they can be painted in an expressionist style so you can sense the heat, humidity, and the smells of the soil and wetlands. Figuratively, I’d want to show the southern human textures of toil, honor, hospitality, and grace infused with religious references that still dominate the southern cultural environment.
PoP: How long has this project been around and when do you plan to release it?
John: Some of my songs on it are as old as fifteen years but several are very recent having being written specifically for the album. The album will be released on PeacockSunrise Records hopefully in the summer of 2020. The vinyl may be a problem due to a worldwide shortage, but we will also be releasing it digitally and on CD.
PoP: You are also in a progressive rock band, Harlequin Reborn, a band that is as different as night and day from the Sun King Rising. Can you tell us about this project?
John: Harlequin Reborn is my symphonic prog rock band that has been resurrected, or reborn. It allows me to write more complex and longer pieces. I also tend to sing quite differently in HR. Basically, I suppress my southern twang! HR songs are harmonically more complex and let me write more literary lyrics that can be more abstract. HR songs generally start from a concept and then I find the music within myself that fits the story. HR also functions as a live act with a significant stage show, although we haven’t played in the past two years. We had to cancel a gig recently because of the untimely death of our incredible keyboard player and my close friend, Tom Dyer.
PoP: Are you working on a release for Harlequin Reborn?
John: We have worked on a release since 2015 but have abandoned our original idea to initially put out a live album. We scrapped that and are now well into a studio album. It will be called Scenes From the Harlequinade. I will return to the studio to finish it up after we wrap up all the final bits of the Sun King Rising project. We have not signed with a record company yet but are in initial talks.
PoP: Are you planning a tour or select shows with either of the bands?
John: We are just now working on some initial plans to do a couple of select gigs for Sun King Rising. SKR is substantially easier to organize for live performances than HR which is really limited to large stages due to the theatrics. Luckily, we do have a complete production company (led by my production manager, Jeff Schuffert, and our front-of-house genius Pat Benigas) that can handle quite a range of venues. Anything more than a short tour would be hard due to the burdens of day jobs etc. We would also be very interested in any festival work that may come our way once we are out of the plague season!
PoP: What process is more magical, playing live and sharing your music or creating the magic of music?
John: For me, it is the creative process. Writing the song, arranging it, and searching for that golden artistic spark is extremely satisfying.
PoP: If you could put together a band of your idols (past or present) for a one-time album and tour, who would be a part of it and why?
John: Leon would be playing the piano that is for sure. Maybe add Booker T on the organ! I’d like to have Ray Charles backup singers also! There are tons of great rhythm sections that I’d be happy with. On guitar, I’d want my cousin, Steve Schuffert, because he is as good as anyone I have ever heard.
PoP: What ten albums should be in every seriously good music collection?
John: I can’t do it. There are way too many. It changes daily for me! From a SKR perspective, I would have to include albums by BobDylan, Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, Randy Newman, Jimmy Web, Carole King, Laura Nyro, John Hiatt, William Topley, and Al Green.
PoP: What’s the last album you listened to?
John: The last three according to my Amazon music account are: Music for Piano, Voice and Chamber Ensemble from The Thomas De Hartmann Project, All in the Downs by the remarkable William Topley, and the Italian prog band Saint Just’s eponymous album, a little known gem from 1973.
PoP: What makes you happy and what ticks you off?
John: People being kind and thoughtful to one another makes me happy. A beautiful work of art or a great book also make me happy. Being with my friends, hearing live music, and playing music make me happy. Traveling the world makes me happy. Debussy’s harmonies make me happy. A fine champagne definitely makes me happy. Ignorance and greed tick me off. People who abuse children or animals enrage me. Bad drivers upset me. And bands who wear shorts and tennis shoes on stage (unless you are a drummer and then I’ll probably hide you behind tinted plexiglass)! Not being able to tell the band from the audience is a real drag for me, although I realize it is idiosyncratically shallow of me to reveal such sartorial contempt.
PoP: What does success mean to you, not as a musician, but as a person?
John: Success is reflected in the kindness and charity that you show others in need. I have been very fortunate in life. I try to help others, especially musicians when I can.
PoP: How has the music landscape changed since you have become a professional musician?
John: There are nowhere near as many live venues for young musicians to hone their performance skills and they don’t pay nearly as well as they once did. However, the ability to have high-quality recording technology in the home has benefited musicians by giving them greater access to audiences. The sheer amount of new music that is now available due to this technological egalitarianism is daunting, however.
PoP: If you could put one thing back into Pandoras Box what would it be?
John: The advent of software-based autotuning tools that have led people who should not be singing to put out records that are fit only for the demons of Gehenna to listen to.
PoP: Do you see value in streaming services such as Spotify and YouTube for example?
I don’t use Spotify but I often go first to YouTube when I’m checking out a new band or trying to find an old song. I like Bandcamp because they have an incredible variety of great music available and it is “close” to the source of the music, the musicians themselves.
PoP: If you could perform anywhere in the world, where would it be? And who would be your warm-up act?
John: My goal is to play in Europe, especially the UK and Italy. I am friends with lots of musicians, so I’d probably choose somebody local who complements whatever act I was touring. If it was a prog show, there is no doubt that I would want my good friends in This Winter Machine to play on the bill, although I think it more likely that we’d be warming up for them!
PoP: What influences your songwriting?
John: My mood, a painting that I see, or a nice lyrical phrase all can stimulate the process.
PoP: What is the best advice you’ve been given professionally?
John: Frankly, it was to go to graduate school because the likelihood of having a career in music was vanishingly small. Also, in my early years, someone suggested that I learn as much music theory as possible because it would greatly expand my musical palette. They were correct!
PoP: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
John: Make sure you get a good education that can provide you with the necessary expertise and a skill set that can help you have a sustainable career even if the ultimate focus is not music. Music will always be there to inspire.
PoP: Have you ever thought about being something other than a musician? Oh, wait you do… you have a Ph.D. in Genetics. That’s some pretty heavy stuff, tell us a little about it?
John: Ha! I am a professor of Human Genetics at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine. I am a biomedical research scientist working in the area of the genetics of common complex diseases like heart disease, diabetes, psychiatric diseases, neurological diseases, and infectious diseases to name a few. My group does a wide variety of things including genome sequencing, stem cell biology, and the development of mathematical and statistical models to enhance discoveries relevant for advancing human health. I am far better known in science than I am in music! I’ve published about 700 peer-reviewed papers in the biomedical literature and have been fortunate to have been asked to give talks in more than 40 countries and all continents except Antarctica (still waiting for that invitation!). It has been a wonderful career that I have been very fortunate to have experienced. I also co-own a predictive data analytics company, 4TellX, that is based in Austin and that primarily works in the education space by helping school districts better understand and utilize their data to tailor education appropriate for individual students.
PoP: Dare I ask your thoughts on the current situation of the Coronavirus (COVID-19)? How do you see this affecting the musician and the people of our planet in general?
John: It has certainly been an eye-opener to see how the planet can almost come to a stop due to an extremely simple organism. It has already been devastating to musicians who require live engagements to sustain their lives. In general, I think it is very scary for people and there is a lot of disinformation that would be less impactful if we did a better job at teaching the importance of scientific process and knowledge. I grieve for places like Italy that have been hit so hard. As a scientist, I am confident that we can quickly minimize the loss of life with existing treatments and then develop a vaccine that will reduce the potential for future outbreaks. I also have developed a project in the last few weeks for identifying human genetic variations that are contributing to the different responses that we see amongst individuals who are infected.
PoP: In closing, I want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview with us. Do you have anything that you would like people to know that we did not talk about?
John: I think it has been pretty wide-ranging! Thank you very much for the stimulating questions and this opportunity to introduce myself to your audience.
A few years ago, I heard about an album which had been reissued by Gonzo that was creating a lot of interest. I duly searched out the release, thoroughly enjoyed it, and wrote a review and thought little more of it. A few weeks later, Martin had seen the review and tracked me down through one of the sites I work for. Since then it is safe to say we are in communication very frequently indeed, and I have been fortunate enough to hear his other albums, as well as enjoying his wonderful artwork. When it came time for my books to be released, I cheekily asked Martin if he would like to be involved, and he jumped at the opportunity, and has designed the covers for all three, for which I am eternally grateful. He has just finished recording his latest album, ‘Boy On A Bike’, so now seemed to be the right time to have a formal chat.
From a fairly young age you followed a path in both illustration and music, who/what inspires you in both fields?
Some early inspirations as you know, stay with you for life, so let’s start there. ‘What is the point of a book without pictures’? asks Alice in Alice In Wonderland. Well exactly, that was my view in my young years growing up in England, I was only interested in books with pictures and so reading novels came late to me. Certainly, comics were a big influence, in fact, one of my first attempts at the form was a ‘graphic novel’ version of John Carter Of Mars created when I was 13 years old. Alas, this has been lost, but I do recall getting an early insight into how time-intensive this sort of project could be, three weeks of work and I was on page 8 of the novel. I had yet to learn how to use images to create sweeping broad narratives, to go for the heart of it, leaving out unessential details. The Eagle comic was a huge influence as well, I cannot underestimate just much I learned from the various illustrators who worked on this tabloid-sized publication. This comic was an institution in the U K in the ’50s and 60’s. Dan Dare, created by Frank Hampson, was the flagship strip, printed on the front pages, essentially the R A F in space! Arriving every Wednesday morning with the postman it was a highlight of my week. I lived in a pub in Appledore in Kent, my mum and stepfather were the publicans, and my ‘studio’ was a tiny room which housed the hot water tank and the drying laundry! There was a small window that overlooked the village green, and I have many happy memories of being in my own world in that wee room, drawing as the rain pattered against the window; even now when I am working, the sound of rain against the window conjures up that same feeling. I can go to whatever worlds I care to inhabit, all I need is a 2B pencil, a piece of paper and my imagination.
On Remembrance Day, 1962, around noon, I was listening to the BBC on a tiny transistor radio. It was my job to serve the kids that came into the pub, for ice cream, pop, etc. Unusually the beer barrels for this pub, The Victoria Inn, were on the main floor, directly behind the bar. I was drawing in my sketchbook, positioned close to the door that lead from the barrel room to the public bar. Whenever a kid came in, my stepfather would rap on the door, and then I would open the door, and serve the young customer. While waiting for that nock, I listened to the radio. It was tuned to a program called Two Way Family Favourites, a request show for British soldiers stationed in Germany and their families. I wasn’t listening very closely, the pop music of the day didn’t interest me much, although I had discovered American blues recently. Then I heard it, the harmonica intro to Love Me Do! Clearly here was something cool, blues-influenced, yet played by an English band, requested by an army lad stationed in Germany who wanted his family to hear Liverpool favorites, The Beatles. (I know the exact date and time of when I first heard The Beatles because of Mark Lewison’s amazing book, Tune In. Highly recommended).
What fanned out from these major young influences, a comic called The Eagle, a band called The Beatles, essentially altered the course of my life. I was drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil, and I, like millions of other guys and gals, had to have a guitar after hearing The Beatles. So I got my first ratty guitar at 14, a late start really, but I was a quick study and had all the basic chords learned a year later, mainly from Beatle songbooks.
The Beatles, Bach, and the Blues, all in the same year! Overwhelming and wondrous! (The new Gardening Club album, ‘Boy On A Bike’, has a direct connection to this period.) Some years later when Progressive Rock made its first appearance, the combination of the visual and musical storytelling was irresistible. Yes, especially, with Roger Dean’s great expansive covers. I wanted to do both things, create great covers like Dean’s and write songs like Yes. I simply had to do both! A clearly impossible task, as there were sometimes three to four composers per song! I found my own voice of course, after many years of exploration. Those early Yes albums were addictive I have to say, as was Jethro Tull, but I turned away from prog-rock for a while, for one main reason, it was just too arranged. As much as I loved it all, I was enthralled by Jazz musicians who created music in the moment, improvising spiraling lines and rhythms that were so exciting. The Mahavishnu Orchestra opened up that door of course! I have been dealing with that ‘tension’ ever since, writing and arranging the music, fascinated with ‘orchestral’ details and colors, but leaving room for the improvised serendipitous moment! King Crimson has dealt with that tension very well, and still, are!
The recent rise of interest in ‘books with pictures’, that is graphic novels, and the vinyl revival has been very inspirational for me. The art for ‘Boy On A Bike’, is centered around panels, or portals, echoing the layout for a comics page. The art for this project allowed me to return to some early artistic influences. I used the gateway metaphor for a life journey, so I created gates that echoed my favorite comic book artists, Moebius and Jim Woodring as well as, Picasso, Klimt, Dali and others who have had an impact on my artistic life.
My career in children’s books was long and fruitful, not only in all the art I created for a great many books and book covers, but in my travels all across Canada as a presenter to students in schools and libraries. I would go through all the nuts and bolts of how to create an illustrated book, using a slide show, drawing on the spot and ending every presentation I gave with a short performance on the guitar. Even though these were, you might say, the ‘quiet years’ as in no one was listening to the recordings that I constantly made, the presentations I gave year after year in the schools kept my guitar performance chops up quite well.
You made the decision to emigrate to Canada, but then returned to Europe to tour and play music, what are your favorite memories of this period?
Playing a tour in Germany and Austria, opening for Soft Machine was a highlight as I got to see Allan Holdsworth play every night for two weeks! I was in a band at that time called Gateway Driver. We were based in a little village just outside Hannover, two Brits and two German lads. So, I had my ‘German experience’, like a lot of British bands did! Later on, I lived in London and worked for CBS, now Sony, records creating L P covers. I did Ian Hunter’s first solo L P cover, still available amazingly, interior illustrations for an Argent record, and a Stravinsky L P, The Three Great Ballets. This won Best Classical Cover Of The Year award. I also recorded some demos with a hopeful band I was in at the time at Morgan Studios, famous for many a prog rock recording, including Tales From Topographic Oceans.
1983’s ‘The Gardening Club’ was your first released album, by which time you were already a well-known fantasy illustrator for both books and records. How did the album come about, who else was involved, and how would you describe it to someone who has yet to hear it?
The Gardening Club was a culmination of many, many things. I had first walked into a professional recording studio in Vancouver in 1969 to record an album of Tolkien’s poems that I had set to music from The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit. It was never released; Christopher Tolkien would not give his permission to allow the LP to come out. At that time, I met a young recording engineer named Don Geppert who worked at Studio 3 where I recorded all the Tolkien material. He had moved to Toronto in 1976, and when I later moved to the city as well, I got in touch. I met Don in the studio where he worked, he told me to bring my guitar along, so I could play a few new songs for him. I did so, and after listening he said, “Well we must do something.” So, the adventure began! It was recorded over a three-year period, which was rather frustrating for me at the time, but I could only get into the studio when it was not in use. Don generously donated his time and long experience in the studio, so I essentially had free studio time but paid all the musicians who played on the record. The arrangements came about organically as we rehearsed in the studio, usually the rhythm section first. The drummer, Penner MacKay added so much rhythmic fuel to this music; that’s one of the reasons I think it has stood the test of time, I cannot overestimate how important Penner is to the musical success of the album. The bass players Paul Daiter and Paul Blaney were perfect additions to the ‘engine room’, and those initial sessions discovering the rhythmic possibilities of each song are some of my favorite memories of that time.
I had very clear ideas about all the details I wanted to hear on top, and my good pal Russ Walker (Heads In The Sky) added his wonderful flute sounds to two songs on side two. I recall I sang all the flute melodies to him as we recorded! He had great ideas of his own, of course, but this is how the recording process went, me doing a lot go singing, to sometimes bemused players! Bob Brough, who is still playing in jazz groups here in the city, played a brilliant solo on “The Traveller”. I love jazz and wanted that saxophone sound somewhere on the album for sure, and this 5/4 tune was just the right vehicle for him. My other Vancouver pal, Ann Mortifee added her beautiful voice to “Andromeda”, and to me it makes the song soar, and it makes it work. The perfect sound for the ‘cosmic’ experience I hoped it would be. One thing this album did for me, is that it gave me confidence in my musical choices, choosing the right sounds to echo the emotional and musical intentions of the song.
It is almost impossible for me to describe the music on ‘The Gardening Club’ album, as I know very well that labels are on the one hand restrictive and on the other, can help people connect to music that they don’t know through the association of that which they do know. I never called this music, Progressive Rock. When I made it, it’s just, “An album of songs by Martin Springett.” Yes, I used a twelve-string, but not because of Genesis. I picked up the twelve because of Leadbelly! I was never influenced by them or Camel either. I have never listened to Camel! The thing is, I sound English, I have always sounded like this, it’s in my DNA. Those early influences are still there, but now shaped by my years in Canada, or, North America. So, jazz and blues are in there gliding alongside my melodic English sensibilities, and also my love of classical music. You could say my roots are, Vaughn Williams, The Beatles, Miles Davis, Stravinsky, Debussy, XTC, Weather Report, etc; the usual gumbo! Those who took the time to listen to The Gardening Club for what it was, rather than compare it to Yes, Genesis etc and find it wanting, those reviewers, ‘got’ the music very well.
From then on you released a few albums over the years both solo and with bands, but what was the idea behind the “duo” album of ‘Diving Into Small Pools’?
The impetus for ‘Diving Into Small Pools’ was essentially this – why create music, if no one is listening. Is it ‘delusional’ to think, as Bill Bruford suggests in his otherwise excellent autobiography, that making music when no is interested is the act of a person who has lost touch with reality? What if, you have to do it, no matter what anyone says or thinks. What if you know on some level, that what you are doing, has the potential to engage and interest people even if all the evidence suggests otherwise. So, I decided to create an album that was going to take me back to my earliest listening influences and make it my musical autobiography in the music business, my so called ‘career’. I had had so many disappointments in my time, the Tolkien album, ‘The Gardening Club’ LP going nowhere, and many others while in the U K and Europe, that I could whinge with the best of them. Then it occurred to me that I could use humour to make it much more than a whiny ‘o woe is me’ experience. Certainly, having a sense of humour had saved my sanity on several occasions while negotiating the biz that is music. I brought in my altered ego, Eddie Fielder to help me. I was born, Martin Edward Fielder, changing my name to Springett to placate my stepfather Walter Springett. I always thought I would change it back to Fielder at some point, but it never happened. So Eddie has lots to say throughout the record, he takes on several roles; usually those know it all’s who knew bugger all about music that I had met in my travels, managers with a gun in the briefcase, obnoxious record company dudes who couldn’t wait to put you down, for ‘looking like a boy scout on stage’, etc etc, many weird and wacky individuals, so many that I made the decision a year after I had made ‘The Gardening Club’, to pull out of the music business entirely. I had had enough. Enough of the business, but never the music.
Once I had my theme, a river of songs just started pouring out, it was liberating in every way, clearly, I needed to do this. I remember sitting on the couch one day, I was alone in the house, the family was out and about, writing about six songs in succession, lyrics first, music second. I had just gotten my first iMac, and Garage Band changed my musical life! I could record at home, no longer worried about studio time, and take, my time, to get it right. I had to get over the ‘horror’ of using drum loops, that didn’t take long of course. The songs took shape as I recorded them, I did a lot of improvising, taking bits and pieces from here and there, it was all way too much fun, except, it was all me all the time. I wasn’t used to that. I loved hearing other players on my songs, it always improved them immeasurably. Gradually I brought in some wonderful Toronto musicians to add their sounds, Allyssa Wright on cello on “Wired For Sound”; Tim Hammel on trumpet for “Miles To Go”; Chris Church on violin on “Thieves and Poets Part 2”; Kevin Laliberte on flamenco guitar, “Thieves and Poets, parts 2 and 3”; Wayne Kozak on “Caves and Cathedrals”! Now it started to sound good. I had so many songs that I ended up with a 2 CD set. Like a lot of song writers though, I needed a second pair of ears to help me evaluate the music, and Don Geppert agreed to take my not so technically great recordings and mix and master them. What a difference that made. I was very happy to work with Don again. A couple of years after I had completed the two discs though, I began to see and hear that the concept had lost its focus spread over so many songs. So, I edited out those that were the weakest, and made it into a single volume set. I redesigned the package and it’s now a single CD experience and much the better for it. I did do some tweaking on some songs, discreet stuff, but enough of an improvement that I can listen to it now and enjoy this very eccentric and eclectic musical journey.
During this period did you just see music as a hobby?
Music was never a hobby, it was something I had to do, every day, always. It kept me sane, can’t live without it. Whether it was playing for the kids in my school presentations, the very occasional solo gig, or recording at home, it was always part of my everyday life. My family was very supportive, and both my daughters, Rebecca and Miriam, played flutes and we recorded together several times. They play on the ‘Bright Weaving’ CD, my musical homage to fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay.
Gonzo Media reissued ‘The Gardening Club’ in 2016, and it now received critical acclaim. How did the reissue come about and were you surprised at the rekindled interest?
To say I was surprised at the interest shown in ‘The Gardening Club’ after all this time, would be putting it mildly. The thing is, it wasn’t rekindled interest really, because there never was any interest to begin with, anywhere. Two separate things occurred around the same time. Ed Kanerva of Spacewreck Records got in touch, to see whether I would like to rerelease the album, as an LP. I was somewhat behind the proverbial eight ball in realizing that vinyl had made a significant comeback. Someone had put up all the tracks from ‘The Gardening Club’ on YouTube, and Ed loved the art as well as the music, and got in touch. Ed works for a comic/graphic novel publishing house, so he has his fingers on the pulse of the zeitgeist all right! His mission was to promote ‘cosmic Canadiana’, especially if it had been overlooked, and I was a classic example of that. Ed was amazed to find I still had 300 copies of the L P in the basement, the original pressing, unopened, catnip for the uber vinyl collector. So, Ed put a package together, with a second LP, ‘Songs From The Greenhouse’, that was made up of songs that I recorded around the time ‘The Gardening Club’ was originally released. All those songs were archived on cassette tape, that most dreaded of musical formats, but Don Geppert came to the rescue again and digitized and remastered all the songs.
The second thing was Rob Ayling of Gonzo Multimedia, based in the U K, got in touch to ask about the rights situation, re ‘The Gardening Club’ album. I had signed a deal with Spacewreck Records just a few weeks before, and wasn’t sure whether I was free to sign up with Rob as well, but as Gonzo wanted to do a CD version, not an LP, and would be selling mainly in the U K and Europe, Ed gave his blessings to a new deal with Gonzo Multimedia. Once again, I got in touch with original producer Don Geppert, and Don agreed to digitize all the songs from the vinyl LP and remaster them. Rob wanted to add most of the songs from the ‘Songs From The Greenhouse’ LP as well to ‘The Gardening Club’ CD. I had fun creating a 24-page illustrated lyric booklet to accompany the music, although I had to go into my archive to find a lot of the images as time was short. The most surprising thing then in the long run, was all the positive reviews, 32 years later!
This then inspired you to form a band and start recording again, so how did The Gardening Club get together and how did you decide on the line-up?
Six months after my heart operation, I played a concert in Victoria BC at a vinyl record store called Vinyl Envy. The lads in the store loved the ‘Gardening Club’ story, and as I had a 2 LP vinyl package for sale, they were very keen to have me in to play a concert. With me was Norm Macpherson on guitar, and Wayne Kozak on saxophone with Neil Golden on percussion. The concert went very well, and Norm right away wanted to record “Blues For Richard” in his home studio. As we got talking, we both realized that we had something special in the music we had played that night at Vinyl Envy. We had to capture it. Norm had had a studio for many years in Windsor, Ontario, and was a very experienced recording engineer. A few months later we started recording what would become ‘The Riddle’. The main idea at that point was for me to finally record as many of the songs that I had of our friend Cyril McColgans poetry. I had been setting Cyril’s poems to music for many years but had never collected them into one place; here finally was the ideal way to do that. Wayne Kozak recommended Sean Drabitt on fretless bass, and he was the perfect choice for these songs. His deep rich sound filled out the harmonic movements beautifully, plus he is an amazing improviser. The drums initially were a problem, as we used loops just to get going, but then Norm’s son James heard the “Riddle Overture” and wanted to be a part of it all, and began programming drum tracks that once again lifted the music up and were a perfect fit. James is a big fan of bands like Dream Theater and Devin Townsend, so he brought in the drama that we needed. I have known saxophonist Wayne Kozak for many years, and I always want his sound on any project I do. Years of stage and studio experience shine through in his playing, a consummate improviser! Norm Macpherson is a brilliant guitarist, arranger, and producer, and his slide playing is an unusual addition to what could be called a prog-rock album, always intense and musically and emotionally involving. I am extremely lucky to have all these players who respond so well to my musical musings!
Although my good friend Terry Findlay did not play on the album, he was an integral part of its success, as he was the one who initially had the idea that Norm would sound great on my songs. This really was the first important step, so I can’t thank him enough.
Please can you provide a track by track breakdown of the resulting album, ‘The Riddle’.
The Riddle Overture –
I loved the idea of starting off the album with a rock cliché, if you like, to see whether we could pull it off, but this tune become in a way much more than that. I had recorded the basic guitar tracks and temp melodies and we had added Norm on bass, and a drum loop, just to get going. I called Norm the following morning, how does it sound I asked him, in ‘the cold light of day?’. He responded in typical Norm fashion, ‘I added some shit last night.’ I have since learned that when Norm says this, be prepared! When I heard it later that day, I was amazed, he had added a searing slide guitar line and string orchestration, it took the whole thing to a different realm. That one tune opened up all the possibilities for Norm and myself, it set the tone. When James added his drums and a superb synth solo, that’s when it seemed to me that here was a band, trading ideas and influences and coming up with something unique. A rather more than cool beginning! The doors were now open!
This was written in the studio, sort of between takes on another song, it was one of the few Cyril lyrics that I had not set to music. I was bubbling over with ideas, just having so much fun. I should add that Norm’s studio is surrounded by forest, deep in the countryside, it is the most inspiring space I have ever recorded in. (Yes, many gifts have come my way recently. I am forever grateful.) My connection to Cyril’s words is visceral, I just know when it works, when the melody marries the words, and the emotion is distilled in a purely musical way. When Norm said, is that a Cyril song and I said yes, he said let’s record it right away, while it’s hot out of the oven.
“A dog on fire / pursued by a dog on fire”. Yes, dark stuff, written by a young guy in search of himself. Essentially, the blues, the human condition, and a song I have had for maybe ten years or so, rattling away asking to be recorded. Norms solo on this song, as far as I am concerned is as good as it gets, digging deep into the changes and the emotional darkness, but what a great release of tension!
Blues For Richard
When I was recovering from my heart operation, I heard that our good pal, Richard Moore, had died from a brain tumour. Richard was important to both Norm and I in our youthful musical days, growing up in Victoria. Norm and Richard were in a band called Blues By Five, and then Richard joined me in The Iliad when BB5 broke up. Later Richard and I had some crazy musical experiences around the same time in the U K in the 70’s. Richard joined the Troggs; need I say more! Richard later moved to California, where he became a real estate agent, but was always playing in a band somewhere.
The slow 5/4 section in this tune was the first thing I played upon hearing that Richard had died. It just came out fully formed. I knew it was for him, but I realized I wanted to go into this homage to Richard with a full-on band riff that he would have enjoyed, with the sadness held back until the end.
Just before we did our concert in Victoria, that set the ball rolling on this new Gardening Club adventure, being in an excitable state, I wanted to write something brand new for the gig, and this song was the result. I have quite a few different versions of this lyric but none that really clicked with me. For quite a while after my surgery, I could not hit all the high notes I used to, so for the first time ever, I used a capo to change the key of a particular song, but not the chord shapes. The guitar does sound different when you put a capo over the strings, no doubt, and I was quite taken with the timbre of the raised string sound. I just started playing a particular chord sequence that I had always liked but had never sung over. (For those with an interest in this sort of thing, it’s actually the first four chords of the sequence I use on the tune, Eddie’s Theme on Diving Into Small Pools. I’m allowed to steal from myself.) With the words in front of me the song just took off, one minute it wasn’t there, the next it was. I would say it took as long to write the song as it took to play it. This never happens.
Of all the surprises on’ The Riddle’, this may be the most surprising, because Norm plays the bassoon! He has been a symphony musician since he was a teenager, straddling both the popular music world and the orchestral world. This is why he is so adept at arranging, a deep knowledge of orchestration. It wasn’t clear to us what instrument should play the melody here, we tried guitar, mandolin, voices. As soon as Norm played it on the bassoon it seemed the perfect fit. The most ‘English’ sounding tune on the album.
The story behind this tune is that at one time I was asked to create illustrations for a novella by JRR Tolkien called ‘Farmer Giles Of Ham’. I went to England to talk to the publisher, and while in the office I asked if Pauline Baynes the original illustrator of the book was still alive. Very much so, came the reply, and I asked for her phone number. I called her, and my brother-in-law and I visited her in her magical cottage deep in the Surrey countryside. And so began a lovely friendship, whose memory I cherish. Pauline heard my setting of Tolkien’s words and loved the music, you can imagine how much this meant to me as Pauline and Ronald, as she called him, were very good pals. Often, she and her husband Fritz went on holiday with Tolkien and his wife.
In this tune I tried to capture the feeling I had when visiting Pauline, and the magical worlds she helped to create in Tolkien’s books, and in the Narnia books by CS Lewis, for which she is justly famous around the world, wherever children read books!
Notes On The Affair
There is no doubt that Cyril’s lyrics are often dark and intriguing, and maybe that’s why I like them, nothing is spelled out clearly, there is a mystery at the heart of it all. Here, the chorus, “the light in her life / will be the light in my own / and I will not know the difference …” is perhaps his most positive statement, and I couldn’t resist going into a major key for this one, which is unusual for me. The jazzier verse sequence came about as I was exploring a new Taylor guitar, sometimes a new instrument will inspire new sounds, no doubt! Once again Norm shows his amazing fluency on the gut string guitar, an improvised solo here that he arranged for marimba and other instruments, so that it sounds like a written-out passage. Perfect for the song. The ending is mysterious, why go to India at that point? Because it felt exactly right to do so; perhaps that is the end of the affair, or, the place it takes our couple.
The Original Sleep
This poem is by Robert Priest, a quite brilliant Toronto poet who I have known for many years. I always found this poem so intriguing, and as usual I kept coming up with ideas that I felt did not go where the poem took me. As I live in Toronto and Norm lives in Metchosin near Victoria on Vancouver Island, our recording sessions happen when I visit every two or three months. In the time when I am at home here in T O I work on new music or the art that will accompany the music on its release. Obviously, we are both aware of file sharing, but something special happens when we are in the same room together, a musical chemistry that is unique, so we prefer to create in real time when we are in Garry Oak Studio, Metchosin.
When I started working on this song, I realized I was now in a position to write for a band, or a sound, so that influenced all my writing from then on. The song was originally much longer than the recorded version, I had a whole other section that vanished after Norm wielded his musical scalpel, saying the immortal words, ‘I think we can lose the last five minutes’. And he was right! It is now a very focused piece of music, conjuring the up the deep green evening of an African forest, “the countries are so vast there / and the love so true.” Once again Norm’s slide guitar amplifies and sustains the mysterious atmosphere of the lyric.
Tears At The Matinee
This is the oldest tune on the record. I must have set this at least twenty years ago, but as much as I liked it, it didn’t really fit any other project I worked on. The original title was Tears At the Matinee 1971, so it’s the only poem in Cyril’s book, ‘The Upside Down Blackbird’, with a specific date. This is very much a portrait of our young years, and I always loved the words and was thrilled to have found just the right setting for it.
Having Wayne Kozak and Sean Drabitt on the song was a gift worth waiting for. Their combined harmonic knowledge and musical story telling are a perfect fit.
When Norm and I met again after many years, we had a lunch and a listen to my new songs at his place, just to see whether we could connect musically. I had been working on this song and played it for him, it was indeed the first Cyril song of mine that Norm heard. One could call it the ‘lightest’ song on the album, but the lyrics belie that I think. The delightful surprise here for me was James MacPherson’s perfect synth solo.
The tune is from some years ago, the lyrics written as we recorded. This was not meant to be on the album, it was just an exploration to see whether it worked, just a bunch of chords and me trying to sing! I was still having problems hitting high notes that I used to reach fairly easily. However, I was determined to meet this challenge, but it would have been foolish to push my voice if it sounded strained, so we left this one on the back burner. We worked on all the other songs then came back to this, and by that time, just by having done all that singing, I was now comfortable with the melody. After I came up with the words, I realized that it tied all sorts of threads together; you don’t always know what you are up to until it’s finished. You take the journey, but the destination is often hazy.
Just a little echo of my love for composers like Eric Satie.
The Riddle Overture Reprise
I wanted to write something where everyone in the band gets a solo, and we tie a musical ribbon around the whole thing. I think we go out here in a celebratory mood. We felt so good that what started as a tentative idea to see if we could do anything ‘interesting’ turned into ‘The Riddle’, a complete and sustained musical journey, with important musical and emotional touchstones for all of us. Truly a band effort, everyone contributing their best work, and enjoying it all so much.
One word on the order of the songs. As I was designing the CD package, I realized that I had to make that decision, as I was determined to have a lyric booklet, this was essential as Cyril’s words were so important in the genesis of the album and its outcome. I was working on the back cover of the CD package. I placed the image I had decided to use, one of ‘The Three Riddles’, that I had created after coming home from the hospital. The album did not even have a name. I looked at the list of songs. It seemed to me that ‘The Riddle’, short and to the point, even if the point was a mystery seemed to be the perfect title. Also, it lined up with the art. I had always assumed it would be a Cyril song as the title, not one of mine. Obviously, the Overture would come first, then the opening lines of Whirled Away “About to laugh / about to be let in on a secret…” Seemed to set the tone for what was coming up. After that I simply went with my instinct about what would naturally follow, contrasting tempos and sounds, like a suite.
Have you surprised yourself with your enthusiasm for getting back into the studio?
All of this has been a surprise on so many levels, I let go of this musical dream many years ago when ‘The Gardening Club’ album “died”. To have it all resurrected in this way has been completely life affirming and inspiring!
You have already been back in the studio working on a follow-up album, ‘Boy On A Bike’. Is this in a similar vein? When do you expect this to be available?
‘Boy On A Bike’ is you might say a continuation of our musical explorations, the difference being the lyrics apart from two songs are all mine, so the emotional themes are quite different, plus James wrote one of the tunes on the album, “WolfGate”. I wrote most of the music on the heels of finishing The Riddle, I was very inspired and couldn’t wait to get to the next thing! We hope the album will be available in October.
What is next for Martin Springett in both your artistic and musical endeavours?
Right now, I am putting together the lyric book and CD package for ‘Boy On A Bike’. I will actually be glad to park the bike, very soon, it’s been a rather long ride, but I am so happy with this new album, we went to new places and landscapes for sure.
Recently having performed with Syrian violinist Sari Alesh, we are adding his sound to our band, and Norm and I will be performing with Sari as a trio this coming November and recording some new tunes as soon as we can. I have a feeling the next project will be very different. Which is as it should be. We just go where the music and emotions take us. Our lives are wrapped up in all this. That’s the true joy of it all.
I’m a science fiction singer-songwriter. Or maybe a weird-fiction singer-songwriter. I’d say the latter, but the phrase ‘weird fiction’ is a bit less well known so sci-fi seems a better bet. A line I used to use was “I’m what you get if early Genesis started writing songs with Nick Cave after watching too many episodes of Doctor Who”.
Occasionally I’m a live act, both acoustic and in the last year or so as a full band. But I do have a full-time job – I work for a social mobility charity in London – that means gigging is pretty hard to do. I just don’t have the time, and my main mission over the last few years has been to catch-up with my songwriting and get all my best songs recorded and released. Sunday mornings are a great time for recording, far less conducive to gigging. People don’t want to come see you play on a Sunday morning.
I’ve been accused of being a prog rock artist. I like that, but I’m not sure how useful it is because if you listen to my stuff expecting it to sound like 1970’s progressive rock, I think you’ll be disappointed. The main influences for me are David Bowie, Radiohead, Mansun, lots of heavy metal bands, various bits of folk, Meat Loaf, the musical Sweeney Todd and my sort-of-classical composition training. I know that might sound an odd mix, but the two main threads are story telling songs and nerdy clever musician stuff like funny chords and time signatures. I always think I’m trying to write music for two people. One of them likes a singalong chorus that tells a story, the other likes clever-clever musician stuff. And the two don’t necessarily like the same things, so you have to write things so the one who likes singalong choruses doesn’t notice the funny time signatures at the same time as the one who likes the funny time signatures doesn’t care they’re listening to a singalong rock song. And both of them are me.
Does that all make sense? Possibly not. But it is still true.
Who originally inspired you musically to pick up an instrument and who inspires you now?
Mine is a musical family. My mum was a music teacher in local schools, including my primary school (though she took ten years out to raise me and my siblings). My dad and brother play guitar, my sister the bassoon. So, there hasn’t been a time when I didn’t make music. I remember sitting at the piano pre-school age learning the basics. I played violin for a few years in primary school, which I think might have been the tail-end of free individual instrumental lessons in my neck of the woods before they were cut. I then took up guitar at about the age of ten. I also sang in my mum’s choir at primary school.
In my teens I got into rock music, heavy metal and 90s grunge. I wanted to be Eddie Vedder, or maybe Thom Yorke, or maybe James Hetfield. I started writing my own songs and started a band with some mates. It was called Nothing Sacred – awful emo stuff. We did one little TV appearance inappropriately on Nickleodeon – I’m not quite sure why they had us on. We were about fifteen and they asked for acts and our bass player sent them a tape cos he thought it would be funny that they heard this dodgy rock band in amongst the wannabe pop stars: but they said yes and we ended up playing on TV while 70’s disco sensation Leo Sayer rocked out on a beanbag. Looking back, it was a bit odd.
I went off to college, then uni, studied music – mostly composition – and played in a songwriting duo called Comrade Robot. Then in 2010 I started releasing music solo, and by my second album – 2012, so about 16 years into songwriting – I started to find my voice and figure out who I really am as a songwriter.
Who inspires me now? Recent artists that I’ve wanted to steal ideas from include Paul Mosley, Richard Dawson, Matt Blick and there’s always David Bowie and King Crimson, obviously.
To the uninitiated what is Steampunk, how did you discover it and what fascinates you about the scene?
Steampunk is not a kind of music. It’s a genre of science fiction that takes inspiration from Jules Verne style of science fiction but seen through a retro lens – Verne and HG Wells were writing contemporary sci-fi as it were. The name is a play on cyberpunk, which is Blade Runner style gritty near future sci-fi. The ‘punk’ bit in both alludes to the American use of the term as in ‘you dirty punk’ not to punk music directly.
My first few albums told steampunk stories. So, the music itself isn’t steampunk – and despite what a lot of silly people on the internet sometimes say there’s no such thing as a steampunk style of music – but the lyrics are.
I have an ambivalent attitude to the scene. The people are lovely, the events can be fun, but it isn’t a music centred scene. They prefer cabaret style stuff where the audience can get involved, and except on rare occasions I’ve never really felt my music fits with what the audience wants in a live setting. Prog audiences where people are really into their music and want to listen to every note suit my music much better.
At the very end of ‘Fit the Fourth’, my last album, I looped in a little hint of the opening of my first album ‘Spinning the Compass’ as if to say. “that’s finished, the loop is closed, no more steampunk stuff”. All the releases since have not been steampunk at all.
Your first album, ‘Spinning The Compass’ featured just you, and most releases since have been the same. Is it that you don’t like other musicians, or they don’t like working with you?
I can’t stand them. Preening, egotistical idiots, all of them. Don’t get me started on singers. They’re the worst of the lot.
No, not really. Partly it’s personality as I’m naturally a bit of a loner. Partly its practicality. I mentioned the lack of time, well, organising people takes a lot of time. If I’m to get the work of recording all these songs recorded, I need to be efficient and that usually means doing things myself. Having said that since ‘Fit the Fourth’ I’ve had other people collaborating musically on most releases, with ‘Demon’ my latest album as the most collaborative. You can get some great results by just asking good musicians to record what they think fits.
I’m a solo artist for a good reason – I have no interest in compromising on what these songs should sound like. This is my project, my vision, what I want to say with the popular song format. I have no desire to share that with someone else or to work at someone else’s pace. I’ll have other people play for me, but it’ll definitely be me with the final say so.
What was Murder and Parliament?
Murder and Parliament is a name I gave to an instrumental project that was a sort of heavy metal-ish, post-rock, weird ambient music. I had a load of music that had originally been written for classical instruments back at uni, but never realised. I decided to rearrange a lot of it for rock band, add a load of drums and make an album of it. It worked pretty well. I like the mix of heavy metal instrumentation and scored out part-writing. There are also some great additions from Alun Vaughan on bass and Chrissie Caulfield on violin.
It isn’t finished either. I’m slowly bringing together ideas for Murder and Parliament’s second album. I’m not sure when it will be ready, certainly not in the next 9 months, but hopefully before the end of 2020 there’ll be another Murder and Parliament album.
Unusually for a “serious” musician, you also release a lot of singles and EP’s. Why is that and where do you see the value?
I take offence at being called a serious musician! Well, not really, but seriousness is too easy, I have no interest in it. I want to be an entertaining musician, a fun musician. I sincerely believe that in art the most difficult thing to do consistently and well is being fun. I want my music to be fun.
Is it unusual to do lots of ‘non-album’ releases? These days I think the artist that only releases one album every two years is behaving pretty strangely. That’s not how the audience listens. Why not pay attention to the audience a bit more? People these days listen to a lot of audio – whole albums and playlists on a commute, hours of podcasts just when mowing the lawn or washing the dishes. And they move on to new stuff quickly. That’s where culture is, so why not give people what they want? I’ve got a tiny group of fans, but they do like my music, so why not give them stuff to listen to.
And besides, I have the ideas and the songs. If I have two songs that fit together but will probably never belong on an album, why not release them digitally? Same with the EPs. I had a load of acoustic murder ballads last year. They weren’t long enough to be an album on their own, but there were enough to make an EP, so I did. As I said, I want to get all my good songs recorded. Lots of releases are necessary!
How did you first meet up with the Great Elephant, and was curry involved?
There are two versions of this story, the public one and the real one. I’ll ask you please to print the ‘public’ one, but I’ll tell you the real one too. Just whatever you do, don’t print the real one.
Here’s the public version: David Elephant from Bad Elephant music stumbled across my third album, ‘Three Rows of Teeth’, online. He liked it, played it on his podcast and we got to chatting online. He offered to put out my fourth album ‘Fit the Fourth’, and I said yes. Really easy. David’s great to work with.
So that’s what you can print. Please don’t print what actually happened, which was this: He showed up at my house. Him, in a suit, with trunk and tusks, and these two thugs behind him, one with a Yorkshire accent the other sounding German. They muscled their way into my house, trashed my studio and made it very, very clear that if I didn’t do what they said I would be physically hurt. Then they made me sign this contract. It was three hundred pages long, they didn’t let me read any of it, and they made me sign it in my own blood.
I’m scared, Kev. Scared. And so is every other BEM artist. Except Simon Godfrey, because he’s an idiot.
Have you any desire to work with any other artists on BEM? I have always thought a joint effort with Matt Deacon could produce interesting offspring.
Yeah, in principle. I’ve co-written and performed on a song with Mike Kershaw and added some guitar to Shineback’s last album, but apart from that I haven’t done much. I’d be well up for working with Matt Deacon, though I’m a little scared of his obsession with hot sauce. That’s kinda weird.
Talk us through Demon, song by song, and what you were trying to achieve in each case.
I have actually recorded a video for each song explaining what they’re about. I’ve done guitar tabs and stuff as well. But they’re only for people on my mailing list. The album is autobiographical, just not in the lyrics. Each song alludes in some way to family, or places I’ve lived.
“Wizards of this Town” is about drunk wizards trying to fix their town through magic. It has odd drunken verses and a big singalong indie rock chorus. Definitely one of my most accessible songs. People really seem to like it. It’s inspired by the area I was working in at the time, having just left teaching to move into educational charity.
“Modern World” is the second track. It’s the longest track on the album and it’s a Frankenstein song – I stitched together disparate parts. There’s a 90’s indie rock style section, an off-beat prog rock section, and a musique concrete section that one reviewer confusedly said was “just noises”. Which is true, but then, that’s all music is! This song is there as a bit of a potted musical biography, and also as a challenge. It says – this album mixes ‘normal’ rock with a little bit of weird. You better be ready.
“Weather Balloons and Falling Stars” is the third in my tentacle trilogy. It’s an upbeat, rocky love song to tentacles. It’s also tying into older albums.
“West Wind” is the most prog song on the album. It has folky acoustic guitar, stringsy mellotron sounds and all the time signatures. Well, three of them. It is also a sequel to a song written by the other half of my songwriting duo from years back, Comrade Robot.
The middle section of the album breaks from the rock band set up. We have “Patterns of Light”, a short acoustic song that includes my sister’s bassoon and lots of vocal harmonies. Then “Cutting Up All Of Our Dreams”. For this song I sent my mum a score of what I would be singing and asked her to arrange her singers around it. This was the result. The song fades into some scary spoken word stuff courtesy of my brother in law, Joel.
This middle section with a spoken word bit is supposed to be an allusion to the middle of “Ok Computer” by Radiohead and “Six” by Mansun, both of which have a spoken word thing in the middle.
We then go back to the rock band format, with “Drop Dead’s Punching Above His Weight Again”, a song about a serial killer. This is a big homage to David Bowie and has great lead guitar from Gareth Cole who has been playing guitar a lot for me in the last two years or so. He’s also on last year’s EP ‘Spirit Box’.
“Tinfoil King” was written very quickly for February Album Writing Month. It uses crossword-clue lyrics to say humanity is rubbish. Some days it’s my favourite song on the album.
And finally, “Demon”. “Demon” has been around for a while; Comrade Robot recorded a version. I always wanted to do the big loud rock version, so here it is. It’s about various things, including a drunken night out with Pete, the other half of that duo, so the first and last songs have that theme of drunkenness in them. It also has great drumming in the middle where I told Michael Cairns to play an inappropriate, slightly sloppy jazz solo. He obliged. It’s great.
That last song is a reminder of my early twenties, being slightly glum and unsure about what to do with life.
And that’s the album. I’m dead proud of it.
So what’s next for Tom Slatter, and where can we hear more of your music?
As to what’s next – I have literally no idea. In the short term I’m focusing on telling people about ‘Demon’ and doing some online gigs because that’s a bit more practical than touring for me at the moment.
Beyond that, this is pretty uncharted territory. For the first time in at least a decade I don’t have any songs ‘in the bank’ that I definitely want to record. There’s maybe one piece of unfinished business – an ep I released a few years ago that i don’t think was recorded well enough, that I might redo – and then I’ve got no more ideas.
That means I need to go back to the drawing board and figure out what the next version of me sounds like. Which is kind of exciting? I’ve no idea what I’ll write next.
It has been a while since the man behind The Bob Lazar Story, Matt Deacon, and myself caught up for a beer. So, given that there is a new album out, it seemed like a good time to have another chat.
Given you live in Christchurch, New Zealand, and drummer Chris Jago lives Los Angeles, how did the original band get together and then how did Chris get roped into it?
After studying Audio Engineering circa 2005 I recorded “(sic)”, on my own, apart from two songs Simon Fox played drums on. He and I were both teaching at the same music shop in Chch and he is a brilliant drummer. Studio time was hard to come by then, but we were able to get into the studio at MAINZ (Music And Audio Institute NZ) and one of my pals engineered the drum recording. The rest of that album was programmed drums by myself, which were OK but not real enough.
So I roped Simon into another three tracks on the next release – The Silence of Perez de Cuellar – and used an online service for another two. I had recorded bass parts myself but then met Mike Fudakowski at a high school I was also teaching at. He’s a magnificent bass player and liked the tunes so he replaced my parts with good ones. I pretended to like Dungeons & Dragons to curry favour with him. He knew Kev Roberts, a drummer who was Head Of Music at a school near me. Fud suggested we approach Kev to put a small live band together as we could use the school as rehearsal space too. Kev was the only Dixie Dregs fan I had ever met in NZ so seemed a good fit.
We worked on four songs I had written for Space Roots and recorded them in Kev’s classroom. Around this time we also played a few gigs in Chch and Lyttelton which was fun but was an awful lot of rehearsing. Kev also recruited a great keyboard player for us – Nathan Peters, who played all the gigs we did.
As Fud and myself both had young kids (not with each other), gigs weren’t a priority. At this time I also re-connected with Chris Jago via FB. I had met Chris at Music College in Liverpool in 1993 and we played together a few times in college ensembles and then I used to occasionally sub for the guitarist of the covers band he was in. But this was a time before email had arrived, so we lost contact when I moved to NZ in 1997. He popped up on my Facebook around 2009 and I convinced him to play on about three songs on Space Roots. I also used the online service again, so Space Roots ended up having three drummers on it. But it was a nightmare putting the album together as me and the fam packed up and moved back to Liverpool for a year and my PC crapped itself. So it was a four–year process putting Space Roots together. It’s a miracle it was even released, to be honest.
I found the process of working with Chris to be very satisfying. I really wanted a bit more cohesion for future releases, as Space Roots was a bit all over the place sonically, so I got Chris on board for the next release – Ghost Of Foodstool. This EP/mini-album felt like a fresh start, after the craziness of putting Space Roots together. Chris can be very busy – he’s often playing in musicals in the States, as well as doing various other sessions. He also got the Neil Diamond gig a couple of years back. Unfortunately, Neil had to retire through poor health though, so that was short–lived. But given the quality of his playing, I’m always prepared to wait until Chris is available to do some recording.
How does your Trans-Pacific writing collaboration work?
I write the music bits with the aid of the drummer app in Logic, then send Chris these demo files both with and without the programmed drums. Then I chart them out in a simple(!) way and Chris interprets it how he feels. I might then tweak a couple of bits or add some more stuff in as his parts usually spark some different ideas. I see it as a total collaboration and love getting his parts back. He engineers and mixes all the drums at his home studio – Shabby Road Studios, and frankly does an incredible job. We’ll have the occasional Skype conversation where we’ll secretly marvel at each other’s completely different versions of Scouse accents, but we usually just stick to back and forths on messenger. We share a dropbox where files get exchanged and working song names get more convoluted i.e apr17100bpm1_2nomaster etc.
It has worked out well so far. I think I’m quite easy to work with, very accommodating. I’ve only ever asked Chris to tweak something maybe twice. If he does something I wasn’t prepared for, i tend to just incorporate it, make it work for me. I can definitely cause steam to escape from his ears though. Occasionally my charts haven’t quite matched up to the demo recordings. I used to write charts for him by hand, but for Vanquisher I used Sibelius to produce much neater charts. It was way more accurate too, as it was just a case of loading a midi file of the Logic projects into Sibelius and it would spit out a lovely looking chart.
You have previously described your band as “purveyors of tritonal wankery, and offer an oasis of ProgMathsyFusion to soothe your weary earholes.” What do you mean and how would you describe yourselves in terms of other artists?
Tritonal wankery came about as I wrote a lot of riffs with Tritonal jumps in them at the time. If anyone ever gets a package from me in the post, it usually has a sticker on it that says “Purveyor of Tritonal wankery“. ProgMathsyFusion is a description that covers a lot of musical ground. Definitely, Prog moments, although I’m not a massive fan of Classic Prog. I like Mathsy music full of odd timings like Zappa. The modern iteration of Math Rock is completely different and not my thing. And there are bits of fusion spread about, but not endless wanky solos.
I find when I have to describe the sound of The Bob Lazar Story, I usually just write “for fans of Zappa, Keneally, Cardiacs, GG.” A diverse group. No one sounds like Zappa, but he’s a massive influence. As is Mike Keneally. I came to Cardiacs quite late on, only about five years ago, but they were a musical epiphany for me. Super complicated yet direct and in your face. Amazing melodies and ensemble playing. It turns out that Tim Quy who was percussionist for Cardiacs, was a fan of ours before I had even heard of them, which blew my mind. I’d say apart from Zappa, nothing has ever floored me as much as Cardiacs tunes have. Absolutely mesmeriszng.
Although we get lumped into the Prog genre, which is all good with me, I’ve only listened to a tiny bit of Yes, never heard ELP before and I’ve tasted a tiny smattering of Jethro Tull. I like a few Gentle Giant songs. I grew up listening to Metal then went down a small jazz road for a bit before someone played me some Zappa. I can take or leave all his comedy stuff, but the super tight, busy ensemble work is what I’m really into. Echidna’s Arf (Of You) could be my favorite song of all time. But how do we classify that? I do love classic Gabriel era Genesis though. Foxtrot is a perfect album. I know that one well, plus The Lamb stuff. But that’s about it for me and Prog. I think I prefer music that defies categorization. Mr. Bungle would be a prime example – California is a real masterpiece. I listen to a lot of French stuff lately – Poil, Hardcore Anal Hydrogen, Ni. All crazy stuff. Progressive in the sense that they do stuff that is very different, very original. Lost Crowns, who are also with BEM, really tickle my fancy too. They play all the notes, seemingly all at the same time, but pull it off spectacularly. I guess they might fall into the Psychedelic category, who knows? So all these bands are definitely influences for sure. However, I think TBLS sound like TBLS.
What is your obsession with Foodstool?
I used to have a stool in my music room that I would bring into the lounge to eat my dinner off. It became affectionately known as Foodstool. The first album had The Progressive Adventures of Foodstool on it, and as a fan of conceptual continuity from my Zappa-love, I thought it would be great to include Foodstoolon every subsequent release. I have no intention of ever stopping. Foodstool was stolen from our garage while we were in the UK. I’m lucky I had a photo of it. I traced this photo and coloured it white for the front cover of Ghost Of Foodstool. You can also get Foodstool t–shirts from our merch page. I’m toying with the idea of FoodstoolHot Sauce. But who would want a food product with the word stool in it? Not every idea is a great one.
Why name the band after Bob Lazar, what fascinates you about him? Does he know there is a band carrying his name?
I’ve been fascinated with the topic of UFOs since I was a kid, and when Bob went public with his story in about 1989, I heard about it even though there was no internet back then, and the topic was essentially an opportunity for ignorant folk to chime into serious conversations with “Little Green Men” asides and overall snarkiness. Even Roswell wasn’t known about much back then. I actually released an album in 2004 under my real name with songs that turned out to be prototypes for subsequent releases. However, I thought it would appear like I was some sort of singer–songwriter so decided on a name change. Not sure why I thought this would be a good idea. Maybe I thought I could draw in the UFO crowd as potential fans. I was definitely playing the long game, and now I feel this is finally paying off, as Bob Lazar is back in the mainstream news again. There is currently a doco on Netflix about him, and he went on Joe Rogan’s podcast recently. My Twitter followers went up 25% in a month (as of writing, we are up to 525!) and I get tagged in many conversations on Twitter as a lot of people assume I am Bob Lazar. (@boblazarstory) (525!)
Bob did get in touch once to enquire about our name. I sent him a download code. He likes the music. A few years back he said they were making a film about him and he would try and get some of our tunes in it. I never took him seriously. At least I think it was him. He’s a very intriguing character, and if it was all bullshit, you’d have to wonder what was in it for him. He hasn’t benefitted financially from it. He keeps a super low profile but is still harassed by the alphabet soup agencies. If true, his story could be one of the most important ever told.
The Bob Lazar Story has been a band, then a duo, and this time Mike Fudakowski has again become involved. Why did he leave and then come back?
Fud was heavily involved in an 8 year long Dungeons and Dragons campaign and couldn’t be disturbed. He escaped with his life, just, and I brought him back on board for a few tunes. Also, during recording Self Loathing Joe and Baritonia, I was super busy with being a Postie and was getting burnt out due to stress and whatnot, so I found it easier to just get on with the music side of things myself.
Please explain the rationale behind the rather eclectic song titles on the new album ‘Vanquisher’
When I was back in college, I couldn’t think of names for tunes, they were just numbered. How fucking pretentious, right? I sometimes ask friends and fans for suggestions. My pal KD (stan) Baxter came up with In The Woods With Tony Iommi for the last album, and he’s come up with Hooves & Broken Biscuits for this one, although I’ll bet he will claim not to remember. Song titles are fun, particularly when there are no lyrics to suggest anything. I will break a couple down for you.
Pongville – I play cards every week with some mates. This is a reference to a rule in the game. I thought, if I do this, then they might buy the album.
Eleven – I can’t stand Stranger Things. Plus, it’s in 11/4
Goodbye Victor Tripaldi – An admin from the Progressive Rock Fanatics page on FB was being verbally abused by a guy, so banned him, and followed it up with “Goodbye Victor Tripaldi”. I suggested it would be a great name for a band. Got over 20 likes for that, wow. So hopefully, once I post this song to the page, someone might buy the album.
Two For The Rest – this is an oft-repeated phrase at the Port of Lyttelton where I work as a cargo handler. If the ship has finished loading, they sometimes opt to keep two guys on the wharf and send the other four home. Hopefully, when some of my wharfie mates see this title, they might buy the album.
Operation Full Klinger – I left my old job through redundancy. I had a long term plan of convincing my bosses I was crazy so they would have to pay me to leave. It worked better than I thought it would, as life imitated art and I actually went a bit crazy for a while. Just at the right time, as we were going through a round of redundancies. I had told a couple of workmates of my plan at the time and dubbed it Operation Full Klinger. Hopefully, they will remember this and might buy the album. There seems to be a pattern here.
Project Top Secret & Eyes Only – This is for UFO buffs. Hopefully, they might buy the album.
Tony!! – Self-evident really
If the cover art of the last album, ‘Baritonia’, was the coffee stain of the mug from ‘Self-Loathing Joe’, what is the meaning behind the artwork this time?
Once again, conceptual continuity comes into play. The coffee stain is actually on the white stool from Ghost Of Foodstool, so it goes back even further. The link to this new album appears when you take the disc out of the tray in the digipak. I have taken the coffee stain and reversed it on top of itself, creating a striking portrait of myself.
The chili pepper on the front of Vanquisher is that shape for a reason that will only be revealed on the next release. I can say no more. Apart from telling you that I’m mildly obsessed with hot sauce. Going further back, the flying saucer from the first album “(sic)” appears inside the booklet of The Silence of Perez de Cuellar (another UFO story, google it). Space Roots is the outlier here. No connections to previous or subsequent releases. Although every release has the little chicken with the speech bubble somewhere in it.
How did you become involved with the Great Elephant?
About three years ago, BEM kept on popping up on my feed, signing bands left, right and center. I wanted some of that juicy action. So I sent David Elephant an email with a link to the Bandcamp page and said: “I think I want to be on your label.” He got back to me the next day and promised me the moon on a stick. And here we are. The Bob Lazar Story might very well be the smallest act on their impressive roster, and David has probably regretted his impulsive behavior ever since. BUT HERE WE ARE.
I love that BEM has a roster of really quite diverse and sometimes very unusual artists.
There are some very like-minded musicians on BEM, can you see yourself playing with any of them?
Like I just said, we are probably the smallest act on the roster, so I’m reluctant to suggest collaborations, in case it’s seen as a ploy to boost our profile at the expense of theirs. But if anyone were to ask me, I would most likely be into it. Unless it was Tom Slatter. He’s weird.
Simon Godfrey literally shits music, he’s so prolific. As is Tom Slatter. He’s obsessed with Steampunk, whatever that is. I like the direction We Are Kin have moved in, more synthy, less guitars. I like that The Fierce And The Dead do their own thing and don’t worry about not having a vocalist. Their continued success is encouraging for other instrumental acts out there. I can see myself playing with any and all of these people. I can also see them looking at me, and asking themselves “who is that?”.
The album is out, are you going to be performing anywhere in the near future or do you just see this as a studio project?
No plans to gig. Rehearsing is an issue, as is scheduling. I’m a shift worker and essentially on call every day until I have worked six shifts in a two-week cycle. These six shifts often get stretched out over the two weeks, so it’s hard to plan things. Plus, Chris lives in LA, which makes it tricky. I’m happy just recording tunes, even though I have enjoyed playing in the past. As I mentioned earlier, rehearsing takes a good while with these kinds of tunes, so an extraordinary amount of commitment would be required from all parties concerned.
What is next for TBLS?
I have an EP of totally batshit stuff in the works. Vanquisher has turned out to be a slightly mellower affair in parts, so I left some more, shall we say, crazy tunes out so as not to mess with the flow. I shall be developing these ones and then I’ll try to convince Chris that it’s a good idea for him to play on them. Besides that, I shall continue to badger people into listening. It’s hard work these days. Spotify and streaming, in general, makes it hard for anyone to make any money doing this kind of thing. Praise the lord for Bad Elephants.
I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Elfin Bow, whose wonderful debut album I have enjoyed immensely. Many of you will not have previously come across her, but her songs are wistful and simply beautiful, but she is not just a singer, as hopefully the words below will convey.
Who is Elfin Bow, and where did the name come from? Why use a stage name at all?
Whenever anyone asks me about Elfin Bow, I know they are thinking that it’s the flamboyant stage costumes, the homemade headwear, the top hats, the art, the music, the stories. And in some ways that is what has become associated with the name. But it’s definitely not an alter ego or someone who I wish to be, it is who I am. For me, Elfin Bow is the permission to explore my creativity and artistry as fully and unapologetically as possible; permission to ask questions, to take risks and make mistakes. I follow my intuition, my creative urges that come from some ‘other’ place and I walk through doors of opportunity with confidence, knowing that if I trust the process, more creative adventures await. I recently made a film with my cousin, Victor Pennington, asking, ‘Who is Elfin Bow?’ We filmed me performing songs, creating art, costumes, wearing different outfits and hats, walking in the woods, waxing lyrical in the sunset…. but as we were making the video, I began taking things away in my head: What if I could no longer sing? What if I lost the use of my hands? What if my hair fell out? What if I were forced to leave my home with nothing? These may seem like dramatic questions but each time I asked myself, ‘Would I still be Elfin Bow?’ And of course the answer was, ‘YES!’ My creativity may be (and has) been tested but will never leave me. It will always find a way to connect, to find meaning, to enhance my life experience. It always does. And because it is not just a stage name, but the name I use for all my creative endeavours (like working with schools and community groups), Elfin Bow gives permission for others to be creative, to think a bit differently, to feel inspired, to make mistakes, to be human, to be honest, to be real. If I’m gonna stand for something, I’m quite happy for it to be that.
The name came from an old sketchbook, from a decades-old page with weird sketches and drawings that I have no recollection of doing at all. I was getting married and changing my name from Elizabeth Kearney to Elizabeth Jones – both lovely and respectable names – but not ones that inspired me to step into that creative confidence. I guess once I took on Elfin Bow, it was like I had given myself the green light to not put my own projects on hold anymore. As an art teacher, mum and wife to an outstanding musician and songwriter, Gary Edward Jones, I had constantly taken on the role of facilitator, helping others explore their creativity and achieve their potential, whilst leaving my own dreams and desires on the bottom of the pile. Elfin Bow symbolises that moment of turning life on its head. To walk to the edge of the cliff and stepping off to see if you can fly. Of stopping worrying what others think. Of being the kind of mum that doesn’t feel guilty about dragging her son to the recording studio for another Saturday recording session, because she is passionately modelling what following your dreams looks like. Elfin Bow stands for not trying to be like anyone else but creating your own space to thrive in, passionately and authentically.
What are your earliest musical memories, and who/what inspired you to start playing music?
My earliest musical memories would have to include the sound of the old pianola piano that took centre stage in our house. My dad would pick up the perforated rolls in charity shops and bring home all kinds of classics by the old masters; Chopin, Beethoven, Sibelius, as well as popular 1920’s tunes like Tea for Two and random finds like The Star-Spangled Banner. It wasn’t an automatic pianola. It had heavy pedals that would unfold from the belly of the beast, and we had to pedal like crazy to make the tired bellows (fixed up with sticky plasters) breathe life into the music. You could have the front open and see all the mechanisms rotating or shut it all up and pretend to our schoolmates that we could play like Rachmaninov. Needless to say, my siblings and I not only developed huge calf muscles, but also a love of the piano.
It will come as no surprise, then, that I started playing and composing little ditties on the piano from a very young age. Despite having lessons, they were always too formal for me. I wanted to feel the music, not count it. I wanted to hear the soaring romantic chords, not know what they were called. Technical knowledge of music would time and time again fall out of my head and, although I did GCSE music, I couldn’t have continued to study it under a system that seemed to favour skill and knowledge over musicality and improvisation. At the fork in the road, I abandoned music, in favour of art. Many twisty-turny years later, I found that music was quietly knocking at my door, reminding me it was there, patiently waiting for me to let it in.
When I finally started writing songs, after my fine art degree, I had no idea what to do with them. They didn’t seem to fit anywhere. No one seemed excited about them, except me. I knew my face and body shape didn’t fit into the mainstream music industry, and I didn’t want to be there anyway. I started a musical collective with some other musical fine artists, and we had a studio for a while. We all had different influences and we played a couple of gigs, but I felt like I was wearing the wrong musical clothes, I just didn’t fit. I heard a friend talking about how his dad regularly frequented a folk club. I had no idea what that was, but I found one on Facebook and took some friends who I had started jamming with on Friday nights after work and went along. I finally felt like I’d found a place to try out my songs. The best bit was that people listened, like really listened. They were so supportive, and my confidence quickly grew. I cut my teeth in folk clubs, festivals, open mic nights and venues all over the place after that, performing in duos and bands until finally taking full creative control as Elfin Bow when I was forced to leave my job as Head of Art in a secondary school, after a diagnosis of fibromyalgia.
Why did it take so long for you to decide to become a performer?
I was such a quiet, shy child, but I think there was always something there, deep inside, yearning to express myself. I still think I’m discovering it now! I guess, I never identified with the egotistical showman thing, the stage school kid, the loud one. I knew if I was to ever perform, it would need to be about something else. I learnt from my artistic escapades that the work isn’t complete until it is experienced by the viewer. I dabbled in some pretty weird performance art at university, where I was reaching for something I couldn’t quite fathom, but I hid behind a video camera instead of performing in a live setting. My friend discovered a book of songs here grandmother had written, and no one had ever heard them. I was struck by the tragedy of that. I don’t want my songs to fester away in a notebook. I want to breathe life into them, even if it is with a pair of tired old bellows!
You undertook a fine art degree. What inspired you to follow this path?
I had quite a narrow art education at school (even at ‘A’ level, I thought all artists were dead as they were the only ones we studied!) However, when I started my foundation course in art and design (after two years of studying for a Bachelor of Education and then giving birth to my first son) I discovered the YBA’s; young British artists like Gilliam Wearing, Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst etc, who had been making sensationalist waves (pun intended as their first exhibition was called ‘Sensation’) and I was introduced to conceptual art. I had had two artists before me in the family, my dad’s brother who passed away when I was 4 and my great uncle, who I also never met. They were both very talented painters and left a legacy of incredible work. That is what I had grown up with, but seeing that art could be anything I intended, completely liberated me and my learning curve was incredibly and excitedly steep. My tutor sent us to private views of artists exhibiting in Liverpool and got us involved in the first ever Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art, with which I volunteered for over 6 months, seeing every aspect of making an international exhibition. From curating to building an exhibition in a disused space, from assisting artists from all over the world to install their work, to seeing the inner workings of the office, it was a very seminal moment for me, demystifying the process of being an artist. I could see myself doing that, so I took the path which led to Fine Art.
My degree course was another life experience that taught me how to be resilient, how to stick it to the man, how to keep on creating in adversity and how to stand up for myself in my own way. It was not always pleasant or easy, in fact the philosophy of the teaching seemed to be that we needed something to fight against in order to make good work (as if life isn’t hard enough) and to be honest it took a huge amount of effort to get through it. I learnt a lot about myself but I was exhausted by the end of the three years. I came out of it with a 1st, despite nearly poisoning the examiners with some jam tarts (that’s a story for another time!)
You have mentioned the importance of certain people and writers such as Allan Kaprow, Elle Luna, Brene Brown and Tara Mohr being incredibly important as part of your growth. Can you explain what they mean to you for those who may not have come across them?
Allan Kaprow was a New York artist in the 1960’s, who hosted ‘happenings’ in his loft; performance art disguised as real life, with the audience completing the work by being there. He wrote a collection of essays on the ‘blurring of art and life,’ about how art can come to imitate life so much so that it doesn’t even look like art anymore. At the time I was exploring nostalgia of childhood and community, inspired by artists like Rirkrit Tirivanija. I had created a kitchen in the art school gallery, where I invited people to make apple pies with me, from scratch, using apples harvested from the trees in my childhood home. There was no social space in the building and the community was very fragmented. The smell of the pies cooking brought people out from every corner and it was a wonderful way to interact with the space and the people working there.
On graduating, I approached my work in schools in the same way but gradually became more of a teacher than an artist. I read all kinds of books on radical education, thinking that I could question and challenge the status quo; a peaceful ‘agitator’ if you like. My own ‘blurring of art and life’ – and a very poignant dream that showed me why all that I had learned would make me a great teacher – led me into a third stint at uni and a teaching job where I resolved to be a passionate advocate for critical thinking, independent learning and creativity.
You mentioned you had to give up teaching after the diagnosis of fibromyalgia, was it this which made you “walk to the edge of the cliff and stepping off to see if you can fly”
I loved my job. It came at just the right time when the recession hit in 2009 and all my work with schools would have dried up, with drastic cuts in funding. I gave it my all, whilst still trying to be a practicing artist and a budding musician. By my sixth year, and as head of department, the workload trebled, policies became idiotic and I was fighting daily to keep my department valid and relevant in a political system that was favouring core academic subjects over the arts. It was a fantastic school in many ways, but I was exhausted, and my body finally told me to stop. My life came to a standstill and I spent 6 months in and out of hospital until a final diagnosis of Fibromyalgia was given. I went from being a 100-mph woman, mother, teacher, artist and wife, to being on a truckload of meds and feeling like I’d dropped off the world in a matter of months. Refusing to believe this was it, I decided to come off all the medication and treat myself with yoga, mindfulness, meditation and nutrition. It was a long road. I read every self-help book, surrounded myself with inspirational people and made a vision board of how I wanted my life to be.
I discovered incredible women like Elle Luna and Brene Brown, whose words spoke directly to me about taking control of your own life. Tara Mohr wrote a brilliant book called ‘Playing Big,’ which showed me how to step into my fears with confidence and create the life I wanted, before feeling ready. It was just the encouragement I needed to leave my job and create a career in which I could look after myself more. Although I still feel the weight of that diagnosis, it doesn’t define me, or stop me. My desire to create is far far greater than the need to give in. Fibromyalgia is not in the mind – there are very real, debilitating symptoms – but the mind is a very powerful tool that I have learned to harness to keep me living life as fully as possible.
I’m still working in schools. I’ve been on a circular journey of being an artist, teacher, artist, teacher, artist teacher…. and with every rotation, comes new insight and learning for me. I’ve learned that you might visualise your dreams, but you can never imagine the twisty turny, exciting roads that will get you there. Doors open in places you’d never expect. Haha! We’ve come full circle back to stepping through doors and trusting the process. I like circles… and trees.
The music industry – well, any of the creative industries – are not for the thin-skinned or faint-hearted. I’ve always known that no experience is wasted. And I know that the fibromyalgia, the battles as a teacher, the inspirational people who have led me to a higher consciousness and the knowledge I have gained, have all led to me being a resilient creative, better able to survive the ups and downs than I ever could have when I was younger. I know I can fly, and I’m excited about all the challenges that are still to come.
How would you describe your songs to someone who has never heard you?
Why is that always the hardest question? I can list some of the words other people have used to describe my music… pastoral psych-folk, twenty-first century folk, fairytale folk, storytelling that shape shifts between the real and the imaginary, stories that draw you into another world…. I was once told that I needed an ‘elevator pitch’ so at a push, I would probably sum it up with ‘pastoral psych-folk songs and stories, told through mandolin, guitar, banjo, piano and voice. People have likened me to artists such as Kate Bush, Sandy Denny, Tori Amos… sometimes I can see why, but to be honest, I just try to occupy my own creative space. I’m quite happy to jump in and out of boxes that people try to put you into define you.
Your debut album launch included more than just music, and it was also recorded and released as a DVD. Why approach it in that manner?
Once a moment is gone, it is gone, unless you retain a version of it by documenting it. Of course, it is never the same as being there, but I was conscious of creating a more lasting record, especially because I was attempting to recreate the album live in its entirety. When I recorded my debut album, it was important to me that it wasn’t so over-produced that it couldn’t be performed live. I wanted a real, honest representation of what could be a great live experience. I do love all the different versions of your songs that exist when you play with different musicians, who bring a different flavour to the songs. But on this occasion, I had most of the musicians that recorded my album, with the exception of Saydyko Fedorova and Oscar South, who had both moved to Ireland. The bass was played by David Griffiths and Skeet Williams joined us on banjo. I don’t have a regular band but have a raft of extremely talented musicians who I can call on when needed. On this occasion, the only time we were all in the same room together and had an opportunity to rehearse the whole set was during soundcheck on the afternoon of the launch. Now, you might say that’s brave, but really, it’s a testament to the trust I had in these guys to create an amazing moment.
Feeling ambitious (or was it a moment of madness?) I hired the Epstein Theatre in Liverpool, a 380-seater venue; historical, magical and beautiful. I felt it was perfect to showcase the album in a grand, yet intimate feeling, setting. The night was carefully crafted with a storyteller, Alice Fernbank, who opened with a story, told through the eyes of Edith Grimshaw, followed by an intriguing set by Bryony Elizabeth and Jonny Darnell on harp and guitar. I had thought of everything from sound, to lighting, to photography, but no video. At the eleventh hour, I reached out to Alex White (SkyFade Media) who filmed and edited the event. It was a labour of love for sure and I am forever grateful to him.
And then as if that wasn’t enough, I had moved to Wales and was getting requests from fans to have another launch there. My taste for theatre had been awakened, so I created a multi-sensory, immersive experience at Theatr Clwyd. We raided the prop store to create Edith Grimshaw’s living room as an installation, complete with a real, live Edith (played by Karen Campbell) living in the space. Community art workshops I ran on the day produced drawings that were projected during the show and Karen and her ten-year-old daughter also performed a spellbinding dance as Edith and her younger self. What the whole experience taught me was that it is possible to delve much deeper into your songs and stories, uncovering layers of meaning. There doesn’t just have to be one reading of a song, an album, a character or an event and that shelf life that we attribute to a ‘new’ album can be a long as we choose.
How did you get involved with Keith Jones, FdeM, and what was the reasoning behind recording “Who Knows Where The Time Goes”? What was the experience like?
I walked into the smallest record store in the world, VOD Records in Mold, North Wales, and met its wonderful owner, Colin. He started stocking my album and later contacted me to say that someone had bought it and was playing tracks on their psychedelic radio station. When I checked it out, I saw the FdeM logo on their website and asked Colin about it, he promised to introduce me to Keith, which he did, and we got chatting. Whether you believe in fate, chance, serendipity or whatever, I think of it as threads that you pick up and follow to see where they’ll lead. Sometimes they are joined to other threads, sometimes there’s that door of opportunity. This thread led me to a wonderful new journey of discovery which I am still very happily traversing.
Keith asked me if I did any covers of 69’s or 70’s songs. When I mentioned Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, he got very excited and asked if I’d like to release it on 7” vinyl. Being the door-walker-througher that I am, I jumped at the chance. I had been performing a version of the song with just me on mandolin but knew that I’d love to experiment more with it and put strings on it. When I asked Gary Lloyd to help me with it, he said, ‘How do you fancy recording with a symphony orchestra?’ Again, I jumped at the chance, booking the session without knowing how in the world I was going to pay the huge costs. Three weeks – and a lot of hard work disguised as fun – later, I had raised £5k with another crowd funding campaign and travelled up to Glasgow with Gary to record at the Royal Concert Hall’s New Auditorium. The whole experience was sensational. I loved every minute! On returning home, we got a band to work on other sounds until we were happy with what we call our ‘love letter to Sandy,’ honouring her prolific talent and pure voice. Talking about revisiting songs and finding new depths, on the B-side was my first ever single, The Wisdom, reworked with the Orchestra. In the same way that performing with different musicians’ changes songs, I love how the recording process can present an opportunity to reimagine songs in a new way.
The FdeM fans really got behind me on this, helping with the crowdfunding and supporting me on social media. FdeM build great and lasting relationships with their fans and their loyalty is rewarded with access to a whole array of amazing and exclusive products. I’m honoured to be a part of that.
What’s next for Elfin Bow for 2019 and 2020, where can we hear you perform and buy your music?
I have written my next album which I’ll be showcasing live before starting the recording process. I find it a great way to test out audience reaction to songs. I’ve written a lot on the piano and I’m still experimenting with different musicians to see how the sounds will develop. So far, it’s extremely exciting. In the meantime, I’m heading into the studio to record an EP in September.
If you already have tickets, you will see me live at the 17th Dream of Dr Sardonicus Festival of Psychedelia in Cardigan. If not, you can catch me at Bodfari Woodland Skills Centre on 30th August for an intimate unplugged gig in the woods, The Well Inn Festival, Holywell, on 7th September, The Barn, Ledbury on 4th October (double headliner with Rise) and Thornton Hough Village Club on 5th October. I’m always on the lookout for interesting, quirky places to play with listening audiences. I’m also working on some incredible joint gigs with Little Sparrow and Daria Kulesh.
I hang out a lot on the World Wide Web so I’m easy to find. I love connecting to like minds and kindred creative spirits on my Instagram and Twitter pages (@elfinbow), Facebook (Elfin Bow Music and Art) and my website (www.elfinbow.com). My music is available on CD and DVD from there and it’s also on most streaming and digital platforms.
Hello, Blake thank you for doing this interview as Power of Prog has been following your music career for some time.
PoP: Tell us, who is Blake Carpenter
Blake: I am me Haha, no, I am just a person who lives for music or should I say lives because of music. Music is the heartbeat that keeps me and us alive.
PoP: How long have you been a professional musician, and what professional training have you had if any
Blake: Been creating original music for about 35 years, been pro (making pennies for playing) since the early ’90s. I have a few lessons on guitar under my belt but that is about it, I hate class.
PoP: What was the defining moment in your life that sparked the eternal flames to become a musician, and was it, anyone, we might know
Blake: When I was 4ish a neighbor in the apartments me and my mom lived in had a son in Vietnam, he had KISS albums and his mom would listen to them, me and my mom were there one day and she played Destroyer and I was hooked, I started singing then.
PoP: When did you release your first album and what was it called.
Blake: My first album was in a project called Naked At Birth with another guitarist, we were an acoustic duo and it was released on cassette in 1991
PoP: How was the experience of recording the first album vs. the new album Jack: A Different Tale
Blake: Oh my, the first album was in a basement studio in Portsmouth, Rhode Island and with friends in tow, all I had to do was show up and sing. The last album, Jack, was all done in my small makeshift studio or in the drummers house (recording the drums) and I had to mix and master it all and I am not sure I did it the same justice as I did with The Road To Avalon as I was and still am very disappointed about what happened with The Minstrel’s Ghost (TMG)
PoP: How many albums have you released thus far and which one are you the proudest of
Blake: Altogether I have one album out there, one with Naked At Birth, one with my band OGMA from the early 2000s, three Minstrel’s Ghost albums, one Voice of the Enslaved album one with Coalition, one with Jack Potter, one with The Petri Lindström Project and two with Corvus Stone. I would say I am most proud of The Road To Avalon as it is probably the best produced.
PoP: Why is The Road To Avalon so special to you
Blake: Again because The Road To Avalon is the best produced but also it is a story I love.
PoP: What’s the difference between fronting your own projects or fronting someone else’s
Blake: Fronting someone else’s project can be a blessing and a nightmare. A blessing since all I need to do is sing and perhaps write a few words, a nightmare because I may have to write a few words LOL
PoP: Name all the bands and projects and release that you have been part of till now
Blake: Naked At Birth, OGMA, The Minstrel’s Ghost, Corvus Stone, Coalition, Jack Potter, The Petri Lidström Project and oh yeah, Telergy, that was a very short speaking bit but really friggin cool album to be a part of.
PoP: What influence your song writing
Blake: Anything really, love, hate, war, politics, magical things, it just depends I guess on where my head is when I put pen to paper.
PoP: What is the story behind your latest release Jack: A Different Tale
Blake: It is a play on Jack the Ripper with a fictional back story about his growing up. I wrote it largely with my own childhood in mind but that is for another day.
PoP: Who are the musicians on the new album Jack: A Different Tale and what rol do they play
Blake: Troy James Martin on bass and vox on News, Mike Troupe on drums and vox on Born, Jartse Tuominen on lead guitar and myself on all other vox, keys and guitars.
PoP: We understand that Jack will be the final releases by TMG, is this true and why have you decided to close this chapter in your life
Blake: The end of TMG is not something I wanted but something that happened. We had a live band thing happening it was going great but as is often the case things went sour and after so much work that I put into it I was crushed emotionally, it let Jack sit for almost 3 years before I finished it and once I did I felt like I needed to let TMG go, at least for a while and definitely what it was, if the ghost is reborn it will be something completely different from what it was.
PoP: What’s been the most challenging obstacle for you as a musician
Blake: Releasing a physical product, I can never make enough cash to do it or do it right. The Road To Avalon was a fluke and caused some issues personally to get it done.
PoP: You often use many different musicians on your releases, how do you choose an artist to be on a particular album or song
Blake: Honestly, if they want to be on it and have the sound that fits then they are welcome, that is it. I am not a snob, you don’t have to be a virtuoso to play with me, I sure as hell am not one.
PoP: Name 10 albums that should be part of any serious record collection
Blake Answers: 1 XANADU – Soundtrack 2 STYX – Paradise Theater 3 Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon 4 The Smiths – Strangeways Here We Come 5 Loreena McKennitt – The Visit 6 INXS – KICK 7 KISS – ALIVE 8 David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars 9 The Cure – Disintegration 10 Any Vangelis album
PoP: What was the last album you listened to
Blake: Omnia – Pagan Folk
PoP: Word has it you love and collect vinyl, what’s your Holy Grail, the one LP that you have always wanted
Blake: I have Xanadu and KISS Alive, I would just like to get all the rest of the KISS albums on vinyl, I only have 9.
PoP: It’s been said that vinyl has a warmer sound, I don’t subscribe to that. So my question to you is, how would you describe listening experience between Vinyl and Digital including CDs, and Downloads
Blake: Everyone has different thoughts on that, music is music, as long as I can listen to it and it is clear. I like the feel of vinyl, the size of the art and the smell. I also love cassettes and I am building that collection. CD’s I can take or leave.
PoP: Describe what success means to you, not as a musician but as a person
Blake: Success is what you make of your life and what you leave behind. In the end, are you proud of what you have achieved should be your last question to yourself
PoP: If you could perform anywhere in the world, where would it be and who would be your warm up act
Blake: Red RocksAmphitheatre in Colorado and I would be just fine warming up for U2, Stevie Nicks a close second, U2 is probably the best show ever put on at Red Rocks and was my introduction to the venue and Stevie Nicks concert there was awesome too.
PoP: You are known as a multi-instrumentalist, what instruments do you play, and which one gives you the most joy
Blake: I play guitar, mandolin, bass, keyboards, tin whistle, recorder, harmonica, bodhran, djembe, I have a set of bagpipes but need to get em cleaned up and reeds put in, and I would love a bouzouki but I guess voice is my main and can give me the most joy cause I do not need anything but myself to play it.
PoP: You are working on the 2nd Voice of the Enslaved (VotE) release, what can you tell us about this project and release
Blake: If I can get it done (all my studio computers have shit the bed) it will be anti nuclear anything cause that shit is the end of all.
PoP: What musicians will be involved in the new VotE album
Blake: Petri Lindström will be filling the bass position again, I will be doing drums, keys, and voice and I am still not sure about guitars.
PoP: How has the music landscape changed since you have become a professional musician
Blake: As far as I am concerned it has gotten tougher, not easier as some would lead you to believe. Although a musician no longer needs a label the competition and cost have increased 1000 fold.
PoP: Did MTV kill the radio star, or is it the ease that anyone can obtain music on the internet in a matter of a moment or two
Blake Answers: MTV made radio stars, without MTV nearly every band from the ’80s would have never made it the way they did
PoP: What advice would you give to the next generation of future musicians
Blake Answers: Don’t, hahaha, just kidding. Work hard play hard and know that it is gonna suck for a long time before it doesn’t suck so much
PoP: Do you have a mailing list where fans and voyeursof information can sign up too
Blake: If you go to blakecarpenter.com there is a sign-up form there for my newsletter, it will cover any project I am working on and other stuff too.
PoP: In closing I want to thank you for taking time to do this interview with us, do you have anything that you would like people to know that we did not talk about
Blake: Well, thanks for the interview, it was a pleasure. I can say I am working on a couple of other projects besides VotE. One will be a solo BLAKE thing and the other is something called Max Nova which may or may not go out as a BLAKE thing, till then….get out into the woods to listen to and smell life